Cuckoo Clocks and Plastic Socks

Portobello on a Saturday

Portobello on a Saturday

Off in pursuit of bookshops once more, this time with a fresh companion, younger daughter Tilly (Ottilie), princess of retro.   “Portobello Road” she sings in a slightly demented fashion on our way to the underground, “Street where the riches of ages are stowed”.   I look lost, blank and baffled (as often in the company of younger people)  – “But you must remember the song” she says.  “Bedknobs!”   Am I going mad or is she?   What is she on about?   Laboriously, patiently, she explains in a manner which does nothing to conceal the implication of serious dotage on my part. 

Yes, of course – we eventually get there.  The song and dance routine set in the Portobello Road from the Disney version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks – except that I still have no recollection of it at all and it turns out that the film I’m thinking of is in any case Mary Poppins.  We might have got off to a better start had she begun with the line Cuckoo Clocks and Plastic Socks from Portobello Road (the b-side of Cat Stevens’ I love my dog) or even Portobello Belle (Dire Straits) – but now she confuses me utterly once more by saying “And that’s why it’s always full of Italian tourists”.  Her theory being that all Italian children learn English by watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a theory seemingly based on the statistically isolated sample of a single Italian penfriend.   I regard this as wholly improbable, but by now we have arrived at a crowded Notting Hill and the air is thick beyond all imagining with Italian voices.  Hundreds, thousands of them.  Does anyone have a better theory?

I used to come hunting for books on the Portobello Road thirty or forty years ago, but somehow fell out of the habit.  But what a treat to revisit it now and find it still thriving, busy, bustling, and full of life and vigour.  To be sure some sections of the street are succumbing to the multiples attempting to clone every other high street in the country (foolish, stupid, greedy  landlords, woeful, blinkered and thoughtless local authority – stop this right now) – a point very forcefully made by Valerie Jackson-Harris (Quadrille) later in the day – but so much, really so much remains.  And long may it last.  This is a great day out.  Food, drink, clothes, antiques, books – whatever you want.  “Riches of ages” – yes!  

The Disney song (apparently) goes on to promise us:

Burke’s Peerage; The Bride Book; The Fishmonger’s Guidebook;
A Victorian novel, The Unwanted Son;
The History of Potting, The Yearbook of Yachting,
The leather bound Life of Attila the Hun

Quite like the sound of the Victorian novel, but we didn’t find that or indeed anything else on this curious and wholly puzzling list – but we did find Paul Hutchinson (Demetzy Books) there at his Saturday post in the arcade at 113 Portobello as he has been these last forty years.  He gets up in the middle of the night to get to the market in time to open up at 7.30am every Saturday and simply radiates goodwill for the rest of the day.  Paul is someone I can almost invariably buy from at bookfairs and today is no different – a few prints, a little London book and a children’s book (although not Paddington Bear, another denizen of these parts).  Paul tells a nice story – visiting American bookseller of known pessimistic disposition, “Paul, you’ve changed over the years, but your books haven’t” (not remotely true).  “Ah yes, but you see, I am a happy man, content with what I have – and you are a miserable man always wanting something new”. 

Tilly and Paul

Tilly and Paul

A happy man – and so he is.  We hear the story of the Demetzy name (an eighteenth-century Italian forebear originally named De Mezzi who improbably owned an English coaching inn and Anglicised his name).  We hear of an ancient run-in over Sunday trading with the local authority that closed Paul’s original shop in Amersham.   And we are off to the jolliest of starts to the day.  Tilly is completely charmed and poses for the picture.  I meanwhile am slightly disturbed by a shout from a neighbouring booth – “Good grief, Laurence Worms.  I thought you’d retired years ago”.  Didn’t know quite what to make of this, but good to see Justin Skrebowski again anyway.

Portobello Gold

Portobello Gold

We head out again – the street busier even than before – blocked solid with people – long queues for cash machines and lavatories – restaurants, pubs and cafes overspilling.  


Valerie with the boxed set of maps

On to Valerie Jackson-Harris (Quadrille) at her family run business at Delehar, 146 Portobello Road.  The business dates back over several generations to the Great War – and has been on the Portobello Road for fifty years. Valerie is trenchant on the subject of the multiples moving in – back off, clones.  She also chairs and drives along the active and enthusiastic  Ephemera Society, so we soon reach a ready accord that the ABA and the Ephemerists should collaborate more, as and when we can.  This we must do – and let’s begin by plugging the Society’s fair at the Holiday Inn, Coram Street, Bloomsbury, on Sunday 4th December – date for the diary, link to the right.  Tilly meanwhile is very taken with a nineteenth-century handkerchief map of Paris, while my eye has been caught by a beautiful boxed set of French jigsaw maps dating probably from the 1830s.   Seriously tempted, but the cheque-book is still a little frail after the experiences of the summer – and there’s that whopping bill just received for warehousing and distributing British Map Engravers.  Let’s see how the new catalogue (published today) goes with the customers.

Tilly rather takes over proceedings at this point – we visit the Spanish supermarket-cum-delicatessen (Café Garcia) in search of her boyfriend’s favourite pepper and find that and many another thing (wonderful Manchego) before adjourning to lunch (tapas).   And she’s now seriously tempted by an expensive fur hat (probably time for an over-fond father to retreat).

Sophie Schneideman Rare Books

Sophie Schneideman Rare Books

We somehow managed not to find Sophie Schneideman Rare Books further north at 331 Portobello, but of course that is where she is and has been for the last three years, with her stylish mix of private press, illustrated books, fine bindings and prints – and currently a delightful exhibition of books and prints from the American wood-engraver, Gaylord Schanilec.  The glaring omission now rectified with a visit yesterday – Sophie not there, but the exhibition much enjoyed and I’ve been sending links to the website to friends and family all morning.  (Tilly’s just e-mailed to say “Some of these prints are just gorgeous!”  It’s on until 3rd December – just go and see it.  Link to the right.

Senate House

Senate House

All in all a good week, and a bonus yesterday with the go-ahead for a monthly series of talks and seminars on book-collecting to be held at Senate House (both London University in reality and George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in fiction – and Orwell, by the way, lived on the Portobello Road).  A joint venture between the ABA and the University’s  Institute of English Studies – starts in the new year – early evening – open and free to the public – glass of wine afterwards – watch this space.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice first introduced in 1997 (and its recent update), served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute, the National Library of Scotland and at Gresham College and Stationers' Hall. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. Essays on the British map trade are also appearing in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers”, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011. He also contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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1 Response to Cuckoo Clocks and Plastic Socks

  1. ashrarebooks says:

    The clip from Bedknobs and Broomsticks is on Youtube at


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