The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

'Twas the Night before Christmas...

'Tis the season to enjoy traditions. Often reading an old favourite can be a quiet personal tradition. I have my own festive favourites that I'll be re-reading over the holidays. But here's a lovely Christmas tradition from Gerry Mayfield that makes me realise that I should be making more of my own favourite books and rituals...and sharing them with family and friends.

"As a child I have memories of being read 'The Night Before Christmas' on Christmas Eve before hanging our stockings on the mantelpiece and shouting up the chimney to Santa, our heart's desires. I often wonder if my parents got any surprises on that day!

However I digress. When our eldest was young I managed to acquire a board book of the poem which I then read to her each year. Not just on Christmas Eve though on any night on the run up to Christmas. We became word perfect but still reading the words and looking at the pictures together invoked a magic not to be found in just the recital. Our eldest went to university as our second child was born and each year I would follow the same tradition with our youngest. Again we are both about word perfect and reading is not restricted to Christmas Eve only.

This year we asked our eldest when she was coming over on Christmas Eve and we were told that she would be over for 'The Night Before Christmas'. Each year she still comes 'for the reading' and we have a real tradition in the making. Lizzie, although 12 now, will still have the reading and Cate, 18 years her senior, will be there for it too.

Whose this book is is a guess, but I like to think it's mine and will have the privilege of reading it to any grandchildren we do have with, hopefully, our 2 daughters watching and listening.

The copy isn't particularly old nor dusty at the moment as it has already been out this year, but without it the tradition would die immediately."

Thank you Gerry for sharing this. I've now found our version - not very old or dusty either. Gerry's book is obviously of a certain vintage that reminds me of my childhood (I had lots of "Dean" books I remember). I must also find our video of Tom and Jerry's Night before Christmas, which I just love. What else can I add, except...

"Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night!"


Monday, 21 December 2009

Compliments of the Season!

Here's a lovely little "King Penguin" given to my wife by her sister many years ago, although the book was pretty vintage even then. It's a short history of the Christmas Card, and is illustrated with assorted and typical examples.

A lovely keep-sake and as we approach another New Year and move, at frightening speed, towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century, I find myself clinging to visions of the past like this, rather than embracing the digital future. But whether you are with me on that one or not: "A Merry Christmas to all my readers" !


Wednesday, 16 December 2009


A powerful reminder, from Saviour Pirotta, of the imporrtance of books in childhood: they shape us and influence us all our lives:

"I received a parcel of letters from a school in America this week. The children have been doing a project about Ancient Greece and read my ORCHARD BOOK OF FIRST GREEK MYTHS. Their teacher had suggested they each ask me a question, which I will answer in a class email sent to her. Most of them wanted to know if I liked Greek Myths when I was a child. The answer, of course, is 'yes, I loved Greek Myths.' I pored over pictures of Greek legends and heroes before I could read the often dense text in the books. When I did learn to read, I devoured every version I could lay my hands on! I re-worked the stories to suit my own ideas. The landscape where I grew up is quite similar to Greece's, so it wasn't hard to imagine monsters rearing their heads out of caves, or triremes coming round headlands in the med.

Writing back to the kids made me think of the old Greek Myths books I had, and the wonderful colour plates in them. I thought I'd share some of the most inspiring ones with the readers of this wonderful blog."

from the Ladybird book, Alexander The Great.

From Charles Kingsley's The Hereos. The Illustrations are by H.M. Brock.

Kingsley and Brock again!

From Look and Learn Annual, [the 1974, I think}

Another pic of Bellorophom on Pegasus

One of my own versions, illustrated by Jan Lewis

Thankyou Saviour.

Saviour blogs about historical fiction for kids at
Swords and Sandals

A Weekend of finds by Mary Mayfield

Here are some extraordinary discoveries from Mary Mayfield, both irreplaceable and rare (and dusty?), but quite different to each other. Thank you Mary for letting me post these.

The first is a Latin-English Dictionary. Here’s what Mary said about it:

“This is one of last weekend's finds. sitting on a shelf, in my parents' spare room, was an English-Latin dictionary dated 1774.

No one actually knows where this came from - it's last move from was from my grandmother's house to theirs, about 30 years ago.

It has 2 inscriptions - Bridget and ------- Sharp 1820 (possibly 1829) and a fainter one from 1831, possibly to someone Parker or Barker.

Presumably these are distant relatives but no one knows…”

Mary went on to say how it had been:

“sitting next to an old car manual belonging to (husband) Gerry that looked like it had been chewed by mice!
I just wish we knew more about this.”

Well me too, so any information you might have, do post it!

Mary’s husband went on to say:

“It is 235 years old. It's described by some as a school dictionary and we have seen someone with one that is 236 years old. There is a handwritten inscription in the front but it is mostly illegible as the ink has faded but the inscription has 2 dates - 1820 and 1830. One wonders if the people mentioned were relatives or whether it was a find in a secondhand bookshop by an earlier generation of the family.”

And Saviour Pirotta called it

“A real treasure!”

And he’s right of course. What a beautiful and fascinating thing to have, full of history and mystery!

The second book from Mary is Buster Brown by R F Outcault. She writes:

“An extremely scruffy picture book from my mother's childhood, although she received it second-hand,copyrighted 1905 by The New York Herald. It's lost the cover completely and was folded in half and pushed in a cupboard.
A series of cartoon adventures each with a little "lesson" at the end - this one disapproves of Teddy Roosevelt shooting wild life for publicity.
I think this was originally a newspaper cartoon strip though I'm not sure if it was aimed at children exclusively - the bit here about "a president going out armed with a gun and a camera and a press agent" doesn't sound like children's material.”

Glorious finds! Thanks again Mary for sharing these on Dusty Old Books!

Friday, 4 December 2009

Costume Cavalcade

For many years I have collected costume books and good ones are surprisingly hard to find. Here are a few pages from my favourite: Costume Cavalcade by Henny Harald Hansen (there's a name to be reckoned with!), with its one hundred gorgeous plates. One of the most important things that any illustrator can do is learn about costume and fabrics; how they hang and fall, how they fold, how they function in different eras. It's one thing to become an expert at life drawing, but how many children's books feature nudes?

Costume Cavalcade is falling apart, but it remains the most useful of all my costume books for the images have a delicious clarity. Those costumes from before the great era of fashion plates (the early nineteenth century) are taken from famous masterworks. See if you can spot a bit of Uccello, a snippet of Fragonard, a taste of The Book Of Hours. Other plates not shown have glorious costumes from Vermeer to Velazquez.

The Regency costumes were especially helpful when illustrating Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella), which I gave a Mozartian/Rossinian setting.

The book's vintage (1950s) is revealed in the final plate, with Audrey Hepburn inspired figures (all very Roman Holiday), but I also find the Edwardian he-men and the bathing beauties irresistable!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Treasure hunting with Saviour Pirotta

Many thanks to Saviour for letting me post his recent haul of Dusty Old Books. Treasures indeed, and full of the obscure and unexpected things - words and pictures - that give inspiration to writers and artists. You just never know what direction your imagination will go in...


9.55am What to do when you've stumbled home at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning and can't yet go to bed but are too razzled/tired/antsy to do anything productive? I know, put on the kettle, sit back in a comfy armchair and and force your bleary eyes to focus on a Kindle...not. But look, there's a distraction from all this wonderful information and literature that must be stored in this modern little appliance...a table top sale in Victoria Hall, just round the corner. Perhaps they might have the latest ebook there......

11.00am - Return home definitely unkindled! Never mind, here's a few old bits of tit and tat to be had for £8.00 in total!

Treasure was the junior version of Look And Learn. This annual from 1974 includes comic strip stories about Ancient Greece and Hiawatha. There are also Chinese legends, facts about animals and the story of the printing press.

A little curio from, I guess, the 1940s. The text is really simple, the pictures all have one major colour. The sort of thing I would have memorised as a kid and acted out. No author is credited!

One of two books James would really appreciate, this includes articles about the Ballet Rambert, the Dance Centre in London and loads of brilliant photos of the greats at work
A photo from The Tina Ballet Book, showing a still from an American ballet based on The Wizard of Oz. These two dancers are the wind that carries Dorothy to the fabled land.

Another for James, this books is about all aspects of dance, including modern and classical ballet and folk.

From People Who Dance - a dancer in Italy!

The cover of this one says it all, really. Packed with astounding, high quality photos.

This poor book wasn't particularly well looked after but it seems to have given someone a lot of enjoyment. Christmas stories without presents or Christmas trees? Now there's a novelty."

by Saviour Pirotta

Friday, 27 November 2009

A Pleasant Surprise by Mary Mayfield

A fascinating revisitation of a childhood book from Mary Mayfield. It raises interesting questions about what is suitable for children, and whether some older ideas would get published today. Thanks Mary for letting me share this!

Toby and his Little Dog Tan or the Great Detective of Fairy-land.

Written by Gilbert James and illustrated by Chas Pears.

"This is one of my mother's favourite books from her childhood, in the 1920s. The hero, Toby, is woken in the night by a little red man come to summon him to help retrieve the stolen pearls of the Queen of Fairyland. He is transported, through a badgers' set and along an underground river, to meet the Fairy Queen and then off, via the bad fairies town and an escape on a stork's back,
meeting a variety of talking animals along the way, to track down the thief, rescue the pearls and prevent wolves invading England.

I've always found it be a terrifying book. My mother tried to persuade me how wonderful it was but I was frightened by the illustrations, particularly the little red men.
When, years later, she's tried to get my daughters to read it, I've always said "Don't. It's horrible".
So, I went to find it, intent on sharing with you the horrors of early 20th century children's literature and was amazed to discover that the writing is actually quite funny. It starts by describing Toby as a very clever boy but adding "His teacher did not think so but then she wore eye glasses".
The little red man explains to Toby that when the Queen's pearls are lost or stolen "all the fairies get stupid, and cross, and sleepy". "I suppose" said Toby, "you are stupid though you don't seem cross, or - but you do look crosser now than you did before"
Later on, little dog Tan is trying to sniff out a field mouse "and putting his nose in the air and waving it - his nose I mean - of course, he could not wave the air, at least, I don't think he could, but one never knows"

Some of the illustrations I'm sure would never find their way into a modern children's book. The little red men still look like devils to me, even after all these years, and the picture of Toby, armed with a pick-axe, and Tan fighting the fox is bloodthirsty.
Even so, I'm really pleased to have gone back to this book and eventually enjoyed it - thanks to James and his Dusty Old Books."

Mary Mayfield

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Story of Ferdinand

I'm sure many people are familiar with this children's classic - the first book about "pacifism" I ever read - but I hate the thought of anyone missing out, so just in case... here it is. The story, by Munro Leaf is deceptively simple and begins: "Once upon a time in Spain..."

What follows is a beautifully shaped fable with superb drawings by Robert Lawson, and was first published in 1936. Ferdinand is not like other bulls. They all butt their heads and fight. But Ferdinand prefers to sit in the pasture under his favourite cork tree and just smell the flowers. As he grows older his mother worries - but "even though she was a cow" (cue much hilarity) eventually understands her calf is happy.

One day the other bulls are showing off to impress the matadors, hoping to be picked for the bull fight.

However when Ferdinand accidently sits on a bee, the matadors misinterpret his apparent wildness and take him away to Madrid, where "all the lovely ladies have flowers in their hair..."

Astonishingly, the book was banned in Spain and Nazi Germany as subversive, yet the conclusion is as touching and tender as Ferdinand himself - but I won't give it away just in case this little gem has slipped through your literary net. If so, seek it out and fall under it's kindly spell. My copy may be dusty and old and falling apart, but it has been reprinted many times and I hope it is still in print!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Nebula to Man

Possibly the maddest book in my collection, this is a Darwinesque narrative poem describing the scientific progress on earth from it's creation through to early man. It takes 450 pages of rhyme and many Edwardian illustrators to get us to "Modern times". The chapters are all accurately and sequentially titled after the various eras: Triassic, Jurassic, Cretacious etc. I would have loved this as a child, and the highly literal and representational images of prehistoric life are very simular to those in Arthur Mee's Encyclopaedias, if any of you are old enough to remember those. They were part of my child-hood.

"But life on land persues a chequered course,
As Law holds on its way, without remorse."

I couldn't put it better myself.

Published by J.M. Dent in 1905 this is (understandably) a first edition and is disarmigly didactic and cheerfully inaccurate ; the dinosaurs would not pass muster today. It reminds me of the magnificent Victorian concrete dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Gardens, with horns-on-noses where there should be none, and the bi-ped dinosaurs slithering on all fours. Science (and what publishers are looking for) has moved on, not always to mankind's benefit, alas. I wonder how the twentieth century would be mapped out in narrative verse, as an appendix to this mighty volume?

The provenence is interesting too - it's from a library of a Spiritualist Society in Essex which housed Conan-Doyle's library. When my parents ran a second-hand book shop they were invited to clear out unwanted books. I went along to help and fell in love with this Nebula. It was a strange experience: obviously we felt scrutinised, being amongst mediums in a large Agatha Christie style mansion. In fact the Society was extremely pleasant and welcoming. Nevertheless, I half expected the ghost of Margaret Rutherford (who my grandmother once met in Kew Gardens; she was utterly enchanting by all accounts) to appear and admonish us for taking the books. As ABBA's Fernando played on their radio we discovered that anything they did not agree with had been "edited" with scissors... but the Nebula was intact. Many books had book-plates declaring them the personal property of Conan-Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes fans gave my parents a very good price for them.

Nebula to Man is probably a worthless book, having no apparent Conan-Doyle link. But to a once dinosaur-mad kid it was the most fascinating and bizarre book in the entire library. I love it. It's mad, it's ridiculous, the rhymes don't even scan. But I know it will never end up on an ereader!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Saviour Pirotta: Things that Kindle can't do yet - part two

Saviour Pirotta has written a Lovely personal collection of thoughts and memories, tied together by books:

"James blogged about tatty tv tie in DUSTY OLD BOOKS a while ago. It set me thinking about another thing [in fact, two things] that Kindle can't do yet, and probably never will.

My parents were not the sort to waste hard-earned cash on pressies. They weren't alone. No one I knew when I was a kid ever received gifts, not ones wrapped up in wrapping paper and decorated with ribbons and a gift tag anyway. We all got a bag of fruit and nuts for St. Martin's Day in October, lucky money from grandma for New Year and - if we'd behaved 365 days out of 356 - a gelato for our name Saint's day. [Mine is St Saviour's Day in mid-July, so gelato was a real cool treat]

One Christmas eve, though, my brothers and I all got dressed in our Sunday best and we took the bus to town. My eldest brother was starting secondary school and dad had decided he needed a geometry set. While at the stationer's cum bookshop cum lotto office cum rosary bead seller's, my father was suddenly struck down with a momentary lapse in meanness. He said we could all choose something from the shop.

My brother Lino picked a double pack of card games: Snap and Old Maid. I made a dive for the bookshelves. Now up to that point I only had four books in my precious book collection, mainly because my parents disapproved of any tome that did not have Nihil Obstat printed on the title page. Nihil Obstat is Latin for No Objection, which meant the church had not found anything in the book that might corrupt a susceptible mind.

The oldest book I had was a Victorian copy of Kingsley's The Water Babies. It had belonged to my great aunt Agnes, who'd very diligently drawn and coloured in swimming cossies on all the naked water babies combing the rock pools in the ocean. I also had two Ladybird books, one about the Holy Land and another about the USA, where my great aunt had worked as a nanny for a young couple in Hollywood. And I also had - although no one in the house knew about it - a tattered copy of Enid Blyton's The Happy House Children, which I'd nicked from the English RAF family next door just before they left for their new assignment in Hong Kong. This was easily my favourite book so, needing to grab something before my dad regained his senses, I picked The Mountain of Adventure. It was an Armada paperback, and the pride and joy of my collection for years.

Now some time after this, I bumped into the novelist Nicholas Monsarrat [as one does] vainly trying to get water out of a roadside pump the local kids had vandalised. We got talking and he told me that one of the most precious moments in an author's life occurs when he receives a parcel containing advance copies of his latest book. From then on, I used to waste a lot of time wrapping my beloved copy of The Mountain of Adventure in brown paper and pretending I was Mrs Blyton savouring that precious author moment of laying eyes on her latest book for the first time.

Imagine my confusion then, dear blog reader, when years later I walked into the library at my secondary school for the first time and realised that the copy of The Mountain of Adventure my heroine Enid lovingly caressed at that sacred moment of authorship might not have been an Armada paperback like mine, but a hardback book, with a dust jacket and a completely different picture on the cover. What was going on?

The librarian, a very kind jesuit whose patience would be tested to the limit in the five years I was at that college explained the concept of different EDITIONS to me. Major novels, he said, were issued in hardback first, for the cognoscenti who collected books. There might be different editions for book clubs, and different covers to suit the tastes of the English-reading public in various British colonies. If the book proved popular, there would be a paperback editon. And if the novel was made into a film, there would be a tie-in. Some books have had hundreds of different editions, especially the classics that have been around for a long time.

Which brings me, in a very roundabout and self-absorbed way, to my first objection about Kindle. What about different editions? Kindle might issue books with a screengrab for a cover, very much like the kind of artwork you get when you download a song on iTunes. But would that be enough to entice a new reader, to make him want to go back to the novel time and and time again? I don't think so. Book lovers will always want beautiful editions, and that's why I for one will not be forking out for an ereader.

PS: My second objection? You can't really give an ebook for a present. How can you wrap it? What would you put under the Christmas tree, the token, a print-out of the receipt? Bah! Humbug?"

Saviour Pirotta

Thanks, Saviour, for permission to post this on the blog!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Bilibin and Rimsky

Just for Doda, a little more Ivan Bilibin. Undoubtedly one of the great illustrators, he also found fame as a designer of sets and costumes, especially for operas. Russian operas are so often developed from folk and fairy tales, or at least thoroughly Russian subjects, and so this was an deal niche for him to explore. Of all Russian composers it was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who proved his perfect inspiration. Here a vintage Leningrad-published book all about the Kirov opera and ballet (now renamed the Mariinsky of St Petersburg)has some fascinating evidence of Bilibin's work in practise. The end papers are in fact based on Alexander Golovine's famous curtain at the exquisite theatre (Golovine preceeded Bilibin as set designer, collaborating with Korovin and Bakst). But the black and white photographs, poor though they are, show early productions of two Rimsky-Korsakov operas that Bilibin cast his spell over: Rimsky's masterpiece, Kitezh (my favourite opera)and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (see my earlier post on Bilibin). Just click to enlarge.

Even in these murky photos his brilliant ability to use space, his decorative obsessions, the order and structure of folk art and icons, all show through. If only I had a time machine...

The other little book is a real curio, a lovely biography of Rimsky-Korsakov, a misunderstood and much maligned composer of operatic fairy tales. I believe he is an under-rated genius, who isn't fashionably tormented like his colleagues Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, but instead expressed himself quite differently, introsopectively and with splendid dignity. A devoted family man his tragedy was more private. He lost two beloved children in infancy and can it be entirely a coincedental that this most pantheistic of composers favoured stories of snowmaidens and water sprites who can never grow up and find love? Instead they perish, melt, become rivers or - at best (like the heroine Fevronya in Kitezh) - meet their lovers in the afterlife.

All of this inspired the greatest things from Bilibin, so it is quite appropriate that the little glued plate on the cover of the biography should be one of his drawings: a costume for a boyar from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride.