When the British taught the Swiss booksellers how to make tea ... The fifth ILAB Presidents’ Meeting was held in Geneva in July 1952. It was the first meeting without William S. Kundig, who had died from a heart attack earlier that year. His unique sense of humour was sadly missed. Percy H. Muir welcomed the delegates at the Hotel du Rhone, one of Geneva’s most outstanding locations at that time. During the meetings the delegates elected Georges Blaizot as their third ILAB President, and gave unanimous votes for Percy H. Muir and André Poursin as ILAB Presidents of Honour and for Menno Hertzberger as Father of the League.
This is a report by an ABA member who attended the meeting.
Two things were a novelty to me, firstly for some reason I had never attended an International Conference before, and secondly, it was my first experience of a journey by plane. It always seemed that something happened to prevent my attending previous conferences, but this time I had determined that nothing should stand in the way, also I would sink all my prejudices to air travel and fly. Flying has many advantages, but on all my previous journeys to the Continent I had taken a car, for there is much to be said for travel by road. So many things one sees, of small interest by themselves, but which combined to become interesting. I recall once in Lyons seeing what appeared to be all the young girls up to the age of 12 dressed as brides. The boys of the same age looked very self-conscious in their best clothes, with large white bows tied to their arms. I found that all these children had been to their First Communion. The shops contained First Communion dresses for sale, and the sweet shops had boxes of little white sugared almonds to commemorate the occasion, there were prayer books bound in vellum as First Communion presents, First Communion cakes and all the rest of it. It was a fête day and was a delightful swing back to an earlier age.
But to return to the journey. You board the plane at London Airport and without fuss in two hours and 20 minutes you are in the centre of Geneva. I had been to Geneva many times, a city of clean stone buildings and streets where it seems an offence to drop a cigarette carton. I had booked at the hotel where the Conference was to be held and much to my surprise the taxi drew up at what might have been Arnold Bennett’s “Grand Babylon Hotel”. A large new building with every modern convenience, facing the fast-flowing Rhône. The lift door opened and without sound or movement you found yourself stepping out on to the floor where your bedroom was situated. The bedroom contained a bathroom, toilet, desk, radio and, of course, a bed, in which it was impossible not to sleep. Although the management had thought of everything for comfort, there were outside influences over which it had no control. The weather was warm (as it can be in Geneva) and I slept with the window open; this caused the trouble. Some five hundred yards away at the back of the hotel was an estaminet. There was a little noise of talking at first before I dropped off to sleep, but I was awakened by a series of loud thuds. I listened but could not make out what the noise was. Then I discovered that it was caused by my noisy friends at the estaminet, who were playing bowls. Now, bowls, as in France, are played with an iron ball which looks like a cannon ball and is just about as noisy, so until about two in the morning I was awake listening to the thud of these iron balls, while the players got noisier and noisier under the influence of the game and the wine. It was lucky that this happened only on the first night of my stay.
I had gone to Geneva three days before the Conference opened to get my bearings and to look round the town once more. On the Saturday afternoon it was very hot and I strolled down to the side of the lake and at “English Garden”, an outdoor café there, I noticed a steamer almost ready to start. These steamers are rather large, as big as those used at English seaside resorts. Here was the very thing for a hot day, I enquired how long the journey took, and was told about four hours. This suited me, back to dinner at seven. The journey was pleasant, the boat stopping a charming little villages all along the lake. But after a time I looked at my watch, I could see Lausanne in the distance, so I asked one of the crew what time we were due back in Geneva. “Geneva” he repeated, “we arrive at ten o’clock”. “Ten” I exclaimed, “but the booking clerk told me the journey took four hours!” “Yes, yes, four hours to Lausanne.” I had notices on my ticket that you could return by train, so I resolved to get off the boat at Lausanne and do so. The climbing railway from the quay takes you to the Central Station at Lausanne and then a speedy electric train lands you back in Geneva at 7.50, so all’s well that ends well.
Of the many motor trips which there are from Geneva, perhaps one of the best is to Chamonix (Mont Blanc). I had memories of Chamonix, for it was here that I was taken to hospital in the first World War. I came back again for a fortnight in September, 1949, after a bout of pneumonia. It was then a quite time of the year; the summer visitors had gone, but it was delightful in the early Autumn in this pleasant village in the valley to walk through the pine woods to the Swiss frontier or along the green fields of the lower slopes with no sound but that of the cow-bells. With thee memories I decided to take the coach trip form Geneva on the Sunday morning. For a companion on the coach I had a New Zealander, who said that all his life he had wanted to see Mont Blanc. In two hours we arrived at Chamonix, but how different it was! The place was full; there were trippers like ourselves, motor coaches, cars, bicycles, and people of all nationalities. It was no longer the quite Alpine village of my memories. Cafés were full, shops full, and a few amateur climbers, of both sexes, looking very dirty, for at this time of the year climbing is a dusty job, as one gets covered with granite dust which appears after the snows melt. My New Zealand friend wanted to see Mont Blanc from as many aspects as possible, so I suggested he went up the cable railway. I said I would come to the first stage and have lunch, but I was not going any higher. We did this, and I descended while he went to the top. I waited for him, but as time was getting on I decided to see if the pâtissier in the main street, where you could get a pot of the real thé, still existed. Yes, there it was, as it had been for the last hundred years. It was a survival from the Second Empire. Plush seats, marble tables, and the same sort of cakes so well known in France before 1914. Yes, and still the same proprietress. Her hair was now white, but I recalled the garnets which she still wore and her tight-fitting black dress with high collar still gave her an air of command – yes, indeed, Madame propriétaire. When I first knew her she was young, and pretty in her pert French way. The place had an atmosphere of earlier, more secure and comfortable times. I had my thé out of the same electroplated pot and tasting like English tea. I went back to the coach and there was the New Zealander. He had spent the whole day looking at Mont Blanc, and had taken dozens of photographs. “Perhaps I shall never see it again,” he said, “but I have plenty to recall it.” We returned to Geneva.
On Monday, at 11 o’clock, the Congress opening with Vin d’honneur, and after introductions all round we adjourned until the first Session at 3 pm. We met in the Grande Salle Hotel du Rhône, each country having its own table with its national flag. The room was large and air conditioned, with a glass roof on which water was sprinkled for coolness. The British delegation was under the guidance of our President, Stanley Sawyer. The President of the League, Percy Muir, took the Chair, and a really good Chairman he was. The agenda was long, containing 30 items, and we expected much talking. Everything went smoothly. If the speech was in English it was translated at once into French by an efficient young lady, and the French speeches were translated into English. I was impressed by the way this was done. Sessions were held twice a day, including Thursday. At all meetings there was an air of perfect agreement, no one wanted to dispute anything, no one wanted to argue. It is true that the British delegation attempted to start an argument, but this did not work, because the other countries at once agreed with us! In my opinion, as far as the business side went, it was a little too smooth. Now, just a word about the social side. On Monday evening, the Swiss Association had arranged a trip on the lake with dinner served on the boat. At my table I had an American lady bookseller (who shall be nameless), who after a bottle of vin rouge kept us jolly until we arrived back to the twinkling lights of Geneva, tired but happy.
On Wednesday evening we went to visit Dr. Martin Bodmer’s library, just outside the town. We had all looked forward to this, but personally I was a little disappointed. We were shown into a hall surrounded by glass cases in which reposed many rare and beautiful books and illuminated MSS, but the English delegation was disappointed not to be able to see the famous Rosenbach Shakespeares. After this some of us felt we needed a drink and we walked down the road to a tea garden. Many of us wanted a tea, but after waiting some time, I and a bookseller who lives near the British Museum, decided to explore, so we made our way into the kitchen and found the waitress about to make our tea with luke-warm water. We could not allow this, so we took over. We boiled the water and showed her how the English make tea.
On Thursday night was the farewell dinner at the Parc des Eaux Vives. A mansion standing in its own ground on the edge of the lake. What an evening! What food! What wine! What jolly speeches! At midnight we were on our way home, tired out, thinking only of bed. And so the Conference ended.
I still had one and a half days, most of which I spent in the bookshops. There are plenty of fine shops in Geneva, but everything by our standards is dear except for motor-cars, typewriters or watches. Every shop sold watches, they even sold them in the hotel. Clothes are very dear. Butter costs about 6/- a pound, but in spite of the price it was the only thing I brought back. And such butter. Considering my hotel (where the Conference was held) was really de luxe, I considered it reasonable. The meals were perfect. My last meal on the Saturday was lunch, and to my joy there was my favourite dish, mixed grill, and what a mixed grill! Even in the pre-war days in England one never saw anything like it. When I am hungry now, I dream about it.
It is surprising how much tea is drunk in Switzerland (and France). One day an old friend (a natural history bookseller) said to me, “Do you know where you can get a pot of tea, I don’t like tea in a glass?” I took him to the café on the edge of the lake where he had his pot of tea in real English style. On Saturday afternoon I boarded the plane at Geneva and by 5 o’clock I was seated in my train on my way home to the South of England. For the first time I wanted something to read. I recalled that there was in my raincoat pocket a Trollope novel, but there had been so much to do and so much to see, I had never opened it.
Extract from the ABA Newsletter 20 (April 1953)