Pen & Eliot: A Love Story

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PEN & ELIOT: A LOVE STORY

WORDS BY TOMOÉ HILL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

Like the best love stories, it almost didn’t happen. We were looking for a pub to sip quietly in while we read, not a bookshop. But biblophiles that we are, how could we resist that striped awning, the white-painted old building front, the open door with shelves of old Penguins just inside? Do we turn left or right? Right, because there was no other choice, really. Delightedly picking up book after book, marvelling at the age of them. Orange Penguins. Green Penguins. Blue Penguins. They must all represent something, but we weren’t sure what, except perhaps the green were mystery and thriller. But there were high shelves laden with more old treasure, so we tore ourselves away and wandered further in down the narrow aisles.

As any connoisseur of used bookshops knows, not all are created equal. There are expensive ones that deal in large precious volumes with matching prices tags; messy ones that look like treasure troves but really just hold excess stocks of bestsellers from recent years past; not-so-expensive but specialist ones that deal with art or theatre. And then there are the gems. The ones that seemed to have been filled with you in mind, your tastes exactly. The bookshop of the story is my gem, even though I have only been in it once so far. But that one time was enough to know that it is mine – so much so that it will remain a secret. Unless I like you, that is.

The delight of it is to be surprised. You never know what you want until it calls out from the shelf to you.

To someone who isn’t a bibilophile, used bookshops simply smell dusty, old and something else they can’t quite put their finger on, although they know that they don’t like it. But we know that the “something” is vanillin, the scent old pages give off due to the wood-based chemicals breaking down. It is intoxicating to us book-lovers and will draw us into these shops, keep us there for hours.

I never look for anything in particular when used book shopping. The delight of it is to be surprised. You never know what you want until it calls out from the shelf to you. That day there was an incomplete set of hardback Prousts in curling pastel paper covers. A de la Mare whose spine was breaking away so that the title didn’t read Peacock Pie but “Cock Pie”. And then, the Eliot. T.S., of course. Poems 1909-1925, a slim old Faber volume in good repair. A name pencilled on the inside that I didn’t pay attention to, not as much as the date written below – 1935 – and this in the back: “I have seen them riding seaward on the waves … when the winds blow the water white and black”. Something about the romance of this called out to me. The book was taken from my hands and purchased as a gift for me, a romantic gesture of another sort — again, one only the bibliophile really understands.

I left it round the other’s house but then received a message the next week: he had picked it up and, out of interest, begun researching the signature. It was signed “Pen Tennyson”. There was a Frederick “Pen” Tennyson who was Lord Alfred’s great-grandson. According to that font of online knowledge, Wikipedia, he was a film director who once assisted Hitchcock on his earlier movies. He had met and married his wife Nova Pilbeam, the star of Hitchock’s Young and Innocent and the first The Man Who Knew Too Much during this time. As it happens, the date in the book was four years before they married. Why do I mention Nova? Tennyson died in 1941. Nova died in 2015 near Hampstead, where my bookshop is. Of course this is all romantic guesswork, but it is not so farfetched to think someone donated her books after her death to a nearby bookshop, or that the owner happened to buy the books in the house as part of a typical clearance. More importantly, that this could have been an early token of admiration to her from Pen, one she kept to the end of her life.

This is the chance beauty of the used bookshop: more likely than not what I now own is not just Eliot’s marvellous poems “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, but the start of a love story that was remembered and cherished beyond death.

Quinto Bookshop, 72 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0BB. Phone: 020 7379 7669

 
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