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W.N.P. Barbellion / Footnotes/ William Haley

Found- a press cutting of an article from The Times in 1964 by 'Oliver Edwards'. This was a pseudonym for the editor Sir William J. Haley (1901-1987) where he indulged his love of books and book lore. He shared a name with the first rock and roll star Bill Haley but was 2 decades older than the great rocker. Many of his bibliophilic articles are preserved in Talking of Books, Heinemann, London 1957. This  press cutting was found in a copy of W.N.P. Barbellion's Last Diary (Chatto, London 1920) and the first part deals with another of WNPB's books. Barbellion (another pseudonym) died tragically young but had some good things to say about death which are preserved at his Wikipedia entry. The article by Edwards/Haley is good on the subject of footnotes, but seems to come from an era way before the swinging sixties…

Talking of Books

Book Markers by Oliver Edwards

How strangely persistent the instant is that makes one want to fill gaps on one's shelves. Often the missing volume does not matter. Any desire we ever had to ear it has gone. The want is not strong enough to provoke active search. One just keeps one's eyes open on the off chance. Year later one sees the title in some second-hand bookseller's catalogue. Very occasionally it has not already been sold. 

So it was that I obtained from a Somerset bookshop recently - it is almost invariably in the country that these treasures turn up - a copy of W. N. P. Barbellion's 'Enjoying Life, and Other Literary Remains'. I was first drawn to Barbellion by H. G. Well's enthusiasm for 'The Journal of a Disappointed Man'. (It took some time to destroy the public suspicion that Wells himself at written it). I bought the 'Last Diary' when it came out. Later I knew his brother, A. J. Cummings, one of the best political journalists of his time. Barbellion was a pseudonym. 

The D.N.B. puts him among the great diarists. Posterity will not go as far as that. He was a gifted boy and a deeply sensitive young man. His slow extinction by a creeping disease was tragic his death in 1919 a futile addition to the world's holocaust. His beauty-loving, introspective disillusionment struck a sharp note at the beginning of a decade of hope. He sensed life's richness. Few entries in his journal, for he did not then know he was to die to so young, are sadder than his comment in the summer of 1913, "Life and the world to me were a royal banquet at which I would have only a snack". 

'Enjoying Life' proved just worth waiting for. If the naturalist's notes at the end made one feel this was a sweeping up, there were enough chapters on general subjects to satisfy the non-scientific reader. The 1913-17 extracts from the journals -  which had been deemed too long for the earlier volumes - awoke some vivid memories. Then suddenly I was brought to a stop. 

Clearly the volume had excited its original owner. He had heavily pencil-marked some passages, even single words. The book's ragged edges suggested he had not been able to stop for a paperknife but had split the pages open with his thumb. He must have been an eager and impetuous man. And then, with barely a third of the book gone, he had deserted it. The rest of the pages were uncut.

The reason one will never know. I could have understood if interest had run out at the chapter on Spallanzani or 'Some Curious Facts in the Distribution of British Newts'. But the book had been abandoned at a page that included Pepys and Amiel. And there were plenty of beckoning things farther on. Had the owner emigrated, or died, or, almost worst of all, lost the book? 

If so, he had at least pit on it his sign manual. It was not a very legible one when it came to reading his full character. Most scribblers in margins fall into fairly well-defined classes. The main ones are the argumentative, the scornful, and the choleric. "But see page 422" noes the traveller through some tedious time, wanting to show he has slept nowhere along the way. "Piffle" a philistine wrote against one of Allingham's loveliest poems. "He didn't live at 78 but at 77A" is scrawled alongside a paragraph on high politics. And of course, there is the ubiquitous favourite "Balderdash!!!". 

Not all marginal notes are to be despised. I once had in my hands for a few blissful minuets Anne Bronte's copy of Currer Bell poems, in which she had put dates and such attributions as "Emily's". In such a case one longs for more. I have a pamphlet in which Cralyle made two or three pencilled references. If only he had made two or three dozen! Macaulay's marginal notes were in such "immense profusion" that Sir George Trevelyan made a book out of them. Saddest are the presentation copies from author's, especially poets, in which they have had to correct the printer's errors. These seem to be more common today than a hundred years ago. In such cases, one's heart is with the wretched author, wishing that his marks could have been fewer.

Sometimes the marking is a curt, magisterial summing up on the final fly leaf. I have a copy of Besant's and Rice's novels annotated thus.  
The comments - "interesting; clean; quite good taste; capital story; not worth reading again" - are in impeccable shorthand. Some years ago, when it was on temporary loan to the university of Keele, I saw lady Mary Wortley Montagu's travelling library. She, too, liked to sum up. According to an old Sotherby's catalogue she wrote "vulgar" in Roxana, "agreeable" in Tom Jones, "miserable stuff" in Clarissa Harlowe, "delicieux" in Candide, and "instrcutif" in John Cleland's Memoirs of a Coxcomb.

All writers in books, however, must give way to the seventheenth-century French bibliophile, Peiresc. Austin Dobson, who naturally loved such an enthusiast, quotes Peiresc's biographer Gassendi as saying, "He esteemed those Books most highly, into which he could insert most notes; and therefore he commonly caused all his Books, when they were in Quires to be washed over with Alum-watwer, and when he foresaw their Margents would not be large enough, he cause white paper to be bound between the printed leaves". 

That surely is going to far.

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