Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Return of The Book Guide - Secondhand Bookshops in Britain

The Book Guide is back!

Book collectors in Britain and Ireland were for some years able to plot their foraging expeditions using an excellent online directory of secondhand bookshops, run entirely voluntarily by Mike Goodenough, a bookseller in Stroud. This included not only useful information about location, specialisms, and opening hours, but comments from browsers.

In a post on The Rise of Secondhand Bookshops in Britain, I also used this guide to discover that, contrary to frequent belief, the number of second-hand bookshops in this country was actually rising rather than declining. Compared to the number in Driff’s exhaustively comprehensive bookshop guide of thirty years or so ago, there are (or were) about 25% more, and even if you exclude charity bookshops from both sources there is still a slight increase.

Unfortunately, when its organiser retired, the online guide lapsed, but the good news is that it has now been relaunched by a fresh set of volunteers and in a new format. This will be very valuable, particularly in the present times.

At the last count, in 2019, there were about 1180 secondhand bookshops in the UK and the total had been around this figure for a few years. It will be interesting to find out how many have survived and what new openings there may have been (one recently opened on Shetland).

Keen browsers can help out by checking the entries for bookshops they know, and sending in any corrections or comments, by notifying the site of any newly opened or newly discovered shops, and by adding comments on any they are able to visit. 

(Mark Valentine) 

Monday, July 26, 2021

the seven greek vowels

Ever since I found it (in the basement of the Bayntun Consulate), the folded art exhibition brochure from 1967 has seemed to me a talisman of its time, with its consciously cool design in red and purple and its avant-garde lower-case lettering, a bright token of adventure and experiment, an opening-out into new dimensions of thought. It seems a passport to another country where optimism and spirit are in the air: you feel you might like to go there.

It includes an invitation to ‘a private look and listen on 12 July 1967 between 8 and 10pm' with 'music by the mike gray entet’. ‘Entet’ is not in the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1975 revision. I like to entertain the thought that the ‘en’ part bears a relation to the “N” of Arthur Machen’s story, but I wonder if the prefix was intended to convey its meaning of "in" or "within" and its use in "energy" and "enthusiasm". 

The exhibition, entitled Arlington 2, was of ‘sight & sound by students of bath academy of art 13 July-14 August 1967’ at ‘arlington mill bibury nr. cirencester glos.’  

It is ‘a sequel to arlington one, the international exhibition of concrete, visual, and spatial poetry’ in 1966 and ‘offering a closer view of three british concrete artists, john furnival, ian hamilton finlay and dom Sylvester houedard’ who have been working with the students. 

room 1, by ian hamilton finlay in collaboration with the students, features ‘eavelines-headlines’, ‘a lighthearted folder of 13 sheets of imaginary headlines’, together with special projects by six students, some with very Age of Aquarius titles: ring of waves; net planet; cube poem; acrobats; homage to malevitch; au pair girl. I at once want to see these. 

in room 2 seven art students offer a graphic and diagrammatic project, vowel cubes, inspired by the seven Greek vowels. The cubes were made by John Rayment and Barbara Clift and colleagues: the vowels are also depicted in the funky chunky rounded lettering of the heading. The catalogue says: 

‘a group of students have been asked by john furnival to present a body of information revolving around the seven greek vowels and their related colours and planets. there are no mystical overtones to this project, unless you like to read them into it yourselves; simply the knowledge that no knowledge is useless and ignorable’

William has taken Alpha, Deborah responds to Epsilon, Melody works with Eta, Simon with Iota, Ann with Omicron, Christopher with Upsilon, and Paul with Omega.

The disclaimer about the ‘mystical overtones’ seems curious given the vibes in 1967 and made me think that there were in fact some and this note was put in to deflect any consternation from straights. The project certainly has the aura of a work of hermetic art-magic. 

in room 3, dsh (a monk and concrete poet) co-ordinates ‘la tante tantrique’, ‘an etymological voyage of discovery from the Sanskrit root ‘ta’ meaning “to expand”’ resulting in word-images painted on screens to ‘become a complete word-form environment’, as visualised by four students. This evidently reflects the very Sixties interest in Eastern mysticism.

That is an impressive line-up of cutting-edge arts tutors. I wondered what became of each of the young artists and their radical works. I thought about trying to trace them to find out whether the excitement and energies from the exhibition stayed with them and still reverberate. Had it changed them? But I reflected that such an approach might result in disillusion. Better to keep the exhibition in the crystal moment of its time.

Still, I remained convinced that the brochure contained a story. I had a picture of a wayfarer in rural Gloucestershire suddenly coming upon a scene like something out of The Prisoner where vast Greek vowel cubes tumble down a hill to glide into a lake and drift serenely towards a great white dome, guided, using thought-waves, from a colonnaded terrace by white-robed figures with unusual heads.

In my imagination mike gray and his entet have evolved into a particularly otherworldly drone outfit and provide a long lingering haunting soundscape for the scene, like the work of Ian Holloway, Brian Lavelle, Susan Matthews or Richard Skelton.  

After this prologue, the story would be about a strange continuation of the 1967 project in the lives of the students, of how their visions and images had remained in the aether or the landscape or in their own inner space. They would all sense something about this, but some would not want to acknowledge it, others would dismiss it, because their lives afterwards had led them elsewhere, and another set would say it was better left in the past, and things were not all love and light then anyway.

But the rest, a few, would want to find out more. What was it that their work as young art students had released? Their renewed contact with each other and with their art from that time would lead to strange changes in them, and in the world. 

(Mark Valentine)

Saturday, July 24, 2021

White Spines - Nicholas Royle

All book-collectors, all list-makers, all minimalists, all monomaniacs, all connoisseurs of second-hand bookshop owners and of things people say in bookshops, all who like finding letters, shopping lists, tickets, cheques, postcards, enigmatic numbers and other inclusions (©) in books, all wanderers in the backstreets of cities and of provincial towns, all fastidious arbiters elegantiarum (that's your actual Latin, to adapt K Williams, who also appears) of book design, all paperback writers (paperback writers, pa – per -back, der der der der dum dum de der, der der der der dum dum de der), all those who now think that though it wasn’t perfect far from it actually it had some things going for it did the 1970s, all those who fret about whether ‘the 1970s’ is or are singular or plural, all who would like to meet the Albanian Ambassador and his wife, all who wonder whether the difference between A-format and B-format is really the secret key to a Thomas Pynchon novel, all who study the dated plastic ties around the puckered tops of bread packets, all who read the preliminaries and the apparatus of books and want to know whether this one can be lent, resold, hired-out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s permission in any form of binding or cover than that in which it is published, and whether Granjon is the name of a dragon in a high fantasy epic, or a font designed by George W. Jones for the British branch of the Linotype company in the United Kingdom, all who wonder how many Nicholas Royles there are and whether really we could do with a good few more of them, should at once get a copy of White Spines, or a wall-full. 

(Mark Valentine)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Sky Cage - Ann Prior

Bayntun’s bookshop in Bath, in pale stone, with its pointed gables, arched bays, latticed windows and dark railings, might be the sleepy consulate of a small half-forgotten mid-European country. I imagine men in epaulettes removing their plumed helmets as they enter to report the latest alliance with the Free City of Hav, or perturbing news from the Kingdom of Zenda.

It was in fact originally the Post Office sorting depot in the days when utility and elegance were not strangers. There is a doorbell entry system, and inside glazed bookcases slumber amid a hushed atmosphere. Below, however, in the basement, the reader is free to rummage.

It was here I found The Sky Cage (1967) by Ann Prior. The title and the dustwrapper design attracted me, so I studied the contents more closely. It is about a ruined city in the aftermath of a disastrous war: we are not told where or when, but the period is historic as horses and carts are in use and fighting is with swords and bows-and-arrows. We follow several groups of young people who have survived the destruction by hiding in holes in the city and become scavengers and wary explorers until the occupying forces leave. These images suggest more recent scenes, from the Second World War.

The survivors come together, discover a secret royal stables, still full of horses, and a cellar of provender, and make an escape towards the mountains. Their story is told by each of the characters in turn. One of them is a beautiful but dark and complex youth, another a princess of the deposed house, a third the daughter of a priestess with glimmerings of second sight. The author handles the seventeen different individuals deftly, but even so it is quite a cast to keep distinct in the reader’s awareness. 

The novel is unflinching in its descriptions of violence and decay but there is throughout a mythic quality to the scenes and the intertwining fates of the individuals, something dreamlike.  The writing is in some ways terse, almost distanced, but the sentences carry a freight of meaning and poetic depth.

The dustwrapper description says, perhaps rather defensively, that the book is not a fantasy nor an allegory but simply a well-told story. It is not presented as a young adult novel (though I have seen it later described as that), and indeed on the other flap is an advertisement for A S Byatt’s first novel, which suggests the literary context the publisher envisaged.

The author was sixteen when she wrote the book. Born in 1949 in Christchurch, New Zealand, she came to England at the age of nine when her philosopher father took up an academic post there. She was the author of one other novel, Mirror Image (1969), a sort of sequel which I have not yet read. My crinkled copy of this is one of her own which was submerged when her barge Medusa, moored near Oxford where she was then studying, sank. It had later been sent to her old English teacher, an inspirational figure for her.

Online obituaries in The Guardian and The Shetland Times outline Ann Prior’s later life.  They describe her as ‘a cook, author, artist and adventurer.’ She liked living by the sea and so often chose jobs on remote islands: she ran a guest house and restaurant on Shetland for some years, was the cook at the Fair Isle bird observatory, worked in the Falklands, and even ran the post office on South Georgia, in the remote South Atlantic. 

The tributes also say ‘From a very early age, books were the great love and mainstay of Ann’s life. She had hundreds of them, almost exclusively stories of adventure and exploration both true and fictional, which she read and reread.' There is no mention of any further fiction after her two youthful books. 

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Lorne Bair Rare Books


Monday, July 12, 2021

The People of the Ruins by Edward Shanks

The Stokes 1920 dust-wrapper
The People of the Ruins is a sort-of scientific romance by Edward Shanks (1892-1953). It was first serialized in Land and Water from 19 October 1919 through 12 February 1920; then published in book form by Collins of London on 23 September 1920.  An American edition followed on 30 September 1920 from Frederick A. Stokes of New York.  

The set-up of the novel is fairly simple. A few years into the future, in 1924, a callow lecturer named Jeremy Tufts witnesses an odd scientific experiment which causes an explosion. When Jeremy reawakens, it is one hundred and fifty years later. Everything about the world has devolved since the Troubles, which were beginning just as Jeremy had been knocked out. Jeremy finds a simpler world, less technology, less science, and with a medieval-like setting. And classes still exist, and Jeremy's knowledge brings him to the aged leader of the London area, called the Speaker, who wants Jeremy to repair ancient war technology like cannons. Jeremy becomes enamored with the Speaker's daughter, so a romance is added into the mix. For most of the book, it feels almost like a "cosy" post-apocalypse. But by the end--presumably the only way the author could think to end the story--Jeremy has come to realize that civilization is completely dead.

The book is clearly a reflection on the Great War, which had ended not long before Shanks started writing his tale. And it warns of the evils of socialism and communism. But it seems a curiously narrow viewpoint. As a novel it is plodding, and only intermittently engaging. It seems to have inspired a variety of reactions, perhaps the most representative being the viewpoint of The Dial, in calling it "pleasant if not nutritious reading" (February 1921). But to me even that might be a bit generous. I'm glad to have read and finished the book, but I don't feel much inspired to pursue the author further.