diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 07, 2008

And one more event from yesterday's Time Out-inspired walkabout, because this one deserved better than an mobile-emailed summary.

Vintage Travel Posters (page 47): Well that looks interesting, I thought. An exhibition of those marvellous posters designed to encourage the travellers of the past to board a Cunard liner to Canada, or take a train to the Scottish Highlands. Might look nice on the living room wall at home, you never know.

The destination listed in Time Out for this exhibition was Sotheran's, a second-hand bookshop just off Piccadilly, so off I trotted and inside I went. Ah, right, not just a literary jumble sale but a proper antiquarian book dealer, all wood panelling and fusty shelves. The two gentlemanly staff shot barely a look as I wandered in, allowing me the opportunity to explore. Everywhere there were elegant hardbacks, dating back far more than decades, gleaming behind shiny plastic dust jackets. The more valuable volumes were locked away in glass-topped display cases or secured behind cabinet doors, lest some non-Mayfair oik dare pilfer them. However other, lesser titles were available to touch, and open, and peruse. Billiards for Beginners, for example (published 1884, price 1/-), or a 1934 Arthur Ransome first folio. This, clearly, was the sort of bookstore one visited to top up the contents of one's library, before popping round to the club for an armchair malt.

One particular locked-away book caught my eye, but with no obvious access I instead headed down to the basement to see the travel posters. Four walls were bedecked with vintage classy advertising, attempting to lure the viewer to some snow-capped mountain or Arcadian idyll. See Britain By Train, they implored, or Fly To The Caribbean by BOAC. Modern marketing conjures up nothing so polished and enticing. Each poster had a label detailing age and artist, and was this silkscreen or lithograph, plus a price. Yeeouch. The number of pounds was generally in the mid hundreds, even occasionally into four figures, incorporating the enormous premium deemed chargeable by a long-established dealer in fine prints. These weren't mass-produced Athena copies, they were originals, and at a price to match. So I looked around more tentatively, and coveted more covertly, and decided that all I'd be able to afford was the £1.50 exhibition catalogue.

Uncle (1964)Back upstairs I handed my pathetic purchase to the gentleman sitting at his archaic computer terminal, hoping he wouldn't view me with too much disdain, and dared to ask about the locked-away book I'd seen earlier. "How much is that Uncle book?" "I don't see it." "The book stood up at the back, in the cabinet, the book with "UNCLE" written in big black letters above a picture of an elephant in a purple dressing gown."
The Uncle series of books may mean nothing to you, in which case move on. But the six adventures of the kindly millionaire elephant, long since out of print, were amongst my literary childhood favourites. Uncle lived in an unfeasible castle called Homeward, packed with soaring towers, mysterious rooms and a crowd of bizarre characters. His dutiful servants included an old monkey called The Old Monkey and a one-armed badger called The One-Armed Badger. Outside, in a hellish slum called Badfort, dwelt such evil adversaries as the skewer-throwing Hitmouse, the wobbly Jellytussle and their ringleader Beaver Hateman. Look, I told you to stop reading if this meant nothing to you. The stories were written by an octogenarian Methodist vicar called J.P. Martin, and vibrantly illustrated by Quentin Blake. Plotlines were fantastical, often surreal, but rarely morally black and white. None of your Blyton-esque drippy fables with Uncle, these were proper books for a kid with an imagination. So if you shared my fascination, or if you just want to see what the fuss was about, I can heartily recommend Tony's Uncle fansite - not huge, but perfectly formed. I've also uncovered an interview with the author, a bibliography, the book's introduction, a Jackanory listing and a New York reprint. Blimey, some enterprising soul is even churning out Uncle's blog, with several posts this last week, as well as Beaver's blog riposte. I am duly re-enchanted.
We walked over to the cabinet at the back of the store and the shopkeeper unlocked the door to take out my chosen prize. A quick flick within, to a number handwritten in pencil, and he was able to tell me the catalogue price. Two hundred and ninety-eight pounds! "Sheesh buggery bastard," I thought. "Oh dear," I said, "I don't think I'll be buying it then." The dealer remained unpatronising throughout, kindly handing me the nigh-priceless book for a nostalgic flick-through. The edges were slightly browned, but the content was as sharp as ever. Were it not for the price tag, this could have been the copy I borrowed regularly from the Hertfordshire Library service all those years ago. But in the end I left the shop with only that rather cheap catalogue, and a damned posh blue plastic bag with silver lettering to keep it dry.

Once finally back home I went for a rifle through some of the boxes at the back of my spare room, and lo and behold I uncovered a copy of book number five in the series - Uncle and Claudius The Camel. It's a 1969 original, formerly library stock but withdrawn for sale, and I bought it for the princely sum of 10p. I'm quite tempted to take it back to Southeran's for a valuation, to see what extortionate number they might scribble in the front and what whopping percentage profit I might have made. But no, I'd much rather flop down and read it again from cover to cover, maybe this afternoon, and then put it aside for a similar treat in a decade or two's time. When you can enjoy an elephant in a purple dressing gown, who needs a travel poster anyway?

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