Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Gwlad yr Hud

Our first visit to Pembrokeshire was over a wild, wet and windy weekend in November 1970. This should have been enough to deter us from subsequent visits, but there was something about the landscape, the air and the surrounding seas that captured our imagination. Since then we have returned many times, both by ourselves and later with our children. This land of enchantment, the Gwlad yr Hud of the Mabinogion, has been a source of magic and mystery since before the bluestones of Prescelly were taken from these sacred hills and re-erected on Salisbury Plain, in an early phase of Stonehenge development.

As well as its lonely and mysterious central mountains, Pembrokeshire has probably the finest cliff scenery in southern Britain, a number of dramatic Norman castles, fine churches and lovely river valleys. But it was to the remains of an earlier age that we first turned our attention. I refer to the numerous Neolithic tombs, or cromlechs, the magnificent iron age hill forts and cliff castles and the bronze age standing stones on lonely highways.

It was not long before visits to the Reference Section of Haverfordwest Public Library had fired our enthusiasm for searching out books on Pembrokeshire, its antiquities and its history. However it was on a visit to Chester that we acquired the first volumes in what was to become our Pembrokeshire collection - the first two volumes of George Owen's 'Description of Penbrokshire', published by the Cymroddorion Society. George Owen's description was first published in 1603 and contains a famous drawing of the magnificent chambered tomb of Pentre Ifan.

It was in these books that we found a reference to Richard Fenton's 'Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire', so this became our next quest. Here I must introduce the first of three great booksellers of the old school, all of whom are sadly no longer with us. This is Stanley Crowe, whose shop in Bloomsbury Street became a Mecca for us on our visits to London. The rather cramped shop at street level was but the portal to the steep and narrow stairs that led to the extensive basement, filled with bulging shelves stacked with topographical works. Strategically placed buckets caught any water dripping from the ceiling. There was an inner sanctum in the basement for the really fine books, but this area was not for browsers. There were enough treasures in the rest of the basement, including a Welsh section. Sure enough, Stanley Crowe could offer two copies of Fenton, the 1810 first edition in half calf, or the buckram bound later second edition, at a quarter the price. We did what any true collector would, swallowed hard and committed a week's salary to the former.

Over subsequent visits we got to know Stanley Crowe and his assistant, Mary Booth, later Mary Hubbard, well. They helped us to add to the Pembrokeshire collection and to branch out into the neighbouring counties via such works as J E Lloyd's 'History of Carmarthenshire', Jones's 'Brecknock' and Meyrick's 'Cardiganshire'.

The second in my triumvirate is Tom Lloyd-Roberts, where over morning coffee, served by his mother in the elegant lounge of the Old Court House at Caerwys, near Mold, he would talk eloquently of all things Welsh, and in particular his greatest interest, Thomas Pennant, who embarked on his series of tours in the late 18th century from his home at Downing nearby. It was on one of these mornings that we added to our collection Edward Laws' 'History of Little England Beyond Wales' and Colt Hoare's magisterial translation of 'The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin Through Wales' by Giraldus de Barri, Gerald the Welshman, whose home was the lovely castle of Manorbier on the South Pembrokeshire coast.

And finally, to Hay-on-Wye, the world's first book town, which in the early 1970's, under the leadership of Richard Booth, was, in my opinion, at its peak. Here, in the old Fire Station, we got to know Major Egginton, a distinguished gentleman, very much of the old school, who oversaw the topographical section of Richard Booth's bookshops. Here were treasures galore - county histories, tours and maps - and here we could add Lewis's "Topographical Dictionary of England and Wales", with the attractive county maps to the collection. We could also spend time handling books we could not afford and browse in the upstairs of the shop where treasures could be found in seemingly random stacks on tables and on the floor. I particularly remember a pile of copies of "Cardigan Priory in Olden Days", by Emily M Pritchard. Also a number of copies of George Owen's "The Taylor's Cussion", a collection of his miscellaneous jottings on Pembrokeshire and South Wales. It was this seemingly haphazard abundance that gave to Major Egginton's empire its magical quality. Find me a provincial bookshop now with such depth to it's holdings!

As time has passed, we have explored other counties and countries, rarely without seeking out the key books which encapsulate the spirit of the place; but the excitement of our early ventures as we attempted to form a Pembrokeshire collection remains an essential first step of our book collecting journey.

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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Musings from the Daughter of a Mad Book-Collector Part 1

I have always been surrounded by books. According to my parents no room was complete without a bookcase full of bindings in all shapes, colours and sizes. Although It was clear that it would never be possible to absorb the words in each and every one of them, my father continued to buy more. Rather than pile up books untidily a proper place would be found for each one, and when the bookcase groaned with the weight, another bookcase would be bought or built. When the house was full there was nothing for it but to buy a bigger house.

I can’t tell you how many times my sister and I would look at the latest pile of acquisitions and exclaim ‘but you’re never going to read them!’ My father would look aghast at his obstinate children, and we soon realized that it was the buying and owning the book that provided the main source of pleasure. The jumble of words on the page often took second place to the texture of the binding, the weight and feel of the paper and the book's provenance. (In fact my father insists that he can’t feel the weight of books at all – just as well considering that on one trip to York he might buy four or five bags full of books, not counting the ones he had already taken back to the car while we were all trying on frocks in Tammy Girl.)

My father loved giving me books to read. I would often ask ‘what should I read next?’ and he would hurry up the stairs and pull out a book and place it my sticky hands. As my bookshelves were mainly full of Jill's Pony Club and What Katy Did I was always slightly bewildered to be given a book without a colour picture on the front of a schoolgirl or a furry animal. He always assured me that I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and I would dutifully read all the books he gave me. Generally he would give me science-fiction or horror, not genres that many Sindy-doll obsessed young teens read. I dutifully read ‘The Day of the Triffids’, ‘War of the Worlds’ and ‘Best Ghost Stories’ by MR James, but was perhaps always a little grateful to get back to the books I knew best with brightly-coloured covers. I was always conscious too that the book must be returned without a smudge or, God forbid, a corner folded over to mark a page. It was an unwritten rule in our household that books were precious objects and a creased binding would not go unnoticed.

My father often partook in our reading habits too though. My sister and I subscribed to Bunty and Judy and we would often select a story for him to follow. In between working on highly important safety cases for the running of our country’s nuclear power stations (his day job) he read through about 10 years of ‘The Four Marys’ and their school ground antics. Although not as long running, the most memorable story I selected for him was ‘Before the Light Goes’. Set in Victorian England it told the sorry tale of a young seamstress who, owing to the fact that she can’t afford to buy candles, has to stitch in the dark and eventually succumbs to blindness. Neither of us will forget the unhappy day when the story finally ended, and the young seamstress drew her final breath. Although I always felt slightly guilty to be reading comics (I hate to admit that I subscribed to Judy until well into my teens when most kids my age were reading ‘Just 17’ and ‘Smash Hits’), my father reassured me that it didn’t matter what I read, so long as I read. I still think of this now when I pick up a John Grisham on a train journey.

Next Installment: What to read on a train.

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Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Pleasure in Being Frightened

When I was a child we lived in an old farmhouse with dark corridors leading to bedrooms rarely visited. Having two older brothers it is not surprising that I was introduced to stories of ghosts and witches at an early age. The most terrifying room, however, was the sitting room, only used for social events, that lay at the far end of the house from the parlour, where we spent most of our time. Even on a warm summer day, I did not care to linger there. But the frisson of fear was never altogether unpleasant and it is to these apparently harmless childhood terrors that I attribute my love of ghost stories.

The first ghost story I remember was read to us by our live-in land girl, one night when my brother and I had just been put to bed. With hindsight, A E D Smith's 'The Coat', in which an old moth-eaten greatcoat, first seen hanging from a coat hook, attempts to strangle an unwary visitor to an uninhabited house with it's horribly flapping empty arms, may not seem the most suitable night-time reading for 6 year olds, but it is the only bed-time story from that period that I actually remember. Years later, I found the story again in 'The Mammoth Book of Thrillers, Ghosts and Mysteries', in a part of the book invitingly called 'Sealed Section'. The coat belonged to a disreputable person who had been shot when wearing it and now apparently waits in the house for those staple ghost story characters who know something's wrong but still persist in invoking any malevolent spirit in the area.

Since then there has rarely been a period of my reading life in which ghost stories have not been close at hand. At first it was through anthologies, such as the superb collection 'Fifty Years of Ghost Stories', in which I first read M R James and Sheridan Le Fanu, both of whose stories are just as fresh 50 years later.

There were also the excellent Faber and Faber collections 'Best Horror Stories', with it's wonderful Felix Kelly dust wrapper, and 'Best Ghost Stories', followed by Basil Davenport's anthologies 'Ghostly Tales To Be Told' and 'Tales To Be Told In The Dark'. It was in these latter collections that I first read Arthur Machen.

Once I had read the massive Wise and Fraser anthology 'Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural' and Montague Summers' 'Supernatural Omnibus', I was in a position to sort out the great writers from the merely competent. I also began slowly to search out the original volumes by these authors from which their stories had been drawn by the anthologists.

So, who are these great authors and what are the key books that constitute a ghost story collection?

Most, myself included, would place M R James at the head of the list. His four volumes 'Ghost Stories of an Antiquary', 'More Ghost Stories', 'A Thin Ghost and Others' and 'A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories' were published between 1904 and 1926 and define what has come to be known as the antiquarian or scholarly ghost story. Oblivious to warning signs that are blindingly obvious to the reader, M R James's typical hero, pursuing his antiquarian interests will insist on provoking the malevolent entity that will either finish him off in a particularly nasty way or guarantee him (and us) future nightmares and other unpleasant moments.

As to what are the best stories from the 30 or so written by MRJ, strong claims may be made for 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad', from the first of the four volumes (published in 1904) and 'Casting the Runes', from the next volume (1911). I do have a particular fondness for the superbly titled 'The Tractate Middoth', from 'More Ghost Stories', partly because most of the action takes place in a library, which I assume to be the Fitzwilliam. It is the removal of the book of the title from the library that precipitates the rather nasty revenge taken on the borrower, when a 'little dark form' rises out of the shadow behind a tree trunk and two arms emerge to cover his face in a 'mass of blackness'. Those staple trappings of ghost stories, cobwebs and spiders, feature prominently in this story.

E F Benson, like M R James, produced four excellent volumes of ghost stories, beginning with 'The Room in the Tower' in 1912, followed by 'Visible and Invisible', 'Spook Stories' and 'More Spook Stories' (1934). Though variable in quality, there is much to enjoy here, my own favourites being 'The Face' and 'Pirates', both much anthologized. In the latter story, a middle-aged man purchases the house of his childhood, long deserted, and restores it to its former state when he and his brothers and sisters, now all dead, used to play in the garden. Living more and more in the past, he finally joins the phantom children in a game of Pirates and is found dead the next morning. The ghosts in this story are the ghosts of childhood; it is significant that the house had been re-furnished with much of it's original furniture, returned to the house after some 40 years. This re-creation of the past brings back the former inhabitants of the house. Or is it all down to an over-active imagination and a weak heart? As with all the best ghost stories, there are several possible interpretations.

Ghosts of children, or ghosts haunting children, are plentiful, from the vengeful children with the fearfully long finger-nails, who return to tear the heart out of the unfortunate Mr Abney, in M R James' 'Lost Hearts', to little Miles and Flora, corrupted by the ghosts of their former governess and her lover, in 'The Turn of the Screw', or again is the whole nightmare visited on the children by their paranoid new governess, the un-named young lady who narrates the story?

It is time to introduce the third of the writers who, to me, define the English Ghost Story. This is, paradoxically, an Irishman, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, who, along with his admirer, James Joyce, is associated in my mind with Dublin in a way that no other city or writer is. Whenever in Dublin, I stand outside the house on Merrion Square from which Le Fanu emerged for his nocturnal walks round Dublin and in which he is supposed to have succumbed to his final nightmare. Walking the lonelier streets of Dublin, I listen for the following phantom footsteps that pursued Captain Barton to his terrifying end in 'The Familiar' and in a quieter section of Aungier Street, I observe a deserted house with grass and small trees growing from the roof that I would like to have been the setting for Le Fanu's short tale 'An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street'. This short topographical tour of Le Fanu's Dublin must end outside the much haunted 'House by the Churchyard' in Chapelizod, the setting for the Le Fanu novel so admired by James Joyce and one of the influences on his 'book of the dark', 'Finnegans Wake'.

There are many excellent stories by Le Fanu, collated originally from the magazines of the period by M J James in 'Madame Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery' (1923), but it is to 'In a Glass Darkly' (1872) that we must turn for what I consider to be the finest ghost stories of the nineteenth century. As well as 'The Familiar' and the justly celebrated 'Green Tea', we are introduced in this volume to the most terrifying vampire in literature, the wonderful Carmilla, immortalised for all the wrong reasons by the late Ingrid Pitt in the lurid and explicit film 'The Phantom Lovers'. It is worth quoting in full the last sentence of 'Carmilla':

"It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations- sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door"

To my mind the last phrase of this sentence captures the essence of the ghost story; it is in our unguarded moments that the phantoms of our own past as well of those of literature return to surprise us and, I sincerely hope, cause us not a few unpleasant moments.

I will end this all too brief survey with a personal selection - eleven of my favourite ghost stories, restricted to one per author. These are given in chronological order of publication.

'The Old Nurse's Story', Mrs Gaskell (1852)
'Mr Justice Harbottle', J Sheridan Le Fanu (1872)
'Oke of Okehurst', Vernon Lee (1890)
'The Turn of the Screw', Henry James (1898)
'Man Overboard', F Marion Crawford (1903)
'Afterward', Edith Wharton (1910)
'The Green Room', Walter de la Mare (1925)
'A Warning to the Curious', M R James (1926)
'The Face', E F Benson (1928)
'The Rosewood Door', Oliver Onions (1929)
'The Sweeper', X Private X (1931)

If not one of these stories makes you unwilling to look back as you turn the lights off when leaving an empty room on a dark night as the wind moans in the trees, then maybe ghost stories are not for you.

It has often been said that the ghosts of the nineteenth and early twentieth century did not survive in the era of electric lights and motor cars. This is only partly true; there are many modern writers who have maintained the traditions of the 'Golden Age' of the ghost story. In a later blog, I will turn my attention to some of these later practitioners of the art.

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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Jane Eyre in the Bookcase

In my last blog, I talked about the Wernicke bookcase of my childhood. This bookcase has housed many subsequent collections, but now it houses a collection of Bronte books, biographies and general works on the Brontes. This is how it looks:

Bronte aficionados may recognise the distinctive orange of the Shakespeare Head Bronte or the brown and gilt of the handsome Dent edition. I started my previous account with 'Jane Eyre', so that makes it a good place to start a discussion of the compulsion to build up a set of books relating to one author (or, as in this case, a group of related authors - forgive the double meaning).

Everything about 'Jane Eyre' makes for a gripping story; from the all-night read of the manuscript by W S Williams at Smith, Elder to the sisters' visit to London to confirm their identities to George Smith, the publisher. So a collection must begin there. But then you have the other novels (and, of course the poems); so far not too out of control, but then you discover that there is a whole other layer - the juvenilia - epics of Gondal and Angria, short fragments and whole stories with which the sisters wove their web in childhood while the winter winds raged on the surrounding moors. This brings me to one of the best books on this aspect of their lives, Illustrated here.

'We wove a web in childhood
A web of sunny air ...'

By now, we are well and truly entangled and the Angria/Gondal collection grows. Then comes a decision about what represents your definitive collected edition of the works - not so simple, given the many excellent choices, for example, the Haworth Edition, the Thornton Edition, and Smith, Elder's own editions of the works. But, homework done, you realise that the Shakespeare Head Edition, edited by Thomas J Wise (of whom much more in later blogs) is the one. Then, by serendipity, a set appears on a stall on Chester Market.

Next biography and bibliography. You have to have the latter to check your collection for any obvious gaps. Again, you are well served by Thomas J Wise and, more recently, Yablon and Turner, not forgetting, for those, who unlike me have infinite resources, the Heritage Press Bibliography of First Editions.

Biography begins with Mrs Gaskell (and could end there were it not for Winifed Gerin, Juliet Barker and others).

Then to your horror you discover the Letters. Why did Charlotte write so many and why are they published in such expensive editions? But, without them is your collection truly representative? Then there are books continuing, or seeking to illuminate, the novels or the sisters' lives in novel form. Only one need detain us, illustrated below:

Enough. This sketch of how a collection might be formed, I hope, explains why the bookcase that housed my father's entire collection now houses works by, or about, one author and her siblings. There is one exception to this - tucked away on the bottom shelf is a set of the works of Bewick, the author whose engravings the young Jane Eyre was studying in the window-seat at Gateshead on that day when there was no possibility of taking a walk. I would like to think that the bookcase from which she selected Bewick's 'A History of British Birds' for her solitary occupation was not dissimilar, in the author's mind, from the bookcase now housing the modest collection described above.

The Top Shelf


Why write about books when there are already more books about books than can be read in a lifetime?

Because I am going to write about my books and these have never been written about before. 'Ah', you may say, 'Yes, they have'. But, actually, no - my books and their relationship with me have never been written about. For, example, my copy of 'Jane Eyre' is not the same as your copy; you see my copy is intricately bound up with childhood terrors concerning Bertha Mason, when we were allowed to watch the 1956 series on TV, family visits to Haworth to marvel at the 'Little Books' and serious attempts at unravelling the social significance of The Madwoman In The Attic. Your 'Jane Eyre' can similarly only be interpreted in the context of your experiences and influences.

So, that is in way of an apology, or perhaps an excuse. It all began with the bookcase. Looking up, I see the bookcase in the corner of our present lounge. It is of the type known as Wernicke, sold, I believe under the Globe Wernicke brand. As a child, this bookcase was my introduction to the world of books, or, more specifically to the concept of a collection of books.

The bookcase had four shelves, each with its own up and over hinged door, lifted by two brass knobs on the front. It was only later that the true elegance of the design was revealed when first I moved the bookcase from my parents' home to our first house in Hampshire. This is the ease with which each shelf lifts off as a single 'box' when the bookcase is dismantled. But I will return to the subject of bookcases later; a very important subject since it is my belief that a collection of books properly shelved forms an entity independent of the sum of the books as individual objects.

But first I must return to that bookcase of childhood, since it is here that the story starts. Picture a large Cheshire farmhouse, brick built and, to a child, steeped in legend and mystery. In the farmhouse was a parlour, this being the room that the family lived in, rather than the austere drawing room, reserved for special occasions. In the parlour was a fireplace and a sideboard, chairs and a settee. In the corner next to the fireplace was the bookcase, where behind the glass doors was my father's collection, with a few stray school prizes belonging to my mother.

At first sight the books in the bookcase would not appear to be exactly what a child would pore over; but even a run of 'The Border Leicester Year Book' can hold surprising excitement. The books were, I suppose with hindsight, the typical collection of a farmer with 150 acres to maintain, growing up in the First World War, feeding the nation through the Second World War and holding a responsible position within the farming community of South Cheshire in middle age. So, it is time to make a list, drawn randomly from memory -

'History of the Great European War ', Anon, 8 volumes, decorated red cloth
'The Great War', Churchill, 3 volumes, red cloth
'The Years of Endurance/Victory/Elegance', (the latter, strictly, an Age), Bryant
'Hutchinson's Standard Life of Napoleon', Bourrienne
'The Invasion of the Crimea', Kinglake
'The Reason Why', Smith
'Barlasch of the Guard'
'Exploits of Brigadier Gerard'

By now a picture is emerging and it is probably simple to deduce that, after the usual childhood fare, the first author who I consciously sought out (thank you Bury Public Library) was G A Henty. 'Jack Archer', 'With Lee in Virginia', 'Redskin and Cowboy' - these were a staple fare, together with,of course, William and Jennings.

There were also several of my mother's books, mostly school prizes and invariably of a sentimental or self-improving nature. Thus I was introduced to the world of girls' schools via 'Dauntless Patty' and of family bereavement via 'Kathleen' by one Agnes Giberne, with chapters titled 'Shadows in the Home' and 'Dark Days', enough to soften the heart of the most recalcritant 8 year old. However, I am sure that it is to these contrasting sub-collections in this cherished bookcase that I can explain some of the byways of book collecting that I subsequently followed.

In the next part of the story, I will fast forward 60 years to the present contents of the bookcase.