The Books That Don’t Exist

London

These are the books which are hard to find in bookshops, being independently published or self-published.

In a way, Amazon has levelled the playing field for us seekers of rarities, as it is now possible to find all manner of strange and highly specific books dedicated to unlikely subjects. Bookshops can’t stock print-on-demand volumes and many shops don’t even stock classic literature beyond the ubiquitous Jane Austen and Arthur Conan-Doyle.

John Goddard’s extraordinary ‘The Golden Age of Agatha Christie’ (2 vols) goes somewhere no other Christie biographer has dared to go before, by giving away the endings of every Christie whodunnit.

He does so for a clear academic purpose; to analyse how Christie constructed her plots and to find out if they really play fair with readers. He uses a construction method of assembling clues and characters and looking at their interactions. The books are incredibly useful for writers and filled with interesting details that uncover the Queen of Crime’s diagrammatic thought processes. They’re self-published (and none the worse for that) and each of the studies is well-written and intelligently argued.

‘The London Hippodrome’ is not generally available, being published by Memory Lane Press, an Essex-based company who mostly print memorabilia, but it’s a lovely book well worth seeking out for the illustrations and backstage photos alone. Starting with the twice-nightlies and the arrival of Houdini at the Hippodrome, it guides us decade by decade through the entertainments, which were both highly sophisticated, pursuing a policy of booking composers and ballet dancers, and lowbrow – sending an elephant nightly down a water chute, for example.

The Hippodrome became famous for staging disasters; floods, earthquakes, eruptions and fires were all spectacularly presented. In one, a horse and carriage was jettisoned off a collapsing bridge into a water tank. There are plenty of chorus girls here, some sexy, some rather thick in the ankles, plus appearances by Irving Berlin and Ivor Novello, and lots of period detail about the shows staged in Leicester Square. Who knew that the leading man in the 1944 musical Jenny Jones went on to become Margaret Thatcher’s speech writer, coining ‘The lady’s not for turning’? Politics is showbiz.

The Hippodrome transformed into the supper club Talk of the Town, its history climaxing with Judy Garland’s ill-fated run and a show by Prince – his last UK performance. Now it’s back to being the Hippodrome, having been turned into a casino and cabaret bar. The book’s not exactly critical, especially in its end section, but that is to be expected given that this is vanity publishing.

Everyone agrees that the comics artist Ken Reid was demented. His best work was collected and published thanks to a crowdfunding effort by fans in ‘The Power Pack of Ken Reid’. Reid was arguably the most influential British comics artist, by which I mean ‘comics’ as in the British weeklies for kids that were delivered alongside the family newspapers, comics like ‘The Beano’ or ‘Wham!’.

Reid greatest creation, ‘Jonah’, the sailor who sinks every ship he touches, was a sort of spin-off from a radio show called ‘The Navy Lark’, in which an awful lot of ships sank. Sadly, Jonah isn’t represented in either of these volumes (the original strips appeared between 1958 and 1963) presumably because publisher DC Thompson won’t release them. Luckily these two huge volumes from Reid later years still have lots of wonderful, deranged artwork from many other strips, including ‘Queen of the Seas’, a virtual clone of ‘Jonah’. One whole volume is dedicated to the mystifyingly unfunny ‘Frankie Stein’ but Reid’s drawing of cackling, gibbering lunatics being blown to smithereens are a delight.

Just time to mention a slightly more readily available book called ‘Piccadilly‘ by Stephen Hoare, which looks at the history not just of the ‘hub of the empire’ Piccadilly Circus but of the prestigious street. It covers the darker side of Piccadilly but only repeats the more obvious well-known stories – the book is more of a London primer than a deep dive – and misses out on the tastier anecdotes from squadrons of rent boys under the North-East columns and the ‘Piccadilly Commandoes’ – the girls who serviced the armed forces. Fun, but a bit of a missed opportunity, one feels.

27 comments on “The Books That Don’t Exist”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    In the spirit (if not the actual ‘letter’) of this post, may I recommend ‘The Neglected Books Page’ (https://neglectedbooks.com/) focusing on books  “neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or stranded by changing tides in critical or popular taste.”

    And, in more or less the same hemisphere of ‘undiscovered’ literary efforts (after all this is the Christopher Fowler blog) — normally the words ‘heartwarming,’ ‘charming,’ and ‘thoughtful’ heard or seen in a book description would instantly trigger my gag reflex. Fortunately I was persuaded to stop making gagging noises long enough to read a ‘heartwarming,’ ‘charming’ and ‘thoughtful’ debut novel by Sara Nisha Adams called ‘The Reading List,’ about the power of books and libraries. The thread by which this comment clings to the subject at hand here is a mysterious reading list of well-known books, whose discovery leads to a life changing friendship between two very different people in Wembley. A bit uneven perhaps and a touch saccharine here and there as might be expected, but all in all a worthy read for lovers of books and the grand institutions which house them

  2. tony+williams says:

    A fun article. I’ve always liked the image of music hall, long gone for me, the accounts of the sheer length of Houdini’s shows. I wonder if in future more energy constrained times groups will sit quietly in a darkened hall watching very little action for hours at a time

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    As mentioned by CF on Twitter (and vaguely related to this post as might be expected by habitués here) in honor of the 200th episode of the Ivan Wise podcast ‘Better Known: Six things you love which should be better known’ — CF’s contribution from 2018 (29 min) (https://podcastaddict.com/episode/61464076). Presumably his choices have multiplied since. For those who may be interested, a link to the podcast itself: https://betterknown.co.uk/

  4. mike says:

    I went to the music hall once at the Walthamstow Palace. I was about 3 and all I can remember was we were very high up and the performers were like ants and the stage was very brightly lit.
    Still can visualise the brightness.

  5. BarbaraBoucke says:

    As always, thanks for the books. I’m not a movie-goer – I pass that info along to my brother. But the books I always appreciate. I will save the Rohan McWilliam book for an Abe book order in the New Year. I may have to give up sleeping to make a dent in the pile I have now!

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    As a public service, the expected eclectic topics covered in the above mentioned CF ‘Better Known’ podcast.

    Spanish films

    Brigid Brophy  (British writer and Public Lending Right activist)

    The lost Russian base at Pyramiden (a time capsule of the heyday of the Soviet Union)

    Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ (art installation)

    How Freud got American women to smoke (BBC documentary episode about Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays. Bernays invented PR as a profession and was the first to apply Freud’s ideas to influence the public).

    Screwball Comedies

    And, in case anyone was wondering — with respect to the book ‘Piccadilly’ — the phrase ‘dilly-dally’ has nothing specifically to do with rent boys and the ‘Piccadilly Commandos’ — but it obviously could etymologically.

  7. Jan says:

    Piccadilly is a rum old place. Of all the times I spent there with the locals the rents, the working girls, the dips, beggars, tourists and passing punters one of the strangest things I ever did see, + believe me there were any number of mysterious sights to behold, the one I remember best didn’t really involve people that much at all.

    Chris I dunno if you remember the bit of Pic Circ closest to Glasshouse Street which runs behind Regent Street where the big hotel with the extended entrance is situated – near the Piccadilly Theatre. Well next but two to the big Branch of Boots’ the chemists where at one time Methadone seemed to be the most popular item of stock in the pharmacy there was at the end of the parade of shops a branch of “Dunkin Donuts”

    Well one night at the back of midnight somewhere in the early hours myself, my mate and a couple of prisoners were walking toward Shaftsbury Avenue when suddenly one of the girls pointed over toward the display Window of this donut emporium and sort of screamed. I glanced over towards the shop where a small crowd of (mainly drunken) passersby had gathered and saw that the whole of the front window seemed almost to be pulsating everything seemed to be moving about in a strangely furry way. What appeared to be going on was that a multitude of mice had gathered – very probably having been displaced from a nearby premises or the bakery at the rear of the shop where the goodies were created and these creatures had decided to dine en masse on the contents on display.

    I really couldn’t accurately estimate the numbers involved but its seemed very much that each of these rodents had invited all their mates along to this impromptu late night feast, and it was very well attended. As we watched and as if to add to the general air of excitement a warming shelf or warming cabinet from which the (hopefully) fresh and warm delicacies were served collapsed due to the sheer weight of mouse numbers involved. This cabinet began sliding down on the inside of the window and as it did so it dislocated a number of shelves below it which fell into a strange if disjointed, dislocated ladder. Multitudes of mice began their journey up this ladder and at the same time in the opposite direction the donuts displayed began a slow and sticky slide downwards on the same track in the opposite direction. It was a wondrous thing to behold it was in a way a real life version of a computer platform game. With a sort of urban David Attenborough twist. Multitudes of mice making their way upwards whilst their foodstuff of choice made its way almost gracefully toward them. Truly fascinating stuff.

    Needless to say this flurry of rodent activity brought about some startlingly speedy human exits from the front door of the premises. Customers and staff headed for the pavement. One particular lady staff member (who normally served the coffees) expressed @ some volume to the onlookers that she believed her hairstyle to contain a mouse (or possibly mice ) Members of the gathering group outside showed some reluctance to assist her with her grooming problem and she headed off toward the tube station at a fast pace having found time to hastily rearrange her own coiffure with some considerable vigour.

    Honestly it was marvellous and certainly one of Pic Circs livelier interludes. In contrast to many other gloomier evenings no one was stabbed or beaten, their were no dreadful fallings out or territorial disputes amongst the itinerant workers in the black economy it’s was an evening when the local wildlife came to the fore in the centre of a bustling city centre. Nature finding a way.

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan Well Jan — been looking for a way to avoid gaining weight during this Season of Avoirdupois and you found one. Put me right off donuts (for now…), you have!

  9. Jan says:

    Sorry Stu! It’ll never last …

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan True as Bob, Jan. Btw — a quick Google has uncovered a direct international link between rodents and donuts. My favourite is the wee beastie trying to make off with one its size in a NYC tube station. Almost as persistent as I am when She Who Must Be Obeyed is otherwise distracted. Better stop now before I’m sent off for befouling the public discourse.

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Dunkin Donuts! The last thing I would have expected to see in London. I wonder what brought about that cafe invasion and whether it passed its next health inspection.

  12. Joan says:

    Best story ever Jan, made me laugh outright over my morning coffee. Stu made me chuckle even more.

  13. Jan says:

    Dunking Donuts has since been joined by Krispy Kreme Helen! Mind you I think Krispy Kreme are just marketed in general food stores rather than the Franchise arrangement of “Dunking Donuts”.

    Apparently this event was repeated on average every 18 months to 2 years or so (on occasion at longer intervals) if the Environmental Health Inspectors were alerted there would be a shutdown and clean up then the process would start again until the mice could resist the donuts no longer …..

    Whether the other repeats were as spectacularly entertaining as the one I witnessed I dunno.

    I’ve not been in the West End for years and years now so I don’t know if the shop is still there.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Jan It closed in 2002. Now has a location on Baker St Probably attracts a better class of rodent.

  15. Helen+Martin says:

    No G on Dunkin and no apostrophe either. They don’t have that bad a rep here and Krispy Kreme, we like to say, have a higher fat and sugar content and are Amurrican so nothing as good as Dunkin or Tim Horton’s. Timmy’s seems to have taken over through much of Canada. I didn’t know whether to laugh or shudder at that story, Jan.

  16. Jan says:

    Now Stu the tube late on at night when the network is closed is THE top spot for mouse spotting. (How or if the tubes going 24 hours has changed this I dunno). After the tube bombings back in 2005 I was posted working on a uniform team and we had to get Lancaster Gate tube station closed out of the system one evening. The mice decided to go on their own full terrorism alert and began a mass track migration travelling west.

    A few went in for a bit of acrobatics and made it onto the platforms, rather than sticking with being down the hole. I had visions of a few dozen more climbers sticking with the “Lets get out of here pronto” plan. I imagined them crossing the platforms, ascending on the escalators wandering under the barriers and evacuating into Hyde Park.

  17. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Jan … I must be partially Canadian, as I much prefer Tim Horton’s to Dunkin Donuts or (quick, nurse, the screens!) Krispy Kreme, which should be done for on deadly assault charges for false advertising (doughnuts? What doughnuts? Doesn’t that term imply the product is edible?).
    Besides, the coffee is better.

  18. Paul+C says:

    Big fan of Houdini – an amazing man (if not always very likeable) with an extraordinary life story. Best biography is The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon. Highly recommended – a wonderful read.

  19. Nick says:

    Ken Reid – he used to draw for Shiver and Shake, didn’t he?

  20. Paul+C says:

    Nick – yes, the Ken Reid strip Frankie Stein appeared in Shiver and Shake. If you want to buy original art from UK comics try the Book Palace website who have a great many for sale including Andy Capp (sadly no Ken Reid though)

  21. Tim Lees says:

    I remember “Frankie Stein”, and I remember rather liking it. Whether it was funny or not, I have no idea, but I think the real appeal of it to us as kids was simply that we weren’t allowed to see the real Frankenstein films, and this was a kind of substitute. We suffered from a serious shortage of gibbering lunatics, which Reid partially alleviated.

  22. Paul+C says:

    We’re suffering from a surfeit of gibbering lunatics at the moment – mostly in government

  23. Stu-I-Am says:

    With respect to the prolific Ken Reid — let’s not forget his ‘The Adventures of Fudge the Elf’ series which ran in the Manchester Evening News for an incredible (as these things go…) 25 years, with only a five year break for his National Service during the last good war.

  24. Roger Allen says:

    I met a naturalist years ago who thought London Underground mice – like LU mosquitoes – might be on the way to becoming a separate species, or even more than one species, Jan. I also wonder about the pigeons which seemed to commute on very early morning trains. Being pigeons you couldn’t tell if they were always the same ones and whether they had regular getting-off points, but they certainly seemed to know exactly what they were doing and where they were going.

  25. Stu-I-Am says:

    For those who just can’t enough about London rodents — at last count (exactly who is doing the counting…and why… is unclear) there are an estimated 500,000 mice residing rent-free in the Underground. The number is said to be dropping because of less edible trash remaining on platforms these day. Whatever the drop in fecundity however, the constituency is still larger than the population of any London borough.

    Just imagine the power of a new seat. Although it goes without saying that there are probably plenty of members who refer (at least under their breath) to opposition colleagues as vermin. And while these wee beasties usually shy away from direct human contact, they obviously get fed up from time to time with humanity just as we ourselves do. In 2012, for example, a message on the Farringdon Station (Islington) notice board advised commuters to tuck their trousers into their socks after a spate of rogue mice attacks.

  26. Helen+Martin says:

    I wonder if those 2012 mice were rabid. If so, just tucking in trousers (and what were skirt clad ladies or kilt clad Scotsmen supposed to do?) would not have been sufficient protection.

  27. Paul+C says:

    I used to have a pet mouse called Elvis but sadly he died………….he was caught in a trap

Comments are closed.