Life

Pub culture, antiquarian books and a civilization in free fall

BY David Butterfield   /  7 August 2018

As an Edwardian reactionary trapped by clerical error in the body of a Millennial, I’ve become inured over my 33 years to the philistinic perversities of modernity. But I was shocked to find myself quite so shocked the other day. Even now, a week later, it’s still hard to talk about – but Reaction readers will be willing and able to lend a sympathetic ear.

I was in a pub, a space whose proudly pedestrian pace of change ought to keep it safe from the depredations of ‘progress’. Just a seat, a beer, and audible conversation will do the job perfectly nicely. But, for the enterprising landlord, this just won’t do. Instead the modern pub has myriad cosmetic fetishes: faux-industrial exposed interiors, deliberately mismatched chairs, incongruous ‘gourmet’ food proffered on a reclaimed roof-tile. And this is to say nothing of the palate-punishing, attention-seeking pint, aggressively infused with coriander or kale.

But the background to my miserable tale is pubs’ more recent obsession with scattering antiquarian books pell-mell into every nook and cranny. Perhaps pub companies infect themselves with this magpie-minded bibliomania in the hope of channelling the feel of the village-pub snug, which in a pre-digital age provided the sacrosanct service of an argument-settling reference library. Perhaps it is to reflect the gallimaufry of left-behind travelling books that accrete over decades on the walls of the old coaching inns. Perhaps it is to give, incongruously amidst the steel and biltong, the feel of the grand library abutting the bar of a provincial hotel.

Whatever the thinking, it’s no bad thing for all manner of books to sit there on the shelf for perusal by the curious. Yes, the purist may object that it’s an artifice: it’s not a careful curation of titles that reflect the local area, the regulars, or even the books immediately adjacent on the shelf. A handbook on the flora and fauna of Skye stands between an orphaned volume of The British Essayists and an impossibly serious manual on lawnmower maintenance. A whole host of unknown unknowns jostle for attention. But this reflects the joyous serendipity of the unpretentious second-hand bookshop, and that is all to the good. In fact, a good barman, though blinking in disbelief, will let you buy the odd title – in acquiring which he played no role – for a nominal sum.

But to get back to what set me shivering. This pub I sat in – a recent addition to the Cambridge scene and kitted out full-spec. in a prime location – had done the utterly unthinkable. It had taken random blocks of books, the sort of clump you could fit in a farmer’s hand, and actually glued them together, board pasted to board. A shelf of thirty assorted books, then, is in fact made up of six pieces. Try to pick up a title that takes your fancy, and it hauls up four or five of its nightmare neighbours. With some effort, you force open the contents of that book, but as you struggle to read anything inside it a couple of books splay open, akimbo in mid-air, on either side.

Someone, somewhere, stared down their colleagues and intoned sagely, ‘Of course, we’ll need to glue the books.’ Sober nodding followed – and perhaps no explanation was needed. But the thinking here is as unfathomable as it is unconscionable. If it’s for security, that is an atrocious way to treat paying customers, not least because a decent pint glass can easily outweigh a battered interwar paperback in value. If it’s instead for aesthetic reasons, of keeping the books arranged aright without a meddling customer moving them, it’s hard to think of anything more pathetic.

Books, it is true, have always flirted dangerously with surrounding furniture. The great aristocratic libraries had their ‘house’ bindings not so much to announce their rightful ownership as to provide a uniform appearance to the beautifully-tooled and finely-gilted spines stretching along their hardwood shelves. On occasion, a hidden door is disguised by a plausible-looking veneer of books. In the libraries of Chatsworth and the Travellers Club, for instance, Paddy Leigh Fermor had fun decorating these portals with similarly false works: Abel N. Willing’s, Consenting Adults and Ivor Guinness’ Through a Glass Darkly give you the idea. In recent decades, the vogue has emerged for trompe-l’œil wallpapers of antiquarian books – evidently an irresistible temptation for pub corridors. You may also be wearily familiar with mocked-up and hollowed-out books that spend their days as photograph stands, novelty bookends and VHS cases (anyone?).

The whole business has got sillier – and costlier. Not so long ago, I was sat next to a chap at dinner whose job was to cover the walls of hunting lodges and chocolate-box cottages with ‘walls of books’. Any favoured topics, I enquired? The response was unequivocal: ‘anything will do, so long as it looks authentic.’ It is the look of authenticity, not the reality, that carries weight with those prepared to spend many thousands on books they never intend to disturb. More than one interior designer has decided that books look prettier when shelved with spines facing inwards, a contrariness that ironically (if unwittingly) resurrects the practice of mediaeval librarians.

Well, compared to the carnage I stumbled across, I suppose it’s relatively cultured to leave books entirely unharmed on shelves. But, for someone to bulk-buy a tonne or so of second-hand books, to assort them very roughly by size or colour, and to sit there with a pot of glue, steadily spreading thick paste over leather and cloth covers, and squeezing them into an unmeaning medley of misery, a Sammelband of woe! The mind melts. Surely the irreversible destruction of books to satisfy the faux quirkiness of a bibliophobic ‘art-is-anal’ pseud needs to make it onto the statute book post haste?

Pubs should remember that, for ages of ages, they’ve been the bastion of unshowy simplicity and common-sense convenience. Forget that, and they soon enough leap into the furnace of untrammelled barbarism. If pubs really think that patrons will be impressed by the tokenism of tangible but forcibly unreadable books, then what remains of British pub culture urgently needs UNESCO World Heritage protection.

So here my story ended. Weeping into my pint, I drank up much the bitterest draught of the summer, and headed outside in search of civilisation.