Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Nice One, Cyril

I've always found that the unexpected Christmas gifts are the best ones. When I was small, even though I would have spent several over-excited nights in anticipation of receiving a train set or a tape recorder from my parents, I usually ended up spending the days following Christmas Day entranced by a knitted soft toy from my godmother, or a battery-operated torch from a grandparent, or, as I recall with great fondness, a fat grey "Home Study" dictionary which became a beloved companion, given to me by my uncle Colin who, sadly, died in the week before Christmas this year.

As I think I've already mentioned, in recent years my partner and I have endured a series of deaths that has removed most of the senior generation from both of our families. Apart from the customary sadness and a slightly grim sense that we have ourselves now entered the front rank in the losing battle with mortality, one of the main legacies of this has been piles upon piles of boxes upon boxes of inherited stuff. And, as I think I've also already mentioned, we're not good with stuff.

We are barricaded and corralled by stuff. No door, no cupboard, no passageway is unobstructed. We are constrained and constricted by tottering piles of paper, bubble-wrapped objects, and stacked crates and boxes. Substantial surplus items of furniture loom like the proverbial elephant in the room, presences so large as to have become invisible. You think I exaggerate?

This is our entrance hall, front room, and dining room
(after the pre-Christmas tidy up...)

Sigh. My partner is the main conduit of most of this stuff; I don't exaggerate when I say that I took my legacy home from my father's funeral in a carrier bag. She, by contrast, has filled several vans with hers. Her family has comprised people of substance for several generations, and the stuff of people of substance, it seems, is peculiarly sticky. Quantities of letters, diaries, photo albums, books, jewellery, pictures and furniture that have passed and snowballed through several generations are now stashed away in unlabelled boxes or propped up in every available nook and cranny of our modest house. It's as if History came to visit one weekend and decided to stay.

Whilst attempting to make enough space to shift the marble-topped washstand that traditionally bears our Christmas tree from one room to another, I happened to stop and take a look through a box of books inherited from the Prof's grandfather, Cyril B., who had been a classics don at Oxford. Scholars' copies of books can be fascinating (to other scholars, at any rate) for their annotations and inclusions. As a librarian, I know only too well what bizarre objects can serve as bookmarks, so I flipped through a few with some curiosity. As expected, various objects emerged -- ranging from schoolmasters' letters querying points of grammar to bus tickets -- as well as the usual pencilled notes. But one book, a small volume neatly bound in leather with gilded edges like a prayer book, made me gasp with astonishment when I opened it.

If I say that the first thing I noticed was the age of the paper and the publisher's device, a dolphin curved around an anchor, you may guess where this is going. The name Aldus Manutius may not mean much to most people, but to students of books and printing it is a name to conjure with. Working in Venice in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Aldus was one of those Italian humanist scholars who, in effect, invented the Renaissance. He set up one of the first publishing houses, with the express intention of gathering together the best manuscripts of classical sources, and making them widely available in printed form. Amongst other achievements, it was Aldus who created the first italic type. In my hands, in our own house, I was holding an octavo Aldine edition of Lucretius, in perfect condition, printed in 1515, and beautifully rebound in red leather. OMG. WTF. LOL.

My son, who is a budding historian, was stunned. FIFTEEN FIFTEEN! That's, like, before Luther's theses, that's before Henry met Anne Boleyn, that's impossible! Unlikely, yes; impossible, no -- not in a house where History is a tolerated house guest, camped out in cardboard boxes.

I think I can feel a new year's resolution coming on... A spot of exploratory archaeology may be in order. After all, also in the box was the Baskerville edition of Lucretius of 1772, which I'd noticed before (but almost boring after the Aldus Manutius, of course...)

Sunset & storm over Southampton Water,
from Old Winchester Hill, Boxing Day

Just to lower the tone a bit, I discovered recently that in Ireland those ubiquitous plastic bags caught in the branches of trees and thrumming in the wind are known as "witches' knickers". Isn't that perfect?

Afterthought: Is it just me, or does the Aldine dolphin bear a strong resemblance to Roadrunner and/or Sonic the Hedgehog?


seany said...

Time to review the house contents insurance cover? Mike, nice find I'm sure you've probably got a few more undiscovered treasures amongst that lot.
On the "witches' knickers" this unsightly scene is now very rare in Ireland since free plastic bags were banned in shops and supermarkets by "ministerial order" one of the few things our politicians got right.
Regards Michael.

Gavin McL said...

I'm afraid our post Christmas clear out did not reveal such treasures, though the children treated some of the long (3-4 months) lost toys located like your Aldus.
I helped my father clear out my Grandmothers house when she died, the gem I located was a first edition "Now we are six" complete with 3 generations of scribbles and torn pages some of which I was responsible for.
Good luck with your interior archeology - Like the storm photo.
I was in the Northern portion of Ireland and the witches are still flying through the hedgerow there
Have a good Hogmanay

Kent Wiley said...

I don't envy you the task of digging out, Mike. When you find treasures such as you did, it's obvious that nothing can be simply thrown out.

As for the witches' knickers term, The Atlantic Wordsearch did a piece on alternates a few years ago, some rather amusing. You can see it here.