Wednesday 20 June 2012

'History in my Hand: The Beauty of Books' by A.L. Berridge

Today I’m going to attempt an entire post without mentioning the Crimea. This is difficult while I’m in the ‘total immersion’ stage of writing about it, but a few weeks ago I found a different and really obvious subject staring me right in the face.

I was in the basement of Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, the torture-chamber where publishers send us to ‘sign and line’ a seemingly endless stack of our own books. Proprietor David Headley once suggested my ‘lines’ should be the entire opening paragraph, and after churning out the first pile my wrist was so locked I couldn’t write for a week.

I’m wiser now, and the line for ‘Into the Valley of Death’ (which is about the Crimean War, by the way) was simply the last one: ‘the light of her lamp shone like hope’.  But it’s still hard work for authors so used to a keyboard they’ve forgotten how to write their own name, and it was as I paused to shake my wrist that I began to take in the magic of my surroundings.

Books. Hundreds of hardback books gleaming in polished rows along the shelves. Light brushed gently over the satin of matt-finished covers, glinted in the reds and blues of embossed lettering, and flashed in the touches of gold and silver foil. The floor creaked overhead as customers browsed about the shop, but I was alone in a treasure house hushed with the beauty of books.

A particularly beautiful book. It's set in the Crimean War. 
 I returned to my task with a new reverence. The books I was signing were no longer just ‘my novel’; they were tangible, precious things with an existence beyond the words. How can one sign an e-book? What would be the point? Digital download is merely ‘content’, but a real book is an experience bound into physical form. 

And with form comes history. Even what I was doing now was a ritual dating back over many years. At Goldsboro itself I was only one in a stream of writers who had sat at this table – a fact of which Robert Fabbri reminded me when he came in that afternoon to sign copies of his fabulous ‘Rome’s Executioner’ and thanked me for keeping the seat ‘warm’. Sic transit gloria mundi indeed.

The feeling is hardly unique to Goldsboro. Visitors to Brown's Hotel in Albemarle Street will have seen the cherrywood desk at which Kipling wrote 'The Jungle Book', but not all will know that the best part of a century later Steven King sat at the same desk and wrote the entire first draft of 'Misery' by hand. He too wanted to feel part of that chain of history, connected to those who had gone before by the physical reality of a wooden desk, real paper, a real pen - and real books.

 The human part of the chain is fallible. Kipling collapsed here the day he died - only hours after signing a copy of 'The Absent-Minded Beggar' for the head porter, telling him jokingly it would be worth a lot of money when he was dead.
I doubt he'd have minded the irony. He knew what I'm only just learning: that if writers are transient, their books are not.

That's still true today. Some may be pulped, others may land in the hands of those extraordinary people who are capable of putting a book in a dustbin, but as a general rule books survive. When we croon over our latest purchase of a verified antique, we may be quite unaware that our bookshelves contain artefacts even older. If you come from a family of readers they almost certainly do. Even my copy of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ is signed by my great-aunt and was printed in 1926.

Many are far older. Trawling through my own collection I found a number from the 19th century, among them an 1855 edition of Keats’ Poetry – which places it, incidentally, in the time of the Crimean War.

Others include a Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ dated 1818, and a sadly coverless ‘Miscellany of Prose and Verse’ printed in 1713. 
They’re not worth much, since their condition bears witness to the handling of many generations, but that doesn’t lessen their value to me. When I pick them up I’m holding history in my hand.

And not in the sense of something dead. To read a physically old book is also to gain an appreciation of how it was perceived at the time.
 Which is why I like reading Shakespeare in this particular edition - an 1866 photo-lithograph of the 1623 Folio. I feel a connection to its own first readers by reading it in the same form.

Katherine Langrish evoked exactly that feeling in her beautiful post about Penguin Classics. It's for similar reasons that I love my tatty Penguin crime paperbacks, which summon up a world of ‘between the wars’ austerity – the world in which Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey made their names by being published in a medium many considered ‘pulp’. 

Then there’s this, the oldest book I own.
 It’s a terribly battered thing, but it’s the first part of the narrative poem ‘Hudibras’, and it’s dated 1684 – just four years after Samuel Butler died.

This book would not have seemed strange to him. It would have looked much as ‘Into the Valley of Death’ looks to me, and every bit as beautiful.

But its life still goes beyond that of the author. When this book was printed there was a King on the throne of France and no such place as the United States of America. The man or woman who owned it may have seen Charles I while his head was still on. That’s the chain that binds us all the way back through time: not the author but the readers, the people who’ve owned this and turned its pages. It is impossible to look at a really old book and not wonder through how many hands has it passed – and whose.

Because books travel. They’re gifted and borrowed, they’re passed down the family as their owners die, they end in second-hand bookshops where somebody buys them to start the cycle all over again. Every owner leaves his aura on it. Sometimes it’s regrettably obvious, like the unsavoury yellow stain we’ve all at some time encountered on the pages of a second-hand book. A fastidious friend of mine avoids second-hand books altogether because he never knows ‘whether they mightn’t have been read in the lavatory’. 

But sometimes the traces are altogether more poignant. It wasn’t only authors who signed their books in the last century, and if you look inside some of your older ones you’ll find inscriptions to make you smile – or break your heart. ‘For Mollie on her confirmation, knowing she will be a good girl’.  ‘To Edith, with love.  Michael. July 1914’. If that isn’t history – real, human history – then I’d like to know what is.

I'd like to finish with one of my own favourites, a little leather-bound devotional book called ‘Wilson on the Lord’s Supper’. The original owner was a C.R. Haines, who was a pupil at Wellington, but seems to have gone on to be a teacher at Uppingham. Nothing very special, perhaps – until you look inside.

Attached to the back cover is a little wallet, within which I found three letters dating from 1871. There are two between Haines and his mother (to whom the boy affectionately signs himself ‘C.R. Haines’), and another from his teacher, a Mr A.F. Griffith who is recommending his pupil for confirmation.

Haines was confirmed that year, and that Griffith was right in his estimation of his character is evident in the prayers handwritten into the blank pages of the book, and also the holy pictures carefully pasted in to face them. This isn’t just a book – it’s an album of a life.

And death. One item pasted in his book is this 1892 newspaper cutting about the mysterious demise of that long ago and still beloved teacher.

 There were other losses too. 

A closer look at that last page reveals a list headed ‘My old Uppingham boys killed in the war’.

Haines knew every one of them. He taught them, these children who were sent over the top to mutilation and death, and he records their names in the book that to him was the most sacred. Each is a history in itself, though the name of Lascelles, VC , is the only one so far to which I’ve been able to attribute detail.

Even Haines’ own death is here, reflected in the touching note to his executors added in a failing hand onto the front page.

 I suspect Gregory didn’t ‘wish to have it’, and maybe ‘Richard’ didn’t either. It was cut loose from its family and came first to my father and then to me. But I do ‘wish to have it’, every word of it, and he doesn’t need to have been my ancestor for me to read this with love.

But our day is over. People no longer sign their books or paste in pretty book-plates. Books are dispensable, and as far as e-books are concerned all that physical stuff is ‘history’. So it is, perhaps – but to me ‘history’ is not a derogatory word.

Real books remain a treasure, and one that will survive power-cuts, server failure, famine, plague and war. Even mine will. Some of those books I’ve signed will outlive me, and one day in 2140 someone will pick one from a towering stack in a barn in Hay and wonder who A. L. Berridge was, and what was so special about a thing called ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade’.

I won’t be around to tell him, but my book will. You see, I may not have mentioned this, but it’s set in the Crimean War.

If you’d like to win a signed copy of ‘Into the Valley of Death’ that the author guarantees has never been near a lavatory, then her website is here.


michelle lovric said...

thank you for a beautiful post both in the reading and the looking.

Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful! I love looking at the inscriptions in old books, too - though I don't have anything as wonderful as one with a pouch of letters. It's true that people rarely write messages in books they give as gifts - perhaps in case the recipient doesn't like the book and wants to change it or pass it on, or perhaps because we have become reluctant to write in books. So maybe those signed by the author will be the only ones with messages in the future. How strange and sad.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

What a lovely post! I'm jealous of your wonderful old books. The best I have is an old hardback copy of Catriona which has a book plate in announcing it was given as a prize for Sunday School attendance. I bought it for 20p at a fete and treasure it.

alberridge said...

I think you've hit it, SA - and it IS depressing. When a friend gives me a book I still love them to write in it, but hardly anyone does it unless they're specifically asked.

Some of it may also be the pernicious Amazon habit - when the gift goes directly to the recipient and never touches the sender's hand.

I can't help feeling it's become a little soulless.

alberridge said...

Oh, I love those book-plates, Marie-Louise! I have several 'School Prize' ones, but a Sunday School Attendance one is gorgeous. Even just those words smack us in the face with a lost world.

Mark Burgess said...

Great post, Louise, thank you. I love the inscriptions in old books. I bought a book about pirates sometime back (Masefield's 'On The Spanish Main') and was convinced the numbers scrawled in the margins were clues to buried treasure. Here's an inscription from the same book: 'the accidents of life do more for us than all our plottings'.

Mark Burgess said...

Charles Reginald Haines was born in Mumbai in 1856. He was a master of Dover College before Uppingham. He seems to have retired from teaching in about 1910 to concentrate on lecturing and the study of literature. He wrote books on Christianity & Islam in Spain, and Marcus Aurelius. He married when he was about 55. Gregory and Richard were his sons, I think also a daughter Dorothea.
(In case you're interested!)

Imogen said...

Great post. I love my kindle, but I find if I read something on it I love, I'm not happy till I have a hard copy too. Hard to treasure a digital file however convenient it is...

alberridge said...

Mark, you are brilliant. I'd traced him to Dover College, but hadn't got a date of birth and found no trace of a daughter. I am salaaming like mad to your superior Google-Fu.

I think his father must have died not long before those letters were written, as his mother's are both black-bordered. I suspect Griffith became something of a substitute father at that most impressionable time.

I wish I'd know that d.o.b. before I wrote this. I could have mentioned incidentally that he was born during the Crimean War...

Sue Purkiss said...

Really loved this post. have had a quick poke about on the bookshelves near the computer, and found a lovely copy of The Three Musketeers, which was awarded to my Uncle George as a form prize in 1937. And actually, the maths makes this terrible: this was a prize for his first year at secondary school: only eight years later, in 1945, he was shot down over Germany - he was a rear-gunner. How can that be? he could only have been 20. No wonder my Grandma never forgave the world.

alberridge said...

Imogen - yes, exactly. I find the Kindle incredibly useful, especially for searching research-type books - but if a book is a 'keeper' then I want it in physical form.

There's a wonderful post about this on Deborah Swift's writing blog here:

I particularly love her comment on the difficulty of browsing for e-books - 'Seeing a typed list of which clothes to wear in the morning is not the same as looking at them hanging in the wardrobe.'

I wish I'd written that...

alberridge said...

Sue - wow. That's tragedy, isn't it, and all from just a name and a date in a book.

Knowing intellectually how young someone was when they died isn't at all the same thing as holding their book in your hand and knowing the future they never saw coming at all. Particularly when the book is a prize to a young person when the future was still shiny with hope.

It's daft, because he died years ago and you can't have known him, but I feel myself wanting to say 'I'm sorry'.

Sue Purkiss said...

It's as you say - i always knew it was tragic, but seeing that sate in the book just makes you realise how incredibly young he was.

Mark Burgess said...

His father, Robert Haines, died of a fever in April 1866 in Mumbai aged 44. He was Surgeon in His Majesty's Indian Army and Principal of the Grant Medical College, Bombay. CRH obviously held him in very high regard and wrote in his will: 'I desire that my body should be shrouded in my father's dressing gown, as the mantle of a good and great man'. Haines wrote at length about his father in his book on his ancestor Richard Haines, online here:

adele said...

A very moving post indeed. And why books are so....inimitable. Kindles are something completely different. They're not books. Books are special in just the ways you point out: they have histories. They hold memories. They are magic.

Katherine Langrish said...

Gorgeous post. Yes! - old books carry the fingerprints of time in a way I can't imaging Kindles ever doing.

alberridge said...

Mark, you're really terrifyingly good at this. I should have researched it properly before posting, but it's wonderful what you've found - it really rounds out those lives and makes the book even more precious. I think I should try and trace the family to see if there's a descendant who'd like to have the book.

Adele - yes. 'Magic' is right. When a cat watches someone reading a book, it must think there's magic involved - their owner sitting holding this stupid object that makes them laugh and cry, and can hold their attention for hours without apparently doing a single thing. Magic indeed.

And Kath, that's such a beautiful phrase: 'the fingerprint of time'. Absolutely perfect.

H.M. Castor said...

Louise, I love this post too! How moving C.R. Haines's book is, with its personal records and that heartbreaking list of the boys who died in WWI. It's a continuation of the centuries-old tradition, isn't it, of making the family bible or prayer-book the repository of important dates (births & deaths etc) - I wonder if the instinct for that genre of personal record-keeping got passed along, in a different form, to the family photo album once such things existed?

As a P.S., I have a little book I found as a teenager in a 2nd-hand bookshop called 'How To Talk Correctly' (which is quite something in itself!). Inside the back cover is a small unfinished sketch of a face. Inside the front cover, there are pencil inscriptions, each in the same lovely copperplate handwriting:
Colin C. Macphail
Ship "Arctic Stream"
31st December 1910
110 Alexandra Parade
Spoken by [?] S/S "Banffshire" homeward
Passed Barque "Invercauld" of Aberdeen 5[degrees]S
Left Port Pirie S. Australia 2nd April 1912
Channel for orders [?]; crossed the Equator
69 [underlined twice!] days out

I imagine Colin Macphail on those long sea journeys, spending his spare moments trying to teach himself how to talk 'correctly'... and then, of course, I wonder what happened to him in 1914...

alberridge said...

Harriet, that's fabulous - a complete Blog post all its own. What a fascinating story! I wonder why he felt the need to learn to 'speak correctly' and to what kind of life he was travelling 'home'.

There's a story there, I can feel it itching. I do hope you'll post this one day and show us a picture.

ediFanoB said...

you are an honest and true book lover and an incredible author of books AND posts.

I like my Sony Reader because it is a great tool for specific purposes - get early review copies, discover new and unknown authors, and so on. But it is no substitue for real books!!!!

Books, especially old books are afeast for the senses. The specific smell, the awe when you turn pages, the historical breathe wafting you when you read inscriptions.

These history witnesses, so immortal and inflammable, a so silent and eloquent at the same time.

Kudos Johannes Gutenberg!

Kudos Louise.

A world without real books is like the sky without stars.

Anonymous said...

Your friend is too fastidious to live!

I noticed, years after buying it at David's in Cambridge, that my 1936 edition of Ensor's England 1870-1914 was once owned by the great mathematician, G.H. Hardy: his signature is on the flyleaf.

alberridge said...

Edi, that's a beautiful comment - thank you so much. You're right to mention the smell in particular, the 'breath of history' that wafts from an old book. Sometimes it'sd quite specific - in 'Land's Edge' Tim Winton talks about reading such books in a seaside hut and recalls the smell of 'antiquity and fried bacon'...

And welcome, Mr Anonymous whose name might just be Simon... That's a great discovery in your 'Ensor's England'. These days I ALWAYS look for signatures in books before I even buy. You never know...

Andrew said...

I found your post most interesting. Particularly your comments about C R Haines, who was in fact a Housemaster at Uppingham. I have a beautiful leather bound book of poetry by Keats given to my grandfather, who was at Uppingham, and it is inscribed with my grandfather's name and the words "from his friend and housemaster. C R Haines Aug 1896"