Here begineth a tale…
I’m here to see a beach about a dog. That dog is leaping through waves on the shoreline on a near-deserted sand, a black streak against the almost-white sugar for which this Northumberland bay is named. My sister rests her recently broken ankle on the rocks in the distance. Geoff walks towards us. A couple of kids dabble in rockpools while someone else is setting up an agility course for their collie. Oh and a shaven-headed monk hitches up his saffron robes against the trail of sand as he chats to his rucksacked companion.
What happens next involves one of those small collisions of time. Around the far corner of the cove the ghostly ruins of medieval Dunstanburgh Castle are clear against a blue morning sky. Above us the old pilgrim path St Cuthbert’s Way tracks north of Boulmer and along the coast to Holy Island, Lindisfarne. Sound swirls and carries away. Angles, planes dissolve and a flurry of mad black dog loses the plot. It rushes towards the monk. I blow wildly on a football whistle, and my sister – who cannot hear a thing – yells at the beast to come here. The dog runs from us to her to monk and back before settling on Geoff who plods steadily over the sands as I berate dog, sister, myself, dog again, in hushed British tones. I bet you any money, I say, they’re the people I’m meeting this afternoon. Don’t be ridiculous, he says. What are the chances of that?
I am taking tea with Mary Manley, owner of Barter Books at Alnwick station, one of the largest second hand bookshops in Britain and a magnet for bibliophiles, cake lovers, and model railway enthusiasts (it has one, built by Mary’s husband and co-owner Stuart, running on a mounted track throughout the building). The place is, as ever, an experience, a certain stepping back into another dimension full of bookcases, Keep Calm and Carry On paraphernalia, blazing fires, and Brief Encounters. Two of her friends are joining us in a moment, a monk from the Buddhist monastery at Belsay nearby and monastery trustee John Bower. They remember the dog.
John remembers Chaucer too, at least the detested study of him in school, all line by line translation and the sun calling outside. I remind him of Mary’s manuscript, the almost-forty grand’s worth of it, and what she told me just before we all settled down in the first class waiting room that is now one of three cafes here in this treasure-trove bookshop: ‘It was pricey,’ she said, ‘but who could resist such a beautiful book.’
And so it fell upon a day, an hour or so after, that I take a last look at a facsimile version of the ‘real’ manuscript I am here to view. This one is a mere snip in comparison to the rare copy Mary has tucked away in the vault. £260 will buy you The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. A Facsimile of the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer, translated by Neville Coghill, and published by The Folio Society, London. It still has the woodcuts from Kelmscott throughout. It was bought by Mary and Stuart at around the same time as her precious original but from a different auction house. That Kelmscott is an original, one of only 425 ever printed and acquired from Lyon and Turnbull at an Edinburgh auction a year or so ago, provenance unknown. I’m guessing this is the same copy advertised on the auction site as having sold in September 2014 for a rather large sum of money, and re-advertised here in Barter Books on a small postcard next to the facsimile version I’m standing admiring in its glass case. As is the man next to me.
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ he says. I agree. Then: ‘But what about this?’ he says indicating the card about The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Kelmscott Press, edited by William Morris, illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones, 1896. ‘Have you seen the price of it?’ I assure him I have. This amazing book will set you back a cool 39 thousand pounds. ‘Wish I could see that one,’ he says. I hesitate but only for a moment. ‘ I just have,’ I say.
You must forgive my boast. When Michelle spotted a Rare Books section on the Barter Books website no-one was expecting a Kelmscott. Neither was I anticipating anyone would let me look at it, let alone an invitation to tea and cake from the bookshop owner, or the almost casual permission to take as long as I liked with what Burne-Jones once described as ‘like a pocket cathedral’. And so it is. Its blue holland-backed boards are maybe a little worse for wear and some of its page edges ragged. But open it up and inside is the freshest high-quality paper and the thick bold ink strokes of its clear, regular print – almost hand-written, exactly as William Morris envisaged it. The 87 illustrations conceived by Burne-Jones are striking – the hag perched on the edge of the bed in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the lavish pictures of the Knight’s a narrative in themselves – ; enough to haunt anyone long after the book has been closed. On its flyleaf there are but few clues to the journey this book has taken over the years. A small neat column of figures and dates record just some of the times it has exchanged hands: on five occasions between 1945 and ’64, and sold by Basil Blackwell for 120 guineas, which coincidentally is the exact same purchase price of Morris’s special edition – the white pigskin versions – of the first Kelmscott print runs in 1896. And a dedication from a father to his son Guy, presumably the last owner of this fabulous book.
Back with the man I’m talking to as we gaze at the facsimile Kelmscott, the synchronicities threading this piece continue their strange tapestry. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘my grandfather had one of these, sixty years ago.’ ‘A facsimile?’ I say. ‘No, an original.’ I turn to look at him more closely, as if half-expecting the ghost of Chaucer to pop up behind us. We both laugh, sudden, nervous, overwhelmed. ‘He sold it. To fund a holiday to South Africa……….None of us knew how valuable it was…..I wish I could get my hands on it now.’ I say, what are the chances of me talking to someone who had a Kelmscott Chaucer as an heirloom? It turns out Andrew’s grandfather, Ernest Porter, was a huge William Morris fan. We both wonder how he even acquired the copy, let alone what really transpired to persuade him to part with it – or to whom, and what he sold it for.
My tale is almost at an end. There has been a medieval castle ruin; a coastal path named after an ancient and famous saint; a monk – albeit a contemporary one -; a bookseller as passionate about books as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones were crazy about all things medieval; not one but two copies of a Chaucer afterlife, a Kelmscott printed in Morris’s own design, black and red ink, Chaucer type, its own hand-produced monument to another ‘better’ age; and my own convoluted but life-shaping ‘medieval’ connection.
In the Barter Books cafe my tea grows cold. Abinhando wonders about my accent, not local, something he can’t quite define. I’m vague, as ever: somewhere in the Midlands, I say. Birmingham even, says John, quick as a flash. My daughter works there, he explains. It tunrs out she’s the International Alumni Officer for the University of Birmingham, my home city and where I became a medievalist (long story). I don’t say what are the chances of that. Small worlds, I say, and we smile.
And smaller still. On the way back from Alnwick to our rented holiday cottage nearby, I think about the some of the Kelmscott illustrations I’ve just witnessed up close, the stark beauty of them, the long lean bones of them. And then I remember: Edward Burne-Jones, Birmingham born and bred. Here is another starting point, one that will take me back to some other medieval afterlives, maybe a book, who knows. For now, remember Kelmscott, Morris’s dream. Burne-Jones said, ‘When Morris and I were little chaps at Oxford if such a book had come out then we should have just gone off our heads, but we have made at the end of our days the very thing we would have made then if we could.’ Make your own day. Buy this book.
Find out more:
See 13 large images of this manuscript online: http://www.barterbooks.co.ukhttp://www.barterbooks.co.uk/html/About Books/specialsGallery1.php
Go to British Library: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-kelmscott-chaucer
See a treasured original at the University of Maryland: http://www.lib.umd.edu/williammorris/exhibition/08chaucer-html
OR JUST BROWSE BARTER BOOKS: http://www.barterbooks.co.uk