The hunt goes on. Out and about quite a bit. Rather disappointing book-fairs in Dorking and London – only managed to find four books and a map at the first. One of the books was simply to read, another simply for reference, and a third – boldly pencilled “first edition” by its vendor – turned out to be no such thing and, moreover, it only took seconds to establish this once I got it home. Gross incompetence or downright deceit? Either way, there’s a bookseller with a shop in Kent I won’t be visiting anytime soon.
I did rather better in the familiar haunts of Cecil Court – a couple of sparkling Seamus Heaneys and a few other good things from Stephen Poole; a clutch of P. G. Wodehouse from Marchpane; a really difficult early Nancy Mitford from Peter Ellis ; a John Betjeman, a D. H. Lawrence, an Arnold Bennett, and a couple of other things from Tindley & Chapman. People often ask me where I find my books, hoping for some offbeat tips and hints of secret sources – but the plain truth of the matter is that the best place to find a good book is a good bookshop. Write that down and memorise it.
A meagre two books found at the second fair. One was quite spectacularly cheap – the other a gem: a second printing of P. G. Wodehouse’s “Blandings Castle” (1935) in a fairly plain quarter morocco binding – not everyone’s idea of a gem, but pasted in the front was a little bookplate – a crest, a motto, and a name. But, what a name! It’s Evelyn Waugh’s copy of “Blandings Castle”.
It was Waugh, of course, who once said, “The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled”. He was a fervent fan of Wodehouse. “One has to regard a man as a Master”, he told his friend and neighbour Frances Donaldson, “who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page”. Donaldson recalled that “Evelyn had a nearly complete edition of his works which was specially bound in leather. The books published up to the time of his marriage had been given to him and he had later bound many – I think not all – of the books which subsequently appeared to match the others”.
Waugh’s own recollection was that his Wodehouse collection had been complete until “sadly depleted by theft” – theft of quite what and by whom is not made clear. As late as 1961, he still awaited with “unappeasable appetite” the appearance of every new Wodehouse title. It was in that year also that Waugh did so much to rehabilitate Wodehouse’s reputation with a radio broadcast denouncing the wartime libels – the “blasted blithering Beaverbrook blighter’s bilge”, as Wodehouse himself put it.
Not wholly endorsed by many at the BBC, but backed by Director General Sir Hugh Greene (brother of Graham), Waugh broadcast that “Twenty years ago on 15 July 1941 listeners to the BBC Home Service Postscript were shocked to hear a virulent denunciation of [P. G. Wodehouse] as a collaborator with the enemy … Let it be said at once that no-one connected with the BBC had any responsibility for this utterance. All the governors formally protested … they were rebuffed, and the incident provides a glaring example of the danger of allowing politicians to control public communications … The impression I got later from my friends who had heard the broadcast outburst of 15 July was a sense of vicarious guilt that we had descended to the methods of our enemy in our official propaganda … I take this opportunity to express the disgust that the BBC has always felt for the injustice of which they were guiltless and their complete repudiation of the charges so ignobly made through their medium”.
Although they corresponded, I believe the two men met only once – a lunch in New York. “It wasn’t very amusing”, Waugh told Frances Donaldson, “I couldn’t persuade him to talk on any subject except income tax”.
Waugh was passionate about his books. Making plans to evacuate his library to the country to escape potential destruction in the Blitz, he mordantly noted in his diary, “At the same time I have advocated my son coming to London. It would seem from this I prefer my books to my son. I can argue that firemen rescue children and destroy books, but the truth is that a child is easily replaced while a book destroyed is utterly lost”.
The major part of his library – some 3,500 books – survives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, but curiously there seem only to be a handful of Wodehouse titles there, none seemingly in a leather binding. The story relating to “Blandings Castle” is that it came from a group of books sold at auction in the west country by Auberon Waugh some years ago, so I imagine the bound Wodehouse collection was held back by the family. Do we know where the rest of the titles now are?
The question remains as to why as fastidious a man as Waugh would be satisfied with a second printing, when a first could so easily have been procured. The answer, I imagine, assuming that the marriage referred to above was his second, to Laura Herbert in 1937, is that this particular book was one of “the books published up to the time of his marriage” which were given to him as a set at that time and which he later added to. It was bound by the Oxon Bindery, a business only listed in the Oxford telephone directory between 1934 and 1942 (at 131A High Street from 1934 to 1937 and at 67 St. Aldates thereafter), which at least sets a time-frame for the binding.
So pleased to have it, so reluctant to let it go, but the customers come first. It will certainly be featuring on my next catalogue, due to go to the printer’s next week.