Carpe Liber!

One of the wisest things I ever heard was in the Cinema Bookshop in London. I always like to go there whenever I’m down — come to think of it, haven’t been in YEARS — and on this occasion I was there with Fiona and producer Nigel Smith. I was trying to decide whether to buy a pricey coffee-table type volume about Sergio Leone. I had been amazed at finding it, having never seen a copy or even having heard of it, and this was before Sir Christopher Frayling’s mammoth biography, so there was a sparsity of Leone literature around. And yet, there was the price.

Nigel said, “If you want to buy it, buy it NOW.” He was right — I’ve never seen a copy of that book for sale since. It probably helped sway me that the Cinema Shop had been the site of one major deferred purchase I’ve always regretted.

I’d found a copy of Dan Leno: Hys Booke, written by himself, A volume of frivolities, etc. A slender volume at a high price, it was really beyond my financial limits at the time. And yet I bet it was a bargain. Leno had nothing to do with cinema, he was a Victorian music hall star — and a fascinating figure. His book seemed very funny, but I can’t remember any of what I read. I can only remember a joke I saw quoted by comedy expert Roy Hudd on TV: “I found myself washed up on a desert island. Discovering a piece of fruitcake, I noticed that all the currants had been removed, and I rejoiced at this sign of civilisation.”

Hys Booke, as the title suggests, was crazy with wordplay, like a mid-period Spike Milligan novel, which made sense given Leno’s eventual insanity — incessant punning can be a feature of mania. At any rate, I’ve always regretted not picking it up.

The other book I really really regret not buying wasn’t even expensive, I just couldn’t decide if I neededit or not. A couple of days later I returned to Till’s Bookshop in Edinburgh, and dealt with the art of Charles Altamont Doyle, father of the more famous son of Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle Snr suffered from depression, alcoholism and eventually, complete insanity, having failed to earn a living by his drawing and painting. But it’s wondrous stuff, and touched with madness from the get-go. Like his brother Richard, Charles Doyle painted scenes of Fairyland, with less skill but with more eccentricity — and eccentricity is essential in lifting Victorian fairy art out of the realms of the twee and back into the scary world of Celtic and Old English mythology where it rightfully belongs.

One ilustration, entitled Kissing the Sphinx, seemed to me gloriously perverse and erotic, though perhaps mainly for its title. Illustration-wise it’s admittedly trumped by THIS BEAUTY by Franz Von Stuck.

Stuck On You

Again, I’ve never seen the Doyle book for sale anywhere since.

HAPPY ENDING — I was forgetting, this is the Age of the Internet (how can I forget it when I’m ON it?) — the book, The Doyle Diary, is readily available secondhand on Amazon! Ordered — for 1 penny!

Dan Leno, His Booke, is likewise available, but even more expensive that it was in the Cinema Shop… I’ll have to delay that one until I’m rich.

Nevertheless, I think Nigel’s general point holds true.

14 Responses to “Carpe Liber!”

  1. Most remindful of Pierre Klossowski’s drawings for his books (eg. Robert Ce Soir, Le Baphomet)

  2. Yes, the same sense of a private dreamworld or mythology…

  3. All last week, Radio 4’s Afternoon Reading was “An Audience with Dan Leno”, taken from his writings. You’re right – very milliganesque (or whatever the word might be).

    It’s still available on listen-again for a while,

  4. Thanks for that! I really should pay more attention to what’s on the radio. I’ve got it playing RIGHT NOW.

  5. “Birth is something that comes to all of us, sooner or later.”

  6. Have you read Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem? Marvelous.

    The “buy it now” dictum is wise for these rarities. I erred on the Calvinist side of caution a couple of times and it took me years to find the two books I was looking for. Eventually, completely accidentally, Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo turned up in a roadside stall in Upper St. Similarly Chaplin’s My Life in Pictures sought me out. When I saw Alexander Walker’s original Stanley Kubrick Director years after it had gone OP I immediately grabbed it. Seize the day!

  7. My problem with the Ackroyd is I guessed the final twist after about three chapters. Often a problem with literary types wading into the mystery genre. It’s a good twist, but it’s utterly foreseeable as presented. And you don’t get enough of Leno’s comedy and he fails to tie it in with his madness, which would seem like an essential strategy.


    Am just reading Christopher Fowler’s The Water Room, (after somebody with his name commented here) which is full of nice London lore. Ackroyd fans should enjoy. Plus, Fowler has nine billion ways to describe rain — “light-leeching mizzle” being my favourite so far.

  8. >Ordered — for 1 penny!

    Plus about £2.75 P&P :)

  9. Yup! But I can recycle the envelope.

  10. Hah! Irony of ironies, sound advice that I resolutely failed to heed myself. On the same visit, I recall chortling over a 1960’s book which attempted to explain the nature of screen comedy through the use of graphs, pie/bar charts etc…. Funny cencept in itself, I thought, but at £35 I was sure I could do better.

    Of course, I’ve not seen the book since, and even the author and title are lost to me now.

  11. Yeah, that one’s going to be hard to track down…

    Wait, here it is:

    The Laughter Curve: Parabolas of Humour, by Caractacus Q. Fleidermaus, Professor of Knockabout at the Univeristy of Bumhenge.

  12. Would that that were actually it.

    The only reason I wanted it was so that I could rip the pesh out of it in a couple of classes. £35 was too much to pay for a couple of (not so) cheap jibes.

  13. Could anyone upload “An Audience with Dan Leno”? It doesn’t seem to be available anymore.

  14. Alas, the BBC only make stuff available for a limited time. But maybe somebody downloaded it and could make it available?

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