Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 11
By J. C.
The mission is to find a neglected work by an established writer from one of London’s bountiful second-hand bookshops – get thee behind us, Christmas giftbook blues! – for about £5. When, a year ago, we travelled south to Balham to visit My Back Pages on Station Road, our favourable report drew an unfestive response from the owner, Douglas Jeffers. First of all, he wasn’t having any of this “bountiful bookshop” stuff. “‘Bountiful’ is a vile phrase”, said Mr Jeffers, “but let that be . . . .”
He wouldn’t; we were treated to a Balham bashing.
Which we survived, and last weekend braved a return, finding the shop as bountiful as ever. A heavily hatted and coated gentleman, who seemed to have spent the afternoon in the shop, referred to it as “the Aladdin’s cave”. We can do no better. You think you’ve reached the back of My Back Pages and hey presto – another page. Loeb Classical Library mingles with Olympia Press; French and German ally themselves with English; new books stare collectibles in the eye.
My Back Pages would have kept us un-blue through several Christmases. Eventually, we settled for 1919 by John Dos Passos (1932), the second in his great U.S.A. trilogy. We say “great”, but 1919 might seem hard going now, its relentless experimentalism pulling the rug from under realistic narratives about characters such as Ben Compton and Eveline Hutchins. Every twenty pages or so, the famous Newsreel technique breaks out:
it is difficult to realize the colossal scale upon
which Europe will have to borrow in order to
make good the destruction of war
BAGS 28 HUNS SINGLEHANDED
Peace Talk beginning to have its effect
LOCAL BOY CAPTURES OFFICER
There are smiles that make us happy
There are smiles that make us blue
The original Cubist painting must have seemed like this to its original viewer. For those willing to learn its language, however, the U.S.A. trilogy promises substantial rewards.
For this first British edition (Constable), Mr Jeffers charged us £5. Its orange binding with gold-leaf titling is rather bashed about – we know how it feels – but inside we found one of those items which hold a strange attraction. It is a receipt written out to a Mrs Leon of 52 Holland Road, Hove, from the Palmeira Café on Western Road. On July 19, 1941, she read 1919 while enjoying an ice cream at the Palmeira. (Did wartime regulations require the customer’s name and address?) Mrs Leon was charged 1s 10½d. It must have been a high-class ice. In its own way, My Back Pages is a high-class shop.
Perambulatory postscript: readers have asked why publication details of last week’s book, J. P. Donleavy’s Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule, were omitted. It is a firm Penguin of 1971, with a cover by Alan Aldridge. Walden Books charged us £2.