17 Nov 2011

The Cemetery of Forgotten (Sailing) Books

My favourite second-hand bookshop in Barcelona is lost somewhere in the Barri Gotic on a side street off La Rambla, the great walkway leading from Plaça de Catalunya down to the harbour. The bookshop, the Lliberia Cervantes, is near the Ateneu, bastion of Catalan culture, and steps away from the Roman tombs in Plaça de Madrid. The Cervantes brings to mind Zafón's fabulous Cemetery of Forgotten Books, but the fictitious bookshop was located closer to the harbour and on the other side of La Rambla. For a second-hand bookshop the Cervantes is relatively large and spacious. In the front room bookshelves reach to the high ceiling. A hallway, lined with glass fronted cases holding some of the more valuable volumes, leads to a larger room in the back. A bust of Cervantes faces you as you enter the back room where the walls are lined with more shelves and books. Tables laden with books fill out the room.

Most of the books in the Cervantes are in Catalan and Castilian but there are volumes in French, German or English scattered about. The bookshop has been owned by the same family for eight decades and often when one opens a book to the flyleaf for the price it may be written in pesetas instead of euros. Some books have sat on the shelves for decades waiting for the right person to pick them up, browse through them and take them home. Of course, one never knows what one will find in a bookshop, it's a bit like sifting through an archaeological excavation. Perhaps a book that you have had in mind for many years, but were never able to find, and suddenly there it is in your hands. Or it may you pick up a book with an intriguing title and leafing through its pages you decide that you must have it. Sometimes, you find nothing that is sufficiently interesting to take away. If I have a few minutes before catching the bus home I may spend the time browsing the Cervantes' shelves.

Some time ago, killing time as I had a long wait for the bus, I went into the Cervantes. On entering the back room I saw a new hand-printed sign on one of the tables that read in Spanish, "Sea, Voyages, Sailing." As I approached the table I expected to find nothing more than mass market coffee table books, copies of Josep Pla's Costa Brava, or perhaps Spanish translations of Thor Heyderal's books from the 1960s. I scanned the spines for the titles and author names and was surprised. What I found was a collection consisting almost entirely of accounts of small-boat voyages--the cruising sailor's library of classics. Most of the books were in English, some in French and a small number were translations into Castilian. None were in Catalan.

A majority of the books were first editions by English sailor/writers. Among them were five books by the mountaineer and sailor H.W. Tilman. Humphrey Barton's Westward Crossing, an account of his Atlantic crossing on a 25-foot Vertue sailboat, quickly caught my attention. An inscribed copy of James Wharram's Two Girls, Two Catamarans seemed particularly interesting. A pair of first editions by Miles Smeeton, Sunrise to Windward and Because the Horn is There, shared table space with a copy of Trekka Round the World by John Guzzwell, Miles and Beryl Smeeton's friend and onetime crew. There were also a dozen or so hardback reprints in The Mariners Library series published by Rupert Hart-Davis including W. A. Robinson's circumnavigation account Deep Water & Shoal and E.F. Knight's treasure hunt tale The Cruise of the "Alerte."

It took me awhile but as I looked at all of the books I realised that I had a dilemma. I would have liked to have taken them all but I was looking at eighty or ninety volumes. It made no sense to do that as I could not afford the cost. What to do? I decided to pick two volumes, let it go at that and head for the bus stop. I selected Tilman's Mischief in Patagonia, an account of his first combined sailing and climbing voyage; and Eric Hiscock's revised 1948 edition of Wandering Under Sail in which the author recounts some of his pre-WWII cruises round Britain and the coast of France aboard his yacht Wanderer II.

How did all of these sailing books suddenly turn up in the Cervantes? And in Barcelona of all places. Barcelona does have a long maritime tradition. A stroll along its harbour and a visit to the Museu Maritime will illustrate that point. It is Spain's most important commercial harbour and there are several marinas and yacht clubs. Barcelonians also love books. Besides the city's numerous bookshops there is on Sunday mornings at the Mercat d'Sant Antoni a second-hand book market that is very popular with bibliophiles. As for the sudden appearance of the sailing books in the Cervantes I assume that the estate of some recently deceased sailor and book collector sold the volumes to the shop. Many if not most of the books bore the ex libris label of someone named Jose Jover. The copy of Two Girls, Two Catamarans had been inscribed, "To our good friend Jose Jover, (signed) Jim Wharram." I contacted some friends who had built a Wharram and know the man but I could not find out if Wharram remembered Senyor Jover. I asked several acquaintances amongst the sailors I know around Barcelona and none had heard of the man. Senyor Jover obviously had a fascination with small-boat voyages. One of the things I like about old books is that they have a history, they have been read and owned by others. I like finding notes in the margins and old book marks between the pages. When the book has been inscribed, it may have been given as a birthday or Christmas present, it has some history behind it. Senyor Jover loved sailing and books about sailing, They were undoubtedly his passions and his book collection is a testament to those passions. That his books were to be scattered to the winds is sad but they can also be enjoyed by others.

On my next trip to Barcelona following my discovery I went into the Cervantes and expected all of  those sailing books to have disappeared. There must be other people interested in small-boat sailing, I thought. I imagined hoards of British and American tourists, from the cruise ships that assault Barcelona, descending on the Cervantes and nabbing all of those books. Of course, the people who sail aboard giant cruise ships maybe the least interested in small-boat sailing. Would they not want to take home as a souvenir of their stop in Barcelona a copy of Hiscock's Around the World in Wanderer III rather than, say, a history of the second Spanish republic, written in Catalan? Of course, not everyone has the same interests. In any case, I was surprised to find that the sailing books despite being located in a prominent section of the shop were, as far as I could tell, untouched and unsold. A book is only of value to the person who is interested in it. So I bought a couple more. On another trip to Barcelona I bought still another pair of volumes. Over the next 18 months, every time I went into the city I would try to drop into the shop but it was not always possible for one reason or another. By picking up one or two volumes at a time I built up a collection of almost sixty sailing books, and spread out the cost.

Unfortunately, a few books got away. I regretted not picking up one of Adrian Hayter's books after I had read his Business in Great Waters, although I did find in another section of the bookshop his Sheila in the Wind translated into Spanish. In my wanderings about second-hand bookshops and fairs in Barcelona I noted the quantities of travel and adventure books that were translated into Spanish in the twenty-five years after the Civil War. Of course you will not find Catalan books from that period. There must have been a tremendous appetite for those stories during the bleak years of the Franco dictatorship. Why the attraction? At the most basic level it is a way of experiencing with the authors their voyages but also because it was a dismal period in Spain people needed diversions from everyday life. The post-war period in Britain was also dismal with food rationing lasting until 1954. Many wanted to leave their respective countries but could not. Sailing books would have been a form of escapist literature. Speaking of escapism, I was amused to read Peter Pye's The Sea is for Sailing because the author, a physician, had taken up sailing to escape having to participate in the evils of socialised medicine in post-war Britain.

In addition to the English-language books I found in the travel section of the Cervantes several sailing books in Spanish. There are some interesting volumes that are not available to English audiences having never been translated. An example is Hong Kong-Barcelona en el Junco "Rubia," an a account of the voyage from the British colony to the Catalan capital of a Chinese junk in 1957. The author José Maria Tey had the Rubia built in Hong Kong and then gathered a group of friends to sail it to Catalonia. It would be interesting to find out what happened to the vessel, and the author. Another Spanish book La Niña II, Tras el Surco de Colon is an account of a voyage retracing Columbus's first Atlantic crossing. The author, Antonio Sagaseta de Ilurdoz, was a priest with a sense of humour who joined the crew of a Niña replica. The voyage, undertaken in 1962, was somewhat marred by the fact that the Niña II took so long to make the crossing that the crew had be very careful of their rationing its food supplies. On the other hand the Niña II seems to have been well stocked with wine, champagne, brandy and rum.

Many sailing books are frankly poorly written, simple accounts of weather and anchorages, not much better than sailing directions or pilots. The excuse is that the authors are after all more sailors than writers. It is always a pleasure to come across a well written sailing book. I enjoy rereading Tilman's books because of his sense of humour and the fact that he does not take himself too seriously. Of course, Tilman had the advantage of making voyages to places few small-boat sailors would dare venture to. Another author who I find interesting Adrian Hayter. His Sheila in the Wind recounts his five-year long odyssey from England to New Zealand. In that book Hayter stands in for Odysseus and it is honest and well written. While I was writing this article I started reading Ann Davison's My Ship is So Small and was pleasantly surprised how well written it is but she had also previously written a book or two. Davison was the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic and happened to be one of the better writers--she knew how to tell a good story.

At one time ocean voyaging must have been a small world and an interesting aspect of the sailing books from the 1940s to the 60s is how often one author will turn up in the book of another. For example, the Smeeton's first dismasting while rounding Cape Horn is also recounted by Guzzwell in his book. Guzzwell had interrupted his voyage to help the Smeetons round South America. The Australian S.E. Bradfield recounts in his Road to the Sea how he and his wife meet up with the Hiscocks in the Red Sea while on a passage from Australia to England. Of course the Hiscocks knew everyone and everyone knew of Bill Tilman and his exploits. The Trinidadian sailor Harold la Borde and his wife met with the American couple of Marjorie and Al Petersen in the Caribbean. Adlard Cole's North Atlantic and G.C.L Payne's Out of Poole are both accounts of the 1950 Trans-Atlantic race. In White Cliffs to Coral Reef William Howell tells of buying the Hiscock's boat Wanderer II and then sailing her to the south Pacific and on to British Columbia.

Some books are collections of cruising vignettes and they make for pleasant winter reading when the tramuntana wind is blowing over the Mediterranean and the fireplace is going. When one wants to read a few pages to recall summer sailing these are the books to pull off the bookshelf. Under the Cabin Light by Sir Alker Tripp, a collection of accounts of weekend and holiday cruises round about the English seacoast, falls into this category. I have reread several times Hiscock's Wandering Under Sail describing the author's pre-war cruises to Scotland and the French Atlantic seaboard. The latter voyage always strikes a melancholy note as it took Hiscock to some quiet fishing villages just a few days before the start of the war. Hiscock was writing about a world that was soon to disappear. Peter J. Haward, a delivery skipper, recounts in All-Seasons' Yachtsman several of his adventures, including the loss of a man overboard, while delivering yachts to various European destinations. Haward also sailed on Severn II an old eight-meter that I know as it is still sailing on Lake Ontario.

I still go back to the Cervantes and find amongst its shelves more sailing accounts. A couple of years ago, up on a shelf just below the ceiling of the front room, I found a copy of J. Linton Rigg's Bahama Islands. The Cervantes has few patrons who would have much interest in what is essentially a 1950s cruising guide to the Bahamas, sprinkled with the author's anecdotes, but having spent some years cruising those islands it was, for me at least, an appreciated find. On the same shelf as the Bahamas book was a copy of Captain Wilfred Shawe's Sea of Seas a somewhat scatter-shot book of various sailing voyages around the western Mediterranean. As we have a view of the Mediterranean from the terrace at home the book was a timely find. Last summer before sailing to Port Soller on Majorca's north shore Shawe's book provided us with some background information on our destination. Who knows what you can unearth in the Cemetery of Forgotten Sailing Books?

All Seasons Yachtsman, Peter J. Haward; Hong Kong-Barcelona en el Junco "Rubia," José Maria Tey; The Cruise of the "Alerte," E. F. Knight; Deep Water and Shoal, William Albert Robinson; Bahama Islands, J. Linton Rigg; Mischief in Patagonia, H.W. Tilman; Business in Great Waters, Adrian Hayter; Temptress Returns, Edward C. Allcard; Two Girls, Two Catamarans, James Wharram; My Ship is So Small, Ann Davison; The Last Cruise of the Shanghai, F. DeWitt Wells; Trade Winds and Turtles, Dan Mulville; Come Aboard, Eric C. Hiscock; Sunrise to Windward, Miles Smeeton; Single-Handed Passage, Edward C. Allcard; Navegando a los Cuatro Ventos, Hans von Meiss-Teuffen; Around the World in Wanderer III, Eric C. Hiscock; White Cliffs to Coral Reef, William Howell; Road to the Sea, S. E. Bradfield; My Lively Lady, Alec Rose; A World of My Own, Robin Knox-Johnston; Two Against Cape Horn, Hal Roth; Ten Small Yachts, Maurice Griffths; Triumph and Tribulation, H.W. Tilman; The Fight of the Firecrest, Alain Gerbault; Out of Poole, G.C.L. Payne; Around the World Single-Handed, Harry Pidgeon; Journey With Caravel, Fred Carlisle; Mischief Goes South, H.W. Tilman; Sou'West in Wanderer IV, Eric C. Hiscock; Islands Of Blue Water, Keith Robinson; Heaven, Hell and Salt Water, Bill & Phyllis Crowe; Under the Cabin Lamp, Sir Alker Tripp; Sea of Seas, Capt. Wilfred H. Scott Shawe; Stornoway East and West, Marjorie Peterson; Mostly Mischief, H.W. Tilman; La Niña II, Tras el Surco de Colon, Antonio Sagaseta de Ilurdoz; An Ocean to Ourselves, Harold la Borde; Family at Sea, John Caldwell; Atlantic Cruise in Wanderer III, Eric C. Hiscock; Ice Bird, David Lewis; Sea-Saint, Ian Nicolson; In Mischief's Wake, H.W. Tilman; Because the Horn Is There, Miles Smeeton; The Sea is for Sailing, Peter Pye; North Atlantic, Adlard Coles; 1700 Miles in Open Boats, Cecil Foster; The Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Boy, John MacGregor; Deep Water Cruising, E.G. Martin; Return to the Sea, William Albert Robinson


Anonymous said...

That sounds like my idea of a wet dream. I had a similar experience at a garage sale one time and picked up some some rare sailing books. I left my phone number and hoped to buy the rest later. Never heard anything again. I should have gone to the bank and got more money. I write a column for The Coastal Passage magazine called the old "book nook"

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