A quick round-up of the week. I hadn’t been intending to write about Cecil Court at all – but the picture speaks for itself. There I am quietly buying a really rather fine map of London by William Faden from Tim Bryars, silently congratulating myself on having the mercy of heart not to have taken a photo of one of the Court booksellers fast asleep in his shop, when another photo opportunity presented itself. Just across the way, there is Batman looking at Pinda Bryars’ shop window. He came over to peer in Tim’s window next, but didn’t seem particularly engaged in the pursuit of the antiquarian, rare and fine – other things on his mind, I suppose. I have no explanation.
The week began with a memorial service for the late John Maggs (1926-2013), great-grandson of the founder of that most illustrious of bookselling firms, Maggs Brothers of Berkeley Square, and for many years its leading light. The service impeccably led by Julian Browning – someone of course who had known and worked for ‘Mr. John’ and could pay just tribute to his qualities in full measure – as a bookseller, as an employer, and as a man. A service both moving and, in parts, highly entertaining – the complete man could not be honoured without wit and humour. A well-judged tribute too from Ed Maggs, son and successor. Julian attempted an explanation of Mr John’s endearing (if occasionally startling) habit of starting conversations in the middle rather than at the beginning, or even the end. A gesture, he suggested, of his total inclusiveness – his willingness to involve and engage from the outset. I always thought of it as a ‘turning-two-pages-at-once’ style of conversation and simply assumed his brain was working rather faster than mine, cutting out the unnecessary passages of routine dialogue. But what you could never mistake was his friendliness and his great kindness. And inclusive – yes, that is the right word – whenever we met always keen to point out things held in common: both contributors to the DNB, both resigners from the ABA Committee at one time or another, both good friends and colleagues of the late Helen Wallis.
Anne well remembers her first visit to Maggs – the ABA Christmas Party, 1988. John was delighted to give her a complete personal guided tour of the building from top to bottom (something I somehow never got). There may also have been dancing on tables. And a parting gift of the 1939 ‘House of Maggs’ booklet commemorating the move to Berkeley Square – signed and dated – we have it still. There is to be a more secular celebration of the life of the great man later in the year – in Berkeley Square – although as Julian noted, how can it be truly secular when for all of us in the book trade those famous premises at No. 50 are considered our own hallowed ground?
To Senate House on Tuesday for the latest in our series of monthly seminars on book-collecting. Nowhere better than Senate House to hold them, once London’s tallest secular building, still a mighty landmark, Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, and – something I didn’t realise until the other day – built on the site of Trollope’s birthplace. It also features in some of the Batman films as a double for Gotham City (perhaps this is where the Cecil Court prowler had come from).
This month’s seminar was Professor Simon Eliot, director of the London Rare Books School, on that extraordinary, innovative and inventive Victorian bookseller and publisher, John Camden Hotten (1832-1873). A man of his time, a man out of his time. In a desperately short career (he died at forty-one), he produced books across a whole variety of fields, conventional and unconventional. A whole range of richly Illustrated books using the latest techniques; pioneering works on popular culture, which no-one had ever considered worthy of treatment before; antiquarian reference books (he also ran a genealogical ancestor-tracing service); translations of the very latest in French literature – Balzac and Baudelaire; the new American authors previously unknown in this country – Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, Bret Harte, Wendell Holmes, Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass). He rescued Swinburne’s career and revived interest in Blake. And long, long, before Penguin – sixpenny paperbacks of the best authors. He also wrote himself – his ‘Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words’ still a much-used source. He may have alienated some (or even most) of his authors and dabbled in pornography on the side, but he is a major figure in any proper appraisal of the mid-Victorian scene – the business he founded going on to become Chatto and Windus under the leadership of his former manager, Andrew Chatto.
Simon not only outlined his life and showed us samples of his books, but compelled us to remember what the point of collecting was – this is a life not accessible without the physical evidence, without the books. These are our archaeology. Inspiring and rewarding. Over supper with Simon afterwards, we discussed the future funding of the seminars, the future of the London Rare Books School, developing and expanding the courses – perhaps integrating some of them with work placements. Significant success already, but a platform now to build further on.
A further treat on Wednesday – lunch with Beatie Wolfe. Beguiling singer, songwriter – and, at least until international stardom takes her away, as it surely will one day – part-time ABA website editor. She is largely to thank for the incredibly improved flow of traffic to the ABA website. A true bookseller’s daughter, of course (Rick Watson – W. P. Watson Antiquarian Books) – and, on her mother’s side, a grandmother who once worked for Maggs and knew Mr John in his youth, lending a pleasant circularity to the week. We talked of much – the future of the website, getting her to do some more of her excellent interviews for the newsletter as well as the website, various kinds of book-chat – but also of the ways and wiles of the modern music business. Her disinclination to take any kind of shortcut to what could only be temporary success. In her own time, in her own way. An apprenticeship properly to be served. A voice maturing and growing stronger. A steely determination to be her own woman. Tony Fothergill (Ken Spelman) has signed her up for a concert in York in May – already sold out, I hear. An album to be released in June. Listen to some songs at beatiewolfe.com – and aside from all that, a wholly charming and delightful lunchtime companion. Thank you, Ms Wolfe.