A Roomful Of Strangers
In an age of MeToo, proactive diversity and gender blindness (all of which I am heartily in favour) I did start to wonder where all the weird old white men had gone.
Now I know.
The Pulp and Paperback Book Fair in Bloomsbury brings them out in droves. These are a special breed of hunters, gatherers, collectors and cataloguers, moulting, dishevelled and a bit on the spectrum, lacking even rudimentary social skills but able to spot a first paperback edition by Edgar Wallace from thirty metres. They are almost exclusively male and 60+ and boy, do they know a lot about pre-1900 commemorative hand-coloured German postcards. There are Eastern European professors, hunched elderly scholars and Indian academics – but not a female in sight.
For here in leafy Bloomsbury, on the ground floor of the Royal National (sic), London’s least attractive sixties hotel, are a hundred dealers selling the kind of ephemera that would have Arthur Bryant reaching for his wallet. The rooms smell of damp paper, rotting bindings, mildew, unread words and overlooked lives. These are my people.
I know many of the dealers. They’ve spent a lifetime collecting a narrow spectrum of volumes on a subject they now realise nobody is interested in, and the asking prices are low, going ever lower. One dealer checked the price of a book I was thinking about buying and lowered it before I had even spoken to him. Several others said it was their last fair. ‘It’s a dying field,’ one tells me. ‘Who’s interested in this stuff now? We’re retiring. It’s not worth the effort.’
What exactly is not worth the effort? A few of the items I saw today…
A poster by Billy Childish of Mr Boris ‘Bozo’ Johnson, London’s worst-ever mayor (I tried to obscure it for those overseas readers of a sensitive nature).
‘A Drawing of London’s Devastation Made From A Zeppelin’ (a huge, elaborate foldout of how London looked after the Blitz, with every bombed out street and building etched in great detail).
‘Christmas Card Samples of 1895’ – An immense leather volume filled with beautiful lace cards salesmen would carry about to sell into shops.
‘Toys & Toy Shops of Europe 1900-1950’ – a delightful full colour compendium of toys, puzzles and games, and their emporia.
Many of the items on display at first appear desirable and attractive, until you spot that there’s something about them making them unsaleable. For example there’s beautiful Victorian sheet music, but for songs you’ve never heard of. There are bundles of quill-penned letters from people writing in 1770, but they’re boring to read, and handwritten court rolls from even earlier, but it’s impossible to figure out to what they’re referring. Rare children’s books feature minor unloved characters and talking animals who never achieved popularity. Early Victorian postcards from seaside resorts feature lurid, unappealing views. There’s a book of cigarette filter-tip analysis cataloguing cigarettes with actual snouts installed in its fold-out pages, all neatly preserved in rows. The book is both pointless and funny-smelling.
I roam the rows, bumping into old friends I’m vaguely surprised to find alive. Excitedly we show each other our wares. I have scored these for almost nothing, you might say unsurprisingly, but the Hancock volume has a rare sketch inside featuring Hancock arguing with his scriptwriters in a pub, and although I knew Gore Vidal wrote pulp under the name of Edgar Box I didn’t know he had published scary stories using his own name. I can’t find an excuse for buying ‘Up Pompeii’.
There’s a serious side to the browsing; I weigh up buying a book on ancient London, a rare old volume weighing about 6 kilos. It’s forty quid and worth it for the research alone, but I’m going out after this and the thought of carrying it around…’You need it for your research,’ says an inner voice, so I buy it. Five minutes later, just as I’m staggering out of the door under its weight, the seller comes racing over. ‘I didn’t realise there’s another volume,’ he tells me, handing me a second, even heaving book. ‘But I don’t want to buy this one,’ I explain. ‘You don’t understand,’ he says, ‘this comes with it.’
‘But I don’t want it,’ I explain, now bowing under the collective weight of the bags.
‘You have to have it,’ he says passionately, ‘because you can’t break up the set.’
I trundle them home, knowing that a/ I have a bargain, b/ I can steal from them wholesale because the author is out of copyright, and c/ I have absolutely nowhere to put them.
As I leave, I hear an old German gentleman getting very excited about finding a set of pristine pre-war anti-Nazi propaganda pamphlets. They may all be strangers, but after a few minutes it feels like a welcoming party where the host says, ‘Enter, you are among friends. Strange, obsessed and poorly groomed, but friends all the same.’