Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 12
By J. C.
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 6th series, part XII: summary and conclusion. You can obtain practically any book you want nowadays, from AbeBooks (we use it, too). You can store a hundred texts (not books) on the e-device of your choice. You could probably replace your entire life with a computer memory stick. We advise against, if only because you would be depriving yourself of the pleasures of perambulation: the rainy autumn street, the dim interior, the erudite owner, the resident eccentric (there’s always one). Most of all, the serendipitous discovery of writer and book.
Some years ago, taking a stand against the anti-festive curse of the Christmas gift book (Can’t Be Arsed, How To Talk Like an Arse, etc), we pledged to unearth, in the weeks leading to Christmas, a neglected work by an established author, from a second-hand bookshop, for about £5. The guidelines may be followed liberally. It was pleasing, this year as before, to explore shops new to us: Black Gull Books, Collinge & Clark, Books for Amnesty. We revisited neglected shops and entered with glad heart again the Archive Bookstore, My Back Pages, Walden Books. We fret about Keith Fawkes in Hampstead – the Flask – beleaguered by a bric-a-brac street market. Favouritism is invidious, but for quality, frequently renewed stock, reasonable prices, Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road cannot be beaten.
For a final perambulation, approaching the shortest day of the year, we followed the Thames to Kew. The Green ought to be one of London’s most picturesque public spaces, with the Church of St Anne and the Green itself still as in Pissarro’s paintings. But road traffic thunders in one direction towards the bridge, and in the other to Mortlake. On the hard shoulder, inviting but stranded, is Lloyd’s of Kew. It specializes in botany, with sections dedicated to literature and the like.
Is there a more neglected post-war English writer, relative to former success, than John Braine? Few could name any of his dozen novels besides the obvious one and its sequel. Are they worth reading? The Vodi; These Golden Days; The Jealous God? One perambulatory day, we might try to give an answer. At Lloyd’s we stretched up to the B’s and picked the obvious one. On the train back, we began to read – and were immediately hooked again. Room at the Top is the work of a first-rate writer, only thirty-five when the novel was published in 1957. The bright, middle-class setting – “T’Top” – is well established, in contrast to Joe Lampton’s dingy Dufton background; the promise of sex is omnipresent (the obligation to marry hangs over it); period, post-war detail is vivid. Joe has never been in a “drawing-room” before. Here he describes that of Mrs Thompson, in whose house he is a lodger:
"There was a radiogram and a big open bookcase and a grand piano; the piano top was bare, a sure sign that it was used as a musical instrument and not an auxiliary mantelpiece. The white bearskin rug on the parquet floor was, I suppose, strictly Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but it fitted in, added a necessary touch of frivolity, even a faint sexiness . . . ."
After the film with Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, it was down from T’Top all the way. For a fine first edition, published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1957, easy on the eye and in the hand, Lloyd’s charged us £6.