Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 11
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series, part XI: Our purpose has been to stave off Christmas gift-book blues by touring the capital’s secondhand bookshops, in search of a neglected work by an established author, for about £5. We do not seek collectibles or firsts (although each has come our way). All our books are bought to be read.
The best used bookshop in London, from our lowly perspective, is Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road. It was there, five years ago, that we found in the outdoor barrows Edmund Blunden’s The Face of England (1932), priced £1, and read the opening paragraph. No one could write like that now, we thought; the tune has been lost. We asked ourselves why, and with that the good ship Perambulation was launched.
Our most recent purchase at Any Amount was that unusual thing, a novel by George Gissing which is neither New Grub Street nor The Odd Women. Thyrza was published in three volumes in 1887. It is a romantic story with a tragic ending – damn you, Gissing – but we recommend it highly. In Chapter IV, poor but beautiful Thyrza sings in the Prince Albert pub down the Lambeth Walk. The stroll to the pub shows the author doing one of the things he does better than almost any English novelist, painting street scenes:
"Everywhere was laughter and interchange of good-fellowship. Women sauntered the length of the street for the pleasure of picking out the best and cheapest bundle of rhubarb . . . . From stalls where whelks were sold rose the pungency of vinegar; above all was distinguishable the acrid exhalation from the shops where fried fish and potatoes hissed in boiling grease . . . to be eaten on the spot, or taken away wrapped in newspaper".
It’s sing-song night at the Albert – “a seedy youth at the piano was equal to any demand for accompaniment” – and our heroine is pressed to do a turn. “At the end she was singing her best – better than she had ever sung at home, better than she thought she could sing. The applause that followed was tumultuous. By this time much beer had been consumed.”
The asking price for a 1927 Nash & Grayson hardback was £8, more than our limit. As we had a few supplementary purchases, the kind gentleman at Any Amount knocked a few quid off the total.