Tag Archives: Cambridge history

Winkling out the past

As we advance the clocks it’s now warm enough for me to work in the ‘Philosopher’s Hut’, my pimped garden shed geared up for writing, and I have much to think about. I’ve been ruminating of late on existential topics, reading Joan Forman on the nature of time and Simone de Beauvoir on the meaning of what it is to live and to die. It’s partly the work on our new book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire, that led me to Forman’s writing, which in turn led me to revisit works that I haven’t read for years such as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

My cerebral batteries have also been re-charged by a fresh dialectic between a long-proclaimed Cambridge family doctrine and the ‘truth’ that lies behind the life and death of my great-great grandmother Susan Anstee (1864-1914), whose name I learned only last year thanks to a disclosure by a distant cousin. 

As a child I wanted to connect with people from the past. I was drawn to stories that shifted our sense of time and history. Particular favourites were Tom’s Midnight GardenThe Secret Gardenand Charlotte Sometimes. It’s a revelation for Tom Long that neither he nor his new friend from the midnight garden are ghosts. He discovers whilst different people have different times, they’re really all bits of the same big Time. People are not really living in the past but are instead living out their individual existences in different layers of that same big Time.

I didn’t know then that I would have to wait over forty years to experience that interruption of now, that moment of timeless synchronicity, when a far family memory is revealed in all its unseemly glory. Consequently, as well as continuing my researches on the topics of Cambridge college servants (which I began in 2016) and the life and work of the author Norah C. James (which I began in 2018), I’m now looking into plight of sex workers in Victorian Cambridge.

Yesterday I attended a course at the Cambridge Central Library – ‘An introduction to memoir writing’. The whole session was a series of writing exercises, what I call ‘fast-twitch’ writing. Whilst stimulating, this was slightly disappointing. I wanted us to talk about what we mean by ‘memoir’ and to hear about published works that might be a good read.  During the last six months I’ve read A Lincolnshire Childhood by Ursula Brighouse; I Lived in a Democracy by Norah C. James; In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, and A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. For one of the workshop tasks we were given a few minutes to write about food that we did or didn’t like. I wrote about a memory from when I was eight or nine.

Gritty, chewy bogies on toast. My grandad would use a needle to delicately pick out the winkles one by one and lay them across a slice of thickly buttered toast. He offered me a taste and, not wanting to displease, I screwed up my eyes, held my nose and popped a tiny grey morsel into my mouth. He didn’t seem to notice my revulsion and smiled approvingly. Trying not to chew, I swallowed as quickly as I could and then took a gulp from my glass of lemonade.

The workshop was certainly a useful anaerobic interlude, prompting a return to the blog writing and a review of my collection of filled notebooks. These are not diaries but ‘sketch’ books, much like my husband Trevor’s but unlike his, filled with words rather than drawings.

Whilst my muscles do need stretching, it’s probably a good thing that my running days are over. The recent unsurprising diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my ankles and knees means I have more time to spend in the hut. Last year I completed The Curious History of Mazes which had to be written according to a strict schedule set by the publisher. Immediately after that I went on to the research and curation for the Window on the Warexhibition on women in Cambridge during World War I, and to the research for our first ghost book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Bedfordshire.

Last January I stepped down from the Monday Collections volunteering at the Museum of Cambridge, to release more time for me to assist Trevor with paid work in the studio. Besides working on the next in our Beer & Spirits series, I’m delivering many illustrated talks for a range of groups and societies on three topics; The Remarkable Story of Heffers of Cambridge, 1876-1999The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes, and Beer and Spirits: tales of sightings, sounds and sensations in our local haunted hostelries.I enjoy engaging with different audiences and I enjoy winkling out the past, unsavoury though it may be for some.

My distant cousin said the other day, ‘I suppose you’ll be writing about Susan’.

I most certainly will.

This book is about Heffers

This book is about Heffers: the bookshop that is known all over the world

William Heffer, William Heffer,

Bowes and Bowes, Bowes and Bowes,

Galloway and Porter, Galloway and Porter,

Deighton Bell, Deighton Bell

This rhyme, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques, harks back to a golden age of bookselling in the early to mid-twentieth century Cambridge when the city was served by several excellent establishments, each with their own distinctive history and character. This book tells the story of just one; Heffers of Cambridge, founded by William Heffer in 1876. As a bookseller Heffers enjoyed that golden age. And as a bookseller Heffers was and still is, ‘known all over the world’. What may not be known worldwide, however, is that Heffers has always been a stationer and was once a prolific publisher and printer. In 1933 ‘Mr Ernest’ (son of William) wrote to The Times, challenging the notion of Heffers bookshop as a craft emporium.

EFFERINI CRAFTELLI

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES

Sir, – It seems almost ungrateful to criticize such a delicious jeu d’esprit, and we would not do it, except for one reference you make to Oxford. You say that Heffer’s of Cambridge is a bookshop known even to Oxford men, and then go on to pack that bookshop with “little crafts.” Mentally one conjures up visions of wool and of pewter, of seagrass stools and barbola, and the like, on intimate terms with and indeed almost dominating all that is best, and a great deal that is less than best, in the whole realm of books.

Now, Sir, Cambridge by experience knows better; but Oxford, knowing chiefly by repute, might be led to have a wrong conception of what our bookshop really is. May we beg of you to correct this possible misconception before it spreads too deep for correction?

The Efferini Craftelli is carried on at our Sidney Street branch, whilst Heffer’s books is in the Cury: and come there who will, they shall find neither frills nor furbelows: they shall hunt without success for wool and the silk and the straw that delight the heart of woman. The only craft “worked” there is the craft of books.

Yours faithfully,

E.W. HEFFER,

Director, W. Heffer and Sons, Limited,

3 and 4, Petty Cury, Cambridge

Published in The Times, 20th January 1933

Whilst, arguably, the impressions held by Oxford men or what delights the heart of woman may not concern us, it is a fact that the ‘bookseller’ and ‘stationer’ trades are from the same stable. Chrimes, in his 2012 portrait of Cambridge, tells us that Cambridge University licensed sellers of books to work from ‘fixed stations’, initially in churches or outside their north and south walls. As one of the few stationary trades, the bookselling trade was considered superior to that of itinerant pedlars. The Latin word, ‘stationarius’ had been used to mean a trader with a fixed place of business, but booksellers secured this term for themselves. The ‘e’ in stationers was an eighteenth century derivation. Oldfield, on the other hand, in his 1944 article on Cambridge and its Stationers, insists the derivation rests rather on the metaphysical translations, ‘that which is established by custom’ … than the literal rendering of a ‘place of abode’ or ‘station’.

In a similar fashion to E. W. Heffer’s eloquent retort, I aim to convey something of the style and character of the Cambridge phenomenon that is Heffers. The stories revealed in the forthcoming book, kindly shared by eighty past and present employees and customers, will testify to the many sides of the firm.

Out 1st November 2016
Out 1st November 2016

‘This books is about Heffers’ will be published on 1st November 2016.