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:

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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis