Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Books, history, memories

I haven't blogged for a while and I feel nostalgic. Not for blogging, but for the kind of experience that got me fired up with history in the first place.

I grew up in Exeter, a city that, in spite of the devastation wreaked on it by 1960s rebuilding, is still up to its ears in history: medieval sandstone churches, a cathedral worth travelling miles to see (and with the priceless Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the 'Exeter Book' in its library), a Roman legionary fortress (now excavated and reburied), underground passages, bits of city wall, a Tudor merchant's house moved bodily and intact in 1961 to allow for development. Amongst the school history lessons and the family visits to historic buildings, I did a lot of solo pottering and hanging around in bookshops.

There used to be a lot of rambling secondhand bookshops in Exeter then, and the books were cheap. For an obsessive lad with a taste for history and reading, there was plenty to go at. One - Cummings', I think -was in the Cathedral Close and had a Roman well in the basement, another near the nineteenth-century Iron Bridge. At yet another, at the bottom of Fore Street, towards the river, I picked up a battered 18th-century school Virgil with long-nosed caricatures on the cover. The shop was a sort of Dickensian labyrinth of dust and shelves, now long gone. The buildings there were demolished forty-plus years ago, to reveal several arches from the first stone bridge over the River Exe, begun in around 1190 AD. It's that kind of place.

The history and the book-buying go together for me. I still have some of those books, some local history, some travel books about the Mediterranean, though a lot of other stuff has been traded in, given to charity or flogged on the internet. For some reason I still have a publication containing some of the city records, bought without a cover and rebound inexpertly with the cardboard from the box a new shirt came in.  And here is a message for Henry Blight of Shebbear: If you're out there in the ether, still looking for your copy of Ovid's Epistles with facing-page translation, published in 1753 and given to you by a Miss Mary Rundle some time in the next century, you can't have it. It may have your name in it, but I paid a pound for it out of my pocket-money and it's mine.



Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Peter,
I love second-hand bookshops. There was one I lived near in Hudson Falls, NY, and I used to walk down there on a weekly basis. My prize: a two-volume copy of the OED with tiny, tiny print and a magnifying glass. It sits proudly on my shelf and is frequently.

Peter Alan Orchard said...

It's addictive, Keena, this second-hand bookshop thing. Not even the Kindle (fond of it as I am) can break me of the habit. Show me a shop with a stack of old books inside and I'm in there like a terrier after a rabbit.

Maggi Andersen said...

Lucky you, Peter. I remember staying in Exeter when we toured England. It was summer and the flowers were gorgeous and there was still enough history to keep me fascinated. When I wrote my first book I set it there.

Peter Alan Orchard said...

Sadly I no longer live there, Maggi, but I still visit family there. Mooching around the old haunts is always a pleasure.

Freda Lightfoot said...

I love second hand bookshops too. I find it quite impossible to visit one without buying at least a couple of books. Addictive. But every one a joy. So sad we are losing them.