Sunday, 13 November 2011

Three New Titles from Little Toller Books

Illustration by Stephen Bone from 'The Military Orchid'
I love old books, and always have - there's nothing I can do about it now. As a writer I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it's rather sobering to scan the spines of hundreds of books, all once deemed worthy of publication and now entirely forgotten. An author may have written twenty, fifty or a hundred titles only a few decades ago and now be unknown to all but the lover of old books; we are like the people who explore graveyards, spinning stories from the inscriptions on the stones (OK, we're the same people). The graveyard reminds us of our mortality and the shelf of old books tells us that our success - whatever it may be - is fleeting.

On the other hand you never know when you might find a kindred spirit among a shelf of old books. I have more in common with Edward Thomas than with 90% of my contemporaries . I love his poetry but have a greater affection for some of his prose. 'In Pursuit of Spring' is a wonderful book, as is 'The South Country' - the story of the clerk who spends every summer working on the land expresses perfectly the rootlessness of modern (sub)urban life. Thomas befriended, championed and looked after the poet WH Davies, whose 'Autobiography of a Super-Tramp' I picked up the other day and read mostly in one sitting. Published in 1908 and written in simple, unsentimental prose, it is a frank account of a youth most people would consider misspent. The particular edition I found was from Jonathan Cape's Traveller's Library of the 1930s, and it looks, feels and smells as if a tramp had been carrying it around for a while.

The Saxon font at Little Toller
Not so my copy of 'The South Country', which is a new, sweet-smelling paperback published by Little Toller Books. Yes, there is a publisher that loves old books enough to rescue them from the charity shop and reissue them, and does so with style and economy. Inspired in part by Common Ground and their wonderful 'England in Particular', Little Toller has gone deep into the back catalogue, like Edward Thomas exploring the hidden lanes of Sussex and Hampshire, and pulled out a series of wonders. It is fitting that the press has as its emblem a figure from the Saxon font in the church at Little Toller in Dorset, one of artist and antiquarian John Piper's favourite objects.

Until this month there were twelve titles in Little Toller's Nature Classics Library. Alongside 'The South Country' there's Adrian Bell's 'Men and the Fields', which offers a fascinating picture of rural England shortly before World War Two, and books by Richard Jefferies and WH Hudson. Oh, and Richard Mabey's 'Unofficial Countryside' is in there too, which, since Mabey is still very much with us, rather brilliantly connects past and present. The books are nicely-weighted, reasonably-priced paperbacks with beautiful covers and illustrations by artists who are also in some cases long-forgotten.

Page from 'Sweet Thames Run Softly'
Recently three more titles have appeared, with the same distinctive covers, each colour-coded and bearing on the front a beautifully-reproduced painting. The most obvious choice, perhaps, is 'In the Country', Kenneth Allsop's account of life in Dorset which was first published in 1972. A famous TV presenter of the day (a kind of celebrity that fades even faster than literary renown), Allsop was also an energetic conservationist; this book charts a year at the old mill he and his family moved to from London, combining history, environmental debate and witty observations of nature:

Outside my window a dove is working itself up into a lather. Nervous collapse is imminent. It struts like a Grenadier drill sergeant. Its neck is curved as a drawn bow. Its chest bulges with simmering aggressiveness. It pounds the balcony tiles with pink feet. From its throat comes a furious rumbling. It is spluttering with foiled rage... How, I wonder once more, did the dove become the emblem of peace?

The name Robert Gibbings seemed familiar when I saw the second book, 'Sweet Thames Run Softly', but it took a moment to remember that he ran the Golden Cockerel Press in the late 1920s and early 1930s, commissioning Eric Ravilious and other wood engravers to illustrate his books. Gibbings was himself a talented wood engraver and in this book combined the roles of writer and illustrator to beautiful effect. Like 'Men and the Fields', this book takes us on a tour of England just before the war, only in this case the journey was down the Thames in a home-made glass-bottomed punt.

Cover image: David Inshaw, 'Oak Tree, Bonfire and Fireworks', 2004
This kind of particularity defines the Little Toller list as much as the interest in natural history. Each of the authors plucked from the past has an individual vision and an unusual way of going about things, although few are as odd as Jocelyn Brooke. I had no idea who this was, although I did recognise the painting on the cover of 'The Military Orchid' as the work of David Inshaw, and not being particularly interested in orchids I dipped into the book only to find that the flowers are only part of the story. Brooke was by all accounts an odd chap, an observer of flora and people who tried his hand at various aspects of 'real life' and in the end preferred to live in the country with his childhood nanny and write a stream of books.

From an Edwardian childhood to service in a mobile VD clinic during World War Two his memoir is funny, acerbic and full of life, surely one of the most interesting books to be published this autumn. I particularly enjoyed his frankness as a botanist, his admission that he preferred the experts who supported his identification of a particular plant and confession that many plants bored him silly. Here's the opening:

Mr Bundock's function, so far as my family was concerned, was to empty the earth-closet twice a week at the cottage where we used to spend the summer. This duty he performed unobtrusively and usually late at night: looming up suddenly in the summer dusk, earth-smelling and hairy like some menial satyr... He became of sudden interest to me one June evening by asserting, quite calmly, that he had found the lizard orchid. 

I wonder what they'll dig up next...


  1. I have many such forgotten treasures in my collection, and consider it a shame that so many are, as you say, forgotten (I hold a much cherished wish that one day the ubiquitous Harry Potter churnings will meet such a fate and our ancestors will scratch their heads, wondering what all the hysteria was about). Thank you for posting about the Little Toller books, I have just found the website and am browsing happily.

  2. Thanks Gretel - the great thing about the internet is that we can now share info about lost books so easily - do you have any particular favourites in your collection?

  3. Little Toller Books are new to me, they do however publish a book which I have loved for many years now "Four Hedges" by Clare Leighton. Thanks for the link.

  4. Thank you for the Little Toller books information: a few Christmas present problems solved. I remember puzzling out the Autobiography of a Super-Tramp title in my absent father's bookshelves as a child, sheltering under the table from the Blitz. Thank you too both for your own publications and for the articles published here online. TR

  5. Tom and acornmoon, your comments are much appreciated. Thanks.

  6. They're lovely books! I like Robert Gibbings' work, both words and pictures; I was excited a while ago (easily excited, me) to recognise his house in Wales in a photo in Flickr's GWUK group, from one of his woodcuts in Coming Down The Wye...

  7. Most of the books I read seem to be old ones. Little Toller have some great ones on their list. I especially liked Mabey's (not so old) The Unofficial Countryside, Thomas's The South Country (I hope they reprint Thomas's The Heart of England, which to my mind contains the best of his prose) and Bell's Men And The Fields (I'm a fan of his other books, especially Corduroy, Silver Ley, and The Cherry Tree). Now I'm looking forward to Jocelyn Brooke, who sounds like my kind of weirdo.

  8. Dru - it's one of life's great pleasures, isn't it, spotting a real place you know from a picture...

    Philip - I haven't read Bell's farming trilogy but it's on the list

    Thanks for your comments!

  9. I love these! I am gradually working my way through them. 'Men and the Fields' and 'Four Hedges' have been a true delight. The illustrations and covers as much as the text.

  10. Jeanne Pimentel15 August, 2016

    I am so glad to see Robert Gibbings's book being reissued. Do you plan to do more of his series on rivers?