Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A library is a lovesome thing

Back to the library today – I have neglected it of late. And strangely, it appears to be just as full of disorganised clutter as the last time I popped my head nervously around the door. Where are those library fairies when you need them?

Here is a virtual realisation of a dream library, brought into being by a wistful soul without access to the real thing.

This is what my library doesn’t look like, but should.

I can do without the mantelpiece ornament which looks as if it represents Actaeon being torn apart by his hounds or some similarly violent mythological incident, & there is a tad too much dark wood & ormolu for my taste. Otherwise, the main elements are here. My own vision of library perfection also features book-lined walls & a welcoming fire, a patterned rug & squashy armchair for the comfort of Library Cat, & a bottle of something quaffable at my elbow - preferably a nice grassy sauvignon from New Zealand. A plate of fine cheeses would go down well, too.

I have the bookcases & the books, the fireplace & the wooden floor. Spirit away the white cat & replace her with an affable tabby tom; magic away the dubious sculpture & add my small collection of paintings; cover that far wall with shelves of books & now you see the potential for perfection that is so nearly within my grasp.

Why day-dream when you can have what you want? Without further ado, I shall roll up my sleeves & get on with it.

Illustration: Beyond The Ordinary

Friday, 29 July 2011

The one that got away

The Holy Grail was up for sale on Ebay earlier this week - well, the Holy Grail for me, anyway. Here it is:

This is David Gentleman's 1975* Victorian London poster for London Transport - & it is a beauty, signed in ink , no less.

Designed to advertise the booklet Victorian London, written by the fledgling Victorian Society for London Transport, it is the only artwork in Gentleman's prolific oeuvre that uses non-naturalistic colours. It captures a faintly surreal vision of London as a stage for adornment by those industrious yet artistically-minded Victorians, here personified in the figure of a youthful Queen Victoria. Stepping straight out of the Penny Black & entering stage right (or should that be the players' left?), she is placing a final sculpture group into the scene. The camel indicates that this is Africa, & it is destined to join Asia, Europe & America on the podium at the feet of her beloved Albert on his National Memorial at Kensington (also pictured, in a rather fetching lavender blue).

These were uncertain times for the conservation of our architectural heritage, as the opening paragraphs of the booklet make clear:

“All the buildings & other items mentioned in this booklet are standing at the time of going to press, but the face of London is constantly changing, and there can be no guarantee that they will continue to do so. The Victorian Society and London Transport would be grateful for any information about the disappearance of items which are dealt with in this booklet.”

Victorian London is a modest little booklet, a standard London Transport issue of the time, matching the well-known Country Walks productions in format, but very much slimmer in content. It is un-illustrated & David Gentleman’s decorations are limited to the elaborate period typography of the covers. But it must have been very influential in reaching large numbers of London residents & visitors, persuading them to take a fresh look at the virtues of the long-derided Victorian buildings that formed the familiar backdrop to their daily lives. The text ends with a stirring call to action:

“London belongs to us, to our children and their children, and only we can save it from the bulldozer, from the march of concrete, from de-humanization which has been the fate of many American cities. Will you help, by joining one of the societies fighting for its survival?”

The buildings selected by David Gentleman from the Victorian Society’s tours by Underground or bus are the cream of the city’s Victorian heritage. His proscenium arch is formed of ribs & cast iron quatrefoils from Thomas Page’s 1862 Westminster Bridge, while the flanking ‘flats’ are facades of the Prince Consort Building on Farringdon Road (dark blue) & a Wapping High Street warehouse (dark green). Gathered on the stage are the main players, those that still define the look of London for us today: Barry & Pugin’s Houses of Parliament, Waterhouse’s Prudential Assurance Building at High Holborn, the Whitehall Foreign Office (a controversial commission by Scott, the Great Goth), Street’s Law Courts & another Scott tour de force (& a personal favourite): the Midland Hotel at St. Pancras. 

With the recent opening to huge acclaim of the long, long-awaited conversion of this gaunt fairy-tale palace to upmarket hotel, we might now feel that the battle for the conservation of our Victorian heritage is won. But these are uncertain times, just as the mid-70s were, but in different ways. The pace of physical change may be slower, the system may contain checks in the form of conservation areas & statutory listings, but the economic challenges are greater & hard-won reforms in many areas of public life are being steadily unpicked. We should not be complacent.

To return to Ebay, after a week of anxious watching & no interest shown, I was pipped to my Grail in the last 3 seconds. Final sale price was £130, a colossal amount (in my view) for a poster of relatively recent date. Obviously someone else appreciates this unsung poster as much as I … and in the highly unlikely event that they are reading this – (through gritted teeth) Congratulations! Should you ever grow weary of it, I am here to give it a good home …

Actually, the Victorian London booklet tells us that full-size reproductions of David Gentleman’s poster are available at 75p from the Publicity Poster Shop, 280, Old Marylebone Road, London NW1. So there must be more out there. Surely? Is it too much to hope that one might come my way? Perhaps even one bearing the legend ‘This is a Reproduction of a Poster Designed for London Transport’ at its foot, the subject of recent discussion on the wonderful Quad Royal Vintage Poster blog. I expressed positive sentiments for these Cinderellas of the poster-collecting world – but, I’m sorry, flaky & inconsistent, I know ... on this occasion & where this particular poster is concerned, only the original & best will do.

If I can afford it.

* The London Transport Museum website dates this poster to 1973, but the booklet for which the poster was produced (which is likely to be correct) says 1975

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Small but perfectly formed

Let me say at the outset that I have absolutely nothing against charity bookshops. Indeed as soaring rents, rising business rates & the ascendancy of the 1p online book conspire to decimate the numbers of traditional bookshops, we are in ever-greater need of the charity shops to supply our everyday book-browsing fix. However, I shall be bold & declare that there is nothing in this world so delightful, so rewarding, such good fun as a really good independent secondhand book emporium. No other kind of shop so perfectly captures the tastes & personality of its owner, qualities forged in the crucible of a lifetime spent in the love of books, replete with individual eccentricities & a relish for the sheer visual joy & tactile wonder of books in all their guises. Nowhere else do serendipity & the thrills of the hunt come together to such happy, often unexpected, effect.

So, in consulting the invaluable Book Guide before a recent whistle-stop visit to Bristol, I was excited to learn that not just one, but two, new shops had opened. We only managed to visit one of these, the curiously named Bloom & Curll on Colston Street. And it transpired that its freshly-minted appearance belied a respectable five years of existence. But what a shop! Small & beautiful, it is the epitome of what a vintage book emporium should be – a secondhand bookshop for our times: bright, friendly & appealing with its sky-blue walls & hand-cut floral lettering, but with all the quirkiness one requires from the inheritors of a long tradition of knowledgeable ‘used book’ selling.

Newspaper fans inexplicably adorn the shop window. The would-be customer is greeted with a display of paperback covers on open shelves that veil the proprietor at his desk, & an old-fashioned portable typewriter bearing the floral legend ‘If you need help please ask’. Thus the awkward transition from street to semi-private space is eased & the dread question "Are you looking for anything in particular?" is neatly avoided.

The owner is a man after my own heart, who enjoys good graphics & dustwrapper art. A display of front-facing & framed covers graces one wall; Hans Unger’s totally brilliant design for the cover of the Penguin Handbook of First Aid is stuck like a college pin-up to a wooden stepladder behind the desk. Proper secondhand bookshops, by the way, have personalised desks not anonymous corporate counters, and this is a fine example of the genre.


Apologies for the quality of the photograph there, but it had to be included.

And the final stroke of brilliance? See that beckoning doorway on the right, with its splendidly architectural 60s light shade glowing in an inviting fashion? This is the children’s corner.

Here is Alice & the White Rabbit pegged like bunting across this miniature wonderland – a hidey-hole & refuge from the realities of the adult world with a grown-up-sized squishy chair for comfort & classic children's literature for escapism. Positively wasted on infants!

To anyone within fifty miles of Bristol, I recommend a visit. The appearance of the Betjemanesque gentleman in a trilby, hurrying by up Colston Street with his arms full of bubble-wrap, was simply the grace note to a most satisfying & entertaining browse.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Wonderful things

It seems that the moment of truth is here. With something between a creak & a protesting squeal from disused hinges, the library door swings wide to reveal a scene of bookish chaos & devastation. Shelf-clad walls are dimly visible, hemming a carpetless floor piled with books & boxes. A flight of ghostly plaster swallows skims across the chimneybreast, framing artwork dully sheened with light from a far window. In the corner, a tall fan of ostrich feathers trembles in a slight draught; from under the table a lion’s head plaster mask roars in silent, gap-toothed rage.

Chairs are heaped with books; a carousel stands immobile, its windows revealing countless leaflets & booklets, its solidity obscuring daylight from the world outside. Poster tubes stand in a thicket; atop a bookcase a cryptically plumaged & be-whiskered parrot peers out from the night shadows of the New Zealand bush. Around the dark maw of the fireplace, mottled tiles & iridescent niches catch fugitive glimmers of sunlight, striking colourful notes in an otherwise sombre scene.

I become aware of Railroad Man quivering gently at my side. He is clearly torn between a husbandly desire to offer support for library restoration & sheer excitement at the potential revealed to his gaze. The familiar mantra: “If we throw this away I could build a railroad layout there” hangs unspoken in the dust mote-filled air between us.

Gentle reader, what is your view?

Should I continue with my plans to retrieve my precious books from the obscurity into which they have fallen? Unpack the boxes, conjure fresh shelf space from nothing, as a rabbit is pulled from a hat? Twitch those ostrich plumes over the serried array of dustjacketed spines? Or should I give this room over to the tresselled baseboard, the workbench, the railroad track & the locomotive steaming at scale speed through a miniature Maine landscape tinted by the vibrant colours of the New England fall?

Hark! I hear that lonesome whistle blow ….

Thursday, 23 June 2011

A very fine cat indeed

Monitoring the archaeological proceedings is a rather fine feline, one who has a particular interest in these goings-on. Library cat (for it is he) has long been deprived of his rightful domain & is keen to reassert his command. Scurrying creatures, beware! Your Nemesis is nigh!

Many a library is graced by a Presiding Genius - a bust of its founder or Minerva with her owl, symbolic of learning & wisdom: a piece of antique statuary, fragmented & patinated by Time’s remorseless hand, redolent of civilisations lost for all eternity. Sadly, financial circumstances at Tottering Piles do not encourage classical sensibilities. Rather than an allegorical Patience on her monument, library cat will rule from his roost atop the tallest & least stable of the randomly piled book stacks. Those hypocaust-like heaps of volumes that litter the wooden floor will be as grist to his mill, mere stepping-stones on the way to achieving the lofty eminence he seeks. Up on the library table is the vantage point required. One more leap & the highest summit is reached. From here, both mice & humans can be quelled with a basilisk stare.

Lest you think that library cat is a bit of a tough proposition, I must assure you that he has his softer side. Once he has the situation firmly under his paw & is reassured of his comfort & convenience, there will be purrings & ticklings & a more relaxed relationship with his humans, if not with trespassing rodents. The special association between cats & books has often been remarked on, & is doubtless a subject to which I shall return in due course. But for now, let us return to the site of heroic endeavour at the library door & see what is visible in the gloom beyond the seal …

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Welcome to my world

Great excitement prevails here at Tottering Piles, for a Sleeping Beauty moment is imminent. Where a woman of my mature years & happily settled domestic circumstances is concerned, this experience is never going to entail a kiss from a hot young male of the Royal Blood. Rather, it will be a matter of hacking through a tangle of briars myself, ably assisted by Railroad Man, the partner of my joyous domesticity.

Oscular contact may not be a part of it, but still there will be a discovery & a revivifying … for behind a long-sealed portal lies a treasure close to my heart, a forgotten library - a neglected sanctum thronged with books & enigmatic artefacts. All are waiting in stillness for my return, anticipating the moment when the door opens & a shaft of light penetrates the gloom once more.

Many moons have waxed & waned since the briars took hold, entombing these tomes in a silence broken only by the susurration of spiders spinning their silken threads, & perhaps by the rustlings of small furry creatures behind the wainscot. Teetering book stacks are frozen into immobility, undisturbed by human hand or the passage of feline feet. Bulging carrier bags, pregnant with once-new purchases, gather dust. Rolled posters lie in disarray, forlorn & mute, their glorious images hidden…

It is painful to be robbed of the joy of books. Yet that is what has happened to me. Months of illness have passed by; the life of the mind crushed, the spark of imagination stifled & dulled. All my life lies within those four shelf-clad walls – the landscapes in which we live, the plants that add beauty & intricacy to our world, the birds that animate our skies & the buildings we construct, not just for practical purpose, but also to make statements about who we are, where we are & what matters to us.

And so, here we are, Railroad Man & I – cutting back the thicket & making that proverbial small hole in the door’s upper corner. Any moment now I shall be applying an enquiring eye to the aperture to see what lies within …