Joy Or Sacrilege?

Joe Orton got banged up for doing it. But then it was the 1960s – there were rules. Conventions. Things you just didn’t do – or at least not in public. And you’d certainly never admit to committing such a socially unacceptable act.

Orton’s parents were never told he’d been arrested. They had to find out from the pages of the Daily Mirror. Heaven Only knows what the neighbours thought…

I am, of course, talking about the defacement of library books. Scribbling in the margins, putting your own slant on things. To be honest, from what I’ve seen of Orton’s handiwork it was often a bit on the puerile side – but he had a point to make and Islington Library Service, once so keen to hunt him down, now regard the books he and his mate Kenneth Halliwell defaced as some of the gems of their collection.

I have just added a gem to my own collection, unearthed in a secondhand bookshop in Shropshire at the weekend – and, though I have no idea who scrawled so intensely over virtually every page of Harold P. Clunn’s The Face of London – the only thing the scribbler didn’t write was his or her name – I am overjoyed at finding such a wonderfully-annotated volume.

References, extras, amendments and even a few outright disagreements with Mr Clunn make it a slow read – but infinitely fascinating. Hell – even the index is annotated. It’s made even better by the addition of dozens of 1950s newspaper cuttings slipped between the pages, causing the book to bulge in a most appealing way.

The reason I’m writing about this (apart from the obvious bibliophile’s pleasure in gloating over a particularly fat-find) is to remind you folks who are interested in such things that the best places to find books about Greenwich and London are often the provinces.

The guy in the bookshop told me that he has loads of London books in his warehouse; he just can’t shift ‘em. So he only ever keeps a small section on display and he sells them cheap (I paid just over a fiver for The Face of London and all its yummy extras.) He offered to let me see the Warehouse of Wonder, but I was only there for the day – next time, I’ll call ahead.

Of course if you’re not into obscure volumes about our fair capitol, my fingers itching at the thought of a defaced book full of bits of old newspaper are not going to be something you either get or care about. But if you are, remember – wherever you’re off to on your holidays this year – check out the secondhand bookshops and remember to ask the bookseller. They, too, may have the keys to their own particular Warehouse of Wonder.

So – would I write all over a book? Hmm. Tough one. I was brought up never to do such a philistine thing. And I certainly wouldn’t do it to anything ‘important.’ Or, indeed, public property. My parents don’t read the Mirror, so they’d never know I’d been arrested in Blackheath Library.

But given how much fun I’m getting from my anonymous fellow-Londonphile’s scribblings, yes – maybe in future I’ll be writing the odd pithy observation in the margins of Clive Aslet…

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