Monday, March 27, 2023

My Favourite Vintage Bookshops: Ponsonby

Robin Hyde: Wednesday's Children (1937 / 1993)

The story is of Wednesday, half-sister of Ronald Gilfillan, a comfortable conforming New Zealander with "a quarter-acre section neatly fenced". Having consulted Madame Mystera, a fortune-teller of Freemans Bay, and been told that fortune, lovers and children are ahead of her, Wednesday takes a ticket in a lottery. She wins £25,000.
- Joan Stevens. The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965. 1961. Rev. ed. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. REED, 1966.

Robin Hyde: Wednesday's Children (1937 / 1989)

One of the nicest things about Wednesday's Children - for an Aucklander, at any rate - is the vision it provides of our lost city of the past.

I remember, for example, a daring weekend sail in my father's family-sized 16-foot yacht out into the Hauraki Gulf. We ended up landing on the far end of Browns Island, the only portion which can be safely approached from the sea, due to the skein of reefs that surrounds it.

We had to scale a fairly steep cliff to emerge out into the open fields, the ones which look so attractive from a distance, but which turned out to be quite swampy when experienced up close.

After that the wind got up, and we couldn't make it back through the outgoing tides at the head of the harbour. We were forced to anchor the yacht off Mission Bay and row our way forlornly by dinghy to shore. My father sailed the boat back to his mooring in Ngataringa Bay next day single-handed.

So when I read about Wednesday Gilfillan's residence on Brown's Island it immediately struck a chord. Mind you, I wouldn't fancy rowing out there in a tiny dinghy on a regular basis - but it's by no means an impossible feat.

And then there's Wednesday's part-time gig as a fortune-teller in Freemans Bay. Robin Hyde's descriptions of its tight-packed streets and working men's houses certainly allow her to channel her inner city-beat reporter. Has it changed much? Profoundly, I fear. Which makes her pen-portrait even more valuable.

It's nice to know that there are still a few vintage bookshops in the glitzy surrounds of Ponsonby / Grey Lynn. How they manage to survive is beyond me. But I suppose there must be enough people out there who savour the unique odour of mould and bookdust to keep them in business. All power to them!

Robin Hyde: Wednesday's Children (1937)

The Open Book

The Open Book
[201 Ponsonby Road, Auckland]

I remember once coming up to the counter in this shop with an armful of books, only to be asked: "What is it, exactly, you do?"

I must have looked a bit bemused, so the owner went on to explain that she found it very difficult to square such very disparate purchases with one another.

John Clute & Peter Nicholls, ed.: The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1999)
Clute, John, & Peter Nicholls, ed. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 1979. 2nd ed. Contributing Editor Brian Stableford. Technical Editor John Grant. Orbit. 1993. London: Little, Brown and Company (UK), 1999.

I think I had, on that particular day, located a nice paperback copy of John Clute's magisterial Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, to which I was proposing to add a rather sumptuous edition of The Holy Qu'ran:

The Holy Qur-ān: English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary. Ed. Mushaf Al-Madinah An-Nabawiyah. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali et al. Saudi Arabia: King Fahd Holy Qur-ān Printing Complex, A.H. 1411 [= 1991].

"I teach Creative Writing at Massey University" was my rather lame reply. I could see her still shaking her head as I left, though. How could the same person be equally enthusiastic about Science Fiction and the intricacies of Arabic culture?

I remember that one of the kinder reviews I received for my poetry collection Chantal's Book, some twenty years back, referred to me as "a literary magpie, gathering together his shiny objects with a remarkable eclecticism." The author was James Norcliffe, whose recent novel The Frog Prince I've just lately written about for Landfall Review Online. I hope I did it justice.

He did rather hit the nail on the head with that "magpie" analogy, though. I do like to collect pretty objects and ideas and put them together. You could call it mosaic - or even collage - if you were inclined to be charitable. If not, you could simply refer to it as lack of focus.

Never mind, it works for me. "The world is so full of a number of things / I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings" and all that ...

Herman Melville. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Ed. Walter E. Bezanson. New York: Hendricks House, Inc., 1960.

The shop has now changed hands. I still find the odd bargain in there, however. The above edition of Melville's Clarel was certainly an exciting addition to my collection of Melvilliana.

I'm still not quite sure why the copy of Tuwhare's Ralph Hotere-illustrated Sapwood and Milk I found there was quite so reasonably priced, but perhaps they're less rare than I thought. In any case, I didn't think about it: just bought it (my motto as a bibliophile).

Hone Tuwhare: Sap-wood and Milk (1973)
Hone Tuwhare. Sap-wood and Milk. Illustrated by Ralph Hotere. 629 of 700 numbered copies. Dunedin: Caveman Press, 1973.

Dominion Books

Dominion Books
[230 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay, Auckland 1011]

Latest news: "Dominion Books,which has been selling secondhand books at 230 Jervois Rd in Herne Bay since 1986, is finally closing down at the end of May 2023. Between now and then I am selling all stock at $3 per book, or as big a bag as you like for$20. I am no longer buying any books. I am clearing out my entire stock. Thanks to loyal customers after all these years."

Many years ago my father used to take me to a second-hand bookshop called "Dominion Books" - not unreasonably, as it was then located on Dominion Road. It was owned by a certain Mrs. Brazier, mother of soon-to-be-famous singer Graham Brazier.

It was a gloomy, fascinating place, full of obscure tomes in almost-unreachable corners. Or at any rate that's my memory of it. I'm not quite sure when she sold the business, which then moved to Jervois Road in Herne Bay, but I imagine it must have been back in the seventies sometime. Or perhaps the early eighties [1986, it now appears].

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Obras completas (1969)
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Obras Completas. 1951-1957. Prólogo de Francisco Monterde. 1969. “Colección Sepan Cuantos …”, 100. Ciudad de México: Editorial Porrúa, S. A., 1977.

So that's the reason for the rather anomalous name of this fascinatingly out-of-the-way shop, which still seems to specialise in obscure treasures hidden in odd corners. Take the book above, for instance. Who on earth would be interested in the complete works - in Spanish - of a seventeenth-century Mexican nun?

Well, me, I'm afraid. My PhD thesis was on Versions of South America in English Literature, which took me all the way from Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688) to Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School (1978).

Along the way I spent a lot of time poring over Nobel-prize-winning poet Octavio Paz's classic work on Mexican Culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). Paz also wrote extensively on Sor Juana de Asbaje - notably in his other great prose work Sor Juana: The Traps of Faith (1982).

This profoundly gifted young polymath, Sor Juana, occupies a position in Mexico somewhat akin to that of Murasaki Shikibu in Japan - or, for that matter, Katherine Mansfield in New Zealand: the one indisputably great, mysterious genius at the heart of an entire literary tradition.

William Plomer, ed.: Kilvert's Diary (3-1-23)
Francis Kilvert. Kilvert’s Diary: Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert, 1870-1879. 3 vols. Ed. William Plomer. 1940. Rev ed. 1960-61. Illustrated Edition. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977.

Here's another nice purchase from Dominion Books. I have a perhaps unreasonably aversion to abridgements of classic books. It wasn't until I was able to find all three volumes of William Plomer's edition that I could really settle down to reading Kilvert's diary, which I found very entertaining indeed.

Christopher Ricks, ed.: The Poems of Tennyson (1969)
Christopher Ricks, ed. The Poems of Tennyson. Longmans Annotated English Poets. London & Harlow: Longman, Green and Co, Ltd.. 1969.

This one was the real prize, though. I spent a long time searching for this particular edition of Tennyson, from the Longman Annotated English Poets series. It's true that there's a later, three-volume second edition, but the sheer audacity of including Tennyson's complete poetry in one massive volume was the main reason I had to have this one. And there it was! - one fine day in the poetry section - straight from Bill Pearson's collection, as it turned out.

It is, in other words, always worth having a glance in Dominion Books. The stock there does, admittedly, tend to linger on the shelves, but you never know what might have walked in just the day before ...

Ink eats Man: Dominion Books (2010)

Saturday, March 04, 2023

'Of the Devil's party without knowing it'

Andrew Wall, dir. & writ.: The Fantasy Makers (2018)

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
- William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790)

Recently Bronwyn and I watched the documentary "The Fantasy Makers", hoping for some insights into the work of George MacDonald and his successors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I have to say that it was a somewhat disappointing experience. A succession of non-entities - obscure Academics and writers, none of whom I'd ever heard of - came on screen to proclaim the vital significance of the Christian faith to the works of these three authors, and the various ways in which that old-time religion had jump-started their imaginations.

Don't get me wrong. This is certainly a defensible proposition: indeed a pretty obvious one, given the tendency of MacDonald and Lewis in particular to incorporate a good deal of Christian allegory and even straightout preaching in their respective fantasy worlds. There's no doubt, either, about the significance of his Catholic faith to J. R. R. Tolkien.

Where I part company with this documentary is in its selective - and thus quite misleading - account of the growth of the modern Fantasy genre. It's strongly implied in context that reading MacDonald had a decisive effect on Tolkien - whereas it's really Lewis who was more influenced by him. It's true that The Hobbit is deeply indebted to MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin, but William Morris's series of heroic romances were the real catalyst for Tolkien's own peculiar fusion of mythology and folktale.

William Morris: The House of the Wolfings (1889)

So why leave out Morris? There were, of course - there always are - limitations of space. You can't put in everyone. In this case, though, there was a simpler reason: he wasn't a Christian. He was, admittedly, brought up as one, but in later life he espoused atheism, along with a very militant form of Communism. He was as independent a thinker as he was a writer and artist.

William Morris: William Morris (1834-1896)

It puts me in mind of an account I once heard of a Children's TV programme which one of my school friends inadvertently found himself watching one idle afternoon. The kids were all sitting around in a circle while the house band, called (I think) the Certain Sounds, performed various uplifting numbers.

This led to a "discussion" (i.e. harangue) where the hosts of the show denounced the excesses of contemporary Rock music - this was, admittedly, the era of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath - and stressed how wholesome, by contrast, were the songs they'd just been listening to. Those confirmed degenerates the Rolling Stones came in for a bit of a tongue-lashing, too.

All of a sudden a youth leapt up from the floor and shouted "The Rolling Stones are great - and the Certain Sounds are sh ..." They cut to commercial before he could finish what he was saying - but I think the audience got the message. Ah me, the perils of live TV!

When the programme resumed the lone rebel had, of course, been removed - and no doubt taken backstage for indoctrination. But, as the poet Horace once observed: "you can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but still she'll come back" [naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret]. His work there was done.

The more the speakers in The Fantasy Makers stressed how hip-hop-happening the Bible was, and how deeply it had influenced the whole course of storytelling through the ages, the more I could hear the voice of my sister-in-law trying to persuade the rest of us at one extended-family gathering that Christian Rock was cool, and it was we who were the fuddy-duddies in sticking to more conventional forms of Rock 'n' Roll.

The Bible is undoubtedly a great source of stories, and Tolkien and his friends were very religious, but the intense vehemence with which the assorted talking heads in the documentary asserted these simple truths was in itself enough to make one feel suspicious.

J. R. R. Tolkien: On Fairy-stories (2008)

It was, after all, Tolkien himself who stressed the vital need to make a distinction between the realm of Faerie and its two nearest neighbours, Heaven and Hell. In his classic 1939 essay "On Fairy-Stories", he quotes from the old Border Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer:
O see ye not yon narrow road
So thick beset wi' thorns and briers?
That is the path of Righteousness,
Though after it but few inquires.

And see ye not yon braid, braid road
That lies across the lily leven?
That is the path of Wickedness,
Though some call it the Road to Heaven.

And see ye not yon bonny road
That winds about yon fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.
Having first mistaken her for Mary Mother of God, Thomas is inveigled into accompanying the Fairy Queen down the third of these paths, and so:
Till seven long years were gone and done
True Thomas on earth was never seen.
He brings nothing back with him from this mysterious realm except the ability to make rhymes and music.

Mind you, it isn't all good - and there's certainly nothing safe about it. Thomas was lucky to get back home at all: centuries can easily go by in the blink of an eye for those who've been taken away to Faerie. And there is, of course, the little matter of the Devil's teind (or tithe) - a tax of souls enforced by Hell in exchange for allowing this realm to exist independently.

Henry Fuseli: The Faerie Queene (1788)

'Of the Devil's party without knowing it' - well, no, not quite. Tolkien, Lewis, and MacDonald were quite clear in their opposition to that gentleman, witness their respective portraits of him as Morgoth in the Silmarillion (along with his chief lieutenant Sauron in The Lord of the Rings); the Infernal Minister served by civil servant Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters; not to mention the gloomy landlord depicted in MacDonald's introduction to Valdemar Adolph Thisted's Letters from Hell.

It is undeniable, though, that - as a reader - you feel a certain sense of excitement in Tolkien whenever he allows himself to revel in the imagery and atmosphere of the pre-Christian Teutonic heroic age. The story comes to life. In Lewis, too, when he allows his English children entry to a country where fauns and centaurs and the other nature spirits of Classical Paganism are permitted to roam freely.

Milton, according to Blake, "wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when he wrote of Devils & Hell" - Tolkien, too, could write freely enough of both Middle-earth and Mordor, but when it comes to Valinor and the Blessed Realms, it all just fades off into sunlight and singing.

Pauline Baynes: Father Christmas (1950)

Think, too, of how embarrassing is the sudden appearance of Father Christmas in Lewis's first Narnia book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It just seems so jarringly wrong to drag St. Nick into the midst of all these talking animals and powerful magicians. Not even the superbly imaginative Pauline Baynes can do much with this intrusion. But Lewis must have learned from the experience, because he never did anything quite so crass again.

Tolkien detested Lewis's Narnia books precisely because of their imbalance of tone and seriousness. Nymphs and Their Ways: The Love Life of a Faun, the title of one of the raunchier books on Mr. Tumnus's bookshelf, exemplified for Tolkien everything that was wrong about this mish-mash of pagan and contemporary themes.

Ludovico Ariosto: Orlando Furioso (1516-32)

If Ariosto rivalled it in invention (in fact he does not) he would still lack its heroic seriousness. No imaginary world has been projected which is at once so multifarious and so true to its own inner laws; none so seemingly objective, so disinfected from the taint of an author’s merely individual psychology; none so relevant to the actual human situation yet so free from allegory. And what fine shading there is in the variations of style to meet the almost endless diversity of scenes and characters – comic, homely, epic, monstrous, or diabolic!
- C. S. Lewis, Blurb for The Lord of the Rings (1954)
Lewis, by contrast, was careful to praise Tolkien's "heroic seriousness", but suggested that his inventiveness might find a parallel (if not a rival) in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Tolkien, characteristically, bristled at the comparison, but one suspects that it was not made idly.

Lewis felt, it would seem, that Tolkien was at risk of starting to believe his own ideas about 'sub-creation' - that he was, in effect, within a hair of setting himself up as the god of his own creation. And there is certainly little that's ostensibly Christian about Tolkien's world: its values seem far more firmly based on Old Norse stoicism and blind courage.

Whatever bargain these writers may have struck with their own consciences, it seems clear to me whenever I read them that both Lewis and Tolkien were more in love imaginatively with the Queen of Faerie than they could ever could be with the minutiae of their own religion. That was theology; this was fantasy.

I don't question (or doubt) the sincerity of their faith, just as I don't doubt that of Milton - or Blake, for that matter. I may not share it myself, but I did in my younger days, so have at least some understanding of the mind-set involved.

The creative instinct, however, is an unruly thing: once you start to discipline it and push it in the directions demanded by dogma, you end up with (at best) Hymns Ancient and Modern; at worst, Socialist Realism.

C. S. Lewis: The Cosmic Trilogy (1938-45)

The reason, I suspect, that none of the more distinguished commentators on Lewis, Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings - the ones you might actually have heard of - could be persuaded to appear in this rather tin-eared documentary, is that they could see at once that it was attempting to shrink them to the size of mere Christian propagandists.

And yes, on one level, that is what they were - C. S. Lewis, in particular. But you don't have to be a Christian to delight in Out of the Silent Planet or Perelandra, just as The Lord of the Rings cuts across creeds and cultures to engage with real human truths.

Both of them took the road to fair Elf-land, and both paid a certain price for doing so. George MacDonald is a more complex case - his guilt over such lapses from the party-line threatens time and again to overturn his fantasies in mid-course. But the greatness of his narrative gift keeps us reading At the Back of the North Wind and the 'Curdie' books despite any failures of taste or consistency within them.

The Marion E. Wade Center Museum (Wheaton College, Illinois)

There's a reason why this particular set of seven British authors have been granted their own research centre at a major American university, and it's not because of the orthodoxy of their belief systems:
  1. George MacDonald (1824-1905)
  2. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
  3. Charles Williams (1886-1945)
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
  5. Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
  6. Owen Barfield (1898-1997)
  7. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Barfield was an Anthroposophist, Chesterton and Tolkien were Catholics, Lewis and Sayers were Anglicans, MacDonald was probably more of a Unitarian than anything else, and it's very hard to say just what precisely Charles Williams was: he certainly dabbled in magic and occultism more than any of the others.

Where they stand together is in the superreal vividness of their imaginations. Their respective versions of Christian faith may well have been a help in this, but all seven of them had to cast their nets wider than that to write anything worth reading. The details of their individual bargains with Faerie remain sealed up with their bones.

George MacDonald: Phantastes: A Faerie Romance (1858)

George MacDonald (1860)

George MacDonald


  1. Phantastes & Lilith. 1858 & 1895. Introduction by C. S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964.
  2. At the Back of the North Wind / The Princess and the Goblin / The Princess and Curdie. 1870, 1871, 1882. London : Octopus Books, 1979.
  3. The Princess and the Goblin. 1871. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
  4. The Princess and Curdie. 1882. Illustrated by Helen Stratton. A Puffin Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980.
  5. The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairy Tales and Stories for the Childlike. 1882. Ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973.
  6. The Light Princess and Other Tales: Being the Complete Fairy Tales. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes. Introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. 1961. Kelpies. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1987.
  7. The Complete Fairy Tales. Ed. U. C. Knoepflmacher. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

  8. Novels:

  9. The Marquis of Lossie. 1877. London: Cassell & Co., 1927.

  10. Non-fiction:

  11. 'Preface' to Valdemar Adolph Thisted. Letters from Hell. 1866. Trans. Julie Sutter. 1884. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1911.
  12. George MacDonald: An Anthology. Ed. C. S. Lewis. 1946. London: Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1947.

  13. Poetry:

  14. MacDonald, George. The Poetical Works. 2 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1911.

  15. Secondary:

  16. Raeper, William. George MacDonald. 1987. Herts, England: A Lion Book, 1988.

George MacDonald: The Gifts of the Child Christ (1882)