The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Bilibin and Rimsky

Just for Doda, a little more Ivan Bilibin. Undoubtedly one of the great illustrators, he also found fame as a designer of sets and costumes, especially for operas. Russian operas are so often developed from folk and fairy tales, or at least thoroughly Russian subjects, and so this was an deal niche for him to explore. Of all Russian composers it was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who proved his perfect inspiration. Here a vintage Leningrad-published book all about the Kirov opera and ballet (now renamed the Mariinsky of St Petersburg)has some fascinating evidence of Bilibin's work in practise. The end papers are in fact based on Alexander Golovine's famous curtain at the exquisite theatre (Golovine preceeded Bilibin as set designer, collaborating with Korovin and Bakst). But the black and white photographs, poor though they are, show early productions of two Rimsky-Korsakov operas that Bilibin cast his spell over: Rimsky's masterpiece, Kitezh (my favourite opera)and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (see my earlier post on Bilibin). Just click to enlarge.

Even in these murky photos his brilliant ability to use space, his decorative obsessions, the order and structure of folk art and icons, all show through. If only I had a time machine...

The other little book is a real curio, a lovely biography of Rimsky-Korsakov, a misunderstood and much maligned composer of operatic fairy tales. I believe he is an under-rated genius, who isn't fashionably tormented like his colleagues Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, but instead expressed himself quite differently, introsopectively and with splendid dignity. A devoted family man his tragedy was more private. He lost two beloved children in infancy and can it be entirely a coincedental that this most pantheistic of composers favoured stories of snowmaidens and water sprites who can never grow up and find love? Instead they perish, melt, become rivers or - at best (like the heroine Fevronya in Kitezh) - meet their lovers in the afterlife.

All of this inspired the greatest things from Bilibin, so it is quite appropriate that the little glued plate on the cover of the biography should be one of his drawings: a costume for a boyar from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.

Tatty TV Tie-ins

You find them everywhere: junk shops, charity shops, car boot sales. And the frisson of recognition and memory is powerful to anyone of a certain age. In the 1970s there was a surge of classic children's book adaptations: Heidi, The Secret Garden, The Railway Children... it was a golden age. I know it continued into the 80s, but then, sadly it slowly began it's tragic decline. Anne of Green Gables was especially popular in our house. To this day my sister and I call our mother "Marilla". Kim Braden (now, what became of her?) was perfect...and I mean perfect... as Anne Shirley, the temperamental orphan in search of a kindred spirit. The BBC films were made around Constable Country I believe, in Suffolk, which made a very credible Prince Edward Island. So much of L.M. Montgomery's invented mythology entered our lives and however good the newer Canadian films are (and Megan Follows is superb as Anne), these earlier films - the first series I believe irretrievably lost or damaged (and certainly never issued on DVD) - captured an innocence and tenderness that was surprisingly memorable. I suppose they must have left "plenty of scope for the imagination" as Anne would have said. And I confess to a bit of a crush on Ms. Braden...
The other TV tie in here is a simular vintage but from Australia, bought in by the BBC. I can only assume it is likewise lost as no DVD seems to exist, which is a great pity as I remember it so vividly I can still sing the theme tune. Seven Little Australians is a haunting and ultimately tragic story of an Australian family, set at the end of the 19th century. A classic "down under" it doesn't seem as well know in Britain. It's a little sentimental, as one might expect, but powerful nontheless, and a few hints of E. Nesbit and indeed Montgomery.
That these memories, filled with the sound of tea cups and the smell of Battenburg and the promise of Mr Kipling, as we settled down as a whole family to watch the tea-time classic serial, can be held by a tatty TV tie-in is remarkable. There are more handsome editions of both books out there. But none that mean more to me. Custard Cream anyone?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Saviour Pirotta: Things that Kindle can't do yet...

From Saviour Pirotta comes a lovely collection of things found inside books. Thanks, Saviour for permission to post!

"In a comment in his wonderful blog DUSTY OLD BOOKS, James Mayhew observed, Just this weekend in a sunday newspaper a journalist was saying how she was looking forward to "not having a dusty pile of books beside the bed". And I thought: I LOVE my pile of dusty books beside the bed, finding lost books, finding books I didn't know I had, finding letters or pressed flowers inside, inscriptions and postcards; memories of a previous reading in another place. All this quite apart from illustrations and the actual words intended by the author!

It made me think of the ephemera I have left in my books over the years:

train and bus tickets from journeys in other countries;
paper napkins with bar logos;
restaurant bills from special meals, messages out of fortune cookies, theatre and concert tickets, notes from meetings with editors, party invitations, even sweet and chocolate wrappers.

Who will find them when my books pass into new hands?

And will their new owners pause to think about the person who placed them there?

Will they try to imagine what I looked like, what I thought of the meals I had eaten, the shows I had seen, the places I visited?

I certainly treasure the things I find in old books. I think of them as the bookmarks of someone else's life.

Sometimes, just for fun, I try to make up stories about them, imagining different ways how, why and when they ended up in these books?

Here are a few things I have discovered nestling between yellowed pages over the years.

What do you make of them?"

Saviour Pirotta.

Friday, 23 October 2009

More from Mr Mayfield.

Very many thanks to Gerry for another great story about his own collection of dusty old books... Enjoy!

"These 2 books are special to me for slightly different reasons.

The first is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. I have an admission to make about this book, which I shall come to later. I received it when in hospital at the age of 7.

I spent quite a few periods in hospital around the time and to be in hospital for my seventh birthday was especially depressing for me.

But to my joy I received this book as a present from the nursing staff on the ward. At the age of seven it was beyond my reading ability, but non the less I was delighted and treasured it. I later went through a phase of liking the plainness of the single colour of the boards on the books and removed it's flysheet for it never to be replaced. Because it was past my reading age, it went on a shelf and was, in part, forgotten for many years. Much later I did try to read it, and here is the admission, but... I found the attitude of Defoe (and probably his contemporaries) towards non white peoples to be offensive and could not bring myself to actually finish it. Perhaps a shame and I may yet try again but... I still treasure the book as a mark of the nurses' kindness.

The other book 'Tales of Brave Adventure' was also one of the first books I 'owned'. I had 4 brothers and so got to 'own' very little. I received things passed down and was, in turn, expected to pass them along. But this book was mine, for none to share. A selfish attitude perhaps, but also a little island in a big sea. I was given this book by a neighbour for caring for their cat while they were on holiday when I was about 8. I treasure this for the ownership of it where everything else disappeared and deteriorated through others neglect. It may be a little tatty now, but it is nearly 50 years old."

Gerry Mayfield

Monday, 19 October 2009

Seeing London

One of my very favourite children's books is this out-of-print gem by an American called Dale Maxey. A voluminous Red Elephant with roller skates is a symbol for a London bus, and takes a pair of children on a thorough and in-depth tour of our capital city. There are too many pages to show you here. But the disarmingly naive maps (with my infant scribbles) and the whale in the Natural History Museum are typical. I remember vividly my first trip to the big city. Coming from Suffolk it was A Big Event, and although I was only 3 or 4, I still can picture the big Blue Whale. Of course it is still there...and I have seen it many times since... but I remember that first visit and throwing a coin on it's tail from the balcony.

Then there's the museum of London with the Fire Of London panorama, also embedded in my memory and included in the book. As I grew older I would "collect" memories of my visits to the places in this book, which was an ideal souvenir of them, and educational too, with the ornate signs on Lombard Street revealed (are they still there?) and the whispering gallery of St Paul's remembered. It would be hard to reprint this book as I daresay it is hopelessly out of date (but no more so than the fashionably retro This Is London by Miroslav Sasek, recently republished). But I love it for the smoky 1960's Chim-Chim-Charoo atmosphere of a grey London, still with soot and rain and hidden secrets.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Saviour Pirotta: Treasures rescued, treasures lost...

A beautifully written and rather tragic tale from the brilliant Saviour Pirotta:

"A few weeks I was on my way to the bakery round the corner when I caught sight of a pile of old books overflowing out of a skip. At first I thought someone had dumped a boxful on top of the detritus you usually find on skips. A quick poke in the debris and I discovered it was actually the other way round. The skip was full of books and someone had plonked a few bits of broken furniture on top. There must have been a few thousand volumes in there. Dozens of students from Shipley College up the road were milling around the skip, their eyes glued on their mobile phones. None felt in the least bit compelled to have a poked around.

I popped into the newsagents’ nearby. Did they know were the books had come from? It turned out that the place next door had been a second hand bookshop. It had closed a few months before I’d moved to the village. The owner, a taciturn historian, had suffered a stroke and, unable to operate the business, had closed it down but refused to relinquish the lease back to the council. Apparently he had lived the last years of his life alone with his books, unable to sell on the stock and unwilling to part with it for free. Now that he was gone, workmen had been sent in to clear and fumigate the place before a new business took it on.

Where were the books going? I enquired. Surely, they weren’t just going to be dumped in a landfill site like so much worthless rubbish? It seemed they were. No one wanted them. No school, no college, not even a dealer could be found to offer them sanctuary. I texted a quick SOS to some friends, book lovers like me, who surely would come to the rescue? One of them owned a shop selling vintage memorabilia; she might find some of the books a new home and make a bit of a profit in the bargain.

The best went a long time ago, came back the reply from the only person who bothered answering. Only rubbish left. Don’t bother.

I delved in to see what the rubbish was. A 60s compendium of JM Synge’s plays! It included The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea, a brilliant one-act play! How could scripts like that be classed as rubbish? I also found a Nelson edition of John Buchan’s Greenmantle, its red cover slightly faded but still in good condition! And several copies of those Pan Books of Horror I used to treasure in the 70s, but which went to my brother when he married! A woman in a spotted kaftan ambled across the road. What kinds of books was she interested in? I asked. There were all sorts in here. She didn’t want any of the books on the skip, as it turned out. They might be mildewed, for heaven’s sake! What she was after was the bookcase she’d spotted from half way up the hill. A good clean and it would be as good as new for her doll collection, she reckoned.

I helped her dig out the bookcase but we soon attracted the attention of a young community liaison officer. Did we know that it was a criminal offence to dig around in skips, without the express permission of the owner? I knew it would be futile to explain that the owner of the books was too dead and cremated to give his permission. The woman in the kaftan and I both scuttled away, me carrying an armful of rescued books, the woman carrying the bookcase on one shoulder, like a female Jesus bearing his cross.

That night, I returned to the crime scene, but the skip had been replaced by a near-empty one. No books in it; they’d been taken to the landfill site. But I did rescue a lovely wooden box that seemed to have once held jars of ink or paint. It’s sitting in my shed at the moment, waiting for a free moment when I can clean it up and give it a good lick of linseed oil to bring out the grain.

I can’t bear to think about the books I didn’t manage to rescue are, though. Would the taciturn historian be watching over them from wherever he is? And, as they slowly disintegrated in the rain and the frost, their precious words erased forever by the elements, would he be shedding an afterlife tear at the dawning of an age when his beloved books count for so little? I hope so, for as I look at my own books, safe on their shelves for at least as long as I live, I am reminded of thought provoking line from Cleopatra. As Elizabeth Taylor in the title role watches the flames engulf the once famous library of Alexandria, she screams at Caesar: Neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!"

Thanks to Saviour Pirotta for permission to post his story.

from Mary Mayfield...

Beloved books from Mary Mayfield. Thanks so much for sending these pictures and sharing the story behind the books. I love a bit of embossed gold as well...

"Granddad's Books
These are very special books to me as they belonged to my mother's father who died a few years before I was born. By trade, he was an engine driver working for Barber & Walker pits on their private railways around Eastwood, Nottinghamshire; by the time of WW2 he was in charge of running their goods depot. In his spare time, he grew mushrooms which were sent down to Covent Garden market, built his own wooden-framed caravan, travelled around on his motorbikes and experimented in what must have been cutting-edge technology - building a succession of radios and, ultimately in 1939, built a television set - the first person in the village to have one!
Back to the books - a series of 12 classic novels from Odhams Press dating to the 30's and a four part "Gardening for Amateurs" from Waverley Book Company from the 20's. There were a couple more of his books which have disappeared (I remember a book titled "Your Fate in the Stars") but not many as ours wasn't a household full of books.These two sets of books though were looked after by my Grandmother, perhaps as mementoes for I don't ever remember her reading them - in fact I think I was the only person interested in their contents.They are all well used books - not falling apart but it's obvious that they have been read or referred to more than once but this must have been only by Granddad. As a child I thought they must be incredibly dull as they were always kept wrapped in brown paper to protect their covers and, although I claimed them as a teenager, I was never allowed to remove it.Only after I married and moved them to a new home did the covers come off."

Mary Mayfield

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Illustrated Book...with a difference

This book caught my wife's eye because of my love of music. Imagine our surprise to discover that the rather sentimental prose was accompanied not by distinctly average engravings, as first appeared to be the case, but by hundreds of incredibly fine HAND DRAWN illustrations, put directly onto the page of this bound book.

By whom? The author? Someone who loved the book so much they couldn't resist? Perhaps a lover of the author?

The romantic possibilities are endless. For this reason I cherish the book. Someone must have loved it so much to have wanted to create the best drawings they could muster, and in abundance. There are over a hundred of them. I can think of very few people who, in our digital age, would bother to see something like this through. It makes the book an exceptionally personal and intimate item, as in a way all books can be. It is not a great book nor one I read from often. Rather, it is a unique and curious object that I leaf through and wonder about from time to time. I think the idiosyncraties of the published form are endlessly fascinating, and the stories they further create in my mind are valuable and cherished.
The words within are all linked to music by Mendelsohn, Verdi, Wagner and other Romantic composers. Extracts from their music is quoted throughout, and the books has sections called "largo" and "allegro".

The book is copyrighted 1898 and produced by the Knickerbocker Press New York. This is not a first edition but one of many reprints. And yet, with these many drawings it is surely unique!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Old Man River

Forgotten, misunderstood, neglected, much maligned. Here is a man who did as much as Martin Luther King, but whose political views resulted in appalling abuse during the McCarthy witchhunts in America. For he was accused of being a Communist. As so often, my love of something - or someone - comes from a childhood memory, which is that of my father playing Paul Robeson's records. I have since collected many original 78 rpm records, and they are some of my most cherished things. This little book is not a biography. It is a statement. A personal explanation of Mr Robeson's views and reasons. It is a rebuff to those Americans who turned against him. And it is a sensitive and deeply moving insight into the racism and segregation suffered by black Americans in the 20th century.Perhaps Mr Robeson was naive. His reception in the Soviet Union and his observations of racial equality cast a long shadow on his homeland. Certainly the principles of a communist ideal must have been attractive. The reality was somewhat different and he in no way endorsed what Stalin did. Indeed he never joined the Communist party as such, but spoke out against racism so passionately - and used the Soviet system as an example of an alternative - that post-war America became nervous.

He was adored in Britain and celebrated all over the world. Back in American he and his audiences were - incredibly - stoned, leading to riots. He was dragged through courts, humiliated, stripped of his dignity and refused his passport. At the height of his career as a singer and actor (he played Othello to great acclaim in London), he was imprisoned in his own country. Today he isn't really celebrated as he should be. He risked everything for his people and I adore this book as it contains such humanity, such courage and emotion. He was a great speaker and a fine, good man. He paved the way for President Obama. But I don't believe this is a book that will ever turn up on Kindle...

"To be free - to walk the good American earth as equal citizens, to live without fear, to enjoy the fruits of our toil, to give our children every opportunity in life - that dream which we have held so long in our hearts is today the destiny we hold in our hands." PAUL ROBESON: HERE I STAND.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Train spotting

Like a lot of boys I grew up loving trains. Proper trains... steam trains. I adored these Little Red Engine books by Diana Ross (I'm guessing that's not the Disco Diva...but who knows?). Certainly I much preferred them to Thomas the Tank Engine and co. Originally they had illustrations by Lewitt-Him, about whom I know nothing, except I love the design and order of the illustrations. Later books were illustrated in a very simular vein by Leslie Wood, and these books have been reissued. But Lewitt-Him's have not which is a shame. In any case the originals, with colour separation, lithographic covers are so much more beautiful than full colour modern covers, as is the matt paper within. I especially love the cover underneath the dustwrapper of Leslie Wood's illustration (bottom picture), just gorgeously simple. In the stories, which take me right back to home and my childhood, the Little Red Engine has remarkably straightforward adventures: In The Little Red Engine gets a name (which I think is possibly the first book in the series) he carries the King on the main line. "And then they came to a tunnel, the first it had ever been through. It took a deep breath: WHOOOOEEEEEOOOOO!" To a train mad kid that was poetry! His reward is to be named "Royal Red" by Special appointment to His Majesty the King. Quite right too!

Old favourites from Gerry Mayfield

A great story from Gerry Mayfield - thanks for sending it!
"I have a couple of old books at least that fit the bill.

The first was a prize from 1st year secondary school (now year 7 of course) and it is now dog eared, but cherished as much for the personalised impersonal message in the front declaring that this is to 'Gerald Mayfield' and was 'Form Prize 1L'. I got to choose the book from a table full and then attended a prize giving session one evening to receive it.

At the time I felt 6 feet tall as I had really worked hard at this because I had not been placed in the top form, which was my rightful place, and with the winning of that prize went promotion to my goal of 'Form 2C'. I read and reread the book as a child and now it sits amongst the other children's books and rarely has a page turned. Would I part with it? NO! I hated school and no one will know what it cost me to win it - it is a badge, a memory and a treasure

The second seems a cheat but only today I realised how dear the book is to me. We are in desperate need of shelf inches and I have gone through my own personal stuff to see what I would sacrifice. I identified a group of 3 'haynes' manuals. I have always loved the smell of oil and the blood on the knuckles from trying to get into that awkward place to release that awkward nut. I rebuilt my first motor bike at 17. It was a BSA Starfire C15 and it cost me £29. I moved onto a Bantam and spent a fair amount of time nursing that and eventually passed my test. I did the sums and realised I could JUST afford to get a real bike. I went along for a look see and purchased (on my brother's signature) a Norton 750 Interstate Commando. It became my pride and joy and I spent lots of hours working on it. I couldn't do that without a 'haynes' manual and I read it even when there was nothing need doing. It might need doing soon, mightn't it? That book helped me put a new clutch in when it failed doing nearly a ton in the fast lane. It helped me get the lights on when the rectifier failed coming back from Blackpool. It helped me get the isolastic mountings sorted when she bucked in the corners. But more than all that the book carries all those memories, of all the bikes of my youth. The smell of it, the feel of it contains too much. I could not get rid of it and I returned it to the shelf and I may, seriously, add it to my reading list again."

More on Bilibin

I feel Bilibin will feature on this site rather often. Even today he is little known and under appreciated. He was not just an illustrator but also a famous designer of sets and costumes, in particular for operas. The illustrations here are from two sources. One is the programme for a season of Russian Opera in Paris in 1929. For this he produced designs for Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan (after Pushkin). Here is the spectacular front cover and one of the set designs.

The set shows the Island of Bouyan where an enchanted Swan Princess will turn Prince Guidon into a Bumble Bee (cue the composer's famous "flight" for orchestra!). The image is in the Ashmolean in Oxford (incorrectly assigned to another Rimsky-Korsakov opera, The Invisible city of Kitezh). 30 years earlier, when the opera Tsar Saltan was premiered, Bilibin produced an illustrated book of Pushkin's original poem, which was dedicated to the venerable old composer. The picture from the book is a scan of a first edition. Imagine it! Rimsky-Korsakov may have held this very book in his hands! As noted in an earlier post, these picture books were lavishly produced with sumptuous glossy inks (almost like oil paints - a process called chromolithography) and with gold as a fifth colour. Pictures alas cannot do justice to the fabulous colours and textures of this VERY dusty old book.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


So Kindle has been launched in the UK. Hurrah! But is that the death of books? Of course not! Beautiful old books will always be celebrated. Here, then, is a new blog to remind us of something Kindle can't do yet. Which is... to become a magical intimate individual gift, something to write in, to give or share, press flowers in, love and look upon with memories, reassuringly unchanging (apart from the dust). And with a left hand page and pictures too! Here's a rare edition (1912) of Ivan Bilibin's Russian Wonder Tales, a collection of folk tales with a selection of illustrations by the great Russian illustrator. These images were first produced for a series of magnificent and luxurious picture books in Russia. This more modest selection was the first book published in Britain with his work. The retellings are by Post Wheeler and the publisher is A & C Black. The embossed cover is badly damaged and Bilibin's image hard to distinguish (it shows a scene from The Firebird). But the patina of age lends atmosphere and mystery and tells another story. The story of those who held the book, loved it and cherished it and then passed it on. Produced during Russia's most turbulant times, it must have been a very special reminder of all that was lost to any refugee who saw it...