Friday 8 July 2011

A Shot in the Dark: Short Stories by Saki (Hesperus Press, 2006)

Well, after that short, intermittent run of posts on my holiday adventures – which, you'll recall, largely consisted of me dragging Rachel into secondhand bookshops all over the south of England – it's back to the books. I've got a clutch of reviews I'm intending to write over the next few weeks of novels I read whilst I was away, including one I bought during the vacation, as well as at least one (related) series of posts planned, on a newly-discovered (from my perspective) espionage novelist. But first I thought we could take a look at a book that I also acquired during my fortnight's holiday – except, rather than purchasing it, it was given to me:

A Shot in the Dark was published in paperback by Hesperus Press in 2006, with a cover designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio, featuring an image by Lee Saper. A collection of short stories by Hector Hugh Munro – alias Saki – it was compiled by one Adam Newell, a longtime editor at pop culture publisher Titan Books. Now, those of you who've been paying attention at the back might dimly recall that I too once worked at Titan, so it shouldn't be a huge leap to make the connection between Adam and myself. Indeed, it was in large part for Adam's wedding – to the lovely Sharon Gosling, herself a talented editor-cum-writer – that Rachel and I travelled to Devon for our holiday the other week, and it was the day after that wedding that Adam gave me a copy of A Shot in the Dark.

I must confess to a certain level of ignorance about Saki; what little I do know about him comes from Adam, who's something of an expert. But the Cliff's Notes gen on him is he's widely regarded as a master of the short story form. In an all-too-brief career – he was born in 1870 and killed in 1916 during World War I – he produced around 150 or so pithy, mischievous, sly short stories (as well as two novels and three plays) which elegantly skewer the staid, stultifying Edwardian society of which he was a part. Some of the tales boast supernatural, eerie or unnervingly otherworldly – yet strangely commonplace in the way they're portrayed – elements, alongside, as Adam puts it in his introduction to A Shot in the Dark, "the ever-present threat of an unfettered, pagan wider world in which terrible things can, and usually do, happen".

I've yet to read all the stories in this collection; of the ones I have read, "Tobermory" stands out for me – a typically barbed tale of a talking cat whose cutting opinions of the guests at a house party introduce an amusing disquiet into proceedings (it's also one of Saki's best-loved tales). But the story behind the anthology is as fascinating as the thing itself. As Adam notes in his intro, the 140-odd Saki shorts that had been published prior to A Shot in the Dark were, for Saki fans, "all too soon devoured". Desperate for more Munro, Adam embarked on a hunt for uncollected stories, finding them in Munro's sister, Ethel's, long-out-of-print biography of her brother and enlisting the aid of Saki aficionado A. J. Langguth, who had combed through countless newspapers and magazines researching his biography of the writer, Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, in the process turning up a further six uncollected tales.

Armed with his bounty, Adam contacted Hesperus Press, whose modus operandi is bringing back into print little-seen public domain works by literary authors. Unsurprisingly they leapt at the chance to publish the scarcely-seen material Adam had ferreted out, the end result being A Shot in the Dark. And Adam even wound up on telly for his troubles, proving instrumental in the production of a 2007 BBC Four docu-drama, The Double Life of Saki, and appearing onscreen as an interviewee. All of which goes to show what a little dedication and persistence can achieve.

A heart-warming tale of fannish enthusiasm there (something I can certainly relate to). Next: Quiller.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

A Guide to the Secondhand Bookshops of Devon, Cornwall, London, Sussex and Kent, and the Books I Done Bought in Them

So, as anyone who's cast an eye over my two pictorial essays will have already learned, my two-week summer holiday proved to be something of a books bonanza – so much so that by the second week my long-suffering girlfriend had her head in her hands when I emerged from yet another secondhand bookshop basement clutching yet another stack of hardbacks, and was eventually reduced to tears when I left her in the cafe of Margate's recently-opened Turner Contemporary gallery to go on a feverish hunt for one last books emporium (I found it; it was crap). That Rachel indulged my passion/obsession with so little complaint and with such a dignified demeanour during the holiday (until she finally cracked, that is, which was entirely understandable) is to her eternal credit, and I can only apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly to her.

Mind you, it wasn't all books books books, despite appearances to the contrary. Part of the reason we were in Devon was for our friends Adam and Sharon's wedding – more on them, or at least Adam, in a moment – and there was plenty of sightseeing too, around the north Devon coast (Ilfracombe and Appledore – as seen above left – were particular favourites) and along the Tarka Trail, and then in week two around Chichester (Pagham Harbour is a birdwatcher's paradise... not that I'm a twitcher or anything...), up in London and over on the Kent coast (the aforementioned Turner Contemporary, which is a wonderful building boasting stunning views across Margate bay and the sea).

Then again, I did drag Rachel along to the British Library (archivists of this very blog, lest we forget) to see the science fiction exhibition "Out of this World" (very good, and gratifyingly showcasing a handful of SF first editions I myself own, including The Difference Engine), and while we were there we also had a look at the excellent "Treasures of the British Library" show, among the exhibits of which was the first page of J. G. Ballard's typed manuscript for Crash, much scrawled over and corrected by the author.

Admittedly, then, books, and indeed bookshops, did loom large over the fortnight. The second week saw trips to such familiar secondhand stores as Kim's in Chichester, which turned up trumps with an inexpensive first edition of Nevil Shute's On the Beach – you can see me reading it on the beach (hey!) at East Wittering up top – plus books by Raymond Chandler and Douglas Adams; London's Any Amount of Books – where I scored Anthony Price and P. D. James firsts – and Henry Pordes, which was the bookshop that led to Rachel's despairing head-clutching episode when I found four pristine George Pelecanos firsts in the bargain basement; and the various shops of Tunbridge Wells, which gave up Kingsley Amis and Adam Hall first editions.

But there were previously unexplored shops as well, both in the second week – the rammed-to-the-rafters Albion Bookshop in Broadstairs stands out; I secured Joseph Hone and William Haggard firsts there – and particularly during week one's sojourn to Devon. Highlights there included Bideford's bijou Allhalland Books (a pleasant little shop, although not really holding much of interest to me); Barnstaple's SolBooks (certainly better than the same town's Tarka Books, which was rubbish; the negative comments on The Book Guide are entirely apt); Appledore's BookRelief, a cute, ramshackle, backstreet place where I picked up a very early Michael Crichton first; and especially Books by the Sea (pictured above left), over the border in Bude, Cornwall. That last one proved a real find: shelf upon shelf of fiction upstairs, and then a huge basement with even more fiction (among other non-fictiony things, plus some comics). I came away with first editions of Kingsley Amis (again), William Haggard (again), Fletcher Knebel, Michael Dibdin, Peter Ackroyd, Jack Higgins and Ted Allbeury. It's a bloody good shop, but astonishingly Books by the Sea isn't even listed on The Book Guide, which I always figured was pretty comprehensive. Bit of a glaring oversight there.

All of which means there are yet more names to add to the list of forthcoming delights on Existential Ennui. Christ knows when I'll get round to blogging about the majority of them, but some of them will appear sooner than you'd think. First, though, in the next post, I'm going to be featuring a book that wasn't bought by me on my holidays, but rather given to me – by the aforementioned newly-wedded Adam, who compiled the short stories contained within it, all of which were written by one Hector Hugh Munro, an author who's rather better known by his pen name...

Monday 4 July 2011

Wot I Did on My Summer Holidays, by Louis XIV, Age 373 (2011 Reprise), Part 2; or, the Secondhand Bookshops of Chichester, London, Tunbridge Wells and Broadstairs

Aaaand I'm back. Again. Apologies for the longer-than-intended break from blogging, but I realised at the end of the first week of my holidays that I needed to take a bit more time away from the blog in order to properly relax and recuperate, even though I was back online (well – on and off). And now that the holiday is over, I can't promise there'll be daily posts again, either; I'd rather not be tied to a daily schedule on Existential Ennui, chiefly because I suspect I was starting to run myself a bit ragged – what with blogging, holding down a full-time job in publishing, plus all the other mundane bits and bobs that life has a tendency to throw in one's way – but also because there's something else brewing on the blogging front which, if it all pans out, will mean I simply won't have the time to post on here every day. (Don't worry, it's a good "something".) More on that anon.

Anyway, to ease myself back into the swing of things, having posted a visual essay of my time away in Devon a week ago, I thought I'd follow up with another pictorial essay-cum situationist internet installation (ahem), this time detailing the south east England leg of the holiday – and once again you'll quickly spot the overarching theme. (I'll probably follow up with a more general post on some of the bookshops and the books wot I done bought in them sometime over the next day or so.) As before, all pictures were taken by the long-suffering, fragrant Rachel, except the two crappy ones at the end, which were of course taken by yours truly. Enjoy.

Chichester, West Sussex

London, St. Pancras

London, Charing Cross Road / Cecil Court

London, South Bank

Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Broadstairs, Kent

The Further Ill-Gotten Gains