By Laurence Worms
And indeed it was fun last week at the Chelsea Book Fair. Over eighty exhibitors, fabulous books, huge attendance figures, smiling faces all round and very healthy sales.
Slight disappointment that the record sales of the first day didn’t quite carry through to the Saturday – but a large sale or two made or not made, reported or not reported, can (as always) so easily distort the picture. Still pondering over whether one figure in a crabbed hand read £1,500 or £7,500 (only the lower figure included in the totals). But make no mistake, this was a hugely successful fair – well advertised, excellent press coverage, outstanding sales for some exhibitors. Leo Cadogan and his team, supported to the hilt by Marianne Harwood, the rest of the ABA staff, and exclamation! pr are to be thoroughly congratulated – all the more so as Leo had a fraught week trying to get back from storm-tossed New York in time for the opening.
Especially gratifying was the self-evident success of the guided tours – processions round the hall of happy and amused would-be collectors. Lots of younger people – great publicity – and great foundations for the future too. The friendliest fair, we always say – and so it was. The best place to introduce yourself to collecting, we always say – and so it was. Very good to see so many old friends – and so many newer ones too, many of them mentioned already in these posts. I’ll single out my colleagues from G. David at Cambridge, because somehow I haven’t recently been to see them in that wonderful bookshop – the firm established in 1896. And this year, as I think every year, they had a book I was delighted to buy.
Further purchases from the redoubtable Tindley & Chapman, Fine Books at Ilkley (exquisite copy of a Harriet Martineau), Steve Liddle (again, as always), Neil Summersgill, and Steve Dick (Holybourne Rare Books) – chided by him for managing to arrive in Alton on a day his delightful shop was closed last year. Another omission to be rectified.
Highlight of the Friday was Colin Franklin appearing up on the stage to sign copies of his new book, Obsessions and Confessions of a Book Life (co-published by and available from Bernard Quaritch Ltd). Now eighty-eight, but a signal and distinguished life in the rare book world – Honorary President of the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles, past president of the Private Libraries Association and the Double Crown Club – and a very fine and idiosyncratic bookseller. Not only that, he is one of the dismally small number of people who have actually bought a book from me in the last twelve months. All hail!
He talks of luck – “My astonishing luck has been to handle and own the most wonderful examples of what I most desired … it has always been a friendly world. It is my belief that the good bookseller, or collector, or librarian, will be guided by taste rather than calculation” – and so it is. But exquisite taste (or lack of it) isn’t luck, Colin. Taste is the hallmark of his bookselling career, however much he might claim that he specialises only in self-indulgence.
The book commences with an interesting, often challenging, and very frank view of book-collecting, before departing into reminiscence of his early days in publishing and his mid-life switch to antiquarian book-selling – a move founded on his own early collecting of private press material. Interesting, and I think wholly right, that he makes “no distinction between three kinds of collector – bookseller, private and librarian; each is passionate to acquire, or should be”. He talks too of the importance to him of his writing – rather an impressive number of books and articles published (see his Wikipedia entry) – “which preserve for me a sort of self-respect which semi-detaches me from simple trading in the commodity I love. And we – the trade – do all love it, for whatever weird and mixed reasons”. So we do.
Further treats in store as the book goes on to give us samples of this writing: essays on the limitations of the expert and the carbon-dating of a Tibetan manuscript; his purchase of Nijinsky’s diary in 1975; a Swedish auction; the Daniel Press; William Morris – his great hero, although no uncritical worship here; the eternal puzzle of bookbinders and their failure to get to grips with lettering; Giambattista Bodoni; a surprisingly sympathetic view of the Bowdler family and their pruning of Shakespeare; the antiquary and engraver, Joseph Skelton – someone I am doing a bit of work on myself; William Fowler of Winterton – architect and antiquary; Robert Smith Surtees and John Leech – and Ruskin’s high praise of the latter. The final words are a moving reminiscence and tribute to his sister, the biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, unsung heroine of the discovery of DNA, who died appallingly young in 1958. All in all, a very pleasing, thoughtful and unusual addition to the smallish library shelf of book-trade memoir. Bless you, sir!
A happy and contented party at the fair on the Friday evening – wine and some wonderful cheese. Return visit the next day to find what I’d missed first time round. The one continuing and wholly baffling puzzle was why no-one had yet bought the superb Pollock’s Toy Theatre collection being displayed by Elizabeth Strong (McNaughtan’s Bookshop) – put the price up, Elizabeth! People are obviously not taking it seriously enough. Price it at something attention-grabbing! A splendid weekend – as ever and as always.
(Posted on The President on Safari. Published here by permission of the author.)