We recently found ourselves in the repository of good things that is Alnwick’s Barter Books. There are many things to like about it: the little train that runs along the tops of the bookshelves; the panopticon-style layout of the fiction section; the tasty rarebit served in the buffet; the automotive contortions you have to enact in order to get in and out of the carpark (all right, I didn’t technically enjoy that part, but I did feel obscurely improved by the experience).
But the main thing about Barter Books, the important thing, is that there is a great number of books there. The children’s section is a treasure-trove of technicolour-jacketed derring-do (although, as so often, there was a dismaying lack of Willard Price). There are beguiling, mouldered rarities kept behind glass. There are raffishly orange Penguin spines by the hundred.
I came away, inevitably, with a bagful, including the marvellous Penguin 1965 Connoiseur’s SF (Pohl, Vonnegut, Ballard, and so on – I’ll say something more about this pocketful of wonderfulness another time) and Nabokov’s The Eye in Panther (1968), featuring some great press quotes on the jacket: ‘Nabokov is the natural successor to Chekov’ (Tribune); ‘The likeness between Nabokov and Pasternak… jumped to my eye more than ever before here. And Nabokov’s superiority jumped as much as ever’ (Guardian – hear, hear, whatever the Nobel Prize committee might say).
Also in the bagful was Yorkshireman H. Mortimer Batten’s Habits And Character Of British Wild Animals (W & R Chambers, 1928) (yes, Waugh fans, we’re very much in the territory of feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole…). It’s a book that, for me, has two extremely charming features.
One is Batten’s propensity – one he shared with most natural history writers of his day, and earlier days – for making scathing moral judgments on the personal character of the creatures he’s writing about. The rat, in particular, really gets his back up: ‘In the following it is proposed to deal only with the less commonly known habits and characteristics of this odious and universally detested creature,’ he says, barely able to even contemplate the beast without his bile rising.
The other is the illustration, which is byWarwick Reynolds (1880-1926) and is extraordinary: I don’t recall seeing anything like it in a natural history guide from the period. It’s surprisingly dramatic, full of movement and action, and rendered in ravishingly thick layers of pencil-lead. Here’s the brown hare:
And here’s the fox:
I’m damned, however, if I can find much out about the fantastic Mr Reynolds. All I know is that he was an English artist and animal painter (and he also painted this chap. Who is he? Why, he’s Colonel John MacFarlane, of course – and I’m damned if I know anything about him, either). He’s listed alongside E. H. Shepard (of Pooh fame) and W. Heath Robinson in this Bonzo profile of ‘Famous Artists and Writers’ from 1924 – so I also know that he had a gravedigger’s face and a pudding-bowl haircut. And he drew for The Strand (pdf), too (a week rarely goes by without me giving thanks for the good people of Archive.org and their indefatigable scanners). He was only forty-six when he died.
It’s rather sad, of course, that so interesting an artist is so little remembered. But, on the other hand, there are worse fates than to be found, slightly the worse for wear and with your binding coming loose, in an under-explored corner of a Northumberland bookshop.