CAST-IRON STATUES of dragons mark the City of London’s boundaries on main roads leading into it., The City includes the oldest part of the metropolis.
Standing on their hind legs, the dragons stick out their red-painted tongues and rest their left forepaws on a shield with the coat-of-arms of the City of London. The creatures were designed by James Bunstone Bunning (1802-1863), who was architect to the City of London from 1843 until his death.
Thirteen of these dragons can be found in London. Some of them were placed at entrances to the City as late as the 1960s. The dragons are part of the City’s coat-of-arms, which was in use by 1381. In this emblem, a pair of them supports a crest.
I consider that these creatures look far from welcoming.
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.
In August 1990 before the downfall of Yugoslavia, I made one of my many visits to Italy. On this particular visit, I stayed with Italian friends, who lived in Tolmezzo in the north-east corner of Italy close to its borders with Austria and Slovenia, which in those far off days was part of Yugoslavia.
There was a town near to Tolmezzo that had interested me for a long time because the border between Italy and Yugoslavia ran through it dividing it into the Italian town of Gorizia and the Yugoslav town of Nova Gorica. Prior to the end of WW2, the place was entirely in Italy because Italy included a large part of what was to become the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. I was curious to see this divided town.
I drove into central Gorizia and discovered a typical small north-eastern Italian city – attractive, but unexceptional. I wandered amongst the city’s back streets trying to see where they ended and then became part of Yugoslavia. My quest was disappointing because the border ran through eastern suburban districts of Gorizia, beyond which there was open countryside.
After looking at the Italian part of the city, I drove south of it to the nearest border crossing, which was located in the middle of open country away from Gorizia. I parked my car and strolled up to the Italian border post, who showed no interest in me or my passport.
I walked across a short stretch of no-mans-land to the Yugoslav checkpoint, where my passport was stamped and I was waved on. I had arrived in the middle of nowhere, it seemed. I spotted a bus stop and asked people waiting there if the bus would take me to Nova Gorica. I was told it would.
When the local bus arrived, I was able to buy a ticket with money I had kept after previous holidays in Yugoslavia.
We drove what seemed like a long way through the country side, eventually arriving in the aesthetically unexceptional centre of Nova Gorica. Unlike attractive Gorizia, which was established many centuries ago, the relatively unnattractive Nova Gorica was established as a new town in 1947 after the Paris Peace Treaty left the important market town of Gorizia outside the border of Yugoslavia. The new town had been built a little away from the border, which is why I did not find any streets in Gorizia that ran into Nova Gorica. It was not like Berlin, where the Wall sliced through pre-existing streets, bringing them to a sudden dead end.
I disembarked, found a coin-operated telephone box and made a quick call to one of my many good friends in far-off Belgrade. Then, with some of my remaining Yugoslav money, I purchased a box of the superb cherry brandy chocolates called ‘Griotte’, which used to be made in Croatia by the Kraš confectionery company, and are still made today. I wanted to give them to my hosts in Tolmezzo.
I returned to the bus stop and travelled back to the Yugoslav border post. Both the Yugoslav and the Italian border officials waved me and my box of chocolates from one country to the next without any problems.
Thinking back on this brief international journey lasting no more than two hours, I realise that it was the very last time that I visited Yugoslavia. I had visited Serbia (and other parts of Yugoslavia) earlier in 1990, which is why I still had some Yugoslav Dinars. Since then, I have made one trip to Slovenia, several years after the break up of the Yugoslav Federation.