Interview Archive

Straight Talk

Peter Eaton in conversation with Sheila Markham

All the hoops in Peter Eaton’s croquet lawn have been widened to spare his guests’ frustration. The man himself is not so easy to approach, guarded by a pair of spirited dachshunds yapping horribly behind a door marked ‘Funeral Office’. Once in, the tape recorder whirred ominously, settled down, clicked and annoyed the dogs and their master who barked, ‘That’s a bloody silly question’, and the interview was under way.

‘Bookselling has altered. There are a lot of aristocrats in it now. When I started, there were only about three who had been to Oxford. It was always considered a trade and not a profession. There were a lot of working class who just went in because they saw a picking. Several that I knew would buy books in sales, tied up in bundles — it could have been coal — and they didn’t even open them, and used to sell them at a profit without looking at them. I don’t suppose looking would have made much difference.

‘In the early days, there were a lot of people who did this, and there were a lot of crooks. I know a chap who was a buyer for a shop in Charing Cross Road. He’d rip out the title-page and shout at the auctioneer, "It’s not perfect", and put the page in his pocket, buy the book cheaply and then stick it back in.

‘I was talking to the librarian of Rochdale, where they had a statue of Hitler in the town square, and people used to throw books at Hitler for a waste paper drive. This librarian picked out one or two incunabula like that. There were a lot of pickings in those days.

‘I got sacked from twelve jobs in eighteen months: I was a waiter and I spilt the soup; I couldn’t sweep up a fac-tory floor. I was incapable of doing it —either I was too slow or too clumsy. I can only be a bookseller, though I was never trained and was completely lost amongst the crowd. Nobody would employ me.’

In 1945 Peter Eaton moved from his barrow in Portobello Road to premises in Kensington Church Street, previously occupied by a wet fish shop. It took some months for the local shoppers to desist from asking him for a pound of cod. ‘When I bought the shop, they were giving them away. Half the shops in London were empty because of the War. Royalty used to come in because it was in Kensington Church Street. The next street is Millionaires’ Row. At the top was a great socialist, George Strauss, who I started the Tribune with, and at the bottom was the Royal Palace, and between the two you got everything. I had lots of royal customers and ambas-sadors by the ton.

‘I used to keep all my military books in the cellar with the rats. Who the hell wants to fight for king and country? Patriotism of any description is a danger. You set up barriers and these cause war. People join the army because they don’t need to think. Baden-Powell once said, "A dull lad who can obey orders is better than a sharp one who cannot". 'For the size of the shop, it had more important people than any other building in the world — Russell Flint, Augustus John, and Dylan Thomas would come in. Dylan Thomas was a bastard, coming in drunk once and trying to pull the bloody shop to pieces. He’d been to Augustus John to have his portrait painted, and just wanted to be big.

'I bought so many books that we had to stick them in warehouses. I finished up having four basements full in Chis-wick and all over London, where I could store them cheap, and it seemed silly. It took us two years to find Lilies. Weatherhead’s, the booksellers in Aylesbury, said, "You ought to buy Lilies — Ha, Ha, Ha!" We saw it and bought it, and everybody thought I was mad. It was a crazy thing to do, but all I was concerned about was somewhere to put the books.’

This was in 1969 when the house was in a state of complete dilapidation. The present building dates from 1870, although the site has been occupied since the twelfth century, and was designed by George Devey, a favourite of John Betjeman. Situated in the village of Weedon in Buckinghamshire, the house is surrounded by magnificent woods in which Oliver Cromwell is said to have planned his final battle for the capture of Oxford. More recently, Stanley Kubrick spent a day investigating the spot as a possible location for ‘Clockwork Orange’.

Lilies is now home to what is probably England’s largest bookshop — a title it has earned on the strength of its nineteen book-crammed rooms. A major collection of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite paintings vie for any available patches of blank wall. Innumerable glass-cases compete for the floor space to display Peter Eaton’s private museum —the most eloquent testimony to his collecting energy and compulsion to acquire just about anything that can possibly be displayed under glass. The resulting mixture of cultural disintegra-tion all but defies description: bits and pieces from Tutankhamon’s tomb, a scrap of the Empress Josephine’s wedding dress, a sliver of the world’s first gramophone record, looking remarkably like a piece of Bacofoil and of which it would be all too easy to miss the romance without its owner’s brusque instruction. And so it goes on: King George VI’s ration book with used coupons, a lavatory roll stamped with Mrs. Thatcher’s portrait...

‘I should think 80 per cent of our visitors at Lilies are trade. Neither of us likes customers. They’re a bloody nuis-ance. Like everything else, there’re a lot of things in life you’ve got to put up with. I let the staff deal with them. Christ no! I’ve no interest in the personal touch. They either want the books or they don’t. You could buy 50 books in the time you're talking to them.’

Peter Eaton has enjoyed spectacular success in buying and selling books in staggering quantity. He bought Queen Victoria’s books from Kensington Palace, and part or all of the libraries of George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Marie Stopes and R. H. Tawney. He also discovered in Portobello Road Churchill’s manuscript notes for his books of the Second World War. The Japanese have honoured him by naming after him a major university collection on Robert Owen and the Co-operative movement. As an ardent socialist and champion of the women’s movement, Peter Eaton has not unnaturally specialised in the writ-ings of both Owen and Stopes.

‘You would think that all booksellers dealing in books and intellectual things would be socialist, but very few of them are. They’re boring, most of them - talking bloody books and how much they made. It’s all commercial. There are some I’ve been quite friendly with over a period — I like Anthony (Rota), but I don’t agree with him; Dring, who just died at Quaritch, I used to get on with him, and old (Clifford) Maggs. He used to come up to me after (ABA) meetings and say, "I wish I’d done that". They must be repressed socialists.

‘I don’t want to be president of the ABA. If you start going through all the presidents, the majority were not socialist. Mind you, there were great ones in the past like Percy Muir. It’s a good organisation, though, fighting for the rights of the bookseller. Like all trade unions, it looks after the workers.

‘I think earlier booksellers were a load of crooks. But it’s greatly improved. There’s a more cultured class coming into it, and a more international aspect to it now. Countries are opening up. Look at Korea, for example. Things are being collected that were never collected before, making new markets.

‘I think I’m ahead of my time all the time. I’ve worked on Women’s Lib and I’ve worked hard for socialism, and I think that’s more important than bookselling. I am an intellectual and I ask so many questions. Just like a scientist, I ask "Why, why, why?" Through asking questions and reading, I found out that all cultured people are socialist, and I thought "Well, Christ Almighty, if I am not a socialist, I want my brains tested". All this nonsense about work being ennobling — the average working person dies at about 50 to 60, and people who don’t work live till 70 or 80. If you stop asking "Why?" you’re finished.

‘They should make women equal to men in law for a start. There’s really nothing to be frightened about. It’s fear with men. There are some funny tendencies in men — they’re stupid, if they weren’t the world would be a better place.’

Peter Eaton’s abiding interest in Marie Stopes’ work resulted in the formation of four large collections, and a bibliography written with Marilyn Warnick and published by Croom Helm in 1977, Marie Stopes: a Bibliographical List of Her Books. This study was based on his own collection and those of the University of California at Santa Bar-bara and the University of New York at Stony Brook.
When Marie Stopes died in 1958 at the age of seventy-eight, it must have come as quite a shock as she had confidently expected to live for a hundred and fifty years. ‘She was a bit touched, Marie Stopes — but a great pioneer. She thought she was the greatest poet in the world and that her poetry would live longer than all her birth control and what have you.

‘Marriage is a funny thing. Margaret’s my third wife. She’s related to Florence Nightingale and General Gordon. I met her at nineteen at a Polytechnic dance in Regent Street. She runs the business now. She trained herself — got a mania for buying bloody books — sink everything to buy.

‘My first marriage was a war one. It didn’t last because she fell in love with a Greek who was trained up to be the Prime Minister of Cyprus. But the old Archbishop (Makarios) didn’t pack up and her husband died. My second marriage was to a very good socialist, who ran a school in England where kids could do as they liked. The kids used to bet who could lay the matron. Of course, the health authorities came and eventually it was closed down — not because it was progressive, but for health reasons. It was unhygienic.

‘I enjoy my friends. Very few are in bookselling. Most are cultured people. I could have been a professor or a scientist, but I didn’t have the opportunity as I wasn’t educated, so I couldn’t really be anything.’
Fifty years after walking to London from Lancashire, Peter Eaton really is something, and very much still at the helm of a business of such attraction that someone once offered him a South Sea island in exchange. He still enjoys ‘loud music and fast women’, and dislikes ‘hunting, shooting and tuna fish’. And when his last hour finally comes, it will do so on one of Lilies’ more whimsical exhibits — ‘the clock that belonged to the people who put the engine in the boat Shelley drowned in.'

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in March 1991