Magazine article The Spectator

The Battle of the Books

Magazine article The Spectator

The Battle of the Books

Article excerpt

A SPYIN THE BOOKSHOP : LETTERS BETWEEN HEYWOOD HILL AND JOHN SAUMAREZ SMITH , 1966-1974 edited by John Saumarez Smith Frances Lincoln, £12.99, pp. 176, ISBN 0711226989 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

By now Heywood Hill's bookshop in Curzon Street must be almost as famous as 84 Charing Cross Road.

Opened in 1936, the shop first became familiar through the lively accounts of Nancy Mitford, who worked there from 1942-45. Then came A Bookseller's War, the correspondence between Heywood Hill, away in the army, and his wife, Anne, left in charge of the shop; and most recently, in 2004, The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street, the letters written to each other by Nancy and Heywood. Now, published in the same attractive format, comes A Spy in the Bookshop, which might be described as reports from the front line in an ongoing shop war which had begun exactly as the other war ended.

The background is this: in 1945 Heywood Hill, a gentle, bookish man, had taken on a new partner, Handasyde ('Handy') Buchanan, a seemingly convenient arrangement as Handy's wife, Mollie, was already working in the shop in charge of accounts.

But Handy turned out to be a curmudgeonly character, possessing all 'the concealed malice of the underdog', as Evelyn Waugh so memorably put it; before long, and with the able assistance of the poisonous Mollie, he had effortlessly succeeded in alienating staff and customers alike. By the time Heywood sold the shop in 1964 he had been so bloodied and bruised by the Buchanans that instead of staying on in a consultative capacity, as he had planned, he was obliged to sever all communication with Curzon Street, not even daring to have his hair cut, as was his long-established custom, at Trumper's, the barber's next door.

It is at this point that a new character comes on stage. John Saumarez Smith, just down from Cambridge, is hired by Handy as an assistant. Saumarez Smith already has a black mark against him as he is related by marriage to the Hills, and from his very first day the Buchanans regard him as the enemy.

Nothing he does is right, and between them the malign pair set out to make his life a misery. 'The reader might ask why I stayed the course, ' he writes in his introduction. 'I have sometimes wondered myself.' Fortunately for us the young man determines to stick it out, letting off steam by reporting regularly from the battle zone to Heywood, now living at a safe distance in Suffolk but as keenly interested as ever in the goings-on in the shop.

Of the two Handy is the less malevolent, spending most of the time bumbling about in his inner sanctum and making regular trips to the pub, pausing only, on his way in and out, to draw unamiable comparison between himself and his latest employee. …

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