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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84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

Last week I went to see the play based on Helene Hanff’s best known work 84 Charing Cross Road at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. There is a touring production currently travelling the UK with Stephanie Powers playing Helene and Clive Francis as Frank Doel. I first read the book in the early 80’s and have happy memories of that and seeing the film with Anne Bancroft and  Anthony Hopkins made in 1987 so it was a joy to see the play and how well it was done. I think that from now on that when reading the book I will always hear the letters as read by Stephanie Powers she gave a wonderful performance. Clive Francis was very good as Frank, but it’s very difficult to beat Anthony Hopkins, so I now have a weird mix of play and film in my head. You can see a clip from the film on youtube here.

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However this is a review of the book, it was first published by Grossman in the US in 1970 then by Andre Deutsch in the UK in 1971, the copy I currently have was printed by Time Warner Books in 2006. It has to be at least the third copy of this book I have owned as previous copies have disappeared over the years, as I either gave them away to people who I thought would love the book or just never got back a loaned volume. Like most editions nowadays in this copy the original book is paired with Hanff’s follow up work The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which describes her journey to London for the UK launch of the original book. The first book itself simply consists of the letters between Hanff, who is in New York and Marx & Co. antiquarian booksellers based at number 84 Charing Cross Road. Initially they are quite business like, Hanff has seen an advert in the Saturday Review of Literature so on 5th October 1949 she first makes contact with the firm and pens a short note with a list of books she wants to see if they can supply them. but by the time of the last letter from the firm to Helene it is almost 20 years later on 8th January 1969.

There is no exposition, it is just the letters so all you know about Frank, Helene and the others who write occasional missives is what they include in the correspondence; but from this you really get involved in this developing two decade long friendship. By the end you feel you know them and the final few letters mean as much to you as they must have meant to Helene when they prompted her to compile the book, as she writes in Q’s Legacy.

“I have to write it.”

Then I went cold inside, I could only write it if I still had Frank’s letters. I’d begun saving them 20 years later because a tax accountant wanted a record of what I spent on books… The thin blue airmail letters with a rubber band round them took up no space, lying nearly flat under manuscripts in a back corner of one of six small cabinet drawers under my bookshelves. But year after year when I cleaned out the cabinets, I’d come on them and wonder why I was saving them. Sitting there that evening, I vividly remembered that when I had reorganised the cabinets a few weeks earlier I’d stood by the waste basket hefting the letters, debating whether to keep them or throw them out. I couldn’t remember which I’d done. And I was afraid to find out.

Fortunately she hadn’t thrown them out although they were only found after an agonising search

I carried the letters to the table and opened them – and snapshots of young families spilled out of them. Some were from Nora Doel, some were from one of the girls who worked in the shop, all of them were 10 or 15 years in the past … I found snapshots of Frank standing proudly beside his new secondhand car. I was laughing by this time, I poured another cup of coffee and settled down to read the letters.

By the time I went to bed I was positively happy, I was going to relive the lovely episode Marks & Co. had been in my life by making a short story of the correspondence.

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The letters get less formal as the years go on, by February 1952 Frank is writing to ‘Dear Helene’ as opposed to ‘Dear Miss Hanff’ which is how he starts off and whilst initially Frank’s letters are solely about the books or in response to gifts of food Helene sends to ration struck England, Helene’s become quite chatty very early on and she jokingly tells him off several times (these are just extracts from letters not full examples)

November 2, 1951

Dear Speed ___

You dizzy me, rushing Leigh Hunt and the Vulgate over here whizbang like that. You probably don’t realise it, but it’s hardly more than two years since I ordered them. You keep going at this rate you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.

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Clearly remembering this letter many years later Frank was able to eventually get in a small riposte.

3rd May 1957

Dear Helene,

Prepare yourself for a shock. ALL THREE of the books you requested in your last letter are on their way to you and should arrive in a week or so. Don’t ask how we managed it – It’s just a part of the Marks service.

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Other members of staff at Marks & Co. also write to Helene, along with Dora (Frank’s wife) who initially just thanks her for the food she has sent but then also enters into a longer correspondence. What I really liked about the play was that the script really was just reading the letters to one another, the stage was split into Helene’s New York apartment on the left with the bookshop taking up roughly two thirds of the stage to the right. Almost all the letters in the book were read verbatim, in the film the letters are still the main part of the text but it is expanded to make it more cinematic and as you can see from the clip I included a link to above we even see other locations than the bookshop and the apartment.

It’s very difficult to review this book without spoiling it for new readers but it is truly a delight to read and if you haven’t read it then please do so, then see the film and if possible catch it in the theatre. The images from the play are lifted from the Cambridge Arts Theatre website whose production this was.

The second book included in the paperback is The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and this is more of a diary tracking Helene’s trip to the UK, all the people she meets and the various publicity events she goes to including a special opening up of the by now closed Marks & Co. shop on Charing Cross Road, so she did finally get to visit ‘her bookshop’ even if it was too late. The main signing event took place in Poole’s bookshop, next door in number 86. This diary runs from 17th June to 26th July 1971 and is considerably longer that the book it celebrates. Sadly the shop is now a McDonald’s burger place but there is a plaque outside commemorating the old bookshop and Hanff’s apartment on  305 E. 72nd Street has been named “Charing Cross House”.

For the really keen there is the third book in ‘the series’ which I quoted from above, Q’s legacy explains how, when it became clear she was not going to be able to afford any more than a year at college, she was in a library and she first came across Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. She felt his books of essays and lectures taught her more than the first year had done and she was hooked. Q, as he was invariably known, introduced her to Walton, Newman, Milton and numerous others and she wanted to read more than just the extracts he quoted so was looking for a good bookshop when she saw that advert in the Saturday Review. If anyone is responsible for all that followed after that it is the now largely forgotten Q. Forgotten that is except by those of us who own a copy of his massive 1100 page work The Oxford Book of English Verse which for decades was the definitive collection, first published in 1900 and revised in 1939 to expand the selection up to 1918.

Conrad’s Congo

In 1890 naturalised Briton, although Polish born, Captain Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski left England to take command of the steamship Roi des Belges on the River Congo. He had gained his Master of the British Merchant Marine certificate four years earlier and had had a previous command of a ship called the Otago but this was to be his most significant position, at least as far as it’s mark on his later life. He had begun his maritime career back in 1875 as a trainee seaman on the barque Mont Blanc and had worked his way up the ranks on various vessels over the following years and hoped this would be a stepping stone to command of larger ships but it wasn’t to be. Amongst the possessions he took with him for an expected 3 years away in the Congo was a manuscript for a novel he was working on and it was this, along with the ill health that followed his African adventure that largely kept his away from future seagoing, would make the name of Joseph Conrad. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ was published in 1895, 15 months after he left his final marine post and a stream of novels and stories were to follow including the novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ based on his time in the Congo and published in 1899.

Although I will refer to Heart of Darkness several times during this essay, the book that has prompted me to write is ‘Conrad’s Congo’ published by the Folio Society in 2013 which gathers for the first time in one volume letters and diaries by Conrad relating to his ill-fated trip, along with the short story ‘An Outpost of Progress’ which also draws on his time in Congo. The book is bound in cloth blocked with a design by Neil Gower of the Roi des Belges steaming along the Congo. At 256 pages it is more than twice the length of Heart of Darkness and includes some fascinating contemporary photographs.

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The Congo at the time was being run a private fiefdom by King Leopold II of Belgium and the astonishing cruelty against and exploitation of the people there was without parallel even amongst other colonies. It only started to be reigned in after the report into what was happening there by Roger Casement became public and eventually the Belgian government stripped Leopold of his autocratic control. It is estimated that of Congo’s 20 million population in 1880 this was roughly halved by 1920 mainly from famine and disease as all able bodied people were forced to work collecting ivory, rubber or other commodities to enrich Leopold meaning there was nobody to hunt, fish or plant crops. Part of Casement’s report is included as an appendix to the book and makes disturbing reading even though I already knew some of the background.

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The cover of the Penguin Popular Classics edition  of Heart of Darkness was chosen by somebody who wanted a dark jungle view but managed to select not only the wrong country but even the wrong continent as the painting is a detail from Hunter in Brazilian Jungle by Marrin J Heade, so the plants growing are completely wrong for Africa.

Conrad’s Congo starts off with a series of letters initially with Albert Thys, deputy director of the Belgian Company of the Upper Congo as he tries to get a job with them then moves on to letters to his distant cousin (although referred to as uncle in the letters) Aleksander Poradowski then living in Belgium and when he dies soon after this correspondence starts the letters continue to his widow Marguerite (written to as aunt) and it is she that helps get him the captaincy he is looking for. In Heart of Darkness this is fictionalised in the tale told by Marlow (a thinly disguised Conrad) in which he says

“I am sorry to own I began to worry them. This was already a fresh departure for me. I was not used to get things that way, you know. I always went my own road and on my own legs where I had a mind to go. I wouldn’t have believed it of myself; but, then–you see–I felt somehow I must get there by hook or by crook. So I worried them. The men said ‘My dear fellow,’ and did nothing. Then–would you believe it?–I tried the women. I, Charlie Marlow, set the women to work–to get a job. Heavens! Well, you see, the notion drove me. I had an aunt, a dear enthusiastic soul. She wrote: ‘It will be delightful. I am ready to do anything, anything for you. It is a glorious idea. I know the wife of a very high personage in the Administration, and also a man who has lots of influence with,’ etc. She was determined to make no end of fuss to get me appointed skipper of a river steamboat, if such was my fancy.

Six months after approaching Thys, Conrad had his job and his letters to his ‘aunt’ continue through his voyage to the Congo talking about the trip but also his first impression of colonial Africa as he works his way along to coast encountering French ships. The letters hint at a growing romantic link between the two as the tone becomes more playful such as might be written between two lovers separated by distance. On arrival at Matadi he finds that the Roi des Belges is 200 miles away and there is no way to get there up the river due to the rapids between the coast and the station where the ship awaits him so Conrad is forced to walk to his boat and this is covered in ‘The Congo Diary’ which makes up the next section of the book. It is in this short work where he meets Roger Casement and we first read of the casual cruelty inflicted on the natives and hints as to the fate of the majority of the colonialists.

On the road today passed a skeleton tied up to a post. Also white man’s grave – no name. Heap of stones in the form of a cross.

The short Congo Diary is immediately followed with ‘The Up-river book’ which covers his first trip on the Roi des Belges and is largely technical notes presumably to assist him in future trips such as this part of the entry for the 3rd August 1890.

Always keep the high mountain ahead crossing over to the left bank. To port of highest mount a low black point. Opposite a long island stretching across. The shore is wooded –

As you approach the shore the black point and the island close in together – No danger – steering close to the mainland between the island and the grassy sandbank, towards the high mount.

There are also numerous sketch maps of sections of the river which are also included in the Folio edition. The endpapers of this book have maps for both The Congo Diary and The Up-river Book so that you can follow the journeys.

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Unlike in Heart of Darkness where Marlow on having walked to his boat just as Conrad did, the Roi des Belges was clearly ready to sail as they set off a couple of days after he arrived. In the story Marlow found his ship had sunk a few days earlier so was obliged to spend many months getting it out of the water and repaired before they could do anything. The enforced break affords Conrad the chance to set up his plot for the rest of the story and also to make various observations about the conditions the natives are under. In reality he was off from Kinshasa to Stanley Falls almost immediately. This section of the Folio book is frankly not very readable and in truth was not intended to be so as it is really just notes on the route to avoid the numerous sandbanks and rocky snags that litter the river. Conrad’s sketch maps are interesting with their dotted lines indicating the correct path between islands especially the long section dealing with the clearly complicated Lulanga river passage, this takes 7 maps and several pages of notes to get through so it must have had a justified reputation for difficulty in navigation.

At the end of The Up-river book we are back to a small section of correspondence as letters have caught up with Conrad at Stanley Falls. One of these is highly significant as the letter to Marguerite includes the first mention that he has been very ill with dysentery as well as fever (malaria) and that there is a mutual dislike between him and the manager of the station he is based at so there is little hope of any advancement in his career. It is quite clear from the letter that the manager of the station that Marlow finds himself at is modelled on the real Monsieur Delcommune. This is how Marlow describes him..

He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold, and he certainly could make his glance fall on one as trenchant and heavy as an axe. But even at these times the rest of his person seemed to disclaim the intention. Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy–a smile–not a smile–I remember it, but I can’t explain. It was unconscious, this smile was, though just after he had said something it got intensified for an instant. It came at the end of his speeches like a seal applied on the words to make the meaning of the commonest phrase appear absolutely inscrutable. He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts–nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust–just uneasiness–nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a… a… faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. That was evident in such things as the deplorable state of the station. He had no learning, and no intelligence.

The last letter in this section is to the publisher Thomas Fisher Unwin who was acting as Conrad’s literary agent and mentions the short story ‘An Outpost of Progress’ based on his experience at the station which makes up the next section of the Folio volume.

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Conrad would be invalided out of the Congo by the end of 1890 to the relief not only to himself but also to Delcommune who wanted rid of him, and never recovered his health. Malaria is one of those persistent diseases that keeps flaring back up and it would afflict him several times back in England. The remainder of the Folio book is letters he sent long after his return, including 3 to Roger Casement at the end of 1903 just before the Casement report was published in February 1904, along with extracts from articles he wrote, followed by 2 appendices. The first of these is a series of five short testaments about Conrad written by people who met him including John Galsworthy and Bertrand Russell and then finally the extracts from Casement’s report that was mentioned earlier.

All in all a fascinating book which gives an insight into the creation of Heart of Darkness and which even if you have never read the novella provides an overview of the awful situation in the Congo under Belgian control and it should be recommended if only for the historical record.

The Diary of a Bookseller – Shaun Bythell

For my entry this week I’ve decided to review a book I was given at Christmas and thoroughly enjoyed, The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell.

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Shaun is the notoriously curmudgeonly owner of the largest second hand bookshop in the Scotland which goes by the wonderfully simple name of The Bookshop. Not The Wigtown Bookshop (which is where it is) or Bythells’ Books, no it’s just The Bookshop, direct and to the point just like its owner. His website name is similarly one to be envied by anyone in the trade www.the-bookshop.com. The book takes a very simple starting point “to write things down as they happened in the shop” and develops into an entertaining story of how a year passed for Shaun and his equally eccentric staff.  It starts randomly on Wednesday 5th February 2014 and finishes on Wednesday 4th February 2015 (this entry is as far as I can remember the only time the year is specified).

As the owner of a specialist retail business in a small town myself the interactions with customers, or at least people who wander into the shop, move stock around and then leave without buying anything, that Shaun documents are all to familiar.

Tuesday 8th April

At 10:15am a woman walked in and roared, I am in my element! Books! then continued to shout questions at me for an hour whilst she waddled about the shop like a ‘stately goose’ as Gogol describes Sobakevich’s wife in Dead Souls. Predictably she didn’t buy anything.

Few things are more guaranteed than when somebody you have never seen before in the shop and expresses huge enthusiasm on entering is that they won’t buy anything.

Shaun also has a dislike, no that’s the wrong word, hatred would be better, of Kindles and this is referred to several times in the book even to the point of shooting one and mounting the remains on the wall in his shop like a hunting trophy.

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This is totally understandable for somebody who makes their living selling books (well maybe not the shooting part) you can’t after all trade the contents of a Kindle but as somebody who loves books I also dislike the impersonal nature of reading on a screen. I found the photo on pinterest so don’t know who originally took it so I apologise in advance for unacknowledged copyright.

However I don’t want to give the idea that the book is just full of Shaun complaining, sometimes he is having a great time, although usually this is whilst he isn’t actually in the shop. Wigtown is Scotlands’ book town, based on the idea by Richard Booth in Hay on Wye, gathering bookshops together to make the place a specific destination for book lovers all over the world and The Bookshop was the first of what is now 13 independent retailers in the town.  It is also home to a book festival at the end of September which is documented in the book.  The Bookshop hosts ‘The Writers Retreat’ a place where guest speakers at the festival can escape to good food and drink and to chat amongst themselves and this leads to more stories being told. There is clearly a lot of effort put into the festival and I really ought to go, but maybe not this year as I suspect a lot of readers of this book have had the same idea.

Tuesday 25th March

Shortly after Andrew had left an extremely rude old woman demanded a copy of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Stalin. We had one in the Russia section which she brought to the counter. It was an unusually pristine copy in a mint jacket, clearly unread – original price £25. She asked how much it was, I pointed to the sticker that says £6.50. She pushed it away from her and turned; walking out muttering, ‘Too expensive’. I’m pretty sure she’ll be back so I re-priced it at £8.50.

I loved the book and can’t recommend it more, you don’t have to be a bookseller or even a shopkeeper of any sort to get a lot of pleasure from it.

By the way I checked and yes you can get it on Kindle, Shaun is presumably furious…


1894 - Lane Christmas Book- The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley- 2 title pageWelcome to my book shelves, home to some 6500 volumes dating back to the mid 1700’s right up to the present day. I’m going to use these as the basis for short essays or reviews not just of these books but where ever they wish to take me.  The aim is to pick a book, or group of books each week and look at its significance, or just tell a tale as to why it has found itself here.

The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley featured with this first article is a good entry point as the Bodliean Library in Oxford takes its name from Sir Thomas who came to its rescue in the 1590’s and put it finally in the secure position it now holds as one of the worlds greatest libraries. So immediately we have a book leading to more books

When John Lane founded his publishing company in 1887 he chose to call it The Bodley Head in honour of Sir Thomas and for Christmas 1894 printed a very small number of copies of Bodley’s autobiography as gifts to friends and people who had helped set up the business.  Very few of these books have survived the intervening 123 years but it’s an interesting work that should perhaps be better known.

I have two copies of ‘The Life’ one still in the original card covers and one rebound in boards and this also includes the original compliments slip from John Lane.

My main interest in The Bodley Head however is in one of his employees in the 1930’s, Allen Lane, who went on to found a far more famous publishing company namely Penguin Books, which now owns The Bodley Head imprint and uses it for non-fiction titles.

Well over 2000 of my books are Penguins and I specialise in the first 10 years of the company 1935 to 1945 which led to some fascinating books and stories about how they came about as the firm struggled with wartime restrictions but also the greater need amongst the population at home and also servicemen/women for something to read.  More to come about those in future entries to this blog…