Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

The Curious Comfort of Unusual Books

opening page of The Return of Sherlock Holmes in shorthand
The code-loving Holmes would approve

A glance at the many bookshelves in my crowded cottage reveals that I’m an avid buyer of secondhand books. Not because I’m too mean to pay full price for new, but because I collect vintage curiosities. Most cost me pence rather than pounds. Their appeal is their eccentricity, not their market value. The most unusual book I own is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes printed entirely in Pitman’s Shorthand. I can’t read shorthand, but I like to think keen code-breaker Sherlock Holmes would love it as much as I do.

My most recent acquisition is My Flying Scrap Book by Major CC Turner, the first professional journalist to gain a pilot’s licence. Published during the Second World War, his book draws on his 36 years of flying experience. Yes, 36. First airborne just five years after the Wright Brothers, he flew planes resembling the Kitty Hawk. He also travelled in hot air balloons and airships.

One of the many things I love about Major Turner’s book is that it conforms to the stringent standards of the Book Production War Economy Standard (BPWES) indicated by a patriotic lion-topped logo. Agreed between the Ministry of Supply and the Publishers’ Association, the BPWES code called for publishers to reduce paper usage by 60%, specified a minimum number of words per page and eliminated unnecessary white space.

the logo of books produced to War Economy Standard
A suitably economical logo for War Economy Standard books

Despite thin, rough paper stock and light, plain covers, the books are very durable. My war-time editions of Dorothy L Sayers novels are almost as good as new, whereas my 1970s paperbacks are too frail to read.

The BPWES books are lightweight and slim, about a third as thick as modern paperbacks, and despite the small type, surprisingly easy on the eye.

Interestingly, the code did not constrain subject matter. While books considered essential to the war effort were allowed a more generous paper ration, all books were deemed worth publishing. I even have a BPWES book entitled A Book About Books, by Frederick Harrison, a fascinating jaunt through the history of books, reading and publishing.

cover of A Book about Books
Still a covetable book despite stringent wartime production standards

Why don’t modern publishers emulate war-time practice to reduce paper use and shipping costs? As well as benefitting the environment, the slimmer format would enable booksellers to stock a wider range. Readers like me who are constantly running out of shelf-space would love them. The argument that plainer books would have less customer appeal does not convince me.

Even with their minimalist production standards, book sales grew during the war, because books provide comfort and escape from the horrors of the daily news – a sentiment we can still relate to today.

Books and reading will always help sustain people in adverse conditions, and if a society can keep producing books, and readers keep buying them, there is hope for us all. As Tove Jansson, writing her first Moomin book in war-torn Finland, has Moominmamma declare, “At last! Books! Now we’ll get by.”

This post was originally written for the April 2022 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser.

Secondhand Books in My Books

cover of Murder by the Book

My passion for secondhand and vintage books has spilled over into my fiction. In the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder by the Book, Hector and Sophie snap up vintage books from a car boot sale in Clevedon, where they go to visit his parents, and one of these turns out to be a rare Gaelic volume which will be at the heart of the mystery in book 8, A Fling with Murder, which I’m about to start writing.

Order your copy of Murder by the Book here or ask for it at your local bookshop. 

cover of Murder Lost and FoundIn Sophie’s most recent adventure, Murder Lost and Found, there is a sub-plot about Hector’s private collection of secondhand books, which Sophie is pressing him to turn into a commercial venture. When he employs a pretty young student to catalogue them for him, she begins to wonder whether this was such a good idea.

Order your copy of Murder Lost and Found here or ask for it at your local bookshop. 

All seven of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are available to buy in ebook for Kindle (free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers) and paperback online or to order from your favourite local bookshop. 

Posted in Writing

Just What Dr Watson Ordered? – In Praise of the Original Sherlock Holmes and Comfort Reading

My column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of the March edition
Click the image to read the rest of this month’s Tetbury Advertiser

Worn down by a bleak and hostile environment filled with threats, this month I turned to an old friend for comfort. No, I’m not talking about our current political climate, but about the final episode of the television series Sherlock.

Holmes regenerates in different guises more frequently than Dr Who, with over 200 films listed by IMDB. Although I loved the earlier episodes of the Cumberbatch incarnation, the finale left me cold. It was as if the cast had taken a wrong turning and ended up on the set of a James Bond villain’s lair. I craved the cosy retreat that is the centre of the world for the original Holmes and Watson: 221b Baker Street.

221b or Not 221b?

Photo of front of museum
Outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum

What a stroke of genius it was for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to add the “b” to that address. With a single letter, he suggests the quirky subversiveness of a hero who makes up his own rules and isn’t afraid to stand up against the establishment – a true hero then and now.

These days the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street claims that door number as its own, but it’s actually just a plaque on the wall. The address is and always was fictitious, a Narnian wardrobe that many have sought but never found.

Comfort Reading

In times of trouble, whether personal, national or international, fictional characters and places can offer as much consolation as real ones, and often more.  Sinking recently into the opening pages of Holmes’ first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, which I’d nominated as the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club’s February Book of the Month, was like stepping into a hot bubble bath after running through a thunderstorm with neither raincoat nor umbrella. Elegant prose, cracking storytelling and engaging characters lured me into a world where there may still have been crime and hatred, but where there’s also the inevitability of resolution and the triumph of good over evil.

A Story for Our Times

badge saying "I am Sherlocked"Subtle moral lessons are woven in along the way. I’d forgotten that one of the themes of A Study in Scarlet is religious tolerance, the crime revolving around questionable acts by Mormons in nineteenth-century Utah. Over a century after publication, it’s a story still relevant to our times.

So if you’re troubled by the state of the world in 2017, Dr Watson would surely prescribe spending time in the company of the original “consulting detective”, Sherlock Holmes, as he first emerged from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Though you may feel, as I do, that if Benedict Cumberbatch appeared up on your doorstep, you wouldn’t turn him away. Alternative medicine, perhaps?

Photo of Debbie holding a box set of Sherlock Holmes books
That’s my comfort reading sorted (Photo by presenter Dominic Cotter in the studio of his BBC Radio Gloucestershire lunch time show)

What’s your favourite comfort reading? I’d love to know!

logo giving date of next Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest
Admission free and everyone welcome!

Find more comfort in books and reading when you come along to the FREE Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 22nd April 2017 in the delightful Cotswold village that I call home. I’m looking forward to unveiling my own mystery series there, Best Murder in Show. Come and join the fun!