Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Sunday, 19 February 2017
Do you remember a young person's book from the 1950s called, 'How Things Work'? Can you imagine a book with a title like that these days? Life used to be so simple.
Our family were not what you would call big readers. Father would read trashy cowboy books and Mother read bodice-rippers. We had no library in our large house and the closest thing to one was a small, glass fronted cabinet with a few hard-backs in it, chosen more for the appearance of the spines than the contents.
There was one heavy book in it called, 'The Home Doctor', and the nearest thing I got to a sex education was when one of my sisters suggested I should take a look at the part which covered reproduction. I did, and was none the wiser for it. I had to find out the hard way.
Another concept difficult to grasp in today's world is that of the travelling Encyclopedia Brittanica salesmen. They came to our house in the rich neighbourhood of Surrey on a regular basis and vainly attempted to pressure my father into believing that should he not sign up to collecting the volumes at a staggering cost of hundreds of pounds (paid in instalments over a period of years), he would be denying me a vital education and condemn me to failure in adult life. Maybe they had a point.
Aside from Oliver Cromwell's attitude toward the English literati, there is another reason why so few books remain from the 17th century. The fashion for shooting guns as a sport amongst the upper classes of the first quarter of the 18th century, coupled with the scarcity of plain paper, meant that the young men of the country houses which were grand enough to have a library would raid the books in them to tear out pages for use as wadding in the guns. You put the powder down the barrel, then some wadding, then the ball or shot, then some more wadding to stop the balls from rolling out of the end. One day's shooting party could get through quite a few books.
Samuel Pepys covertly admitted to ordering a copper-plate book of pornographic pictures which he burned in the fire out of guilt and shame after he had looked at it a few times. This book had to be ordered for printing and cost him a lot of money, but he was wealthy.
The next bit of desecration came in the 1960s, when dealers - and even anitquarian book-sellers - would carefully tear out the illustrative plates from 18th century books to mount and frame as pictures to be put onto walls. You still see them today, some hand-tinted with coloured ink, and they sell for next to nothing.
Years ago when Bath's public library was just over the road, I heard that an original first-edition of John Wood's 'History of Bath' was in the lending section there. Not the reference section where it should have been, but the lending one.
I went into the library and asked for it and to my amazement they went into a back room and returned with it. I signed for it and took it home in disbelief.
It is a wonderful and huge, leather-bound tome with great fold-out illustrations made by John Wood himself, and is of inestimable value. I spent a few days marvelling at it before putting it on the shelf with the rest of my books, then forgot about it for a couple of years.
One day it called to me from the dusty shelf and - saturated in guilt - I took it back to the library, fully expecting a massive fine along with a non-custodial sentence if I was lucky. I had to do the right thing.
"I'm sorry," I said as I placed the book onto the desk, "but I have had this book a very long time."
The librarian was speechless for a few moments, then she almost cried with joy, saying that I was exempt from all fines because they did not expect to ever see it again. I got the feeling that someone may have lost their job over my abuse of the system.
John Wood's original book is now under lock and key somewhere, and if you want to look at it they give you a pair of white gloves and lock you in the room with it. I have since bought a facsimile copy and it cost me about £150.
So my misdeed may have saved that book, and for that I feel strangely (and probably unjustifiably) proud.