A Punt on the Solway
About thirty years ago, a book remainder representative of my acquaintance was stuck with a quantity of unsold mint copies of a book on the Scottish islands, which he could not shift. It wasn’t that the book was bad, it was just that the subject had been covered by other writers who had more of a feel for their subject, and had made a much better job of it. Walking through London’s Soho district one day, on a whim, he called into a ‘bookshop’ which had no window display and no front door – just a beaded curtain. Several men went in and out silently, furtively, and seemed to disappear behind another curtain. No, you’re wrong, it wasn’t a confessional! He spoke to the chap in charge, showed him a specimen copy, they discussed terms, the chap said he was interested and would take all three hundred, for 1/6 each.
The stock duly arrived, wrapped in brown paper parcels, within which, for the last sixteen years, it had effectively languished. The bookshop chap took one out of a packet, looked at the pictorial dustjacket and decided to ditch the original jackets. He doodled an idea or two on a scribbling pad, gave the till keys to his mate and left the shop with the book under his arm, to visit his local printer.
A week later, a small, neat stack was put on a table, each book in its new dustjacket, well sealed in cellophane, and lashed up tight with sellotape. A handwritten display ticket said ‘Scarce, last few copies! £5.00 each.’ Our ‘Soho Bookseller’ had asked his printer to make the two lines of the title into three, but in a much larger typeface, with no illustration at all. The title of the book as delivered read The Hebrides by ‘Plum McDuff’. The book as sold was called The He Brides – a book of an altogether different kidney.
So as a bookseller, how does this affect me and the books I sell? Well, way back in 1974, at the suggestion of my local history librarian, I was moved to reprint one of the scarcest books on the early history of the Solway. The book in question was Annals of the Solway by George Neilson – always a difficult book to buy, since there were only 200 printed in 1899. I was assured it was so scarce that the Silloth Library copy had more borrowing slips in it than actual pages and that it was chained to a table leg to prevent it disappearing. Naively, (I have never listened to anyone else’s suggestion for spending my money since), I printed 1000 hardback copies and, filled with bubbling enthusiasm, rang the librarian, who promptly gave me an order, less ‘the usual library discount’. The order was for a single copy! I was almost speechless. I had reprinted three-quarters of a ton and he had given me an order for one copy.
This book wasn’t scarce, it was rare. There is a difference – oh, yes! The scarce one is so named because everyone knows it and more folk want it than there are copies to go round. The rare one, on the other hand, is a book no one has ever seen or much less, heard of.
The book has chapters on The Romans, Saints’ Voyages, Norse Voyages, the Fleet of Solway ships in 1264, Salt-making, Fishing, The Port of Skinburness carried away and buried under the rising sea etc and ends in the reign of Edward I in 1307. I got my brother Simon, a journalist at the time with the Daily Express, to write a biographical sketch of the author. We inadvertently misspelt the author’s birthplace and turned Ruthwell into Rutwell, which didn’t please those genteel Scots who lived there: shades of Soho again! The dustjacket we illustrated using a Bewick woodcut of a bearded King Neptune with trident, rising from the waves on the back of a pair of dolphins. Artistic licence maybe? I’ve not met up with Neptune yet, though after a near drowning experience in the sea off Malta four years ago, I reckon I’m almost on speaking terms with him. The dolphins I have seen, bobbing about in the water along by Allonby on my trips out there with the family to Twentyman’s for ice-creams – something of a tradition on this coast. Anyway, safe to say, the book sold very slowly and after twenty-six years we are thankfully down to the last couple of parcels. The furthest copy we sold was to an Australian working in China.
The Solway region is vast; the tides are treacherous; it has an undersea bomb dump at Beaufort Dyke; it is very windy; few folk live there; there are no bookshops; and the birds outnumber the inhabitants by a thousand to one. Birds can actually read, so they tell me, but they have no cheque books or envelopes and not a single biro between them, so no orders forthcoming there. I laughingly said to my wife Sylvia, that if I died before we sold the stock, perhaps she could drop the parcels on top of the coffin lid to make sure I stayed below ground.
The book review we got in the Carlisle weekly paper didn’t help either. Somehow, through bad handwriting or a blind typesetter the book was reviewed under the title of Animals of the Solway, and those nature lovers who sent me cheques for the book, to a man, all asked for a refund.
Now if the typesetter had missed a letter N from the title, I might just have had a runaway bestseller on my hands.
© Michael Moon