The Perks of Being a Bookshop Volunteer
09 September 2021
Amongst the several pleasures volunteering for the House of Hodge is the discovery of books which I gladly add to my own library. This, of course, comes at a price both literally and metaphorically (but not hugely at HoH prices) but one of the surprises is coming across books by authors I know well but the titles are completely unknown to me. I am going to tell you about three of them which, moreover, have features not normally associated with the particular author. They are The Dark Tower and Other Stories by C.S. Lewis, The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan and The Secret Battle by A.P. Herbert.
C. S. Lewis is known, of course, for the Narnia series - which I would describe as fantasy with a strong religious element but not scientific - and also for his works explaining Christian theology in non-technical terms, and for academic works on English mediaeval literature, in particular. He did write three connected science fiction adventures beginning with Out of the Silent Planet, and it had seemed that there were no more. But the book I came across at the House of Hodge, The Dark Tower, turned out to be a set of science fiction short stories.
Had Lewis’s secretary not appeared at his house in the nick of time, shortly after his death, these stories would have been consigned to the flames at the request of Lewis’ brother, Major W. H. Lewis, who was “clearing up.” The Dark Tower introduces us to four academics of Lewis’s time meeting in the vicinity of the tall block like tower of Cambridge University Library. By a process of experimentation, they open a portal to what might be a future age. One of them disappears into it and finds himself now evidently a figure of absolute authority exercising his power from what he recognises as the basement of the University Library or a building very like it. He has also grown a horn which enables him to create slaves from the populace (which includes a young woman who seems to be a descendant of someone he was engaged to in what is now the past). The society he is part of is under threat from attack by denizens of the forest. Thanks to inspiration (because he has entered this world with no more knowledge than he had before) when asked to give orders to repel an attack he raps out “do you not know your duties?” to the messenger who then implements the (successful) plan for counterattack. Somehow, he manages to return to the present day but how we do not know: the story is unfinished. There are four other much shorter stories. As is apparent, there is some humour and sex, indeed sexism, in them - not usually associated with Lewis. Not that I was put out to find it; it was refreshing and gave him more humanity, while we could have done without the sexism. I was gripped by the story and was disappointed when it ended prematurely.
Buchan is the writer of adventure stories, famously The Thirty-Nine Steps, Prester John and Greenmantle. He also wrote history, his subjects ranging from the Emperor Augustus to George V. And he ended his career, which included assisting the reconstruction following the Boer War in South Africa, in journalism, as a Scottish Conservative MP, and subsequently as Governor–General of Canada. While set in the liberal establishment upper-middle class circles in which Buchan himself moved the novel turns on the supernatural. This was a surprise as Buchan’s feet are usually firmly on the ground, however imaginative the story.
In The Gap in the Curtain, probably set in the 1920s, the main character - a distinguished barrister - meets a Professor who has been experimenting with a means of looking into the future, at a country house party. The Professor persuades the barrister and 4 other men-including a politician, a financier and an Army officer to undergo a procedure. Each sees from barely glimpsed passages in The Times newspaper (naturally) that dramatic changes will happen in their lives in the forthcoming year – including, for two of them, their own deaths. The Professor unfortunately dies immediately after the experiment ends so they can learn nothing further. The remainder of the book deals with how each of them pursues their lives with the knowledge they have - but all is not as it seems. Readers of Buchan and the supernatural and those interested in “country house” type detective stories will enjoy the story.
I fall into all categories.
Finally A. P. Herbert is best known for his comic works highlighting quirks of the English law adapted for TV as Misleading Cases and his more serious, though still humorous work, Holy Deadlock which led to the reform of divorce law in the 1930s. My discovery The Secret Battle, however, is deadly serious, being an account of experiences of soldiers in the WW1 Gallipoli and Somme campaigns, in which Herbert had taken part, thinly disguised as a novel. (The introduction in 1924 was written by Winston Churchill, whose support for the Gallipoli campaign had led to him leaving Government).I will say little about The Secret Battle; as we are just coming to the end of a commemorative period for WW1 its contents can be imagined. The title refers to the soldier’s internal battle to do what comes unnaturally: to put his life in extreme danger and kill or be killed. It does not end well.
I found an early passage poignant: the two young officers who are the main characters, having recently landed in Turkey at the site of the opposed armies, look across the bay, and, beyond the enemy lines, see the “wide green plain” of Troy. They realise that British ships are anchored where, according to legend, the Greek forces disembarked over 3,000 years earlier, to besiege the city of Troy (for ten long years as it turned out) demanding the return of the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta who had fled there with her lover, Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. They sit and talk about that story as immortalised by the epic poet, Homer, about 500 years after the supposed event. But they talk of that war with the horrors of another war about them which, likewise, will doom many lives to grim deaths.
So, while volunteering at House of Hodge is a joy in and of itself, with every shift comes the possibility of discovery: how delightful is the anticipation of coming across known authors’ work and hence the opportunity to acquire greater understanding of their range.
- By David Watkinson (volunteer of 7+ years)