The Books That Don’t Exist
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 aÂ crowdfunding effort by fans inÂ â€˜The Power Pack of Ken Reidâ€™. Reid was arguably the most influential British comics artist, by which I mean â€˜comicsâ€™ as in the British weeklies for kids that were delivered alongside the family newspapers, comics like â€˜The Beanoâ€™ or â€˜Wham!â€™.
Reid greatest creation, â€˜Jonahâ€™, the sailor who sinks every ship he touches, was a sort of spin-off from a radio show called â€˜The Navy Larkâ€™, in which an awful lot of ships sank. Sadly, Jonah isnâ€™t represented in either of these volumes (the original strips appeared between 1958 and 1963) presumably because publisher DC Thompson wonâ€™t release them. Luckily these two huge volumes from Reid later years still have lots of wonderful, deranged artwork from many other strips, including â€˜Queen of the Seasâ€™, a virtual clone of â€˜Jonahâ€™. One whole volume is dedicated to the mystifyingly unfunny ‘Frankie Stein’ but Reidâ€™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.