(21 May 2011 at Duniera near Mt Macedon)
Jacqueline Ogeil: Every bibliophile has a favourite memory of an unexpected find. What is yours?
Stuart Kells: In 1995 there was a book sale at Trinity College in Melbourne. Advertising for the sale was low-key. At the opening I was one of the first through the door. The books were displayed on trestles in boxes, spines upward. I noticed immediately from across the room a narrow leather spine with raised bands. In no time the book was in my hands and I was feeling the straight-grained morocco, a distinctly English type of goatskin. Published in 1814, the book was Pieces of Ancient Poetry from Unpublished Manuscripts and Scarce Books, and the author was identified only as N. Y. The colophon revealed that 99 copies had been printed, plus six special copies on blue paper. The copy in my hands was printed on blue paper. The price was $3.
JO: Not bad for an extreme rarity.
SK: There is a similar copy in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and one in the rare book collection of the New York Public Library. My copy is probably the only blue-paper copy in private hands. It was likely bound by Charles Lewis, a celebrated nineteenth-century binder who was criticised for dressing above his station, and wearing tassels on his boots. The author was John Fry. He was born in 1792, became a bookseller, and at the age of eighteen edited a selection of Thomas Carew’s poetry. He later expressed his regret at what he called his premature appearance in print. Fry admired John Donne at a time when this was unfashionable. Nineteenth-century critics found ‘The Sun Rising’ too frank. Fry’s Pieces includes works by Donne as well as raunchy popular ballads, several of which were censored in the book because they were considered obscene, though they are tame by our standards. More than any other, this book set me on the road to bibliomania.
JO: So your favourite book is a piece of nineteenth-century smut?
SK: I have a thing for nineteenth-century books, smutty or otherwise, especially those in early leather or cloth bindings. I recently bought a fine copy of Ebenezer Landells’s The Boy’s Own Toy-Maker (1859). The cover is beautifully decorated with gilt blocking, and inside there are instructions for making a fire balloon, a thaumatrope, a pop-gun and, remarkably, a boomerang. Books like this are messages from a world massively disconnected from our own, yet expressed in our language and conveyed in a format we can appreciate. As time passes, fewer and fewer of these messages reach us in such a pristine state.
JO: What is a ‘thaumatrope’?
SK: An optical trick achieved with cardboard and string.
JO: Is it only nineteenth-century books that turn you on?
SK: Recently I’ve been doing some good eighteenth-century buying. Because of the great recession, there is less competition from buyers in Britain and America. The net flow of old and rare books was for a long time mostly outward from Australia, but lately the flow has turned around. I just bought an excellent copy of the first French edition of John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales. It retains the original paper wrappers, in which the book was first issued more than two hundred years ago, and includes two rare plates showing the travellers’ discoveries. A message not from nineteenth-century London but eighteenth-century Sydney.
JO: So a book has to be more than a hundred years old for you to pay it attention?
SK: Not at all. I’m always hunting for good twentieth-century literature. I do a good trade in Bloomsbury and Hogarth Press material, and other modern literature. Also early twentieth century children’s books.
JO: How do you know what to pursue?
SK: For more than a decade I was a book-runner, which is a great way to tune your instincts. I was also a book collector, and Kay Craddock’s was my favourite bookshop. Kay influenced my tastes as a collector enormously. Her shop was where I first saw the significant works of the great modern printers like Bruce Rogers and John Nash. My first encounter with a fore-edge painting was also there.
JO: Your biography of Kay and Muriel Craddock has just been published. How did Kay react when you said you wanted to tell her story?
SK: Paul Goodman wrote that the professor-student relationship is inherently erotic. The relationship between a biographer and a living subject may not be that, but it is certainly intimate. My first discussion with Kay about the book had something of the marriage proposal about it. She was seated. I pulled up a stool and sat immediately in front of her, lowered my voice, looked into her eyes . . .
JO: And she said ‘I do’.
SK: That’s right. She threw it all open. The diaries she had kept since her teens, her shop archive, the history of her business, her relationships. Very courageous for a person who is frank about her reticence to trust others.
JO: How did you build the necessary level of trust?
SK: I was open with Kay about what the book would be and why I wanted to write it. I was impressed by her story but I didn’t want the book to be a gushy piece of puff. I wanted it to work as a piece of writing. Kay was with me at every stage.
JO: What led you to write about Kay?
SK: Every book person in Melbourne is drawn eventually to her shop, the last salon-style bookshop in the city. Very intimidating when I first went there. I didn’t know who in the shop was Kay Craddock, but I went back more and more often to buy books about books, and the occasional rare treat. Eventually I got to know Kay, and when I started publishing she invited me to help her with some catalogues and bookmarks, that sort of thing. Then Fiona and I published, in 2005, Kay’s memoir, What’s in a Name? That introduced to me aspects of Kay’s story I’d been unaware of, particularly her father’s role in her life, and the impact of his sudden death. Not long after What’s in a Name? I decided I wanted to tell the whole story. The chance to do so was equivalent to writing about one of the great English bookshops like Maggs or Quaritch. I took leave from my work and Kay gave me a desk at the rear of the shop. My work friends were flummoxed. One colleague told me that I was mad, that I was wasting my leave, and that I should be travelling the world instead, or at least doing something worthwhile.
JO: How did the booktrade respond when you said you were writing the book?
SK: A mixture of scepticism and glee. Book people can’t resist gossip about other book people, even when it is dressed up in hard covers as social history.
JO: Some of the chapter titles are cryptic. Explain to me ‘The Kangaroo is Badly Marked’.
SK: In the Craddock archive I found letters about Peter Marsh and his Garravembi Press. Kay and Peter were friends and their commercial dealings had been extensive. I decided to write a chapter on his achievements as a printer and binder, which were significant, and his importance to Kay, which was equally so. The title refers to the marks, caused by sharp claws dragged against haunches, that often render roo leather useless as a binding material. More than once, Peter had to abandon the idea of binding books in kangaroo because of these marks. Bookbinders, and people in the leather trade, call them ‘mating marks’.
JO: I’m fascinated by the chapters about Richard Griffin.
SK: Rob Blackmore knew Kay for many years and entered her story several times. He was generous with information, much of which concerned Richard, who had worked with Rob at Macmillan. After communicating by phone, Rob and I met over a boozy lunch at a pub in Collingwood. Much of what he told me about Richard’s tastes and sexual exploits was unprintable. The same is true of his revelations about Alex Hamilton, Mary Fisher and other protagonists. But grist from sources like Rob was invaluable. It clarified what lay between the lines in the sanitised memoirs and official histories. To write a book like Rare, you need to scour the scholarly productions of university presses, but it is equally vital to know, from people who were there, who goosed whom.
JO: Who influenced your approach to writing Rare?
SK: A decade ago I was Michael Heyward’s editorial assistant at Text Publishing. With Rare I tried to write the ideal editor’s book, one with no fat or deferred gratification, one that treats the reader as an educated adult who doesn’t have time to mess about.
JO: Tell me about your time at Text.
SK: When I started there, the firm had just published Eucalyptus, which was about to win the Miles Franklin. Everyone agreed that Michael was the strongest publishing talent around. He wrote a brilliant book about the Ern Malley hoax, before setting up Text with Di Gribble and Eric Beecher, two other formidable publishers. There was a great feeling there of independence and of being able to do anything, even though the book division was a shoestring of six people. Getting the job at Text was difficult. Every wannabe editor was vying for it. Many had studied editing or creative writing at uni, which I hadn’t, and most were prepared to work for nothing, which I wasn’t. All the junior staff at Text had their favourites lined up for the job, but I ruined these plans. The staff were very dark on me when I arrived.
JO: Text seemed to have a knack for spotting good writing.
SK: Michael published Tim Flannery’s Throwim Way Leg, a great piece of travel writing. Then Michael and Tim set up a production line. They selected important historical works that were out of copyright, and Tim wrote preliminary matter for them. The resulting series of books with the Flannery brand was very successful. I helped crank the handle for several titles in the series, and worked with Tim on his great work of north-American ecology, The Eternal Frontier. I was most impressed when he visited the Playboy mansion with his US publisher, Morgan Entrekin.
JO: What was your most memorable book at Text?
SK: Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, a story of soldiers’ experiences on the Western Front. This book was out of print in Australia, and poorly known outside literary and academic circles. The book was first published in 1929 by Peter Davies, famously the model for Peter Pan. Due to the authentic dialogue, Davies feared the book would be censored. He created a bogus Paris imprint, the Piazza Press, and issued a small number of copies. The following year he issued an expurgated trade edition under the title Her Privates We, with a striking cloth cover. In both editions the author was identified only as Private 19022. The author, Frederic Manning, was an Australian, and not the sort to join the Army. Thin, bookish and frequently unwell, he enlisted at the advanced age of 34, making two attempts to become an officer. Both failed on account of drunkenness. As an ordinary soldier he saw action on the Somme. He was a fastidious writer. According to legend, Davies locked Manning away to force him to complete the book. When it appeared it was a stunning success. Hemingway and TE Lawrence raved about it. In 2000 the book was out of copyright and Michael decided to issue the unexpurgated version, which had never been published in Australia. There was more than one drama in making the book. To prepare the typeset pages we used a new method of digitally scanning the text. Unfortunately, the software didn’t work, and the resulting digital version of the text was littered with errors. In tracking them down I got to know the book very well.
JO: After Text you continued publishing?
SK: Fiona and I set up the Bread Street Press, and began publishing the Australian Book Auction Records and other books about books. Together we wrote a book about Middle-earth.
JO: Why Middle earth?
SK: I have an immoderate regard for Tolkien, the kind that is easy to make fun of. The Lord of the Rings is one of a long list of great books that struggled into print. We called our book The Culture of Middle-earth. It consisted of ludicrous observations about real estate auctions, interspecies marriage, elvish hygiene, plumbing and sewage systems. The book was reviewed in the fantasy journal Mythprint. The only thing the reviewer liked about it was our observation that Tolkien referred to chess a lot. The book caught the eye of a literary agent, Vladimir Kartsev. In the eighties he had been a KGB agent and director of Mir Publishing in Moscow. He co-authored a biography of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the one-time neo-fascist candidate for the Russian presidency. Publisher’s Weekly called the biography a lame apologia for Zhirinovsky, who had been Mir’s in-house lawyer under Kartsev. Accused of recruiting Zhirinovsky to the KGB, Kartsev answered that Zhirinovsky was too untrustworthy for membership. In capitalist Russia, Kartsev recast himself as a literary agent, and represented our book throughout the former soviet bloc. We are yet to see any dividends from this.
JO: You have recently returned from China?
SK: Fiona and I took a load of rare books to Hong Kong, where we exhibited at the antiquarian book fair.
JO: Is the Chinese book market buoyant?
SK: In the weeks before the fair, media reports claimed the Chinese art and antiques markets were on fire, and that most of the fire was concentrated in Hong Kong. Collectors were paying crazy prices for paintings and old pots. Around the world people were searching attics for items that might catch the eye of China’s new billionaires.
JO: I remember the $64m vase.
SK: Exactly. So we arrived full of optimism, and this only increased when we met local booksellers before the fair who spoke of mainlanders coming with backpacks filled with paper money. I assumed the bags of cash were figurative but, when the fair began, we were visited sure enough by parties of backpack-carrying Mandarin speakers, most of them women and all of them trailing advisers and interpreters, and spending Hong Kong dollars left, right and centre. Forewarned that these buyers would beat our prices down without mercy, we were ready when this in fact happened, and we made some pleasing though baffling sales to them.
JO: Why baffling?
SK: They bought the kinds of books we never expected to send off to Beijing. An obscure English play, The Conscious Lovers, by Steele, published in 1793. An eighteenth century edition of Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, and Thoughts in Prison by William Dodd, the Macaroni Parson. Among other things.
JO: What was the perfect sale there?
SK: We had a copy of Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets, nicely signed and inscribed by Seth in English and Chinese. I bought it at the Camberwell Market, and sold it at the fair to an American businessman, from Boston, who had studied with Seth at university. But Battledore from New York made the sale of the fair: a letter signed by Mao, which sold for $150,000.
JO: Is there an antiquarian book scene in Hong Kong?
SK: It’s embryonic. On the second day of the fair, three booksellers staged an Antiques Roadshow-style valuation session. People were allowed to bring along one book each, for appraisal by the panel of experts. The roadshow pickings were slim: a recent abridgement of the OED; jacketless reprints of twentieth-century novels; books held together with sticky tape. All proof that an antiquarian consciousness was not widespread in this part of China. But the roadshow was not a total washout. Fiona and I by chance had booth number one at the fair, and many visitors came to us first. One of these, a Hong Kong local named Mr Ho, said he had been turned away from the roadshow because he had too many books that he wanted to have valued. Would we, he said, meet him outside the fair and look over some of his prized books? The next day we met Mr Ho at our hotel. He and his assistant Mr Qing dragged in two suitcases filled with spectacular books. A first edition of Oliver Twist, with the suppressed plate; a first edition of American Notes; an early edition of Little Dorrit; bindings by Zaehnsdorf and other leading binders; rare seventeenth-century books of English philosophy; and other items of serious bibliophilic interest. In the bar of the Wan Chai Novotel we proved John Baxter’s axiom that ‘anything can be anywhere’.