A Very Early Victorian Christmas – Hector Bolitho

Not so much a book as a pamphlet, this sewn spine publication was privately printed in an edition of just three hundred copies in 1929 as a Christmas gift from Alan, Dick and John Lane. It is the second such Christmas book from the brothers after the previous years Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray which I wrote about in a blog two years ago. The story appears to have been specially written by Bolitho for this edition and I cannot find any other time that it has been published, indeed it is so obscure that it wasn’t included in the Hector Bolitho bibliography on Wikipedia until I added it this morning.The book is attractively bound with quite large french flaps and a paper label stuck onto the cover giving the title and author. The first thing you see on opening the book is the gift dedication from the Lane brothers.

Surprisingly what you don’t see is any indication as to who printed the book and for hints as to which company it is I have turned to the Autumn 1984 edition of ‘The Private Library’, which is the quarterly journal of The Private Libraries Association. In this edition Jonathan Gili wrote an excellent article dealing with all the Lane Christmas books and in it he suggests that The Curwen Press, which had suddenly closed down in January of 1984, printed it as the paper cover was definitely from one of their patterns and the Koch Kursive typeface used for the above dedication panel was introduced by them in 1926. The sudden collapse of the business and the subsequent rapid sale and dispersal by auction of their effects would however preclude a more detailed examination.

Born in New Zealand in 1897 Bolitho came to England in the mid 1920’s and settled there, initially working as a freelance journalist. He went on to write over fifty books, a large number of which are biographies and a significant number of those are of British monarchs but is now largely unknown and this is the only book by him that I possess. Indeed as I said at the beginning this is barely a book, finishing as it does on page fifteen. The frontispiece shown above features a portrait of Princess Victoria at the age of eleven which would mean it is from 1830 which is roughly when the book is set and is seven years before she would become queen so the title is not really accurate as her father King William IV was monarch at the time and the Victorian era was still a few years away. However the little princess features in this short tale if only in allusion.

The stories lead character is Michael Stranger, born on Christmas Day early in the nineteenth century, and at the start he is living with his older sister near Reading, Berkshire and she is wonderfully described by Bolitho as

a gaunt, hard woman, with a face like a horse. She moved within her clothes as if she were made of laths of wood

Michael is to go to stay with his uncle, Abraham Trotter, from Christmas Day and he had a fine house in the Edgware Road, London, he was apparently

a dealer in tea and spices and cloves and ginger. His wife had died of pneumonia and the spittings and he lived alone

However we never meet him as Michael is to stay overnight on Christmas Eve at an inn in Kensington and on the coach to there he chats with a fellow passenger who tells him of Princess Victoria and that night after his meal, where there is more discussion regarding Victoria, he wanders down the road until he comes to Kensington Palace where a watchman tells him that the lights he can see on are from the windows of the young princess’s rooms. Amazingly that is the end of the book, it has barely got going when it stops.

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Brother Bear – H Clark Wakabayashi

Brother Bear was the 44th animated feature film by Disney and this book tells the story of how the film was made rather than telling the story in the film. I must admit that I have never seen the film, which was released in 2003, but that was not really important as I was interested in the creative development involved in making an animated feature and a quick flick through suggested that buying this book would give me the insight I was looking for. In fact the book told me much more about the somewhat odd personal development methods at Disney and their willingness to throw staff in at the deep end to see how they get on.

The book is an unusual landscape format is the 2003 first edition and is part of the Welcome Book series from Disney Editions. These books are dedicated to the making of various animated films from Disney and after reading this one I’m tempted to see if I can find more titles. The landscape format allows for the format of the images to be shown better although it does make the book somewhat unwieldy and also produces extra stress on the binding which has already resulted in the pages dropping at the far end so that they rest on the shelf rather than being held straight as originally bound.

The book starts with the determination of one animator, Aaron Blaise, to work on this movie from when it had been just a suggestion of a project that might go ahead. At that time it was to be loosely based on Shakespeare’s play King Lear, so an old bear with three daughters and it would be anthropomorphic like the much earlier Robin Hood with the animals dressed up like humans. Blaise didn’t like this idea and kept pushing, whenever he got a chance, for a more realistic treatment and for him to be involved as one of the animators. Eventually he was called to a meeting with a senior executive and rather than being offered an animators job he was asked to direct the film despite having no experience of directing. At this point there was no script and no real idea as to what the film would look like it was up to Blaise to come up with potential plot summaries and designs and put them in front of the executives who could agree to fund the production. After floundering for several months he was eventually assigned a co director, Bob Walker, to help although Walker hadn’t directed before either. The more you read the more you wonder how Disney ever come to make any movies at all. Eventually they gained a producer, Chuck Williams, who did know what he was doing and progress started to be made although they still didn’t have a script.

Gradually though the film starts to come together and the idea of transformation of a human into a bear, although how and why remained unclear and that human having to learn to live as a bear. For probably three quarters of the films development he is assisted in this by an old bear named Grizz and this got as far as being animated and even the voice of this bear being recorded and a song written by Phil Collins about the growing friendship between our hero and Grizz. All of this was scrapped very near the end of scheduled production and the old bear was replaced by a young cub named Koda who would be much more appealing to the potential audience. The cub idea came from the much more experienced team of animators in Los Angeles whilst Blaise and his team were in Florida and they held out for Grizz mainly due to the huge amount of work that had already gone into him and they felt tied to this way of the story. The two teams communicated via regular video conferences which were getting more and more fractious to the point that the cartoon below by one of the team of animators, Nathan Greno, was drawn to sum up how the conferences were going.

Eventually Blaise, Walker and Williams were convinced that the cub idea solved a lot of the story problems and a story editor was finally assigned to the movie years after they started making it and this turned the whole production around. The book is fascinating for the details of the conflicts and issues that occurred during the six years the film took to make and just how late in the process the whole project could be totally revised. I’ll have to watch the film now and see if I can spot areas where the whole plot changed direction from the numerous failed attempts to come up with a viable story.

The Strange Case of the Sixth Penguin Book

The first ten Penguin books were all published together in July 1935 with an edition size of 20,000 books per title and launched a publishing phenomena. being a fraction of the cost of any other books available at the time, but there was to be a problem with book number six. It soon became clear that Penguin Books might not have the rights to publish a paperback version of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ by Agatha Christie so despite it’s popularity, it was reprinted twice in 1935, the book was pulled from the list of available titles leaving a gap in the neat numbering system. What to do? Well by early 1936 Penguin definitely had the rights to another book by Agatha Christie, ‘The Murder on the Links’ and in March that year this replaced ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ but numbered 6A, see below.

Using an A to differentiate between the two books looked odd so in September 1936 the A was quietly dropped and ‘The Murder on the Links’ became number six. In the meantime however Penguin had sorted out the rights over ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ but this couldn’t go back to being book six without renumbering ‘The Murder on the Links’ and causing even more confusion so in June 1936 ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ was published again, this time as number sixty one. ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ as number sixty one is relatively easy to find but the book as number six is extremely rare despite the original print run. I have collected Penguin Books for over thirty years and only obtained a copy of this version in the last few days and fortunately didn’t have to pay the £750 that a similar condition copy apparently recently sold for. All of Christie’s first five books were published by The Bodley Head which at the time of publication was the home of Penguin Books whilst its Managing Director, Allen Lane, got Penguin started before leaving to run Penguin as a separate entity at the start of 1937. This interconnection between the two businesses is probably the cause of the confusion over rights.

So let’s look at the two books:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Originally published in 1920 this was Agatha Christie’s first book and introduced her most famous creation Hercule Poirot to the world. It was only when flicking through the book when it arrived that I realised that I hadn’t actually read it before, which was a considerable surprise. When we first meet Poirot he is with a group of other Belgian refugees from the First World War living in a house in Styles St Mary, a small village near the grand house of Styles Court. The man who would be Poirot’s chronicler and friend, Arthur Hastings, was staying at Styles Court whilst recuperating from being invalided out of the war. He is greatly surprised to find Poirot, whom he had met in Belgium before the war living so close and when Emily Inglethorp, the elderly owner of the manor house, dies, apparently of strychnine poisoning, he suggests getting Poirot involved in solving the case. The plot is surprising well constructed for a first novel and numerous family members and other guests at the house are suspected before Poirot explains the true solution in the final chapter. According to the rear flap of the dust wrapper the book was a result of a bet that Christie couldn’t write a detective story where the reader only discovered the true murderer in the last chapter. I have to say the final twist is most ingenious and yet the reader cannot say that any clues were not available to them in trying to solve the case themselves.

Poirot and Hastings would return to Styles Court in his last appearance, ‘Curtain’, only this time the house is no longer a family home but has been turned into a guest house.

And now for the second number six, this is one of only two times two completely different Penguin books shared the same catalogue number that I have been able to find in the almost ninety years Penguin Books have been publishing, the other being number 305 which was allocated to the first two volumes of Penguin New Writing before that was spun off into its own series. There are however several examples of books by that publisher being re-issued under a different number to that originally assigned so six becoming sixty one, whilst it is unusual and is the first such renumbering at Penguin is certainly not unique.

The Murder on the Links

Agatha Christie’s third book and the second to feature Hercule Poirot must presumably have been already planned for publication by Penguin before it suddenly appeared as 6A, the book had been first published in 1923 and like ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ had gone through numerous editions before appearing in Penguin. This time Poirot and Hastings are trying to solve a murder in northern France, in the imaginary small coastal town of Merlinville-sur-Mer which is apparently an up and coming destination and is constructing a golf course and casino in order to attract more wealthy visitors. Poirot had received a letter from Paul Renauld at his home in London, showing a considerable step up from his shared refugee home in Styles St Mary, which requested his urgent assistance in France so off they both go only to discover when they arrive that Paul Renauld was murdered the previous night. The plot has the addition of humour with Inspector Giraud, a modern detective from the Sûreté in Paris, whose methods amuse Poirot and the obvious resentment Giraud has for Poirot leads to a rivalry in which a five hundred franc bet is made between the two detectives as to who will solve the case. The case is more complicated than Poirot’s first appearance showing a growth in confidence by Christie after the very positive reception of her first two novels and I enjoyed this book more than the first.

Poirot and Hastings are so often seen as a double act, clearly based on Holmes and Watson, that it is perhaps surprising that of the further twenty Poirot novels Christie would write Hastings is only in five of them and she would later rewrite two of those removing Hastings as she did so. Indeed she is clearly trying to get rid of him in this book as he meets his future wife during this case and subsequently moves to Argentina to run a ranch with her. I like Hastings, although he can be a bit irritating but I have definitely enjoyed reading the two number sixes from Penguins catalogue.

The Clouded Mirror – L T C Rolt

L T C Rolt, also known as Tom Rolt, was one of the best writers on industrial history and the people who made it, and not only did he write about it but he was personally involved in saving a lot of Britain’s heritage from the Industrial Revolution from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for present generations to enjoy. In 1946 he was one of the three founders of the Inland Waterways Association, dedicated to restoring and making use of the long neglected canal network that criss-crossed the UK eventually leaving in 1951, by which time he had a huge new project to work on. He was chairman of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society which he helped found in 1950 and which was planning on restoring the old Welsh slate mining railway and turning it into the major tourist destination that it is now and it was through reading as a child his excellent 1953 book ‘Railway Adventure’ about his time rescuing the Talyllyn that I first became aware of him. Rolt died in 1974 having been more responsible for the preservation of what remains of the Industrial Revolution than anyone else and on top of the two organisations I have already mentioned he was a trustee and member of the Advisory Council of the UK Science Museum, joint founder of the Association for Industrial Archaeology, vice-president of the Newcomen Society, a member of the York Railway Museum Committee and helped to form the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust amongst many other things. He wrote ‘The Clouded Mirror’ in 1955 and this edition is from The Penguin English Journeys series published in 2009.

The Clouded Mirror is actually three works in one book, the first is acually called ‘The Clouded Mirror’ and surprisingly is concerned with two poets from the 1600’s who were based in the Welsh Marches, the border country between England and Wales with Herefordshire to the east and the Black Mountains to the west. Despite having given the book its title this was extremely dull and made me wonder where the rest of the book was going.

The second part, entitled ‘Kilvert’s Country’was an improvement but still a surprise given everything I thought I knew about the author as it is largely autobiographical and deals with his young childhood from the age of four when his family moved to the outskirts of Hay on Wye. This small town is in the heart of the Welsh Marches so this link at least partly explains Rolt’s fascination with the two poets in ‘The Clouded Mirror’. I know Hay very well as it was the world’s first booktown and I have been going there for decades looking for interesting works to add to my collection. Rolt’s childhood summers from 1914 sound idyllic as he gets older and explores the surrounding countryside. He writes with his customary gentle style beautiful descriptions of the places he gets to and his father sounds like a real character, having been in Australia, South Africa and even an unsuccessful prospector during the Yukon gold rush up in north western Canada. His shooting and fishing expeditions made sure that throughout WWI the family never went short of food and Rolt says that when war finished he realised that he had barely noticed that it had been happening as Hay was so remote from anyway directly affected by the conflict.

Finally there is ‘Canal Crusade’ and this is the section that made the book all worthwhile, for me anyway. It tells some of the stories from the early days of the Inland Waterways Association with Rolt travelling up largely derelict and weed clogged canals to highlight the poor state that this important transport network had reached following decades of neglect. This is Tom Rolt at his best, campaigning and writing about industrial heritage, forcing the railway companies that largely owned the canals in the first half of the twentieth century to finally maintain what they were responsible for. It seems amazing to me now, with the excellent condition that the canals are largely in now and their considerable use by holidaymakers that the stories of silted up waterways, collapsed bridges and what seemed terminal conditions are from just seventy years ago so the Inland Waterways Association must be congratulated in its work even if a major disagreement amongst the three founders meant that only one of them was still there by 1950. Fortunately by then Rolt had the Talyllyn to occupy him.

In short the book is worth reading for the second and third pieces but I won’t bother with the first part if I pick it up to read it again.