Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Peter Scupham

Peter Scupham

I like to sell books that I have read or want to read, or have in some way skirmished with. I am motivated by the desire to share a sense of literature as part of a civilised life. Education raged through my family like strong drink, to quote Philip Oakes on his childhood. My father was controller of educational broadcasting at the BBC. He had a passion for books and reciting poetry, which introduced me to the great love of my life. At school, which was a pretty blank period in my life, poetry sang its way into my bones. I went to several different schools before I was ‘saved’, as so many people are, by an English master who showed me that academe need not be a narrow thing. Before taking up a state scholarship to Cambridge, I did my National Service, which was alleviated by the opportunity to do a lot of reading.

When I finally got to Cambridge, I found an English Faculty riven by faction and argument. It did nothing to form my taste, and I was appalled by one of F.R. Leavis’s lectures in which he held up a volume by a minor Victorian poet and said in his contemptuous way,‘I don’t think we need bother with him’. I was twenty-one and had seen a bit of life; I did not want to be told by an academic what to like and dislike. He was taking away all the pleasure that I had had from the out of the way, the odd, the eccentric and the unimportant. It was too late to change subject and so I continued to read English, but I read it in my own way.

I remember being bowled over by Robert Frost’s visit to Cambridge – the grand old man of American poetry. He just threw his head back and declaimed his poems. I also heard Robert Graves deliver the Clark Lectures, in which he demolished every poet then in favour with the English Faculty, and proved that poetry was wilful and eccentric – an outsider’s business. On another occasion I was smuggled into the Sheldonian, wearing a scholar’s gown to which I had no right, in order to hear W.H. Auden’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

These experiences were high points in my life. My ambition was to become a writer and a poet. I could not match these men, but would try my best to be worthy of their attention. The idea of becoming a bookseller had not yet occurred to me, though I have always believed that a good bookseller does more than a university English department for the promulgation of reading and literature.

In my generation, life was seen as a series of hoops to be jumped through. There was no such thing as a gap year or time to think. It was a quick succession of National Service, university, marriage, children, and a job with a pension. Owing to my English teacher’s enthusiasm, I went into teaching, first in Skegness and then at St Christopher’s in Letchworth. It was a Quaker foundation, with no particular use for the arts but it gave its teachers enormous freedom. I taught there off and on for around thirty years, as Head of the English Department.

While I was teaching my reputation as a poet was growing. Anthony Thwaite accepted some poems for The Listener and the Times Literary Supplement when I was in my early thirties. This was the kiss of death or life – once you have published a poem in a national periodical, you do not want to stop. The best education for a poet is simply to read as much poetry of all kinds as you can, and just to work away at it. I wrote poems for ten years without writing a good one. Eventually you feel that you might have written something worth a try on the public.

I was lucky to be taken on by Oxford University Press which was very loyal to me, and published about ten collections of my poetry before its poetry list folded. Eventually I became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and part of what might be called the Establishment. Today I am that extraordinarily unfashionable creature – a 76-year-old, white, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated poet. But we had our time in our day.

Poets are very vain animals. When they start to worry about their reputations, I always murmur to myself, ‘the ammonites are laughing’. They have lasted millions of years. As a poet, you’re lucky if your reputation lasts twenty or thirty years. I have in spades the entertaining English habit of self-deprecation. A Hungarian friend and poet, George Szirtes, was not amused when I remarked to an American who had been talking about the importance of poetry, ‘don’t worry too much. It’s only read by six old ladies and the clergyman’. George thought my remark devalued poetry, but it is a very English way of looking at the world.

While my friend John Mole and I were getting established as poets, we ran a private press for publishing new poetry. The Mandeville Press was named after John Mandeville the medieval traveller, as we were making our own voyages into imaginary lands. We reckoned to be tidy and clean printers of good quality pamphlets on laid paper, sewn rather than stapled. The raison d’être of the Mandeville Press was to publish good poetry cheaply. We published a lot of distinguished and interesting people, such as Geoffrey Grigson, R.S.Thomas, John Fuller and Anthony Hecht. For collectors, we produced signed copies, but we never set out to be a fine press. A few of our pamphlets were illustrated with original engravings by George Szirtes, and came close to achieving fine press status.

We came into the publishing business at an interesting time, just as commercial printers were getting rid of their old equipment, and moving to offset litho. It cost us less than £700 to buy a rather glamorous 1930s machine press, a flatbed press, a little treadle press and everything else that we needed to set it all whirring and clanking in the cellar of my house. John and I ran the press, with help from my wife, and Margaret Steward who was Head of Drama at St Christopher’s. We were never dependent on anything except our own exertions. In 1983 the BBC made a film of us at work called ‘A Dragon’s Print’.

We were influenced in our printing by Roy Harley Lewis, a delightful eccentric and author of Antiquarian Books. An Insider’s Account. Roy spent most of his working life as a journalist. He was a leader writer for The Times, and enjoyed telling the nation how it ought to behave and what it ought to think. I first met Roy when he asked me for some poems for the Keepsake Press, which he ran as a cure for insomnia. He published anything that took his fancy – a huge miscellany of collections and individual poems – and was a worse printer than we were. His type was jammy, his paper was not always good, his inking was all over the place and he mixed up woodcuts and lithographs and every sort of media. He was not an aesthetic printer, but wonderful in his way.

Our activities were motivated by the spirit of keeping something alive for the love of it, but all good things come to an end. After fifteen years or so of working till one in the morning, staggering around with 25lb trays of type after a day’s teaching, it was getting a bit too much. When I moved with Margaret Steward to our present home, a Tudor manor house in Norfolk, we decided not to take the press with us. Most of the equipment went to Africa, where it is probably producing Marxist literature in Zaire, and the Happy Dragon’s Press in Suffolk took some of our best type.

Some of your readers, looking at the photograph of our house, might be thinking, ‘It’s all right for that old bugger with his private means. He can play at bookselling.’ Actually I am not a moneyed bookseller; we live here by the skin of our teeth. When we moved here in 1990, the house cost us about the same as a bungalow. It had been on the Buildings At Risk Register, and was in an appalling state of repair. We had a stroke of luck when Margaret discovered some wall paintings, and English Heritage stepped in and took an interest in them. We have done the rest by smoke and mirrors.

We originally intended to use the house as a centre for creative writing courses. Margaret and I both had experience of teaching on Arvon Foundation courses. But health and safety legislation made it impossible to have paying guests in a house like this. We do however put on an annual play here and call it ‘Shakespeare in the Garden’.

We turned to secondhand bookselling as a natural progression from the Mandeville Press. It was a congenial way to maintain the contacts which we had made, and some form of human interaction is essential when you live in a cabbage patch in the back of beyond. Margaret is a partner in Mermaid Books and, but for her, I would have gone bankrupt years ago. She tries to discourage my wilder flights of fancy. We called the business Mermaid Books after the stucco mermaids over the front door. Michael Taylor, whom we have known since he worked for The Basilisk Press Bookshop, nominated us for the PBFA, and introduced us to some very pleasant people in lots of different places.

We have been members of the PBFA for twelve years, and I can appreciate everything that is good about it as an organisation. Whether it is good for us, I’m not so sure. The PBFA is aimed at book collectors rather than the common reader. As a teacher and a publisher, and now as a bookseller, I have always been primarily interested in the reader. The point of our bookselling is somehow to increase the enjoyment of English literature, and I try to write entertaining catalogues introducing people to some of the overlooked or perhaps unfashionable corners in the field which I know best.

I find most of my books in shops where the bookseller does not know about literature. Very few bookshops nowadays specialise in it – in fact, the tendency is to specialise in anything but literature. Occasionally I do quite well and make some money, but then I can be tempted to spend it on something like a couple of donkeys. I bought a copy of Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici for £10 at Blickling Hall in a sale of books donated by members of the National Trust for sale in aid of the Trust. Inside the book I found a lengthy inscription by Edward Thomas to a friend. The donkeys were to be called Edward and Thomas.

When we were teaching at St Christopher’s, Eric Moore was our local secondhand bookseller. We were very fond of Eric and of his shop, where my daughter now works part-time. Eric sold what Driff would have called ‘roast beef ’ – straightforward traditional books. In this part of the world, one of the booksellers whom I very much like is Tristram Hull of Holt, whose father translated the complete works of Jung into English. Tristram ran a private press at one time, and had a bookshop in Norwich, and then managed Simon Gough’s shop in Holt, which is now owned by Simon Finch.

David Ferrow of Great Yarmouth was a classic example of a certain type of bookseller – 60 years in the trade and claimed not to have read a book since leaving school at fourteen. When he invited me into his office, I saw his serried ranks of bibliographies. He liked to claim that he was as ignorant as the devil, but he knew exactly where to find out the information he needed.

In the 1960s and 1970s I used to enjoy visiting Frank Norman’s marvellous bookshop in Hampstead. I would catch him when he arrived with his latest trawl of books in a Sotheby’s bag, and his simple lunch of bread and cheese. I once asked him what books he kept for himself, and he replied, ‘bibliography, Proust and Montaigne. The rest can come and go’.

A bookseller who wishes to make friends sells his nicest books. I tend to make friends with my customers, and give them mates’ rates. Nowadays they could turn to the internet to find a particular book, but they choose to order it from my catalogue. They enjoy the serendipity of seeing what takes their fancy, or perhaps it is to do with their age and background – I don’t know the explanation, and certainly have no predictions for the future of bookselling. In these days of the internet, there is nothing so common as a rare book. If you want a first edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, the only thing that will stop you is not finding it, but paying for it.

I am aware that my style of bookselling has little to do with the reality for most booksellers. It’s a hard way to make a living, and only quixotic and eccentric people, often with pensions from previous occupations, can take my attitude to the profit factor. I confess that I’ve always rather liked the feeling that one is doing something out of gentillesse.

In reality Margaret and I have been working teachers all our lives but, even as a teacher, I thought of myself as a gentleman-amateur dropping in on classes. I like the words ‘courtesy’, ‘manners’ and ‘reticence’, which imply a way of looking at the world which is not particularly fashionable today. They deserve to be remembered and, where one can, to be reinstated. In the words of Samuel Johnson, one reads books to enjoy life better or to endure it more. I have never varied from this in 70 years, and it has been my motto as a bookseller.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in August 2009

Peter Scupham

A Poland & Steery Co-production