Sunday, October 29, 2006

Chumley's, New York, Pamela Courtyard Revisited

While making a card for my brother-in-law's birthday, I came across one of our scanned photographs which I had forgotten about. My wife and I are standing in Pamela Courtyard behind Chumley's looking towards the back entrance (and Brian my brother-in-law who is taking the photograph.) The brick archway rises behind us on Barrow Street. I kept looking at all the windows facing down on this courtyard, wondering who lived in these convenient dwellings, and what their stories were. Thinking too of all the writers, muscians and artists who have used this passageway on their way in, or out, of Chumley's.

Having just watched the Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire movie Funny Face, I can imagine Fred doing a neat dance number in the confines of Pamela Courtyard, using the wrought iron and the walls to create an acrobatic dance display. Is there an umbrella in it? Yes, I think so. In the movie Funny Face, there is a great dance number of Audrey Hepburn in a Parisian "beatnik" cafe, which reminded my wife of Mike Myers' funny routine of the sprockets on Saturday Night Live. Black turtle necks and all. Funny stuff. (Come to think of it, it also reminds me of his film So I Married an Axe Murderer, where he plays a poet who recites his works to jazz in a beatnik-like San Francisco cafe. More funny stuff. )

What has this to do with books? Well, Audrey Hepburn plays a clerk in a secondhand bookstore in New York, and the scenes in the bookshop are interesting for anyone who would like to slide down a room on a library ladder. We all need to dream.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Macclesfield Mayor, a mysterious painting, and my love of books and art.

Recovering the past is to walk the labyrinth of inner thoughts. One hopes to find sources of meaning on the way in, and one hopes to discover sources of strength on the way out. My devotion to books has brought me great pleasures and much delight, but it is a devotion which comes with a literal weight. As I contemplate moving a bookshop, a small one though it is, I find myself overwhelmed with the thought of it. When I close my eyes I may be avoiding the task at hand, but I am really treading the maze-like path towards a recollection of the past in my search for the source of my love of books. And hopefully a source of strength on the way back.

The initial influence would be my Great Uncle, who inscribed his book gifts to us as "Uncle Ivan." He was my Mother's uncle who lived in the city of his birth, Macclesfield, England. My grandfather, Francis Herbert, was the only sibling of five brothers to emigrate. He, like his brother Ivan, was a talented amateur painter, and this was one of their common interests. The other, I believe, was to surround themselves with a few nice books. Some of my grandfather's books have passed down to me. Nothing truly old, rare or valuable, but valuable to me for their association and for his name inscribed on the occasional endpaper. These books would be the second influence. They used to reside on the top-most shelves of my parents bookcase, out of reach, thankfully, of a child's crayon world, abiding their time, silently awaiting the day when they could reveal their hidden magic. I remember standing on a chair, breathing in the heady odours released as I fanned their pages. I sometimes think that this is what hooked me on books. Their aesthetic, tactile and odiferous qualities. Ideas came later. Breathing an old book's scent can bring me back in time much like Proust's madeleine or the uneven paving stone. It can be ambrosial in nature. A relaxant for the mind. The third influence would be from an older cousin on my father's side of the family who gave us wonderful books for christmas presents. A set of four Joseph Conrad novels set me off on a life-long enjoyment of his works.

These influences reinforced each other to guide me along as a nacent book-fancier. Never having the money to buy from catalogues and such, I turned into a bookscout for my own desires. Church sales, garage sales, public library sales, and academic institute and university library sales were common sources. Invariably it meant lining up for long periods of time, often in inclement weather as most sales took place in the fall and the spring. These entailed competition and sweaty scrums. More enjoyable by far was browsing calmly in secondhand bookshops, each with their own charm, quality and selection. Some have long gone, buildings swept away for large plazas and downtown hotels, while others continue to thrive. I think how pleasant it would be to revisit my favorite Montreal bookshops. All booklovers have their stories and memories of bookshops and proprietors. Maybe some will even remember old Chumley & Pepys.

Books have led me on to work in a library and to pursue a library degree, which led me to the challenge of working on the archives of an old institute, and to the pleasure of cataloguing old books. The photo above captures me in my element, looking a bit younger and fresher, in the institute archives in 1992, perusing a volume of Montaigne's Essays. Probably his essai "On Books." I can see why Paul Theroux would like to carry a penguin paperback of Montaigne's Essays with him on his travels. It would be a good general companion.

These are my fancies, in which I make no attempt to convey information about things, only about myself. -Montaigne

What of the "Mayor" and the "mysterious painting?" Well, as I have said elsewhere, life rarely flows in a straight line, and so here too, in my meditation on my love of books, I recalled a story of my uncle Ivan. In his later years, before I was born, he finally paid a visit to Canada to see his brother Francis. Ivan was at the time the Mayor of Macclesfield, and so he brought one of his own paintings to present to the Mayor of Montreal, Camillien Houde. Houde had a checkered career but during the the 1939 Royal Visit, he seemed to have charmed the Queen and Prince Philip. At an official dinner, he sat beside the Royals and was reading a list. When asked what he was reading, he told Prince Philip that it was a list of subjects he was not to bring up and discuss with them. He passed the list to the Prince who responded with robust laughter. Nothing like honesty to break the ice. Supposedly the Queen thought him the most interesting of Mayors and said so when back in England. Perhaps this is what prompted my great uncle's gift. Good publicity. The fact is I have always wondered what became of this painting. Does it still reside somewhere in Montreal's City Hall? Was it stored away and later sold? Or did it stay with the Mayor's family? Perhaps there is a descendent of Mayor Houde who inherited this painting, and she or he is standing in front of it as this moment, whatever moment that is, wondering who the painter was and how it came to be in the family. This unresolved story is like one of the those distant pathways leading off into a misty valley. A pathway I have been meaning to follow. Perhaps when I revisit my favorite bookshops in Montreal, I could try to solve this question, and by solving it, discover another story to tell.

And what of the possible sources of strength to help me face the task at hand? Well, having traced my love of books to relatives, I must pause and think of their stories. A classic story of immigration, struggle and success; sons and brothers fighting in the second world war, persistence and hard work . . . . Moving a little bookshop is really nothing in comparison. So when I find myself bemoaning my sore back, I shall just think of my forebears and all they have strived for over the last century. That should give me perspective. And strength for that last box of books.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Pastoral delights for an urban night

Author photographs can be misleading. Some of them anyway. We have all seen the expensive professional photographs of famous popular writers such as Patricia Cornwell, Mary Higgins Clark and John Grisham for example taking up the complete back panel of the dustwrapper, where clothes, makeup and backgrounds exude success and wealth. Promotion to the tenth degree. But it is the lesser known literary authors who pose in front of books, brickwalls or funky decor where one is often on a more personal level. Perhaps too personal in some examples.
Then there is the disinclination to be photographed like Thomas Pynchon or Henry Green. The latter case was more understandable. It was for professional reasons. Henry Green had left Oxford without finishing his degree, some say it was because he didn't like his tutor C. S. Lewis, and began working for his father's company in Birmingham. When his first book came out, he didn't want employees and customers to recognize him as the author. Therefore a pseudonym and no photograph, or only one from the back. As for Pynchon, well, perhaps we could call it entropic paranoia.

When I was setting up literary readings for the library where I worked many years ago, I chose the poet and classics professor at McGill University, Anne Carson to read from her latest book. I was rather in awe of her accomplished learning and poetic achievement and found her dustjacket photo to be a formidable portrait. I had also been told that I would never get her and she was not very approachable. I had begun to build up a sense of her character based on these few observations and hearsay. She phoned me back to confirm that she would read, and when I asked her if there was anyone she would like to introduce her, she said she would ask her good friend and author, Will Aitken. He agreed and when the evening came round they arrived early and my wife and I chatted with them, I have to admit rather nervously. When we discussed how difficult it was to get people out to literary readings, she suggested wine and cheese. Wine and cheese. From a classics professor it seemed absolutely perfect. Will Aitken introduced her with a witty and well-crafted paragraph and Anne Carson then had us laughing with her extraordinary charm and wit. She was seemingly nothing like the person I had developed in my mind based on the photograph and her academic achievements and what I heard through the grape vine. How foolish I felt. Her sense of humour was wonderfully quirky and her poetry a delight. We began to offer wine and cheese at our literary readings and the two other independent libraries that I was setting up readings for also followed suit with positive results. Goes to show that if you get beyond the representation, there can be a bit of wine and cheese awaiting. A bit of pastoral delight for an urban night.