Worth its weight in gold:
The craftsmanship –
Often sadly under valued
Worth its weight in gold:
The craftsmanship –
Often sadly under valued
I studied for my O Level examinations at Highgate School in North London. These were important state exams taken at 16 years of age.
My English language teacher was more interested in discussing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than in teaching us the basics of English Language as required for passing the O Level in that subject. I cannot blame him entirely for what happened when I sat the exam.
My poor ability in written English must have contributed to my failing the exam. The examiners must have been further annoyed by my essay on the subject “Is it fair that nurses get paid less than successful pop singers?”. I wrote that it is, because, I argued back in 1968, a pop singer gives pleasure at any one time to a greater number of people than a nurse.
Fortunately, I have forgotten the name of my of my English language teacher, but I still recall the teacher, Mr George Sellick, who helped me pass my O Level retake.
Sellick taught us advance level biology for the university entrance examinations. Every week we were required to write three essays. On Saturday mornings, we had a long lesson with Sellick. This session was dedicated to discussing the essays that the class had submitted. Our teacher used to read out to us the highlights and lowlights of the week’s essays. He pointed out what was good in essay writing and what was to be avoided. I found these sessions to be very useful.
I retook the English Language exam 6 months after my first attempt and passed quite well, albeit not excellently.
During the last decade or more, I have been writing and publishing a great deal. I now call myself ‘an author’. Whenever I think of myself as an author, I remember my disastrous first attempt at the English O Level, and feel that maybe it is a bit of chutzpah* to take up the same profession as truly great author’s such as Balzac and Dickens.
Although my written English has been gradually improving, I often get my wife, a retired barrister, to read through what I have composed. She is a reader rather than a writer (although she used to write much for her professional work). Unlike me, she got top grades in English Language at school, reads a great deal, and has a superb command of written English. I am enormously grateful to her.
*chutzpah is a Yiddish word implying barefaced cheek
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.
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!