A bookseller meets T.E. Lawrence

IMG_0006Found among  the books in the working library of the actor Peter O’Toole (1932 – 2013)  his copy of Letters of T.E. Lawrence (Readers Union, 1941.) O’Toole had surprisingly few books on or by Lawrence considering that this  was probably his greatest role and the film that made him an international star. In the Reader’s Union edition was loosely inserted  a one page wartime broadsheet keeping members of the book club informed about new publications. It was from an address at Wray Common, Reigate. This broadsheet / flier was dated February 1941and  has a good piece (“T.E.”) on Lawrence by his friend and bookseller  K.W. Marshall.

I have more reason to feel grateful to T.E. Lawrence than most booksellers. When I was unemployed years ago, he loaned me Clouds Hill his Dorset cottage, where I stayed for just over three months. Later, my wife and I spent a honeymoon holiday there. On my first  visit I was in “possession” of the cottage, and Lawrence would ask permission to stay the night on the infrequent occasions that he managed to pay a visit. He was very proud of the cottage and spent some considerable effort and time in gradually planning a comfortable retreat for his retirement. Unfortunately, when he died he had not enjoyed Clouds Hill for as long a period as I had; and during his short term of possession he was harassed by news reporters.

I first met Lawrence in 1931. Every few months he would enter my shop and pick up 2 or 3 books; it was also an understanding that I should send him any new publication that I thought important, but I was asked to keep in mind that his wages from a grateful country was 3/11 day. Often now, when I come across a book that excites me, I think of how I would have sent it to Lawrence for his opinion. He liked well-produced books, and to celebrate the completion of his Odyssey translation, he bought the Ashendene edition of Spensers  Minor Poems.

Upon one early appearance he looked tired and nervous, and approach a little uncertainly, saying “Marshall -I think?”  He was amused at my description of an earlier visit, when I had not been there, and a director mistaken for a gas-fitter. It was good to be mistaken for an honest workmen he thought. T.E. was very casual about his books – he trusted everyone and loaned them freely. A quantity were missing : only one of the two volumes of an inscribed Arabia Deserta could be found. Lawrence was a little hurt. Half his books would be passed around the hut in which he might be living, and he had to rescue a copy of Lady Chatterley from three sprawling, laughing RAF men, who were noisily enjoying odd passages.

He told the story of a tiresome old lady would pester the RAF men at Southampton, bringing sandwiches and chatting endlessly. One very hot day she appeared waving a fan of breathing loudly, and repeated uttering in  jocular plaintive voice ’Ninety nine, ninety nine, ninety nine’. Everyone was avoiding her, but she fixed on Lawrence, who finally enforced her retreat by replying: ’Many happy returns, Madam.’

At the cottage there were many collector’s items, including advanced proofs from Bernard Shaw. The most exciting volume was the Oxford edition of Seven Pillars, one of the original seven copies. I took all the dust wrappers from the books and filed them away. Lawrence liked to see the bindings, and no matter what the value of the book it was there to be read and handled. But wrapped away was a limited and signed Ulysses, ready for sale in an emergency.

His letters are exciting and interesting to read; and his apt and unconventional comments on books and authors of particular interest to booksellers. My last letter from him was unhappy and strangely prophetic. The fine weather and various causes, probably more reporters, had kept him out all day from early morning until dark. He was weary and exhausted. But that would be over in 10 days, he wrote on May 7th 1935. On the eleventh day he was dead.


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