Monday 22 September 2014

Brought to Book II: The Peter Bellamy Connection (key words: Rudolph Valentino, Grundy, Herman Melville, John Renbourn, Good Soldier Svejk)

There’s nothing like an old book for making tangible the reality of other people and other places, long since gone. I described how I came to be in possession of several boxes of tomes, dusty and otherwise – Browsing through them, I fell to wondering about the people behind the inscriptions and signatures on the front leaves. All these refined, self-educating, intelligent people, happily oblivious to their own mortality and the concerns of future generations of book dealers. Book people (and record collectors) should take heed: we're none of us owners but custodians, because the lifespan of a book (or record, properly cared for) is greater than the lifespan of a human being.      

I wondered about Jack Atkinson, who was awarded a copy of The Sheik by E.M. Hull as a prize for regular attendance by Girlington Wesleyan Band of Hope on March 26, 1923, and was impressed by the broadmindedness of Girlington Wesleyan Band of Hope, who passed The Sheik (with a frontispiece photograph of current heartthrob Rudolph Valentino) as suitable reading for a lad of impressionable age. The altogether more edifying The Essays of Elia and Eliana by Charles Lamb, was clearly not intended as a giveaway: it was a fixture at the Zion Baptist Sunday School, Burnley, as two antique stamps, as old as the book (1867), reveal. 

And what was Neil Darlington doing taking out A Portrait of Britain From Peril to Pre-Eminence 1688-1851 (by Lindsay and Washington) from Marple Hall County Grammar School For Girls on "10/9/74"? Can we reasonably deduce that sometime between publication in 1962 and 1974, Marple Hall County Grammar School ceased to be a single-sex institution? An entire social history can be constructed from ephemera such as this. 

We already know something about R.B.S. Jones of Pembroke College, whose neat hand adorns The Way of All Flesh, Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited by Samuel Butler, E.L. Woodward’s History of England and Mrs Grundy: Studies in English Prudery by Peter Fryer. Chris Ackroyd: “I lodged for a while with one of my tutors, called Roger Jones, who died tragically young. He was descended from a duke. He was posh and he was clever: Oxbridge, Courtauld Institute. And some of the books that I’d bought off him (I didn’t nick them), he’d inscribed in the front, in very nice writing, “R.B.S. Jones”. Roger Jones sounds a bit common. Roger Beauchamp, and then I think Spencer, Jones. Maybe he was related to the Spencers. I know he was aristocracy. The only warm room in the house was his, now that I think about it.” 

But what stopped me in my tracks was the legend on the inside cover of a cheap, hardback USA edition ($1.75, The New American Library) of Typee by Herman Melville. It read, “Peter Bellamy, 11 Victoria Street, Norwich NR1 3QX Telephone: 0603 60411.” 

This can only be the late Peter Bellamy, the great Norfolk singer, celebrated for recordings  with the group Young Tradition and solo outings such as Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye and Tell It Like It Was (quite a few made by Bill Leader: you may remember that I’m writing a book about Bill Leader). Peter Bellamy moved from Norwich to Keighley, West Yorkshire, which is where he died and had a splendid funeral. 

The discovery led to an enquiry about the reading matter of sixties folk musicians, directed at John Renbourn.  I had recently interviewed the Pentangle guitarist in the course of my Bill Leader researches, and followed through with an email asking about the books he had in common with Nat Joseph, the chief of Transatlantic Records. Apparently, both had a passion for Elizabethan literature. This is Renbourn’s reply: – 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was certainly one. Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur was probably another. We talked about John Donne and Robert Herrick. Other books that came obliquely into the folk equation for me were Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess

“Don’t remember discussing literature with Pete to be honest. He was clearly well read. Quite a coincidence that one of his books should have turned up. 

“Bert [Jansch] wasn’t a Goethe man as far as I’m aware [the German heritage and romantic sensibility had misled me]. He did enjoy The Good Soldier Svejk though. 

“Are you considering the sort of reading matter that would have been prevalent on the folk scene at the time? 

“Interesting slant if you are.”    


  1. Just catching up with your book sagas, Mike. Interesting stuff and the books John Renbourn mentions were definitely on my reading list too, probably at a similar time!

  2. Maggie Roche "Hallelujah" for your life 26/3/51-21/1/17

  3. Sorry that was meant to be 26/10/51 dob.


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