|Illustration by Stephen Bone from 'The Military Orchid'|
On the other hand you never know when you might find a kindred spirit among a shelf of old books. I have more in common with Edward Thomas than with 90% of my contemporaries . I love his poetry but have a greater affection for some of his prose. 'In Pursuit of Spring' is a wonderful book, as is 'The South Country' - the story of the clerk who spends every summer working on the land expresses perfectly the rootlessness of modern (sub)urban life. Thomas befriended, championed and looked after the poet WH Davies, whose 'Autobiography of a Super-Tramp' I picked up the other day and read mostly in one sitting. Published in 1908 and written in simple, unsentimental prose, it is a frank account of a youth most people would consider misspent. The particular edition I found was from Jonathan Cape's Traveller's Library of the 1930s, and it looks, feels and smells as if a tramp had been carrying it around for a while.
|The Saxon font at Little Toller|
Until this month there were twelve titles in Little Toller's Nature Classics Library. Alongside 'The South Country' there's Adrian Bell's 'Men and the Fields', which offers a fascinating picture of rural England shortly before World War Two, and books by Richard Jefferies and WH Hudson. Oh, and Richard Mabey's 'Unofficial Countryside' is in there too, which, since Mabey is still very much with us, rather brilliantly connects past and present. The books are nicely-weighted, reasonably-priced paperbacks with beautiful covers and illustrations by artists who are also in some cases long-forgotten.
|Page from 'Sweet Thames Run Softly'|
Outside my window a dove is working itself up into a lather. Nervous collapse is imminent. It struts like a Grenadier drill sergeant. Its neck is curved as a drawn bow. Its chest bulges with simmering aggressiveness. It pounds the balcony tiles with pink feet. From its throat comes a furious rumbling. It is spluttering with foiled rage... How, I wonder once more, did the dove become the emblem of peace?
The name Robert Gibbings seemed familiar when I saw the second book, 'Sweet Thames Run Softly', but it took a moment to remember that he ran the Golden Cockerel Press in the late 1920s and early 1930s, commissioning Eric Ravilious and other wood engravers to illustrate his books. Gibbings was himself a talented wood engraver and in this book combined the roles of writer and illustrator to beautiful effect. Like 'Men and the Fields', this book takes us on a tour of England just before the war, only in this case the journey was down the Thames in a home-made glass-bottomed punt.
|Cover image: David Inshaw, 'Oak Tree, Bonfire and Fireworks', 2004|
From an Edwardian childhood to service in a mobile VD clinic during World War Two his memoir is funny, acerbic and full of life, surely one of the most interesting books to be published this autumn. I particularly enjoyed his frankness as a botanist, his admission that he preferred the experts who supported his identification of a particular plant and confession that many plants bored him silly. Here's the opening:
Mr Bundock's function, so far as my family was concerned, was to empty the earth-closet twice a week at the cottage where we used to spend the summer. This duty he performed unobtrusively and usually late at night: looming up suddenly in the summer dusk, earth-smelling and hairy like some menial satyr... He became of sudden interest to me one June evening by asserting, quite calmly, that he had found the lizard orchid.
I wonder what they'll dig up next...