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2008-06, 358, Autobiography, Colin Steele

‘Books in my Life.’

THEY SAY bibliomaniacs and bibliophiles are usually born rather than made, although neither of my parents were great book collectors. Morris Dunbar once defined a bibliomaniac as “a victim of the obsessive compulsive neurosis characterised by a congested library and an atrophied bank account”, while a bibliophile is a “victim of a markedly less acute and dehabilitating condition”.
Thomas Dibdin, writing in 1809, queried whether bibliomaniacs ever read books. Certainly this one does. Bibliomaniacs read books in the gym on exercise bikes and running machines. Bibliomanics never travel without books, as they alleviate what Dr Johnson called “the great vacancies of life”, particularly those suffered due to transport delays when time often seems to stand still. While many travellers spend time choosing shirts, dresses, etc, bibliomanics spend two minutes packing clothes and the majority of their time selecting books for the journey.
My childhood in the 1950s, in the North-east of England, was enriched by a love of books, similar to that described by Professor John Sutherland in the 1940s in his recently published book The Boy Who Loved Books, although I hasten to add my childhood was within a much richer family support system than Professor Sutherland’s.
The 1950s was a decade in which television was only slowly penetrating UK households. Books, comics and cinema were the predominant cultural influences. One recognises today the alternative attractions to the book that the multiplicity of media and the Net provide for teenagers in particular and the population in general. Reading books in the 1950s like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings required imagination rather than relying on digital simulations.
Back in the 1950s, although book collecting was a relatively low priority in Hartlepool, wide reading was possible through a wonderful public library, unlike today when many public libraries regularly weed their stock after several years and seem to be morphing into leisure centres or internet cafes.

UK Public Libraries in the 1950s were almost quasi University Libraries in the depth of their nonfiction stock. My aunt was Chair of the Library Committee and subsequently became Mayor of West Hartlepool. Her house was a book refuge. I remember she invited Doris Lessing to her house in the late 1950’s. I recalled this with Lessing when she was a guest of the National Word Festival which I chaired, here at University House, in 1985.
Little did we think in 1957 or even in 1985 that Lessing would win the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature.
My uncle succeeded my aunt as Mayor of West Hartlepool—nepotism was not the case, rather it was and is a Labour stronghold. Peter Mandelson was also parachuted in as the local MP under Tony Blair. Locally Mandelson became notorious for mistaking mushy peas for guacamole dip in a Hartlepool fish and chip shop!
A slight digression here, on mushy peas from the ‘Dead Men Left’ blog of 2004: “Mushy peas—Virulently green, lumpy, and generally served in a small polystyrene cup. Like cloth caps, Vimto and rugby league they are an emblem of the northern proletariat. Guacamole, on the other hand, is what soft southerners consume at poncy dinner parties, probably in Islington.
The cultural resonances of all this are very important indeed.”
My uncle was a science fiction devotee and I devoured his library, notably his magazines such as Galaxy and Astounding and his Science Fiction Book Club editions. SF provided an escape to other worlds from an extremely polluted Hartlepool and Teeside, with its plethora of chemical and steel works. The books of Arthur C Clarke, such as Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars, provided particular inspiration and led to a lifelong reading and collection of SF. My large SF library went a couple of
years ago to Sydney University Library, where Garth Nix helped launch the donation.
The other alien or alienated world of that time is encapsulated by the French Nobel Laureate author Albert Camus, whose novels such as La Peste and L’Etranger we studied for French A level. The relatively exotic settings of the Camus novels were not easily envisaged on the damp North East Coast of England.
An enlightened Hartlepool town council, however, twinned Hartlepool with the French Mediterranean coastal resort town of Sete. The Grammar School sixth form went there two years running, although I do not think the following year’s cessation of the twinning was our fault. While we got oyster beds, vineyards, Paul Valéry and sun, they got steel works, coal mines, Newcastle brown ale, Andy Capp, whose creator Reg Smythe lived in Hartlepool, and a cold North Sea. Camus, however, remains an ever present with me through his examination of the nature of the human condition.
Liverpool University followed Hartlepool and appeared nearly as exotic as the south of France. The period 1962–66 was an exciting time in popular culture in Liverpool. I remember, for example, seeing the Beatles and other groups at the Cavern before they were famous. I still have the Beatles first LP (but wish I had got them to sign it) and my first edition of John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works, although I still have signed items by Ringo Starr and Brian Epstein.
In my last year in Liverpool I shared a flat with Ian Kershaw, now Professor Sir Ian Kershaw and the renowned biographer of Hitler. When I bought the second volume of Kershaw’s Hitler book, I casually remarked to the book shop assistant that I had once shared a flat with the author. She obviously wasn’t listening and then looked at me incredulously and said: “Did you really share a flat with Hitler?”.
Ian and I then went on to Oxford, he to continue his DPhil at Merton College and I to take up a position at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. My book collecting took off at Oxford University in the late 1960s, although like many collectors I wish I had been able to buy more than I did, particularly from the bargains which Richard Booth had at his bookshops in the early days of Hay-on-Wye.
I organised the Bodleian coach trips to Hay on Wye in 1972—Richard Booth promised book bunnies on board the buses, but they never materialised! I remember on one trip the Oxford English Don, Francis Warner, a friend of Richard Burton, saying to a clearly inexperienced relative of Booth’s “How much for this first edition of Raleigh’s The History of the World [1614]?”, and he saying, “This is really old, I’ll have to charge you fifteen pounds” (then I think around 25 Oz dollars).
Ten weeks later the Sunday Times in Britain reported Warner attending the 40th birthday bash for Elizabeth Taylor in Budapest in 1972 and her congratulating Warner for his expensive gift to her of the first edition of Raleigh’s The History of the World—BUT WE KNEW!
Close friends in Oxford were Dr Tom Shippey, the expert on Tolkien and then SF Reviewer for The Guardian and the TLS, and the author Brian Aldiss. As a result of these contacts, I arranged for the archives of Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock to be deposited in the Bodleian in the mid-1970s.
In the Bodleian I was in charge inter alia of Latin American and Spanish purchasing. And so there were some wonderful books that I was allowed to handle and read, such as the first edition of Don Quixote. The Bodleian had bought two copies of Cervantes Don Quixote on first publication in 1605 because they knew it would be popular with the students and one copy would soon be worn out! An early example of multiple copy purchasing!
Another treasure, also located in Duke Humfrey’s Library, was the 16th century pictographic manuscript The Codex Mendoza. This unique manuscript is a major source of the history of Aztec civilization whose tortuous path from the Valley of Mexico to Oxford I covered in my 1975 book English Interpreters of the Iberian New World.
I recall the visit of one Mexican ambassador who, after inspecting it, told Bodley’s Librarian that he was taking it back to Mexico in the style of the Elgin Marbles, but of course the Codex is a more portable item. He put it inside his overcoat and strode out of Duke Humfrey and into the Bodley quadrangle. Given the understandable angst of Bodley’s Librarian, Dr Robert Shackleton, he returned it with a smile saying “It was only a joke”— to much collective relief.
I wish I had started collecting signed books in Oxford, as Tolkien used to wander through the Reading Rooms, as did Auden, Larkin and many other famous literary figures.
I invited one of the leading first edition booksellers in the world, Dr Rick Gekoski, to Canberra a couple of years ago to speak at the National Library. When I came to Bodley, Gekoski was still a postgraduate at Merton College. Gekoski recalls in his 2005 book Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories that he also kicks himself every day for not getting Tolkien to sign first editions of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, which today, depending on condition, he feels would fetch around $100,000 to $150,000.
Gekoski found out from the Merton College porter that Tolkien was getting rid of things from his room as he moved into retirement in Bournemouth in 1969. Gekoski was disappointed when he found no first editions but he did rescue Tolkien’s old college gown, with its name tag, rejecting his shoes and tweed jackets! In the 1980s, when Gekoski was putting out one of his book catalogues, he decided to sell the gown, which he described as “original black cloth, slightly frayed”. It eventually sold for
£550 to an eccentric academic in America who claimed he was going to wear it at the annual university commencement exercise.
Julian Barnes, then a young novelist, complained in the Times Literary Supplement that perhaps Gekoski would soon be in the market for D H Lawrence’s underpants and Gertrude Stein’s bra. Gekoski was not amused and was relieved he hadn’t catalogued the shoes as well, but he did note that he had sold a cutting of Sylvia Plath’s hair from when she was two.
In Oxford I met at a Bibliographical Society meeting the Cambridge bibliophile, Dr A N L Munby, who wrote in a now famous essay, ‘Floreat Bibliomania’: “The education of collectors’ wives must be started early, suggesting that a visit to at least one bookshop a day throughout the honeymoon is to be recommended.” Munby goes on to describe the great book collectors such as Sir Thomas Phillips, whose wife once complained in a letter: “I am booked out of one wing and ratted out of the other.”
Munby concludes that, when bibliomania becomes too much, collectors face the problem of whether to retain “one’s books or one’s wife”.
John Baxter, who has written, like Gekoski, a wonderful bibliophilic memoir, A Pound of Paper (2002), reflects how bewildered he was by his second wife’s behavior when she accompanied him on his fanatical bookbuying trips. Baxter complained: “She’d take down a book from the shelf and just sit and read.” He felt this was a “colossal waste of time” in that she could help him search for treasures in the bookshop.
Baxter, perhaps needless to say, is now remarried—to a French TV presenter. Baxter’s flat in Paris is a treasure trove of great works of literature in their first editions. We visited him earlier this year in Paris. To get to his top floor flat we climbed the same staircase that Hemingway took in 1944 to ‘rescue’ Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company fame.
In occupied Paris, Beach had refused to sell her last copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to a high-ranking German SS officer, so her store was closed down and she got friends to hide her books all over Paris. Hemingway in 1944; at the front lines of the Allied forces, drove his jeep to Rue de l‘Odéon, Baxter’s current address, and officially ‘liberated’ Shakespeare and Company.
Historic libraries, like the Bodleian, face constant financial crises. Professor Terry Eagleton had a satirical ‘Don’s diary’ in the Times Higher Education Supplment for 1995 in which he came up with novel ideas to raise funds for the library: “Arrive at the Bodleian at 9:10 to find all the 2 pound fifty seats taken. So had to take a 50p squat on the stairs of the Radcliffe Camera. So annoyed I ordered up the wrong book by mistake, three pound down the drain. Found someone with the book I wanted, bid
four pound fifty, but was trumped by a rich American. Rented a cushion from the library hostess for one pound twenty and dozed off.”
I used this quote in 2002 when I was invited to give the after dinner speech at Keble College, Oxford, for the four hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Bodleian. Sarah Thomas was appointed earlier this year as Bodley’s Librarian – she is the first woman and first American to hold that post. I recently sent her Eagleton’s piece to which she appropriately replied:
“If you want an email response from me it will cost you fifty dollars.”
Characters in the Bodleian were more eccentric in those days than they are now. A Keeper of Oriental Books was nicknamed Inspector Clouzot because of his propensity to pursue errant undergraduates who, he believed, had stolen books from the Bodleian—a non-lending library. His major investigative triumph involved tracking down who was mutilating famous manuscripts. As it transpired, one of the female stack attendants was cutting out signatures, such as those of Elizabeth the First from manuscripts and selling them at Sothebys. One won’t comment here on the lack of a search for ownership and provenance. It was ironic that when sentenced the convicted girl was made Librarian of her UK Open Prison.
The key books after coming to ANU in 1976 would take too long to recount. My taking over from Alison Broinowski of the Chairmanship of the National Word Festival in 1983 and the organisation of ANU literary lunches did bring me in touch with many authors ranging from Terry Pratchett and Patricia Cornwall to Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.
I am currently enjoying reading the beautiful Yale University library exhibition catalogue of Rudyard Kipling entitled The Books I Leave Behind. Bibliomaniacs, to return to the beginning, have to be careful about the books they leave behind, but that’s another story.
My wife’s favourite author is Jane Austen. Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice said to his daughter Mary, whose harpsichord playing left something to be desired: “You have delighted us long enough”. On that note, I should conclude, and hope I have provided some delight from some of the books and places in my life.

Colin Steele
(Originally published in the Canberra Times, December, 2007)



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