NB: Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 3
J.C., the author of the TLS’s NB column, has made his third sally into London’s secondhand bookshops for the purposes of his “Perambulatory Christmas Books” series – the aim each week being to find a neglected work or curiosity, for about £5, to "brandish as a clove of garlic" against the horror of mainstream Christmas fare. Here is the latest instalment:
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series, part III. On a previous tour of duty, we compared some secondhand bookshops with their neighbouring Oxfam rivals. In almost every case, the privately owned shop came off better. Oxfam Books in Marylebone, for example, cannot compare with the nearby Archive Bookstore, a glorious Dickensian jumble. On another occasion, we went to Gloucester Road, to survey Oxfam at No 46, and the Gloucester Road Bookshop further down. Two years on, the former has closed, while the latter is transformed into Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road.
Like My Back Pages in Balham (NB, last week), Slightly Foxed deals in both new and used books. Unlike the Balham shop, where all is happily topsy-turvy, the Foxed stock is well regimented. Our weekly endeavour is to find a neglected work or curiosity by an established author for about £5, to brandish as a clove of garlic against the blood-draining horror of mainstream Christmas fare (Do Ants Have Arseholes?, My Shit Life So Far, etc). This proved tricky at Slightly Foxed, where anything languishing in a pile is strictly disciplined. Books stand to attention, spines rigid. Every browser knows that an ounce of chaos is worth a pound of order.
In spite of obstacles, we achieved our goal. Journal of a Husbandman by Ronald Duncan, published in 1944, is certainly curious. There was a time when Duncan was more famous than his near homonym, Robert, but no longer. In the 1950s alone, the TLS reviewed ten of his books of poetry and verse drama, most issued by Faber, like this one. In 1939, dissatisfied with literary life, disgusted by impending war, Duncan withdrew to the country and a life of pacifist self-sufficiency. “One-eighth of an acre of garden produces enough vegetables for a family of four for a year.” A few commune types came too. When a neighbour, Mrs Yatter, offered to do housekeeping, Duncan took a stand. “I have told her explicitly. The washing of our own clothes is as important a part of our embryonic discipline as making our own bread.”
It could have had charm. But when you read that one co-worker, Karl von Hothstein, is “a member of the Hitler Youth [who] regards Der Fuehrer with hero worship”, the charm fades. Karl “dislikes the Jews” – this was August 1939 – but still gets to work on Duncan’s farm. Another is a hardline Leninist. By spring, he had had a breakdown and Karl had been fired – not for Hitler worship, but for carrying on with Mrs Yatter. By 1942, the farm cottage had gone back to its “original inhabitants . . . rats, robins and starlings”.
Duncan went on to help found the Royal Court Theatre in the 1950s and, unlikely as it sounds, write the script for the film Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), starring Marianne Faithfull. It is good news that a secondhand bookshop endures on Gloucester Road, but we’d enjoy the taunts of a few rats, robins and starlings peeping through the stacks.