Today I bought yet another countryside book, this one a first edition of H.G Massingham’s English Downland. A book I had had on my radar for a while, but a book I didn’t expect to buy today.
We were in Bristol to meet up with a lifelong friend of mine. We’ve known each other for 47 years and so we have a lot of history flowing under our friendship bridge. The reason he was in Bristol was to accompany his youngest son who, being set on becoming a doctor, was here to attend a Bristol University Open Day for prospective students.
Sneaking off into the University staff refectory we had a very leisurely 2 hour lunch and catch up. After emerging from this oasis of calm, we encountered what resembled a surrealist painting depicting thousands of hopeful students and bewildered parents as they hustled and bustled about. At this point we said our goodbyes and leaving my friend and his son to the delights of Bristol University, we headed to the streets of Clifton and found ourselves in an oft-visited Oxfam bookshop.
I’ve bought books here before. I’m not sure where they get them from but this second-hand bookshop has an ‘old’ section. As a result, I’ve spent many happy lunch hours in there, with scarcely a visit seeing me leave empty handed. Today I could have bought another copy of Highways and Byways of Dorset, but as this would have been my 3rd copy; restraint was needed. I did however leave the shop with a good copy of “English Downland”. Written in 1936, it is one of many such “guides” published before the war as people began to realise the centuries old landscape and traditions of England were fast being consumed by the modern age, especially with the arrival of the motor car. The majority of these books were written by established writers, who, we should remember today, were educated mainly in Victorian times and with their Victorian view of the rural idyll, wrote sometimes with rose-tinted nostalgia.
Personally I like a bit of nostalgia. I feel we should respect the past and learn from it for the future. But between the Wars the British countryside was not a vision of rural perfection, far from it. What looked to the travelling artistic as rustic charm was often nothing more than shackled-to-the-land penury and economic deprivation. The Cotswold town of Broadway is a nice example of this. 30 years or so ago I got talking to an aged local, who was then in his 90’s. My description of this beautiful town and how it must have been wonderful to live here in the past was greeted by a smile. “It’s a much nicer place today, 50 years ago we had open sewers down the street and most houses were in a ruinous state”. That’s a novel way to describe unspoilt.
That said, despite my reservations, I still like reading and having these books about the house. Often they are liberally sprinkled with old photographs or better still stylised pen and ink drawings of the subject. A book is much more than words and thoughts on a page, it is the smell of ages, it is the feel of the bindings, it is the language of the era that book was written, it is the whole, a living history of the writer’s thoughts, personality and intention. Recently I visited the Richard Jefferies Museum on the outskirts of Swindon. Writing in the late Victorian era, Jefferies, one of our pre-eminent writers, wrote wonderful descriptions of the Wiltshire countryside that are a joy to read still and his books are illustrated by exquisite linocut etchings which instantly say late Victorian England.
But I do have a lot of books. Purchasing the odd book here and there is not too bad, but over the years the number of books in the house increases. Apart from the books in the office and the downstairs rooms, I have books in cardboard boxes and back in the North East my parents oversee my more valuable books kept firmly under lock and key behind the glass doors of bookshelves.
Many book collectors are driven to obtain the full set of a series, or maybe every first edition by an author. Indeed I know of two top naturalists who have full sets of first editions of the New Naturalists Series. A fantastic effort given that many single volumes are now worth hundreds of pounds. But I’m not that sort of collector. Well I say I’m not; even I succumb to temptation at times. Last autumn I visited Stella & Rose’s bookshop in Tintern. Until then I had only bought mail order from this excellent antiquarian bookshop. But on this visit I was tempted by a mint condition, first edition of BB’s book “The Wind in the Wood” at an eye watering £190. At that price it won’t be well read by me.
Most of my books are ones to read and enjoy, maybe not cover to cover in one go, but in a quiet moment I’ll look through the shelves and dip into whichever book takes my fancy and read a few chapters.
Recently the advent of e-readers has revolutionised book publishing. They are a fantastic invention but I wonder what this means for the printed book? Do books have a future? The speed of technological advance tells us that in maybe 5 years time another technology will appear and obsolescence will consign the e-reader to the waste bin. Books however have been here for centuries. They can be handed down through generations, they are solid, permanent and what a second hand book can do is give the feeling that other eyes from the reader have seen that page, that word before. Often a book will contain a hand written inscription, in fact the one bought today just says June 13th 1938. Who wrote this date 74 years ago, and why just the date? It is intriguing.
A quick search discovers this was a Monday. Did the first owner of this book pop out to the shops that Monday and buy this book for their enjoyment over the week ahead?
I will never know, but forever that date exists on that page of my new second hand piece of history.