The Complete McGonagall – the worlds worst poet

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William McGonagall has gone down in history as the worst poet in the world and this book is a collection of almost every poem that can be reliably attributed to him. These have been published in various collections, but Duckworth have produced the most complete versions admittedly by creating extra volumes by merely selecting from the few books and pamphlets printed in the 1800’s along with some previously unpublished works. This book appears to combine an existing seven volumes into one but only two volumes were produced in McGonagall’s lifetime along with lots of single sheet poems sold as he was going along. In reality four of the listed volumes were created by Duckworth in the 1980’s and the three others were considerably shortened by them at the same time in order to provide works for the extra books.

I think we need an example from his first collection printed in 1890 just so that the uninitiated can get the measure of the man’s genius, this was his first poem, dated 1877 and is entitled “An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan”

All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn’d away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter’s night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen does not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.

Gilfillan when hearing of the poem is reported to have said

“Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.”

which McGonagall took to be a compliment. This was the also the first example of what could be called the curse of being celebrated by McGonagall as a year later in 1878 he had cause to write two more poems about Gilfillan, entitled “Lines in Memoriam of the Late Rev. George Gilfillan” and “The Burial of the Reverend George Gilfillan”. He famously wrote in praise about the Bridge over the Silvery Tay only to subsequently write less that 2½ years later about “The Tay Bridge Disaster” This latter work is a good example of the unintended humorous nature of his works by forcing lots of facts into the poem without worrying if it then made any sense whatsoever and destroying any rhythm that may have been wanted. His need in poetry was to make it rhyme not scan and as long as a tenuous rhyme was achieved he appeared to be happy.

William McGonagall was born in 1825 in Ireland but came with his parents to Scotland as a very young child, indeed he claimed for a long time to have born in Edinburgh but the family soon settled in Dundee which he where he grew up. For the first fifty two years of his life he sometimes dabbled in acting but was by profession a weaver like his father until in 1877 the poetic urge struck him

I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877, and in the month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom. Well, it being the holiday week in Dundee, I was sitting in my back room in Paton’s Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn’t get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears-
“WRITE! WRITE”
I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself– “I know nothing about poetry.” But still the voice kept ringing in my ears – “Write, write,” until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a poem.

That he knew nothing about poetry was proved by the poem above, but whilst a poet can have a bad day, especially with their earliest works, McGonagall was if anything to get worse. There is a beauty in the total awfulness of his works that sucks the reader in, the Complete Works includes 247 poems and I have read it cover to cover several times. You just can’t believe what it is you are reading. The photo on the cover of the edition I have is of Spike Milligan as McGonagall and Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria as Milligan in particular popularised ‘The Great McGonagall’ from the 1960’s onwards and ensured that his body of work did not get neglected.

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His works have been in constant print for many decades, above is the 1966 edition of More Poetic Gems published by David Winter and Sons in Dundee (who were his original publishers) and Gerald Duckworth and Co Ltd as a joint venture. Although appreciated now McGonagall died in poverty in 1902. He had eked out a living more as a sideshow than a poet from 1877 although it is clear that he regarded himself as a much put upon performer who was delivering great work to people who didn’t appreciate his ability. It was quite common for an audience to throw rotten fruit and vegetables and sometimes even fish at him whilst he was reciting, indeed the opening paragraph to the preface of his first published work ‘Poetic Gems’ includes the line

the first person to throw a dish of peas at me was a publican

It isn’t so much the fact that somebody threw a dish of peas at him as that this was just the first time…

Because he had no money when he died he was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriers kirkyard in Edinburgh, his grave received a nearby marker in 1999.

William McGonagall
Poet and Tragedian
“I am your gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee.”

I shall include one final poem and it’s one of the less well known ones “The Death of Captain Webb”. Webb was the first person to swim the English Channel (22 miles at its shortest point). He is something of a local hero here in Shropshire as he was born less than 5 miles from where I am sitting but died in a somewhat foolhardy attempt to swim across the rapids below Niagara Falls. The poem shows McGonagall at his prime, it was written in 1883 and has all his stylistic failings…

Alas brave Captain Webb has acted the part of a fool
By attempting to swim the mighty Niagara whirlpool,
Which I am sorry to say and to relate,
Has brought him to an untimely fate.

’Twas in the year Eighteen hundred and eighty-three,
With the people of America he did agree,
For $10,000, to swim through that yawning whirlpool;
But alas! He failed in doing so — the self-conceited fool.

Captain Webb, he courted danger for the sake of worldly gain
And the thought of gaining for himself — world wide fame;
And although many people warned him not to throw his life away,
He rushed madly to his fate without the least dismay.

Which clearly proves he was a mad conceited fool,
For to try to swim o’er that fearful whirlpool,
When he knew so many people had perished there,
And when the people told him so, he didn’t seem to care.

Had it not been for the money that lured him on
To the mighty falls of Niagara, he never would have gone
To sacrifice his precious life in such a dangerous way;
But I hope it will be a warning to others for many a long day.

On Tuesday the 24th of July, Webb arrived at the falls,
And as I view the scene in my mind’s eye, my heart it appalls
To think that any man could be such a great fool,
Without the help of God, to think to swim that great whirlpool;

Whereas, if he had put his trust in God before he came there,
God would have opened his blinded eyes and told him to beware;
But being too conceited in his own strength, the devil blinded his eyes,
And all thought of God and the people’s advice he therefore did despise.

But the man the forgets God, God will forget him;
Because to be too conceited in your own strength before God it is a sin;
And the devil will whisper in your ear — there’s no danger in the way,
And make you rush madly on to destruction, without the least dismay.

At half-past three o’clock Webb started for the river,
Which caus’d many of the spectators with fear to shiver,
As they wondered in their hearts if he would be such a fool
As to dare to swim through that hell — whirlpool.

Webb was received by the people with loud and hearty cheers;
And many a heart that day was full of doubts and fears;
A many a one present did venture to say –
“He only came here to throw his life away.”

The Webb entered a boat, in waiting, and was rowed by the ferry-man;
And many of the spectators seem’d to turn pale and wan;
And when asked by the boatman how much he’d made by the channel swim,
He replied $25,000 complete every dim.

Have you spent it all? Was the next question McCloy put to him,
No, answered Webb, I have yet $15,000 left, every dim;
“Then” replied McCloy, “You’d better spend it before you try this swim;”
Then the captain laugh’d heartily but didn’t answer him.

When the boat arrived at point opposite the “Maid of the Mist”
The captain stripped, retaining only a pair of red drawers of the smallest grist;
And at two minutes past four o’clock Webb dived from the boat;
While the shouts and applause of the crowd on the air seem’d to float.

Oh, Heaven! it must have been an awe inspiring sight,
To see him battling among that hell of waters with all his might,
And seemingly swimming with ease and great confidence;
While the spectators held their breath in suspense.

At one moment he was lifted high on the crest of a wave;
But he battled most manfully his life to save;
But alas! all his struggling prov’d in vain,
Because he drown’d in that merciless whirlpool God did so ordain.

He was swept into the neck of that hell — whirlpool,
And was whirl’d about in it just like a light cotton spool;
While the water fiend laughingly cried ”Ha! ha! you poor silly fool,
You have lost your life, for the sake of gain, in that hell — whirlpool

I hope the Lord will be a father to his family in their distress,
For they ought to be pitied, I really must confess;
And I hope the subscribers of the money, that lured Webb to his fate,
Will give the money to Mrs. Webb, her husband’s loss to compensate.

In the Tiffany Aching young adult series of books by Terry Pratchett the Pictsies or ‘Nac Mac Feegle’ are a race of 6 inch high beings that are more Scottish than it is probably possible to be. They have as their most feared tactic on the battlefield their Gonnagale who at times of greatest danger recites strange and terrible poetry which has the effect of reducing all that hear it to gibbering wrecks. The poems, and his title, are clearly based on the works of William McGonagall and are a tribute to the man whose writings approach genius by being so atrocious they reach round the spectrum of quality and get there from the other side.

Read him and weep

from laughter

The World As It Is – A book for Subscribers

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Well actually The World as it was, as these books date from 1884 and provides a glimpse into history 130 years ago. However before looking at the book itself the main reason for selecting it is to expand on the subject of subscribers editions that I first touched on in Burghall’s Diary  That book in my collection was sold against a prospectus, ‘The World As It Is’ is a subscribers only book and helpfully whoever had the parts subsequently bound included the subscription page so we know how it was sold. After a lot of description as to the structure of the proposed two volumes the subscription page concludes as follows:

The Work will be handsomely printed on super-royal 8vo paper, and will be illustrated by above 300 engravings printed in the text; seventeen maps and diagrams printed in colours, ten coloured plates show some of the principal races of the earth and some remarkable natural phenomenons, and twenty-eight separate page engravings representing notable and remarkable localities in many lands. – making in all FIFTY-FIVE separately printed illustrations. It will be issued in Fourteen Parts, of 80 pages of letterpress, at 2s. each, or Seven Divisions in stiff paper covers at 4s. each, forming when completed two handsome large 8vo volumes. Whether viewed in the aspect of the wide range of its contents, of its educative value, its wealth of illustration, or its moderate price, this work will be found to be quite unique of its kind.

LONDON:  BLACKIE  &  SON,  49  &  50  OLD BAILEY,  EC;

GLASGOW, EDINBURGH AND DUBLIN

Capitalisation is as printed in the document, I have used bold to represent the parts highlighted in italics in the original, this is a Victorian marketing department going full tilt. For those not familiar with the abbreviations used 8vo is a standard paper size usually written as octavo. Standard octavo paper is 9 inches high by 6 inches wide (23cm x 15cm) The pages of the book are actually 9.7 inches high by 7.2 inches wide (24.6cm x 18.4cm) which is presumably where Blackie have come up with super-royal although both super octavo and royal octavo are larger than this.

The price is given as either 14 lots of 2s. or 7 lots of 4s. s. standing for shilling so a total of 28 shillings regardless of how you had the parts. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator (which unfortunately only goes up to 2016) this ‘moderate price’ was apparently more like £159.65 in 2016 or just over £168 by 2018 adding the extra 2 years inflation. Also bear in mind that like modern magazine part works you then need binders, in fact back then you definitely did as these were literally just loose pages, especially the illustrations, and came with instructions for the bookbinder as to where the pages should go. So you would buy the remarkably solid board covers available from Blackie and then pay a bookbinder to put it all together meaning you wouldn’t see any change out of the equivalent of at least £200 probably closer to £250 for your ‘moderate’ purchase. I bought the books in the mid 1980’s and according to the price still visible inside paid £2.50 for the pair at the time, the paint stains on the boards no doubt keeping the price well down. I remember the second hand bookshop where I bought them fondly, the proprietor wrote a year code letter next to the price in all his books, A for his first year of business, B for the second etc. he had been trading for getting on for 20 years by the time I bought this and if you could find anything in the shop coded A you could have it for free.

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The books are really interesting although anyone looking at them and deciding to visit a place based on the information provided would definitely have a surprise coming; for example Swanston Street in Melbourne certainly looks different nowadays :

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It’s the illustrations that I like so much and that first attracted me to these books, that and odd bits of history that you suddenly spot whilst scanning through. The United States of America is described  as a republic consisting of 38 states and 8 territories with an organised government, besides the Indian territory, the territory of Alaska and the District of Columbia. Seeing a map with Indian Territory clearly marked instead of Oklahoma emphasise the fact that the books pre-date the ‘land runs’ of settlers into the Indian lands and are a full 23 years before the Indian Territory ceased to exist altogether when the state was created in 1907.

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The smaller illustrations within the text are also beautiful steel engravings as these two pages show, one from the Amazon basin in Brazil and the other from the Transleithan Provinces of the Austrian Empire most of which is now the independent country of Hungary with the Transylvanian region making  up the western part of Romania. You do have to know some history to even start looking places up as they may well not be under the country you expect.

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Budapest is described throughout this section as two cities Buda and Pesth (the extra h is how it is spelt in the book) and when you are there the city does feel like two distinct places even now.

The colour plates are not a strong point though, the artist who did these wasn’t really of the standard of the rest so they are a bit of a let down even though the colours are still strong, the best one by a long way is the one representing China:

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The books provide a glimpse into a world that no longer exists and for that they are fascinating. In fact they document a world that was rapidly disappearing even as it was published, so I think I will conclude this essay with what is apparently a typical Dutch interior, but is definitely is a museum piece now.

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King Penguins

Although the longest essay I have written here so far, this is just a brief introduction to a very attractive series of books produced by Penguin from 1939 to 1959. Covering a vast array of subjects with (for the most part) excellent illustrations in both black and white and colour they make up a mini reference library all on their own.

20180626 King Penguins 01Starting a new series of illustrated hard back books just as war had broken out was clearly just bad timing for Penguin Books, they had been planned for months and the first two were ready to go for November 1939. That the series not only survived the subsequent paper rationing but flourished for a further 74 volumes until 1959 was nothing short of a miracle. Almost all the books have the same format, a monograph on the specialist subject which may also include black and white line illustrations or photographs, followed by a series of colour plates. The monograph averages about 30 pages; although Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley has only 18 and at the extreme opposite A Book Of English Clocks by R.W. Symonds has 74 pages of text. Likewise the colour plates were intended to be on 16 pages, this also varies but by no means as much as the texts as this was easily the most expensive part of each production so costs were closely monitored.

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Kings were inspired by the German Insel Bucherei printed by Insel Verlag, these beautiful art books had started in 1912 and by the time Penguin launched their Kings there were roughly 500 Insels already available and their catalogue would eventually reach 1,400 different titles. Fortunately for my bookshelves Kings stop at number 76 although there are a few variations to collect as well but my complete set of the first editions is shown in the picture at the top of this essay. One of the most striking aspects of that picture is the wide variety of covers and the design of these was seen as one of the most important aspects of the series. After all they have to draw the potential purchaser in, especially as these were initially priced at one shilling or twice the price being charged for the normal Penguin paperbacks. Unfortunately this didn’t last very long as the price very quickly doubled as it became clear that they were more expensive to do right that initially anticipated and Alan Lane wanted them to be done as well as Penguin could manage. This meant that they really had to look striking so the original house style on the first five was quickly dropped.

Only seventeen Kings were ever reprinted or revised, so with almost all of them the first edition is the only example available and on average 20,000 were printed of each title, although A Book of Toys sold over 55,000 copies. This means that Kings are not normally particularly rare; but are scarce enough to make the hunt trying to collect them all interesting. Some such as Magic Books From Mexico were recognised as niche interests from the start so the print runs were commensurately smaller. In the case of this book however even these apparently didn’t sell and there is a rumour that a large number of them had their plates removed and put under glass in the type of coffee table very popular in the 1960’s and 70’s.

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K1 – British Birds on Lake, River and Stream by Phyllis Barclay-Smith – Nov 1939
K2 – A Book of Roses by John Ramsbottom – Nov 1939
K3 – A Book of Ships by Charles Mitchell – Sept 1941
K4 – Portraits of Christ by Ernst Kitzinger & Elizabeth Senior – Feb 1941
K5 – Caricature by E.H. Gombrich & E. Kris – Feb 1941

The first five Kings produced under the editorship of Elizabeth Senior are highly distinctive, although the actual printing quality is not as good as it might be given the intention to emulate the Insel books. However as you can see from the dates of first publication this was not a time for finesse, wartime restrictions soon caused problems with the series meaning that a large proportion of K3, K4 and K5 were bound in soft card covers cut flush to the internal pages as well as the overlapping boards normally used for Kings. The Book of Ships in the picture above is one of these soft back editions and as can be seen is consequently slightly smaller than the other four. K1 is the first of these volumes to use plates from John Gould‘s famous work The Birds of Great Britain, the other being K19 Garden Birds. A Book of Roses (K2) also makes use of a famous earlier work for the plates, in this case Redouté‘s Les Roses. The other three volumes use 16 colour plates from a mixture of sources and along with these there are several black and white images within the text. K1 and K2 only have the 16 colour plates along with a single black and white portrait of Gould and Redouté respectively.

Sadly Elizabeth Senior was killed in an air raid in 1941 and editorial control of the series passed to Nikolaus Pevsner

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K6 – British Shells by F. Martin Duncan – June 1943
K7 – Fashions and Fashion Plates 1800-1900 by James Laver – June 1943
K8 – Elizabethan Miniatures by Carl Winter – June 1943
K9 – The Microcosm of London by John Summerson – June 1943
K10 – The Bayeux Tapestry by Eric Maclagan – Dec 1943
K11 – Fishes of Britain’s Rivers and Lakes by J.R. Norman – Dec 1943
K12 – The Poets’ Corner by John Rothenstein – Dec 1943
K13 – Edible Fungi by John Ramsbottom – July 1944
K14 – A Book of Lilies by Fred Stoker – Dec 1943
K15 – Seashore Life and Pattern by T.A. Stephenson – July 1944
K16 – Children as Artists by R.R. Tomlinson – Dec 1944
K17 – The Leaves of Southwell by Nikolaus Pevsner – Dec 1945

After the fairly dull cover design of the first five with its fussy white banding round the spine it is a relief to see the variety produced in the next dozen. Half of them have that Insel Bucherei look with the title and author appearing on a reproduction of the paste down labels quite common on quality books from the previous 100 or so years. Unlike Insel books this is actually part of the printed design rather than an extra slip, but it does give a touch of class to the book. The first few are experimenting with alternate cover styles and Fishes of Britain’s Rivers and Lakes is a very attractive design by Charles Paine, I’m less impressed with the cover of Microcosm of London with it’s overly florid text done by Walter Grimmond. Having said that Microcosm is the first of the Ackermann editions in Kings. Rudolph Ackermann was a bookseller and printer in London in the early 1800’s and his books and prints sold well making him known for the quality of his images which captured not only cityscapes like this along with K59 Cambridge and K69 Oxford but also the images documenting the start of the railway age some of which are included in K56 Early British Railways and for further variation K46 Highland Dress, all plates of which were originally printed by Ackermann.

Other notable books in this block of twelve are K10 The Bayeux Tapestry with 8 pages of colour plates and 40 pages of black and white photographs which at the time were some of the best images available in print. K13 Edible Fungi is beautifully illustrated by Rose Ellenby who also did its pair K23 Poisonous Fungi. Like Elizabeth Senior, Nikolaus Pevsner got one of his own titles in this block with K17 The Leaves of Southwell which has 32 pages of lovely black and white photographs of the capitals and columns in the chapter house at the Minster of Southwell in Nottinghamshire.

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K18 – Some British Moths by Norman Riley – May 1945
K19 – Garden Birds by Phyllis Barclay-Smith – May 1945
K20 – English Ballet by Janet Leeper – Dec 1944
K21 – Popular English Art by Noel Carrington – Dec 1945
K22 – Heraldry in England by Anthony Wagner – Nov 1946
K23 – Poisonous Fungi by John Ramsbottom – Dec 1945
K24 – Birds of the Sea by R.M. Lockley – Dec 1945
K25 – Ur: The First Phases by Sir Leonard Woolley – May 1947
K26 – A Book of Toys by Gwen White – Dec 1946
K27 – Flowers of Marsh and Stream by Iola A. Williams – Nov 1946
K28 – A Book of English Clocks by R.W. Symonds – May 1947
K29 – Flowers of the Woods by Sir E.J. Salisbury – Apr 1947

Apart from the obviously wonderfully choice of getting somebody called Leeper to write a book about ballet this is a delightful mix of titles. K18 British Moths goes back to the first two Kings by using prints from an old classic book on the subject, in this case by Moses Harris from the mid 1700’s. K21 Popular English Art is an eclectic mix from  drawings of Windsor chairs to colour images of a jug, ship’s figurehead and even a pub interior all done by Clarke Hutton who like Noel Carrington who wrote the text is probably best known to Penguin collectors for their work on Puffin Picture books. Birds of the Sea is also illustrated by an artist in Puffin Picture Books, R.B. Talbot Kelly who created the PP52 Paper Birds which was a cut out book now rarely seen in one piece along with the beautiful PP65 Mountain and Moorland Birds.

One of my favourite King Penguins comes next, K26 A Book of Toys by Gwen White, it’s one of the oddities in the range as it deviates from the plan of a monograph and plates being illustrated all the way through much more like a small hardback Puffin Picture Book with the handwritten text drawn directly onto the plates and not typeset; and what is not to like about a cover with dozens of toy penguins. K27 is let down badly by the quality of the printing of the colour plates, K28 is frankly a mess with far too much jammed into the book which would have been better expanded as a Pelican Book and dropped from this series but K29 rescues this block with some lovely if rather flat coloured plates.

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K30 – Wood Engravings by Thomas Bewick by John Rayner – Apr 1947
K31 – English Book Illustration 1800-1900 by Philip James – Sept 1947
K32 – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Dec 1946
K33 – Russian Icons by David Talbot Rice – Oct 1947
K34 – The English Tradition in Design by John Gloag – Oct 1947
K35 – A Book of Spiders by W.S. Bristowe – Sept 1947
K36 – Ballooning by C.H. Gibbs-Smith – Nov 1948
K37 – Wild Flowers of the Chalk by John Gilmour – Dec 1947
K38 – Compliments of the Season by L.D. Ettlinger & R.G. Holloway – Dec 1947
K39 – Woodcuts of Albrecht Durer by T.D. Barlow – Sept 1948
K40 – Edward Gordon Craig by Janet Leeper – Oct 1948
K41 – British Butterflies by E.B. Ford – Oct 1951

The first two of this block make a great pair, they have a similar design with high quality illustrations right through the text as well as the plates at the back and K39 Woodcuts of Durer goes well with the both of them. That brings us to another King Penguin oddity. K32 A Christmas Carol is almost a facsimile of the original first edition of this Dickens classic, it doesn’t count as a true facsimile as the font used is Monotype Modern, it being the closest available to match the original. The very interesting Russian Icons by David Talbot Rice is another book let down by the poor quality of the printing of the plates, it also has a correction slip pasted over credit for the cover illustration. William Grimmond is credited on the page with Enid Marx pasted over the top. The English Tradition in Design has 72 pages of black and white photographs, the cover of this book does tend to fade badly, probably more than any other King Penguin whilst Wild Flowers of the Chalk, Compliments of the Season and British Butterflies all go back to the original internal plan with a monograph followed by 16 plates which was now becoming a rarity in the series, even if only the last one had a suitable cover design.

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K42 – British Military Uniforms by James Laver – Oct 1948
K43 – A Prospect of Wales by Gwyn Jones – Sept 1948
K44 – Tulipomania by Wilfrid Blunt – Oct 1950
K45 – Unknown Westminster Abbey by Lawrence E. Tanner – Nov 1948
K46 – Highland Dress by George F. Collie – Aug 1948
K47 – British Reptiles and Amphibia by Malcolm Smith – June 1949
K48 – A Book of Scripts by Alfred Fairbank – Nov 1949
K49 – Some British Beetles by Geoffrey Taylor – June 1949
K50 – Popular Art in the United States by Edwin O. Christensen – June 1949
K51 – Life in an English Village by Noel Carrington – June 1949
K52 – The Isle of Wight by Barbara Jones – July 1950
K53 – Flowers of the Meadow by Geoffrey Grigson – June 1950

By now Swiss designer Jan Tschichold was firmly in control of the Penguin house style, he had started with tidying up the look of the major series and setting firm rules not just on typography but also strict design specifications, his influence can now be seen in the Kings. His re-imposition of the original plan of monograph with 16 plates continued with these dozen, just two don’t fit this general structure although the number of plates did get up to 22 for some. The two that don’t fit are K45 Unknown Westminster Abbey along with K48 A Book of Scripts, K45 is very similar in structure to K17 The Leaves of Southwell which makes sense as these are covering much the same field just a different building. A Book of Scripts is another King oddity, concentrating as it does on fine handwriting and to do this it needs lots of illustrations, it also is the only King Penguin to be revised/reprinted four times. Beyond that record it was later greatly enlarged and printed in February 1969 as a large format Pelican (A973) which also went to several reprints.

Largely this gives an idea as to what Kings could have been if there had been more money, better quality printing and greater control on the design from the beginning. The problem was the price that they now had to be sold at. From 1940 to 1949 they had been either 2 or 2½ shillings, by 1952 the price had rocketed and they were just under 4½ shillings and two years later they had reached 5 shillings. They are truly lovely books though, watercolours by Kenneth Rowntree show Wales at its best with K43, Edward Bawden took on the English village (K51) in his distinctive style whilst Barbara Jones not only beautifully illustrated K52 The Isle of Wight but unusually also wrote the monograph. Tulipomania uses plates by Alexander Marshall from a collection from the 1650’s and now in the Royal collection in Windsor. These are some of the most vibrant flower paintings in the King series and makes this a highly desirable book in its own right. The other great joy of this dozen is K49 Some British Beetles illustrated by Vere Taylor.

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K54 – Greek Terracottas by T.B.L. Webster – Apr 1951
K55 – Romney Marsh by John Piper – May 1950
K56 – Early British Railways by Christian Barman – May 1950
K57 – A Book of Mosses by Paul W Richards – July 1950
K58 – A Book of Ducks by Phyllis Barclay-Smith – Apr 1951
K59 – Ackermann’s Cambridge by Reginald Ross Williamson – June 1951
K60 – The Crown Jewels by Oliver Warner – June 1951
K61 – John Speed’s Atlas of Tudor England and Wales by E.G.R. Taylor – June 1951
K62 – Medieval Carvings in Exeter Cathedral by C.J.P. Cave – May 1953
K63 – A Book of Greek Coins by Charles Seltman – Nov 1952
K64 – Magic Books from Mexico by C.A. Burland – Feb 1953
K65 – Semi-Precious Stones by N. Wooster – May 1953

Jan Tschichold only lasted a couple of years in his role at Penguin but in that time he completely revolutionised the house style. His replacement was the German Hans Schmoller, he took Tschichold’s templates and refined them further. In this batch we can see the continuation of the original Insel inspired cover designs with fake paste-down label on the majority. The cover of K61 John Speed’s Atlas is based on an old copy which is highly appropriate for this collection of county maps from 1627, the title reflects the usual name for this group of maps although they were not actually by the great Tudor English cartographer but rather his Dutch contemporary Pieter van den Keere. The cover of K63 A Book of Greek Coins is another Walter Grimmond design, he did fifteen in all and only two (K59 Ackermann’s Cambridge and K64 Magic Books from Mexico) come close to looking like the original plan. A further oddity of K63 is one of the coins on the cover, which are intending to show the development of the Britannia figure all the way from an original Greek version to the present day. Grimmond includes a penny with the date 1952 in the bottom left as that was the printing date of the book, however no pennies were actually minted that year as there were plenty already in circulation.

K55 Romney March written and illustrated by the artist John Piper is a very attractive volume, although his sketches illustrating the section on churches in the area are for me more compelling than the 16 colour plates at the back. Also sticking strictly to the 16 plates rule are K57, K58, K60, K64 and K65 with K58 A Book of Ducks and K65 Semi-Precious Stones being particularly fine. K62 Medieval Carvings in Exeter Cathedral continues the style set by the other three books in this sub series of medieval carvings (K17, K45 and K72) all of which have a large collection of black and white photographs, by in this case having 64 pages of them. One extra oddity that should be covered at this point is the soft back Mexican reprint of K64 by Ediciones LARA produced in 1966 to coincide with the Mexico Olympics, although not printed by Penguin it was fully authorised by them as stated  inside.

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K66 – Birds of La Plata by W.H. Hudson & R. Curle – Apr 1952
K67 – Mountain Birds by R.A.H. Coombes – Nov 1952
K68 – Animals in Staffordshire Pottery by Bernard Rackham – Sept 1953
K69 – Ackermann’s Oxford by H.M. Colvin – Mar 1954
K70 – The Diverting History of John Gilpin by William Cowper – Nov 1953
K71 – Egyptian Paintings by Nina M Davies – May 1954
K72 – Misericords by M.D. Anderson – Oct 1954
K73 – The Picture of Cricket by John Arlott – May 1955
K74 – Woodland Birds by Phyllis Barclay-Smith – Nov 1955
K75 – Monumental Brasses by James Mann – Nov 1957
K76 – The Sculpture of the Parthenon by P.E. Corbett – July 1959

The final batch of Kings took a long time to come out certainly compared to the rapid fire production of earlier years. K66 Birds of La Plata is the only bird book in the series not to feature British birds but rather those of South America following an interest Sir Allen Lane (the founder of Penguin) had developed during his time in that continent at the end of WWII whilst trying to launch Penguin Books there. K70 John Gilpin has also strong links to Lane as it is a heavily reduced in size version of a book he had privately printed as a limited edition Christmas gift the previous year. To emphasise the unusual nature of K66, K67 Mountain Birds is actually called British Mountain Birds inside.

Again 16 colour plates is the norm with only John Gilpin (as a reprint of an existing book), K72 Misericords with lots of photographs (as noted above to match others in the sub series) and the final two books K75 Monumental Brasses and K76 The Sculpture of the Parthenon not matching that pattern. K71 Egyptian Paintings is a little disappointing, the colours are very muted in the reproductions and don’t have the vibrancy of the original tomb paintings. All three bird books are lovely things and would with their compatriots through the Kings make a very attractive collection on their own with the advantage that with the exception of K66 La Plata they are all quite easy to find. K75 Monumental Brasses was a surprise when I first got a copy, I was expecting more black and white photographs but instead this book is illustrated with drawings that have been coloured a pale yellow and very nice they are too as they are certainly clearer that photographs might have been. This is particularly true of the final book in the set; K76 is a sad end to a great series, the photographs are poorly printed compared to previous works and the text is hardly a gripping read

The animation below showing some of the wonderful plates from various King Penguins was done for a talk on the Gentle Art of Penguin Collecting given by myself and Megan Prince at The 2018 Hay Independence celebrations. I hope this inspires a collector or two out there to take a look at the 76 King’s almost 60 years after the last one was printed, they are well worth dipping into.

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When I was Very Young – A.A. Milne

Although nowadays best known for his stories about his son Christopher Robin and his toys Winnie The Pooh and all the other characters in the Hundred Acre Wood, Alan Alexander Milne would rather be known for his other books and plays. He wrote a surprisingly good crime novel (The Red House Mystery) and over 3 dozen plays along with several books of non-fiction. When I was Very Young is one of his rarest works as the only publication of it is the limited edition from The Fountain Press printed in 1930. Just 842 copies were produced and all were signed by Milne on the limitation page at the back of the book, my copy is number 38. The book comes in a plain card slipcase rather than a dust wrapper although this easily damaged and is often missing from copies for sale

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The book consists of five short biographical stories from Milne’s childhood which are written in the first person and probably true as the facts that it is possible to check are accurate, such as H.G. Wells being his science teacher at his first school, where his father was head-master. In the book his two older brothers are called David and John (in reality David Barrett Milne and Kenneth John Milne) and the age differences are correct along with the description of all three having blue eyes and golden hair. There are several illustrations by Ernest Shepard and the pages have the feel of handmade paper with rough edges. It’s short, here are only 23 pages of text along with 2 title pages, one page with the copyright information and the limitation page at the back so it definitely only takes a few minutes to read.

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All of Milne’s Christopher Robin books were also printed as deluxe editions along with several of his plays and other works some of which were also released as signed limited editions. Milne, or at least his agent in America assuming he had one, also seemed to go in for special editions only sold in the USA so there are numerous varieties of some of his titles to collect especially limited editions and pre-signed signed copies. When I was Very Young was not even the first short book by Milne in being initially issued exclusively as such a volume, in 1929 The Fountain Press released The Secret and Other Stories in an edition of 742. The Secret has however since been printed in unlimited modern editions leaving When I was Very Young alone in not being available to a wider readership.

The first page sets the scene

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After this introduction to the boys David isn’t mentioned in the first two tales, it is clear that Alan and John were close playmates though and the two boys shared a bed for many years but David, as the eldest, presumably had his own room. The first tale is a bit odd as it relates to an apparently shared dream of the two boys when they were about 5 years old for them to wake up one morning and find that everyone else in the world was dead.

As soon as we woke up we should know that it had happened; the absence of the governess from our morning toilet, the discovery of her body in the passage between her room and ours – these would be the first signs. Having explored all over the house to make sure that the thing had been done properly, and that there really were no survivors to say “Don’t” we would then proceed to such-and-such, a sweetshop, step over the body of the proprietress and have our first proper breakfast.

There then follows a drawing by Shepard with the boys eating chocolates and sweets in the shop with the corpse in the background.

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Not exactly the gentle Winnie the Pooh type tale you might expect! The second story is considerably less disturbing but none the less would be surprising to us nowadays. The two boys had collected various mineral samples and decided that they wanted to show them to somebody at the Geological Museum (then in Jermyn Street). By now it was 1890 and they were 8 and 9 years old and living in St Johns Wood, which is about 3½ miles (5½ km) from the museum. However their father seemed quite happy to let them go on their own as long as they ‘asked a policeman to help them cross Piccadilly Circus’, one of the most busy and therefore dangerous junctions in the city. They manage the trip, meet the curator who spends time with them looking at their small collection and also shows them round the museum and on their way back buy some matches to strike in their bedroom at night after the lights had gone out.

Two very short reminiscences follow, both featuring all three boys, in the first, inspired by a book called The Golden Key they put on an impromptu (and unscripted) play which turns out to be very short and in the second again after being inspired by a book they decide to be sailors and having lined up in front of their father David explains this to him. After consideration their father explains that “There will be examinations to pass”, at this David promptly gives up on the idea.

The final story moves us forward in time again to 1896 when ‘John’ and Alan were both at Westminster Public School and Alan was 14. Although they were boarding students they were allowed out at weekends providing they had somewhere to stay and this one weekend they were staying at the home of some elderly friends of their father. They had found a firework left over from the bonfire night celebrations and decided to extract the gunpowder from it. After a while a fairly disappointing quantity of powder was tipped out…

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I don’t know why Milne always refers to his brother as John rather than Kenneth or Ken in this short volume, particularly as he always calls him Ken in his book It’s Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer published in 1939 and dedicated as follows; 1880-1929 To the memory of KENNETH JOHN MILNE who bore the worst of me and made the best of me.

Oddly David is called Barry in the autobiography so Alan does like to confuse his readers.

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The signed limitation page at the back of the book

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Incunabula

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A bit of an oddity for this blog, but as this is framed and on the wall by my desk it seemed wrong not to discuss this piece of history. I only have one page, a complete book would be well beyond my means so this is my only example of an incunable; that is a book printed up to the year 1500. The Latin term incunabula is translatable as cradle so is appropriate to relate to works from the birth of printing. Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, started in 1450 in Mainz, Germany, and in 1452 he completed work on his most famous production, what is now known the world over as the Gutenberg Bible. Nowadays we think of printing as mass production, and in a way for its time this was the case however just 180 copies of the bible were printed by Gutenberg so each book printed in this period would only have had tiny numbers produced. This is printing but not as we know it.

In Britain printing didn’t arrive until William Caxton set up his printing press in 1476 at Westminster, initially intending to print his own translations of books. He had started printing in Bruges, Belgium having learnt how to do it in Cologne, but came back to England in order to meet demand for his books. His first title ultimately became his most famous however and he will be forever associated with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

According to the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue; maintained by the British Library; in the first 50 years of printing just under thirty thousand different editions of various titles were printed in 18 different countries in a total of 282 printing towns. The ISTC as it is known is an attempt to catalogue every known incunabula, it is almost complete and makes a fantastic reference database for this period. My page is from Super sapientiam Salomonis, a commentary on the books of the Wisdom of Solomon by Robertus Holkot. It was printed by Heinrich Gran in 1494 in the town of Hagenau, which was in Germany then but is now part of France. According to the ISTC there are 104 copies of the book held in institutions around the world, one of which has been scanned and made available on the internet. My page can therefore be seen here in the copy of the complete work held in Munich via the MDZ (Das Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum) an archive started in 1997 and which provides an unrivalled collection especially of early works in a digital form.

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One immediate difference can be seen between my page and the digital copy and that is in the red letter h in the top left. This is because this page has been rubricated, that is the red letter has been hand written by a scribe who would have been employed specifically to add red letters to printed texts as indeed they would have done to handwritten manuscripts before the introduction of the printing press. These specialists were responsible for the beautiful initial lettering in medieval texts and their skill lasted for several decades after printing took over, hand embellishing the basic printed works which could only be in a single colour and it does mean that every copy is different. Rubrication is from the Latin rubico which means ‘to colour red’ and the red letter used to indicate something special gave us the phrase ‘a red letter day’ which is a date of particular importance as these days would be marked on the ecclesiastical calendar in red rather the usual black.

I bought my page from a small shop in the world’s first book town, Hay On Wye, roughly 20 years ago. Back then there was a shop that specialised in ancient bibles and other old books and they just had a few loose pages from different incunabula for sale. Sadly the shop no longer exists but I’m very pleased I bought this as an example of printing history, it is after all 524 years old and one of the oldest man made objects I possess. The paper isn’t actually as grey as it appears in the photographs. The page is framed and behind glass so I couldn’t use flash because all I would have got would be glare off the glass. The true colour is much closer to the digital image from Munich.

Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas

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Yesterday was International Dylan Thomas day and marked the anniversary of the first ever performance of the great Welsh poet’s final work; Under Milk Wood. This show on 14th May 1953 was also the only time Thomas was recorded on stage giving any sort of performance of the work and sadly he was to die before the classic BBC recording starring Richard Burton was broadcast on the 25th January 1954. I have the vinyl recording of that original performance and it is playing now as I type this with Thomas’s distinctive voice taking four parts, that of 1st voice, Reverend Eli Jenkins, 2nd drowned and 5th drowned. The rest of the cast are Dion Allen, Allen F Collins, Roy Poole, Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire and between them they play the remaining 50 parts.

The recording was more accidental than intentional, there was a recording scheduled for 1954 with Caedmon but Thomas’s death prevented that happening. However somebody left a tape recorder at the front of the stage with the microphone probably nearer to Thomas than the other cast members mainly for their own use to record the first performance. As a single microphone on a device intended for amateur recordings it does remarkably well in picking up not only all the actors but also the audience and has left us with  a remarkable historical record. Caedmon therefore used this for their release of Under Milk Wood. The New York audience clearly didn’t know what to expect from this Welsh poet and you can hear them gradually realise that it is intentionally funny and the way the actors bounce partial sentences between themselves gives a delightful rhythm to the blank verse.

Under Milkwood is subtitled ‘A Play for Voices’ which sounds an odd description until you realise that it was intended to be a radio play for the BBC so there are no stage directions, it was always intended to be read by the cast not acted.

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My printed copy is the 1972 Folio Society first edition of the work and, as usual for Folio, it is a lovely edition. It restores the text back to the original broadcast script with some extra lines which he left out originally, probably due to running time, added as an appendix. Although Thomas did deliver the script to the BBC he was still fiddling with it up to his death as he gave various readings in an attempt to earn enough money to pay off his debts, specifically a large back payment owed for income tax. So the typescripts are full of corrections and amendments and he never did come to what he regarded as a satisfactory conclusion to the piece, which had always been rushed as he only finished the ending included on the album minutes before they started the performance and kept changing this at subsequent performances.  As Douglas Cleverdon (the BBC producer of the 1954 broadcast version) notes in his introduction to the Folio edition.

Two stage readings of Under Milk Wood were scheduled for 24 and 25 October at the Kaufmann Auditorium, New York. Under a mixture of alcohol, sleeping pills and cortisone drugs, Dylan was already in a near state of collapse. He managed to write another page for the closing sequence of the script; to take part on the two readings, and to edit a shortened version for publication in the American magazine Mademoiselle. On 5 November he was taken to hospital in a coma, and died four days later.

If he had survived the play would undoubtedly have been further amended, on the back of one page of the manuscript is a section entitled “More Stuff for Actors to Say” and there are parts of the Caedmon recording that were subsequently removed so it was definitely still a work in progress at least as far as Thomas was concerned even after he had submitted the ‘final version’ to the BBC.

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One final thing that should be mentioned is the setting of the play in a small Welsh village of Llareggub. This has the advantage of looking like a Welsh place name without being one, you don’t get a double g in Welsh. However anyone looking closely at the name and especially if you spell it backwards will see that here is another joke by Dylan Thomas. For this reason early editions of the script spell the village differently and even the Caedmon recording uses Lareggub when referring to the place in the notes. The fantasy author Terry Pratchett paid homage to Dylan Thomas when he named the equivalent of Wales on the Discworld Llamedos.

You can hear the first part of the performance I’m listening to on youtube here  It starts with Thomas as First Voice setting the scene.

First Folio: 2

Yesterday, 23rd April 2018, was the 402nd anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and whilst we don’t have his date of birth, he was baptised 454 years ago on 26th April 1564 so this is a good week to look at his works. Monday was also the UNESCO recognised International World Book Day, as not only did Shakespeare die on the 23rd April 1616 but that is also the date that the great Spanish author Cervantes died and that is why the 23rd April (also St. George’s day) was chosen. Although they died on the same date, they didn’t die on the same day, Cervantes was 10 days earlier. Catholic Spain had already adopted the Gregorian calendar by then, however protestant England was still using the Julian calendar so there was a 10 day difference in dates between the two countries.

It may come as a surprise to most people but there isn’t a definitive version of most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays. The plays were documents under constant review as performances took place during his lifetime and numerous copies have survived until today. This means that modern performances can pick and choose sections from versions of the play being produced to create a suitable text for their needs. Also several of the plays are very long so now it is rare to see them performed complete, especially with falling audience attention spans. Some of the plays were published whilst Shakespeare was alive, but that was not through his doing and these are quite often inaccurate as either they were taken from actors notes or in extreme cases written down from memory by somebody in the audience. This means that we could easily have ended up with no accurate record of Shakespeare’s works at all if it wasn’t for two members of his main group of players John Heminges and Henry Condell.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men later renamed The King’s Men in 1603 after James I came to the throne, were Shakespeare’s main troupe although other groups of actors are known to have performed his works. However these men worked most closely with Shakespeare and he was also an actor in the group so they knew his works intimately. Heminges and Condell along with Shakespeare are three of the nine men included in the Royal Patent that formally named the players The King’s Men so were significant individuals and good sources for the plays. The book is called the First Folio because it was the first edition of any of the plays to be printed folio sized, i.e. much larger than the quarto editions of individual plays that had appeared up until then and as said above were notoriously unreliable. A good example of this between a ‘bad quarto’ one probably written down by an audience member; a ‘good quarto’ one taken from actors notes or performance copies; and the First Folio can be seen here.

There are a total of 36 plays included in the First Folio out of the 38 existing works nowadays accepted as being by Shakespeare, ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre’ and ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ are missing from the book. Both of these are regarded ny modern scholarship as collaborations rather than entirely by Shakespeare which may explain their absence. Eighteen plays had been published before the First Folio, however a few of these are notoriously unreliable so this was effectively the first appearance in print of over half of Shakespeare’s works and this was 7 years after his death. His modern reputation almost entirely relies on this single publication which perpetuates his work in a way he would never have expected especially due to his own reluctance to publish and therefore make his work available to other companies.

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An original copy is worth a small fortune, one sold 12 years ago for £2.8 million and it must be worth considerably more now, so I clearly don’t own one of those. But mine is a lovely copy, quarter bound in leather, of the second edition of the Norton Facsimile. This volume was created with the assistance of the astonishing Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. which holds 82 out of the known 235 copies of the First Folio. Each page was selected as the best example (or sometimes the least worst) from their enormous collection. One of the major problems is the amount of show through the pages where you can read the type on the other side of the page through the side you are looking at and this made photographing the works for this edition especially difficult. Also it was decided that where possible the most correct version of the text was used as it was known that the original book was corrected during printing back in 1623 so copies vary as they were produced.

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As such the reproduction is remarkably legible and easy to read and makes for interesting contrasts with my other versions of Shakespeare’s texts, two complete sets and three partial sets where the plays are in individual volumes. Some of these will be covered in later blogs especially the amazing Folio Society Letterpress Edition, probably the finest edition of Shakespeare ever printed, and certainly one of the most expensive at £295 per play. The introduction to the second edition is surprisingly dismissive of the scholarship that led to the first edition pointing out several errors. It is interesting to note that a third edition is in progress and it is hoped that the editor of that work will be kinder to their predecessors.

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Seen above is the opening of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I fell in love with when I was very young and the first Shakespeare play that I bought a copy of when I just 11 years old. I still have that book in which I wrote my name, year and form name at the front of so I must have taken it to school at some point, which is how I know I was that young when I bought it. On that basis The Taming of the Shrew seems a good place to mark the end of this first essay of mine on Shakespeare’s works and I look forward to examining other editions I have in future writings.

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as for the title of this essay, that is explained in First Folio 1

Fables from the Fountain

OK this one needs a bit of an explanation before we get to the book. Back in 1957 the great science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke published a book of short stories that he had written over the preceding 4 years and had appeared in various places in that time. The stories were all linked as a series of tall tales told in a pub called the White Hart by one of the regulars there, Harry Purvis. I first came across the book in the mid 1970’s when I was about 11 or 12 during a period when I was avidly reading through not only Clarke’s work but that of the other two writers of the ‘big three’ in Sci-Fi, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. At first I wasn’t very interested, I was heavily into Sci-Fi and this was just a group of people in a pub telling stories, mind you some of them have a scientific base and they were funny so I persevered and grew to like the plot twists that were an invariable part of each tale. I no longer have the book, assuming I ever did, it could have been from the library, although I remember the cover well with a giant squid almost covering the pub and I have fond memories of the stories themselves.

I found out many years later that The White Hart was based on a real pub called the White Horse in London where Sci-Fi fans and writers used to meet up in the 50’s. These included John Christopher (The Death of Grass, The Tripods Trilogy etc.), John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Awakes etc.) and of course Arthur C Clarke himself. Appropriately the concept of Fables from the Fountain was dreamt up in a London pub by Ian Whates a few weeks after Clarke’s death in 2008 and the day after the Clarke award ceremony for the best new science fiction novel released in Britain. Whates had founded Newcon Press a couple of years earlier and conceived a homage to Tales from the White Hart with stories by current authors who had all in their own way been inspired by the great innovator that was Sir Arthur C Clarke.

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The various writers in the new book have taken pseudonyms to be characters who meet at the Fountain to swap stories. Unlike the original the tales are given from assorted standpoints, rather than always by Harry Purvis although it’s good to spot references to him in several of the narratives. Because of the nature of the tales it is difficult to say much about them, they are short because of the premise of the book that they are stories told over a pint or two. Some like Neil Gaiman’s brilliant piece are very short at 4½ pages, so it is hard to avoid giving away the twists and turns they manage in so few words. Rereading the book after almost seven years (it was published in May 2011) for this blog  has been an interesting experience, I was surprised by how many I didn’t remember the ending to even if I instantly recognised the pre-amble.

There is high science represented and some truly awful puns, Professor Mackintosh explains how his life was saved by smoking, we find out surprising things about Muscovy Ducks, whilst Heisenburg, Schroedinger and surprisingly even William Blake get name checks. One of my favourites is ‘On the Messdecks of Madness’ by Raven about which I can say almost nothing without spoiling the enjoyment except it’s the only fantasy story I can recall that uses the great diarist Samuel Pepys’s admiralty career as a basis of the plot. Whilst another explains the 1908 Tunguska explosion and of course there is the obligatory Area 51 tale without which no collection of stories aimed at SF geeks would be complete.

The full list of stories are as follows, I’ve included the introduction here partly because the book does as well in the numbering of the index and also because Peter Weston’s introduction is definitely worth reading.

  1. Introduction – Peter Weston
  2. No Smoke without Fire – Ian Whates
  3. Transients – Stephen Baxter
  4. Forever Blowing Bubbles – Ian Watson
  5. On the Messdecks of Madness – Paul Graham Raven
  6. The Story Bug – James Lovegrove
  7. “And Weep Like Alexander” – Neil Gaiman
  8. The Ghost in the Machine – Colin Bruce
  9. The Hidden Depths of Bogna – Liz Williams
  10. A Bird in Hand – Charles Stross
  11. In Pursuit of the Chuchunaa – Eric Brown
  12. The Cyberseeds – Steve Longworth
  13. Feathers of the Dinosaur – Henry Gee
  14. Book Wurms – Andy West
  15. The Pocklington Poltergeist – David Langford
  16. The Last Man in Space – Andrew J Wilson
  17. A Multiplicity of Phaedra Lament – Peter Crowther
  18. The Girl With the White Ant Tattoo – Tom Hunter
  19. The 9,000,000,001st Name of God – Adam Roberts

The copy I have is the hardback limited edition (number 61 of 200) and is signed by all 19 writers. At the time of writing the title is still available from Newcon Press, although now only in paperback and not signed from this link.

Now if you’ll excuse me it’s Tuesday; so it’s the get together night at the Fountain, Polish barmaid Bogna will be serving behind the bar and I can hear the call of a pint or three of Old Bodger, although I’ll be careful to avoid the Ploughman’s lunches.

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Siné – Massacre

As this post goes up onto the blog I will be on my way to Hay on Wye to give a talk on the Gentle Art of Penguin Book Collecting as part of the Hay Independence celebrations for 2018, as part of the talk I’m going to cover the strange story of Siné’s Massacre in it’s only Penguin edition.

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The title of the cartoon on the cover is a sort of pun in French, dessin morbide means morbid drawing but mord translates as belly so the vampire biting the belly of his victim covers both meanings. The fact that this was chosen as the cover and therefore amongst the least controversial of the cartoons included says a lot about the content of the book. Through the rest of this blog I will include other cartoons from the book although I have been careful not to include the most offensive examples, Siné had a fascination with toilets, hangings, amputation, sex and the catholic church sometimes all in one cartoon and I don’t feel many of the cartoons are suitable even now.

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Given this controversial nature, why was he considered for a Penguin book dedicated to him? Well Penguin had a long history of publishing books of cartoons featuring selections of a particular artist, anything from Thelwell and his little girls at their pony club, through Osbert Lancaster, Peter Arno, Charles Addams (and his famous family) and Gerald Hoffnung with his musical fantasies to name just a few. On 5th October 1966 therefore a Penguin Books board meeting was convened to discuss the advisability of including Siné, as he was regarded as a major French cartoonist and a range that had the gentle work of Thelwell at one end and Siné at the other would definitely appear to be inclusive of all styles. It is worth pointing out that this board meeting would appear to have been very very late in the process, as the books had already been printed and were in the warehouse, orders had been placed but they hadn’t yet been distributed to retailers. So technically the book had not yet been published, but it really was a technicality at this point.

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Sir Allen Lane, the founder of the business back in 1935, was still chairman of the board at this time although he no longer had total autocratic control of the business as he once had. He had given way long ago to the consensus of the board of directors as he had had to due to the huge increase in the size of the company, which was way beyond the ability of one man to control; however he still thought of Penguin Books as his. Nevertheless the minutes of the meeting show that the overall position was to back Tony Godwin, then Chief Editor and therefore a board member, with some reservations expressed. Backing Godwin was particularly forcefully put by Charles Clark who felt that not doing so at such a late stage would put Godwin in an untenable position; Sir Allen was not happy but, at the meeting at least according to the minutes, backed the decision to publish.

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A draft press release was prepared announcing the publication on the 1st November 1966 which included a statement that the board were not in full agreement with the publication, however after the internal legal advisor was consulted it was decided to remove references to the disagreement and all was set for 3 weeks time. So far just a tale of a controversial book being prepared for publication, there had been several before at Penguin and there didn’t seem anything to make this different but the story was about to become bizarre…

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George Nicholls recalled in 1970 (after the death of Sir Allen Lane) the events of a night in October 1966 which is almost certainly unique in the annals of UK publishing. He was in bed, as it was around midnight, when the phone rang and he was summoned to the office. When he got there he found Sir Allen along with 3 other men and he wanted the warehouse unlocking, Nicholls had the keys so they set off. On the way the reason for the late night escapade became clear as Lane explained.

I’ve got Singleton round the back with the farm wagon, I’m going to pinch all those Siné’s … that bloody board outvoted me, but I’ll have my own back on them.

Nicholls was shocked but as he said Sir Allen was “the governor” so he did what he was told. After a while they managed to load all the palletised stock onto the trailer and then realised that there would be boxes ready for shipping in the distribution area so went and found all those as well and loaded them onto the truck. It took a few hours but eventually Nicholls locked up the warehouse again and Allan Lane set off with his cargo after saying to Nicholls that this would be their secret.  What happened next is largely speculation, various accounts say that when Lane got back to his farm near Reading he had a large bonfire, some say the books were buried, others that he composted the lot and eventually spread it on his fields, what is certain is that the printed books were never seen again and Penguin never did officially publish Siné’s Massacre. Allen Lane also briefly vanished from the scene heading off on an impromptu holiday to Spain whilst things quietened down.

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The odd thing was that there was apparently no hue and cry about the missing books; it all seems to have been quietly ignored, the few orders that had come in were cancelled as the book was ‘out of stock’. I used to design warehouse systems so know that so much stock going astray would definitely be noticed very quickly especially with unfulfilled orders this close to the official publication date but nothing was said. The only copies that survived are the few examples that had been sent to people to get their opinions about publication and some trade samples that had made it to representatives on the road. It all adds up to this being one of the rarest, and consequently most valuable, paperbacks produced by Penguin in the last 60 years. Checking abebooks reveals only one copy available at the time of writing this, across all the dealers on there around the world, and that is priced at £145.

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First Folio: 1

Mention the words First Folio to most book collectors and their initial thought will go to the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays printed in 1623; and indeed I will come to that in a later blog as I have a copy of the Norton facsimile. Hence this essay being entitled First Folio: 1, the facsimile will be covered in First Folio: 2 in a few weeks time.

So what is this one about then? Well in 1946 after being demobbed from WWII Charles Ede was looking for a way to make a hobby into a career. He had discovered the beauty of the pre war private presses whilst still a schoolboy, publishers such as William Morris and the Kelmscott Press. During the war he had started a collection of Kelmscott, Nonesuch and Golden Cockerel Press fine editions but these really were the preserve of the book buyer with a significant disposable income and well beyond the means of most people. What he had spotted was what he believed was a gap in the market, even if his friend, Christopher Sandford, then running The Golden Cockerel Press thought the gap was too small for anyone to make a business from it. What if somebody could print fine editions of books but at a price that more people could afford? In a quote I particularly love as it ties my two largest book collections together Sandford said

But life is full of wonders, and people like you do get away with things – like Lane and his Penguins – so thumbs up.

So Ede went for training at the London College of Printing and by October of the next year The Folio Society was born.

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The first title was a collection of short stories by Tolstoy, my copy has some damage to the dust jacket where somebody has clearly put a cup down on it but as you don’t often come by Folio’s first book with dust jacket I added it to my collection nevertheless. The tales included are:

  • The Raid
  • Two Hussars
  • Three Deaths
  • Polikushka
  • Two Old Men
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyitch

The idea was that books would be published at the rate of one a month and sold through standard booksellers, neither of which turned out to be the case. The first few titles did get sold that way but the retailers weren’t really interested in a new small publishing venture, so building on the idea of the Society part of the name Charles Ede by the end of 1947 decided to turn it into a club and sell only to members which added to the exclusive aspect of the books.

 

The first few years were hard and the Society survived by doing other things beyond the original plan such as private editions and selling manuscript pages along with fine art prints but slowly the subscriber base grew especially when the concept of a free presentation volume for members who agreed to purchase a minimum number of books each year was introduced in 1950.

To be frank part of the problem with the early years was that because of the ongoing paper rationing and the quality of what was available the first few books are not as good as Ede wanted, this is particularly clear with Tales by Tolstoy which was printed in Belgium to get round the shortage of paper but the actual printing as Ede himself noted in 1968 in the first Folio bibliography ‘Folio 21’

The printers, who only undertook the job as a favour, were not used to this type of work and the standard leaves a good deal to be desired.

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and as the above illustration from Three Deaths illustrates it really isn’t that good, the picture appears to be over-inked and lacks the lightness of touch that a line-blocked pen and ink sketch would have in later years. The paper also feels rough and not what you would expect from a fine edition.

The Folio Society did however manage to get out a total of three books in 1947 so the equivalent of one per month, something they were not to manage regularly until 1955 with 13 volumes and have never dropped below 12 in a year since then. The second was Trilby by George du Maurier which also became the first book from the society to be illustrated by the author, something that is still a rarity today.

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This book was much better quality than the Tolstoy edition, although also printed by Brepols in Belgium, and contains a 5 page appendix which prints for the first time in book form a section of the book which clearly describes the painter James Whistler and was presumably left out of earlier editions for legal reasons. The drawings by du Maurier are reproduced very well, this one is entitled ‘the soft eyes’

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The first Folio Society book to be printed in the UK was book number 3 Aucassin & Nicolette, translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon and this was a real oddity. The first two books were traditional editions in paper dust jackets, this is a lot smaller at 8.9 x 5.8 inches (226 x 148 mm) and the jacket is transparent plastic printed in black with the title and illustrator information.

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The plastic wrapper has often got lost over the years or the text rubbed off, mine is in very good condition, the poor appearance in the photograph is due to glare off the plastic. The black print on the slippery plastic continues on the inside of the wrapper and again is prone to damage.

 

The title page gives a feeling of the book which is my favourite of the first three and gives the first real hint of Folio as a fine press publisher, at 10s 6d it cost the equivalent of just over £20 today which for a 60 page book is quite a lot but it is a lovely edition. The printer was the Chiswick Press who would go on to print many editions for Folio.

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What is noticeable to those people familiar with the production of the Folio Society today is that books all have dust jackets, the familiar slip cases did not become standard until 1959 although they had started to appear in 1956 and dust jackets were still used throughout the 1960’s although mainly for the subscribers presentation volume.

These three books in my collection are all first editions in Folio, in fact none of them were ever reprinted, the first book to make it to a second impression was Shakespeare’s Sonnets, originally printed in 1948 and reprinted 3 times in the next 42 years before being replaced by a completely new edition.

Last year the society reached it’s 70th birthday and a couple of years before that finally abandoned the membership concept that served it so well along with the idea of a free presentation volume other than the occasional diary or notebook to encourage buyers to spend more. Nowadays the website is open to everyone and you can just have one book if that is all you require. At the last count I have over 425 Folio books and still happily add more each year, the only years where I don’t own at least one example of that years publications are 1967 and 2006, so beware the Folio Society is definitely addictive…