Saturday, February 27, 2016

The English Catalogue of Books for 1937

The Commercial Road bookshop, Kirkstall, Leeds is closing in early May when the lease comes up – the shop itself has already been relet. It stands near a busy junction: and almost opposite, up the hill, is the derelict Kirkstall Liberal Club, all too obviously symbolic, a Seventies or early Eighties edifice which even when built seemed to consist of an accidental collision of plunging rectangles. Now, surrounded by crushed and rusting beer cans and the tattered shrouds of fast food, it is boarded up and slowly disintegrating. Even the planks over the windows sag, as if it is too much effort even to sustain its decay.

In the shop, I found half a dozen books. The nicest was a third edition of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, his sequel to Three Men in A Boat, in a pictorial dustwrapper. This account of a bicycling tour has never had quite the popularity of the riparian adventures, even though (or perhaps because) the formula is similar. Loosely inserted part way through was a cutting probably from the Radio Times about a performance of the book featuring Naunton Wayne and two other “silly ass” character stalwarts. A book of WW2 poems by Alan Rook that I took to the counter had been in the shop, said the owner, since he had taken it over, many years ago, as he could tell by the handwriting of the price, which was not his own, but that of a previous owner. It seemed somehow odd and apt that the book should escape almost at the last moment.

A particular delight, however, was a copy of The English Catalogue of Books for 1937, in bottle-green binding, a list of every book known to have been published in Britain and Ireland (note the somewhat cavalier use of “English”) in that year: some 12,209 of them, to say nothing of a further 5,077 reprints.

The introductory matter is brisk and opinionated. Under the heading, “Are There Too Many Books?” it observes that “since the economic depression of 1929-30 there has been a progressive increase each year”. The reason, it suggests, is that there are now more human crafts and sciences than ever before: “A few years ago the information relating to aeroplanes, the cinematograph, or radio transmission could be (and was) contained in a handful of books”: now, it says, there are even sub-divisions of these subjects.

It is idle, it avers, to say that this number of books is too many for any reader to comprehend. Most of them are technical and only of interest to the specialist. And of the rest, we surely only want “the outstanding books in the various other classes of literature. . . So for the ordinary individual reader, the flood of books shrinks to a mere trickle.” This breezy confidence that the reader can identify the best books and not bother with the others seems somewhat misplaced. As Arthur Machen pointed out, the thumping successes of his time, such as Mrs Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere, were in not too many years soon forgotten and unread.

If, however, like me, you are more interested in the peculiar and unusual than necessarily the books judged at the time to be the best, the Catalogue still offers many hours of happy browsing in search of odd and promising-sounding titles or authors . I knew this would be an endless source of fascination for me, and so it proved even on the very first browse. Opening it at random my gaze at once alighted on a book by Terence Greenidge that I did not even know existed: Tinpot Country: A Story of England in the Dark Ages, no doubt a political satire. The author was a friend of Betjeman and Waugh, a railway enthusiast, who wrote a book of poems paying tribute to his two chief preoccupations, Girls and Stations. A reputed companion volume, Boys and Stations, by another hand, may be mythical.

On the other hand, the spirit of bibliomancy should not be invoked too often. The next mystic dip neatly illustrated the editor’s argument by offering me R S Morrell’s Synthetic Resins And Allied Plastics, no doubt a worthy volume in its own way, but not quite in my field.

At the end of the book is a list of publishers, not enumerated, but at a quick calculation possibly about fifteen hundred of them. These also have their fascination. What titles, for example, issued forth from the Actinic Press of Featherstone Buildings, Holborn, WC1? What precisely were the aspirations of the World Dominion Press, Founder’s Lodge, in the deceptively-named Mildmay Park, N1? Who were Lomax’s Successors at The Johnson’s Head, Bird Street, Lichfield, Staffs? What were the Essential Services (1918) of the imprint of that name at Balham High Road, SW12?

What quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore came from The Raven Press of 1 Whitefriars Drive, Harrow Weald, Middlesex? What went on behind the windows, supposing there to be any, of Messrs Hallows & Slaughter, Ltd, of 121, Victoria Street, SW1? There is surely something about each of these concerns suggestive of The Red-Headed League or The Absent-Minded Coterie, The Lost Club, or the other singular institutions we encounter in Victorian detective stories.

I am coming to believe that there may be more mysteries in the English Catalogue than just the annual dozen or so issued from the hand of Edgar Wallace. What better place to hide codes and secrets than in its close and seemingly harmless bookish print? Perhaps if, in the style of Mr Dyson in The Three Impostors, I were to go to one of these addresses and give the title on the thirteenth line of the one hundred and twenty-ninth column, I might find myself admitted to some inner chamber where is revealed at last, by flickering candle-light, the true, long-hidden mission of the Jehovah Syndicate.

Mark Valentine

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if "Lomax's Successors" might be an allusion to Lomax, the Sublibrarian of the London Library, mentioned by Watson in "The Illustrious Client." That mention of Johnson's Head--close to the Shakespeare Head Press--is also suggestive.--md