Thursday, December 26, 2013
Well, here's hoping you have all had a peaceful and happy Christmas and that life will return to it's usual cycles in a refreshed and invigorated way as a result.
By far my best Christmas present this year, from R, of course, was this terracotta plate by Jenny Mendes. It's a lovely image and was titled, "Wedding Day" which makes it one of the few piece of gay-related ceramic I've ever seen. Everything else Mendes does is very much worth checking out and I suspect this may not be the last piece of her work that we own...
Monday, December 23, 2013
It's that time again: another catalogue from Callum James Books. This time something of a departure from previous subject matter. This is a short and slightly quirky catalogue detailing "Unique" books and other items. That is, journals, diaries, scrapbooks, postcards, archives. manuscripts and all manner of other bits and pieces. Think of it as a Christmas gallimaufry. It is available in pdf format here:
The catalogue was sent to our email mailing list yesterday and proved quite a hit. Half the items are now sold. However, there's still the other half! So, if anything grabs you, please do enquire about availability. If you would like to be on the mailing list in future to have a chance at getting in before everyone else, just drop me a line from the email address you would like me to use.
Sunday, December 22, 2013
One of the nice things about being a bookseller, is that every now and again you can decide to buy things for yourself as well as to sell on and because you are sifting through all kinds of books and paper ephemera all day, every day, you are perhaps more likely than some to come across things you like. Choosing what to keep for yourself can be difficult. When we issued the Corvo centenary catalogue earlier in the year, the temptation was simply to buy everything for myself. In fact, what I settled on was very simple indeed: item 56. It's a letterpress poster for the 1960 centenary exhibition of Corvo books and artwork in London. There can't be many of these still extant, in fact I wouldn't be surprised if it was a sole survivor... regardless a rare thing, of value to a very small pool of people, me included. So here it is now in a frame on a half-completed wall of framed items from photos to printed ephemera... Very pleased...
Well, dear readers, sorry to have neglected you for so long. I am gratified to see however, that the number of copies of School Story by Iain Mackenzie Blair on Amazon, that I reviewed in my last post, has fallen from eight to two - I hope that was as a result of all you Endpaper-ers rushing out to buy one. If you did, let me know what you think when you've read it.
As a gentle reintroduction to the art of blogging. Some slightly random black and white photos of artwork that have been across my desk in the last little while. The first three were from a book about 15th and 16th century wood carving in Germany. The bottom image is a rather lovely Cupid on an early twentieth century postcard from a museum in Rome.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
by Iain Mackenzie-Blair
Three Cats Press, Wester Ross, 2005
Seven thirteen year old boys enter Ansell's House at Cranchester Shool, one of the major public schools in England we are told. The book follows them through their school career. Its title is ironic, calling to mind the school stories of the Victorian and Edwardian era where, through pluck and... well usually just pluck, with a bit of honesty and good luck thrown in, the dashing hero gallops through his school career seeing off a couple of bullies, being caught once or twice bunking off (but always for the most noble of reasons) or perhaps there is a bit of scrumping, winning the cross-country and eventually reconciling with the adult world into which he is to be disgorged. One of those kinds of school stories, this ain't.
The story is set during the second world war but is framed by a narrator who is looking back at his school career from old age. From the beginning we know that events took place in this House which so shamed the narrator, that he has never been able to bring himself to so much as open the alumni magazine, let alone revisit the place.
The House, Ansell's, is rife with beatings and semi-officially sanctioned sexual activity. The boys we are following are plunged into a brutal, feudal system in which the praefectors dish out beatings to boys called 'tightening-up' (because they are required to tighten their buttocks before the blow lands) and where the new intake are required to act as 'warmers', an unusual take on the fagging system where the new boy is to warms the bed of the praefector by lying in it for a while before going off to his own cold sheets in the big dormitory. Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Angus, a sensitive boy whose innocence, particularly on arrival at the school, is almost legendary among his peers, even his nickname reflects his naivete. But over time we see this innocence worn away, and eventually corrupted. This is essentially a book about the corruption of innocence. The boys are left to manage themselves with only a quasi-medieval framework of disciplines and traditions to go on. As the story progresses we feel the weight of an impending disaster getting heavier and heavier upon us and there is real bathos in the final events that have had such a formative and negative impact on the narrator's life.
The central character, Angus (actually his surname), is beautifully and sensitively drawn, every nuance of his feeling and inner life feels authentic. A number of the other characters also have real depth to them. But herein lies also the novel's only problem. It is clear pretty soon that our anonymous narrator is one of the boys to whom these events are happening and you would have to be a fairly dense reader not to know from very early on which one. So you have a book which purports, until near the very end, to be written by one person, primarily from the point of view of another (who are actually the same person) and which then includes several small passages from the point of view of other characters to show us events happening when our main man isn't present. This problem with point of view is further compounded, or made more interesting, when we ask where the autobiographical tone comes from. The character of Angus is interested in poetry and writing, he is Scottish and the book is written by a well-known Scottish poet, who was also a Housemaster at a major public school for nearly twenty years. The publisher also appears to be the author. The author would have been of an age to attend school during the war.
That said, the issue of point of view, and a slight over use of coincidences, is only a minor irritation in a superb book. As the walls close around these seven boys and they become subsumed into Ansells (never into the school - the primary loyalty is always to the House), as the forces of conservatism and tradition begin to constrict around them, to push out all but their basest instincts of domination and survival of the fittest, the ride becomes compelling. Several online reviewers claim to have read this through in one sitting and, although I didn't, I can appreciate the sentiment. The book is gripping from beginning to end. Much is made of the comparison with Lord of the Flies: what would have happened if Ralph and Piggy and the others had made it back to school? is the question asked. Clearly it would be foolish to compare the book stylistically with one of the greatest prose masters of the English language and Nobel Prize winner, William Golding, but there is, nonetheless, some real commonality between the two books. Angus is an extremely lovable character and despite what he sees as his participation in the horror at the end of the story, it is precisely the fact that he can feel some culpability (which most of his contemporaries don't) that makes him stand out. This book deserves to be much better known in the literature of public schools and has all the hall marks of a classic.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Rowland Hilder (1905-1993) has been on my radar for two reasons. Firstly, I have been seeing a large number of his prints for sale in charity shops of late, I don't know why particularly they should spring up there but they are always, among all the pictures on a charity shop wall, the ones which stand out and make you take a second glance. Secondly, because like anyone with an interest in mid-Twentieth Century design I've been aware for ages of the work he did on the Shell posters after the war. But I hadn't until recently seen much of his illustration work.
I don't buy Book Club books, ever, so it is a mark of how much I enjoyed these that I didn't realise this was the Book Club edition of this title until I had brought it home. Hilder has a way of situating his images halfway between the pure black and white tradition and the look of a lithograph. I think I have said before somewhere, possibly in discussing the illustrations of Charles Keeping, that I enjoy it when you see illustrations that are clearly designed to be spread across two pages: I think it shows a real comittment to the idea of the illustrations being part of a book. Hilder's take on this approach is unique because even a single illustration, when designed for two pages has his trademark square border around both images, an approach which acknowledges 'out loud' as it were that although this is one image it is being placed onto two separate sheets of paper.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Tait Mckenzie was a very well known sculptor whose work revolved a great deal around the depiction of male athletes and the male nude. This speciality also brought him work designing medals and friezes and, sadly, in the aftermath of the First World War his particular skill made him well-places to offer a lot of sculpture for war memorials depicting the square-jawed, athletic young man for whom he was so well known. In the book Tait McKenzie. The Sculptor of Youth, Christopher Hussey says in the Preface: "The importance of Tait MacKenzie's sculpture lies in its being the first considerable oevre since the time of the Greeks to take as its subject and purpose the athletic ideal." Certainly McKenzie's athletes are a joy to behold and I've included some scans of them below (I think the pole vaulter has to be my favourite), but I couldn't put the book down without sharing what the author describes as 'Diversions': how wonderful is this door knocker (above) and the candlesticks (below) and the knife rests (two below). Imagine a table set with the candles and knife rests!
This is a copy of Between Sunset & Dawn by Lionel Birch, a slim volume of youthful verse tinged with homoeroticism and published in Cambridge by the Corydon Press in 1929 in a limited edition of 250 copies. Earlier in the week I tweeted this lovely patterned paper on the boards which, although the scan doesn't show it well has metallic gold elements in it as well but I have been slowly digesting this rather melancholy collection of poems. This one in particular I thought woth sharing: I haven't really got to the bottom of it but it has one of the saddest atmospheres of any poem I've read for a very long time.
"And Desire Shall Fail"
The firelight fell; the winter room grew cold;
They watched Time pass them by with grave surprise.
For hearts were quick no more, and they were old;
And laughter dribbled from their mirthless eye.
And each was thinking how long, long ago
He found enchantment, proud and fair and free;
With lights ablaze; and motions to and fro;
And a long night beside a northern sea.
At last one rose and crossed the cheerless boards,
Whistling a song; their faces sought the fire.
(A silly tune with sentimental words.)
Sidelong they glanced ashamed. And each felt queer.
And, to their hearts, long exiled, came desire,
And to thier eyes, pale trespasser, a tear.
Back in August, to celebrate the centenary of the death of Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo we offered a free book of his, "while stocks lasted", to anyone who would simply agree to read it and send in their thoughts on the book: a paragraph, an essay, a 'letter to the author', didn't have to be much. One of those books went, wonderfully, all the way to Venezuela and we have just heard back from Luis, a wonderful short essay on The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole for which we are really grateful. Obviously English isn't Luis's first language which only humbles us more that he has spent such time and effort responding to Rolfe's work for Front Free Endpaper. Thank you Luis!
En busca del barón Corvo: the title on the book spine was both concise and mysterious enough for me to take the volume out of the shelf. Then, the back cover text would convince me of having found some kind of literary misfit, a cross between memoir, critical analysis, roman clef, biographical essay, and detective novel—a miracle performed by A.J.A. Symons. The copyright page would make clear that the original English title, The Quest for Corvo, had an alliterative ring to it that increased the appeal of the book. That was my introduction to the world of Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe (1860-1913), né Baron Corvo in his imagination.
In retrospect, one ascertains the network that ends up validating a meaningful discovery. The work of the Italian scholar Mario Praz was later on a confirmation of Baron Corvo’s prominence. He describes Rolfe in his La letteratura inglese as a “strange figure, an invert [invertito] and defrocked bohème” whose Hadrian the Seventh “had vented his vain desire for power and for revenge against his enemies” (278). In The Romantic Agony, Praz had written a similar capsule critique on The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole: “Round the Italian Renaissance there crystallized also the exotic aspirations of Frederick William Rolfe (Baron Corvo), author not only of the curious Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901) but also of a novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (posthumously published in 1934), in which the peculiar sensibility of the writer finds an outlet” (475).
The Italian connection seems logical rather than fortuitous, given Rolfe’s love for the boot-shaped peninsula. In The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, Italy is the place where concord is possible, if only after many comings and goings. The main character, Nicholas Crabbe—who stands for Rolfe himself—, is a rancorous man in open rebellion against the Catholic Church. Chapter V is an exhaustive exercise in lashing out and self-vindication, by means of which the narrator intends to show the many virtues Crabbe claims to possess and the multiple injustices he’s suffered. It’s the portrait of someone who deserves better and is poised to get it, in spite of the schemes of many a malefactor. His honorability is rather uncommon: “It was quixotic, of course. But Nicholas Crabbe was of that complexion” (41-42).
The prior chapter introduced us to Falier Ermenegilda fu Bastian di Marin di Bastian di Marin. Long-winded though it may seem, that name embodies the noble ancestry of Zilda, the tomboyish girl who’d first be Crabbe’s devout servant and then his love interest. Nicholas rescued her from the ruins of a collapsed house in the earthquake-hit Calabrian coast. Zilda’s narrative makes clear that she’s the daughter, “through many generations, of the Doge of Venice and Dalmatia and Croatia, Hypatos and Protopedro and Protosebaste of Byzantion, Despot and Lord of A Quarter and Half of A Quarter of All the Roman Empire, who had a right to wear vermilion buskins” (25). The decline of Zilda’s family was due to political intrigue. These pages tell us a story of survival and grace, which don’t bow down to smugness, manoeuvring, or envy. In that sense, Rolfe gives us reasons to believe that Ermenegilda and Crabbe share the same traits, belong to the same lineage, beyond the facts of their biographies. They thus are incarnate pieces of a unique phenomenon and, in the end, of arresting love—“[h]alves, which had found each other, were joined and dissolved in each other as one” (298).
Zilda and Crabbe’s passion is complicated by the girl’s anatomy and manners: “She was a ‘sport,’ a freak of Nature who had made a very fine and noble sketch of a boy and failed to finish it” (46). The gender ambiguity of Zilda/Zildo, emphasized by Rolfe with the use of masculine pronouns when talking about her, is the core of their troubled relationship. Nicholas is aware of the literary background of his situation—for instance, the Shakespearean comedy of errors, the “Jacobean stage-craft” consisting in the use of boys disguised as girls. Yet such consciousness is of no help: this surrogate status reveals in Crabbe some sort of gay guilt. In the closing chapter, the mere assertion of a name, “Gilda!,” is enough to revert to a state of unmistakable bliss, after an anamnesis prompted by the sight of two punctures in the girl’s left arm—she’d donated blood to save Crabbe’s life.
Written in a Latinate English that reads like a macaronic version of Sir Thomas Browne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rolfe’s novel winds up as a baroque piece of concealment and discovery. The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is, as A.J.A. Symons said, “an astonishing book, a characteristic product of its author’s genius” (xvi).
Praz, Mario. La letteratura inglese. Vol. II. Firenze e Milano: Sansoni/Edizioni Accademia, 1967.
---. The Romantic Agony. Trans. Angus Davidson. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1951.
Rolfe, Frederick (Baron Corvo). The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
I'm completely charmed by this little piece of ephemera. From 1911, this is the programme for "The Arabian Nights Ball" hosted at the Royal Opera House by the Foreign Ambassadors to the Court of St James. Die cut in the shape of a fan it it stitched together and as well as providing a list of the public dances there were also, it appears, a number of stories from The Arabian Nights re-enacted in pageant form. What a night it must have been. My Edwaridan heart skips a beat to think of it.
One of the few things I still collect for myself are book catalogues, auction catalogues and bibliographies that deal with gay literature. So I was delighted to buy this recently and it arrived during our little sojourn in East Anglia this week. Lambda Rising in Washington, and then in Baltimore as well was, until it closed in 2010, one of only a handful of dedicated gay bookstores in the world. That may sound like an overstatement and I am aware, of course, that there have been many others and still are a few remaining (including the UK's own Gays The Word of course). But relative to the populations they serve, dedicated gay bookshops have been a rare breed. The Wiki article on Lambda Rising is very good and tells the story succinctly whilst still giving an idea of the importance of the place in gay history.
Now I know I do realise how this next statement is going to make me sound but: I will thoroughly enjoy reading this catalogue. In particular, this catalogue has a paragraph about each of the books giving some idea of what it's about, something that secondhand sellers like myself often don't bother with although we should, and there are plenty of titles here, even from just 1984, which I have never heard of and a list like this always gives me the sense that I might just be about to discover a hidden classic...
Peter Robinsons was "the best equipped Drapery House in Great Britain" according to the blurb inside these unpromising buff card covers. The building it occupied by 1924 took up the whole of the plot bounded by Regent Street, Oxford Street, Great Portland Street and Great Castle Street, and is still there today although split into smaller units for brands such as Nike, Miss Selfridge and Topshop. But in its day... oh what glamour. Most of the booklet is taken up with reproductions of the artwork on the ceiling of the West Room of the restaurant but there are also these scrummy pictures of the West and North rooms of the restaurant: the fact that its rooms were named for points of the compass perhaps gives an idea of the scale of the whole thing.
Saturday, December 07, 2013
This real photographic postcard that I picked up in my travels this week is, I thought, in need of The Dead Poets Society treatment, that is, where you cast an eye over an old group photograph and don't allow the eye to be lazy but instead spend time examining some of the individual faces: hence, a couple of enlargements below...
...and how sweet they have their initials embroidered in the jumpers!
When it wasn't in danger of inundation, we were able to spend some time wandering on the amazing beach at Aldeburgh. It's a bleak and beautiful place in winter and, at the north end has this amazing sculptural tribute to Benjamin Britten by Maggi Hamblin. The sculpture has words from Britten's opera Peter Grimes pierced into its loosely scallop-shaped structure. It has been remarkably controversial for such a beautiful and well executed piece and was last vandalised in 2011 with the words 'its just a tin can. Move it!' painted onto it. If that kind of person hates it, all the more reason to love it I think.
Friday, December 06, 2013
As those of you who follow me on Twitter (@CallumJBooks) will already know, R and I have had a few days away this week in the tranquil Suffolk town of Aldeburgh. A small but beautifully renovated fisherman's cottage was the perfect base for a few days of culture and antique shops in the quiet lanes and towns of East Anglia. Until last night... when it transpired that the cottage in which we were staying was one of the properties within the Environment Agency's predicted area of high risk in the town which not only has the sea to contend with on one side but also a large tidal river on another side which doesn't top out on its high tide until two hours after the sea. Now, Aldeburgh in December, I wouldn't want to mislead you, isn't really throbbing with either visitors or activity but last night, walking the High Street in the dark a few hours before the Storm Surge was about to reach us was very eerie indeed, just us and some police officers knocking on the doors of largely empty properties trying to find anyone stilled holed up in the at risk buildings to get them to evacuate. We considered simply driving home that night but soon discovered that the A12 had been closed by falling trees or somesuch. So, we spent most of last night in the church hall of St Peter's Aldeburgh being fed enough tea to create our own storm surge. The sea and the river finally admitted defeat at the hands of the town's flood defences at about 3a.m. and the police allowed us to return to the cottage for a few hours kip before driving home today. By all reports the sea came very, very close to inundating the town and perhaps only failed because of a sudden change of wind direction at the moment the high tide and the storm surge coincided. An interesting, if exhausting, end to an otherwise pleasantly uneventful break.
So, to get us back in the swing of things here on Front Free Endpaper, let me introduce you to the latest in my Penguin Poets collection, no. D68, with a cover pattern designed by Stephen Russ (as so many of the best ones were!)
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
by L. P. Hartley
Hamish Hamilton, London: 1953
The story is prompted by an old man discovering in his possessions a box of 'treasures' from his boyhood which include a diary. The diary is filled assiduously up until a particular date and from then on it is blank. The events of the blank pages are ones that the narrator, Leo Colston has put from his mind for decades and yet, they are events that he feels have made his life what it is, at this end of his life, prompted by the diary he comes to remember them again. We are transported with him back to the glorious summer of 1900 when Leo was only twelve going on thirteen and is invited to stay at the home of a school friend. In a social milieu well-above anything he is used to Leo struggles to fit in but is taken under the wing of the young daughter of the house and he is soon engaged ferrying secret letters back and forth between Marian (with whom he is besotted) and Ted, a local tennant farmer.
To the reader, it is clear almost from the start what is going on but Leo is blissfully in innocence of the peril that he is in as the faciliator of a dangerous and forbidden relationship. One of the great charms and successes of the book is that Hartley finds just the right voice for a sixty-something year old speaking as his thirteen year old self. For all the Victorian schoolboy language and upper class bluster there is, at the centre of this story, a completely believable boy whose inner life is utterly true, even to a reader in the twenty-first century. Through the course of the novel Leo's innocence is gradually eroded. He becomes aware, for the first time of the subtle transactions of power between people in the adult world, contrasted so well with the black and white nature of power in a school situation. He is opened up to the idea of mixed-motives, he sees a real passion at work for the first time, he becomes aware of the fact that he is being used and slowly the truth dawns on him.
From about half-way through the book the reader is sure that disaster is around the corner and the building tension simply goes on and on until both reader and Leo are wound almost too tightly to continue. Of course there is a denouement, and the unwinding of the spring is explosive.
At the far end of the book we return to Leo as an old man. He is sure that it is these events which have contributed to his living a life alone, a chaste life, a life in which he has buried himself in facts and not emotions, where his passion has been for information and not for a person. It is this which leads some people to characterise this book as sad. There is sadness, certainly, but for me the tone is more wry and resigned... almost, but not quite, content.
The book is a modern classic. Much more and much better has been written about it than I could hope to get down here. Nonetheless, if like me you have had it in a pile of books to read for many years I can heartily recommend that it move to the top right away.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
I have a confession to make. I have read the Gormenghast books of Mervyn Peake: I wasn't blown away by them. This is almost a heresy in some quarters I know, and on the whole they are quarters where normally I have found myself welcome. So, mea maxima culpa. That said, I have been finding myself of late very drawn to his drawings. A while ago he was being feted across London with something like three or four simultaneous exhibitions but things seem to have quietened a little now. Like all good fantasy, the reason Gormenghast works so well is in it's overarching creation of a world, a world that is believable, comprehensive and coherent in its own terms (I think my problem was that I didn't read them when I was fifteen). Those same qualities are, however, I think apparent in all Peake's artwork. He has a vision of the world and it is populated with contorted grown-ups and gawky adolescents. It is a world-view simply made for use in illustrating Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: which indeed Peake did in 1949. Among many influences was Goya, an influence very clearly at work in the illustrations of this book. The intensely detailed crosshatching and line-work enabled Peake, who had just as good a grasp of the importance of space in illustration as those illustrators before him using solid black and white to demonstrate the same command of it but with more sutblety and luminosity (nowhere better demonstrated than in the image below of sailors watching the sun set). Who better to portray the twisted interiors of Pirates and the scarred innocence of Jack Hawkins?