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Confessions of a Bibliophile

1. Two Mistakes


The phone rang. “Book Department,” I said. “There’s a Mrs Wright here to see you.” “I’ll be right up.” As I hurried to the Valuations Counter, with that sense of unreality which the prospect of meeting a stranger always instilled in me, a distinct image of Mrs Wright had already formed in my head. Where do these imagined people come from, the ones we expect, but never meet? On the strength of a mere five minute phone call a week before, I was expecting a solid, middle-aged woman. Instead, I found someone very old, very frail and very small, whose eyes, reddened and distraught, stared up at me with a terrible entreaty, as if she was drowning. “Hello, Mrs Wright,” I said, shaking her hand; or, rather, taking hold of it for a moment, feeling its intricate joints beneath the dry fabric of her skin. She didn’t acknowledge me. Instead, she said “This is my husband,” indicating the man standing beside her. He was wearing a suit and tie, but something didn’t seem quite right with him, as if the suit and tie belonged to someone else. His eyes were, like his wife’s, hungrily transmitting a need which I couldn’t identify. I shook his hand in turn: it was powerfully tight and needy, like something that might grab your foot in the sea and not let go. “I flew Spitfires,” he said. 3

“Don’t, Arthur.” “Spitfires,” he said. His eyes filled with tears. “They went out,” he said, “but never came back. They drowned.” His voice rose to an alarming cry, and splintered: several people glanced at him. “Arthur,” said Mrs Wright. “People don’t know that,” he went on. “Harry, Tom, Charlie. All of them. Shot down over the sea. All drowned. All of them.” “He’s very upset,” said his wife, laying her arm on him. It was as if she was talking about something that had happened to him five minutes before; not fifty years. “I’m sorry,” I said, not knowing what I was apologising for. I realised I was still holding his hand. He was trembling wildly now; but then he gave me a nod, an affirmation of sorrow, and let go. “We’ve brought the books,” said Mrs Wright. * My first job after leaving university was as an ‘audio typist’ for an auction house. As auction houses went, it was pretty low on the food chain: you could almost call it ‘bottom-feeding’. But, so keen was I to secure a place in an auction house – any auction house – that I had taken this lowly administrative role on a salary of £7,000 per annum. 4

This was back in 1989, but even then, it was pretty bad. I was so poor I used to steal instant coffee from the big tub in the staff canteen, scooping it, when no one was looking, into a Styrofoam cup and sealing the top with Sellotape. Although I was fresh from university, and steeped in English literature, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, typing was my only employable skill. I had developed it after my mother had presented me with her old ‘manual’ typewriter when I was five. I never looked back. By adolescence, I could manage phenomenal speeds, with just two fingers. Indeed, when I attended my initial interview at The Brook Street Bureau on Victoria Street – a depressed graduate, for whom the real world of employment was a gradually dawning horror and lying in bed all day already a fond and distant memory – the assessor, Rachel, stopped me within seconds of starting my typing test to summon her colleagues from their surrounding offices. “Come and look at this,” she said. They gathered around and watched, in fragrant, glossy-lipped amazement, as I started again, rattling away like a First World War machine gun. Yes, I made mistakes, but, boy, was I fast. Rachel said I was the fastest typist (with two fingers) she’d ever seen. Then, through the agency, I took the job at the auction house. One day, when everyone else was engaged in their – as I

saw it – enormously exciting and successful occupations of valuing Chippendale furniture, discovering lost Rembrandts and growing eccentric moustaches, I was sitting at my desk with my earphones plugged in – somehow amplifying my isolation – when it suddenly struck me, at twenty two years of age, that I had wasted my whole life. I stopped typing and began crying quietly and steadily to myself. No one noticed. The office, bright with summer sun, revolved around me in a kaleidoscope of tears. Six months later, I got my break. Having once vaguely expressed an interest in books, I was ‘promoted’, if that’s the right word, to a new position as ‘Junior Specialist’ in the Book Department under the delightful tutelage of its dapper Old Etonian head – and only other member – Jan. The interview went like this. Jan: “Do you like books?” Me: “Well, yes.” Jan: (holding up a book). “What’s this?” Me: “A … book?” Jan: “Brilliant. You’ve got the job. Welcome aboard. Two sugars, please. And leave the bag in.” It was quite fun: I did some basic cataloguing and counted an awful lot of plates. Jan saw me off at 5pm each day by calling brightly “Thanks for popping in!” At night, I immersed myself in Alan G. Thomas’s Great Books and 6

Woolf, Virginia

Orlando Published: Crosby Gaige, New York, 1928.

ÂŁ3,000.00 click for more information

Book Collectors and John Carter’s ABC. It paid off. My annual salary was increased to £7,500 and, on the strength of it, I bought a new suit. Well, I say ‘new’. I mean it was ‘new’ to me. But I’d arrived. In this auction house there was no such thing as ‘training’ – unless you counted Jan’s rather haphazard and patrician guidance – and I was thrown in not so much at the deep end as at the bottomless one. Suddenly, miraculously, I was a ‘Book Specialist’. People, unbelievably, came to show me their books. I remember a hapless colleague, a porter, experienced a similar apotheosis, finding himself appointed, quite randomly one morning, to the role of ‘Print Specialist’ (the previous one having suffered a nervous breakdown). One day we were standing next to each other at the valuation counter where we performed our imperilled charades of ‘expertise’. A member of the public – a knowledgeable one too, judging by his unforgiving steel-rimmed glasses, bow tie and big successful overcoat – had brought in a William Blake print to be valued. He held it forward for the ‘expert’ to examine; the ‘expert’ who 8

confessed, with a disarming shrug, that he had, quote, “never heard of William Blake”. “Excuse me,” the client kept repeating, understandably dumfounded, glancing at me for corroboration, “Are you sure you’re the Print Specialist?” * So that’s how I came to be here, standing at the valuation counter, nervously watching as Mrs Wright extracted from her bag a few leather bound books – thirteen in total – and placed them in a row in front of me: like bodies, for identification. “They belonged to Arthur’s great grandfather,” she explained. “Didn’t they, Arthur?” He didn’t reply. He was staring at me, his mouth moving with unsaid words, confessions. I sensed, very strongly, that he was barely with us: that he was in a cockpit somewhere, high above the English Channel. Of course, I knew nothing about books. But when Jan was away on a ‘valuation’, or just ‘couldn’t be arsed’ (his phrase), it was left to me, the impostor, to muddle through with clients at the counter. And rather than explain the situation to this elderly couple, who seemed to be depending so very much on me, I pretended I knew what I was doing. Big mistake. 9

I picked up the first book. It was an odd volume of The Spectator, dated 1788, in a worn calf binding. I matched it up with three other volumes from the same periodical. At least I could read Roman numerals. Four out of twelve. “Do you have any other volumes of this?” I asked, convincingly. “Oh no,” she said. “Do we Arthur?” He shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “That’s all of them there.” It got worse. Amongst the other books was a 19th-century New Testament, a grubby Book of Common Prayer from the same period, a single volume of a late edition of Joseph Andrews, an almanac for 1802 which had lost its only claim to interest, its frontispiece, and something without a title page which appeared to be in Greek or Hebrew (or Martian for all I knew) and was bound in vellum. I picked it up and pretended to study it closely: in reality, as an object, it was entirely opaque to me, and no amount of staring could help. But they didn’t know that. At least, I hoped they didn’t. For all they knew, I had a PhD in Martian. “This is rather nice,” I said. Specialists quite often said banal things like this, usually as a prelude to saying something spectacularly learned. “It looks quite old,” was what I came up with. “Do you think it might have any value?” stressed Mrs Wright. 10

“It may have some,” I said. “In all honesty(Ha!), I need to do some research.” I felt like I was throwing them a lifeline, only the other end wasn’t attached to anything. I added, brightly, “I think it’s in Greek.” “In Greek?” said Mrs Wright, clearly impressed. “Is that good, or bad?” “Oh, good,” I said. “Definitely good.” “Do you hear that Arthur? The young man says it’s in Greek and that’s good. Arthur?” Later that afternoon, when Jan had come back from his ‘valuation’ (redolent of red wine and cigarettes), he went carefully through the little collection which I had taken in from the Wrights, one by one. “Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap,” he said. “I can’t believe you took these in.” He lit a cigarette. “What about this one?” I said, showing him the one I’d saved till last, the little vellum-bound book in which I had invested so much vicarious hope. He opened it. “Oh – my – God!” he gasped. He sat down, or, rather, collapsed into his chair. “What?” I said. “I can’t believe it!” “What is it?” “Crap,” he said, and tossed it accurately into the bin. 11

I dutifully retrieved it. “What estimate did you put on them?” he said, blowing smoke in my direction. “Thirty to fifty.” “Pounds?” “Yes.” “Really?” he said. “Someone might buy them, I suppose. A blind one-legged dwarf from Albania, for instance. Is there any wine in that cupboard? Get us some would you? There’s a good chap.” The date of the sale was set for August 15th. This was not an auspicious time to sell books, or anything for that matter, but Jan had thought we needed to have a ‘clear out’ of the department’s warehouse and there was also the troublesome runt end of a dealer’s stock to be disposed of, everything to be sold without reserve. Despite my protestations, he insisted that I put Mrs Wright’s books in this sorry sale of no-hopers, also-rans and rejects, catalogued as a single lot with minimal description: ‘A collection of 13 miscellaneous books, one in Greek and bound in vellum.’ The tantalising addendum, made speculatively, was entirely my own; thankfully, Jan didn’t notice it. Regarding the poor timing of the sale, I comforted myself with the following reasoning: the dealers might think that, 12

because the sale was in August, there would be bargains to be had and, consequently, they’d show up in their hordes. They didn’t. Ten minutes before the sale was due to start, there were four people in the room: an elderly book dealer whose name I could never remember, and three others I didn’t recognise but whose attitudes of slumped despondency hardly filled me with optimism. They seemed to be together. One, I noticed, was even listening to a Walkman: its solipsistic itching filled the saleroom. This, I thought, glumly, was going to be a very long day. We had 400 lots to get through, with not a single decent book amongst them. And yet … And yet … There was something about that little volume in Mrs Wright’s lot, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Although my technical knowledge of books was limited, I felt I had a fine instinct; I thought I could pick up on things which Jan – with his years of experience, his cynicism, his long lunches – had become inured to. And my instinct here told me that there was something very interesting about that little book in its old vellum binding. In fact, I strongly suspected, based on no evidence whatsoever, that it must be worth a lot of money, and that later, after the sale, I might have cause to make a rather exciting phone call … “Mrs Wright? Are you sitting down? You are? Do you remember that little vellum-bound book ..? The one I was so excited about ..?”

I heard a commotion. Encouragingly, a group of people had entered the saleroom. Then I saw – with mixed feelings, but predominantly a sinking one – that it was Mrs Wright who was marshalling them. Manufacturing an enthusiasm I didn’t feel, I bounded towards her and shook her excitedly by the hand. She seemed rather proud to show me off to her companions. “This is the Book Specialist,” she said, with proprietorial relish, and I felt her tiny arm about my back. They cooed at me and wondered why they didn’t recognise me from The Antiques Roadshow. Mrs Wright introduced her retinue. “These are my sisters, Peggy and Shirley. This is my half sister, Edna. This is her husband, Jack. This is my son, Ralph, and my daughter-in-law, Alison. This is my granddaughter, Kylie, and my grandson, Jehoshaphat. And this is my friend, Jill. Oh, and that’s her husband, Geoff. With the video camera. And their son, Jason. And his girlfriend, Donna.” I thought the last two, who were chewing gum malevolently and in perfect synchronisation, looked like they’d come under duress. “So many!” I said. “Where have you all come from?” “Derby,” they agreed. “The Wrights of Derby!” I cried, to a blank reception. “We came down on the coach last night,” said Mrs Wright, “and stayed at a Travelodge in Mitcham. Then we had to take three different buses this morning to get here. I can’t 14

The Bibliophilist’s Library Published: Printed Only for Subscribers by George Barrie, Philadelphia, c. 1900.

£4,800.00 click for more information

tell you how excited we are …” I noticed she was clutching the hastily photocopied ‘catalogue’ I had sent her: a proper printed catalogue, with colour illustrations, hadn’t been considered appropriate for this particular sale. “Will you sign it for me?” she said. Suddenly, everyone wanted theirs signed, the ones they had purchased for 10p each at reception, partly for information, but also as mementoes of their exciting visit to London, their first auction! As I scribbled at the proffered sheets with a certain amount of gratification, I asked Mrs Wright, “Is Mr Wright not here?” “He wasn’t feeling up to it yesterday,” she said. “But I’ll phone him with the result the moment the sale is over.” “Do send him my regards,” I said. She glanced around the room. “There don’t seem to be … many … Thankfully, before I was forced to lie and tell her not to worry because there were lots of commission bids, three loud raps – like gunfire – signalled that the sale was about to commence. The auctioneer – a charmless man whose famously unhappy marriage gave 16

him the air of always wanting to be somewhere else – set about tediously enunciating the ‘terms and conditions of sale’ with all the dynamism of an aged priest delivering the last rites to someone no one cared about. Since I was ‘commissions clerk’, I stood beside him, ridiculous at my own little podium, from where I watched as Mrs Wright exchanged excited looks with her companions. Geoff pointed his camera at me, and waved. “… and we won’t be showing the books today,” the auctioneer concluded, without explanation. “Lot One. Twenty pounds? Ten?” He stifled a yawn. “Pass,” he said. ‘Pass’ was auction jargon for ‘unsold’. Mrs Wright’s books, second to last in the sale, were lot 399. During the next two hours, Mrs Wright and her companions (with the exceptions of the perpetually masticating Jason and Donna) were transfixed by the proceedings. Perhaps one in ten lots found a buyer: more ‘passes’ were made than at a conference of travelling salesmen. If anything sold for over a hundred pounds, it was received with a subdued, but rapturous, delirium from the floor. After lot 286, the three sinister strangers left, leaving only the nameless book dealer (who was asleep) and Mrs Wright’s immediate family, who thankfully, from their vantage point in the front row, were unaware of the yawning chasm behind them. 17

As the last few lots of the sale approached, the auctioneer seemed to sense that escape was within his reach and his pace quickened. Geoff started filming as lot 399 approached. “Lot 395. Ten pounds? Five pounds? Pass. Lot 396. Twenty pounds? Ten pounds? Pass. Lot 397. Twenty pounds? Ten pounds? Five pounds? Pass. Lot 398. Five pounds? Pass. Lot 399. Ten pounds? Pass. Lot 400. Ten pounds? Five pounds? Pass.” Down came his gavel for the last time. Bang. “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, and hurried off. I noticed a flurry of activity from the Wrights, which Geoff was avidly filming: they were all asking questions of each other. What was the significance of the ‘ten pounds’? What did ‘pass’ mean? Had the books sold? or not? What was going on? The nice Book Specialist would know! He’d tell them what had happened. But, strangely, he’d gone. Two weeks after the sale, unable to bear my guilt any longer, I wrote to Mrs Wright, saying how sorry I was that we hadn’t sold her books for her. ‘I was particularly upset,’ I wrote, ‘because I knew it meant a lot to you and to your family.’ By return, she wrote to say that it didn’t matter one bit and that I should do with the books as I thought best, 18

even take them to a charity shop, because she didn’t, just yet, feel able to come to London to collect them. ‘Very sadly’, she wrote, ‘the day of the sale, my dear Arthur passed away. It has been a cruel blow to us all, and I hate to think of him being there on his own.’ After I read this, I folded the letter, put on my coat and told Jan I was ‘popping out’ for a moment. I went to the car park and, holding my head up into the rain, wept. * * * I had never, to my knowledge, met Bill Bryson, or seen a picture of him, but this was exactly how I imagined he’d look: bearded, bespectacled and benign, in an outdoorsy kind of way. He looked as if he had been hatcheted out of a block of timber, and, standing there in his woollen jacket, check shirt and shapeless green corduroys – like the gnarled trunk of a tree – he said he had a book to show me. Ten years had passed since the incident with Mrs Wright and I had moved to a more respectable auction house with an SW postcode quite low in the odd numbers. In these intervening years, I had developed, instead of expertise, a convincing counterfeit of it: a casual, breezy manner, and a throwaway technical vocabulary (“one of the signatures is starting, and – oh, look here – just as I thought – your 19

gutta percha is all perished!” might be a typical opening gambit), which suggested I knew a lot more about books than I was letting on. As Mr Bryson fished in his cloth bag, I tried my best to look as if I was trying hard not to look inconvenienced. That afternoon, we had a catalogue going to print, and now the computer seemed to have mangled everything up, including my head: the last thing I needed right now was a book valuation. But he was so nice – with those fine appeasing wrinkles around his eyes, and his kindly, avuncular, flustered manner – that I was disarmed, even when I discovered he was an American. I have nothing against Americans. In fact, I like Americans, on the whole. But they always make me feel at a tactical disadvantage, as if, behind our polite social interaction, the relative size of our stockpile of nuclear warheads was being compared. To my disadvantage. He put the book on the counter. “It’s a first edition,” he said, without the culturallyuncertain interrogative tone with which Americans sometimes turn statements into queries. His certainty riled me: I’d be the judge of whether it was a first edition or not. “Let’s take a look,” I said. I knew immediately, and with a certain satisfaction, that it was definitely not a first edition, and therefore ‘NSV’ (No Saleable Value). The satisfaction was on two counts. First, 20

Costume Portraits Published: ca. early 19th century [n.p.].

ÂŁ1,440.00 click for more information

it meant I would get back to my desk sooner (I wouldn’t have to go through the rigmarole of booking the thing in for sale) and secondly, I had proved an American wrong: put that in your pipe and smoke it, Paul Revere! I was familiar with The Hound of the Baskervilles: in my career, I must have seen ten, twenty copies of the first edition. And they didn’t look like this. For a start, the first edition was yellow. This was red. “I’m afraid,” I said, “that this isn’t a first edition.” “Oh,” he said. “Sorry,” I said. “That’s funny,” he said. “We’ve always been told it was a first edition.” With a hint of condescension – manifested in an exaggeration of the blowing sound of ‘whom’ – I said, “By whom?” “Well, I don’t know,” he said, flustered. “I guess it’s been a sorta family … myth.” “It’s a reprint, I’m afraid,” I said, pushing the poor compromised volume back towards him. “Quite an early one, but a reprint, nevertheless.” “And so it’s worthless?” “Ten pounds? Something like that?” “Oh gee,” he said, picking it up and popping it back in his bag. “Well, I guess I can say goodbye to that shopping spree in your Harrods store.” 22

I consoled him with a patronising laugh, then, having wished him a good afternoon, hurried down the back stairs towards the subterranean book department and the profound mysteries of my computer. It was about half way down these stairs that something rather strange happened, and my precipitous pace slowed somewhat. Hang on, I thought. Wait a minute. Dracula was yellow. The Hound of the Baskervilles … I began to mutter expletives to myself. By the time I had reached my desk, I was certain I had made a mistake, but I had to confirm the fact before I made an even greater one. I called out to anyone who would listen, “What colour is the first of Hound of the Baskervilles?” “Red,” came the answer from three places. Someone added, “With a pictorial design in gilt and central panel blocked in black. Come on, everyone knows that.” “Shit,” I said, matter-of-factly, and hurled up the stairs again. “Where did he go?” I said to Mary who was in charge of the valuation counter. “Who?” “Bill bloody Bryson!” “Was that really ..?” “Mary. Mary. I really do not have the time right now to stand here discussing with you – much as I’d love to – whether or not that was the famous American writer and commentator Bill Bryson, known across the world for his 23

witty apercus chiefly pertaining to English culture.” “He left,” she said. I sprinted to the front entrance via an auction of surprisingly expensive teddy bears. “Where … did … he … go?” I said, now breathless. “Who?” snapped Ruth, the elegantly coiffured receptionist who had mastered the art of looking down at you even from her sedentary position at the front desk. “Bill Bryson.” “Who?” “Man with beard. American.” “Oh,” she said. “Him. Well, he asked me for directions to the underground station so I imagine he must be going there. He said he’d come from his hotel by bus, but that he had to get back quickly to meet his wife, something about some disappointing news …” I was already half way to the station. On the blustery concourse there were the usual rapids of people, but there was no Bill Bryson amongst them in his kayak. I ran back to the auction house. Ruth observed me gasping for breath and bent double at her counter. “Find him?” she said, without the remotest interest. “No,” I said. “I don’t suppose he happened to mention the name of his hotel, did he?” “Funnily enough, he did.” I couldn’t speak: I just looked questioningly at her. 24

“Claridge’s,” she said. She probably kept a suite there herself. I took the Piccadilly Line three stops to Green Park, then the Jubilee Line to Bond Street. This seemed the most direct route, although, in retrospect (which, looking back, I didn’t have), instead of the Piccadilly Line, he might just as well have taken the Circle or District Lines to Victoria and picked up the Jubilee line from there … There was no sign of him at Bond Street station. And it was only as I was tearing down Brook Street that I caught sight of his distinctive cords in the distance. By the time I reached him, he was at the canopied entrance to the hotel, engaging the doorman in conversation. With a strangled cry, I collapsed against him and cried, “Mr Bryson!” He steadied me, then studied me. “Hello?” he said, amused and concerned at once. “It’s … me,” I gasped. “I can see that,” he said, “but I’m afraid I have no idea who you are, young man.” “From the auction house.” “Oh my,” he said. “First edition,” I said. “I beg your pardon?” “First edition. In your bag. Hound of the Baskervilles. Fine copy. Original red pictorial cloth gilt. Estimate £400-600. Reserve with auctioneer’s discretion. Suggested sale date …” 25

“Would you stand away from the door, sir?” said the doorman. “That’s nice to know,” said Bill Bryson. Then he added, “By the way. I’m not Bill Bryson.” * After my efforts, Ike – that was his name – was too nice not to consign the book, and, in the Autumn – sorry, the Fall – we sold it for £800, which was a pretty good price. He was kind enough to send me a postcard after the sale in which he told me that everyone in Michigan knew about my record breaking run to Claridge’s. ‘The good thing was,’ he wrote, ‘you admitted your mistake, and put it right.’ The same cannot be said for my conduct with Mrs Wright: I still have cause to recriminate myself and barely a day goes by when I don’t think of her or her husband with a crushing sense of guilt. I suppose Mrs Wright must have died years ago; I think it unlikely she would have survived her husband very long. I’m not unhappy: I like to think of them reunited somewhere. As for her books, I took them, as she had suggested, to a charity shop, where I hoped they might do some good. The volunteer sneered at them, then put them on a shelf at the back of the shop priced at one pound each. Nicholas Worskett



1. Two Mistakes