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 Family, Personal life, Writing

Bring Back the Magic Roundabout

Cover a souvenir hardback book, The Best of Dougal
I couldn’t resist buying this secondhand souvenir book of The Magic Roundabout when my daughter was little

When I was a child,  national and international news featured very little in my world view. My parents took a daily newspaper, but I would have been too preoccupied with my comics to pay much attention to their paper.

Television news didn’t feature much in our family viewing, because it was only on at tea-time and bedtime. If I caught the headlines, it was by chance rather than on purpose, because I was still sitting in front of the telly after watching The Magic Roundabout, or whatever other children’s programme preceded the news in those precious five minutes beforehand.

The gentle humour and underlying moral message delivered by Dougal and friends provided a warm feeling to brace us for whatever bad news the evening bulletin might bring. It was the televisual equivalent of lining your stomach with a glass of milk before a night out imbibing strong drink.

The radio news was even less prominent in my life, and chiefly in the form of The World at One, its opening pips the signal that it was time for me to go back to school after having lunch at my maternal grandma’s.

I’m forever grateful to BBC Radio 4 for scheduling timeless classics such as Desert Island Discs and Just A Minute at 12.25pm each weekday, when Grandma and I would be sitting down to eat.

The theme music of Desert Island Discs still makes me think of cold lamb and bubble and squeak and Grandma’s delicious gooseberry tart with a slightly metallic flavour from being stored overnight in the tin she’d baked it in.

I think Desert Island Discs must have been broadcast on Mondays, when Grandma was serving up leftovers from her Sunday dinner.

Pic of a Desert Island Discs book and a retro style radio
I just had to buy this book celebrating the iconic Desert Island Discs, still on air after eighty years!

That’s not to say that as a child I was completely ignorant of current affairs. I remember Grandma, born in 1900, impressing upon me the significance of Churchill’s funeral as a tribute to a great man and the end of an era. I would have just turned 5. I can even recall JFK’s assassination, more because of the unprecedented appearance in our kitchen of the sobbing next-door neighbour who ran in to break the news to us, rather than because I had any idea of the political significance. Well, I was only 3.

On our weekly visit to my paternal grandparents, my grandfather used to pass me his evening newspapers when he got home from work. Commuting from Sidcup to London, he’d buy both the Evening Standard and its rival the Evening News to read on the train home. I was only interested in the picture crosswords and the cartoons. The hard news passed me by.

How differently will the current generation of children remember national and world news when they’re my age? In our multimedia age, however their parents consume their news, newspaper, radio, TV or online, children seem to have no escape from gruelling and traumatising headlines. I just wish they’d bring back The Magic Roundabout to soften the blow, for adults and children alike.

This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, April 2022.


line drawing of Hector's House by T E Shepherd
Hector’s House bookshop – by Thomas Shepherd (Copyright Thomas Shepherd

My love of those old pre-news children’s shows is the reason why the village bookshop in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is called Hector’s House.

I’d already decided the proprietor – and Sophie’s future romantic interest – would be called Hector Munro (more about that choice in another blog post here). As Sophie’s late Great Auntie May had been a benefactor to Hector when setting up his bookshop, and had a sense of fun, I decided she would insist that he call the shop by the name of her choice – which was Hector’s House.

Hector and Sophie are not old enough to have seen the tea-time children’s show featuring the amiable puppet dog – but I think Sophie at least would have appreciated his catchphrase and its variants that always closed the show: “I’m just a great big lovable old Hector.”

Find out more about the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries here.