Saturday, 15 May 2010

Serendipitous Oxfam - Katherine Langrish

A few weeks ago, Susan Hill launched an attack in the Spectator on Oxfam bookshops which she felt were posing unfair competition to independent new and second-hand bookshops.

I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't agree.  It seems to me that selling books for charity is no different from selling clothes for charity.  If I buy a skirt from an Oxfam shop, it’s always an extra, not something I’d set out to get.  It’s like beachcombing. You don’t go into an Oxfam bookshop looking for something specific: often you don’t even find anything you remotely want. But if you do find something, it’s totally serendipitous. You end up with a book you had never heard of, never dreamed existed, and could not possibly have found elsewhere. This – if you are like me, anyway – will not affect your other book-shopping activities.

Here’s an illustration. A few weeks ago, I noticed that Wantage Oxfam had a number of books about folklore displayed in the window. Of course I went in to look, because folklore is one of the subjects I’m passionate about, and I came out with a wonderful book by Duncan Emrich, published in 1972, called ‘Folklore on the American Land’ – which I blogged about here. (Do go and look, if only for the proverb about owl-shit.)

Besides this there were other titles which cried out to me and so I succumbed to a book of Japanese folktales, and a book called 'Patterns of Folkore' by Katharine Briggs, some Bantu myths, a scholarly two-volume set called ‘Peasant Customs and Savage Myths’, and a Norse saga I hadn’t come across before - and then, when I got them all home (hugging myself with glee) I noticed that some – by no means all, but several – of these books had the rather beautiful name Hélène La Rue inscribed on the flyleaf in elegant, sloping handwriting.

So I was curious. So I looked her up on Google. And this is what I found.

Hélène La Rue (born 1951 and died 13 July 2007), was a musician, musicologist, and curator of Oxford University’s Bate Collection – a wonderful collection of musical instruments dating from the medieval times down to the present. She was also a staff member of the famous Pitt Rivers Museum, the one dedicated to ethnography, full of curiosities. (This was the one my daughter, as a child, used to walk around with hands held up like blinkers to protect herself from the next appearance of a skull, mummy or shrunken head. I remember best the huge Pacific North-west totem pole, the models of ships and river craft: and the atmosphere, as of dusty Victorian collectors still hovering ghost-like in the wings.)

According an obituary written by her friend Mary Dejevsky, Hélène was a warm and delightful lady: “As a student, she appeared elegantly old-fashioned, and not only because she went up to Oxford in the aftermath of the wild Sixties. She retained a fondness for hearth and home that owed much to the intimacy of her French-Canadian background. And while she seemed quiet and shy, among friends she displayed a wicked sense of humour… cheerfully batting around ideas with the best of them, from current affairs and politics, through abstruse points of theology, to medieval music and the purpose of strange objects she thought just might once have served as musical instruments.”

Do the sum, and you can see she died tragically early. She sounds like a wonderful person, whom I would love to have met and talked with, though most likely, even though I live near Oxford, our paths would have never crossed. And at some point, some friend or family member had to perform the sad task that will have to be performed for all of us at some point – and dispose of the books that she had so lovingly collected. Oxfam must have seemed a good option and a good cause. And perhaps some person would buy and value them and love them.

I’m glad that person was me, and I’m glad that, though belatedly, I found out something about the owner. I hope she would be glad to think her books have found a good home. Viva Oxfam…

15 comments:

bookwitch said...

That's so lovely, Katherine. I found some English Penguins, very old, in a Swedish countryside jumblesale a few years ago, also with name inside. Very interesting when that happens.

I do actually go into Oxfam and others with a shopping list, occasionally. There was one book by Val McDermid I'd been recommended and in the end I found it four times (bought it only once) that pre-Christmas, and have since seen it more.

Stroppy Author said...

That's a lovely post, Kath, thank you. What a special story, too.

I do buy books in charity shops, often - but I agree that it rarely replaces 'real' book-buying

Pen said...

Thanks for sharing Katherine. I love stories like this. I love second hand books and to think that I am another person in a line who has loved and read them. I so enjoy browsing the shelves for musty treasures ... you never know what gems you might find hidden away there.

Claire Massey said...

In Chorley we have a wonderful charity bookshop for a local hospice. I can't walk past without nipping in because I've found so many treasures there, but like you it doesn't interfere with my other book buying habits.

One of my favourite finds was a book called 'The Winter Flower and Other Fairy Stories', by Anne Montrose published in 1964 by Macmillan of Canada Toronto. I was excited to discover the book because of my passion for original fairy tales, but I got even more excited when I read on the back that Anne Montrose was from Lancashire. Not only that the book is signed by Anne, and above that is written 'For Alice, with love Edith'. It may be a coincidence but the copyright of the book belongs to an Edith Abercrombie. I haven't been able to find anything online about Anne or Edith but your story has inspired me to keep hunting!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

A touching post Katharine. I'm sure the books will inspire you. I love beachcoming in Oxfam bookshops and always head for the curiosities section. I tend to buy out of print books from Oxfam. My latest purchase was a 'Guide to Mr Worthington Smith's drawings of field and culitivated mushrooms and poisonous or worthless fungi often mistaken for mushrooms.' from 1910.

Elaine AM Smith said...

The saddest sight in an Oxfam shop are people discarded summer reading.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lynda and Claire, what lovely titles you found! Bookwitch, finding English books abroad is always interesting. I found one a few years ago (in France) which gave me the idea for Troll Fell. It was a shabby 1850 edition of Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology, ans cost me 2 francs!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

What a lovely post Katherine and Helene La Rue couldn't have found a better cutodian for her books had she chosen you herself. I think she did! And your blog on Folklore of the American Land made me think Annie Prouxl must trawl through the equivalent of Oxfam too... hers are stories straight from these pages! My best find was a book on Egyptian perfume recipes. I think these books are put into our hands for a reason.

catdownunder said...

When working on a project some years ago I kept a list of out of print books and searched charity shops for them. I was rewarded with several of them - but my rule to myself is that they have to be out of print or going to landfill if not sold.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou, Diane - and catdownunder, that's a really good rule. I think I've probably been unconsciously following it, but will now consciously adopt it myself!

Penny Dolan said...

A wonderful story of a collection that seems to have been destined for you, Kath. Kindred spirits meeting between past and present?

It's the unexpected titles - especially ones you never even knew existed - that make the Oxfam bookshelves (or any bookshop)such a pleasure. Always interesting to see what "big" titles are donated promptly and in pristine condition. The disappointing gift.

I believe the main complaint against Oxfam was its effect on the small specialist second-hand book market, who don't have reduced rents, volunteer helpers and a supply of freely donated books.

Katherine Langrish said...

But where DO secondhand bookshops get their stock from? I ask because I actually don't really know: though our local, ver large, Aladdin's cave of a secondhand bookshop has certainly taken boxes of my own discards very much on a 'now you can go and choose a couple of books free' basis.

Penny Dolan said...

Oh. Interesting point. Maybe if I'd given books away sometime, I'd know more about this. But I do envy you your wonderful folktale collection - though I'm very glad you have it. So much material of this quality seems to move o/p nowadays. Think I might find time to potter across town to our nearest Oxfam tomorrow. . .

A question for you, which isn't as daft is it seems, given the complexity and darkness of such material. Most aren't exactly Richard & Judy type reading.

So do you make these your bedtime books, Kath, or do you make time for reading & studying them in the day? I have so many books I want to read (such as The Jewish Book of Fantasy Writing) but not all writing fits neatly into usual reading times.

Lucy Coats said...

Wonderful, Kath. And yes, this kind of serendipity is wonderful when it happens. I've spent many happy hours browsing around Hay--and in our local independent bookshop, The Old Hall, which has both new and secondhand books. I buy books anyway--secondhand 'finds' are always the icing on the cake. And how lovely that Hélène's books have found their way to you. A happy chance...or was it a chance at all? (I've been thinking about 'Wasted too much....)

Katherine Langrish said...

I dip in and out, Penny - read nearly all my spare time anyway, in between necessary actions... don't 'make time' exactly, just read while eating, in the bath, hardly ever watch TV - etc, etc... no sacrifice, just prefer reading to almost everything else, and this has been the case since I was approximately three, so there's no hope for me.

Lucy, the OLd Hall sounds intriguing! And yes, 'Wasted' is a brilliant YA novel!