I love books. I buy many, perhaps too many. And I don’t read enough. A few pages at bedtime and in no time I am nodding off. I need to find a better time of day to spend reading.
Most of the books I buy come from charity shops and second-hand sales, and the fun is not just in the printed words. Each individual book comes with a history of its own, mostly unknowable, but, occasionally, some of its past shines through to the present day.
I can give you two splendid examples from recent purchases.
First, a book I bought at a book sale held in Quoyloo Old School, where Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I are two of the Managers, ie committee members.
It was a 1968 Faber paperback edition of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, not in particularly good condition, some stains here and there, possibly coffee spills in places.
The book was clearly given as a gift because inside, handwritten in pen, are the words:
To Adrian, with love
and thanks for
Colonsay, February-March 1972
Underneath someone, presumably Veronica, has placed a circular sticker of a white dove carrying an olive branch flying across a rainbow. I assume this is a Christian symbol, and that Colonsay refers to the island of that name in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.
When I found the book and the inscription at the Old School sale I showed it to a colleague – our esteemed village quizmaster John – who remarked: “We’ll always have Colonsay!”
So, what did happen in Colonsay in February and March 1972, who are Veronica and Adrian, are they still alive, still together, regretting they ever parted? Perhaps it was not a relationship in that sense. Perhaps the Four Quartets – a meditation on time – provide a clue. Who knows? Well, Adrian and Veronica do, or did.
The other book I want to tell you about was bought from the charity Cats Protection. They have a shop in Stromness – the Red Cross also have a charity shop in the town, and I am frequently found inside one or the other.
Each year Cats Protection’s volunteers take a stand at the annual West Mainland Show here in Orkney. They bring along a large amount of books which, I assume, come from storage in a bid to move them on to new owners, make space – and raise funds of course.
Experience shows it is a good stand to visit on the way back to the car because you can find yourself with a heavy load to carry. One year Kathie bought a complete five-volume set of Grove’s Dictionary Of Music And Musicians in splendid condition.
This year I bought just one book, a fascinating volume called All Trivia, by Logan Pearsall Smith, published by Constable. It is a 1942 edition of the book which brought together four of the author’s previous publications, originally issued between 1918 and 1933.
My interest was sparked when I read this piece entitled The Author at the beginning of the book: “These pieces of moral prose have been written, dear Reader, by a large Carnivorous Mammal, belonging to that sub-order of the Animal Kingdom which includes also the Orang-outang, the tusked Gorilla, the Baboon with his bright blue and scarlet bottom, and the gentle Chimpanzee.”
And to give you a flavour of the quirky, thought-provoking contents, here are two examples…
‘I must really improve my mind,’ I tell myself, and once more begin to patch and repair that crazy structure. So I toil and toil on at the vain task of edification, though the wind tears off the tiles, the floors give way, the ceilings fall, strange birds build untidy nests in the rafters, and owls hoot and laugh in the tumbling chimneys.
AT THE BANK
Entering the bank in a composed manner, I drew a cheque and handed it to the cashier through the grating. Then I eyed him narrowly. Would not that astute official see that I was posing as a Real Person? No; he calmly opened a little drawer, took out some real sovereigns, counted them carefully, and handed them to me in a brass shovel. I went away feeling I had perpetrated a delightful fraud. I had got some of the gold of the actual world!
Yet now and then, at the sight of my name on a visiting card, or of my face photographed in a group among other faces, or when I see a letter addressed in my hand, or catch the sound of my own voice, I grow shy in the presence of a mysterious Person who is myself, is known by my name, and who apparently does exist. Can it be possible that I am as real as any one, and that all of us – the cashier and banker at the Bank, the King on his throne – all feel ourselves ghosts and goblins in this authentic world?
I have been enjoying the book for a couple of weeks, picking it up now and again, and then I made an unexpected discovery. A piece of folded paper between pages 84 and 85 fell out.
On the paper, written with a fountain pen in a rather old-fashioned, elegant style of handwriting you don’t see so much these days, it said:
To Sir Archie & Lady Rowlands from Betty with love & best Christmas wishes, & best thanks for Sir Archie’s action in the matter of Daddy’s fine. 22nd December 1942
Wow, what a story this could be. Who was Betty? Who was Daddy? What did Daddy do to be fined? A crime, a traffic offence, fiddling his ration cards? I am guessing that Sir Archie paid his fine but I could be wrong.
Due to the power of the internet we can find out something about Sir Archie…
According to Wikipedia he was a British civil servant who held high office during the Second World War. At the time he was gifted what is now my book he was Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Air Production. This presumably means he was working closely with, among others, Winston Churchill – at the time he was given the book now sitting on my desk!
The Wikipedia article refers to Sir Archibald, not Archie. Does this imply the writer of our note knew him well, to call him “Sir Archie”? Presumably so if he was involved “in the matter of Daddy’s fine”.
Sir Archibald died in 1953. He and Lady Rowlands (Constance May) had no children so there will be no direct descendants. However, further clues may, or may not, be provided by an inscription written in the front of the book, but in different handwriting to the note about Daddy’s fine. Is anyone out there good at deciphering code?
2 : vj : 70
“O Trivia, goddess, leave these low abodes..”
Finally, a question arises about both books – how did they come to be in Orkney, donated to Quoyloo Old School and Cats Protection respectively? Did they come direct from Adrian and Sir Archie? Did they take a circuitous route through a number of owners? Left by holiday makers? Brought to Orkney by new owners?
Who knows? I find it fascinating to speculate. Meanwhile, I must read more of those books I have.
PS I have just re-read this blog entry prior to posting and I realise that, coincidentally, both of the books I have written about are in four parts, originally published separately. Perhaps four is the magic number?
To find out more
Facebook: Quoyloo Old School – https://en-gb.facebook.com/Old-School-Quoyloo-462982410411472/
Wikipedia: Four Quartets – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Quartets
Colonsay website – http://www.colonsay.org.uk/
Wikipedia: Colonsay – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonsay
Cats Protection, Orkney – https://www.cats.org.uk/orkney
Wikipedia: Logan Pearsall Smith – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logan_Pearsall_Smith
Wikipedia: Archibald Rowlands – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archibald_Rowlands