A great discovery

I ENJOY ENTERING CHARITY SHOPS (shops selling used goods to raise money for good causes) to browse the books they have on sale. Even if I do not find anything of interest or buy anything, I find these visits both satisfying and therapeutic. Yesterday, to satisfy my craving for the browsing experience, I stepped into a local charity shop which I have entered many times before,  often with only a day or two’s interval between visits: usually finding that the stock of books has barely changed, and not expecting to find anything worth purchasing. This time, my gaze fell on a large old book on a shelf. What caught my eye was the title on its wide spine: “Gazetteer of India”. Because I have a great interest in India, I always look at books about the country and this was no exception.

The book has 1015 pages of text printed in a tiny font. Eagerly, I looked for its date of publication and to my great delight I discovered that it was published in 1857. For those who are not familiar with it, this is the year when the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’, or, as it is known nowadays, the ‘First War of Independence’, began on the 10th of May. The book’s full title “A Gazetteer of the Territories Under the Government of the East-India Company and of the Native States on the Continent of India” was soon to become out of date because following the ending of the ‘Mutiny’ in 1858, the British Government took over the ruling of India from the East India Company.

The book by Edward Thornton (Esq.) was published in response to the desire of the General Courts of the East-India Company to have  “… an authentic Gazetteer of India [that] should be offered to the British public in a cheap and convenient form…”. Thornton had already published a four volume “Gazetteer of India” in 1854. The book I found yesterday contains much of the information that was published in the multi-volume edition. The book that I purchased is an original edition, which is rarely offered for sale in the second-hand book market. A facsimile edition was published by the British Library in the 21st century. Fortunately for me, whoever had priced my copy had no idea of its true worth, which is unusual because often those who run charity shops often check the market prices of old books.

Edward Thornton (1799-1875), the author of the gazetteers is, apparently, often confused with the better-known Edward Parry Thornton (1811-1893), who was an administrator in India where he lived on and off between 1830 and 1862. ‘Our’ Edward of the gazetteers worked at East India House (which stood in London where today the towering Lloyds building now stands) between 1814 and 1857, where he was head of its Maritime Department from 1847. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes this information about him:

“Among his publications were gazetteers of the territories held by the East India Company and the ‘countries adjacent to India on the North-West’, and a six-volume History of the British Empire in India (1841–5). He was also responsible for entries in the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on Indian subjects, which have also been attributed to Edward Parry Thornton. This Edward Thornton died at 1 Montpelier Street, Brighton, on 24 December 1875.”

You can rest assured that I will not be reading all 1015 pages of my new ‘treasure’, but I will enjoy dipping into it to read about places I have visited or hope to visit in the future. One of the first places I looked up was Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu, which we visited in February 2020. Formerly, it had been a Danish colony in India. Thornton wrote:

“ … The settlement of Tranquebar was ceded to the British government in 1845 by the King of Denmark, for a pecuniary consideration … the superiority of the British over Danish administration is attested by the growing prosperity of the district, and the large increase in the amount of the government revenue…”

This “government revenue” did not benefit the British in general but rather the coffers of the East India Company.

Of Bangalore, which I have visited more than 50 times in the last 26 years, Thornton wrote a whole page that includes the following:

“… The town is tolerably well built, has a good bazaar, and is inclosed [sic] by a wall, a ditch, and a broad fence of thorns and bamboos…”

Thanks to my friend, an excellent guide to Bangalore, Mansoor Ali, I knew of the existence of the fence (hedge) of vegetation mentioned in the quote but did not realise it was still in existence as late as 1854/7. This hedge is marked on some maps of Bangalore created during the 19th century. According to a map dated 1800, the circular hedge surrounding Bangalore ran through present day Yeshvantpur in the north. Kengery in the west, and almost at Madiwala in the south east. I have no idea when the hedge disappeared, but it was clearly after the time when Thornton knew of its existence. I look forward to much more delving in my latest literary acquisition.

Finally, my copy of Thornton’s book has an ex-libris sticker that bears a coat-of-arms and the name ‘John Harrison’. Harrison is a common family surname. A quick look at Harrison coats-of-arms displayed on Google reveals that the crest in my book is similar but not identical to that of the “Yorkshire Arms” of the ‘James River Harrisons’, which originated in the north of England. They settled on the James River in Virginia in the 1630s. If my book was once owned by a member of that family, I wonder how it ended up on a shelf in a charity shop in West London.

A bookshop in my memory

I HAVE LOVED BOOKSHOPS ever since I can remember. In my teenage years, I used to haunt the shelves of Foyles, a multi-storey bookshop in Tottenham Court Road. The store is named after its founders William and Gilbert Foyle, who established their business at Station Road in Peckham in 1903. A year later, they moved it to Cecil Court, an alley near Leicester Square, which still contains several bookshops. By 1906, Foyle’s had a branch on Charing Cross Road, which is where I got familiar with it.

BLOG FOYLES by Tarquin Binary

In the second half of the 1960s, Foyles was a very well-stocked bookstore even if it seemed a bit confusing to its customers. There were separate departments specialising in various topics distributed over at least three floors. I discovered soon enough that behind the bookshelves in some of the departments there were yet more shelves, and these contained second-hand and remaindered books often at reasonable prices. It was amongst these hidden shelves that I found a rather useless but picturesque road atlas to Bulgaria, published in Bulgarian, and a wonderful detailed street map of East Berlin, “Haupstadt der DDR”. This map carefully avoided mapping the city’s contiguous West Berlin. It gave the impression that East Berlin bordered the edge of an area of uninhabited desert.

The language department was very interesting. It stocked books on every language from A to Z. It was there that I discovered a copy of “A Short Albanian Grammar” by SE Mann, published in 1932. This hardback book with dark green board covers was priced at 15 shillings (i.e. 75 pence). I was particularly excited to find this volume as my interest in Albania was already becoming quite well-developed. However, 15 shillings was way beyond my budget in 1968. That year, I began studying biology for the A-Level examinations that had to be passed to enter university. It was then that a chance to obtain this book arose.  

During the first year of the A-Level course, I entered the school’s Bodkin Prize biology essay competition. I wrote a long treatise on the life of the woodlouse. This was my first ever bit of serious research. I visited the Science Library, which was then housed in a part of the then disused Whitely’s department store in Queensway. There, I translated a long article written in French about the reproductive system of the woodlouse. From what I can remember, the woodlouse can reproduce asexually, a process known as parthenogenesis.  I was awarded the second prize. The only other contestant was my classmate Timothy Clarke, whose older brother, Charles, was to become Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006. Tim won the first prize.

Thesecond prize was 15 shillings to be spent on books. I asked the school to spend that money on procuring me the copy of the Albanian grammar book in Foyles. To my great annoyance, my choice was turned down and I was asked to choose again, making sure that at least one book was a hardback, because it was to be embossed with the school’s crest. I chose two books. One was a costly paperback on genetics and the other was the cheapest hardback I could find. To this day, I still do not possess a copy of Mann’s book.

Returning to Foyle’s, let me tell you about its payment system, which resembled, so I was told, the system adopted by shops in the Soviet Union. First, you had to find a book you wished to purchase. Then, you took it to a desk in the department where it was shelved. A shop assistant took the book and wrote out a paper bill. Next, you had to take the bill to one of the few cash desks in the shop. After queuing, you parted with the correct amount of money and then the paper slip was stamped. Following this, you returned to the department where your book was being held and queued up again to exchange your stamped paper slip for the book, which you were then free to take away. This laborious payment system survives today in the government run khadi (home-spun materials) shops in India. These old-fashioned shops, often smelling of moth balls, are picturesque to say the least.

Foyles was bewildering to the newcomer stepping off the street. Like the tiny alleyways in Venice, it was a great place to lose your way. However, if a customer was looking for something specific, this was not helpful. So, quite sensibly, there used to be staff standing near the entrance to help customers find what they were seeking. Some of these no doubt poorly paid staff had poor command of the English language. On one occasion I heard the following:

“May I help, Sir?” asked a young lady with a strong Eastern European accent.

“I am looking for choral music.”

The assistant hesitated and then pointed at the escalator while saying:

“Please try the engineering department.”

That was long ago, back in the late 1960s.

Foyles moved out of its home on Charing Cross Road in 2011 and occupied another building a short way from it on the same street. Its current premises occupy part of the former St Martin School of Art, where my mother used to work in the sculpture studios in the 1960s. I no longer shop at Foyle’s but remember it fondly.

 

Picture by Tarquin Binary from Wikipedia

Books of choice

Beerwolf_500

 

I HAVE LOVED READING ever since I was first able to master this skill. During my childhood, we used to drive to Hampstead (in north London) every Saturday morning. We always used to visit the now long-since closed High Hill Bookshop on Rosslyn Hill. Our parents allowed my sister and me to choose one book each Saturday and bought them for us. Week by week, my collection of the adventures of Tintin by Hergé grew until I had all the episodes that had been published in English. There was little, if any, censorship of our choices. However, I had the distinct impression that my parents preferred that we avoided books by Enid Blyton. So, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of her extensive literary oeuvre.

I discovered and fell in love with “Mad” magazine, which was not available at High Hill Bookshop. I bought copies of it at a local shop, using my pocket money. My parents appeared not to approve of the magazine, but my father (not my mother) was always happy to read my copies of it when I had finished with them. “Readers Digest”, like Enid Blyton, did not fulfil my parents’ criteria of ‘good’ literature. I enjoyed leafing through this periodical and particularly remember reading and re-reading an article written by someone who was conscious during his brain surgery. I did not need to buy “Readers Digest” at full price as it was possible to buy boxes crammed full of old issues, sold as a job lots for a few pence at local jumble sales.  

There was only one book that was deemed strictly forbidden during my childhood. It was “Struwwelpeter” by Heinrich Hoffman, published in 1845 and reprinted many times since then. It is a series of moral tales about children who misbehave. For example, when Konrad disobeys his mother’s instruction not to suck his thumbs, an itinerant tailor appears and cuts off Konrad’s thumbs. Each tale is illustrated by frighteningly graphic illustrations. On afternoon, my sister and I, who had discovered this book by accident, were interrupted by my mother. She seized the book and tore it into pieces, which she stuffed into the wastepaper basket. Apart from this violent reaction to a book and the hints that Enid Blyton was to be avoided, I could read pretty much anything I wanted.

At school, books were recommended as being worth reading, especially those by famous 19th century British authors. I never read any of these. For some unknown reason, probably contrariness, if someone told me that I ought to read a particular book, this put me off even opening it. I wanted to read what I had chosen myself, not what had been chosen for me because it might be “good for you”. Similarly, if someone tells me that this or that food item is “good for you”, I do not rate that as a positive recommendation.

At Christmas 1963, we were in New York City. A friend of my parents, ‘E’, met us in the book department of FAO Schwarz, a toy store on Fifth Avenue. She wanted her son and me each to choose a book as a gift from her. E showed me a thick encyclopaedia of anthropology, which she had decided either that I would enjoy it or that it would be good for me. Well, I took one look at it and decided to check out the other books on display. I homed in on an illustrated history of the FBI. It was filled with intriguing black and white photographs, some quite gory. I took the book to E, who looked at it disapprovingly and then asked whether I was sure that I did not want the fine book on anthropology. I was sure, and a few minutes later I became the proud owner of the book about the FBI. E’s son, who was clearly more easily influenced by his mother than me, chose to buy the anthropology book. Years later, he qualified as a psychiatrist and I as a dentist. I am not sure what can be concluded from that.

My parents’ suggestion that there was something not quite right about Enid Blyton left a lingering doubt about the author in my mind. In the mid-1990s, I began visiting India regularly. There, I discovered wonderful bookshops, some of which were (and still are) much better stocked than those in London. What surprised me in those shops were the huge numbers of books by Enid Blyton on sale. Clearly, Enid was well-read and her books much purchased in India.  So, when I heard that there was going to be a lecture about Enid Blyton and India at the Nehru Centre in London, I felt that this was not to be missed. The speaker was none other than Enid Blyton’s very articulate daughter. She told us that British educators often frowned upon her mother’s works (just as my parents had done). The reason they were not keen was that it was considered that Enid’s vocabulary was not rich or varied enough. She revealed that when the texts of her mother’s books were analysed numerically, the vocabulary used I them was, in fact, no less rich or varied than that employed by other authors writing for the same age groups.  

In recent years, I have changed. Maybe, I have become a little less stubborn about book recommendations. If someone suggests a book to me, I no longer instantly reject the idea of reading it. There is a good chance that I will look it up to see what others think of it. If it is about a subject that might chime with any of my interests, there is a good chance that I will buy a copy and add it to the ever increasing pile of unopened books waiting to be read by me.  However, you will still not be able to find Dickens, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, or titles that would “be good for me” on their spines.

Something I am missing

BOOKS

During this time of avoiding other people for very good health reasons, many of the pleasures of normal life have become temporarily unavailable. Theatres, museums, pubs, restaurants, and  travel (foreign or local), are things we will only be able to enjoy again in some distant future.

Even though I am surrounded by, nay drowning in, more than enough unread books for several long lifetimes, I miss browsing in the local second-hand bookshops. I do not actually need to buy another book, but I know I will be purchasing many more, most of which might never be read for many years to come. 

I have an urge to browse regularly in bookshops. It does not matter if I come out of a shop empty-handed, because running my eyes along the shelf gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction. Yes, I need my regular fix of bookshelf browsing. Let it not be long before I can resume this enjoyable activity.

Which?

oxfam BLOG

 

The Oxfam secondhand bookshop in London’s Portobello Road is one of my favourite haunts. It has a great stock of books on a variety of topics and the people who work there are very friendly.

Recently, I entered the shop ad headed towards the ‘History’ shelves. Near them, there was a male customer speaking with a female shop assistant. They were standing next to a cardboard box filled with dictionaries.

“Which of these dictionaries do you reccommend?” the customer asked, “the Collins or the Oxford?”

“It’s a a matter of taste. Both are good.”

“But which do you prefer?” asked the customer.

“I prefer Oxford.”

“But why?”

“I have always used Oxford. I like its approach to spelling. I used it a lot when I used to work in a publishing house,” responded the lady, edging away to escape her persistent questioner. He turned to me.

“Which do you prefer?” he asked me.

“Oxford.”

“And why do prefer that?”

“No good reason, ” I replied,”it was the first dictionary we were given at school. Maybe, that’s something to do with my preference.”

“And which authors do you think are good?” he asked me, adding, “I have just given away my television.”

I could not reccommend the books I have written, as that would be immodest and likely to prolong this conversation.

“Thomas Love Peacock,” was the first author’s name that entered my head.

“And?”

“You could also try John Buchan. You know the chap who wrote the Thirty-Nine Steps,” I suggested.

“Never heard of him.”

“Balzac is also good in translation,” I added.

“Hmm. What about this one?” the customer asked me, holding a novel by George Orwell.

“He’s also good.”

At that point, I was ‘saved by the bell’. My fellow customer’s mobile ‘phone began ringing at a very high volume. It sounded as if a fire alarm had gone off. He rushed out of the shop.

I went to the cash desk to pay for my latest purchase. When I had finished, my new acquaintance came back into the shop, and said to me:

“Sorry about that. You are real gent. It was nice talking with you.”

I left the shop and will probably not visit again for a long time as viral considerations are forcing it to close indefinitely.

Page or screen

Many readers are moving from the printed book format to the ebook format, where text is read on a screen instead of on a paper page.

Recently, we visited the small but magnificent book shop, Modern Book Depot, next to New Market in Calcutta. We passed a pleasant hour chatting with its charming and erudite owner, Mr Prakash. One of the topics we discussed was ebooks versus old fashioned paper books. Mr Prakash suggested that ebooks were a useful backup for paper books, but that they were no substitute for the latter. I agree with him.

Paper books engage more of the reader’s senses than ebooks. A ‘real’ book has its own smell. I am not alone in sniffing the books that I read. Each book has its own odour whether its the smell of the paper and printer’s ink or of where it has been stored. Books differ in their tactile properties. Different kinds of paper vary in how they feel. The weight of a book and its degree of flexibility (if it is a paperback) add to the reader’s enjoyment or experience. None of these secondary characteristics associated with paper books can be experienced while reading a text on a screen. Although they do not affect the primary property of the text, its content, they do affect the reader’s whole reading experience, albeit subliminally.

So, give me a paper book any day, rather than an ebook.

New York! New York!

Brooklyn Bdg_240

 

In 1992, I decided to visit New York City (‘NYC’). I had a week available and did not want to waste a minute of that precious time.

In order to make efficient use of my time in NYC, I bought several guidebooks. I spent several weeks studying them in my spare time. I wanted to make sure that I did not miss seeing anything that seemed likely to be of interest to me.

As I turned the pages of these books, something began to worry me and nearly made me want to cancel my trip. Each of the books had sections on dangers in the city including ‘mugging’. What worried me most was not that these books warned of the risks of being mugged, BUT what to do when you are mugged, rather than if you are unlucky enough to be mugged. The implication seemed to me to be that getting mugged was inevitable. That was what got me worried.

Well, I decided, if I was going to be mugged, I had better be prepared for it. Had the situation arrived, which (thank heavens) it did not, I was going to hand over my wallet politely without attempting a struggle. However, I was not prepared to hand over all my cash to any old criminal. To avoid this, I carried a useful nmber of US Dollars in my socks beneath the soles of my feet.

As it turned out, my week in NYC was not only free of unpleasant surprises but also highly enjoyable. 

The streets of NYC in 1992 were far more exciting and ‘edgy’ than when I returned for another visit in 2007. Between those two visits, Manhattan seemed to have been socially ‘sanitized’. The sense of excitement and uncertainty that I felt in 1992  had been replaced by an almost dull genteelness. Manhattan had been transformed from an electrifyingly live place to something like an urban theme park. No doubt, those who live there find it an improvement over what it was back in 1992, but I was a little disappointed.

Greed

books

 

In the UK, we have ‘charity shops’, where (mostly) used goods are sold to make money for charities. In the past, charity shops were good places to find really reasonably priced bargains. This is no longer the case. Those who run charity shops are ‘wising up’. Many of them assess the value of the goods they receive by checking how much similar items are being sold on the internet. This has caused prices in these shops to rise gradually. This is quite sensible for the charities, which would like to raise as much money as possible.

I like visiting charity shops to browse the shelves of second-hand books, which they often contain. One charity shop, which will remain unidentified and is in my home neighbourhood, is managed by a person who must be aiming for very high targets in his shop. The prices of the used items in ‘his’ shop are high. Many of the used books on sale in this particular outlet are often at least half the price of what they would be if they were unused and new. The result is that the same books remain unsold on his shelves for months on end. The manager is hoping that they will raise much for the charity. However, they take up space, and are not making any money for his charity. This is the cost of greedy pricing policy.

Other charity shops within the neighbourhood, even those that specialise in selling books, price far more reasonably than the fellow described above.  If that person, whom I shall not name, is reading this piece, I hope that he will begin to realise that people visit charity shops, not because they are desperate to buy something, but because it is enjoyable discovering a bargain.