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A case of ‘official Pecksniffery’: the state suppression of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ by Norah C James

If you have never heard of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ by Norah Margaret Ruth Cordner James, or of James herself, it is not surprising. Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929.

The novel was swiftly ruled obscene at the Bow Street Police Court in March 1929, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place that is neglected in favour of more esteemed names and better writers including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence (see my post on ‘Mr Reuben, Penguin Books & Lady Chatterley’) and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for James and ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, many banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience.

Norah C James, 1934

James lived from 1896 to 1979, and had numerous occupations. She was an art student at the Slade, a civil servant and trade union organiser at the Ministry of Pensions, a publicist for the English publisher Jonathan Cape, literary talent scout for American publisher William Morrow, a journalist, private secretary to parliamentary candidate Barbara Ayrton-Gould (mother of the sculptor, filmmaker and author, Michael Ayrton), and the Author’s Society representative on the National Book Council. In 1939 James joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and then the Air Transport Auxiliary. She was appointed Staff Captain in the Directorate of Public Relations at the War Office and invalided out in 1943. She later became a borough councillor in Finsbury.

The oeuvre of a minor author

James wrote over 75 publications including novels, radio plays and a great many short stories and articles such as a 1938 feature for the Aberdeen Press and Journal entitled, ‘Are you a cheat in the marriage game?’

A 1936 review of a James novel, ‘The Lion Beat the Unicorn’, describes her works as a ‘gallery of very human men and women–people like you and your neighbour and the rest of the world.’ The review declares that family life is a theme with which James is very much at home. From the titles I’ve read thus far, this assessment captures the essence of James’ approach to her writing and points to her popular appeal amongst a certain demographic.

Barbara Beauchamp

I wonder if any of James’ readers were aware that she was gay (or as one would say in her day, lesbian). Not many, I suspect. For the second half of her life James lived with her partner, and occasional co-author, Barbara Beauchamp. In her 1939 autobiography (dedicated to Beauchamp), James chose to avoid writing about her ‘emotional life’.

So far, I’ve read the following:

Sleeveless Errand (1929)

Hail! All Hail! (1929)

I Lived in a Democracy (1939) (autobiography)

Jake the Dog: An Animal Story (1933) (illustrated by Ruth Vale)

Mrs Piffy: A Child’s-Eye View of Life (1934) (illustrated with photographs by C.C. Gaddum)

Cottage Angles (1935) (illustrated by Gwen Raverat)

The Hunted Heart (1941)

Green Fingers and the Gourmet (1949), with Barbara Beauchamp (illustrated by Bruce Roberts)

Hospital Angles (1966) (not ‘Angels’ as listed by the bookseller)

In another 1936 review of another novel, ‘By a Side Wind’, described as ‘curiously mixed’, James’ story is said to be told with,

‘a wearying of sincere simplicity. To the simple-minded who are not afraid of writing that does not call a spade a garden implement, this queer mixture might be palatable.’

Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket

The romances are not really my cup of tea but I felt I should read a few to get an overall sense of James’ style. When my copy of ‘Hospital Angles’ arrived and I noticed that it was published by Hurst and Blackett, I must confess I couldn’t get Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket and their hilarious double entendres out of my mind. I can just hear them singing this line from ‘The Hunted Heart’,

‘His mind sped out the room, tossed forth from the high, bright column of his longing.’

Research and rumours

On reading James’ autobiography, it is not difficult to see that much of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is autobiographical, though I’m pleased to acknowledge that James’ real life took a very different turn to that of her protagonist, Paula Cranford. James’ life is not terribly well documented and I’m still piecing together a chronology and narrative with a mind to publishing a concise biography at some time in the future. I do have enough material for an illustrated talk and will add the topic to my current list of available topics for groups and societies (see page on this website).

I do know that for a number of years during the 1930s, James had a weekend cottage in Great Gransden, the village where I currently reside. I have our friend Val Davison, organiser of the Gransdens Society, to thank for introducing me to the life and work of James. I’m also grateful for the support and encouragement of Dr Charles Turner, friend and village resident, whose aunt’s dog, Brandy, appears in ‘Jake the Dog.’

‘…after a blink or two and one half-hearted snap at a fly, his eyes fell shut, and he was asleep too.’

People do still talk about James’ weekend life in Great Gransden. There is rumour of a ménage à trois, but that is all it is, rumour. We know she jointly purchased the Old Cottage in West Street with Margaret and Frederick Voigt in the early 1930s and she mainly lived with Margaret in London whilst Frederick worked in Berlin for the Manchester Guardian. In 1929, James had travelled to America with Margaret (an American journalist and biographer, Margaret – formerly Margaret Goldsmith – had had a short affair in Berlin with Vita Sackville-West in 1928 and went on to divorce Voigt in 1935).

James on the book trade

James’ autobiography is one of her more interesting tomes, not least because she had a spell working for the publisher, Jonathan Cape from 1926, and makes insightful observations of the book trade which are still relevant today. She observed the prosaic aspects of the business which involved, ‘sitting at a desk and calculating the price of paper per pound’, and acknowledged also, the excitement of the unknown whereby,

‘the whole thing was a gamble. Probably only one book out of five makes money for the publisher. Although you think that you can generally guess which of the five is a winner, you’re not always right.’

Her specific role at Cape was in the ‘queer game’ of publicity and she astutely recognised that a book sells if people talk about it. For James, a book has to be ‘talk-worthy’,

‘One can suggest, in various ways, to people, the book they should be speaking about, but if they haven’t the urge to talk, they won’t. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important things in selling a book.’

And on authors, she writes, ‘Then there were the authors, quite important people–although not so important as they often imagined.’

‘Sleeveless Errand’

The plot is uncomplicated and takes place over two days in the early 1920s. Paula Cranford, jilted by her lover, resolves to commit suicide. She meets Bill Cleland and together they wander around London night clubs meeting Paula’s bohemian associates, ‘The Crowd’. Paula and Bill talk all night at her place about their respective families and circumstances, and form a suicide pact, planning to drive a hire car over a cliff on the coast. They drive towards Hove, break down in Brighton and spend the night in a hotel where they meet with a travelling revue company. Bill has second thoughts about suicide and Paula persuades him to return to his wife. She then ends her own life as she had planned before meeting Bill.

In the first Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’, 1929

Alexander Lockwood, in his 2014 doctoral thesis, observes that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ fails to support post-war efforts to renew British identity through a ‘conservative modernity’ of fixed social relations, marriage and women’s domesticity. During the 1920s the tide was certainly turning, as Patricia Fara, in her 2018 examination of science and suffrage in the First World War (‘A Lab of One’s Own’), concludes, when she declares that however much traditionalists argued for a return to the old conventions, the upheavals of wartime had proved that social change was possible,

‘gender boundaries were more severely challenged and there was no going back to exactly the same situation.’

The feminist cause does not appear, however, to be a primary concern in James’ perceived rejection of the old conventions in this novel. One wonders if her protagonist, Paula, is wedded to any cause at all, as she rejects life itself and all that it entails. The clue is in the title, as given in this definition from The Oxford Dictionary which James herself cites at the beginning;

‘Sleeveless Errand :– Ending in, or leading to nothing’

(Meaning a fool’s errand, this now obsolete phrase is found in Act Five of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.)

We know from early on in the novel that Paula is planning to commit suicide. We even know how she will do it. But why?

Various suggestions have been put forward, including the post-war malaise, an augmentation of the disappointment that characterised ‘feminine middlebrow’ fiction and the failure of hope, a profound boredom, and a rejection of the internal reflection that was afforded by the flowering of psychoanalysis in contemporary popular culture.

The literary critic, Edward Garnett, who wrote the Preface for the First Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ (1929), had called the novel, ‘a real diagnosis of the War generation’s neurotics’. He had also concluded, in his Preface, that the novel’s censorship was a case of, ‘moral righteousness and official Pecksniffery’.

Edward Garnett

In the Preface, Garnett cites Arnold Bennett’s assessment of the novel as,

“an absolutely merciless exposure of neurotics and decadents, and I should say that the effect of it on the young reader would have been to destroy in him all immoral and unconventional impulses for ever and ever.”

James declared her novel was indeed about neurotics but was not of itself, neurotic. The post-war malaise is certainly not ignored, and Paula Cranford has her own distinctive take on happiness, the moral code, pacifism, the Church, democracy, sexual control and corruption, and marriage. Whilst declaring that her generation seems not to have any moral values at all, Paula says,

“as a whole, my generation of women is rotten to the core… We sneer at goodness and decency whenever we come across it. We’re bored with people who aren’t bawdy. We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner. We despise people who don’t swill booze down as we do,”

She does at least pose a determinant,

“Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless. Those of us who had cared a bit about reconstruction and all that came down with even a greater bang, for we found that there wasn’t going to be any reconstruction at all… it’s in the next generation of children that the chance of a better future lies. The only thing my sort can do is to contaminate them as little as possible.”

Lockwood acknowledges that boredom was a common experience in the interwar period. Paula’s boredom is manifested in her refusal to wallow in self-analysis. In her conversations with Bill, Paula refers to her own ‘handicap of bad heredity’ and calls herself a ‘hopeless egoist’ and a ‘neurotic emotionalist’. But having done so, she then rejects the modern way of introspection (a way that could possibly lead to a reason for living) and, ultimately, any perceived notion of a noble obligation to society, as she tells Bill,

“I’m not going from any quixotic idea that because I’m part of the plague spot I ought to; no, it’s simply that I’m unutterably bored.”

Bill thinks to himself,

“She’s right to die; she at any rate is damned.”

The publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’

Eric Partridge in 1971

In 1928, Eric Honeywood Partridge of Scholartis Press accepted the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ for publication. He paid James a £25 advance and received pre-orders from booksellers for around 1,500 copies (the cover price was 7s6d). (Partridge went on to become a renowned lexicographer. I recently bought a 1937 edition of his ‘Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’, in which I could not find an entry for the phrase, ‘sleeveless errand’, or indeed, ‘fool’s errand’.)

James had previously offered the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to her employer, Jonathan Cape, who, whilst appreciating a ‘glowing’ 1928 assessment by Garnett (‘A very interesting novel very well written’), was concerned about upsetting his authors who might have thought she had neglected the promotion of their books for her own writing. In 1939 James writes, 

‘I had to agree with him that it might lead to difficulties with some of our authors. I knew how touchy they could be.’

She had also offered the manuscript to the Hogarth Press, meeting with Leonard and Virginia Woolf who turned it down (later on, following the book’s suppression, Virginia described it as ‘vulgar’ but not offensive).

An obscene book

The British Establishment condemned ‘Sleeveless Errand’ with incredible speed, effectively obliterating the very act of publication. Although according to Neil Pearson in his 2007 history of Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press (see below), a few collectors and copyright libraries retained a copy from that first print run, technically retaining it as the first edition. Copies had also been sent to reviewers and to Partridge’s contacts in America.

It was reported that on the evening of 20 February 1929, the Police seized 517 copies. They called upon Eric Partridge at home, escorted him to his office in Museum Street, and confiscated all 289 copies therein including 39 that bore James’ signature. They listed the names of all who had received copies; ten booksellers, the distributor Simpkin Marshall (250 copies) and the exporter William Jackson and Company (100 copies). According to one report, Scotland Yard posted a police constable outside the premises of a bookseller who had placed the book on display in his shop window whilst taking a short holiday. They also visited a reviewer and seized her advance copy, and 1,000 unbound sheets from the The Garden City Press Ltd in Letchworth.

James was oblivious to these events and in 1939 recalls,

‘On the day of publication I walked to the office in Bedford Square, and, on my way, passed a news placard saying: “Woman’s Novel Seized.” So far was I from connecting SE with that news item, that I never even stopped to buy a copy of the paper.’

Just three months earlier James had attended the trial of another banned book, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall. It was the first time she had ever been inside a courtroom. James had got to know Hall through Jonathan Cape who had asked her to read Hall’s manuscript when he was considering publication. Hall and James both frequented the Cave of Harmony, a club owned by the actress Elsa Lanchester (‘Bride of Frankenstein’), a popular meeting place for London intellectuals. James writes in her autobiography,

‘I found her [Hall] an extremely highly-strung woman, with one of the kindest hearts in the world… The Well of Loneliness was a fine and sincere piece of work, and I think it did a great deal of good in enlightening people on a subject that had been too long hidden under a veil of dirty innuendo or shamed self-conscious silence.’

Radclyffe Hall

Ostensibly banned because of its obscene language (see below), although in the American edition only three words were cut from the original text, ‘Sleeveless Errand’ tends to be coupled with ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by academics and historians. The challenge that these two books represented to the patriarchal status quo has been observed as a factor in their censorship. Angela Ingram, for example, declares that both novels, in their different ways, show how ‘utterly unalluring’ heterosexual life often was.

The two novels have, however, fared very differently. Initially republished in 1949, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ has over the years gained what Harrison calls, a ‘cultural legitimacy’ that is denied to ‘Sleeveless Errand’. But then ‘The Well of Loneliness’ was a landmark in the history of queer literature.

A Will Dyson cartoon entitled,

‘Impure Literature: Moral reformers, in the name of the Young Person, are eager for the suppression of “improper” novels in which women novelists, by the way, do a brisk trade’

One of the gentleman is saying, “What we need, my dear Sirs, is legislation to prevent our daughters from reading the novels they have written!”

In 1929, the writer and publisher Percy ‘Inky’ Stephensen, penned a lampoon entitled, ‘The Well of Sleevelessness’, also published by Scholartis Press.

The trial

The British Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks (a public morality campaigner who had been instrumental in the prosecution of ‘The Well of Loneliness’), sent a copy of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He had received his copy from the editor of the Morning Post with a covering note declaring the book obscene. A Home Office briefing prepared by a senior civil servant declares,

‘It is astonishing that such a book could be written by a woman, but the authoress must be a woman whose command of foul, obscene, indecent and profane language is, I should hope, unique amongst women who can write.’

The Home Office file for the prosecution itself is missing but there is a transcript of the trial and The Times reported the court proceedings on 5 March 1929. The case against the book, as put by Mr Percival Clarke, supporting the summons on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions, is reported accordingly,

‘The book itself was a novel of 239 pages. The story concerned a period of two days, and was told in the form of a conversation by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality, who for the most part were under the influence of drink, and who not only tolerated but even advocated adultery and promiscuous fornication. Filthy language and indecent situations appeared to be the keynote of the book. He (counsel) did not pretend to be a literary critic, but it seemed to him to be degrading that such a collection of obscene matter should be published by any respectable firm. It was the aim of some writers to pass off as literature matter which could only have a degrading, immoral influence, and which tended to excite unhealthy persons; and to command a market by writing daring and corrupt stories. One thing noticeable about this book was that the name of God or Christ was taken in vain more than 60 times in a way which shocked. Mr. Clarke quoted from the book the saying of one character, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink”, and said that profanity could not possibly be justified, even by the characters in the book.’

An 1895 illustration of a Bow Street trial from Le Monde. It probably looked much the same in 1929.

The Crown Prosecutor’s file highlighted certain lines from the novel, such as, ‘We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner.’

Mr Clarke is reported in The Times as stating, “There are decent-minded people who read books and appreciate some of the beauties in English literature, and they look to the strong arm of the law to check and prevent the broadcasting of such foul stuff as this.”

And for the defence, The Times reports Mr Sandlands as stating, “There were a lot of horrible things in it, but the object of the book was to hold up to horror the mode of life and the language and habits of a certain section of the community… far from tending to deprave and demoralise, this book tended entirely the other way. Shakespeare’s works and the Old Testament mentioned horrible things in order to condemn them or to exhort against their use… It called attention to the despair and hopelessness and waste of the life alluded to by contrasting it with a normal life.”

Lord Chief Justice Cockburn was certain that the book would, “suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, or even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure character.” He made an order for the destruction of the seized copies; 785 of the 799 were destroyed (there are questions over exactly how many copies Scholartis Press had in the first print run).

Later, in 1939, James writes,

‘I could not understand why. The book had been read by a number of well-known literary people in manuscript, and no one had suggested that I should make any cuts in it. But, apparently, it was called an obscene book–simply because of the words used in it. I would have cut them out willingly if I’d been told it was necessary. But I’d never been told that. It never occurred to me that it would be considered obscene to let the characters in it use the language they used in real life… I don’t believe the book was obscene. I do know that it was a kind of sermon against the stupidity and futility of the life a section of the post-war generation was leading.’

Harrison acknowledges that the official reason for the novel’s suppression cannot help but be attributed to James’s own supposed naïve or superficial–but ultimately heretical–attempt at “being frank”. Its vocabulary was crude, but according to James and her publisher, not intentionally obscene. In a contemporary interview with The Times, James described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as “an extremely moral book and a condemnation of the people and the life it portrays.” Eric Partridge was of the opinion that the novel had been suppressed for political reasons, with obscenity being a ‘mere pretext’.

Paris and United States editions

An English writer in Paris, Jack Kahane, was also quick off the mark. Having followed the ‘Sleeveless Errand’ case, he decided to publish an English-language edition in France and secured the rights accordingly. James stipulated that half of her royalties from the Kahane deal be paid to Eric Partridge by way of recompense for the loss of income brought about by the trial. She also agreed to place her next novel, ‘Hail! All Hail!’ with Scholartis, which came out in 1929 with this introduction,

‘Miss James’s first novel, Sleeveless Errandwas suppressed. Her new story deals most attractively with life in the English countryside and with a poor district in West Central London. Hail! All Hail! shows an undoubted advance on Sleeveless Errand, which Mr. Arnold Bennett declared to be well constructed and well written, and to disclose a new talent for fiction. Here the pattern of a certain family’s life is worked out with skill and a rare sympathy.’

From a first edition of ‘Hail! All Hail!’, 1929
A first Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’, 1929

Kahane’s first Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published in April 1929 (copies appeared in French bookshops as early as the end of March 1929). Kahane paid Edward Garnett five hundred francs for the preface and set the cover price at one hundred francs. The resulting profit of four hundred thousand francs effectively kickstarted Kahane’s publishing career. He went on to establish the Obelisk Press and re-printed several banned books including Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and books by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Radclyffe Hall.

An American edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published by William Morrow and sold well (around 20,000 copies), enabling James to buy a second-hand car and a typewriter (Morrow also gave James the job of representing his firm in Britain as a literary scout). ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was translated into at least six other languages but has never be republished in Britain.

Following the publication in America, Basil Dean, the English film director and theatrical producer, told James that he was quite taken with the book and thought it would make a good play. James, who had high hopes, wrote a script which Dean showed to Noel Coward, who found it to be ‘too defeatist’. The American actress, Talullah Bankhead, told James she thought Paula was not a nice character, and declared, “actresses don’t like being thought not nice–on the stage or off it!”

Still marginalized

Wren Sidhe in her 2001 doctoral thesis, considers ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to be ‘an indictment of the generation responsible for the prosecution of the war’ and observes as a matter of interest, the fact that court reports neglect this aspect of the text in favour of one which accuses the writer and publisher of immorality. The novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation. This perspective points to the novel’s suppression as a case of conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action; a conclusion reached by Harrison who calls ‘Sleeveless Errand’ a ‘marginalized and possibly marginal novel’.

‘Sleeveless Errand’ certainly has a place in censorship and publishing history and, as Lockwood points out, it contributed to the establishment of the Obelisk Press and was ‘the first link in the chain’ of their publication of other banned yet more enduring books.

Opinion on the quality of James’ writing in ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is divided. In 1934, T. S. Matthews, literary editor of Time Magazine, described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as, ‘A story of post-war London; one of the few convincing suicide stories I remember.’ In contrast, Neil Pearson describes it as ‘a deeply terrible book, maudlin, melodramatic and fatally upstaged by its obvious and unabsorbed influences.’ A review recently published on Sheffield Hallam University’s blog on popular fiction 1900-1950, concludes the narrative would have been more successful if the story had been shorter and sharper.

Whilst the subject matter of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ holds much interest, I personally find James’ writing at times clunky and guileless. I’m not offended by the novel’s content, though I suspect there are those today who would find certain terms unacceptable, including the ‘n’ word and, like me, would disagree with Bill’s private thoughts on women and rape.

The story of the book and its censorship would make an excellent drama, especially if placed in the capable hands of British playwright and director, Stephen Poliakoff, who has so successfully tackled a number of intriguing episodes in twentieth century history.

Durability is something that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ lacks, as it is still ‘quarantined from literary expression’.

Perhaps it is time for a new British edition, with or without expurgation.

***

Brief bibliography, in addition to James’ works cited above:

‘Before he was a lexicographer: Eric Partridge and the Scholartis Press’, a talk given to the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia, 24 September 2010 – https://bookcollectors.org.au/before-he-was-a-lexicographer-eric-partridge-and-the-scholartis-press/ [accessed May 2019]

Book review, ‘Sleeveless Errand’ by Sylvia D on the blog for Sheffield Hallam University’s ‘Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950 Special Collection’, 16 March 2019 – https://reading19001950.wordpress.com/2019/03/16/sleeveless-errand-1929-by-norah-c-james/ [accessed May 2019]

Fara, Patricia (2018) ‘A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War’, Oxford University Press

Harrison, Bill (2013) ‘Censors, critics, and the suppression of Norah James’s Sleeveless Errand’ in Atenea, Jan 1, 2013

Ingram, Angela (1986), ‘Unutterable putrefaction’ and ‘foul stuff’: Two ‘obscene’ novels of the 1920s’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 9, Issue 4, 1986, pp. 341–354.

Lockwood, Alexander (2014), ‘A Self of One’s Own: Psychoanalysis, Self-Identity and Affect, 1909-1939 – A Creative and Critical Exploration’, doctoral thesis, Newcastle University

Pearson, Neil (2007), ‘Obelisk: A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press’, Liverpool University Press

Sidhe, Wren (2001), ‘Bodies, Books and the Bucolic: Englishness, Literature and Sexuality, 1918-1939’, doctoral thesis, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education

A curious publishing cameo: Aelfrida Tillyard, Ernest Heffer & George Orwell

In a previous post on ‘Mazes, opium and publishing deals’, I noted that anyone who wanted Heffers of Cambridge to publish their book had to be interviewed by ‘Mr Heffer’ – most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or his son, ‘Mr Reuben’. By the early twentieth century, Heffers of Cambridge, the bookseller, stationer, printer and publisher was, ‘known all over the world’.

The author and self-proclaimed mystic, Aelfrida Tillyard, described by her biographer Sheila Mann as a ‘forgotten 20th Century writer’, appeared to have had a good working relationship with Mr Ernest (son of the firm’s founder, William Heffer). Heffers published seven of her titles between 1910 and 1926.

Cambridge born, Aelfrida (1883-1959) was the daughter of nonconformists, Alfred and Catharine Tillyard. Alfred was editor of the Cambridge Independent Press and Catharine, a staunch advocate for women’s higher education (Antony Carpen writes about Catharine in his ‘Lost Cambridge’ blog).


Aelfrida Tillyard in 1913

The relevant volume of the Heffer publishing diaries is unfortunately missing and I cannot ascertain the exact contractual terms between the firm and Tillyard. I can, however, piece together a cameo that reveals yet another aspect to the fascinating history of Heffers.

Seven titles

The Tillyard titles published by Heffers are:

To Malise and other poems (1910) 2s 6d
Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard (1913) 5s
Bammie’s Book (1915)
The Garden and the Fire (1916) 2s 6d
The Making of a Mystic (1917) 2s 6d
Verses for Alethea (1920)
Agnes E. Slack: two hundred thousand miles travel for temperance in four continents (1926) 7s 6d and 3s 6d

To Malise and other poems

To Malise was published by subscription and, as Mann reports, we do not know if Tillyard covered her costs. The poems contained in the volume are intensely personal, detailing her husband Constantine’s courtship of her and the early years of their marriage. Mann describes Tillyard’s dedication, ‘À toi’, and inscription, ‘to my perfectly beloved husband’ as simultaneously fulsome, truthful and duplicitous. The poems revealed Tillyard’s misery and desperation for freedom from the marriage, in contrast to her professed happiness at the time; ‘I wonder if I shall ever be quite as happy again’. Anyone with the slightest inclination of Tillyard’s true feelings about her marriage would have understood, as Constantine must have done, the significance of this humiliating publication. Was Ernest Heffer aware of the situation? It is unlikely. Whilst we cannot know what Tillyard said in the ‘interview’ with her prospective publisher, we can surmise that her case for publication would have focussed upon the higher themes and her potential sales appeal as an author – she did once describe herself as, ‘better than Christina Rossetti’.

It is not surprising that the relationship between Tillyard and Constantine Cleanthes Graham continued to deteriorate. Later, in November 1917, she writes in her diary:

‘I tried not to be hurt that he was so completely indifferent to my interests & pursuits, and, incidentally, extremely rude to me over my opinions… but it is difficult not to feel chilled when one’s husband says “I do not think thy opinion is worth having.”’

and:

‘This morning he asked me whether I expected to make any money out of my books. I answered no, not a penny. And then he suggested my doing some war work & hinted that he thought I was wasting my time.’

They divorced in 1921.

Cambridge Poets 1900-1913

Mann describes the excitement stirred up by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1913 lectures, especially his call for Cambridge to ‘take the lead in English poetry once more’ (having recently edited the 1912 Oxford Book of Victorian Verse). Tillyard was prompted to call on Quiller-Couch (known as ‘Q’) by appointment at Jesus College, armed with a proposal for a ‘scheme of Cambridge poets’. He approved her proposal and even agreed to pen an introduction. Tillyard reported in her diary that upon leaving ‘Q’, she ‘raced to Heffers and told [her] victory’. She also reported that she and ‘Young Heffer’ began to make plans. Presumably, she is distinguishing between Heffer senior (Ernest’s father, William) and Heffer junior (Ernest himself), seeing that Ernest was eight years older than Tillyard.

In writing about the production of the resulting publication, Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard, Mann acknowledges Ernest Heffer’s greater knowledge of the world of publishing. He would have been aware of a forthcoming title, Oxford Poetry 1910-13, and he suggested that Tillyard include poetry written by Cambridge poets between 1900 and 1913. I wonder what Ernest would have made of the Birmingham Daily Post review in which the paper, ‘contemplated with considerable astonishment, but little admiration’, the inclusion of twenty pages of poetry written by the occultist Aleister Crowley. Mann sees this as an early indication of Crowley’s influence on Tillyard, partly because his poems had most likely been written before 1900 (he was at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1895-1898) and therefore did not fit her stated selection criteria. Those who are intrigued by the story of Tillyard’s relationship with ‘Crowley and Crowleyism’, and his Ceremonial Magic, will find a comprehensive account in Mann’s biography.

For details about negotiations between the author and publisher for the publication of this anthology, we just have Tillyard’s personal diary to go on and she was clearly excited about the book. She must have felt it to be a positive omen when Heffers agreed to bear all the expenses and divide the profits with her. Ernest also sought an independent opinion on the book from Maynard Keynes prior to drawing up a contract, but this was not forthcoming and he settled instead for ‘Q’s blessing’.

Ernest Heffer in his office at the Petty Cury Bookshop

By 1913, Ernest Heffer (1871-1948) was a respected publisher and bookseller. The fourth son of the firm’s founder, he had been a sickly child of a studious disposition. Ernest learned his trade at the Heffers Fitzroy Street shop which had a thriving Children’s Book Department. During the 1880s, the firm’s connection with the Cambridge Sunday School Association provided a business breakthrough when they began to supply Sunday School prizes. Ernest tells a tale of the time when he recommended Marryat’s Japhet in Search of a Father, the story of a foundling in search of his father, as a Sunday School prize. Evidently, his selection was not well received, as the vicar he recommended it to threw it back at him after having read it.

Despite such early hiccups, Ernest went on to play a significant role in building up the bookselling side of the business, overseeing the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896. He seemed equally at ease in commercial and literary circles. Ernest attended the inaugural meeting of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce in January 1917 and also served as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. As his son, Reuben declared, Ernest, ‘blew the stuff of books into the firm’. His obituary in The Times described Ernest as:

‘a bookseller in charge who knew something about the insides of books. If he found you dipping into a newly published book he might strongly recommend it, having read it himself the night before, or on the other hand, he might urge you not to buy such rubbish … Both Cambridge and the book trade have lost a “character”.’

The Making of a Mystic

On 22 July 1917, Tillyard took her manuscript of The Making of a Mystic to Heffers for a meeting. Ernest quoted a cost of £40 for a 120-page publication and quickly agreed to act as the publisher. Tillyard writes on 24 July, ‘Quite an exciting day. Heffer says he thinks they will “love to publish” my book’. The contract was not signed until 13 September, shortly after the final manuscript had been submitted for printing. On 11 November, Tillyard writes:

‘I went to the works to see about some labels for Constantine, & asked about my book. “Oh!” cried Mr Frank Heffer “Fate & the Gods are against us! The machine broke down and –“ a long tale of woes. I was prepared to learn that the book would not be out before Christmas, when he added “But you can have an advance copy today”. It quite took my breath away! What is more, I got five copies. I learn too, that 130 copies have already been ordered!! Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.’

Frank Heffer (1876-1933) was the second youngest son of William and Mary Heffer. He had had to have a leg amputated as a child. Ernest wrote of his brother, ‘what he lost in the leg, he made up in animal spirits’, and described him as ‘having the face of a saint; but mischief was always in his vicinity’. Frank studied Medicine at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, but was brought into the business in 1900. He became managing director of the firm’s printing works, after Heffers obtained the Black Bear Press (Dixon’s Printing Works Ltd) in 1911.

Tillyard’s literary prescience

Tillyard had a number of publishers over the years. It is interesting to note her title published in 1930, not by Heffers, but by Hutchinson. Concrete: a Story of Two Hundred Years Hence, is a novel that depicts a dystopian world following the collapse of civilization in the twentieth century via various events including a revolution of the proletariat in the Western world, a plague that wipes out three-quarters of the human race, and a repetition of the Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages. It is now 2126, the ‘Age of Reason’, an international civilization. Religion is banned and performance of any religious ceremony is punishable by death. Britain is governed locally by the Eugenist Party, with absolute power over human reproduction. The population is divided into eugenic groups, the lower of which are forbidden to propagate. Males are not allowed to marry before thirty. Biologically unfit individuals are euthanatized.

The president of the British Empire oversees a number of ministries such as the Ministry of Reason, headed by an official called ‘Big Brother’. There is also a Ministry of Aesthetics, responsible for propaganda. Described by American editor and scholar of science fiction, Everett F. Bleiler, as a ‘drab dictatorship’, the state in Tillyard’s future Britain is characterized by ubiquitous spying, ruthless thought control and a ready death penalty. The Western Morning News & Mercury declares that Concrete strikes a topical note as Tillyard pictures a world in which Sovietism is triumphant, religion abolished, and the reign of reason inaugurated. This new world is comfortable enough materially, but its inhabitants are thoroughly bored with life. The paper asks, will religion return and help them find a meaning in existence? As Concrete was published in 1930, it is difficult not to assume that her writing influenced both Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, 1932) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949). Tillyard’s protagonist, Alaric, works at the Ministry of Aesthetics and Orwell’s Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth. Both are subversives but only one finds redemption.

Originally submitted for a religious novel competition run by Hodder and Stoughton, Mann describes Tillyard’s novel as an attempt to bring the world to light that ended in darkness – sales did not go well. Tillyard put this down to her publisher, Hutchinson, noting they were not being taken seriously and they were ‘known to be circulating library trash’. It is interesting that Mann writes about Concrete in her chapter on ‘Rubbish that will sell’. Tillyard’s indifference to domestic affairs and her failure to economise meant she needed to make money from her writing. I wonder how the novel might have fared had it been published by Heffers.

******

I came across Tillyard’s connection with Heffers quite by chance, when reading her 1917 diary at the Girton College Archive for another project. Intrigued, I purchased a copy of Mann’s 2013 ‘novel biography’ of Tillyard, Hints of a Perfect Splendour. It is a tour de force and a joy to read.

I continue to discover more about the history of Heffers and regularly give illustrated talks on the topic to groups and societies in and around Cambridge, and beyond. If you would like to book a talk, do get in touch – juliebounford@gmail.com

I will soon visit Histon Road Cemetery in Cambridge, to look at the Tillyard family monuments. The cemetery is located close to where I grew up.

And finally, I have ordered a copy of Tillyard’s biography of her aunt, Agnes E. Slack (1926), as I am interested in the history of Methodism and the Temperance Movement.

It seems the older I get, the more ‘joined-up’ my research and writing becomes.

Mazes, opium and publishing deals

An autumn 2017 commission that I received from Wellfleet Press (an imprint of US publisher Quarto) led to a winter researching and writing an illustrated history of labyrinths and mazes. I spent many short days and long evenings absorbed in the joyful task of piecing together what is hopefully an informative and engaging recitation of this fascinating 4,000-year old phenomenon.

During this time I also managed to deliver a few talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge and have more coming up in the diary. (I did however, have to pause much of the college servants research, apart from a most interesting conversation with a retired college porter from St John’s — in September last year I wrote about The artist, the college, the bursar and his cook.)

The history talks are such a pleasure for me to deliver, especially when members of the audience share their own memories of enigmatic Heffer people and places. And then, on 5thJune 2018, I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker for the Cambridge Publishing Society. My talk, entitled ‘Some Truths About Opium’, provided a welcome excuse to delve further into another aspect of Heffers — their extraordinary publishing history.

I chose the title because the first half of the twentieth century was clearly an intoxicating time for Heffers publishing. It is taken from a short paper by Herbert A. Giles, published by Heffers in 1923.

A British diplomat and sinologist, Giles was ‘the’ Cambridge Professor of Chinese and much of his output was published by the University Press. This title however, along with his exposition, ‘Chaos in China: A Rhapsody’, was published and printed by Heffers who produced  2,000 copies of the former and 1,000 of the latter. In 1924 Giles paid Heffers £10 to cover a deficit on the publishing costs of the opium paper and ten years later it was taken out of the firm’s catalogue.

Giles had originally sent his treatise to The Times. However, his stance on the topic directly opposed that of the broadsheet. In his sketch of opium in China as a drug from 874AD to the present day (early 1920s), Giles concluded that in view of the historical facts, we had better leave China to work out the opium problem themselves, without the interference of foreigners. Inevitably, the paper was returned as unsuitable. He then tried an academic journal, only to have it rejected once more. Finally, he approached Heffers.

This appears to have been a common scenario for authors published by Heffers. A scout through the old publishing diaries (kindly loaned by Richard Reynolds of Heffers) reveals that in many cases the firm provided a kind of vanity publishing service (a precursor of Troubadour perhaps?).

Extract from the Heffer publishing diaries, 1933.

Anyone who wanted Heffers to publish their book had to be interviewed by Mr Heffer (most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or ‘Mr Reuben’ — I’ve previously written about Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley). Examples of Heffer publishing deals reveal the extent to which the financial risk was offset by some authors: 

  • ‘Agreement by letter. Author has agreed to pay £60 towards productions costs on publication and a further £20 if necessary in a year’s time.’
  • ‘Author agreed to guarantee us against loss up to a limit of £10, and to surrender the first £5 of profit to our Firm. Thereafter, profits to be divided equally between Author and Publisher.’
  • ‘No agreement, but Prof. Whitney called and agreed to be responsible for the costs of publication.
  • ‘No Agreement. Author pays all costs of production. To be published but Not Catalogued. All stock to be returned to Author, and any orders for book to be passed to her.’

Heffers first described itself as a publisher in advertisements in the early 1900s and the firm’s list grew with William Heffer’s expansion into printing. Between 1889 and 1959 the firm published around 2,000 titles. The publishing was wound down in the 1960s and ceased altogether in 1975. Several publications were cast into the bargain bin, never to reappear. Intriguing titles such as,

The Problem of the Future Life (1925)

Whatsoever Things are Lovely …Think on these Things(1927)

Mathematical Snack Bar(1936)

The Delights of Dictatorship(1938)

Finland in Summer(1938)

Prayers for a One-Year-Old(1927)

The Two Coins: An English Girl’s Thoughts on Modern Morals(1931)

Those who work in the book trade may know about the annual Bookseller/Diagram Oddest Title of the Year (of a book), instigated by Diagram Group director, Trevor Bounford, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1978. Many Heffer publications would have been worthy contenders for the prize. (In March 2015, I wrote a post, The oddest title for a public lecture?, as I fondly remembered the late Bruce Robertson, co-founder of the Diagram Group.)

I’m pleased to report that I did not have to pay Wellfleet Press to publish the maze book. I’m also pleased to report that the book was illustrated, designed and packaged by my talented husband, Trevor Bounford whose next book, ‘Bend the Rules’, has recently been published by the Tarquin Group in the UK.

 The Curious History of Mazes is due out in October 2018. I’ll be writing more about this in due course, and I’m already taking bookings for illustrated talks.

Do get in touch if you’d like me to come and talk to your group – julie@gottahavebooks.co.uk

Micro publishing from an English Tudor cottage

I run Gottahavebooks.

Three years ago we decided to set up a publishing arm for our long-established graphic design business. My husband Trevor Bounford (illustrator, artist and author) has been designing and creating books for over 45 years. With our shared interest in social history and the prospect of more ‘free’ time on my part after completing the PhD, we set up Gottahavebooks in 2015.

What we now have is very much a cottage industry.  And that’s not just because we run the business from our Tudor cottage in a village near Cambridge. We like being small scale. For me this is especially appealing after many years of working in large organisations with highly rigid structures and politicised cultures. I’m loving the new freedom and flexibility of working independently as a writer, editor and micro-publisher.

Our publishing is driven by a desire to share people’s stories, and our titles and activities reflect this.

In 2015  Richard Houghton needed to publish the memories he had gathered from people who had attended Rolling Stones concerts in the 1960s. Richard and Trevor jointly devised a concept they named as ‘You Had To Be There’ and we set about getting Richard’s book to press in double-quick time. We also liaised individually with his 500 contributors, confirming their place in the book and keeping them up to date with the production. This was very time-consuming but worthwhile, and we were pleased to have helped Richard with his first publication.

Our second book, ‘Days of Sorrow, Times of Joy’ by Frances Clemmow (2016), is an extraordinary family memoire, interwoven with the grand picture of modern Chinese history from the late nineteenth century through to the Second World War. Trevor had previously assisted Fran with the design, layout and production of a self-published edition in 2012. We offered to publish a new extended edition as a way of helping Fran to share her story with a wider audience, and we were delighted when historian Michael Wood agreed to contribute a foreword. Professor Anthony Bradley describes the book as a,

‘living history, in which the actors in a far-reaching drama speak in their own words. We need not today endorse all aspects of the missionary enterprise, but readers of this impressive and enjoyable book will surely long remember the vivid scenes in which one family’s commitment enabled its members to play a part in events that have helped to shape our world.’

And ‘Philatelic Evangelist’ Devlan Kruck extols the art of Victorian letter writing in a delightful blog post.

We’re pleased to support Fran when she gives talks to local history societies and we’ve recently made this brief film, featuring a cameo from her book:

Our third publication is my own illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge. I’ve already written quite a lot about it in previous posts. I too give talks and very much enjoy the audience feedback.

Our forth publication is an unexpected and delightful outcome of the research for the Heffers book. We’ll be announcing this quirky title over the next few weeks.

I’m currently editing another forthcoming Gottahavebooks publication, ‘The Singer’s Tale’ by Carol Grimes. This is Carol’s captivating story in her own words,

‘Forever entwined, my young and my old mind, the voices inside me that chatter and chide, encourage and rage, as I look both outwards and in with the curiosity of a benign, yet wary stranger.’

Born in 1944, Carol spent the late 1960s and ’70s living in a ‘so-called community of freaks, immigrants and photographers, artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, drug dealers, models, fashionistas, groupies and hangers-on.’

In 1967 Carol married artist Larry Smart and their son, Sam, was born. If you hurry, you can catch a retrospective of Larry’s work at The Muse Gallery, Portobello Road, London. It finishes on 2 July 2017.

Through Gottahavebooks we get to meet and work with really inspiring authors, and we get to hear and share many fascinating memories.

It is a joy and a privilege.

Connecting up and creating a conversation

Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge

I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the Heffers project. My aim in this series of blog posts is to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!

The first post, Possession is a delicate issue tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!

In this second post, I refer to the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials, and will be expanding on exactly what I used in a later post. Links to all the networks and sources are provided, plus one or two publications written by authors whom I was fortunate enough to meet during the project.

Lesson number 2: Connecting up and creating a conversation

I may originate from Cambridge but having lived and worked in Norfolk until relatively recently, I had no network as such in the area, apart from family friends. Eve Stafford, who is featured in the book, was the first family friend to have a conversation recorded about her time at Heffers. Eve then facilitated my introduction to Heffers retirees, Marion & Dudley Davenport, Peggy Green and Audrey Coleman, who all have stories in the book.

It didn’t take long of course to identify other effective ways to reach those with memories of Heffers and start a wider conversation. On 23rd January 2016, Chris Elliott published a plea for stories with my contact details in the Cambridge News Memories section. Also, in January, I emailed Chris Jakes at the Cambridgeshire Collection at the Central Library, declaring my intention to carry out some desk research there. Chris responded with very useful and specific information on what the Collection held about the firm and the bookselling trade. Meanwhile, Robert Webb (who’s father worked for Heffers and who worked for the firm himself) found Becky Proctor (running the Mill Road History Project at that time), who suggested I put a plea via the Cambridge in the Good Ol Days Facebook Group. Robert Webb also contacted Fonz Chamberlain, the Cambridge Historian, who writes about Cambridge history and who owns a lot of memorabilia.

As it turned out, both Chris Jakes and Becky Proctor contributed stories for the book (Becky worked as a bookseller at Heffers in the early 1990s). The Facebook Group, run by Derek Smiley, was a great way to reach people with memories of Heffers. It really helped to have something interesting to say about the topic when exchanging thoughts on Facebook. This is where a personal connection or some local knowledge can be useful. Sharing memories, even brief reflections, is a great way to get a conversation going. It’s important to post regularly, whilst at the same time, not making a nuisance of oneself.

I wanted people to understand my motivation for writing the book, and to appreciate that I too, shared their enthusiasm and interest in the topic. To that end, I had already written about my interest in Heffers in my own blog, as early as February 2014, in Choosing books, living life. In fact, it was through this post that I met Robert Webb who must have been keeping an eye out for references to Heffers, as he contacted me after having seen the post. My next reference to Heffers was in Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment, followed by Heffers and the elusive bust, This book is about Heffers, Portrait of a bookseller: the pacifist, and Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley. I regularly shared the blog posts via Facebook and Twitter and made some really useful connections in doing so. Bookseller, Claire Brown, got in touch via my website (Claire’s stories are in the book) and I made a useful connection with Dr Samantha Rayner at University College London via Twitter. Samantha kindly facilitated my access to the Penguin Archive at the University of Bristol, and I’m planning to do a talk on Heffers for her Masters students in early 2017.

Whenever I refer to Heffers on Twitter, I use a hashtag. Over the past year, I found that if you googled Heffers or Heffers of Cambridge, images that I had shared, including the book cover of ‘This book is about Heffers’, which we had designed very early on (I shall be writing about the book layout and design later in this series), were fairly prominent. Along with images of large ruminants…

On 2nd February I attended the launch at Heffers of The Promise by Alison Bruce. I had met Alison a few months earlier when she kindly gave a talk at a writing group meeting that I had co-convened in our village. Alison, whose relationship with Heffers is shared in the book, invited me to attend her launch and it was there that I introduced myself to David Robinson (manager of Heffers), bookseller Richard Reynolds and retired bookseller Clive Cornell, who had kindly responded to the Cambridge News Memories plea. I subsequently had a meeting with David and Richard at the shop to tell them about my plans, and to ask if they had anything that may be useful. It turns out they did, including twenty years worth of staff newsletters, the Heffers publishing diaries and other fascinating memorabilia. Much later, in April, I attended another book launch for Timed Out by Barbara Lorna Hudson. Kate Fleet at Heffers had given Barbara my contact details, as she had worked at Heffers as a student in the early 1960s. I attended the launch, bought the book and not only enjoyed it but have retained my contact with Barbara who, as I learned later, was embarking on a second career as a fiction writer after working as an Oxford academic.

Also, in February I emailed the Cambridge University Alumni Office, asking for stories. By then I had written an Advance Information Sheet, which provided a useful summary of the proposed book. I received a swift response and the Alumni team used social media to reach out to Cambridge alumni all over the world. And I emailed Mike Petty, renowned local historian, and he not only agreed to meet up for a chat over coffee but also sent a list of useful references from his own ‘Chronicle of Cambridge News’, a terrific digital database of Cambridge events and stories.

Whilst virtual communication via Facebook and Twitter is great, never underestimate the value of getting together face-to-face. A pivotal moment in the Heffers project was a memory café at the Museum of Cambridge, on Friday 26th February. The Museum, located near the city centre, provides a tangible sense of place and plays a vital role in bringing people together for exchange and reflection. At this event I met members of the Heffer family and Heffers staff, past and present. David Robinson had always wanted to meet the Heffer family, and this was his chance, also. I brought posters and materials to the café and we had a small display. People like to look at photographs and memorabilia, which can of course trigger memories. Others also brought artefacts, including William Heffer who brought the original lease on the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896 –how exciting!

Hilary Cox-Condron at the Museum, made a terrific six-minute film of the memory café, starring Bunty Heffer, now aged 96 years. I was impressed with how relatively easy it was for Hilary to create the film on her mobile phone and I’m planning to use film much more in 2017 to share stories and images from my research and from Gottahavebooks publications.

Early on in the project, having received a communication from Kate Fleet, Heffer’s very enterprising Events Manager, asking if I would be interested in launching the book at Heffers, I had an opportunity to fix a publication date. Thus, I duly agreed with Kate we would launch the book at Heffers on 10th November 2016.

Now I had a DEADLINE.

Better get on with collecting and recording the stories.

How I did that is the topic of the next blog post.

Possession is a delicate issue

Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge

One day, back in February this year, whilst striding down Trumpington Street after spending an afternoon at the Cambridgeshire Collection, I felt a rush of pure elation and was reminded of some advice a friend had recently shared on my future direction after finishing the PhD. She said ‘do what gives you joy’.

9780993378133
Published 21st Oct 2016

Since that time the experience of researching, writing and publishing ‘This Book Is About Heffers’ has given me mountains of joy – as well as anxieties, challenges, frustrations, and sadness. There were many things to tackle. For example, the pros and cons of having a personal connection to the topic, finding people willing to share their memories, using digital networks without making a nuisance of oneself, making the most of a face-to-face gathering, visiting people in their homes (and finding their homes in the first place!), recording conversations (with rather odd, and sometimes peripheral, sound effects), finding myself dreaming about it all, and deploying diplomacy at all times.

 

 

I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the project. My aim in this series of blog posts is simply to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!

 Lesson number 1: Possession is a delicate issue

It’s not obligatory to have a personal connection with the topic but if you do, it can help, especially at the beginning when you’re trying to explain why you’ve embarked on such a major undertaking. And even when the word is out, (people said ‘she’s writing a book about Heffers’) you’ll need to revisit that special connection from time to time. For me, there were many quiet moments in the study when I thought about my family members who had worked for the firm. It sounds whimsical but I sensed their approval of the legacy I was trying to create and it gave me an inner confidence. It was, and still is, a nice feeling.

A personal connection can also, however, create a bit of a dilemma, as it did with this project. The book was inspired by my childhood memories of visiting Heffers Children’s bookshop every Saturday morning, and of course, by my family’s association with the firm. The memories are uncomplicated but the family association caused a moment of anxiety, which I will explain, as I suspect the scenario is not uncommon.

I hail from a line of Cambridge booksellers, bakers, college bedders and bus cleaners. Members of my family clocked up 120 years of service with Heffers, starting with my great-grandfather, Frederick Anstee, employed by William Heffer in 1896 when the Petty Cury bookshop was first opened. Frederick, along with bookseller F. J. Sebley, was one of the first employees at Heffers, at least on record. Since then of course, hundreds of people have worked for the firm and indeed there have been periods when Heffers employed well over 500 people at any one time across the bookselling, stationery and printing divisions. There are several stories in the book about the different ways in which people got started at Heffers, and how they fared. Frederick, who rose to become Head of Science, sadly died suddenly in 1944 whilst still in service.

The part that Frederick played in helping to build the firm is rightly something to be proud of. That pride is boosted by a letter from a family friend, Duncan Littlechild (bookseller with Heffers for fifty-four years), written in 1968 on the death of my great-grandmother, Frederick’s widow. In expressing his condolences, Littlechild declared that it was Frederick, along with Ernest and Frank Heffer, who ‘founded’ the firm. This of course is his opinion, his ‘selfish feeling’ as he describes it, about a friend whom he described as an, ‘oh such perfect father who lived for his family’. After careful consideration, I decided not to quote this in the book. Another of his ‘selfish feelings’, too indelicate to include, was his opinion that Ernest and Frank were, ‘the only two Heffers who were worth more than a pound a week.’

Littlechild’s letter wasn’t actually the issue that caused the ethical quandary as I wrote the book, though it probably contributed. In late July, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm and that this must be stated in the book. This created a rather delicate situation. Whilst I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling, I wasn’t comfortable with making such a claim. Nor was I comfortable with being told what to write. I don’t mind being asked to take something into consideration, and in my work I do try to be sensitive to people’s feelings – and to my own. And so, when this exchange occurred, a number of questions, some of which I’d already been grappling with, came to the fore.

How do you balance personal involvement with a dispassionate telling of the story?

Perhaps it’s like doing sociology, you must hold your connection up to the light so that it can be seen and acknowledged. I did include a narrative about my family’s association with the firm and indeed quoted letters from members of the Heffer family who clearly had high regard for Frederick. I also acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families.

Who does the story belong to?

I’m collecting, curating and interpreting people’s memories that are given freely and openly. The history of Heffers, as with other histories, is not in some exclusive ownership. It lives in people’s minds and it’s evolving. The story belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.

Who has responsibility for the publication?

As the author, and the publisher in this instance, I have the responsibility. I may have an aversion to the phrase, ‘my book’ (for reasons I need not explain here), but it is my doing. I initiated the project, took control and decided what to write. I was sensitive to people’s feelings, I checked stories and quotations and I made changes accordingly. I did my best to get things right and I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should write. In that sense, perhaps is has to be ‘my book’.

The next post will be about finding people with stories to share.

 

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.

Heffers and the elusive bust

Heffers and the elusive bust

I’m now writing in earnest and over the coming months will share some of the stories as we lead up to the publication and launch of the book at Heffers in Trinity Street, Cambridge, in November 2016.

Meanwhile, an image has come to light of a bust of the firm’s founder, William Heffer.

Bust of William Heffer 1843-1928
Bust of William Heffer 1843-1928

The image is contained in an envelope with “Ralph Heffer” written upon it in Stephen Heffer’s handwriting. Ralph (1893-1974), son of Harry Heffer and grandson of William, was not involved with the firm but according to his family, enjoyed working with his hands and would possibly have had a go at creating something like this. The Heffer family were not aware of the bust and we cannot ask Stephen who sadly died in 1996.

I hope the bust has not been destroyed and would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows of its whereabouts. Perhaps it is in someone’s house. My parents have a bust of my grandfather, Sidney Saunders. Or perhaps it is nestling in the corner of a college room or library somewhere. William had good relations with many Cambridge establishments and rented the shop at Petty Cury from Emmanuel College. Even if the bust has been destroyed, it would be nice to know who created it and when.

Here is a brief biography of Stephen Heffer, a gifted artist who worked in the family firm.

Stephen John Heffer (1948-1996)

Son of John Heffer and great-grandson of William, Stephen worked with the firm for fifteen years from 1971. He assisted Managing Director, John Welch, on the bookselling and publishing side, and played an instrumental role setting up the Children’s Bookshop and the Bookworm Book Club. He also made regular visits abroad both in Europe and America, retaining very useful personal contacts with librarians overseas. His travels were noted regularly in the staff newsletter, Trinity Street News and he managed the Grafton Centre shop when it first opened in 1983. An artist, Stephen decided in 1986 to leave the firm in order to train at the Camberwell School of Arts and at Winchester. He then worked as an artist in Barcelona, London and Norfolk and he died in London in 1996. An exhibition of his paintings was held at the Sidney Street Gallery in 1998, providing, as described in the brochure, a unique opportunity for friends and visitors to view the breadth of his vision.

If you recognise the bust and know where it can be found, or if you simply know the story behind its creation, please do get in touch:

Email: julie@gottahavebooks.co.uk

Mobile: 0776611 4813

Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment

Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment

As I eagerly anticipate a period of desk research at the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library next week, I recall the times I’ve used libraries in various locations over the years, for a myriad of reasons.

My current project is a social history of the long established Cambridge Heffers Booksellers, Stationers and Printers, to be published this autumn. I’m particularly excited about this due to the family association with the firm, which began with my great-grandfather’s employment as a boy at the end of the nineteenth century.

‘One lad was anything but a bright specimen – practically uneducated and from a miserable home.’ William Heffer helped the lad, ‘by insisting that he should write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to his employer the next morning. The boy profited by this strange tuition, so much so that he eventually became head assistant in the science department at Petty Cury – no mean achievement.’ (a 1952 biography of William Heffer 1843-1928, by Sidney Heffer, presented to Heffer’s staff, ‘With the Author’s Compliments’)

The ‘boy’ was my great-grandfather, seen here sitting at his desk.

Frederick Anstee sitting at his desk, Heffers
Frederick Anstee sitting at his desk, Heffers

I’m also thoroughly enjoying the research conversations with former employees, customers, authors and academics about their own memories of the firm. I must admit it’s a labour of love.

Do you have a Heffers story you’d be willing to share? If so, please do drop me a line via julie@gottahavebooks.co.uk or see the project background on the website –

http://gottahavebooks.co.uk/heffers/

One service Heffers provided was the valuation of libraries for probate. Heffers also bought libraries to sell through their second-hand and antiquarian department. A family friend, Eve Stafford, who worked for Heffers, recalled the time when the firm valued E.M. Forster’s library after his death in 1970. Not long after, Eve left Heffers to work for King’s, Forster’s college and home for many years.

EM Forster in his College sitting room (taken by Edward Leigh, 1968)
EM Forster in his College sitting room (taken by Edward Leigh, 1968)

In my 2014 blog post, ‘Choosing books, living life’, I wrote about the Saturday morning library routine and how I treasured the time with my children at the library.

https://jebounford.net/choosing-books-living-life/

Of course, libraries are not just about choosing books, as that post suggests. There are times when the nearest library is THE place to go for other reasons. Nowhere else will do.

Where did I find refuge during a harrowing six months, when separated from John (my first husband) but still having to live under the same roof?

The library.

Where did I find shelter from the charade of the campus corporate ritual when working as a middle manager in higher education?

The library.

Where did I go when on sick leave, to get out of the house and to aid my recovery from a minor operation,  a recovery that took much longer than I had anticipated?

The library.

Where did I seek curiosities and writings juxtaposed on shelves in ways that I would never have found through searching the electronic bibliographic databases?

The library.

(In my blog on ’15 lessons from doing doctoral research’ I emphasise the benefits of walking around the university library –

https://jebounford.net/15-lessons-from-doing-doctoral-research/)

Where did I hide from those higher education Alan Sugar wannabes, the chequered suited troopers of Enterprise who loudly proclaimed that profit is king?

The library.

Where did I find solace for a day as I regained my composure after an absurd contretemps with Trevor?

The library.

Neil Gaiman said libraries are about freedom, ‘Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.’

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

The quiet reading room, my favourite room at UEA's Library, has no books.
A reflective image of the quiet reading room in the library at UEA. My favourite room, which incidentally displays no books.

For me, the appeal of the library most definitely has an affective dimension; an emotional attachment that doesn’t exist for some of the other places I may have retreated to in troubled times such as cafés, hotel lobbies, sports centres, galleries and museums. I guess museums come the closest. Museum artefacts, like books, bring different worlds and perspectives to bear on the problem I’m grappling with. Like the books, I don’t have to examine them intently to seek the answers. I just know they’re there, giving the long view informed by lives that have been lived over tens, hundreds, thousands of years. They remind me that I’m not the first to face this problem (whatever it is), nor will I be the last.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve been an inveterate reader and keeper of biographies and memoires. I feel the presence of the lives I’ve observed through other people’s interpretations; people such as Iris Murdoch, D.H. Lawrence, Frida Kahlo, Tony Judt, Jennie Lee, Ada Lovelace, Lorna Sage, Zelda Fitzgerald, John Lennon, Augustus John, Vincent Van Gogh, Bernard Shaw, The Brontes, Elizabeth I, Thomas Hardy, Karl Marx, Elizabeth of York, Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Woolf. I sometimes look at the volumes and reflect on the years lived though it’s not always a conscious thing.  Similarly, living in our five hundred year old home, I feel reassured that many others have lived here, and have faced and overcome their own challenges, whatever they may have been.

In ‘The Comfort of Things’, Daniel Miller says relationships ‘flow constantly’ between persons and things. His extraordinarily moving portrait of thirty households in a street in modern London, focusing on our relationship with material things, reveals the centrality of stuff in our lives and what it means for our relationships with people (Miller, 2008). Like my Great Aunt Winifred Anstee (another family member who worked at Heffers) I’m very attached to my books. Hunter Davies said we are a people divided between those who accumulate and those who chuck out. Like Aunty Win, I’m in the former camp. As a child I loved to browse through her overflowing bookcase. I later learned that she had purchased the bookcase for 5 shillings from Heffers when they made the move from Petty Cury to Trinity Street in 1970, and I’m pleased to say that it is still in the family.

I did have a spell working in a library, though it wasn’t in the role I had dreamed of as a teenager. A history fanatic at fourteen, besides wanting to meet Mary Queen of Scots, I wanted to be an archivist. Instead, I worked as the Senior Housing Adviser at Norwich Advice Services in the ‘90s when it was located in the old Norwich subscription library on Guildhall Hill. I recall two memorable days; first, when I heard the news that Margaret Thatcher had resigned in November 1990, and second, when I became trapped in an interview room by a highly disturbed client for two uncomfortable and alarming hours. The building is now a restaurant.

The most significant event in the history of libraries in Norwich (and perhaps in the UK) was when the central library burned down on 1st August 1994. My (first marriage) wedding anniversary, as it happens. I recall watching the news with horror and fully understanding Councillor Brenda Ferris’ distress as she stood in front of the smouldering pile of bricks and pages – a very real Farenheit 451.

Farenheit 451
An installation in the library at the University of Staffordshire, 2015

I recently visited a friend who gave her address as, ‘The Old Library’. I was delighted to find a stunning and stylish home, still full of books and a most fitting abode for an inspirational, intelligent and incredibly well read woman, writing up her National Trust funded PhD on the history of adult education at Attingham Hall in Shropshire. My own library at home (not the genuine article like Sharon’s), expanded significantly in 2012 when Trevor and I joyfully conjoined our lives, along with our not insignificant book collections. Is there such a thing as a marriage of libraries? Our small publishing venture, Gottahavebooks is certainly an expression of our shared love of books and of social history. And now my pile of postdoc reading material is getting out of hand as I buy and borrow publications that I had wanted to read for years but dared not for fear of neglecting the doctoral thesis.

We can’t all afford to buy the books we read, and we may not want to anyway. Joining a library gives us access to books and so much more. Being a member of a library also entails certain responsibilities. If you don’t follow the rules there are sanctions. Trevor says it’s about having a sense of order and discipline. He says whilst you don’t have to be a member to use the facilities, one should, for example, be quiet. I do get that. However, my children enjoyed the ‘Dick and Dom in ad Bungalow show’ in the mid-2000s, which featured a game called ‘Bogies’. Celebrities took part and I recall Carol Vorderman shouting out ‘bogies!’ possibly in Cambridge University Library (though I may be wrong). It broke the rules and it was funny.

I’ve had my own entertaining library moments.  More embarrassing than funny at the time, my backpack was once so overloaded with library books that I fell backwards whilst making polite conversation with one of my college lecturers outside the library at Norwich City College. I went down gracefully, landing on my back, feeling grateful that the books cushioned my fall. The incident, which now makes me smile, reminds me of Del Boy’s famous fall.

Do you have any embarrassing library moments?