Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Alan Mitchell

Alan Mitchell

After leaving school I joined an insurance company, and quickly discovered that I could not stand it. I had a friend who had just finished a degree in Geology, which had taken him to Africa. He had become very interested in the history of exploration, and wanted to go into the rare book trade. Within three weeks of asking me to join him in the business, he died unexpectedly. I decided that I would carry on and try to become an antiquarian bookseller although, at that stage, I probably could not spell the word. During my first year and a half in the trade, I lived off cornflakes and cheap cuts of bacon, while I slowly started to put aside books for my first catalogue.

My friend had left me a set of Kegan Paul’s African Quarterly, an excellent series of catalogues of books on Africa, which became my reference tools. I would go around England on a motorcycle visiting bookshops, and then check what I found against the African Quarterly. In my first year of bookselling, I drove 48,000 miles. In those days every small town had a secondhand bookshop, and I could fill an entire car with books on a day trip to Guildford, Brighton, Hove or wherever. If I did the same trip today, I could probably hold all my purchases in one hand. Robert Sawers at Kegan Paul was extremely helpful when I was starting out, and so was Ian Hodgkins, who was a neighbour of mine in Putney. Ian taught me the intricacies of packing in the days of book post, when parcels had to be sent open-ended.

My first catalogue of books on Africa was produced on a Roneo machine which belonged to the Guildhall Bookshop of Kingston and Surbiton. I put together a mailing list by going through The World of Learning, looking for libraries which specialised in material on Africa, and by placing a two-line advertisement in Argus Newspapers, which was at the time South Africa’s major newspaper group. My advertisement said ‘African Book Catalogue Out’, and gave my address. It appeared on four successive Saturdays, cost me £8, and the response was overwhelming. I was inundated with requests for my catalogue. When someone orders a book, they are confirming your judgement, which was and is very encouraging for a newcomer to the trade.

From a subsequent catalogue I sold a copy of Werne’s Expedition to Discover the Sources of the White Nile for £25 to the Hon. Joseph Murumbi, book collector and Kenya’s second Vice-President. He ignored my invoice and repeated statements, and so I wrote a letter saying that if I did not receive payment within two weeks, I would take the front page of The Clique to make the following announcement which would be read by a very large number of booksellers and collectors, ‘If anyone would like to see Alan Mitchell’s copy of Werne’s The White Nile, they may do so in the collection of the Hon. Joseph Murumbi’, and gave his address. His cheque followed very promptly.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a good time to be selling books on Africa. Black studies were just taking off in the States and institutional libraries were keen to build up their holdings. There have always been a number of wealthy white collectors in South Africa, taking an interest in books on their country. During the oil boom, there was a certain amount of oil money in the market for books on the East African coast and the Gulf, because of Arabic trading interests and settlements in the region. If you want to have a ‘comprehensive’ collection of books on Africa, you need the five Bs – Burton on the Lake Regions, Barth on North and Central Africa, Burchell on Southern Africa, Bruce on Ethiopia and Captain Thomas Boteler who sailed around the entire continent.

I bought my first copy of the first edition of a Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Madinah and Meccah, Sir Richard Burton’s most famous book, for £30 from Maggs in 1973. I was keen to build an important Burton collection and, within a couple of years, had assembled an enormous collection which was eventually sold to Spink’s. They had decided to open a book department, and regarded my Burton collection as a route into the antiquarian trade. I was paid around £27,500 for the collection which would be worth more than £1 million today. Spink’s published a catalogue of the collection in 1976, which has since become quite a sought after reference work. With all the variant bindings, manuscripts and autograph letters, the collection contained around 800 items, including a great rarity – Burton’s translation of The Kama Sutra, seven parts in the original printed wrappers, ‘For Private Circulation Only’, 1883. I only know of one other set, and N.M. Penzer, Burton’s bibliographer, describes copies in the original parts as ‘practically unobtainable’. Incidentally, I have been asked more than once to do a new edition of Penzer’s bibliography, which was published in 1923. I have kept notes on a number of Burton items which are not in the bibliography, but I do not feel inclined at the moment to give away my knowledge.

While I was building up the Burton collection, I joined the campaign committee in charge of restoring the Burtons’ Arab tent-styled mausoleum in Mortlake in 1974. The stone mausoleum, where Richard and Isabel are buried, had fallen into a poor state of repair over the years, and had also been vandalised in the belief that valuable items could be inside. The vandals broke down the door and in so doing dislodged two marble tablets, one of which was inscribed with Justin Huntly McCarthy’s sonnet on the death of Sir Richard Burton. McCarthy had helped Isabel with her bowdlerised edition of the Arabian Nights.

Much of the restoration work to the mausoleum was done while I was in South America. When I returned to London, I went straight from the airport to Mortlake to look at the mausoleum, and noticed that the tablet with McCarthy’s sonnet had been replaced by a new one. At the next committee meeting, I asked permission to see if I could track down the original tablet. I found it lying under a heap of rubble in the stone mason’s yard in Twickenham, where the replacement had been made. The owner sold it to me for fifty pence, and I now have the original tablet in my flat.

It is interesting how people expect antiquarian booksellers to be of a certain age. I was nineteen when I was trading by appointment from home in Putney. On one occasion I opened the door to a customer who had come to look at some books, and he said, ‘Is your father in?’ It was Humphrey Winterton, who collected books on Kenya and also lived there. It was difficult to be taken seriously, especially as one was always meeting collectors who were extremely knowledgeable about their subject. I could not pretend to any in-depth knowledge, but I always tried to come up with an obscure fact which would demonstrate my interest. On one of Stanley’s expeditions he lost a large number of porters to ill health, and was forced to abandon much of his extravagant baggage, including his travelling library. It was assumed by the Victorian public that he must have kept his copy of the Bible. He did indeed hang on to one book, but it was Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Equatorial Africa.

Humphrey Winterton became a great friend, and it was he who told me that Francis Edwards was up for sale. It was 1978 and I had been in the business for just over ten years. I had reached a point where I did not have to rush out every catalogue; customers knew where to find me and I was dealing in better books with a greater profit margin. I was not working terribly hard and perhaps Humphrey thought that I needed more to do. In any case he suggested that we should buy Francis Edwards. The price-tag on the stock and good will was £325,000.

Francis Edwards was the oldest purpose-built bookshop in the UK, and one of the most magnificent. It had a long history and a family member, Herbert Edwards, was still involved in the business. Humphrey and I put together a mixture of capital from what was then the ICFC and Barclays Bank. Stupidly we were not given the money to buy the building in Marylebone High Street, which would be worth millions today.

The managing director of Francis Edwards at the time was Charles Harris. When it became known that we were taking over the business, I noticed that he spent a lot of time trying to rub out handwritten calculations in the margins of his copies of Sotheby’s catalogues. However, it was not easy to erase pencil annotations from glossy paper, and one could still see the evidence that he had been running a ring. When Mr Harris announced that he would like to talk to me about his redundancy and a cash payment, I picked up one of his Sotheby catalogues and said something along the lines that it might be of interest to the Fraud Squad. I did not hear another word about a cash payment.

Meanwhile we were not to know that a recession was just about to begin. When we took over Francis Edwards, the interest rate was around 10 per cent on our borrowing. Within a year, the rate had gone up to 23 per cent. Coupled with the decline in trade – people do not buy rare books in a recession – we could no longer afford the venture. The firm went into receivership in 1979, and I went back to what I had been doing before. Today the Marylebone High Street shop is occupied by Daunt Books.

In my small world of books, there will always be a market for a first edition of How I Found Livingstone and other classics of African adventure. A good book is always a good book, and there is something special about holding a copy of the first edition in your hand. Modern technology has been good and bad for the trade. The last time I looked there were around 740,000 books on Africa for sale on ABE. I buy a lot of books off the internet – it is astonishing how much I can look at in the course of a day – but I do not sell on the internet. After forty years in the trade, why should I give away my specialist knowledge?

At my advanced age it is very rare for me to come across a book which I have not had before. The problem today is not only finding good material but also the cost of buying it. The supply of good antiquarian books is drying up, but there are more dealers – if fewer shops – than when I started. To buy a book at auction, you really need to have a customer lined up, unless you can afford to buy a book for stock and hold it for an unknown time. Booksellers have traditionally been under- capitalised, and most cannot afford to hold on to an expensive book for several years. I started my business with one pound ten shillings. Today you would need £100,000 before even thinking of dealing in good antiquarian books.

It occurred to me the other day that this year will mark the centenary of the birth of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the last great British traveller. Wilfred used to come to Putney to buy books from me, and I would take him home to his flat in Chelsea where he lived with his aged mother (Mrs Reginald Astley), and her even older housekeeper, Mrs Emptage. He was particularly interested in books on Africa, which had been such an important part of his life. From 1978 to 1994, he based himself in Maralal in northern Kenya, where he spent most of the year, living among the Samburu. When Maggs prepared a catalogue in 1995 of some of the books in Wilfred’s library, he wrote a foreword explaining the appeal of Africa and his interest in book collecting, ‘As a child, I saw sights of savagery, barbaric splendour and colourful ceremonies which affected me for the rest of my life. When I was only a few years old, either my father or my mother would read to me. One of the first books was Jock of the Bushveld by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick. This book, and the remoteness of our surroundings, influenced me profoundly’.

A man of action first and foremost, Thesiger had to be persuaded by his mother to write his first book, Arabian Sands, his desert masterpiece published in 1957. It is rare to find presentation copies of Wilfred’s own books – he disliked writing inscriptions, and would just cross out his name on the title-page and write it by hand. On one occasion he came to dinner and I was determined to get him to sign my copy of Arabian Sands and Marsh Arabs. Wilfred liked his food – Eton schoolboy food – but was not interested in alcohol. He would knock back a glass of Ch.Petrus almost without comment, but he loved a dash of sherry in his favourite brown soup. I do not know if it was the effect of the sherry which my girlfriend had been pouring into his soup, but Wilfred signed both books ‘With wary appreciation to Carol’.

On one occasion Wilfred bought from me a copy of Bernatz, Scenes in Ethiopia. When we got back to his flat, his mother noticed the book, and turned to an illustration of the mountains of central Abyssinia. Putting on her pince-nez, she announced, ‘I was the first European woman to cross those mountains. I was carrying Wilfred at the time’. The eldest of four brothers, Wilfred was born on 3 June 1910, at Addis Ababa, where his father was British Minister in charge of the Legation. As Honorary Attaché to HRH The Duke of Gloucester, Wilfred attended the Emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation at Addis Ababa in 1930. On one of my visits to the flat in Chelsea, I found his mother having tea with Haile Selassie. It was always one of my great ambitions to meet the Emperor of Ethiopia, and I am very proud to say that I have eaten cucumber sandwiches with Haile Selassie.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in June 2010




Alan Mitchell

A Poland & Steery Co-production