Although I’ve lectured at Cambridge a couple of times, my real affiliation has always been to ‘the other place’ and I’ve never spent much time there. Time to remedy that and we thought it might be nice to stay in one of the colleges rather than a conventional hotel or bed-and-breakfast establishment. Accommodation and breakfast a little functional, but no harm in that.
Challenged at the outset by one of the rules: “As a rule, unnecessary noise and disturbances [sic] is not permitted on the College premises between 23:00 and 08:00”. I realised my days as a hellraiser must truly be over when I failed to come up with a serious idea for creating some unnecessary noise and disturbance during the generous number of hours when such things are apparently permitted and sanctioned. I wandered off to look for books instead.
Heffer’s is a wonderful bookshop, fully worthy of gracing a major university city, but the now-revived second-hand department remains somewhat perfunctory. Managed to find one book where I think I’ll be able to peel the prominently priced bar-code label off the dust-jacket. No more to be said.
On to somewhere better suited to my purposes – G. David (David’s) in St. Edward’s Passage, the business founded by Gustave David (1860-1936) in 1896. The front-shop nowadays given over largely to remainders, but there is still an amply large room beyond for antiquarian, rare and second-hand, with the emphasis very much on the antiquarian and rare. How delightful, how exciting, to see so many genuinely antiquarian books, many in lovely contemporary bindings. We can quibble about what precisely we mean by antiquarian, but I’m using it here in the broad sense of hand-press era books – ones published before say 1800 or 1830. The stock is deep too – some good travel, good natural history, good topography, good literature, good so many things – prices reasonable and all genially presided over by David Asplin and Neil Adams.
I’m soon purring over a 1642 edition of a famous parliamentary speech “concerning the grievances of the kingdome” by John Pym, leader of the Long Parliament, the first English politician famous for being so – and an impassioned defence of parliamentary privilege, “the priviledges of Parliament were not given for the ornament or advantage of those, who are the members of Parliament, they have a reall use and efficacie … we have therefore libertie of speech, that our Counsels may not be corrupted with feare …”. Right and proper and – if only the king had listened. That’s added to a growing pile, which by now includes Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, a pretty map of the Thames, a handsome Dickens, and some more modern books too – an early Graham Greene and a Dylan Thomas.
Pride of place goes to the three-volume first edition of Laurence Sterne’s Letters in an exquisite near contemporary tree calf and (above all) to an early and scarce Strawberry Hill book – Hentzner’s Journey into England, with its eye-witness account of Elizabethan London and Elizabeth I herself. Dual Latin and English text – edited by Walpole himself. A few more things – I don’t know where the afternoon has gone. Other customers are enjoying the stock too, the telephone keeps buzzing, and all seems well – two good buys earlier in the year are stretching the shelves to their limits.
We fall into book-trade chat – how the trade has changed over the all too many years we have all been in the business, the problems of deciding what to take to a fair – they have some impressive stuff lined up for York in a few weeks’ time. If we add in the long experience of Brian Collings (not around today – but involved longer than any of us), this is a firm with well over a hundred years of expertise on call. It shows. The trade will have to change a great deal more before a shop like this loses its purpose and value. It’s there – go visit. A thoroughly, thoroughly, enjoyable afternoon.