The first, the best, and the only

DURING THE PENULTIMATE year of our daughter’s time at secondary school (i.e., high school), we, her parents, were invited to several early evening meetings to hear about options for her higher education. At one of these, representatives from three US universities gave talks about the delights and advantages of studying at universities in the USA. One of the Americans explained that when applying, you should only include things that you were the first to do; things that you were best at; and things that only you have done. She emphasised this by saying:

“You have to be the first, the best, and/or the only.”

Well, our daughter chose not not to move to the USA to study, but, chose to study at Cambridge University. Recently, we visited a country house managed by the National Trust, which can easily claim to be the first and the best, and maybe the the only. The property is in Norfolk and is called the Blickling Estate. Its last owner was Philip Henry Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian (1882-1940), who was instrumental in getting the National Trust Act passed by Parliament in 1937. At his death, he bequeathed the Blickling Estate to the National Trust. It was the FIRST large Jacobean house to become a property run by the National Trust.

Built in the 1620s for a wealthy London lawyer, Sir Henry Hobart (died 1626), who did not live long enough to see it completed, Blickling Hall is the BEST Jacobean building in the care of the National Trust. As for fulfilling the ONLY criterion, as advised by the above-mentioned lady from an American university, this is more difficult because like all other National Trust properties, Blickling Hall is unique; it is the only Blickling Hall.

However, apart from many things that makes Blickling Hall so special, there is one other aspect of it that gives it some extra kudos. Currently, it has the largest second-hand bookshop of all such outlets run by the Trust. But this is a place well worth visiting for its interiors, exteriors, and fine gardens, both formal and otherwise. I feel that it is one of the first places you should see in Norfolk, as well as being one of the best, but only you can judge whether I am right.

Books in Buxton

ONE OF THE SEVEN WONDERS of the Derbyshire town of Buxton has to be Scrivener’s bookshop. Located on the town’s High Street, this shop displays books on five floors including the basement. Many, but by no means all, of the books are second-hand (pre-loved). At first sight, the books seem to be crowded together in no particular order, but the reverse is true: they are arranged systematically rather than chaotically.

The books are far from being at bargain prices, but they are priced fairly, not outrageously. Those of you, who know my addiction for acquiring books, will be relieved to know that I purchased only two volumes. There were plenty more that I might have been tempted to buy had I not already embarked on on a project of carefully reducing the number of books in my possession.

Drama in the Peak District

WE DROVE TO BUXTON from Macclesfield, crossing part of the Peak District, which was shrouded in dense morning mist despite it being mid-September. The town, once an important spa, is delightful. Its centre is rich in Victorian buildings, as well as some 18th century edifices, such as The Crescent, now a hotel. In appearance, the Crescent, which was built for the 5th Duke of Devonshire between 1780 and 1789, rivals the fine crescents found in Bath. Another notable structure in Buxton is The Dome, now a part of the University of Derby. This huge dome was built to cover a stable block for the horses of the 5th Duke, which was constructed between 1780 and 1789 to the design of John Carr (1723-1807). The dome itself, which is 145 feet in diameter and larger than those covering Rome’s Pantheon and St Peters, was added between 1880 and 1881, by which time the building it covered was being used as a hospital. It is the second largest unsupported dome in the world.

In common with great cities such as Vienna, Milan, Paris, Manaus, London, New York, and Sydney, tiny Buxton also can boast of having an opera house. Located next to a complex of Victorian glass and iron structures including a plant conservatory and the Pavilion with its attached octagonal hall, the Opera House was designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) and first opened its doors to an audience in 1903. Live theatrical performances, not confined to opera, were held there regularly until 1927, when it became a cinema. Between 1936 and 1942, the Opera House, although then primarily a cinema, hosted annual summer theatre festivals, two of which were in collaboration with Lillian Baylis (1874-1937) and London’s Old Vic Theatre company (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buxton_Opera_House). In 1979, the theatre was restored, and an orchestra pit added. Since then, the Opera House puts on a programme of live performances, which include a little bit of opera.  Unfortunately, during our visit to Buxton, the auditorium was closed, but we did manage to enter the lovely foyer with its mosaic-bordered floor and its ceiling painted with a scene evoking the style of 17th and 18th century painters.

The Opera House, the Crescent and the Pump Room opposite it, and The Dome, all add to the charm of Buxton. They are all close to a lovely park, through which the River Wye (not to be confused with the river with the same name in Wales) runs through. Buxton’s Wye flows into the North Sea via the River Humber. High above the park, runs the High Street, where we stumbled across a fabulous bookshop, Scrivener’s, which boasts five floors packed with books, many of them second-hand or antiquarian. So, if it is literature (fiction and non-fiction) rather than drama that appeals to you, this shop is a place that must be visited. 

It was well worth winding our way across the hills to Buxton through the low clouds, which made visibility very poor. The town is filled with interesting things to see, some of which I have described above. However, it was the Opera House that intrigued me most. Had it been given a name other than Opera House it might not have fascinated me quite as much. That a town or city can boast an opera house, gives the place a certain ‘caché’ that places, which do not possess one, lack.

Ely to India and back

AT THE CORNER OF Lynn Road and St Marys Street in the cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire, there is a shop selling used books and an assortment of ‘objets’, all in delightful disorder. This shop, with a fine view of the cathedral, ‘Cloisters’ by name, is across the road from The Lamb pub. Apart from being a lovely shop with an informative, genial owner, Barry Lonsdale, it was once home to an interesting but lesser-known military personality. His story is detailed by a blog writer named Michael Taylor (https://www.blogger.com/profile/12276420943738372719) and I have summarised it below.  

 Billett Genn (1827-1917) was a son of Billett Genn (senior), who died in 1872, and Margaret (née Austin (http://ginn-hertfordshire.blogspot.com/2014/06/). It is probable that they lived in the house that now contains the Cloisters shop. In 1841, young Billett became an indentured apprentice seaman, a seven-year contract. For reasons unknown, Billett returned to England before his seven-year term was completed. In 1846, he signed up as a trooper in the 3rd Kings Own Light Dragoons, another seven-year contract. The Dragoons had been stationed in India for several years, arriving there in 1837 (https://amp.blog.shops-net.com/10388944/1/3rd-the-kings-own-hussars.html) for the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Billett arrived in India in time to become actively involved in fighting against the Sikhs in the Punjab Campaign of 1848/49. Billett took part in various engagements including the Battle of Chillianwala in January 1849. This battle was one of the bloodiest during the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chillianwala), and one in which both the Sikhs and the East India Company claimed victory.

Genn was discharged and sent back to London in 1853, having been awarded the Punjab Campaign Medal. He returned to Ely where he became a schoolteacher in the city’s Needham School for poor boys. In 1867, he married Victoria Haylock. They produced seven children. Billett and Margaret lived at number 1 Lynn Road, which now contains the Cloisters shop. Margaret died in 1913 and Billett four years later. He was the last member of a family that had lived in Ely continuously for over 300 years. He was given a full military funeral.

Billett Genn was, at the time of his death, the last survivor of the Punjab Campaign (www.cambstimes.co.uk/news/the-story-of-remarkable-ely-man-billett-genn-is-retold-4887142). An unobtrusive plaque affixed to the wall of the shop commemorates this fact. We had come to Ely mainly to see its truly remarkable cathedral, which surpassed all expectation, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this city’s far from well-known connection with distant Punjab.

PS: The Genn family also owned The Lamb pub at some time

The story of a bookshop

THE BIOGRAPHY OF STANLEY Spencer, which I ordered online, was too large to fit through the letter flap on our front door. So, as is usual in such situations, the postman left a red and white postcard informing me that I could collect my oversized parcel from the local post office. Until October 2019, undelivered packages could be collected from a busy post office in Queensway. Since then, and throughout the 2020 ‘lockdown’, post can be collected from a new and much improved centre on nearby Westbourne Grove.

Much of the architecture on the stretch of Westbourne Grove between Chepstow Road and Queensway is unremarkable. An exception is number 26, which houses the Al Saqi bookstore. This elegant establishment specialises in selling (and publishing) books about the Middle East and North Africa. In 1978, two friends, André Gaspard and Mai Ghoussoub, left war-torn Lebanon to settle in London. They founded the Al Saqi book shop because:

“They yearned to recreate something of the heady intellectual freedom of pre-war Beirut, and to supply a then-untapped market for English and Arabic books on the Middle East and North Africa.” (https://saqibooks.com/about/history/).

They began publishing as ‘Al Saqi’ in 1983 and have been selling books, including some banned in certain countries, for well over thirty years.

Interesting as the bookshop might well be, its premises catch the eye and intrigue the passer-by. As the “Arab Weekly” wrote in December 2015 (https://thearabweekly.com/al-saqi-not-your-average-london-bookstore), the shop is;

“Not your average London Bookstore … London – Al-Saqi bookshop is housed in a conspicuous building in London’s Bayswater district. With colonnades and arches topped by 11 staring busts, its architecture recalls ruins that are found across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.”

It was the shop’s exuberant and unusual façade that has often caught my attention.

It was not Al Saqi who designed the façade of the building housing it. After he had spoken with a customer in Arabic, I asked a learned looking man, who was working in the shop, about the history of the building in which it is housed. He had no idea.

The architectural historian and his co-author Bridget Cherry mention the building in “The Buildings of England, London 3: North West”. They wrote that the highlights of Westbourne Grove include:

“… No. 26 built as an ‘Athenaeum’, 1861, by A Billing, stuccoed with columns and a good deal of sculpture (musical angels, busts of Milton, Shakespeare, etc.)”

A Billing was Arthur Billing (1824-1896), whose career included construction of, and restoration of, many churches in London and south-east England. Most dictionaries define an Athenaeum as an institution for the promotion of literary or scientific learning. a library or reading room.

Another source (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1066120) describes Saqi’s home as having once been a “… Theatre … built as a Shakespearean theatre”, but does not refer to it as an Athenaeum.  Just as I was beginning to despair of discovering whether number 26 was originally an Athenaeum or a theatre, or both, I stumbled across an informative website (https://archiseek.com/2013/vestbourne-athenom-westbourne-grove-b-wswater/). It describes the building as having been originally named ‘Westbourne Hall’ and quotes an article published in an issue of “The Building News” dated 31st of May 1861.

From the article, we learn that the newly built Westbourne Hall was attached to the Bayswater Athenaeum, which was on nearby Havelock Terrace (which, strangely, does not appear on a detailed map published in the late 1860s). From the detailed description of the façade of Westbourne Hall, it is certain that the premises of the bookshop are in the former Westbourne Hall, not the Athenaeum. The gaslit auditorium, equipped with lights installed by Mr G Reed, “the eminent gasfitter of Westbourne Grove”, had raked seats with “carved ends”. There was a gallery above the entrance end of the hall. The hall was equipped with what was then a “new patented system” of heating and cooling designed to keep the audience comfortable. The article added:

“When the new reading rooms, refreshment and committee rooms, and other offices are completed, the business of the Athenaeum will be removed into them, and look out upon Westbourne-Grove.”

So, it appears that The Athenaeum moved into Westbourne Hall. The article also gives an idea of the place’s original intention. It was to provide a place where the “respectable population” of the area could hear worthy events such as Shakespeare being read by:

“… a silver voiced popular preacher …Lectures on the Holy Land, Revelations, and Negro Slavery, an evening with amatory Thomas Moore …”

Another issue of “The Building News” (see  https://archiseek.com/2013/vestbourne-athenom-westbourne-grove-b-wswater/) gives a very full description of the building’s remarkable exuberant façade.

The subsequent history of the Westbourne Hall is found on an informative website (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp221-226). Here, slightly edited by me, is what is written:

“Westbourne hall in Westbourne Grove could hold 400 people for lectures and entertainments in 1860, when its lessee opened adjoining premises in Havelock Terrace as Bayswater Athenaeum and Literary Institution.  An ornate four-storeyed building with a hall for 1,000, designed by A. Billing, was built on the site of the first hall in 1861 and licensed for music alone by T. E. Whibley in 1863.  The Athenaeum, although welcomed for its educational value, had become the Athenaeum divan by 1865 and may have closed soon afterwards.  Westbourne hall continued to be used for concerts, plays, and public meetings until 1875 or later …”

A playbill preserved in the National Archives (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/6497ee39-a6e5-4a92-9acc-551fda7680ed) gives a flavour of what was on offer at Westbourne Hall:

“Wednesday July 1st 1868.

‘Benefit and last appearance of Miss Lydia Howard, the Baby Actress, when she will sustain her characters of Katherine! in “The Taming of the Shrew”, Falstaff! in “King Henry the Fourth”, Prince Arthur! in “King John” and Matilda Mowbray! Hector Mowbray!! Foppington Mowbray!!! Cobbleton Mowbray!!!! in The Four Mowbrays’. Also appearing: Miss Hazelwood and Mr J S Fitzpatrick Paddington”

That must have been a memorable evening. According to Anne Varty in her book “Children and Theatre in Victorian Britain”, Lydia, who was not yet five years old, ‘retired’ from the stage in 1869. Child actors and actresses were popular in Victorian times. As for the other ‘stars’ of that evening in Westbourne Grove, I have not yet found anything about them. “The Four Mowbrays” was a one-act farce by John Poole (c 1786-1872), first performed in the late 1820s.

So, there you have it more or less: the story behind the building where books on Middle Eastern and North African subjects are on sale. It is appropriate that this former Athenaeum/ theatre is still being used for cultural purposes. I am curious to know whether there is anything remaining of the Westbourne Hall’s former auditorium. Part of the building is now used by the HBA (Hirsch Bedner Associates) Gallery. A photograph of this organization’s premises looks like the space being used might well have been part of the auditorium (see https://foursquare.com/v/hba-the-gallery/5151a5e1e4b0cbcf6b5f4568). So, all is not lost.

Two bookshops: Scotland and Paris

Many years ago, in the 1970s, I accompanied ‘M’ on a trip, my first, to Scotland. We spent a few hours in St Andrews, which is famed for its golf course and its university, at which Prince William first met his future wife Kate. Both M and I were keen on second-hand book buying.

On arrival at St Andrews, we made enquiries about second-hand bookshops. Both of us felt the urge to visit one. We told that there was probably one somewhere in the suburbs of the small town. We drove along a tree-lined road and nearly missed the small sign outside what looked like a normal residence. The doors of its attached garage were open, and it could be seen that its walls were lined with bookshelves filled with books. We got out of the car and approached the garage. As we entered, and just before beginning to browse, a late middle-aged man approached us, saying:

“Do come indoors, I’ll be serving coffee soon.”

We followed him into the house and sat in the large living room with several his other customers. After we had been served with coffee and biscuits, the man, who owned the building and the business, told us that we were free to wander around the house, his home, selecting the books that we wished to buy. He told us that we could select volumes from any room except his office, which was on the first floor at the top of the stairs. Every room in the house was filled with books, even the bedrooms. We were told that he lent rooms to students from the university providing that they did not mind his customers wandering through them when his bookshop was open.

 

books on bookshelves

Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

A few years later, I visited some friends of a friend in Paris. They were from the USA. One of them, Duncan, was a dealer in oriental carpets. It was a Sunday, and they served me lunch in their flat, which was on the edge of central Paris. After we had eaten, they invited me to join them for tea in the heart of the city. We headed for one of the quais that faced the Ile de La Cité, and entered a second-hand bookshop called ‘Shakespeare & Co.’ I believe that I had come across this shop before, but this time when we entered it, it was not to purchase books.

Shakespeare & Co. occupied larger premises than the shop in St Andrews and was spread over more floors. Both of the two shops (or maybe the correct term should be ‘establishments’) allowed, or maybe encouraged, young people to take residence amongst the books. Duncan had been one of these when he first arrived in Paris from America. As we climbed the stairs to the top of the building, he told me that we would be attending one of the owner’s famed Sunday tea parties at which anyone who had lived in the shop was always made to feel welcome.

When we reached the crowded apartment at the top of the house, I was introduced to the elderly-looking owner of the shop. Many years later, I discovered that his name was George Whitman. I cannot remember much about him except that a tiny child, who must have been less than 2 years old, was crawling around his feet. Her mother was close by. She was far younger than Mr Whitman and, if I recall correctly, looked as if she was of Far Eastern extraction. I remember being impressed that someone who looked as venerable as Mr Whitman had been capable of producing a child. He was, I have recently discovered, only 68 years old.  Recently, one of my cousins, who was then aged 69, produced a daughter. So, maybe I should not have been so surprised, but in the early 1980s, when I met Mr Whitman, I was less well experienced in the ways of the world! After tea, we left the shop and went our own ways. However, the memory of attending that tea party sticks in my mind.

After M and I had spent nearly two hours exploring the stock in the shop in St Andrews, we heard the owner summoning everyone to the living room. He told us to make ourselves comfortable as he was about to serve tea and cakes. Both M and I staggered into the living room bearing huge piles of books that we had chosen. Tea and cakes were served, and whilst we were enjoying these, we chatted with the book seller. It turned out that he was a graduate of University College London (‘UCL’), where he had studied either English or English Literature, M had studied chemistry, and I had completed my PhD. I do not remember when he was at UCL. He and M did not know anyone in common from the college. I have recently discovered that the present owner of Shakespeare & Co., Sylvia Beach Whitman – that small child who I saw at that Parisian tea party back in the early 1980s – was also an alumnus of UCL, but long after my time there!

When tea was over, we thanked the owner and asked if we could pay for the books we had selected. He added the prices in our books and announced the total. However, before we could pay, he discounted the totals considerably; he would accept no more than the ridiculously low amounts that he mentioned. We loaded the books in the car and set off for our next destination, Aberdeen.

Years later in the early part of this century while I was investigating the ramifications of my mother’s family tree, I discovered that I had many French cousins. I keep in touch with some of them. One of them, who is related to the famous Captain Dreyfus of the Dreyfus Affair, speaks and writes excellent English. On one occasion not too long ago, we met him in Paris outside Shakespeare & Co, where he is well-known. It turns out that he attends a creative writing class organised by the bookshop. It is a small world, as so many people say!