One day about fifteen years ago, I took the train to London, and with me I carried a large leather case. I needed funds to support a publishing project, and I decided to contact Peter Jolliffe (d. 2007), who owned Ulysses Bookshop in Bloomsbury, to see if he might be interested in a selection of 'firsts' I had in my collection. Ulysses was a small, rambling sort of shop, famous for its shelves of signed and first editions of modern literature.
From Liverpool Street Station, I made my way by Underground to Holborn, up the High Road, past a few empty shops and small cafes, to Museum Street. I met Peter, who was as charming in person as he had been on the telephone, and we looked through the books together. Peter then asked if he could have a little time to look through the books more closely, and I said I'd wander off somewhere for an hour or so.
The British Museum is at the top of Museum Street, and a long walk under the great London plane trees was a pleasant way to spend the time. I had been to the museum itself a few times before then, and knew it wasn't worthwhile to set off into its dazzling interior in the short time I had that day, and so was content to drift around the narrow streets nearby.
When I returned to the bookshop, Peter had set aside the books that interested him. I knew he wouldn't take them all. In a capital city, particularly London, it's not unusual to find bookshops with a wide selection of quality first editions, hence the rarity value is diminished somewhat by their general availablity elsewhere.
I can't recall every last book, but I do recall selling Peter: WH Auden's Spain, Wallace Stevens' Parts of a World, Randall Jarrell's Little Friend, Little Friend, a signed first of TS Eliot's Ariel Poem, Marina, a signed first of Robert Lowell's Life Studies, with a dedication to some friends on the flyleaf, and in his hand the note 'a book I had not seen in this edition for many years (signed) Cal.' There was also a copy of Dylan Thomas's Deaths and Entrances, a tiny book, reflecting the paper shortages in England near the end of the Second World War, and two or three other volumes whose names escape me now.
I made my way back across London to the train, and on the hour's journey home, made a draft of a poem, "Walking on the Thames", which originally was pubished in Constructing the Human.
Meccano miles to London: carriages
commute in slinky combinations past
the terraced suburbs. We meet at Claridge’s,
comparing life to life within our caste
then catch the last trains home. Across precast
and corrugated scenes a sense of time
connects the sparking track to the sublime.
December skies are quarrelsome. The rack
of weather gullies back to Seven Dials,
Museum Street, and you behind a stack
of first editions. The dust of viols’
muted measures dignifies denials,
a century grown sullen with its ghosts.
The CD catalogues these last outposts.
The peacock soirée ends with Auden’s Spain;
the taxis pass in pairs or not at all
this time of night. We stand in stair-rod rain
and stamp the street’s cascades against the sprawl
of doorways. Saviours loom from lanes, and bawl
their cider sermons in the acid light
where random neon punctuates the night.