Heywood Hill. Credit: Herry Lawford

John Saumarez Smith: a bibliophile and a gentleman

The Heywood Hill bookseller has died

Artillery Row

The first time that I met John Saumarez Smith, who has died at the age of 78, was in 2006 at Heywood Hill, the bookshop that he worked in for over 40 years. I don’t quite remember the circumstances through which I had been introduced to him — they were probably masonic and Oxbridge in nature — but we were meeting to discuss the possibility of my going to work at Heywood Hill, and thereby joining a distinguished list of bookshop alumni, many of whom went on to even greater, if less aristocratic, institutions of their own.

Blair had a particular penchant for the novels of PG Wodehouse

My first, and abiding, impression of Saumarez Smith was that he was that rarest of things, a genuine bibliophile. I had spent many years by then immersed in the world of second-hand books, and was used to dealing with men (and they were almost all men) who either radiated contempt at what they were doing, or were so eccentric as to make normal conversation almost impossible. But Saumarez Smith was someone altogether different and more refreshing. He talked as enthusiastically about books and the world of publishing as if he’d only been working within them for a couple of months, not the thirty-odd years that he had, by that time, immersed himself in them. He told me that he read three books a week, and laughed “I don’t understand why more people don’t. Books are the best thing in the world, after all.”

His Wykehamist manners were far too entrenched for him to indulge in mere gossip, but he told me numerous amusing stories. I learnt, for instance, that Mick Jagger was one of Heywood Hill’s most treasured customers, and that he had a particular penchant for military and historical biographies. He also confided in me that in his role as librarian at Chequers, which he had occupied since 1991, he had seen a very different side of the previous three Prime Ministers. Blair was “utterly charming”, and had a particular penchant for the novels of PG Wodehouse, but was forbidden by those around him ever to hint at anything so frivolous. Major was, apparently, excellent value once you got him onto subjects that he was interested in, mainly economics, and Thatcher was altogether harder work – “but she was a great admirer of Anthony Powell”. No doubt the world of backstabbing and social climbing that Powell depicted so adroitly in his Dance To The Music of Time series struck a chord with the Iron Lady.

Powell, incidentally, was one of the many authors whose libraries Saumarez Smith took charge of dispersing after his death. (He was flattered to be included in Powell’s diaries; less so that his name was consistently misspelt within them.) I was allowed a glimpse at some of the highlights, which included a presentation copy of his first novel, Afternoon Men, to his friend Cyril Connolly. The book had ended up in Heywood Hill after Connolly’s death in 1974, along with much of Connolly’s library and Saumarez Smith had done the gentlemanly thing and offered Powell the chance to acquire it once again – at the market rate, of course. He might have been a bibliophile, but he was also an astute businessman.

We talked for some time, and he offered me the role of junior deputy under-bookseller, or whatever the most lowly post that Heywood Hill had to offer at that point. However, there was some staffing difficulty, in that the current incumbent of the position had to be gently manoeuvred out. “Can’t you just fire him?”, I asked with all of the naivete of youth. Saumarez Smith smiled. “We don’t fire people at Heywood Hill. We simply encourage them to pursue their interests and employ their talents in another sphere.” So, alas, I was offered another job, this time in journalism, which I was minded to accept. But Saumarez Smith, forever the gentleman, took me for lunch at a nearby Italian in Mayfair in order to try and change my mind.

He asked “How would you like to be paid? Books or cash?”

I still remember that lunch well, which is surprising given the amount of white wine that I drank during it. (Saumarez Smith restricted himself to two glasses, but they were, I was pleased to see, far from small ones.) Once I had disappointed him by saying that I was now duty-bound to accept the journalistic job, we talked of books, and their collectors and he offered titbits of information. The shop had recently sold off Edward Heath’s library, acquired from his “closest male friend”, and Saumarez Smith said, with incredulity, “He kept everything. Even down to trashy paperbacks and school exercise books. Fascinating from a psychological perspective; less useful when it came to compiling a catalogue.” Even so, the highlights were excellent, not least a series of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War inscribed by Churchill to Heath. But such books did not stay in the shop long, not least because there were regular customers whose requirements and interests were well known and who were offered first pick of such items. I wonder if it ended up in Mick Jagger’s library.

In the event, the only work that I ended up doing at Heywood Hill was a day’s sorting a year or so later, when there was an especially riotous amount of books in the cellar and a relatively fit and strong young man (as I was back in those distant days) had to be called in to assist. But Saumarez Smith was as charming and informed as ever. While I worked, he offered anecdotes about some of the shop’s customers. John le Carré (or “David”, as he was known) was a regular, and even featured Heywood Hill within Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as Smiley heads to the shop “with a merry heart”. Foreign royalty treated it as a regular port of call on their trips, not least because it was not too far from Buckingham Palace. But, as Saumarez Smith put it, “I tended to be the only one who knew who they were, let alone how they liked to be addressed.” At the end of the day, with a gleam in his eye, he asked “How would you like to be paid? Books or cash?” I was hard-up at the time, but there was a particularly nice edition of Eric Gill’s illustrations on the shelf, which I’d eyed up earlier that day. “Good man”, Saumarez Smith said when I plumped for the written word over lucre. I have it still, and have never regretted my decision.

After he retired from Heywood Hill in 2008, he occupied a desk and a kind of bookseller honorarium position at Maggs in Berkeley Square, and subsequently decamped to John Sandoe in Chelsea, but it was never quite the same. The industry had changed beyond recognition by then, and although Saumarez Smith was a man who still had an eye for a fascinating book and could put together an authoritative catalogue of a late duke’s estate, he was uninterested in the flashier, more commercially driven world that high-end book-dealing had morphed into. But to talk to John was to leave such tiresome considerations behind, and to retreat into a far more civilised and decent world, in which books had their own intrinsic value and worth, whatever the sum that could be pencilled on their frontispiece.

When thinking about this tribute, I looked back over the emails that we exchanged over the years, many of which are as witty and droll (from his side) as one could have hoped for, as well as a useful aide memoire for what I was doing all those years ago. I discovered, for instance, that in 2006, I was thinking of building a small theology library (why?) and asked his advice on which titles to collect. His response was typically piquant. “I used to be able to bluff my way in the field of theology but feel wholly out of touch. It is inclined to be ephemeral: beware of eternal values.” And, characteristically, each of them ends with an invitation to drop by, or to telephone, or to visit him at his club. Now, I only wish I’d done so more often. In an imperilled business, I feel both sure, and sad, that we shall not see the likes of Saumarez Smith again: bookseller, bibliophile and, above all, gentleman. The only crumb of comfort is to imagine what a truly first-class sale his own library will make — through, I have to hope, the auspices of Heywood Hill.  

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