The RIP Race

I am starting to get to the age where my years are being bookended by the deaths of people from the poetry world, sometimes people I knew well, other times simply someone whose body of work resonated with and meant something to me. Last year, just after Christmas, my good friend the Anglo-Brugean poet Marcus Cumberlege died at 80, and just before him, Tom Leonard, a poet who, although I had prickly encounters with him, I never really knew personally but a poet with an oeuvre that meant more than diamonds and rubies to me.

This year (or rather at the end of the last) it was Alasdair Gray. Again, a man I’d only met a handful of times, but one whom I venerated as a writer and artist, and a generous soul who gave a feisty foreword to a book I’d edited (on Joan Ure) for nothing. His death was made more poignant for me by the fact that his sister is our neighbour, and we’ve often spoken about him and his work together. And now the news is coming through that Roddy Lumsden has died, at the rather poor innings of 53. Lumsden, like Leonard, had been hanging on from a shoogly nail for a while, so it wasn’t unexpected, but shocking nonetheless. I’ve no doubt he was a great aider and abettor of younger poets, but I never knew him. I saw him once, across a crowded pub in London – that’s it. Had I been a bit more outgoing and metropolitan, I might well have met him, or at least introduced myself. The extent of my contact with him is the few volumes of his I have on my shelves – I admired his almost Urquhartian logodaedaly – his playful dance in the company of exotic and abstruse words.

But what all this has brought out is this – when the news of the demise of someone culturally significant drops, why is there suddenly this frantic race to be the first to offer some sort of encomium? Alasdair Gray’s death generated a supra-tsunami of tweets and obituaries and tributes. You go on YouTube and like a rash, every video featuring the deceased is peppered with ‘RIP’ bromides. I remember as a child my father getting almost giddily excited when someone majorly famous died and being the first to announce it to us. I’m as guilty as anyone else – I mean, I wrote memorial blogs of a sort after the deaths of Marcus and Tom Leonard. But in most instances I managed to say to the face of the person / poet what their work meant to me (as if it ever mattered what I thought) while they still walked the earth. Even with George Ramsden, the antiquarian bookseller, on my last visit to his shop barely a month before he took his life, I told him that York for me was almost a bibliographic desert with the saving grace of his shop.

Death will, and always has, put a much higher value on the work of an artist, particularly a tragically premature death – the way signed copies of Seamus Heaney’s poetry collections skyrocketed in value when he died, because there won’t be any more (although the fraudsters on eBay might see to it that there are…).

But I’m also nagged by the vague memory of reading an account of a trip by Dylan Thomas to Edinburgh. At the time (I think the late 1930s, maybe early 40s), Hugh MacDiarmid was a desperately poor and increasingly marginalised figure in Scottish letters and Dylan Thomas gets up to address an audience and says something along the lines of: ‘this great man is suffering now, he needs your money and support now, don’t wait until he’s dead and pour money into erecting a statue to his memory…’. And when Thomas died young at the age of 39, MacDiarmid fulminated against all the elegists, opportunists and vultures profiting off their (often negligible) associations with the Welsh bard – they could say anything they wanted because he was ‘safely dead’ and now a prime target for being embraced into the canon and becoming a fetish of the tourism board. Again, I paraphrase from memory – I’ve not been able to find the source since, but am confident I haven’t imagined it.

But why do we wait? The day before Alasdair Gray’s death it was his birthday. How many wished him a happy birthday who also went on a day later to regurgitate tired truisms about his genius?

George Ramsden (1953-2019): Gentleman bookseller

In King’s Bookshop, in Callander, there’s some gilt writing on the shop window that boasts ‘It’s why you’re here!’. While this might not be the truth for some tourists passing by, it’s certainly the case for me that the only reason I want to go to Callander is to visit that bookshop. The same sentiment applies (or applied, rather) to George Ramsden‘s elegantly cluttered bookshop in Fossgate, York. On the extremely rare occasions I found myself in York, I was always heading for George’s ‘Stone Trough Books‘ – it was why I was there. The other bookshops in York are all rather predictable in terms of dull stock and bullish pricing, but George always seemed to come up with the goods, the better books with fascinating provenance and ex-libris plates, and his pricing was a very personal and emotional thing – not merely dictated by the internet.

The very lamentable fact is that George took his own life in April this year after enduring bipolar depression for a long time. I was never a friend of his (I only found out about his death, now in November, by accident), but on the handful of visits I’d made to his shop in recent years, he remembered me and with each visit, our conversations got longer, more revealing and meaningful. He reprimanded me in jest once for never having read anything by Anthony Powell, nor caring for anything written by Powell.

The most upsetting thought is that my last visit to the shop was just in March this year and he outwardly seemed much the same as before, same old tweedy jacket and threadbare (probably Jermyn St) double-cuff but uncufflinked shirt. I spent my usual hour or so in the shop but struggled (for once) to find much to buy until George recalled that he had a signed copy of a Sydney Goodsir Smith book in a cabinet downstairs. It turned out to be a spectacularly drunken, funny and effusive inscription, so I bought the book on the spot. George seemed a bit surprised at how pleased the book had made me, as if it had found its most sympathetic ’emptor’. When I left he made sure that he had my contact details noted correctly, because he was working on a new catalogue. This catalogue was finished two days before his death and has been published by London bookseller James Fergusson as a memento of Ramsden, who took inordinate time and care in making some beautiful book catalogues, such as one of AJA Symons, which is an essential addition to any Symons or Corvo collection. It was from George that I bought a copy of the first edition of Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, signed in beautiful cursive hand by the author. I was already an inveterate bibliophile before I read it, but it triggered my interest in collecting Corvo, as it must have done for legions of readers.

But the fact that at the time of my final visit he must have been struggling with immense burdens was not apparent to me. He seemed subdued and a little terse (a cliche, but ‘still waters running deep’ is the impression I got), but then he always had been (with me, at least). I’ve read a few obituaries for George and I’m struck by how many describe him as rather gruff or forbidding, and that his shop was some sort of ‘anti-bookshop’. I don’t recognise these depictions of him or his shop. The relationship between bookseller and customer is always a professional and financial one, but there are a small band of truly great booksellers who make you feel like an acquaintance, simply by remembering your name and your interests and engaging in some bookish talk with you. George was certainly in that latter camp. His death diminishes an already endangered world where secondhand or antiquarian booksellers care about something other than merely profit margins and still soldier on, trying to eke out a subsistence existence in order to be close to what they love. I think that’s it – that’s what distinguishes an average bookseller from a great one – the love of literature and the love of the book. George Ramsden was imbued with these very qualities, and I will very much miss him and his shop.  

He can be seen here (though, regrettably, largely unheard), in his natural habitat, in the first fifteen minutes of this interesting (if rather self-important!) short documentary called ‘An American Bookman in England‘.