Category Archives: My Life & Stuff That Happened

He’s Nailed It (or in Swedish: “Spikning”)

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

Visby (see previous post) is a summer town, where most visitors go to enjoy the beach.  Sure, the medieval walls and the museums are there year-round, but some tours and other visitor services only run mid-June to mid-August.  So why would I go there in an unseasonably frigid April?  To watch my husband, Ernest Adams, take part in a strange European ceremony left over from the Middle Ages.

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest's was added

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest’s was added

But first, you need a little paragraph of history to get the background:  The Protestants split off from the Catholic Church in the 16th century as the result of a movement called the Protestant Reformation, which was kicked off by a German monk called Martin Luther, who famously nailed 95 theses to the door of a church.  The biggest bee in Luther’s bonnet was about the selling of indulgences, that is, people paying money to the church for official documents saying that their sins would be forgiven.  Luther was appalled that the tremendously wealthy Pope Leo X would defraud people of money when surely only God could forgive sins (and without money changing hands, even if the church did need the money to repair St Peter’s Basilica), and Luther not only said so, he pretty much wrote down 95 reasons why and nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, in Germany, in 1517.

Selecting a place for the nail (Stephen on the bench, Ernest standing by)

Selecting a place for the nail before the audience arrives (Prof. Stephen Batchelder on the bench, Ernest Adams kibbitzing from the floor)

Now, having learned about that years and years ago, I had always assumed this was a bit of seriously in-your-face vandalism in the cause of religious activism, and that nailing his opinions up on the church door was a slap in the face of the establishment, but I’ve recently learned that I’d gotten it absolutely wrong.  Nailing your thesis to the door—or to whatever other bit of architecture was traditional where you lived—was, back then, a valid means of scholarly publication.  You wrote your argument and nailed it up so people could take your paper down off the door, read it, and put it back for the next person to read.

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

And in some parts of Europe they continue the practice to this day, generally nailing up the theses (US: dissertations) of new PhDs. The author pounds in a nail and hangs the thesis on it by a loop of string, the idea being that the public can take down the document, read what someone has written, and then come to hear the author’s defense (aka their orals,  oral examination, or viva), prepared with questions to ask.  And that’s why I went to Visby: because my husband’s colleagues at the Hogskola på Gotland, a university where he’s a part-time lecturer, asked him to nail up his PhD thesis—something of an honour, since he earned his degree elsewhere.

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest's dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest’s dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

The spikning (nailing) ceremony didn’t actually involve a church door, or any door at all.  Spikning ceremonies at Gotland  use a plank of wood set into the wall of the library’s café.   And they haven’t been nailing theses on Gotland for very long; the Hogskola there is the youngest university in Sweden, although it’s merging this summer with the prestigious university in Uppsala (established 1477) where they’ve been nailing up papers for centuries.  Some new PhDs in Uppsala, it seems, use hand-forged iron spikes; my husband actually ordered some of these, but they didn’t arrive in time for him to use one. (So now we’ve got a couple of hand-forged iron spikes lying around.  Any ideas on what we could use them for?)

Ernest's hammers in the nail

Ernest hammers in the nail

At some Swedish institutions, your adviser signs off on your thesis by writing Må spikas—meaning “May be nailed”; at some, nailing up your thesis is a requirement for getting your degree.  Some require you to give a copy of the thesis to the university library as well, as that’s a bit more practical for readers, and some have gone over to what’s called e-spikning or e-nailing—posting theses on-line.  I rather like the sound of the Institute of Technology at Linköpings Universitet, where PhD candidates nail their theses to “the oak outside…building C”, which seems much more authentic than the bulletin boards and such that other places use.

Ernest and the Rektor

Ernest and the Rektor

The University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies advises students to “contact the reception for borrowing a drill, hammer, and nail.”  That would have been handy at Gotland, where staff made arrangements for the hammer and nail to show up at 2:00, but they didn’t arrive until 3:00, brought by a young woman in blue jeans, a striped T-shirt, and running shoes, whom Ernest thought at first was someone from the facilities staff.  She turned out to be Erika Sandström, Rektor of the university, that is, the head of the whole institution, what in the US we’d call the President and in the UK we’d call the Chancellor.   That mix of formality and informality is particularly Swedish, I’m told, and I rather like it; they seem to value substance over formalities.

Colleagues and game design students at the party

Colleagues and game design students at the party

At 3:00 the speeches started, with professor Stephen Batchelder introducing Ernest, and then turning the microphone over to Ernest to talk a little about what he’d written, after which Stephen drilled a hole through a copy of the thesis with an electric drill (whatever they used in the Middle Ages, it must have taken a lot longer).  Then we all trooped into the café where Ernest stood on a bench to reach the empty spot they’d chosen in advance (and into which they’d secretly drilled a pilot hole).  He pounded in the nail, hung up the thesis, got a bouquet and a gift (and a hug from the Rektor), after which we all had drinks and canapes.

The process works!  Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The process works! Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The punchline here is that Martin Luther probably didn’t nail his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, or at least that’s the most recent word from historians who’ve looked at the evidence.  That church burned down in 1760, but was rebuilt, and in the 19th century it was given new doors, with Luther’s 95 arguments inscribed in bronze.

In any case, now my husband is not just Ernest, but Dr Ernest; his dissertation/thesis—Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling—is the last student paper he’ll ever have to write; and you could say, using an American expression, that he’s nailed it.



Filed under Culture, History, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

Britain’s National Health Service, or Socialized Medicine is the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Lately I’ve been seeing a fair few doctors, which is far from an ideal way to live.  For one thing, I’d produce more blog posts if I weren’t spending so much time being prodded by this one or sitting in the waiting room to see that one.  But when I need the care of doctors, I’m tremendously grateful that I’m in the hands of the British National Health Service.  Coming from the US, where even in affluent, high-tech Silicon Valley I had serious problems getting the care I needed via employee plans and HMOs, the NHS seems nearly miraculous.  It’s given me excellent care, and given me far and away the best access to care I’ve ever had.

What follows the first image below is a post about the NHS that I wrote in March 2012  when I was guest blogger at Vie Hebdomadaires.

If all remains well, I’ll be back in the saddle here next week, with new posts about my Anglo-American Experience, but for now, here’s a bit about the wonderful ‘socialized’ health service that keeps me going:

The main entrance to the Royal Surrey County Hospital, the big local hospital which I'd rather see a bit less of, though I'm grateful to have it!

The main entrance to the Royal Surrey County Hospital, the big local hospital which I’d rather see a bit less of, though I’m grateful to have it!

When health care was a hot topic during the 2008 presidential campaign, I made some remark on Facebook about getting fabulous government-paid-for health care here in the UK, and how I wished everybody in the US could have the same.  But a friend in New England popped up to say “Go ahead and ask for socialized medicine, if you want Americans to have the same crappy health care you get over there.”


Why would she think I would go to the trouble of posting a recommendation for a system that’s not any good?  Okay, we can agree to disagree about where healthcare should come from—no problem there—but why would she think that I would say the UK’s National Health Service is great if it isn’t?  Her belief that government health care must be bad seemed to be so strong that it was easier for her to believe I would say “vote for socialized medicine, even though it’s awful” than for her to believe that I get great health care from Britain’s National Health Services (NHS).

It was and is great to be at some remove from the US election process, but it can be difficult when my British neighbors ask me to explain American views and all I can say is that I don’t get it, either.  Most British people can’t understand why Americans don’t want a government-funded health care system.  We have roads, don’t we?  And nobody complains about socialized road maintenance, do they?  Isn’t peoples’ health more important than the roads?

(One of the presidential candidates spoke during the primaries for the 2008 election about how we aren’t willing to pay $150 to care for a diabetic’s feet but we’ll pay $30,000 when that uninsured diabetic has to have a foot amputated at the county general hospital.  I mentioned that to a friend who got quiet and then eventually told me “That very thing happened to my mother in New York”.  All the doctors except the anaesthesiologist waived their fees in that case because her mother couldn’t pay anything—laudable, but not really very fair to anyone, and wouldn’t it be better if we’d paid less and the lady kept both feet?)

A British mother with two toddlers said to me “Surely there’s health care for children, though, isn’t there?”  I explained that there was a proposal to extend a Medicare-type program to children, but President Bush vetoed it.  She kept saying “But the little children…” in a way that would have been comical if she hadn’t been so obviously shaken by the idea that there are children in the developed world who don’t get health care because their families can’t afford it, and that the society they live in, given the choice, allows that situation to continue.

(A friend in California was pregnant a few years ago when her company changed health care systems.  She had a choice of two plans, but her long-time family GP was on one and her obstetrician was on the other.  She couldn’t keep seeing them both.)

We may not be living in a total paradise here, but I definitely get care as good as I’ve ever had in my life, and without doubt I have awesomely, unbelievably better access to doctors and hospitals and scans and all kinds of medical services than I ever had when I lived in either Kentucky or California.

Yesterday was my birthday.  Now, it’s not very festive to run errands on your birthday, but off I went to get things done, and my first tasks were to schedule an eye test—which is free, because I have a family history of glaucoma—and to pick up my refilled prescriptions—also free.

(I’ve read that over 40% of US bankruptcies are caused by medical debt.  Almost no one in the UK goes bankrupt because of medical bills.)

The Fairlands Medical and Dental Centre, home to my GP's practice

The Fairlands Medical and Dental Centre, home to my GP’s practice; the blue sign on the right-hand side is for the in-house pharmacy.

Prescriptions are free here to everyone under 16 or over 60, anyone who’s pregnant or recently had a baby, who’s undergoing cancer treatment, who is permanently disabled with certain disabilities, or who has certain medical conditions. I get free prescriptions because I take thyroid hormones, but it could be diabetes, or epilepsy, or any of several particular conditions.  If you have to have thyroid supplements to live, they’re willing to give them to you, and for other prescriptions, well, the NHS thinks it’s cheaper and more fair to pay for all of your prescriptions, because who can say which of your other ailments aren’t ultimately a result of your thyroid problem?

(A cousin of mine in the US, in his 40s and employed full time with benefits, has just had to go on insulin, and the cost of prescriptions means he can no longer afford to live on his own, so he’s moved back in with his parents.)

I have never once since moving to the UK asked to see a GP and not gotten in the same day, though of course I don’t ask for an immediate appointment unless it’s urgent.  I won’t necessarily see my own GP, but I’ll see another partner in the practice, and that’s fine with me.  I haven’t run into a dud yet.

(At the California HMO I had last, before I moved here, I usually had to wait three weeks to see the doctor.  For recurring painful problems, she told me to write to her by fax because her staff wouldn’t screen out faxes from patients like they screen out phone calls from patients, and she could then phone the pharmacy with a prescription for what I needed.  If we didn’t do an end-run around her staff, I’d have to go to Urgent Care.)

Here in the UK there are restrictions on what doctor you can see, but they might not be ones you’d expect.  Mainly, there is a defined “catchment area” for my doctor’s surgery (US: doctor’s office); they won’t take you on as a patient if you don’t live within that area.  Why?  They make house calls.  NHS GPs generally do.  I’ve never seen a US doctor who made house calls; it’s something from the mythic past, tales handed down from grandparents.  And my doctor’s practice is not the only one operating in my neighborhood; I’ve got a lot of choice.

(The first HMO I belonged to in California didn’t allow me to switch doctors until the yearly open enrollment period in October, but when October rolled around one year, I wasn’t allowed to switch doctors because none of the other doctors in my area who were on my company’s plan were taking new patients. I had to stay, for another whole year, with a doctor I didn’t like.)

Life is just…completely different when you don’t worry about pre-existing conditions, or losing your health care along with your job.  If you get laid off in the UK, you’re still completely covered. You can change jobs at will and—here’s one for “job creators”—you can start your own business without wondering how you’re going to pay the doctor if something happens, or provide health care to employees.

(An American uncle retired to Colorado to be near his grandchildren, but it turned out his retirement health care plan from his employer only paid for care in the state in which he’d been employed, even though the same provider operated in Colorado. Oops.)

This is our village clinic--a little satellite of the larger clinic at Fairlands (in previous photo).  The sign says Glaziers Lane Surgery; the doctors from Fairlands cycle through this surgery (also called the Normandy Surgery), and we have a small dispensary there for prescriptions.  The staff there is second to none!

This is our village clinic–a little satellite of the larger clinic at Fairlands (in previous photo). The sign says Glaziers Lane Surgery; the doctors from Fairlands cycle through this surgery (also called the Normandy Surgery), and we have a small dispensary there for prescriptions. The staff there is second to none!

But you’ve probably heard we have horrendous waiting times for operations here.  Well, we used to.  That’s outdated information, but you don’t get headlines screaming “No unreasonable delays for health care in Britain anymore”.

And admittedly, there is a so-called postcode lottery, which means that depending on where you live, the NHS might provide better care or worse care than the average.  I’ve never been dissatisfied with the care, so I don’t have anything to offer except that most large services do have local variations, though you hope that everything meets at least minimum standards.

When minimum standards aren’t upheld, it’s national news and the headlines are huge.  A few years ago someone who wasn’t happy with the hospital care for her elderly mother ran up to the prime minister while cameras were rolling and asked him what he was going to do about it.  If the care isn’t good, you can write to your member of parliament, who can get involved in your case.  The newspapers like nothing better than to ask why the government isn’t doing more to help some sick and vulnerable person.

And you may have heard that some large percentage of British people are unsatisfied with the NHS.  There are lots of British people; some probably are dissatisfied at any given time.  But one study a couple of years ago asked people whether the NHS was doing a good job, and people said no, a terrible job, the hospitals aren’t sanitary, the waiting times are long.  But when the same people were asked what they thought of the care they got personally, they said it was great!  Their local doctor?  Just fine.  Local hospital?  Doing a first class job.  Maybe it’s a case of people believing the worst, or at least fearing the worst.

(Another California friend told her husband he’d have to give up his consulting business and get a job with benefits, because medical insurance was costing them as much as some people make in a year and covered just the parents and one child—the other kid had asthma, and she couldn’t find insurance that would take him—and keeping up with the claim paperwork had turned into a half time job for her.)

I have heard religious people in the Bible belt say that the government has no responsibility to help the sick, and that Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that we should perform personal acts of charity; it has nothing to do with the government.

Well, I can’t personally go out and help everybody who needs care, so I’m very happy that the government will do that for me.

Yes, we pay high taxes here, but those taxes buy me a lot of obviously good things, including knowing that I and all my neighbors will have medical care free at the point of delivery.  I don’t worry about other government services being “socialized”—paving the roads, training firefighters, policing the streets—so why should “socialized medicine” be seen as such a threat?  I’m here to tell you, socialized medicine is great where I live.

The first time after we moved here that I walked out of an NHS doctor’s surgery (US: doctor’s office), I kept looking over my shoulder.  Were they going to come chasing after me?  I couldn’t just leave, surely; I went back in and asked at the desk.  Was there really no co-payment?  Nope, nothing to pay.  Don’t I at least have to sign something, or fill in a form?  No, no forms, you can just go on with your day.


It’s really the people who make the NHS what it is, and I regret that I didn’t get permission to use photos of the staff at the wonderful Glaziers Lane/Normandy surgery.  Maybe next time!  For now, I apologize for only offering you photos of buildings.


Filed under Culture, Law/Politics/Government, My Life & Stuff That Happened

An English Christmas 4 (Revisited): Boxing Day

I’ve been reluctant to let go of Christmas this year; the tree is still up, the cards still on display, the string of Victorian-style paper decorations still tied along the banister rail.

It’s all got to come down soon, if only because the borough council’s tree recycling programme (US: program) will end and we could be stuck with an 8-foot Nordmann fir and no way to get rid of it.   One year when we missed the last tree collection day, we lopped off branches bit by bit and burned them in the fireplace, but had no hatchet to carve up the trunk, so for more days than I’d like to admit, until we had time to get to the ironmonger’s (US: hardware store) to buy some kind of axe, we had the bare upright trunk perched in the corner of the living room.  We called it the Christmas Stick.

Before I admit Christmas is over, then, I’ll re-run one more Christmas post from the sequence you’ve been reading recently, written a couple of years ago.  It’s about Boxing Day—the day after Christmas—which this year fell on a Wednesday, but back then—well, you can read it——

This is an unusual year: Boxing Day comes on Saturday, and English people are divided on how to handle that.

Boxing Day—the day after Christmas—is the day employers traditionally gave servants Christmas boxes containing presents or cash, and it’s still a public holiday. In big houses, the servants were on call all of Christmas day with all their usual work to do plus anything extra called for by the occasion, and Boxing Day was the servants’ day off, the day they celebrated.

A view of Box Hill, which is maintained by the National Trust. Get information on the Trust or on visiting Box Hill from one of the Featured Links on the right-hand side of this page.

A few years ago we had some visitors from the US who decided to spend the afternoon of Boxing Day taking a walk on, fittingly, Box Hill. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Emma (or seen one of the films), you may remember that there’s a big picnic scene on Box Hill–which is less than 30 miles east of us. Jane Austen’s house at Chawton is less than 30 miles to the west, too; if you’re interested in English literature, one of the great things about living here is that with very little trouble, you can visit the country places associated with all kinds of authors—Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, and more—not to mention the spot where Agatha Christie’s car was found when she temporarily disappeared in 1926, and the part of the Thames where Kenneth Grahame set The Wind in the Willows. And of course you can’t move in London without walking in the footsteps of more luminaries than you can count.

So our visitors set out for Box Hill, but found the day a bit breezier than they were equipped to handle. One lady headed back to sit in the warm car, but not before insisting that one of the gentlemen, who had no hat, take her hat, and that another gentleman, who had only a light jacket, take her coat. The third gentleman was better-equipped for the cold, but as he didn’t like breathing cold air, he’d worn a medical mask.

When they got back, the man in the girlish hat with fluffy balls on the ends of the cords tied under his chin said to the man in the medical mask and the man in the clearly feminine coat that he was surprised that British people who pass you on the walking trails don’t greet you the way people do back in the US. I suspect if he’d come upon three foreigners in similar get-ups in his home state, he might have been a bit reticent, too.

This year was milder, and we did go out for a walk—with our own hats and coats—though not to Box Hill, just around a pond on one of the nearby commons. We ran into lots of people happy to greet us and be greeted, most of them walking their dogs. (Those on horseback were past us and gone so fast that there wasn’t time to speak.) I don’t think it was just that the Christmas season had filled people with a glow towards their fellow human beings; I think you’d find the same friendliness there on any other Saturday, too.

But if Boxing Day comes on Saturday, where’s the fun in having a day off? Most people would probably have a free day on Saturday anyway. So some businesses are recognizing today as the holiday, some are closing on Monday, and most seem to be doing both, so that Christmas will stretch to a four-day weekend this year.

No bad thing that, especially for those of us who put on the Christmas dinners. We may not be servants anymore, but we’ve slaved in the kitchen and deserve that extra day off.


Filed under Culture, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

An Announcement, Enhanced with Autumn Colour

Looking across a vineyard toward the main building at Denbies in the summer; you could almost be in the Napa Valley (but it’s a little *too* green). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Please excuse me for delaying the promised post on the William Blake/Sir Hubert Parry song “Jerusalem” by posting this announcement instead: As of last week, I’m writing a column  for the Guildford Dragon NEWS, Guildford’s independent online news(not-actually-on)paper.

Vine leaves changing colour at Denbies.

I’ll be looking in those columns at the same sorts of things I write about here, except that I’ll focus on people, places and events in the Borough of Guildford, with Guildfordians as the target readers.

The publisher has seen fit to call the column “The Eagle Eye” (not my choice; feel free to suggest something better!), and we may soon have a logo, drawn to resemble a pub sign.  The Guildford Dragon is interested in pubs—but who isn’t? I’ll probably write a certain amount about local pubs, though at the rate they’re closing I’d better hurry.  (There are none left in the village where I live, three having closed since we moved here–not that I’m implying causality there, you understand.)

More vineyards at Denbies. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The first column went up last week, though readers here might recognize most of that offering as one I made earlier (as the chefs on telly/TV say); it’s a reprise of my article on the civic procession for the service for the mayor after last May’s Mayor Making.  (Bet you can’t say that three times fast.)

After this, there should be a new Eagle Eye column appearing in the third week of every month.

More Fal–er, Autumn colour at Denbies

Now, the one rule of blogging is Don’t Be Boring, so in an effort to give you something more interesting for your time spent here today, I’ve added some photos of Denbies,  a winery in the eastern part of Surrey.  Vineyards in Britain?  Absolutely!  The first ones were planted by the Romans.  Look for a post on the Denbies winery, probably in the new year.

Main building at Denbies Wine Estate. The light-coloured tower is above the main entrance, but the wing in the foreground, painted black, houses the Surrey Performing Arts Library, which was the reason for my trip.

The winery building houses, for reasons unclear to me, the Surrey Performing Arts Library, a branch of the public library, and I was there to do research on the composer of “Jerusalem”.  With the vine leaves turning colour on a sunny autumn (Brits don’t call it “fall”) day, it was glorious; you see, I hope, the sacrifices I make to research these posts.


Filed under Food, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

I’m back!

I’m back here after my week as guest blogger at Vie Hebdomadaires, having left posts there which you can reach by clicking on the links below:

Take-Off:  in which we see that life can be thought of as a series of airports

Seven Camels:  in which are compared the price of gas in the US, the price of petrol in the UK, and the mileage of the average thorn-fed camel

Britain’s National Health Service (NHS):  in which I try to tell Americans how wonderful socialized medicine is

My friend Mary Helen Spooner has taken over from me; please read her thoughts on South American life and literature at Vie Hebdomadaires this week, or at her Notes on the Americas blog any time.

I”m also back from holiday/vacation in the US, and the next couple of posts will reflect that.  Hope to welcome you to those posts soon.

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Filed under Current events, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

Sims Reed, St James, London: My Kind of Bookshop

Sims Reed Rare Books, Duke Street St James at Ryder St. Visit their web site at

The cover of December 5th’s New Yorker  shows a clerk in a bookstore—at least, the word BOOKS is painted on the plate-glass window—pointing out to a customer the sole shelf of real books, near the floor and easy to miss. The prime selling space offers caps and calendars, e-readers and reading lamps, T-shirts (Shakespeare), paperweights (Twain and Shakespeare), and shopping bags (Hemingway, Woolf, and Joyce).

Last week I visited the antithesis of the New Yorker‘s nightmarishly bookless bookstore: Sims Reed Rare Books in St James in central London.

St James is a district within the City of Westminster—London being made up of two cities, two royal boroughs, and 30-odd ordinary boroughs—filled with upscale shops and traditional gentlemen’s clubs. If you need antiques, art, or indeed antique art, it’s a fine place to browse; if you need bespoke (US: custom-made) shirts or even bespoke shoes, someone in St James can provide them.

"Two Stories" by Leonard & Virginia Woolf, 1917. This is one of at least two different covers in which they issued the book; the one at the British Library has a solid blue paper wrapper.

The gentlemen’s clubs of St James I know only from books, of course, not being a gentleman and not, even as a lady, being the sort the British call clubbable (the class of person to whom clubs would offer membership). If I have anything approaching a club in St James, it’s the London Library, a private lending library, where I can sometimes be found in a red leather chair in the Reading Room with Granta or the Sewanee Review.  But I could read about Bertie Wooster, who belonged to the Drones Club, or about Sherlock Holmes meeting up with his brother, Mycroft, at the Diogenes. When Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey, tells his man Bunter that he’ll be dining at his club, he could mean the fictional Egotists club or he might mean the Marlborough, not only a real club, but a favorite of King Edward VII. Lord Peter’s (fictional) entry in Debrett’s lists his pedigree and his clubs, but also reminds the reader that “bibliophily” was one of his hobbies, and that he was the author of Notes on the Collecting of Incunabula—which brings us back to the subject of rare books, as incunabula are early printed books (especially those printed before 1501).

An inviting shelf at Sims Reed. There's nothing in the photo to indicate the scale, so you'll have to take my word for it that the tallest books shown here are a good 30 inches tall.

My visit to Sims Reed was sparked by a much later volume, hardly more than a pamphlet really, and published only in 1917. Two Stories was the first book issued by the Hogarth Press, which began with one small hand-operated machine on Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s dining-room table. She set the type, he operated the press itself, and they shared the work of stitching the pages and adding Japanese grass-paper covers. The copy I went to see fell just slightly out of my price range at £18,000 (not quite $28,000), but I wasn’t there to buy, only to do research for an article.

Kew Gardens, by Virginia Woolf with illustrations by her sister, Vanessa Bell. This edition, from 1927, is more lavishly illustrated than the first edition, produced in 1919, and this copy once belonged to Ellen Terry.

Sims Reed specializes in books on art, architecture, and related subjects, which often call for extra-large layouts, so just inside the door I ran into an impressive case of enormous books. People write about the smell of old books and the way light falls on matured leather spines with gold-stamped titles, but there’s an extra intrigue in books (or anything, really) of extraordinary size, whether monstrous or miniature. By luck, the first title that caught my eye, on a red leather spine that might have measured a full three feet, was Architectural Drawings by William Burges—a coincidence, because it was Burges who brought me to Sims Reed the first time, almost a dozen years ago. On that visit I was after a copy of the only book-length scholarly work on Burges, the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, at £175. There’s a copy on eBay at the moment, listed at £450 ($700), but mine wouldn’t be worth nearly so much, because it shows the wear of lots of reading.

An intriguing glimpse of the stock at Sims Reed

And in any case I was in the shop this time in pursuit of Woolfs. I put Burges back on the shelf and followed my guide downstairs to a room without floor space, only book space. That the walls were lined with bookshelves almost goes without saying, but a huge table piled with books took up most of the room itself. My host brought out Two Stories from a cardboard sleeve. The grass-paper of the red-and-white covers wasn’t meant to last through years of handling—it’s sold as wallpaper—and had frayed, but the condition of the cover matters rather less in such an important work. There was the imprint of the Caslon Old Face type as Virginia Woolf had set it, with the eccentric punctuation and rather nontraditional spacing of a novice trying to right- and left-justify the lines; there were the darker and lighter characters where Leonard Woolf inked the type unevenly, in part because he was famously parsimonious and didn’t want to waste a drop. And if the book weren’t rare enough itself, the woodcuts alone—one noticeably crooked on the page—by Dora Carrington would make it a book of artistic interest.

The upper floors of the building, above the bookshop, offers service apartments let by the day or the week. You could come to London and stay just an elevator's ride away from the books you'd come to browse.

And what of the two stories? They were by the Woolfs, too: Virginia’s “The Mark on the Wall” and Leonard’s “Three Jews”. They produced the entire book, from story ideas to posting the finished book out to buyers, and made a profit (they even made Carrington pay for her copy, which seems a bit much). And Virginia, feeling the power of the press, wrote in her diary “I’m the only woman in England free to write what I like.”

Sims Reed currently has another early Hogarth Press book on offer: Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens. The catalogue may say that it’s illustrated by Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, but it’s not so much that the book is illustrated, but that the lines of the text themselves are illustrated, that is, the lines of the illustrations twine their way right into the words. I’d read Kew Gardens before, but it’s a completely different story when seen with the artwork. This copy, remarkably, is signed by both author and artist, and carries the bookplate of Victorian actress Ellen Terry.

The 1527 Polycronycon

I idly wondered what the oldest book in the shop might be, and a few minutes later a 1527 edition of the Polycronycon appeared on the table. In seconds, I moved from the first pages to come off of the Woolfs’s press, to a book associated with the first known printer in England, William Caxton. The Polycronycon is a history of the world written in the 13th century, in Latin, by a Benedictine monk. Translated into English and expanded by several hands (including those of Caxton, who brought it right up to date—as of 1460) it’s still an important source of information about the Roman Empire, about the Norman conquest of Britain, and about King Arthur (pace our own self-styled post-Thatcher King Arthur). The book itself is a work of art, with ornate capitals and finely detailed woodcuts, including a nearly full-page scene of St George and the dragon. The Polycronycon may not be 30 inches tall, but it’s a good 5 or 6 inches thick, and impressive on all counts: content, construction, illustration, typography—everything.

If I could own any one of the treasures I saw that day—the 1527 Polycronycon, Burges’s Architectural Drawings, or either of the Hogarth Press gems—it’d be a hard call. They’re all books I’d almost class as holy relics. Many, many thanks to Sims Reed; a place that can offer that kind of choice, and all free from calendars or coffee mugs, is what I call a real bookshop.

Many thanks to Sims Reed, and especially to Rupert Halliwell.  Photos of the shop are mine, photos of individual books are used by permission.


Filed under Arts, Culture, Many Books Little Time, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

The Christmas Horse Comes But Once a Year

In the run-up to Christmas, I had a remarkable number of conversations that went something like this:

Me: “Are you doing anything for the holidays?”

Them: “Yes!  We’re going to France/to Australia/to Venice to stay in a chateau/at a surfing resort/with my stepmother, the Contessa.  Then we’re going back to London/on to New Zealand/over to Rome to see “Mamma Mia!” / where they filmed “Lord of the Rings”/the Pope. What are you doing for Christmas?”

Me: “Um…we’re having dinner with friends at a pub where they walk a horse through the bar on Christmas Day.”

The Fox, Bucks Green, Rudgwick, West Sussex-- a 16th-century country pub

Yes, we chose a quiet close-to-home Christmas this year, venturing no further than West Sussex, but getting in on one of those age-old and inexplicable traditions that crop up all over the UK: they’ve been walking a horse through the bar of the Fox Inn in the little hamlet of Bucks Green for so long that nobody remembers when it started, or why.

Introducing Blue!

Staff at the pub said they believe it may have to do with keeping a bridleway open, though that’s just a guess.  British ramblers (US: hikers) can be fiercely protective of their right to use public footpaths and bridle paths, which can bring them into conflict with landowners when owners and ramblers have different ideas of how extensive the public’s rights really are.

Ordering Christmas dinner

Walkers, often from the Ramblers (a nationwide association), go past my house every once in a while, groups of people wearing plastic sleeves full of maps hanging from straps around their necks.  They traverse all the local footpaths as a hobby, a form of exercise, and a means of asserting their right to keep those paths public and to make sure no one is threatening to close any right of way.  On the other side of the fence (sometimes literally), landowners may close paths over private land a few days a year to remind people that the public has no right to pass.  An old friend of mine in Essex had one of these—they’re called permissive paths—across his land, and used to close the gate on Christmas Day every year to remind people that while he was happy for them to walk across the land, his farm was private property.

Blue in the pub, with lots of people to cheer him. You can just see the take-away menu on a chalkboard behind his head.

Which brings us back to Christmas, and to the Fox Inn where a horse—his name is Blue—visits for lunch at Christmas.  There’s a brick path running right through the building; presumably that’s the old bridleway and at some point—by at least the 16th century, because the present building dates back that far—somebody plunked a pub down right onto it.  So Blue comes in on Christmas day, eats a bag of crisps (US: potato chips), has a bowl of beer, and then walks on out the other side.

Once outside, Blue posed for photos. He seemed to be a very good sport about those antlers.

I followed him out to snap some more pictures because the pub was chock full of people and I couldn’t get close enough to the horse inside the building to get a decent photo, though a very kind (and very tall) stranger lifted my camera up over his head to take a shot over the crowd.  I don’t know where all the people came from; Bucks Green is a small group of houses classed as a hamlet, an outlier of the thriving metropolis of Rudgwick, itself a village that can claim all of 2900 people (if they round up to an nice-looking number).

Okay, this is the south end of a northbound horse, but his tailwas so beautiful I wanted to include a photo. Many thanks to the staff of the Fox, to Blue, and to Blue's handler.

A good proportion of Bucks Green citizenry must have been in the pub that day. In fact, Blue’s handler had to persuade him at one point not to try go back in.  Once is all it takes; even if no other horse ever walks up to the bar at the Fox, the bridleway is (presumably) safe for another year.


Filed under Culture, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel