Sheila Markham

in conversation

The following article describes my experience of working for Marlborough Rare Books during the 1980s. It was my first job in the antiquarian book trade in which I had the great good fortune to work for Michael Brand and Alex Fotheringham, both highly respected and well-liked booksellers in their very different ways.

It was while working for Marlborough that I first met the book dealers and collectors whose passion, eccentricity, expertise and occasional roguery inspired the idea that perhaps I would one day write about them.

A Foot on the Ladder

by Sheila Markham

‘I’d like you to have the job, but I only hope you’re strong enough.’ ‘No’ would have been the truth, but there it was – a foot on the ladder. It was strange to think that twenty-two years of sustained indolence had ill-prepared me in mind and body for the business of finding gainful employment. And here I was embarked on a career in antiquarian bookselling for which, apparently, I was seriously under-size. I suppose it was my fault – I had drifted into and, more seriously, out of education without the slightest ambition beyond a Mercedes 280 SL. Someone had suggested university and I chose to read the Ancient Near East with as much thought as that. It was all of a deadness to rival the dodo, with nothing to disturb the peace of my ivory tower beyond the religious crises of Akhenaton.

In my studied ignorance, I thought antiquarian bookselling might be the sort of backwater to ensure a regular afternoon sleep. Anyway, it seemed the least uncongenial method of getting on with this tiresome project of earning a living. Years later, catching my breath after a full afternoon’s packing, I reflected wistfully, as Akhenaton might have, on the extreme deception of appearances. So it was that I came to work for Michael Brand and Alex Fotheringham at Marlborough Rare Books in Old Bond Street. And there was good reason for being strong – in fact, a well-developed gorilla might have served them better. They had an international reputation for books of quite outrageous size, which, when packed, resembled nothing so much as a concrete paving stone. I had never packed anything larger than a Christmas present, and came to the job with strong misgivings, if not muscles. I knew I was not good with my hands, and feared I might not master an effective slip-knot. My predecessor, with whom I coincided just long enough to learn the tricks of the trade, worked swiftly with a proper respect for getting things right. Under her critical eye, my nervous fingers fumbled the knot. It took me back years to the unforgettable horror of needlework classes, and having to unpick tacking on a blood-stained garment that had to be wearable on the last day of term.

Standards in the packing room were high, with no shortcuts like the contemptible use of padded bags or, worse still, shoe-boxes rattling with those infernal plastic beans. Our American visitors regarded the packing room much as they would an old craft museum. We had an antique pair of scales that weighed in regardless at one kilo, and an extraordinary Heath-Robinson device for gumming labels. Like all good ideas, it was really very simple – a rusting tray of stagnant water and a sponge, over which the label passed. Sadly, times move on and the modern typewriter ink cannot withstand such a soaking, the labels emerging with half the address gone. And the Americans just stood and watched, much as they might have watched me shoeing a horse. They told stories of the wonderful machines back home that packed books in polystyrene moulds, some sort of spin-off from the silicone-implant business. It is strange to think that we have Hollywood wives to thank for the safe arrival of our books.

The next stage was the post office run, with the somewhat doubtful assistance of a trolley ordered from a glossy catalogue. I must say I was completely taken in by the picture of a rather petite secretary manoeuvring an awkward load with absolute confidence across her shag-pile carpet.When the beastly thing arrived, it seemed unsuited to holding an even load at any angle. I persevered for a bit, thinking it might just be a knack of sensible loading or steering, as it resisted my directions with the same will as a supermarket trolley. The real stumbling-block, however, was the kerb outside the post office, where the load invariably shifted to an unhealthy angle before the final spurt to the counter. I think I finally gave up on it after running aground outside one of those striped tents to the vast amusement of the telephone engineers inside.

The entire business of posting a parcel was fraught with complication. These were the days before the compulsory enrolment at charm school, and the counter clerks were allowed to resist any attempt to post anything. They would query every aspect of each parcel before sending it on its way with a flick of the ankle down the ten-foot shaft into the loading bay. If one had the temerity to point out it was fragile, the clerk grabbed his rubber stamp and banged the parcel with FRAGILE FRAGILE FRAGILE. And so it was launched on a journey that would involve many such pitfalls, ending, as often as not, in the New York postal system which specialised in pulverising parcels at point of entry. Many a customer’s long-awaited purchase came to grief under the remorseless wheels of a 747 reversing into the infamous loading bays at JFK.

The Compendium of Postal Services is an extraordinary document, and every packer’s vade-mecum. It is about the size of a telephone book, and seeks to encompass the world in a network of sealing wax and blue crayon, with the cautionary note that neither is to be used in the despatch of livestock. An eminently practical book, it warns against expecting a full range of counter services in Upper Volta or New Guinea. In the case of Japan, it points out the reduction in maximum parcel weight to allow for the smaller postmen. One memorable afternoon, Alex caught me emerging from a roll of corrugated to ask if I enjoyed packing. The merciful upshot to this was the arrival of an outside packer and life took on a different aspect.

It was extremely pleasant to work in a particularly select stretch of Bond Street. The office was on an upper floor and somewhat isolated, so I soon befriended Ken, the security guard who was paid to take a nominal interest in the welfare of the tenants upstairs. He seemed equally unsuited to his job – overweight and suffering from a heart condition aggravated by surprises. We got on very well, despite a shaky start and his unexplained insistence on calling me the Duchess. Almost on my first day, the pair of us got stuck in the lift, and he discovered at once that I was not much of a good-time girl. I can vividly remember telling him to keep as still as possible to conserve oxygen, which did not suit his plans. We eventually plummeted to the ground floor and shot out into the perennial squalor of the entrance hall. This was still Ken’s patch, but he chose to turn a severely blind eye to the mounting pile of discarded newspapers and assorted rubbish that blew in from the street, all lightly washed with a faint but stubborn stain. The story goes that the building, situated between two busy pubs and boasting a concealed entrance and large letterbox, made a perfect latrine for passing revellers. And complications really only arose when the postman put the box to its legitimate use.

Upstairs, our office was largely furnished from skips with which Mayfair was littered as leases ran out and the developers moved in. The general feeling was that, while I might have liked to call in Colefax & Fowler, a bit of chintz about the place did not actually increase sales. This did not deter me from the considerable entertainment of reading office furniture catalogues. Were there really offices with stunning models in skimpy beachwear reclining on immaculate desks, and getting a quite unaccountable pleasure from a new range of shorthand pads? And what disappointment there must have been when the desk arrived minus the girl, and the regular secretary, sensibly dressed in Damart’s latest, set about applying a liberal coating of Tipp-Ex to the ‘Teakolene’ finish.

It was sheer bad luck that a leaking radiator had ruined a perfectly good carpet, leaving my desk all but afloat in a ten-foot oil slick. Mr Brand regularly stood in it dictating letters and grinding his cigarette ash into the explosive pile. I feared the place would blow up one day, and the insurance man, picking amongst the wreckage, would come across an oil-soaked carpet. Still, one must not be too anxious and I had no desire to build on my reputation for over-reacting after a premature bulk purchase of mineral water against the threat of a water shortage. It did not happen, and we all had to live with the considerable obstacle of a 120 unwanted bottles.

The desk furniture had an unpremeditated but quite distinct seashore theme. Mr Brand had a beaker for his pencils, heavily coated with varnished shells and made by one of his children. One of Alex’s daughters gave him a quite remarkable plastic crab that doubled as an all-purpose desk-tidy. The back removed to store paper-clips, while elastic bands strung conveniently between the claws, in which messages could be poked. It always excited comment from disbelieving visitors and, with practice, I managed to say, ‘That’s Alex’s crab’ in a tone of stating a self- evident fact. Another unique fitting must have been Mr Brand’s angle-poise lamp. From a distance, it just looked grubby, but on closer inspection it was exquisitely mottled to resemble lizard skin. It was the last thing one would expect of Mr Brand, with its air of something Liberace had slung in the attic.

Mrs Brown, the cleaning lady, had to do battle with all this, coming in before the office opened. On the rare occasions that I surprised her, she would be comfortably seated at my desk half-way through the crossword with a duster hanging limply at her side. Actually, surprise is the wrong word, and I admired her complete composure. Presumably she thought we were all employees together and what the hell anyway? But work she could – and with a vengeance, knocking the spines right off some of the weaker bindings in her determination to keep abreast of the infernal dust-traps that they were. It was suggested that she might be less dangerous with a feather duster. I rather jibbed at the prospect of travelling in from the suburbs with one, but feather dusters are not for sale in Bond Street. Mrs Brown insisted, quite rightly, that she needed a six-foot cane to reach the top shelves. My heart sank at the thought of manoeuvring something that length, not to mention the feathers, on a packed commuter train. I finally hit on the idea of disguising the feathers inside an empty kitchen roll, but then it looked like an overgrown firework, and quite as idiotic as ever. Fortunately, my mother, whose embarrassment threshold is considerably higher than mine, agreed to bring it up when she next came to town. Mrs Brown made good use of it, and the occasional orange feather sticking out of a book marked her path across the stock.

And over all this, Mr Brand presided with unruffled courtesy. In the early days, we were constantly having bomb scares, the police wanting the building evacuated and most people did not argue. Mr Brand, however, sat unflustered against a backdrop of windows and glass bookcases, saying, ‘By all means go if you like, but I can’t be bothered’. His nerve was almost infectious, and I resolved to sit tight, though white with anxiety, thinking of running a roll of brown tape over the windows. He was the sort of man that if anyone knew where Lord Lucan was, he did. He moved in the most exotic circles with all the understatement and perfect ease of his class. I think he disliked dictating letters which, in any case, he had reduced to four-line models of clipped elision, relieving the tedium by playing with cigarettes and jingling coins in his pocket. I played my own games in between each perfectly balanced sentence, trying to guess the exact wording of the next line. He would sometimes ask me the word he was looking for, and, after several years of ruminating together, we often had a combined shot at the mot juste.

Monday mornings were sometimes a struggle for Mr Brand. The dictation of letters was often reduced to the vague instruction that I write to Miss What-Not at the What’s It Library to tell her that whatever she ordered was or was not available and would be sent in the usual way or not, and that we much looked forward to her visit in April or May, or just say forthcoming. Meanwhile, we hoped she was well – oh dear, hadn’t she just died? – better leave that out, and I’ll sign it, no, you sign it ...

At one period that I cannot quite tie in with the general economy, we received a flood of CVs from would-be booksellers, one of whom I could personally have shot for her irresponsible suggestion that she start on a low wage. Mr Brand always read the CVs, although it was my job to send the disappointing reply. If he commented at all, it might be to say that so-and-so sounded fearfully bright – not a compliment, as Mr Brand personified the aristocratic disdain for middle-class endeavour. If one had some learning, that couldn’t be helped, but it certainly wasn’t something for public parade. It was altogether more becoming to be quietly smart, and Mr Brand affected this easy nonchalance.

I never understood why he went into old books in the first place, with their tendency to attract an earnest clientèle. Mr Brand’s cousin, speaking from an acquaintance with collectors in all fields, pronounced bibliophiles lunatics and I cannot believe that Mr Brand disagreed. For a long time, the stock resembled the library of an English country house, and scholarly books were discouraged on the grounds of their ugliness and tendency to attract impecunious collectors with some madcap scheme of reading the wretched things.

For all his low profile, Mr Brand enjoyed an international reputation for his expertise and strict code of honour. He did things his way, which did not necessarily include accepting an invitation to address a party of Japanese booksellers. In Bond Street, we applauded his steadfast resolve, though in Tokyo it no doubt activated a chain of humiliated suicides. However, it did not in any way affect our thriving Japanese trade. There was still the steady stream of visitors, always men and usually in pairs, cameras loaded for the compulsory shot of Mr Brand pressed up against a selection from stock. They bought heavily, paid promptly and usually presented me with a delicately-printed handkerchief with cranes flying across a gold and silver sky.

Alex Fotheringham was Mr Brand’s business partner with qualities that made for an unlikely but successful pair. He was through-and-through a northerner, and in my imagination I always pictured him striding across Brontë Country with a dead rabbit or two over his shoulder. He was frugal to the point that I was sure he could have run a business out of a tea chest, and not feel the want of anything. For a man in his early forties, he had a curious dislike for modern gadgetry. Old ways were best, with no machines welcomed, and in this environment very few machine survived. A classic victim was a rather silly pencil sharpener that I bought on a whim. According to the box, it simply battened down to the edge of the desk with something that I had last seen on the end of a table-tennis net. To demonstrate its absurdity, Alex shoved in his pencil somewhat unsympathetically and the whole thing collapsed with its dinky tray of shavings all over the floor. Alex immediately sharpened his pencil to a diamond point with his pocket knife or something equally primordial.

He had an enviable capacity for hard work, which he fuelled by regular attention to his blood-sugar. It was an agony to walk past his desk without dipping into an extensive assortment of confectionery. On a Friday, the St James’s Market sold old-fashioned sweets by the quarter in candy-striped paper bags, and Alex bought without hint of stint. I must confess I pinched the odd one when the office positively stank of aniseed twists, but I was deterred from serious theft by the awful thought that Alex might actually count his supplies and notice at a glance the decimation of his jelly babies.

One Friday afternoon, our munching was interrupted by a visit from a regular customer. I did not notice his unusual colour or that he was slumped in his chair until his head banged the desk with a fearful crash from which the deepest sleeper would have recoiled. Instead, his head just rested immobile on the book. Horrid thoughts of heart attacks and first aid rushed through my head. The great thing was, as I recalled, not to disturb the patient. I decided to get a second opinion from Alex whose diagnosis was swift if surprising – a simple case of being ‘pissed as a newt’. He lifted the inert customer off the book which he stuffed into a bag on the assumption that he was more dead-set than most on a purchase. With all the advantage of his height and strength, Alex gathered up the man and his luggage and humped the lot to the door with the air of an exhausted ventriloquist. I think I remember saying feebly, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Comes from the North, doesn’t he? – I’ll get him in a cab to Euston’. A few minutes later, Alex returned with the situation clearly in hand. I started on the invoice with some misgivings about this style of salesmanship. Some time later, a cheque arrived with a tragic note about the dangers of missing a dose of insulin.

As Alex was indisputably a man of action, it seemed inevitable that the office routine would fall under his scrutiny. It was a great relief to discover that he saw my function as a general ‘facilitator’ – a job description that I enjoyed – not least for its decidedly American ring. I had visions of large advertisements in bold type in The Wall Street Journal: ‘Facilitator Required – Salary Substantial’. Anyway, it seemed considerable promotion on ‘secretary’, or even ‘secretart’ as so much post was addressed.

In my job as facilitator, I was greatly assisted, though some thought hampered, by the dominating presence of Erica Spender. When we first met, Erica had nominally retired, but it must have been hard for her to break a life-time’s habit of feverish work. She was of decidedly foreign extraction on whom fifty years in this country had left not a trace. She was without doubt the greatest eccentric I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Highly cultured and erudite, Erica was at her happiest doing the menial chores I delighted in saving for her. I always felt there was something of Laurel and Hardy about our relationship, my loyalty and affection quite unbending beneath the weight of Erica’s colourful abuse. Once I suggested it would be fun to write a novel about her, at which she snorted, ‘Darling, you haven’t the stamina. A book’s hard work and you’re such a lazy little cow’. She brought out all that was silliest in me and I loved her for it. I played up to her like a naughty school girl, responding strongly to her delinquent streak that just stopped short of being criminal. It was astonishing to think of the fifty-year gap between us, though Erica was extraordinarily young in mind and body, and thought nothing of running up Bond Street with an IBM typewriter under her arm.

She had wild mood swings in her attitude towards me – one minute I was ‘little rabbit’ and the next ‘loathsome child’. Her command of obscene language was, I believe, unrivalled outside the armed forces. She had no concern for the petty hypocrisies of social intercourse. No subject was taboo, and I can still hear her shouting over a customer, ‘Darling, how’s your sex life?’ – and, not waiting for the answer, which was not on the tip of my tongue anyway, she continued, ‘Dear God, I couldn’t stomach a wedding just yet. It would be too up-feeding to have a think of a present at the moment’. Any discussion on the subject of men usually ended in furious disagreement. Our tastes, it seemed, did not coincide and Erica expressed grave concern at what she saw as my inexplicable penchant for ‘blackamoors’. It all started with an innocent enough holiday snap on which Erica pounced, shrieking, ‘Darling, I don’t know how your mother can bear it – with you going off to horrid places to sit on the first camel you see. There you are looking so demure, sandwiched between two blackamoors you say you don’t even know’.

Erica combined racial prejudice, which, by the way, she could defend on the most involved anthropological grounds, with an equally strong religious intolerance. The Sisters of Mercy had a particularly hard time of it, coming to the door one Christmas collecting for the sick and needy. There they were, three nuns with a large black sandal wedged in the door to prolong almsgiving – and Erica’s iron fist on the petty cash. It was a potentially explosive situation:

‘Darling, would you give me five pounds if I knocked on your door?’ ‘Probably not.’
‘Well then, tell the rosary-clinking scroungers to push off.’

I feared the nun in the door might have heard the glad tidings, but decided to report something other than the authorised version. The only thing was to buy them off from my own pocket, which earned me the promise of eternal peace, though I do not remember it lasting the afternoon with Erica aroused on the detestable subject of charity.

All this was child’s play compared to the wrath Erica reserved for the doorman of a smart shoe shop opposite us. Many years ago, Erica had had a difference of opinion with the doorman and her revenge was both monstrous and on-going. As ammunition, she drew on my enormous collection of empty milk bottles. From time to time, she loaded a plastic bag and clinked down to the street where she would lie in wait for the doorman to slip off for another sort of pint. On his return, he was naturally astonished to find his entrance littered with evil-smelling bottles and the elegant clientèle of Brooks-Brothered men and Chanel-suited wives picking their way through the glass like guests at a Jewish wedding gone mad.

But Erica really came into her own in the month of August, traditionally reserved for tidying the mailing list – a terrible job like playing Happy Families with a pack of three thousand. The Laborious Twelfth signalled the start of the mailing season. By the end of the month, we were both reduced to a myopic state of post-code-induced dyslexia. There was always a fearful rumpus over American institutions, and whether to file them under name, town or state. I stuck Harvard in H, Erica insisted on C for Cambridge, and it invariably surfaced somewhere in M for Massachusetts. And so it went on throughout the world of learning. Whole campuses went missing simply because no one knew their American geography. The most intractable problem of all was the persistence on a worldwide scale of the habit of moving and dying. Clearly, the dead do outnumber the living, and it was hell’s own job to keep up with them. I did sympathise with the regular stream of distressed widows, traumatised by the relentless plop of yet another mailing for their dearly departed. Perhaps we should have invited them to find their dead in the mailing list – they might have accepted the challenge with more zeal.

Although a number of people had worked on the mailing list, I was responsible for one huge error that permeated the system. In a fit of misplaced etiquette, I decided to style all male Americans Esq., only to discover that by so doing I had elevated them to some high rank in their legal profession. To keep up morale as we sloshed on the Tipp-Ex, Erica and I amused ourselves with the wilder spelling mistakes. Lurking in the section for private American customers, we found two ladies, lost and no doubt far from home, the Misses Ann Arbor and Iniv Muchigan.

In Erica’s time, she had also done the book-keeping. I reluctantly inherited care of the petty cash, but the serious work was now in the hands of a professional accountant, Mr Maxwell. I liked him enormously, even though his monthly visits generated the most ghastly amount of paperwork. I think we were a part-time diversion for his retirement. His visits noticeably coincided with bad weather that might have spoilt his eighteen holes. I marvelled at his capacity for concentration, seated at an overcrowded desk with Erica crashing around him, determined to empty all bins every hour on the hour. While I tried to type over the noise of Erica cursing in the packing room, Mr Maxwell tapped his calculator with an unerring finger. I think our behaviour must have resembled the only joke I know about two fishwives – shouting at each other across the street and a passer-by remarks,‘They’ll never agree, they’re arguing from different premises’.

One thing did unnerve Mr Maxwell, and that was a tiny plastic spool for the calculator paper. He was convinced it would break and prove obsolete. It was a very curious anxiety in one so solid. I was driven to distraction by the other hazards of this machine, for example, the regularity with which the plug fell out leaving a faint trace of a lost total. But the fragile spool had never occurred to me in a thousand nightmares. Every time the paper ran out, we relived this trauma, calling the roll doll’s house loo paper to ease the tension of the moment.

It was office policy that Mr Maxwell should see all bumf, into which category fell anything in a brown envelope or with a window. Correspondence from the Inland Revenue went into a special file where Mr Maxwell kept his arcane tax tables giving details of pay and, more curiously, maternity benefit for merchant seamen. The bills file was in itself a liability, nicknamed the rat-trap for its alarming habit of slamming shut when least expected. Inside, there was a theoretical division of Inland and Overseas creditors, who were paid with so cavalier an attitude that we called it the lucky dip. Through it all, Mr Maxwell soldiered on with amazing fortitude when a lesser man might well have gone for early retirement. The bills were the lucky ones with a fire-proof cabinet of their own. Other documents took their chance on the window sills, an integral part of the filing system. It worked with remarkable ease until the monthly upheaval of the window cleaner’s visit. If anything went missing, Mr Brand’s first question was, ‘Has that damn window cleaner been?’. My job was to circle discreetly while he hung out of the windows, Erica having said rather darkly that he had been ‘inside’. And I frequently caught him leafing through papers on Mr Brand’s desk. I never knew quite what to do except to mark my presence with a tight little cough.

Once a year, the Department of Health and Social Security, or maybe Employment, sent an unreadable booklet for the attention of all shop workers, outlining conditions of work and minimum wages. I would have stuffed it in Mr Maxwell’s drawer but for the capital-lettered instruction to post it prominently for the benefit of all employees. Every year I posted it with due solemnity behind the central heating pipe, and felt there was something vaguely Lutheran about sticking up these edicts. Perhaps the religious mood was coming upon me.

And it came to pass in the seventh year of my sojourn in the camp of the booksellers, and lo, I felt unto myself the shelf-life expire. Marlborough Rare Books had given me an education from which this time I emerged – with ambition. I wanted to discover that America was more than a troublesome section of the mailing list, and I would go back and back until I found those dear pen friends of mine, little Ann Arbor and Iniv Muchigan. Meanwhile, the writing was on the wall, as it usually is for students of the Ancient Near East: ‘May he who sits in the place of clerkly lore shine like the sun’.

First published in The Bookdealer in 1991

A Poland & Steery Co-production