Photo by Richard Baker

Bookshop serendipity

A bibliophile carries books like memories

Artillery Row

This is the story of a small and satisfying adventure that befell your humble scribe. It happened recently whilst I was pursuing the profession of browsing in bookshops. In my case the job (for it is employment) is occasioned by the habit of ink pursuing nib across paper as a military historian and writer. In idle moments, a new angle on William the Conqueror’s design of castles, Napoleon’s Hundred Days Campaign, the use of carbines in the Charge of the Light Brigade or the destruction of Rommel’s panzers in Normandy will occur to the author as a method of accumulating more volumes to add to his collection.

The books must be found and bought. This has led to a sideline in the acquisition of bookshelves. Naturally, they must be old, and of dark wood, and of varying shapes and sizes, to accommodate tomes both short and tall, slim and fat. None of your Swedish or Danish flatpack pine nonsense, thank you.

I have no idea how many volumes grace my own shelves

Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of a good fortune, in search of books and bookcases, must be in want of a partner to help him locate these hallowed items. The companion is somewhat hindered by the lack of a catalogue, for that is retained within the purchaser’s head. Only your humble scribe knows what he wants, but he does not know it until he sees it, gathering dust on the shelf before him. It is a point booksellers would do well to ponder when they throw a well-meant “What are you looking for?” in my direction. I have absolutely no idea until I find it.

Equally, I have no idea how many volumes grace my own shelves. A rough calculation of shelf yardage, multiplied by bookcase heights, suggests around 15,000 items. That would be overlooking the encyclopaedia sets (in English, French and German), dictionaries (in more languages still), a complete run of Whitaker’s Almanack, another of Punch magazine from 1841 onwards, sundry bound numbers of The Field and Country Life, most issues of Pevsner’s Buildings of England, odd copies of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, several Burke’s Landed Gentry and Debrett’s, a Crockford’s Clerical Directory, and the Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907 edition. It goes without saying that all of these are invaluable in the pursuit of historical research.

During one hunting season, I descended on the book capital of the known world, Hay-on-Wye, a small market town dominated by its Norman castle that lurks in Brecknockshire (Welsh by a whisker, but possessing many of the characteristics of its English neighbour, Herefordshire). Trade promised to be brisk. My large, empty Volvo estate car waited, expectantly.

It was a long day. Summoned by bells for quick communion in St Mary’s (Pevsner says 1884, replacing one of 1710, itself built on an even earlier edifice), your humble scribe headed for a late lunch in the centre of town, detouring via a dozen or so literary emporia, including the Old Cinema (now pleasingly replete with 200,000 books) and Mr Richard Booth’s bookshop on Lion Street. Monsieur Booth welcomes dogs. Were my English Setter, Mr Bor, with me, he would have been fed, watered and embraced by the store’s staff whilst I tramped up and down its three floors, which extend, Hogwarts-like, unevenly into the gloom.

Over lunch, however, my companion plunged a moody fork into her lamb tagine and swore that she had already seen as much of Hay-on-Wye as she could bear to view that day. Not one further bookstore, even if the one opposite contained, unrecognised, Shakespeare’s First Folio for a fiver, would be investigated. I felt obliged to announce a graceful retreat. Whilst she waited, consuming chocolates, claret and cappuccinos, I prowled the remaining bookish boutiques in sight at high speed, hovering over rows of bright covers until I pounced on one, haggled with its vendor and conveyed it back, triumphant.

“Just see what I have found for a couple of pounds,” I crowed. Whilst she inspected The Ypres Salient, Then and Now by John Giles, second edition, I admitted that although I already had one, this would make a good reading copy. It would not matter if this exemplar got torn or battered during one of my many Great War battlefield visits. She regarded the tome without enthusiasm, as though it were something the cat had brought indoors. Her look implied she would rather have had the hard cash or, indeed, a Shakespearean First Folio.

The ship-sinker had been humbled into incoherent wonder

I explained that, as valueless this volume seemed to her, I was delighted to have it, as I had happy memories of directing a battlefield excursion based on its pages and afterwards presenting this edition to one of my paying participants. My friend had never been on a guided tour, nor seen me in action describing past acts of derring-do on the terrain of a conflict. What was the point of it all, she enquired. Inspecting the numerous illustrations, she wanted to know why did I need an additional copy of the admittedly obscure Ypres Salient, Then and Now in my already abstruse collection?

My friend remained resolutely sceptical. There was a lengthening silence whilst she raised an eyebrow that could sink a thousand ships, and I glanced out of the window longingly at more beckoning rows of books. The hush was then broken abruptly. My friend admitted, in a strained voice, that this particular Giles volume might, after all, hold a special resonance for me. She handed me the battlefield guidebook, open at the fly-leaf. On it in a flourishing ink signature lay the inscription: “To Bill Shand-Kydd on your birthday battlefield tour, with warmest wishes, Peter Caddick-Adams.”

How and when the book had first passed out of Bill’s possession, I could not say. He had died many years ago, long after our battlefield expedition, which had happened over twenty years previously. I cannot surmise the capricious circumstances and the incalculable odds against it making its way to Hay-on-Wye, to wait there for the right day and hour for me to reach out for it, in haste after lunch.

The rediscovery of The Ypres Salient gave me more pleasure than finding any Shakespearean First Folio might have done. I walked back to the car, glowing as if I had stumbled over a crock of gold on the pavement — doubly so, for into the bargain, the ship-sinker had been humbled into incoherent wonder. Somewhere a Greek or Roman god, maybe Caerus or Fortuna, chuckled, whilst the Japanese lexicographer who first coined the word tsundoku, referring to the phenomenon of acquiring books faster than the ability to read them, smiled.

Ever since, I have carried the moment around as a talisman, an instant retort to anyone daring to caution me against buying more books. The happenstance of such an uncommon coincidence provides both a frisson of excitement, and a moment of anxiety, that our possibly ordered universe contains deep, swirling, uncharted seas. It was a time, too, when I realised that the ship-sinker and I would part company. Meanwhile, and despite a famine of Shakespearean First Folios, my happy profession of book-buying has continued with unparalleled speed.

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