Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Horseman's Bookshop

                                   THE HORSEMAN'S BOOKSHOP

            I had not been in my new job for more than a week before I began to realize
that I had made a mistake.  The small publishing firm where I was now working consisted of two people, my boss and myself.  The office was located on the second floor of an apartment block.  There were two rooms, with wall to wall carpeting, tastefully furnished in beige and off white colours.  It was very quiet.  My new boss
was a pleasant but rather reserved man.  There seemed to be little for me to do.

         I missed the noise and the scruffiness, the bustle and activity, the arguments and disorganization of my old job in the bookshop.  I began to feel bored, and, what was worse, lonely.  At the end of a month I gave in my notice.

         At that time jobs were plentiful and it did not take me long to find another one.  I was going to be working for J.A.Allen, The Horseman’s Bookshop.  Although I knew nothing about horses, it was still part of the world of books.  The shop was located down in Victoria, opposite the Royal Mews.

         Joseph Allen was a small, energetic, bustling man.  He made up in bounce and enterprise what he lacked in height.  His father had published Sporting Luck.  When he was sixteen his father died, leaving him a collection of equestrian books.  He became a runner for publishers and a bookseller.  He used his father’s books and his equestrian connections to learn the publishing trade.  In 1938 he took out a lease on No. 1 Lower Grosvenor Place.  His bookshop was devoted entirely to books about horses and covered every aspect of the equestrian world.

         I was to work upstairs in the same office with Mr. Allen.  It was a long, narrow room;  he had a large roll top desk strewn with papers and books, and I had a small desk opposite him. Also sitting with us in this small room was Lord Spenser, there, I presumed, because of his title.  He had a long lugubrious face and spent most of his time drinking tea and dribbling biscuits down his stained waistcoat.  He took very little notice of me, except when Mr. Allen was getting particularly worked up, to chuckle and give me a large wink.

Mr. Allen, in his way, was as eccentric as Mr. Coles had been.  He took great pride in his aristocratic connections, arising out of his extensive knowledge of the horse world and of equestrian books.   Many interesting people used to visit his shop.

         Somewhere along the way, Mr. Allen had met and married a Frenchwoman.  She was called Pierrette.  She was as tall and thin as he was short and stout.  She used to wear a tubular, tight fitting dress with black and yellow stripes which, to my mind, made her look like a wasp and somehow suited her character.  She worked very hard downstairs dispatching the books:  there was never any time for small talk.  She had a shrill and penetrating voice which she used to shout up to her husband, who would hurry out to her on the landing.  Somehow it never seemed a very happy marriage, and I believe that some years later she returned to Paris.

         Downstairs the front of the shop was run by Felicity Gwynne, the sister of Elizabeth David, the well known cookery writer.  She was extremely efficient and very neurotic.  She kept herself going on cups of black coffee, I never saw her eat.   She was rather beautiful, with bobbed glossy black hair and dark eyes;  she wore pencil slim skirts and fine wool jumpers.  I never got to know her, even when we had a coffee at the Italian trattoria next door.  She was aloof and sophisticated, whereas I was awkward and shy.   I imagined she must have had some great tragedy in her life.

         I did become friends with Jean Buchanan, who acted as a kind of general dogsbody, charging up the stairs with some query for Mr. Allen, carrying the books around, getting up on the ladder to pick out a book from one of the upper shelves, talking to the customers.  She was full of energy, extrovert and outgoing, and I soon learnt the history of her life.

         She was a Scots and had been an actress, though her talent had run more to stage management.  She had worked for ENSA during the war. This was an organization which had been set up to entertain the troops.  She must have been in her fifties when I met her and was still was an attractive woman, with white hair swept back, an aquiline nose and piercing ice blue eyes.  She was slim with very elegant legs, which I always envied, and she moved beautifully.

         She was dramatic and intense.  She told me about her ex-lover, Handyside, an antiquarian bookseller, and how her best friend, Molly, had ousted her in his affections.  Her eyes would fill with tears and her mouth would quiver.  She would often spit as she talked.  I was fascinated by her stories and full of sympathy.  She would often say how hungry she was, so I invited her home for a meal.  My mother would produce a delicious meal, which Jean devoured with appreciation.   Like Kate, she was slightly larger than life.  My mother was slightly more sceptical than I was, but I drank in her words.  I think her passion filled some void in my own life.

I soon settled down into this new world, observing it all with an amused eye.  The work was not demanding, consisting mainly of repetitive letters and answering the phone.  There was little opportunity for any initiative. The system for incoming and outgoing books, which were both kept in piles on the stairs, was rather confusing.  They sometimes got mixed up, and I was frequently writing letters to customers apologizing when they got the wrong book.

Around this time Maureen and Dulcie, my old friends from Blackdown, returned to London from New Zealand.  Maureen had trained as a nurse and Dulcie was working as a shop assistant.  She used sometimes to come into the shop to see me.  The days when we used to run wild in the orchard at Blackdown were long gone, and I felt embarrassed by her.  She was a sweet, kind girl but not very bright, Jean noticed this and would tease me about it.  Dulcie was and remained a loyal friend, but I did not appreciate this at the time.

There was one other person in this strange set-up, and that was Hedda Woodford.  She was the accountant and she lived on the second floor.  She was a large, middle aged and cheerful woman.  I used sometimes to go up and share my lunch with her, or a cup of coffee.  One day she asked me if I had ever thought of leaving my mother and having a life of my own.  I reflected on this and replied that I could not abandon her like an ‘old shoe.’ 

“You are right” she said.

The real truth was that neither my mother nor I would have been able to live on our own, financially or otherwise.


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