Churchill, Fine Presses and Commissioning Editors

Literary Tourist in London, England: Day 3

A bright and sunny morning. Perfect opportunity to bury ourselves in Winston Churchill’s bunker, the underground nerve centre where Winnie and his inner circle choreographed the Second World War. My wife had reserved tickets for 10am. At first sight, the prospects didn’t look good.

I hate lining up. For anything. Thanks to the tickets, however, we were ushered into a very short line that started to move directly through the entrance the moment we joined it. The timing was exemplary.

Lots here to take in. I liked the special bedroom set aside for Winston’s wife, Clemmie. Apparently the two couldn’t abide being apart for long. The exhibit, which focuses mostly on the war years, also covers much of the glory of Churchill’s long life. One thing it skips however, is his writing career. He published a prodigious number of words, and won the Nobel prize for literature. Some years ago I interviewed Ron Cohen, Churchill’s bibliographer. You can listen here.

Despite an absence of books, Churchill’s war rooms are still worth a visit – lots of authentic material to take in – film footage, letters, even the door of Ten Downing Street – plus there’s a gift shop filled with bulldogs,

cigars and this sexy navy blue and white number that Churchill favoured. Looks a mite big for a bow-tie.

From central command I surfaced and walked a short distance over towards Westminster Abbey to admire this bronze sculpture by Ivor Roberts-Jones

past this iconic statue-still symbol,

and onwards to Portobello Road via the tube and a short walk past this colourful curb-side grocer,

and these sun-dappled townhouses.

Sophie Schneideman led me to the back of her husband’s photography shop, where she keeps her fine collection of fine press treasures. It’s a cosy little nook, packed with beautifully printed books. Perusing some of her catalogues while she popped out, I noticed that they were designed by the revered Jerry Kelly (must interview). Her shelves supported books by Cobden-Sanderson, William Morris, Charles Ricketts and Gaylord Shanelic, who I’d recently interviewed out in Minneapolis, listen here.

Sophie was on a tight schedule, so we set to it. You can listen to our conversation about some of the great fine presses (Kelmscott, Ashendene, Doves, Circle) and how to go about collecting them, here

From Sophie’s I made my way back down to the tube station. Destination: Notting Hill

I wasn’t so much interested in Hugh Grant, as I was Hannah Knowles, senior commissioning editor with Canongate (I’m thinking Churchill would’ve liked that blouse).

After scouring the neighbourhood on foot and in taxi I eventually found her offices and was led into a slightly echoey boardroom. One of the walls was a beautiful choral colour, decorated with repeating purple foxgloves. Years ago I’d interviewed Hannah’s boss Jamie Byng at BookExpo in Washington, D.C. Listen here

Now it was time to talk to someone who really knew him. Actually we talk mostly about Hannah’s role, the freedom she enjoys, and how cool and eclectic Canongate’s backlist is. If that doesn’t arouse your interest, you might want to pay special attention to the part where she talks about a guy having sex with a cross-dressing lizard. Listen here:

From Hannah’s I made my way over to the British Library. Had an appointment to see a literary publicist just across the road. After 10-15 minutes pounding on the door to no response, and several unanswered telephone calls, I strolled back across the street to check out the free Treasures of the British Library exhibit. It included original Lennon and McCartney lyric manuscripts, complete with doodles. From here I walked past St Pancras station where you’ll find a statue of John Betjeman by sculptor Martin Jennings.

I decided to take a powder on Harry Potter’s train Platform 9 ¾ located in nearby King’s Cross Station, and headed straight for one of my favourite London bookstores, Collinge and Clark ( aka Black Books).

Favourite because it specializes in books on books, and private presses. Oliver lets me go down into the basement too – a rare privilege, despite appearances. I collect publisher’s histories. Didn’t find much this time round, but I did spot this:

Pretty obvious what Oliver collects. Next time I’m in town, I hope to interview him about this, and other hot collectible items.

Connecting with Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde Statue (4503030408).jpg
Statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square, Dublin

I’ve just finished reading Richard Ellmann’s splendid biography of Oscar Wilde. Filled with telling detail about the man and his times, illuminating insights and deeply empathic passages, the work is one of the most engaging I’ve ever read. Here’s how it ends:

“His work survived as he had claimed it would. We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”

Biography, when written this well, joins reader and subject in ways that only true-life friendships can approach. I felt a real void after finishing this book, and, to bring in literary tourism, a desire to explore the various places and books referred to in it. With this in mind, Dublin would be a pretty good starting point.   Dublin is one of 28 Cities of Literature around the world. It’s filled with all sorts of literary things to do and places to visit, including  Oscar Wilde House  and The Oscar Wilde Collection at Trinity College’s Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.