NB: Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series
Those who have turned to the back page of the TLS in winters past will know that this has become the customary season for J. C. to investigate the bookshops in search of alternatives to the "dismal" offerings of certain mainstream publishers (see below: "Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit?", etc). Here's the first instalment of the fifth series of these wise perambulations, as published in this week's TLS:
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series. Over the past few years, it has been our custom in the period leading up to Christmas to seek each week a neglected book or curiosity by an established author, purchased from a secondhand bookshop for about £5. All books are bought to be read. Last year, we tweaked the rules and concentrated on the presence of foreign writers in London. This led to protest: What we want you to do is tramp round the bookshops, they said. This year’s rubric, therefore, is “Back to basics”. The £5 mark should be regarded as flexible. It remains our perambulatory mission to offer an alternative to the dismal festive fare offered by some mainstream publishers. By now, everyone should know the classic of the genre: Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit? by Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur. And everyone should know our response: It isn’t just you, guys, but it’s you, too.
To warm up, we headed for WC2. Experience has taught that, as mushrooms grow at the roots of birch trees, bargains sprout on the barrows of Cecil Court. So it proved on our return. At Peter Ellis, which inside is neatly collectible but outside prodigiously untidy, we found two treasures, each by a Smith. One was Trivia, the gathering of reflections by Logan Pearsall Smith, about which the TLS reviewer in 1918 said, “There is little to be got from this book except pleasure. It contains no information . . .”. Most of the 150 or so entries are a paragraph in length. All are the thoughts of an idler. The brief preface tells of a “kindly adviser” who warned the author to beware of caring too much for “Style”, lest he become “‘like those fastidious people who polish and polish until there is nothing left.’ ‘Then there really are such people?’ I asked eagerly”.
This second printing, also published in 1918, comes with an added feature: the bookplate of Richard Strachey, probably the son of Lytton’s brother Ralph. It has an epigraph derived from Horace, “caelum non animum”, which a learned friend of ours tells us was a Strachey family motto. We paid £3 for it.
The other Smith could not be more different. So Late into the Night (1952) contains fifty love lyrics by Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915–75), all written in Scots, or what was once called Lallans. Most are short; “Luve’s Fule” is among the shortest:
In my saul’s a Universe
Whar ramp the restless deid,
Othello reives my thrawan hert
And Lear raves in my heid.
The TLS reviewer called Goodsir Smith the most important writer in Lallans since Hugh MacDiarmid. He enjoyed the erotic undertone of the lyrics, while acknowledging the challenge implicit in being a Scots hedonist:But the wraith o Johnnie Calvin’s Aye chappan at the door.This beautiful paperback with dust jacket, published by Peter Russell, comes with a frontispiece by John Maxwell (see above). In a fit of folly, the bookseller had marked it at £2. Our £5 budget had brought ample reward.