Rick Gekoski, the pickle-eating baby, and D.H. Lawrence

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ov-W2K08fe8

Rick Gekoski’s Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare People is an illuminating insight into his fifty years of experience buying and selling rare books. The opening chapter reveals how D.H. Lawrence kickstarted his habit…


Rick Gekoski published his first novel, Darke, at the age of 72. But he is perhaps best known for his half a century selling rare books. As the title of his memoir suggests, the treasure he seeks is scarce, carefully buried, and ferociously guarded. But is he himself a dragon, guarding rare books he’s accumulated, or a heroic slayer? It would seem the latter, because once you’ve got the treasure, you want to trade it in for more. His is a life very much focused on the journey rather than the destination.


A rare book dealer requires two basic skills: to know when a book is buyable and when to sell it for a higher price. The best way to accumulate this knowledge is to serve an apprenticeship in a bookshop. He didn’t. He entered the rare book world as an academic and a collector. Thus, he becomes frustrated at conferences when young collectors demand he pass down trade secrets. But there is no elixir. Knowledge can’t be passed down. All you can do is go slay your own dragons and see what happens.


This ethos of experience shapes his memoir. Over thirteen chapters we see him play ping pong with Salmon Rushdie, upset a Poet Laureate, and get dragged through the law courts on more than one occasion. But in terms of my own research, I was reading this for the opening chapter ‘On Sabbatical with D.H. Lawrence’.


It’s late 1974 and the Gekoski’s and their newborn baby are on a first-class plane to New York to see his ferocious mother who is dying of cancer. He’s taken a much-needed sabbatical and ‘wangled’ a contract with Methuen for a critical book on Lawrence. The problem is, he doesn’t have the energy for sustained academic research. What he enjoys more is collecting the first editions he’s been accumulating for the research he has no intention of finishing. It’s all very Dyeresque – something he alludes to.


Research, however, provides him with the excuse to leave his pickle-eating baby with his wife while he visits a secondhand bookseller called William Hauser. ‘Bill’ is nearing retirement and flogging off his books at bargain prices. He visits him five times and the books get cheaper on each visit. We learn that price is not just determined by the value of the object, there are other variables at play. He pays £41 for 12 books and sells most of them, over the coming years, for £333. This would make him a dealer. But as he invests this in more acquisitions, he is also a collector. The fact that he has the books shipped over to Blighty – so that his wife doesn’t find out what he’s been up to – suggests he is either a shrewd businessman or a bit deceitful.


In 1975 books were cheap but hard to find. For example, unable to procure his own copy of Warren Roberts’ Bibliography of D.H. Lawrence, he photocopies it from his university library and then annotates it with his acquisitions – who he bought from, who he sold on to. He explains that ‘unlike work on the putative critical book, which was glacially slow and unenthusiastic over these years, my collecting was focused, passionate and highly organized.’


He becomes obsessed with Lawrence, detailing all his books sold at auction. Later, he convinces his bank manager to allow his to go further into the red so that he can acquire a collection of Lawrence books from an antiques dealer in Wales that include some rarities, such as signed first editions of Lady Chatterley. The dealer insists on being paid in cash.


Allow me a quick digression. During lockdown, I went a year and a half without drawing out cash. Everything went on my card. Then I went to Yorkshire to visit some relatives. First a pizza take-away in Pateley Bridge refused to accept card and pointed to ‘machine across the road, mate’. Then the following evening, a Thai takeaway would only deliver if we had £42.32 in cash. As a sweetener, they threw in two free bottles of Singha beer and would deliver in 25 minutes.


Back to the dodgy dealer.




The dealer gives firm instructions to meet him at a train station at 12. He hangs up before checking if this is convenient. ‘He knew I was keen’ explains Gekoski ‘and may well have known that university lecturers have a lot of free time’. Of course, he can’t resist. But takes a friend along with him just in case. The meeting is fraught with danger, but it’s worth it as the dealer’s collection includes some proper treasure, such as Bay – A Book of Poems, published by The Beaumont Press in 1921 and sold in three issues: 500 copies, 50 signed copies, 25 signed copies bound in vellum.


It’s at this point, after he’s been bundled into the back of a car, that he confesses that writers, collectors, raconteurs make ‘our stories smoother, funnier, more revealing’ because it makes for a better story. He is guilty of ‘unconsciously constructing a faux narrative in which I braved dragons, confronted a dragon, returned safely from the hunt with my treasure: a hero, of a modest sort’.


Gekoski may be an unreliable narrator but he’s certainly a compelling one. I only intended to read the opening chapter to get my Lawrence fix but ended up devouring the entire book in one sitting. In doing this I’ve gone on to discover that John Fowles was anti-Semitic and that John Updike had to explain what a blowjob was to Victor Gollancz. All of which, to use an Alan Sillitoe quote, is ‘cheap gossip for retail later’. Wonderful stuff.


This book was kindly leant to me by David Belbin, Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. David is also a writer and a collector of first edition books. This blog was originally published on The Digital Pilgrimage here


Guarded by Dragons is available in HB for £18.99 from Constable at hachette.co.uk


Further Reading



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How to appropriately celebrate heritage?

In November 2020 I gave a talk to the London Group of the D.H. Lawrence Society about progress of the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. This is a project that Paul Fillingham and I have been working on for five years or so now. But the main purpose of the talk was to discuss the best way to celebrate heritage. This is a subject I’m very passionate about. Here’s a couple of examples of how it can go horribly wrong.

Culture imposed from above

Culture that’s imposed from above can cause antagonism and resentment. An example of this would be a sculpture plonked into a community with little consultation or awareness of those left to gawp at it every day. Instead of inspiring individuals, it becomes a totem of discontent: ‘the money would have been better spent cleaning up graffiti’; ‘they could have built a playpark for kids’, etc. An example of this is Jean-Pierre Raynaud’s Dialogue with History (1987) which attempted to commemorate the arrival of French settlers to Canada through a series of white cubes but looked like a Rubik’s Cube with the colour stickers peeled off. Nicknamed the toilet, it was criticized for failing to fit in with its 18th century surroundings. It was flattened in 2015.

Vanity projects for the artist

Some heritage is so divisive that discussions focus on the artist rather than the subject. An example of this is Maggi Hambling’s naked statue of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). It is appalling. Can you imagine someone commissioning a naked statue of Winston Churchill or Oliver Cromwell? Of course not. It wouldn’t happen. Hambling argued that her Silver Surfer statue wasn’t meant to represent Wollstonecraft, rather it’s for her. “Clothes define people,” she said, “As she’s Everywoman, I’m not defining her in any particular clothes.” But she’s not everywoman. She is slender, well- toned and perfectly formed. She is drawn from the male gaze, reinforcing the perfect body types that have oppressed women for decades. In terms of arousing public disgust, it is more offensive than Vasile Gorduz’s naked monument to Romania’s stray dogs, which is quite a feat…

The same old same old

Blue plaques and statues are great for selfies but rarely serve their purpose –capturing the spirit or essence of the person they claim to be celebrating. There is also a danger of over celebrating the life of a famous individual, and this is a problem I have with D.H. Lawrence’s birthplace of Eastwood.

Eastwood is in danger of becoming a Disney Park to Lawrence. Café’s, the Rainbow bus line, the Phoenix snooker hall, the local Wetherspoon, all bear some relation to his life and work. Some of this is done well, others not so. It must be suffocating for the locals to be constantly reminded of the man who couldn’t wait to get away from the place they are all stuck in during lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we are celebrating our literary heritage and the Midlands should definitely aim for an equivalent of Bronte country or Hardy’s Wessex. But I just don’t think another statue will do it li– the idea banded about by each new incoming Broxtowe MP. I explained why in a recent talk via Zoom to the London branch of the D.H. Lawrence Society.

Literary heritage requires imagination. D.H. Lawrence was a writer who was, according to Geoff Dyer, ‘nomadic to the point of frenzy’. He never settled in one place for more than two years and never owned any property. Despite this, heritage determines we render him static in perpetuity. If we are to celebrate Lawrence’s life, we need the form to reflect the content. We need something mobile, not static. This is the rationale behind the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It is a moveseum if you will; a travelling art exhibition modelled on Lawrence’s personal travel trunk, that curates Lawrence’s life through artefacts. It will retrace Lawrence’s steps across Europe and beyond, if and when we ever send Covid packing…

This project is not imposed from above but from within. It is a conversation. We want to create a space for many voices to think through the life of this contradictory and complex character. One artefact I want to include in the memory theatre is rage and so the talk helped generate reasons for Lawrence’s rage as well as ways that we can represent this as an artefact. You can read more about the talk in Catherine Brown’s review here.

This blog was originally published as ‘How to celebrate heritage when your subject is ‘nomadic to the point of frenzy’’ at The Digital Pilgrimage on 13 Jan 2021

Further Reading