My father bought books throughout his life. His purchases as a young man had the hallmarks of the aspirational reader—editions of the various Victorian sages, Ruskin, Arnold and Carlyle that his brief college education had taught him to revere. He sought to underpin all this with the solid encyclopedic certainties offered by a subscription purchase of the monumental Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. His brief enthusiasm for fatherhood was marked by subscribing to Odhams’ twelve volume encyclopedia for children edited by Ernest Ogan under the title The Wonderland of Knowledge. The series’ frontispiece displays an impressive array of figures and objects associated with “knowledge”—Athena posed in front of a set of columns, a large globe, big leather bound volumes tumbling out of the frame and in the distance a sailing ship, representing, presumably, voyages of exploration.
On the two occasions we visited London in the 1950s he spent several mornings in the various bookshops in Charing Cross Road, though I think these visits seemed more involved in inhaling the atmosphere of book-lined spaces rather than making purchases. On our infrequent trips to local towns like in Cornwall his sole mission was to visit the local bookstore. Generally he would buy only a single book, in some cases because of its binding rather than its contents.
My mother’s book buying took a quite different form. She only ever entered a bookshop to seek out my father. I never saw her scan bookshop shelves with any degree of interest. However, she considered it her duty to supply the family with a steady stream of books bought in box lots in auction sales.
Attending auctions was nearly her only form of self-indulgence and one that entailed skillful planning. The first sign that she had identified a promising auction would come early on a Wednesday morning when she would come into my room with a breakfast tray (both my brother and I were brought breakfast in our rooms to avoid our exposure to the shouting and door-slamming that marked our father’s departure for work). She would suggest that I was looking “a bit under the weather” and probably shouldn’t be going to school that day. I would placidly accept the diagnosis and spend the next hour or two lounging in bed reading, fancying that I did, in fact, feel rather unwell. She would reappear around 10:30 and observe that I was now looking much better and that an outing would do me good. We would then set off to catch the train for Hayle or Penzance and I would find myself spending the afternoon in a smoky auction room while she became entirely absorbed in the complicated dynamics of bidding on her chosen lots. My presence was not required because of any need for company but rather because, as a non-driver, it was useful to have another set of hands to transport her purchases.
On one occasion she was thrilled to find a lot consisting of a filing cabinet crammed with sheet music. No other bidder shared her enthusiasm and the sheet music with which she planned to delight my father was knocked down to her for a pound or two. The entire contents of the filing cabinet was crammed into shopping bags at the end of the afternoon, and we made our way to the station, arms pulling out of their sockets with the weight of the bags. On one of the many stops to rest our aching arms she looked more closely at her prize. “But this is all cello music,” she gasped. The canny auctioneer had evidently put the few pieces of piano music at the front of the drawers obscuring the less desirable cello music. Despite this catastrophe we lugged the weighty bags to the station and onto the train. By the time we reached home she had already a devised a plan to mitigate the disaster. She immediately began cataloging her purchases, placed an advertisement in the Exchange and Mart and then spent the next few weeks selling off her stock and happily mulling over the letters she received from “professional musicians in London” as she invariably described them.
Another of her purchases resulted in a more successful attempt at pleasing my father. She bid impulsively on a huge pump organ which was knocked down to her for five pounds. Like other large purchases, it was delivered by the local carrier who worked with the auctioneer. Named Ducky Lanyon, he had a wooden leg which didn’t seem to inconvenience him in moving huge pieces of furniture. No sooner had Ducky delivered the organ than a small deputation from a local church knocked on the front door offering to buy the organ to use while their pipe organ was going through repairs. For few days my brother and I (non-musicians both) “played” the resounding organ as soon as it was surrendered to us by our father, panting and red-faced from his “turn” at the huge instrument and its demanding bellows
Often whole suites of furniture would appear unannounced and I would return home from school to find that, not only had all the furniture in my room been entirely rearranged (which frequently happened) but had been completely replaced, the old furniture presumably having vanished in Ducky Lanyon’s same van which had brought the new set. Her book purchases at auctions were similarly quixotic. Acquired in unexamined box lots, we could find ourselves in possession of scores of mining textbooks—a common experience—or, more happily, on one occasion, a set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. “Sets” were considered to be the most desirable trophies. The hours spent inhaling tobacco smoke and mold spores in damp auction rooms were rewarded by the acquisition of sets of Dickens, H.G. Wells, Hardy and, to my father’s greatest satisfaction, Robert Louis Stevenson. There was also a complete set of Shaw’s plays in the pocket edition published by Constable; really superfluous since my father had bought a one volume edition of the complete plays some time before his marriage, along with another volume with the complete prefaces. Shaw seemed a confusing figure to me: my father often had the heavy volume of Complete Plays on his lap in the evenings, but my grandmother remarked to me one morning that Shaw was in league with the devil. This observation was prompted by seeing his photograph in the newspaper alongside his obituary. As a six year old, I digested this piece of information with puzzlement, but never discovered whether vegetarianism, atheism or Fabian Socialism was the basis of his supposed pact with the devil. Instead, I formed the impression that it had something to do with his large beard.
Often the bulk of auction room book purchases was in the form of old Sunday School prize books. The large number of Sunday Schools in the early twentieth century and their practice of awarding prizes for the bare achievement of “attendance” must have been a significant influence on the character of popular fiction of the time. Only the presence of such a guaranteed market can account for the publication of the deluge of insipid novels from now-long-forgotten authors. As auction-room flotsam and jetsam half a century after functioning as Sunday School prizes, their book-plates and inscriptions offer clues to how they figured in young readers’ lives. Susan Warner’s The Wide Wide World, which had also been a favorite with my grandmother, bears a plate showing its origin as a prize for Frieda M. Jewell at the Brea Bible Christian Sunday School in 1905.
Frieda’s prize the following year, Constance Millman’s Aunt Sally must have come without its bookplate, prompting Frieda to improvise her own, noting that it was awarded for her “receitation” at the Brea Band of Hope.