Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

William Poole

William Poole

Although I know of people who have continued to be booksellers when their sight has deteriorated or even gone completely, I don’t know anyone who has become a bookseller having always been blind. I was born in Malta in 1935 where I lived with my parents until I was sent to England at the age of three to be educated at special schools for the blind. My mother was very reluctant to let me go, but I wouldn’t have received a proper education in Valletta and my father’s decision prevailed. I have grounds for believing that it was a very traumatic experience for me, because a huge amount of memory regarding the time I spent in Malta before I came to England and my first year at school has been obliterated. The separation from my parents had been so absolute that, when they came to claim me back at the age of nine, they could have been complete strangers. I didn’t recognise their speech mannerisms or tone of voice and had no memory of their having been people with whom I had interacted. My father must have sensed that the conversation wasn’t going well as I heard my mother say, ‘It’s all right. He does know who we are.’ This wasn’t something that had been bargained for in the plan.

My father was in operational charge of the Malta dockyard during the war. The school tried to censor news of what was going on, but inevitably it filtered through and I knew that my father had an important and dangerous job to do. There were a few other children in the school who were for one reason or another separated from their families. Everyone said that it would be a marvellous time when our parents came back, but it didn’t work out that way for me. However, I had school friends and there were some teachers, mostly women, who took an interest in me beyond what was required by their work for which I was very grateful. I learnt Braille when I was six and found it absolutely fascinating. Some blind people don’t have an aptitude for it and the proportion who learn Braille is comparatively small, but it’s very important to those who do. At the age of eight I learnt Braille music notation and thought it was quite magical that you could anatomise music into its constituent parts and write it down.

One of the earliest dreams that I can remember concerns reading Braille. At primary school we were normally given vocabulary lists and excerpts from stories to read but, in my dream, I had a proper book. I looked through it and, although there were signs that I didn’t understand, I was making progress. Suddenly, as I ran my fingers over the dots, they started to turn to sugar-like granules and slide off the page making it impossible to read. I woke up with a terrible sense of loss unlike anything that I had experienced before. It was absolutely devastating and for a few days I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Fortunately the dream wasn’t fulfilled in real life. My parents gave me books as presents and I spent school prizes on buying many more for myself. I was wrapped up in gaining knowledge from reading a very wide range of books, though of course I didn’t have the choice available to sighted children. I didn’t start buying printed books until I went to university.

A blind person can learn that the grass is green, and some effort was made to teach us at school to appreciate natural phenomena, but it’s impossible to convey any idea of the sensation that goes with that knowledge. However, I had no difficulty coping with intellectual ideas, and was very good at mathematics. When I was still at primary school, I was given a book of Greek myths and it determined me to learn about the ancient world, which was later to become my speciality both as a collector and a dealer.

I went up to Oxford, to Lincoln College, in 1954 to read Classical Mods for the first part of my degree and then changed to English. I chose to do a combination of subjects because I thought that there might be a shortage of appropriate texts in Braille for the study of ancient history in which, in any case, I wasn’t as interested as I later became. Meanwhile English gave me the opportunity to learn Anglo- Saxon, Middle English and Old Norse, which I enjoyed, and also introduced me to the study of bibliography. Oxford had a procedure, which made it possible in the days before computer technology for a blind student with an amanuensis to take examinations under the same conditions as a sighted student. Some of my school friends didn’t find Oxford congenial but I settled in quite quickly. Of course you had to deal with people’s assumptions about what you could or couldn’t do. In my first term a student knocked on the door one evening and I opened it without switching on the light. She assumed that she had called at a bad time and started apologising for disturbing me. I replied that now that she had disturbed me, she should tell me what she had wanted to say. She seemed embarrassed and said that she had been going to persuade me to see an undergraduate production of a play by Ibsen. I told her that I had just discovered Ibsen and thought him a very important writer, and why shouldn’t I go to the production? Her assumption was that, if you can’t see, you can’t go to the theatre.

After coming down from Oxford, there was a problem as to what I should do, although it was very clear to me that I shouldn’t stay at home with my parents who were then living in a village in Buckinghamshire. There were tensions between us and so I decided that I would take the first job I could find. Eventually I went into Braille publishing and became an editor for the RNIB in London. I enjoyed the work because I believed that providing books for blind students was a good thing to be doing. I also spent some time working on a PhD at UCL, where I am now an honorary research fellow, on the reconstruction of lost works of classical literature, particularly lost Greek plays. In addition to the complete Greek plays that have survived, there are a large number of fragments in existence, which lead you to speculate how the plot might have worked out. The reconstruction of these lost works is the aspect of classical literature that has most captivated me, and I sometimes wonder if it relates in some way to my childhood dream.

While I was at Oxford I had often consulted books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I didn’t realise at the time that they could be bought on the open market and, in due course, the idea of collecting came naturally to me. By that time I was working in London, sharing a flat with Patrick Pollard who was an academic librarian at The Warburg Institute and later became a Professor of French at Birkbeck. I had first met Patrick when he was selected to read to me during the holidays. My father had advertised at the local school for someone who could read Greek and Latin to me in the holidays, and Patrick was chosen. He went on to study French and spend some time in France, but we remained in touch as friends, and in 1962 we decided to live together.

Frank Norman, who had a shop in Hampstead with a certain amount of classical books, gave us a directory of book dealers, and we began to visit shops outside London, travelling by train and bus. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were still enough bookshops for it to be worthwhile. We gradually progressed to taking an interest in book sales, attending auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips and Hodgson’s, learning how to operate in them by watching the dealers. I aim to have in my collection a decent copy, by which I mean a textually sound copy, of every literary text from pagan antiquity. I also include texts from the early Christian period up to about AD 600. By the end of the 1970s the idea of becoming a bookseller was beginning to take root, but no one would have employed me as a trainee bookseller. And why should they? In any case, the point of being one was precisely to become independent. And so I built up a scheme for running a bookselling business by catalogue. I had accumulated quite a lot of books, inherited a bit of money from my mother and received an interest-free loan from the RNIB, all of which enabled me to get started. I left my job at the end of 1978, and we sent out our first catalogue in 1979.

Having Patrick to help me has obviously been indispensable. When we were getting started, Patrick was teaching at Birkbeck, which meant that it was convenient for us to go to auctions together during the day. He reads the catalogues, collates the books and describes their physical condition, and I know about the history of the texts and which scholars and editors are important, and other details that are likely to affect their value. I’m interested in books for their intellectual content and, because of my academic training, I tend to regard them as more valuable to me if they are the best text of a work, rather than the first. Of course I recognise the value of its first appearance and the valid reasons for people wanting to pay more money for it, just as I recognise that aesthetic considerations make a difference to the value. I keep a record in Braille of all the books in our stock, which acts as my primary reference source. Patrick dictates the details to me for the stock register and I use that information as the basis for my catalogue descriptions.

When Patrick reads an auction catalogue to me, he has a very good idea of what I’m looking for. He doesn’t read it from cover to cover as we would never get anything done. There was a blind Law don at Oxford who was known to be rather quick-tempered with his readers. On one occasion someone was reading a law case when he interrupted and said, ‘Held?’ The reader didn’t understand and carried on until he interrupted with the same question. He didn’t want to hear the facts of the case; he wanted to know the judge’s decision.

If Patrick is unable to bid with me at a sale, I do the bidding on the telephone. I like to engage with the person who is my ‘minder’ on the other end of the line, as it gives me an awareness of what’s going on in the room. For example they might tell me that there are a lot of foreign dealers in the room and other bits of information that will have an effect on what I decide to bid. I recently bought a copy of Velleius Paterculus, a first-century AD Roman historian, of which the book is not only the first printing of the Latin text, but is also the substantive source for our knowledge of the text, as the manuscripts from which it was printed have disappeared. There are a number of texts to which this has happened, often due to the practice in the sixteenth century of printing a book and then using the manuscript for binders’ waste. The manuscript of the last book of Pliny the Younger’s letters containing his correspondence with the Emperor Trajan has been lost, and so we only have the printed text to rely on. Among other things, they discussed the problem of how to treat the large population of Christians in Bithynia where Pliny was Governor.

It’s surprising how often we’ve managed to find books in mixed lots that were unnamed but very important. We came across a copy of the works of Sir William Davenant, published in 1673, which is not in itself very rare, but we discovered during viewing that it had belonged to Herman Melville. Davenant was Shakespeare’s godson and, although my knowledge of Herman Melville is fairly limited, I couldn’t fit this book into what I knew of him. We put it in our catalogue and received a telephone call from someone on behalf of an American university who was collecting books that had belonged to Herman Melville. He had traced the copy of Davenant through sales up to 1951, when it had disappeared from the market. We put him in touch with the auctioneers in the hope that they might have been able to give him some details of earlier provenance. In another mixed lot, in which the lead item was quite an important sixteenth-century book, we found the first translation into Italian of the Koran dating from 1547. It didn’t take any special skill to realise that it was extremely rare. The first complete English translation of the Koran did not appear until 1649.

I’m always more disappointed when I fail to get a lot that I would have kept for my own collection than one that I would have sold. I’m aware that many dealers don’t collect books because of this conflict, but for me to stop collecting would be a terrible self-inflicted wound. We try to do two catalogues a year, one on the history of classical scholarship to the present day, and an early printed catalogue which includes, among other subjects, books on linguistics, philosophy and the history of ideas. We aren’t online people and, although many customers order by e-mail, our catalogues are only available in hard copy. There is a note on the front cover asking customers to circulate the catalogue among their friends and colleagues, and we have found word-of-mouth to be more successful for us than advertising.

We’ll have to think about winding down before too long, although I’ve never thought about retirement as such. I’m very much in favour of the relaxation of the compulsory retirement age. People are living longer and are healthier on average and I see no reason why you shouldn’t go on for as long as you are capable of working. I appreciate that I’ve never been forced to do work that I don’t enjoy for any length of time, and so I’ve never regarded work as a burden.

In my lifetime there will always be collectors who like books in the way that I do, but we’re on a downward track. It’s idle to deny the direction of travel. The development of electronic texts is going to affect the demand for hard-copy books, but you shouldn’t assume that a book has become worthless just because it has been digitised. We don’t know how long these technologies will last or how stable they are compared to what we know about parchment and paper. Traditional books will cease to be produced in their present quantity and will become less valued until people find that digital texts are no longer readable for whatever reason. I shan’t live to see that day but of course it brings me back to my dream which has coloured the way that I think about things.

Interviewed for The Book Collector Winter 2013

William Poole died on 17 January 2021

William Poole

A Poland & Steery Co-production