Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The 95th of March

Robert Player was an architect, and later lecturer on architecture, but also the author of a handful of eccentric novels, published by Gollancz, which I suspect have an oblique cult following. The best is probably the earliest, The Ingenious Mr Stone (1945), a murder mystery, but told in a particularly sly and mannered style. There is a tinge of Firbank in the characters and settings. Also notable is Let's Talk of Graves, of Worms, of Epitaphs (1972), a story not dissimilar to Baron Corvo’s Hadrian VII in plot, nor indeed in its somewhat rococo prose.

The copy of The Ingenious Mr Stone illustrated here has been discarded by Surrey County Council library, but still bears on its front free endpaper what ought to be date-of-return stamps, denoting a certain amount of popularity for the book in the period 1948 to 1959. The stamps are in chronological order, and do seem to represent a series of issues of the book to readers.

When I looked more closely at them, however, I noticed something odd about the dates. If their purpose was, as is usual, to remind a reader when to return the book, they might have caused some confusion. They seem to refer to dates in a rather different calendar to the one commonly in use, certainly in Surrey: for example, the 95th March, the 137th September, the 317th October and the 123rd December. Only a few seem to conform to more normal usage: there was, apparently, even in this realm of long Septembers and even longer Octobers, still a 22 June and a 3 December.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that some library assistant, or possibly even the librarian themselves, has run amok. Perhaps, bestirred by the bizarrerie in Mr Player’s book, they were moved to add their own fantastical dimension to the volume. Or possibly, unbalanced by the complexities of the plot, they simply seized the date stamp and wielded it with cavalier abandon, spinning its cogs at random, while (with some vestige of order still clinging to them), preserving a sort of chronology.

Alternatively, perhaps in some unregarded nook of the county library in Guildford, there was then (and may still be) an old oak door said to lead to a store-room for unwanted books, but in fact, under certain circumstances, giving onto a world where the months do just as they please, continuing for longer and longer, and all the calendars come with a sheaf of extra pages, just in case. Who then, we may well wonder, was reading or returning The Ingenious Mr Stone, beyond that threshold, on the 95th of March?

Mark Valentine


  1. Lovely post, Mark. Another book to look for. And that last graf is a story waiting to be filled out. md

  2. Absolutely captivating writing as usual.

  3. A-ha! Things start to join up! This is the same Robert Furneaux Jordan's whose "Victorian Architecture" was read avidly when I was a student. I had never connected him to a volume that has sat on my shelf for nearly four decades, the outrageous Pre-Raphaelite murder mystery "Month of the Mangled Models". When it first came out, in 1977, it was obvious that the author had considerable "insider knowledge" of the private lives of the barely-disguised artists he wrote about (now, all this is common knowledge, but back then would have taken some research.) All is now explained - and the novel has gone onto my holiday reading pile!

  4. Looking at the fact some of the two digit dates have a dash in place of the "missing" digit, I'd wager this is some sort of cataloguing system, perhaps some kind of number related to the amount of books borrowed each month.