Thursday 15 December 2016

Denis Healey's George V. Higgins Book Collection

Every year, the East Sussex village of Alfriston – not far from the East Sussex town of Lewes, where I live and work – holds a Summer Festival. Often as not I'll pop over there on the summer bank holiday, usually on the Monday when there's also a boot sale in the playing field as well as, on the beautiful village green beside the River Cuckmere, a selection of stalls and games and rides. Best of all – and this is something I'd completely forgotten until I got there this year – there's a secondhand book stall; more of a marquee really, with tables arranged in a circle, laden with boxes stuffed with fiction and non-fiction (hardback and paperback).

Rifling through the wares this year I started to notice a number of George V. Higgins books among the selection of hardback fiction. Higgins is an author I've tried once (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, his 1972 debut) and keep meaning to return to – a noted stylist whose novels, many of them of a crime fiction bent, others of a political persuasion, are largely comprised of long stretches of dialogue, with little if any description. The more I looked in the boxes of books, the more Higgins I found. Evidently someone in Alfriston was a fan... but then I started looking inside the books, at the ownership signatures on the front endpapers of one or two of the books and, in some cases, inscriptions on title pages from Higgins himself, and realised who that fan was: former Secretary of State for Defence (1964–70), Chancellor of the Exchequer (1974–79) and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (1980–83) Denis Healey.

Healey, who passed away in 2015, and his wife Edna, who died in 2010, amassed a huge book collection over 40 years at their Alfriston home, much of which was bought by local bookshop Much Ado Books (a shop I've written about more than once on Existential Ennui), and some of which wound up in an Alfriston book sale in September (which, annoyingly, I didn't find out about until well after the fact). The collection ranged across a variety of subjects – art, photography, history, poetry, literature and, it seems, George V. Higgins.

Only a couple of the Higgins books I found on the stall had Healey ownership signatures in them, and just three were signed and inscribed by Higgins, but I bought the whole lot anyway (twelve books at a quid each) as it was almost certain they all belonged to Healey and it seemed right to keep the collection together (or at least as much of it as possible; there may have been other Higgins book bought by other folks before I got to them). According to the dated ownership signature in the earliest book I came across, a 1973 Secker & Warburg first of The Digger's Game (Higgins' second novel), Healey bought that one in 1977, and then at some point his and Higgins' paths must have crossed, judging by the warm author inscriptions in Victories (Henry Holt, 1990), Bomber's Law (Henry Holt/Owl paperback, 1994) and Swan Boats at Four (Little, Brown, 1995).

A couple of the books are association copies: a 1979 Harper & Row edition of A Year or So with Edgar, which is inscribed to Healey by Kit McMahon, former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England; and a 1987 Holt edition of Outlaws, which is inscribed by political scientist Graham Allison, with a compliment slip from Libor founder Milos Zombanakis.

And on a separate book stall in the boot fair field I found a 1974 Doubleday edition of Penelope Mortimer's Long Distance, inscribed by Mortimer to Edna Healey, thanking her for "a BBC birthday".

Quite the collection all told.


  1. What a find! That is so cool. I have not read Higgins, although I am interested in trying his books, but I still would have bought some of those.

  2. I used to love coming across a new George V. Higgins book at the library; he was a top favorite and I was saddened when I read of his death. I admit his style took a little getting used to; I frequently had to stop and backtrack in the middle of one of his protracted conversations to figure out who said what. Nonetheless, I always enjoyed the stories. One seldom hears about him any more. Thanks for mentioning him.

  3. I came across Denis Healey in the 1970's when I was at Leeds University. He was in a second-hand bookshop at Hyde Park. I was a big admirer, but it seemed rude to interrupt his browsing, so I just got on with my own. These signed books seem like relics from a more civilised age...