Detail from an 1800 engraving of a bust of Euripides. Photo: Getty
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Uncovering remarkable lives through my second-hand Classics books

Every life has some incident or episode that is worth telling. And so it proved as I delved into my Classics books, writes Josh Spero. 

Of all the places I’ve ever woken up, a nunnery has to be the strangest. As a gay, atheist Jew who lacks many of what you might consider the monastic virtues, this was as unlikely as it gets. But there was a good reason I had asked the nuns of the Monastery of Our Lady of Hyning, in the wilds north of Manchester, if I could visit and it wasn’t spiritual renewal (as necessary as that might have been): I wanted to talk to one of the nuns, whose brother I was writing about.

Sister Mary Anthony, née Gillian Levi, is the younger sister of Peter Levi, a poet, priest, archaeologist, adventurer and one of the 20th century’s great forgotten literary figures. I had come to talk to her because I was writing about Peter’s life and I was writing about Peter’s life because I was searching for the people who used to own my second-hand books.

I had the idea for Second-Hand Stories, my book about my books’ previous owners, soon after hanging out at Sotheby’s (as you do). I was reporting on the auction house’s extraordinary June sale week in 2007, when tens of millions of pounds of artworks were put under the hammer and tens of thousands of canapés were consumed by art-world hangers-on. It occurred to me, as I was leafing through the glossy catalogues piled on me by the PR team, that every painting or sculpture had a provenance: given by the painter to his dealer, sold by the dealer to Lord X and thence passed on by descent. Wasn’t the same true of old books?

Most second-hand books do not have provenances nearly as starry as a major Picasso, Bacon or Giacometti but I quickly realised that it didn’t matter. Every life has  some incident or episode that is worth telling. And so it proved as I delved into my Classics books.

I had studied Latin and Greek at school and then at Oxford and, over a decade or so, had acquired well over 100 books on classical authors from Aeschylus to Xenophon. Some were new – clean, bright and sour-smelling. But many were old, because while Classics is not dead, it’s not exactly the zippiest of disciplines. Books that were written a century ago can still be useful and, indeed, relevant. Some of these were fragile and yellow, redolent of unvisited libraries.

One afternoon, I stripped my shelves bare of all my Classics books, piled them up around myself on my bedroom floor and began to open each one. They brought back strong memories of school and college – dark November afternoons in the classroom studying the Bacchae, Euripides’s tragedy of impiety, madness and divine revenge; our callow grad-student Virgil tutor who loved the subject so much that he became a civil servant soon after teaching us; being the only student left by the final week of a lecture series on the abstruse playwright Aeschylus.

Every time one of the books had some proof of ownership in it, I set it aside to note down. Some were specific and proprietorial: “Josephine Miller, Queen Mary College, U of London”, in a book of Roman historical sources, or “Claire Fraser, Bedford High School”, in a commentary on the second book of the Aeneid, Virgil’s poem on the foundation of Rome.

Others were generic: “Ex libris Mill Hill School” in a copy of the achievements of the emperor Augustus, or “County High School for Girls, Macclesfield”, in a book on how to write in Greek. Others were entirely mysterious: “Nyx” (Greek for “night”) in a translation of the Odyssey; “7146” in a floppy picture guide to the ancient Greek town of Ephesus on the Turkish coast. I ended up with a corpus of nearly 50 books to delve into.

Tracking down the 11 people I have written about involved a combination of luck, exploitation of networks, googling and investigative skills honed by a lifetime of watching Murder, She Wrote. Oxbridge, as you might expect, values its history and posterity and so keeps careful records on its alumni – so when someone had written his or her college in a book, I could get in touch. About those who were dead, I was sent Who’s Who-style entries, listing some combination of date and place of birth, parents’ names and occupations, education before Oxford or Cambridge, course and achievements at university, war service if any, personal addresses and, where necessary, date of death. To those who were alive, letters or emails could be passed on.

Other universities had no such access to records. With schools, it was largely the same, so I went on Friends Reunited and slogged through school years to find someone who might know Claire Fraser of Bedford High or C J Cullingford of Reading School. It was largely fruitless.

Then there was serendipity. Take the book that had sent me to the nunnery, a translation of the poems of Pindar, who wrote (paid-for) tributes to winners of Greek athletic festivals such as the Olympian and Pythian games; I had studied these poems for my finals but they were rather too fellatory for my taste. In this volume was the inscription: “To Peter, with love and gratitude, from Maurice.” Maurice was evidently Maurice Bowra, who had translated the poems. But who was Peter?

The answer came when I was having lunch with one of my old tutors, who suggested it might be Peter Levi, an Oxford habitué of the second half of the 20th century. When we turned to look at the book’s introduction, it said: “I owe a great debt to Father Peter Levi, SJ, who has read my text with generous care and made many wise suggestions.” Bingo.

Peter Levi was of Catholic-Jewish stock and had a glimpse of God when still a child. He resolved there and then to become a priest. The only problem was that he wasn’t suited for the priesthood. He was faithful and charitable and chaste; he had a strong belief in God; he wanted to help those less fortunate (he was, at one point, a prison chaplain in Brixton). But he hated rules and religion is full of them. He didn’t see the point of all these restraints on his behaviour when faith was the real matter.

And then someone else’s wife came along. Deirdre Connolly, married to the critic Cyril, was a beauty somewhat reminiscent of Peter’s mother, his sister told me. She and Peter met at a party in Oxford on All Souls’ Night in 1963. Deirdre fell instantly in love; Peter more slowly but just as surely. They weren’t alone together until 1971, after Peter had conducted Deirdre’s mother’s funeral and Cyril had left them to meet his mistress. And it wasn’t until 1973 that they revealed their love for one another – with Cyril still alive. When they eventually married, Deirdre was a widow and Peter wasn’t a priest.

But this is only part of Peter’s fascinating story. He was variously a respected poet, an archaeology correspondent for the Times, a tutor at Oxford, a book reviewer, the mistaken discoverer of what he believed was a lost poem by Shakespeare, an amateur cartoonist and a political dissident in Greece under the junta of the Colonels.

The other ten book-owners have their own fascination. Some lived on a grand, international scale: Thomas Dunbabin, who owned a commentary on Herodotus, led the resistance against the Nazis in Crete; Mark Richards, who annotated a study of Ovid’s love poetry, rowed a re-creation of the Argo along Jason’s original path; Donald Russell translated codes at Bletchley Park – but from Japanese, not German.

Some had quieter but no less interesting lives. Emilie Vleminckx, whose copy of a book on Homer I had acquired, came from a fractured home in a fractured country, fleeing Belgium’s meek artificiality for Oxford’s robust education – even if this did at first backfire disastrously. She had been at Oxford only a couple of years before me but when we met in 2008 she still seemed to be recovering from how her exams had detonated. Belinda Dennis was a Latin teacher who visited Italy under the fascists and brought back a most curious book, which I now own.

Their stories are intertwined with my own in Second-Hand Stories, which I am publishing with the website Unbound, funded by people who like the idea. Despite existing online, Unbound is responsible for some lovely physical books, including Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake and Shaun Usher’s fabulous collection Letters of Note. It produces ebooks, too, and one of the trends that emerged while I was tracing the provenance of my library was the rise of the e-reader. There is nothing wrong with e-readers. There is a problem, however, if you are interested in where your
books have been.

Is it even possible to have a second-hand copy of something that doesn’t really exist? The de-materialised text may have the same intellectual value but the book as an object – designed, bought, read, dog-eared, passed on – offers actual engagement with paper and ink, not a swipe through liquid crystals. An electronic library could not have led me to  Peter Levi, Tom Dunbabin and Belinda Dennis. Digital files have no reality – and certainly no story. 

To support Josh Spero’s “Second-Hand Stories”, visit: unbound.co.uk

Josh Spero is the editor of Spear's magazine.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit