“There’s no finer sight in the world than that of a handsome woman bearing cakes” – this the (completely unsought) opinion of a man in the Warkworth tea-shop. It struck me as a deeply profound and rather moving thought. Substitute ‘books’ for ‘cakes’ and we might yet be in a perfect world. Possibly borderline sexist, but then the sight of handsome men bearing cakes is not one all that frequently met with, at least not in my experience (do correct me if I’m wrong). Books, of course, are a very different matter.
We should have followed his example and gone for the cakes (the finest Victoria Sponge since the days of the late Queen Victoria herself), because the cream tea was dire. The clue is in the name – cream (i.e. real cream, proper cream, not some anodyne surrogate) – it’s a necessary ingredient. The well-attested medicinal properties and restorative powers of the true cream tea are as nothing without it – and we certainly needed restoring after a depressing visit to a truly ghastly bookshop elsewhere in Northumbria a couple of hours earlier. The sort of shop that’s usually never open and when it is you wish it hadn’t been.
The memory didn’t truly disappear until the following morning when we went calling on John Atkinson at his new home just outside Darlington. Here’s the restorative – a young bookseller with an eclectic and immaculate stock. Just the books you need to complete or improve a twentieth-century collection. Books I haven’t seen in years, books I’ve never seen (or at least not in this condition), the scarcer books, the rarities, the desirable books, the sought-after books, admirably dust-jacketed, often signed or inscribed, and surprisingly often with a long-forgotten or unknown wrap-around band. John has something of a penchant for these ephemeral promotional bands and you can see why. Here’s his copy of the London edition of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (1929), intact in a pristine and fabulous dust-jacket by David Theyre Lee-Elliott, but also with the apparently undocumented puce-coloured wrap-around band carrying a quote from Arnold Bennett’s review – “This is a superb performance”.
This rather took me aback. Firstly, I couldn’t off-hand recall having seen very many British examples of these wrap-around bands (or ‘flashes’ as they are sometimes called) from quite as early as this. After much racking of brains (and several days later) I eventually recalled once having had a copy of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica (also 1929) which had one, and I’ve seen quite a few examples from the 1930s (with some rather earlier ones from the United States), but can anyone nominate an earlier British example? That’s your challenge for this week.
But what really took me aback was this conjunction of Arnold Bennett and Ernest Hemingway, because, although I admire them both, they really don’t inhabit the same circles in my head. Here’s Arnold Bennett, already past sixty, wealthy, famous, successful – a man of such prominence that straw was laid in the street to quiet the traffic as he lay dying a couple of years later (I believe the last Londoner so to be honoured) – still of course very popular with the common reader, but a man already much derided by the younger set, especially the Bloomsburyites, and not at all someone you would have expected to find championing the brash young American newcomer. But then Bennett was always far more astute and far more modern in outlook than most of his critics – the proof is in this wrap-around band – lose it and we lose that thought. That’s why the idiosyncrasies of the collectors who cherish such things must needs be nurtured.
There is, by the way (and I kid you not), a curious piece currently on the BBC website headed “Arnold Bennett: The Edwardian David Bowie? Arnold Bennett is probably the most successful and famous British celebrity you’ve never heard of, unless you’ve tried the omelette that bears his name” – but I think this tells us more about the current state of the BBC than it does about book-collecting.
Elsewhere in John’s stock there are many other wonderful things, including a book he asked me not to write about or illustrate in case someone wanted to buy it and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. So I won’t tell you what it is. He really knows and loves his books. It’s a very impressive set-up, even if it’s all a far cry from the old-fashioned second-hand bookshop. He’s well advanced down the curatorial wing of modern book-selling – and rightly so, we need to adapt, but the spark in his case was kindled by an old-fashioned chance first purchase from Anthony Smithson of the Keel Row Bookshop (of whom more anon). Nothing special, a run-of-the-mill Ian Fleming I believe, but it lit the fire which diverted John from an academic career (he has a doctorate – phonetics, inflection, that sort of thing) into book-selling. Academe’s loss and the book-trade’s gain. His details are in the blog-roll to the right.