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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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear