It might sound mightily snobby, but I don’t consider someone who wants to collect a copy of every single thing published by a certain author a true book collector, or bibliomane. These people might well be completists, but there is something mechanical about their collecting. I started off with the love of a certain book but then became obsessed with the almost fetishistic materiality of every single copy of that book in existence. For instance, there are adventitious, external or meta stories that can attach themselves to old books – it’s not just the printed story / poems on the pages of the book, it’s also the markings and marginalia that the acquire in their passage through time that can make them truly talismanic. For me, the sign of a true and helpless collector is the hoarding of copies of the same book, because each copy tells a different story.
Lookie here at these three copies of Hugh MacDiarmid’s modernist poem masterpiece A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle all from my library. This ground-breaking book was published in 1926 by the Edinburgh publisher William Blackwood and Sons. The first two copies are first issue bindings, the third is a second issue binding. According to Blackwood’s records, there were 525 copies in total (both primary and secondary bindings) printed. According to MacDiarmid, they struggled to sell any copies. Who knows how many were ultimately pulped and how many have survived nearly a century on earth? The book would have been printed with a thick, sugar-paper sandy coloured dustjacket, but I’m afraid these copies are well and truly beyond my reach (selling for between £400-1800 each). For the cash-strapped collector like me, the only chance of getting a nice copy is by finding a good association copy minus the dustjacket that the bookseller hasn’t noticed.
Copy 1 (left-hand side of first photo) has a slightly worn patch on the front. This was the first copy I acquired, from the erstwhile ‘Old Town Bookshop’ in Edinburgh in (I think) 2012. I recall it was priced at just over £100, and in order to buy it, I had to trade lots of books from my collection. It was a book I was desperate to own, in any condition, and this was the first copy I found. On the inside front leaf there is a very unobtrusive fountain pen signature of ‘T. Henderson’. It was only after doing some research in the nearby National Library that I worked out that ‘T. Henderson’ had been ‘Thomas Henderson’, otherwise known as ‘Theta’. It was Henderson, in his capacity as editor of the Scottish Educational Journal who had the foresight to commission articles from MacDiarmid in the 1920s that went on to become the seminal collection Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926), published the same year as A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.
Copy 2 (centre of top photo) is without doubt the star of the trio. A much more presentable copy, this bears the pencilled ownership signature of ‘Geo. Ogilvie / Dec. 1926’. It also has a stylish later barley-and-hops bookplate for ‘Anna M. MacLeod’, who was Professor Anna MacGillivray MacLeod (1917-2004), the first woman Professor of Brewing and Biochemistry in the world. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to see why she wanted to own a copy of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle then!
When I bought this book, the seller warned me that it was ‘heavily annotated’. The annotations affect about 70% of the book and are clearly by the same hand that wrote ‘Geo. Ogilvie’. The association between Hugh MacDiarmid and George Ogilvie is better documented than that of Thomas Henderson and MacDiarmid. In 1988 Catherine Kerrigan edited and introduced The Hugh MacDiarmid – George Ogilvie Letters which was the first attempt to highlight the great significance of this particular friendship on MacDiarmid’s poetry. Born in 1871, Ogilvie died in 1934, but he had been MacDiarmid’s English master at Broughton School in Edinburgh. MacDiarmid cited him repeatedly as a major formative influence on his writing and his decision to write poetry. After returning from Salonika and the War, MacDiarmid actuated a correspondence with his old English master which was to prove mutually fruitful. George Ogilvie appears to have annotated his copy thoroughly in order to write a letter of praise and support to his umquhile pupil. On 9th December 1926, the very month George Ogilvie wrote in his copy of A Drunk Man MacDiarmid was to write dolefully to him off the cool reception the book was having:
Many thanks for your kind and reassuring letter. I always suffer from reaction after putting out a book: and am ridiculously sensitive to what reviewers say – even when I know their incompetence and malice. I say to myself: what can reviewers be expected to make of a thing like that Drunk Man – and yet I am horribly vexed when they make nothing of it or something utterly stupid…
The letter is long, running to three pages, and is a rare moment where MacDiarmid drops his guard and bluster and reveals the doubtful and vulnerable artist behind the writing. MacDiarmid trusted Ogilvie this much to write a letter of such moving candour, and Ogilvie’s personally annotated copy of MacDiarmid’s magnum opus is an important artefact in that story.
Copy 3 (right of top picture) is perhaps my most treasured copy. I bought this from Deirdre Guthrie in 2018, the daughter of John Guthrie who was given the copy by Sydney Goodsir Smith in 1944. The book had for many years lived in Bellapais, North Cyprus, where the Guthrie family moved from Scotland in the early 1950s. John Guthrie was an early friend of Sydney Goodsir Smith, they got to know each other when both were medical students at Edinburgh University in the 1930s. Both were born in New Zealand and both were fond of a dram. They met again in Edinburgh after Goodsir Smith dropped out of his studies and went to Oxford to study something more congenial – history. It is well documented that this particular book had a meteoric effect on Goodsir Smith, who had long been trying to find his voice as a poet. He was given a copy in a pub by inspirational school-teacher Hector MacIver and it set his course as a poet for the rest of his life. What is fascinating about this copy given to John Guthrie is that you can clearly see it has been a copy owned by Goodsir Smith (he’s written ‘2nd copy’ and then crossed it out and changed the date from 1942 to 1944). John Guthrie has added his own name to the dedication, although Goodsir Smith has written ‘To the Bold;’ – Goodsir Smith’s nickname for Guthrie. In a fit of evangelical glee, he probably pressed this copy on Guthrie while both were out boozing in 1944.
So, there you have it, three copies of the same book, but they tell completely different stories and all three are, to me, essential. If other association copies came my way at the right price, I’d buy those too – that’s the extent of the disease!