Tuesday, 29 January 2008

RON TAYLOR AT BERTRAM ROTA, 1964-1990, being some anecdotes by an old colleague

Ron Taylor and I were near contemporaries in terms of joining the staff of Bertram Rota Ltd. in 1964. My first day was 7th September and Ron’s was the 28th. However, while Ron was a highly experienced and knowledgeable bookseller who had come to run Rota’s expanding antiquarian department, I was merely a novice who was learning the ropes in their very well-established Modern First Editions business in Bodley House in Vigo Street.

For a while after his arrival Ron was something of a mystery figure to the Bodley House staff. His department, comprising himself and a secretary, was housed in separate premises in Vigo Street, on three floors of a tall, thin building above the newsagents shop run by the redoubtable but kindly Miss Napoleon. This slight geographical separation served Ron well in those early days, allowing him to concentrate on sorting out what he described as the 'shambles' left by his predecessor. Once everything was sorted, organized and catalogued to his satisfaction we began to see him more frequently at Bodley House and since my duties included escorting visitors to and fro and a good deal of general fetching and carrying along the narrow pavement between the two buildings I was often in his room at the very top of the building and able to learn more about the stock he kept there.
I soon discovered that curiosity allied to a half-way intelligent question could unlock Ron’s huge fund of bookselling knowledge, lore and anecdote. He would move about his tiny office pulling books off the shelves to explain 'points', show me a Nelson letter, or an early tract on agriculture, and all with equal enthusiasm. Sooner or later a relevant anecdote would occur to him and generally he was about halfway through when the house phone would ring and someone from Bodley House would be demanding to know whether Ron had kidnapped me. Of course, I never addressed him as 'Ron'. In those much more formal days he was always 'Mr Taylor' or 'Sir' to me and I was always 'Mr Scott' to him.

I got to know Ron really well when I had my first experience of the effects of true bibliomania. I was assigned to help him in clearing the library of a recently deceased actor who had lived in a large house in Mill Hill. Each morning I would take the tube to Mill Hill East and Ron would meet me in his car and drive us to the house. On the first morning he said little about what I could expect when we reached the house, other than the fact that the actor had left a proportion of his collection to an institutional library. When we arrived a large truck was leaving, loaded down to the wheel arches with the bequest. I said something to the effect that there couldn’t be much left. Ron’s response was a grin and 'Wait and see.’ I didn’t have to wait long. The hallway seemed quite normal, but behind that the house was stuffed with books, including the coal hole, and a large summerhouse and shed in the garden were similarly packed to the eaves. I couldn’t see where a single book might have been removed to load down that truck. We spent several winter days literally wading through books, sorting and evaluating as we went and eventually cleared the house. Each lunchtime we would repair to the local pub and over a pie and a pint (cider in Ron’s case) we would discuss our findings, calculate valuations on the back of an envelope and speculate on what we might find next. I learnt a lot about bookselling and about Ron’s life and times in those winter days in Mill Hill.

It was during the Mill Hill pub lunches that Ron started calling me by my first name, but even then it didn’t seem 'correct' for me to call him anything other than 'Mr Taylor'. The pub was also the venue for yet more of his anecdotes, this time without interruptions. One concerned the widow left in straitened circumstances by her academic husband. Ron was called in to buy the library, but found little of worth except a large collection of Bernard Shaw with whom the academic had enjoyed an acquaintanceship over many years. Most of the books were inscribed by Shaw and Ron made a generous offer for them. The widow duly accepted and Ron made an appointment to return, hand over a cheque and collect the books. When he returned he found the widow seated before a roaring fire. To one side of her chair were stacks of the Shaw volumes and in the fire fluttered shreds of charred and burnt paper. Ron watched horrified as the widow tore the inscriptions from the last couple of volumes and threw the leaves on the fire, explaining as she did so that it would not be proper to allow Shaw’s inscriptions to be read by anyone other than her husband. Ron took no pleasure in explaining exactly why the books were no longer of any value to him, but restrained himself from throwing the now useless cheque into the flames as well.

During Ron’s time with Bertram Rota he was instrumental in negotiating many important sales, but one of which he was particularly proud was that of a library from Portugal. It had been founded in the nineteenth century to provide reading matter for an expatriate British community involved in the production and export of port and the time had come when the descendants of the founders decided to dispose of the, by then, largely unread early fiction. Ron went to Portugal and discovered a horde of books that had lain untouched for decades, many in outstanding condition. Ron undertook negotiations in Portugal and London and personally oversaw the packing of the books in many crates. Had he been able to do so I am sure that he would have flown back in the cargo bay sitting on top of them. I remember the joy, tempered with concern for their condition after the flight, with which he unpacked them. Moreover, it was not the fine first of Frankenstein, or the run of Jane Austen that gave him the greatest pleasure, but rather all the shelves of anonymous, pseudonymous and wholly forgotten three-decker novels that delighted him most.

The decision had been taken early on that the library must be kept intact and Ron duly found a client ready, willing and able to do this. I’m sure that his pride and pleasure in a successful sale was tinged with more than a little sadness as he watched all those lovely three-deckers being carefully packed back into their crates.

I went on a number of calls with Ron when both Modern Firsts and antiquarian books were involved. He was of no great height and from my point of view as a passenger his driving posture always appeared to be somewhat lower than that of the top arc of the steering wheel. Nevertheless, I always felt completely safe, except once. We were on a mercy dash to the home counties where a client’s house had been damaged by fire. By some miracle his precious library had been unaffected by flame, smoke, or water from the fire brigade’s hoses, but he needed to have the books removed and stored safely. Ron hired a large van and was unhappy with it from the outset, finding the steering sloppy and unpredictable. However, the journey down was accomplished safely and the books packed and loaded. The journey back to town was undertaken in almost complete silence as Ron wrestled with the steering and concentrated on making sure that we and the books all reached base safely. I recall that he spoke only once, when the van veered and its passenger side mirror met the mirror of a parked van, snapped off at the root and pinged past my window. 'Hmm,’ muttered Ron; 'I thought that had looked a bit loose.’

Like all experienced antiquarian booksellers Ron had developed a sixth sense for a 'good book', even if it was far outside his usual areas of expertise. Moreover, on my trips with him I discovered that he had well-developed ability as a 'shellac detector', used for tracking down 78 records, first for his own collection and later for stock in preparation for the day when he retired from bookselling and took up dealing in rare records. This was an interest that had grown out of his love for music and especially for that of Sir Edward Elgar. He even went to the trouble of tracking down some records for my Great War collection. Indeed, long after Ron left Bertram Rota he remembered my interest in the period and once in a while an envelope would arrive from him containing cuttings and ephemera on various aspects of 1914-1918, accompanied by a note in his distinctive hand expressing the hope that they 'Might be of interest?' They always were.

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