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. (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…