Yet more musings, as I begin to rid myself of some old books…
Some time in the early 1970s, while I was still at school, my mother told me about novelists that she had read in the 1930s and 1940s. She had very few examples of their work now, and the libraries, even then, had removed many of these from their shelves. Charity shops were just about beginning – the Oxfam Shop was always the one that people cited – but there were more shops that simply sold old books, rather than antiquarian or first editions at vast prices. As an aside, it is only recently that one of the last shops that I can recall to be billed as selling “Old Books” – Stothert’s of Chester - closed, citing Internet sales and rates as a reason. Their shop on Nicholas Street is now occupied by a hairdresser.
So my Mother suggested various authors whom, she said, had been popular in her youth, but seemed to be no longer so. Jeffrey Farnol’s The Broad Highway (1910) was one; this has lately been reissued and its text fully available on Gutenberg. The author that has remained fairly popular, J B Priestley, could still be found on the library shelves – I read Angel Pavement (1929) and The Good Companions (1930) at her suggestion. Priestley (1894-1984) was still then alive, and I recall reading The Magicians (1954) and The Image Men (1968) as fairly recent novels rather than as old books in need of discovery. There is now a J B Priestley Society, formed by his son in 1997. There is also a Society for Francis Brett Young, whose regional novels, many set in the West Midlands, were popular in the 1930s. I read one or two of these, with well-evoked settings but unmemorable narratives.
There are no such societies for some of the other authors, almost forgotten, to whom she introduced me. I think that I had already come across Dennis Wheatley, with his Black Magic books, like The Devil Rides Out, and tall tales like The Eunuch of Stamboul. But I had not heard of authors like Hugh Walpole and L A G Strong. Strong’s Dewer Rides seemed impressive, and a favourite, about Ireland, was The Bay. I acquired books by Strong in the closing months of 1974, when I was at university, and also in Wallasey and West Kirby. I read some of these, but did not get too far with Walpole, whose writing style was stodgy.
This stodginess did not prevent me from seeking to acquire all of Walpole’s novels; the collector’s instinct had taken over, the hunt more important than the “bag”. I recall arriving at University, in a strange town, and finding a rather dusty charity bookshop in the town. The old man who ran it, who must by now be long gone, told me that he read old novels every day, and introduced me to Mrs Henry Wood, author of the best-selling East Lynne (1861), and others. One time whilst I was there I mentioned Walpole, and a youngish man in the shop said that he, too, was seeking books by Hugh Walpole. His name was Terry, and he proved to be a university lecturer; he and his wife invited me to dinner at their home, where they talked about Hugh Walpole. I think I visited one or twice more, with a spare copy of a Walpole novel, and then I lost contact.
I had also espied, on my parents shelf, a book named And Berry Came Too (1936), by Dornford Yates. Yates’ novels and short stories were fantasies of two kind: light romantic comedies set in country houses, and the desperado adventures (“ripping yarns”, one writer has commented) in Ruritania of upper-class clubland heroes akin to those of Buchan and Sapper, or even as forerunners of the later James Bond. I collected these for many years, and even bought the biography after it appeared in 1982. The biography confirmed the nature of the author – ineffably snobbish and racist – but readable.
I am not now entirely sure exactly why I collected these books. Partly it was the wish to fill shelves, to have something that expressed something of me. And partly, I had some sort of notion that I could study these books and find some continuing value in them. Perhaps also it was a way of connecting with the world of my mother, although talking to her tonight she has few memories of these authors or even recommending them.
It became clear to me long ago that I would never have time to read most of these books, let alone write a critical study. I have many other books on my shelves, and in boxes in the loft, that represent projects that I will never complete. So, it is time that these found another collector, although I suspect that the relevant collector will be the one who empties the skip. It is, even now, a wrench, disposing of these books, a discarding of something that had meaning once. But, with the meaning gone, it is wasteful to keep the evidence for what I already know.
I will retain a small representative sample, notably Strong’s The Bay, and Angel Pavement. Most of the rest will probably disappear from public view, as well they might. It is likely that only curiosity, or students of the history of reading, as against literature, will inspire interest in these sorts of books in future.