Changing frontiers

I HAVE ALWAYS ENJOYED browsing the shelves and piles of books in second-hand/antiquarian bookshops. During my adolescence in the 1960s, I bought many old travel guidebooks, such as were published before WW2 by the likes of Baedeker, Michelin, Murray, and similar. These items were not highly valued by collectors in the ’60s and were very reasonably priced. This was just as well because my spending power was not great at that time. My self-imposed rule was that I would not buy anything priced over £1 (Sterling). One of my prized purchases in that time was a pre-WW1 Baedeker’s guide to Egypt. I paid six shillings (30 pence) for this already rare edition in the second-hand department of Dillon’s university bookshop, which faces the Engineering Department of University College London. This shop is now a branch of the Waterstones chain of booksellers.

Most of the bookshops that I visited regularly were in or near Hampstead, which in the 1960s had at least eight second-hand booksellers. There was one shop that I visited occasionally on the corner of Fleet and Agincourt Roads. Once I entered it and found a copy of Murray’s Handbook to Northern Germany, which was published in the late 1880s. I was fascinated by this book which described Germany long before it was divided into East and West Germany, which is how it was in the 1960s. It also covered parts of the USSR (e.g. Kaliningrad, once ‘Königsberg’) and of Poland (e.g. Danzig, now ‘Gdansk’) that were formerly parts of the German Empire.  I looked inside its cover to discover its price. My heart sank. It was priced at one pound and ten shillings (£1.50). It was well beyond my budget. I could not decide whether I should break my £1 rule … only this once, but I did not. Reluctantly, I left the book behind in the shop. I had never seen a copy of this book before, and as I walked away, I wondered whether I would ever see another.

When on foreign travels with my parents, I went into second-hand bookshops and discovered some treasures, which I could afford. For example, in Madrid, I picked up several Michelin guides that had been published before WW1 when motoring was in its infancy. In Italy, which we visited annually during my childhood, I acquired several guides published before WW2 and during Mussolini’s era by the Touring Club Italia (‘TCI’). Some of these covered places that had been parts of Mussolini’s empire, such as Libya and Somalia. One TCI guide covered Friuli-Venezia Giulia, when large parts of what was to become western Slovenia were under Italian rule and the Adriatic coast as far as Rijeka was also part of Italy. This guide also included the Adriatic town of Zadar in Croatia, which was the Italian enclave, called ‘Zara’, before WW2. One treasure, which was subsidised by my parents, was the TCI guide to Greece, which was published just prior to the Italians’ abortive invasion of Greece. My copy includes notes added by its former owner, an Italian soldier. Interestingly, he had traced his route into northern Greece on the book’s map. From this, it was evident that he had travelled through central Albania before entering Greece.

In the 1980s, I was still avidly collecting old books including travel guidebooks. From 1982, when I had passed my driving test and began owning cars, I used to drive to see friends all over the UK and elsewhere. Often, I visited friends in Cornwall. My route, which tended to avoid motorways, took me through many small towns, all of which I explored with a view to discovering second-hand bookshops. Honiton in Devon used to contain several well-stocked antiquarian booksellers. On one trip I entered one of them at the bottom of a hill at the western end of the town and made an exciting discovery. Yes, you have probably guessed it already. In that shop, I found another copy of the old Murray’s guide to Northern Germany. Nervously, I looked for its price. By now, I had abandoned the idea of limiting my spend to £1, which in the 1980s would have been insufficient to buy any of the old guidebooks that attracted my interest. The volume I found was £7, which was remarkably good value in the 1980s. I snapped it up and paid for it with pleasure.

Nowadays, if I see an out-of-print book that interests me, I seize the opportunity to buy it, if, after checking the price on-line, it is not outrageously costly.

Finally, whilst talking about old guidebooks, I must mention an artwork created for me by the lady who would eventually marry me. Long before we were wed, she knew of my collection of guidebooks and was also a keen amateur potter. One day, she presented me with a wonderful gift. It was a box made of fired clay, which was shaped to look like a row of Baedeker guidebooks. This still occupies a prominent position on one of our many overcrowded bookshelves.

A cave in Slovenia

WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER in the 1960s, I became fascinated by life in the countries behind the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ but was nervous about visiting them. In the late 1960s, I made my first foray into the world that intrigued me. I paid a brief visit to what was then regarded as being the least repressive country with a Socialist dictatorship: Yugoslavia. Here is an extract from “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”, my book about travelling and meeting people in that no-longer existing country. This excerpt describes my first very short excursion into a world that was supposed to be so different from what we were used to in Western Europe.

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My father taught economics at the London School of Economics (the ‘LSE’). This institution, despite its name, offered a wide variety of subjects including modern languages. The Language Department used to invite native speakers to help teach its students. There was a young Italian lady called Patrizia amongst these teachers. Soon after her arrival at the LSE, she became a friend of our family, visiting our home frequently. After her contract with the LSE was over, she returned to Udine, her hometown in the north-east corner of Italy. This part of Italy is only a few kilometres (‘Km’) west of Slovenia, which was one of the six constituent republics of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The other five were in alphabetic order: Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, & Serbia. Over the years, I visited all of them.

I visited Patrizia and her hospitable family several times during my school holidays. Realising that I was interested in the Balkans specifically and the Socialist countries in general, she offered to take me on a brief excursion, my first, into Yugoslavia. It was in the late 1960s when we travelled in her small white Fiat car across the border into Slovenia. The first thing that I noticed was that the villages did not resemble those in Italy. The architecture was different; there was a different feel about them – they did not look Mediterranean in the slightest. A new ‘world’ had opened up to me.

We stopped at a café in a small village for a snack, and Patrizia ordered something that she said was typical of Yugoslav cuisine. What arrived at our table were two plates of ćevapčići. These are small kebabs made of grilled mince-meat, which taste rather like under spiced Turkish köfte. It was the first Yugoslav food that I had ever tasted, which is why I still remember it. Since then, I have tasted and enjoyed a rich variety of dishes during my many visits to Yugoslavia. However, ćevapčići were never amongst my favourites.

Soon after we crossed into Yugoslavia, we had a minor collision with another car on a winding mountain road. No one was injured, nor was there much damage to either vehicle. Luckily, the car that we bumped into was being driven by an Italian and was also registered in Italy. Had the other vehicle been Yugoslav, we might have faced problems, not merely of a linguistic nature. After an amicable exchange between Patrizia and the other driver, we continued our journey and arrived at the car park next to the entrance to the Postojna Caves.

The geologically interesting parts of this network of subterranean caverns were a long way from the entrance. To reach them, we boarded one of the open topped wagons of a narrow-gauge railway. The train trundled along its tracks through a featureless, grey walled tunnel for a few minutes before we were allowed to disembark. We followed a guide, who showed us around. The highlight of the tour was an underground pool full of slender, slimy amphibians, which wriggled around in the shallow water. Patrizia became very excited when we saw them, and exclaimed:

“Look, Adam, these are the ‘human fish’.”

These rather repellent looking creatures, whose biological (Linnaean) name is Proteus anguinus, are nicknamed ‘human fish’ on account of their pink skin colour. We returned to Udine. Our journey back was uneventful, but my mind was made up: I wanted to see more of Yugoslavia.

Read more about Yugoslavia as it used to be before it collapsed into civil war in the early 1990s in “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” by Adam Yamey, which is available from:



and on Kindle