Nicholas Jeeves takes us on a turn through a Borgesian library of defacements.
May 1, 2018
Being that May 12th 2018 marks both the centenary of his birth and the ten years that have passed since his death, it seems a fitting moment for me to reflect on the modest role I have played in his story, and to share with readers a much lesser known aspect of his legacy, the unique library he kept in his Cambridgeshire home.
I met Roy just once, and very briefly, in 2007. I had been trying to gather information about a memoir, published privately in India in or around 1863, in which the rules of snooker appeared to have been set down a good twenty years before they were formally articulated by the British forces in Madras. That strange and puzzling volume was Manwel Barberi, The Falcon of Valletta and his remarks on Chance in a series of letters, which I had found on a recent visit to Lisbon and which no-one I knew in the book trade had been able to tell me anything about.
Roy — or more specifically his adopted son, James — was recommended to me by a London bookseller who had been my last hope in establishing The Falcon’s origins. James Gold, the bookseller explained, had been researching in his father’s library, and this had resulted in the discovery of a few unusual sporting texts, and, as he understood it, in James making some outlying contacts in that area of the trade.
Bedlands, the Gold family home, is an impressively ramshackle collection of buildings gathered within the parish of March in the Cambridgeshire Fens. A former stud farm, the main house is a long, single-storey affair constructed from large blocks of yellow sandstone. At the front of the property what would once have been a paddock is now a rose garden, flanked by a stable yard that leads, via an open forge and various other small outbuildings, towards disused gallops that have since been given over to meadow.
As James explained to me as we walked through the grounds, originally his father’s library had been located in what is now a reception room within the main house but, as it grew in size, in 1973 had been moved to a purpose-built extension accessed via the back kitchen. Roy himself had helped to build it, from the laying of the foundations to the fitting of the rows of cherry bookshelves, over the course of a long summer.
As James and I stood at the library’s reading table — in fact a carpenter’s workbench covered in red baize — James showed me some of the books he had been looking at most recently. The first of these, I was astonished to see, was a 1965 first issue of Seamus Heaney’s Eleven Poems. It was a very fine example except for one important detail: on the cover, the word "Eleven" had been neatly crossed out in felt-tip pen and, underneath, "Nine" written in carefully calligraphed lettering.
Also on the table were some nice early editions of Sperber, Kant, and Russell, as well as a few modern paperbacks by Georgette Heyer, Kingsley Amis, and Evelyn Waugh. All of them had been carefully spoiled with designs in paint, pencil, or felt-tip pen, some with words or phrases, others with delicate patterns; others still with crudely drawn figures and objects. Throughout his life and even into his late eighties, James explained, his father had spent his evenings altering the covers of his books with the materials that came to hand. What surrounded me in this purpose-built private world was a collection of about nine thousand books, the great majority of which had been carefully and systematically defaced.
Looking about me and taking in the full extent of the collection, I felt a giddying thrill at the very idea: the consummate delinquency, the shameless delight taken in such an articulate and extended act of vandalism. In daring contrast to everything I had been taught about looking after books, Roy’s library represented a lifetime’s commitment to sheer mischief and I thought that wonderful.
Later, as James and I drank tea in the kitchen while leafing through The Falcon, I met Roy for the first and last time. Entering through a pair of swing doors and leaning heavily on a cane that did little to diminish his imposing height, Roy appeared surprised to find a guest in the house. James introduced us, briefly explained who I was and why I was there, and passed him my copy of The Falcon. Roy turned the book over in his hands, frowned, suggested we try “the Easton fellow” and, gathering up a mess of papers from the table, he poked open the door with his stick and left.
James and I stayed in touch over the following months. We found that we shared a number of interests, and I would occasionally send him books or prints that I felt he might like. He in turn put me in touch with some useful contacts in the trade, including particularly Bill Littlefield, an American historian removed to Britain via Libya, who seemed to know quite a bit about The Falcon and with whom I eventually co-authored a brief article on the subject.
Roy died peacefully in the sun-room at Bedlands on his birthday in the spring of 2008. In the eulogy James gave at the funeral, he talked about the library as having since taken on the function of a memory palace, each book representing a moment from his father’s past. Through each of Roy’s graphic additions to the covers was revealed a state of mind, or at least a mood — here an exacerbation, an idea, a joke; there a preoccupation or a criticism.
It was James who first suggested the idea of exhibiting some of Roy’s books. In August 2009 a small gallery had opened in my hometown of Hitchin, run by two enthusiastic young graduates looking for anything new and unusual with which to fill their calendar. I had mentioned this to James in passing, and he asked me if I thought they might be interested in Roy. They were. We showed fifty books in the gallery that winter, each selected by James from his favourites. We also produced a catalogue.
We don’t know precisely when Roy first started defacing his books. He doesn’t mention the hobby in his diaries, at least as far as we have discovered. But it might be safe to assume that he started sometime in late adolescence while at boarding school. That so many of the books were evidently bought second-hand means that the title pages are of little help. That they are arranged so haphazardly around the library is also problematic: no obvious system has revealed itself, with multiple books by the same author on the same subject dispersed throughout the room. In consequence we find books on unrelated topics brought unexpectedly together. … That Mike Brearley should sit comfortably next to Goethe evidently gave Roy no concern, who judged both as being fit for his library and his unique treatments.
From such beginnings the idea of formally organising the library as “The Roy Gold Collection” took seed. James, I think, felt that the process of properly cataloguing the books would be a way to spend continued time with his father, if only in memoriam. For me the attraction was far more straightforward: it was a chance to see more examples of Roy’s superb vandalism, and to share these with the wider world.
We began in earnest in the spring of 2010, first by marking up the bookshelves with section numbers, then by photographing and systematically numbering the books. We then set about gathering from friends and relatives any associated memories or information that might be interesting to posterity, which was tremendous fun; and finally we entered all these details into a database.
I was not always available to help with the work. Sometimes I would visit for a few days, occasionally for a couple of weeks, and help out. For James it became a hobby attended to almost as frequently as Roy’s own. I made introductions and arrangements for more exhibitions: four small events followed, including one in France and another in the United States.
James has often remarked that Roy would probably have found such continued fetishising of his books absurd, despite the many hours of attention he himself must have lavished upon them. Indeed, Roy claimed on at least one occasion not to be very interested in books at all. James later discovered among his father’s papers a letter Roy had written to a student who had been enthralled by his four-volume Ibarra edition of Don Quixote (miraculously not defaced).
"We should not be excessively interested in books", he wrote. "We should be interested in stories, in language, in ideas, in perception, in imagination, in compression. These things are in books but they are not books. If a student finds he has an overwhelming interest in books he should consider a future as a bookbinder."
Roy seems to have taken as much pleasure from defacing his books as reading them — and on some occasions, perhaps more. But in a number of important ways, any disdain he might have expressed for the idea of books as objects rings quite false. Often the results of his efforts elevate the books rather than diminish them, and such is the extent of the collection that those books without his additions take on the effect of being, somehow, incomplete.
He was not much of an artist, though he must have improved over time, if only as an incidental outcome after so many years of practice. We cannot know this for certain, however, as while some covers evidence greater artistic skill than others, there is no reliable way of telling in what order they were defaced. Whether or not the books even constitute “art” is a trickier question still. That was almost certainly not the intention. In many ways it is closer to graffiti: equal parts creation and destruction, and inappropriate by definition.
In 1933 a business opportunity brought the family to England. Alva had been offered the work of cataloguing and preparing for sale the library of Sir Robert Bligh James, a task he assessed would take him several months. Sir Robert, patently a well-connected man, arranged for papers, and the family moved to Brighton in September of that year. Once the sale of Sir Robert’s library had been completed, Alva and Elisabeth chose to put down more permanent roots. Conscious of the anti-semitism so profoundly on the rise in Europe, the call back to their homeland was no longer emphatic. Assisted by Sir Robert, the family bought a property in Ely, changed their name to Gold, and Karoly became Roy.
He married his fiancée Evelyn, a Girton undergraduate, in the summer of 1943. There followed some gossip that Roy was a spy for the British government There is no evidence to support such allegations, the only circumstantial connections being that he was well travelled, fluent in six or seven languages, and, thanks to Sir Robert, also on friendly terms with a number of senior officials in the Foreign Office.
Those who knew Roy personally thought any such idea preposterous. Funny, wildly indiscreet, and standing at six-feet-six with a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair, he cut an imposing and occasionally controversial figure. James told me that he was once accused by a prominent dean of being a disgrace, having arrived at a gala dinner without having changed out of his customary white tennis shoes. “I may be a disgrace,” he is reported to have replied, “but I intend to stay until I’m an outrage.”
Such anecdotes might give us some insight into Roy’s sense of humour, and even his style. But a more nuanced appreciation of his character can be found in his books. The most memorable of these, to my mind at least, is an amazingly rare first edition of Traité des Arbres Fruitiers covered with a painted design of delicately-drawn tomato vines — an addition, I am told, which once caused a visiting colleague of Roy’s to storm from the house in disgust.
Roy treated all his books equally regardless of any rarity value that they might otherwise have accumulated. By treating them all equally, he rendered them all equally valueless. That is one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that Roy could take a merely rare book and make it absolutely unique. That is how we look at it, and should you ever find yourself visiting the Collection, or attending one of our occasional exhibitions, we hope you will come to the same view.
Nicholas Jeeves is a designer, writer, and lecturer at Cambridge School of Art. He is also designer and editor of Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods, a new edition of Lucian's comic masterpiece out now on PDR Press.