Out today is my 121st catalogue — The 1971 Catalogue — an anniversary catalogue of books published in 1971 to commemorate the year in which my career as a bookseller began. It is actually my second single-year catalogue. Back in 1996, I issued a catalogue of books published fifty years earlier, in 1946, to commemorate the founding of the business in that year by Hugh Jones and Cyril Nash. It was a delight to put together — helped hugely by my colleagues in the trade in making suggestions and sourcing some of those immediate post-war scarcities. It was also the first catalogue I compiled with illustrations provided in-house — I had just acquired a desk-top scanner and my elder daughter, then aged twelve, was very patient in showing me how to use it and how to engineer the images on to the page. (In truth, she did most of this herself).
I rather hoped that the catalogue might lead to some commissions to put together similar single-year collections of books. It seems an interesting and intellectually valid approach to book-collecting to try to pin down a particular time and place in this way, but although the catalogue proved a popular success — if nothing else as a convenient shopping-list of suitable fiftieth-birthday presents — no commissions were forthcoming.
I did, however, always intend to repeat the exercise, and 1971 was an excellent year for books — books which, as you might expect, fully reflect the issues and concerns of their time. What I did not expect, all these years on, is that those issues and concerns have changed so very little — the place of women in society; race relations; coming to terms with the post-colonial world; the problems of being young, or of being old, or of being middle-aged; overpopulation; the hypocrisy of politics and fashionable causes; relationships and families; even — in Timothy Johnson’s Network Communities, a foretaste of the issues of online networks and universal databanks — “there will already be a substantial class of people … able to work largely at home with the aid of a terminal and perhaps a picturephone”. It was in 1971, after all, that an online “chat-room” was used for the first time, that Intel announced the first commercially produced microprocessor, and that Ray Tomlinson decreed the @ sign as the marker between mailbox name and host name.
In the real world of books, there were some major debuts — first books or first novels from John Banville, with Nightspawn; from Bob Dylan, with Tarantula; from Frederick Forsyth with The Day of the Jackal — has there ever been a better out-and-out thriller? Other authors appearing for the first time were Terry Pratchett, with the extraordinary Carpet People; Luke Rhinehart, with that cult classic The Dice Man; Tom Sharpe, with his jaw-dropping Riotous Assembly; and the American actor Thomas Tryon, with his classic and immediately filmed horror story, The Other. There are copies on the catalogue, a couple of them signed, while at the other end of authorial careers, there are the penultimate appearances of two of the best-loved characters in all twentieth-century fiction — Jeeves and Miss Marple.
Something I frequently do when cataloguing is to search out contemporary reviews on the British Newspaper Archive. This often leads to something quotable and pertinent. The Archive has not yet digitised all that many newspapers from 1971, but the reviewers of the Birmingham Daily Post clearly knew their business and have afforded a number of insights.
The Sunday Mirror too back then took books seriously, albeit in a different way. Frederick Forsyth was given feature treatment on the eve of publication of The Day of the Jackal, while in another pre-publication feature (on The Female Eunuch), Quentin Crewe began “Feminists have always seemed to me to be particularly repulsive … until I met Germaine Greer”. Crewe’s colleague, Ian Khan, later headlined a review of Brian Aldiss’s controversial A Soldier Erect with “Chuck It, Mr Aldiss”. To its credit, the newspaper afforded the affronted author ample space to reply in a dignified letter the following week: ““I’m sorry that Mr Kahn (last Sunday) found my new novel … tedious and nasty. War often is tedious and nasty”.
As for the literary prizes of that year: The Destiny Waltz by Gerda Charles was the first ever Whitbread Novel of the Year, while Nadine Gordimer took the James Tait Black Memorial Prize with A Guest of Honour; Susan Hill won the 1972 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize with her 1971-published The Albatross, and V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State took the Booker Prize. There are copies on the catalogue, as well Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont — both on the 1971 Booker shortlist. The Whitbread Poetry Award, also in its first year, went to Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. Poetry was still very much part of mainstream publishing fifty years ago and there are a number of further impressive collections, particularly from the younger poets of the day.
The Destiny Waltz is a scarce book and the copy on the catalogue is particularly pleasing in being inscribed to the bookseller Martyn Goff (1923-2015), architect of the Bedford Square Book Bang held in the summer of 1971. Both books and reading were widely perceived as being in decline and under threat from the proliferating number of television stations, video cassettes, and other forms of home entertainment. Both the Booker and the Whitbread had been founded to inject some needful publicity and excitement, and the Book Bang set out to demonstrate that books could be “fun” as well. I imagine that it was this concept of books as “fun”, which led to a noticeable outbreak of bizarre lettering and a cacophony of colour on the dust-jackets of the day. There is a good account of the Book Bang on the admirable Jot 101 blog, so I shall not repeat all that here, but there is a copy of the rather rare original prospectus on the catalogue.
In later life, Martyn Goff became chairman of Sotheran’s, the rather splendid antiquarian bookshop in Sackville Street, although I can only recall meeting him once — a meeting on some ABA business or other — but there was no mistaking his incisive thinking, drive, energy and purpose. And that is another minor theme of the catalogue — people I have met or known.
I met Germaine Greer once at a book trade history conference — not at all repulsive — and P. D. James, too, when representing the rare book trade on the National Book Committee. That scarcely counts as knowing, but several booksellers I knew quite well are featured in The London Bookshop by Richard Brown and Stanley Brett. This particular copy has been enlivened by a previous owner with some informative annotation: “Boorish, ungracious to the point of rudeness … shop full of rubbish”, he writes of a bookshop in Cecil Court.
Peter Jackson, the London historian and collector, was Chairman of the London Topographical Society when I first joined its Council years ago. His London Bridge is one of a number of good London histories on the catalogue (another minor theme), including Gareth Stedman Jones’ extraordinary Outcast London. Books on London have always been a part of the business — Jones and Nash were very knowledgeable and taught me an inestimable amount.
The famous science fiction and fantasy writer Michael Moorcock was rather a good customer for a year or two in the Cullum Street shop back in the 1970s — his The Sleeping Sorceress is on the catalogue. Science fiction was as mainstream as poetry at the time and there are some excellent further examples. Towards the end of the catalogue, there is Donald Weeks’ fine biography of Frederick William Rolfe, “the myopic, paranoiac near genius” known as “Baron Corvo”. Donald too was a customer — one of those customers you really learn from. Eric Quayle (The Collector’s Book of Books) was a regular catalogue customer for many years, as was Ronald Searle from his home in France. Searle’s little squib, The Addict, is on the catalogue, but it was his 1989 Slightly Foxed — but Still Desirable : Ronald Searle’s Wicked World of Book Collecting which informed us what he really thought of the catalogues he was sent: “As any, even vaguely addicted book collector will have swiftly learned, most booksellers’ catalogues are written in a parallel language that can fool anyone but the cognoscenti and which makes the mysteries of the Rosetta Stone, or Linear B, look like something out of Enid Blyton”. I rather hope he did not have my catalogues in mind, but you can judge that for yourself.
An amplified version of the printed 1971 Catalogue is now online. There must be at least one book you would like — or perhaps you have a friend or relative coming up to their fiftieth birthday? Prices start at £20 and there is noting over £500.