Today my neighbour opened the door of his van and showed me a slew of plastic bags containing auction catalogues (Sotheby’s & Christie’s & others), thousands of them. There’s a market for these things, and with reason: there are good-quality reproductions of artworks by the big names (as well the smaller ones) that never get into the public domain, that you’ll never find either in the galleries or on google images.
I was on my way to the printer, where I mentioned this, and he said he knew a man who had worked at one of those auction places and from selling the catalogues on ebay the man had funded emigration, a new life. We were talking next to the unbound sheets of a book going through the press: buses in Malaya in the 1950s, page upon page of black-and-white photos of snub-nosed, round-cornered buses, with serial numbers and more technical info than you could dream of, a thing of beauty.
Heathcote Williams recently sent me a copy of David Batterham’s Among Booksellers (Stone Trough Books, The Old Rectory, Settrington, York YO17 8NP, 2011). Batterham is a book dealer specialising in ‘trade catalogues, fashion magazines and other illustrated journals, typography, political caricatures, architectural pattern books. The Applied Arts; no poetry, history or literature.’ The book comprises letters he sent to Howard Hodgkin while on his buying trips (to Texas, Tunisia, Barcelona, Istanbul, ‘somewhere in France’, etc, and Morecambe [‘I am in the dining room of the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. The receptionist looked at me doubtfully’]): ‘I wrote mostly in the evenings as I ate my supper, or in cafés and bars, using up the lonely hours when the shops were shut; which is why I should not have been so surprised to find so many references to drink when I came to make this selection.’
(Simon Hoggart at the Guardian was also sent a copy, and picked out the bit about the Duke of Edinburgh, ‘who apparently is a bibliophile’. Batterham: ‘The duke keeps a cupboard of goodies, such as the books he buys from me, so that people who want to give him a present can choose something he is known to like. Then they buy it from him, and give it back.’ Both present and cash: class.)
This is print: under siege, I’m told, but more extensive than you’d think, if you think in just literary terms, and still with its untouristy alleyways where you might get mugged, and benefiting from new and cheaper printing technology that is prolonging its active life. It’s not ‘heritage’, yet. And it’s an interesting moment: an older generation of writers who grew up with books central to the culture, a younger generation who grew up largely online. This can’t possibly be a golden age – the centre of the city has been surrendered – but it might be a silver one.