Monday, August 27, 2018

A Book Fair in Churchdown, and an Upper Room in Cheltenham

Churchdown is marooned, cut off between the dual carriageway and the motorway. You see roads to it soaring above you on bridges, but you can’t take them, there’s no escape route. At the roundabout there’s a sign to Gloucester Airport. It’d be easier to take a trip to Paris or Rome than to get to Churchdown.

The only way through is to go in the wrong direction and then double back when no-one’s looking, sneak through the more loosely-guarded leafy outer environs. You drive up slowly, try to look as if you’re visiting relations. You notice it’s got all the facilities: shops, a school, a post office, a pub, a church. No wonder, observes fellow-browser Mr Howard. You’ve got to be self-supporting when it’s so hard to get in or out. They’re stocked up for a fortnight here.

And when you’re beginning to feel a bit too breezy, you find they’ve hidden the village hall. Classified. Concealed. No eavesdroppers at the whist drive. Strangers not welcome at the knit-and-natter. Outsiders shunned at the over sixties tea-and-scones. But by now you’re starting to get the knack of it. This case is like a Golden Age crime novel, and you head for the least obvious route.

They try to deceive you with a sign pointing to the wrong road, but you’re past that kind of ruse now. Head straight for the dead end where it looks like the village gives out, and gives up. Just before the pale and solemn bollards, twist the wheel. Mission accomplished. You park under the trees and walk nonchalantly into the foyer, like you’ve lived here all your life. After that, the admission procedure, roughly equivalent to an Albanian border crossing under the First Republic, is taken coolly.

And then you find out why. Hiding in the £2 box at the end of a table, there’s an early edition of The Return of Sherlock Holmes. A. Wessels Company, USA, 1907. Yet where the silhouette of the Great Detective should be, against the sunlit windows, there’s a smear of green. It looks as if the waters of Reichenbach really had fallen over him all those years. Might be an alternative version. The Green Face of Baker Street. The Detecting Spectre. The Weed Thing on the Violin. Verdant Holmes.

Yet you reckon this is just a feint. There’s something else here. Try the ephemera stall. There’s an album of old visiting cards. 25p each. Obviously every furtive browser should have at least four or five identities in his pocket book, so he can purport to be something other when required. Pick a card, any card. There’s one for a conjurer from Southampton and another for a pastor in Portuguese East Africa. With a bit of practice you can surely pass for either of those.

A clutch of used Paris Metro tickets, 50p the lot. Certainement. These can be placed between the pages of suitable books to give a casual air of chic, and mislead future cataloguers. “A chance bookmark in a copy of Under the Volcano shows that he must have read this while visiting the French capital in 1979.” When really he was working in Milton Keynes.

You think about offering a service to the aspirant arty. Cosmopolitan Ephemera. Impress Your Friends. Matchbooks from Trieste cafes, creased invitations to very private views, tickets to the cubist ballet, with signatures in Cyrillic.

But the stallholders are beginning to get restless, eyeing you narrowly. You’ve been round twice and you still haven’t succumbed to industrial history, country pursuits, the line of later Iris Murdochs. Time to get out before the spirit fails and they sell you The Message to the Planet. With a few sly swerves you might just make it.

There’s only one bookshop open on a Sunday near here and it’s in the back-streets of Cheltenham. It’s crammed with stock. The passages are guarded by citadels of Scandinavian noir, fortresses of conspiracy theories, tottering watchtowers of celebrity chefs, grinning with their gleaming machetes. It makes even navigating Churchdown look simple.

Upstairs, there’s a failed New York style speakeasy, with its scarlet banquettes, a decommissioned coffee machine like an outstation of Government Communications Head Quarters. Beyond, there’s a hidden room with a narrow opening. You enter it sideways. This is where the old stuff sleeps, mostly undisturbed. A mausoleum of the musty, an archive of the archaic.

Here’s Arthur Symons’ Cities of Italy, the vignettes of a weary aesthete, a Geo VI Civil Service Notebook with cryptic policy proposals at the front, the rest blank, and a book on the second move in chess, which you sense must be an elaborate cipher. But you know that they aren’t it, the reason why you’re here. What is?

In the grey light from the cobwebbed windows, you find it. Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto. A chronicle of lost messiahs, Hasidic prophets, inspired scholars. Fervent and vivid, the world of Rabbi Loew, Bruno Schulz, Martin Buber. It will take its place on your shelves between Rodinsky’s Room and The Zohar in Muslim and Christian Spain by Ariel Bension, Ph.D. This must be it, that’s what you weren’t supposed to find.

The coffee machine blinks as you’re on the way out. It knows.

Mark Valentine


  1. Delightful. Is that a newfound playfulness or have i simply not been keeping up?

    The Holmes looks like a Rothko.

  2. The layout of the front of the book, including the "A Conan Doyle" and the rectangle for a picture, reminds me of the design for an A. L. Burt cheap reprint that I have -- the same one offered here by a dealer:

    I wonder if there was some association of Burt and Wessels. Might the image that's missing from your book have been the moonlit gunman of Tales?

    Tales of Sherlock Holmes is A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, A Scandal in Bohemia, and A Case of Identity.

    Dale Nelson

  3. Yes, a spirit of playfulness, reminiscent of 1930s Auden:

    Control of the passes was, he saw, the key
    To this new district, but who would get it?
    He, the trained spy, had walked into the trap
    For a bogus guide, seduced by the old tricks.