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.

The year 1889 and me

SOMETIMES, FAMILIARITY BREEDS contempt. In my case it was Hampstead. I lived close to this picturesque urban village in north London for the first thirty years of my life, visiting the place frequently and becoming very familiar with it.  During the following twenty-five years, although I did not regard it with great contempt, I ‘went off’ the place. Now, in my sixties, I have renewed my liking and appreciation of Hampstead’s uniqueness. My wife and I enjoy making excursions to Hampstead, often having coffee at Louis Hungarian Patisserie on Heath Street, where we went for our first ‘date’ back in about 1970.

BLOG ANNO date

Yesterday, after having been confined to our locality for three months by fairly strict ‘lockdown’, we drove to Hampstead, and enjoyed cups of coffee, maybe not London’s very best but quite acceptable, at a tiny outdoor table next to Louis. I looked across Heath Street from where we were sitting and stared at the Hampstead branch of Tesco’s. This run-of-the-mill supermarket is housed in a building with light red tiling and brickwork with stone window settings. Above Tesco’s, there is an old sign in bas-relief that reads “EXPRESS DAIRY COMPANY LTD” and next to that, there is a plaque with the date “AD 1889”.

The year 1889 has had a special significance for me since I attended the Hall School, a prestigious preparatory school for boys near Swiss Cottage, between the years 1960 and 1965. The Hall School was founded in 1889 and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1964, while I was still studying there. I do not know why, but since that anniversary, the date 1889 has always had a special significance in my mind.

The founding of a preparatory school in 1889 is one insignificant reason to remember this year. More importantly it was the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.  To celebrate the centenary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle in 1889. A souvenir of that grand fair still stands today in its full splendour: the Eiffel Tower. This well-known landmark of Paris was inaugurated on the 31st of March 1889. I learnt that Eiffel’s Tower was completed in 1889 long after I had learnt about the date when my preparatory school was founded.

The French brothers Édouard and André Michelin were also involved in revolution, but not the political sort. In 1889, they ran a rubber factory and within a short time they had invented the air-filled pneumatic tyre. Since those early days, the Michelin company has been a major manufacturer of objects that revolve – rubber tyres.

To encourage and assist motorists, Michelin began publishing both excellent road maps and useful guidebooks. Some of the guidebooks contain recommended restaurants and hotels and others (the ‘Green Guides’) provide useful sight-seeing information for tourists. The awarding of stars for culinary excellence by Michelin has made or broken restaurants in France and elsewhere. To lose a Michelin star is a life-changing disaster for some chefs.   

I have been collecting Michelin guidebooks since just after I left the Hall School. Some of my earliest specimens were published before WW1 when motoring was in its infancy. Immediately after WW1, Michelin published a series of about ten special guidebooks to areas that were affected badly during the war. I have a few of these. They contain much information including photographs of places taken before and after the War. Many of the post-war photographs show sights that resemble the ruins of central Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb exploded. Heavy bombardment of buildings with ‘conventional’ weapons produced horrendous devastation.

When I began contemplating writing this piece, I knew about 1889 in connection with my old school, the centenary of the French Revolution, and the Eiffel Tower, but not about the foundation of Michelin. As for the former Express Dairy in Hampstead, the plaque with the date 1889 most likely refers to the year in which that branch of the Express Dairy Company was established.  The buildings on that particular stretch of Heath Street, which was built-up in the Victorian era, were constructed in the 1880s.

For many centuries, Hampstead has been the haunt of academics, artists, actors, politicians, and writers. So, it comes as no surprise that the former Express Dairy that I was staring at from my table at Louis has at least one interesting historical connection. In February 1916, the Bolshevik revolutionary Maxim Litvinov (1856-1951) proposed to Ivy Low, whom he married.  He proposed and she accepted inside the Express Dairy in Hampstead’s Heath Street (see: https://prod.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v06/n04/gabriele-annan/ivy-s-feelings). I doubt that I would have ever known that had it not been for the Hall School instilling in me a certain interest in the year 1889.