Monday, December 17, 2012

The Treasure Book

          From all accounts, everyone will be reading books on Kindles within five years time.  Please go on without me.  I appreciate the advances in technology as much as anyone.  I revel in the ease of online research--for any subject imaginable.  But if the future portends books that are not books at all, but mere passing images on a screen, then this is the stop where I get off.

     I recently purchased--after months of careful deliberation--a 1932 first edition of W. E. D. Allen's A History of the Georgian People.  I am slowly assembling books on the history and culture of the Caucasus region.   Allen's work is hard to find, but an essential component of such a collection.  I found only one copy online, in Adelaide, Australia.  What a book this is--running about 400 pages, with incredible plates and illustrations, and not one, but three fold-out maps!

     William E. D. Allen (1901-1973), a Belfast native, was an interesting character in his own right.  He covered the Greco-Turkish War as a military correspondent, and later the Rif War in North Africa.  During the 1920s, he traveled extensively in the Soviet Union, and stumbled upon Georgia along the way.  He published this history when only 31 years of age.  He would write other books, but Allen always came back to the Caucasus, his first love.   He served in Parliament for a term, and during the 1930s became involved with Owen Mosley's Fascist movement in England, though there is speculation that he was, in fact, a M15 informant.  Allen covered the war in Abysinnia in the 1943.  Finally, in 1949, he returned to Ulster--and the family business--along with his third wife, Nathalie Maximovna.

    Allen never attained great reknown--outside Georgiophilic circles--as an historian.  And yet, he is an engaging writer, one who sweeps the reader up in his narrative.  For example, he wrote the following in the first chapter:

To cross the Caucasus imposes on the mind a great significance.  It is one of the journeys in life which are worth the making--and a certain tribulation.  You have left behind that drear Eurasian steppe--the breeding-ground of slaves and conquerors and passivistic thoughts, where the mists and flat forests and the oozing swamps can maudle men.  You are among the high shining mountains; the sparkling seas are near; the woods of this uneven country are ever changing--not always the lament birches and mean-visaged pines of the sandy steppe.  You are in the lands of Nearer Asia, where man, among the mountains, between the seas, and in the pellucid sunlight, early grew to prying intellect; lands of vivid life, of doings and undoings, or risings up and fallings down, of splendours and of shambles, of wisdom and of scattering.

Sadly, no one writes history like that today.

     A bookplate in the volume identifies its former owner as Frederic Hardwicke Knight (1911-2008), noted author and photographer.  Adventurous from his early youth, he bummed around Europe in the 1920s and 30s, often working as a photo-journalist.  Hardwicke Knight photographed archeological digs in Greece, was in Spain during the Civil War, crossed Mount Ararat, and finally found himself in Moscow during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. Knight registered as a  conscientious objector during World War II and served in the medical corps.  In 1957, he and his family relocated to southern New Zealand.  An avid collector, Knight donated some 20,000 items to a New Zealand museum in 1991.  His remaining items were auctioned-off in Australia in 2010, from whence my book found its way to an Adelaide bookseller.

     But the pages of A History of the Georgian People revealed treasures beyond the mere words themselves.  For starters, three pages of colored plates were stuck inside the front cover.  They depicted medieval Roman Christian religious art--one a profile of Saints Peter and Paul, another of the two saints flanking the Virgin Mary, one of Moses, and finally--the only one that could be considered an icon--a print of Saints Cornelius and Cyprian of Rome.  Someone--probably Knight-scribbled some notes on the side of a couple.  The one of Moses is said to be 11th-century. 

     A faded newspaper was also neatly folded within the front cover.  I carefully unfolded it to find the entire front page (and obviously, page two on the reverse) of the December 26, 1937 edition of the English language Moscow Daily News, sold for 10 kopeks.  The front page contained reports from the Spanish Civil War, a story noting the rise in deposits of Soviet savings banks which, in the paper's opinion, reflected the "constant rise of well-being of Soviet toilers," and the flight of the Soviet dirigible from Moscow to Sverdlovsk, heralding soon-to-be regularly scheduled commercial flights.  Yet the main story on the front page (contained in three articles no less) was the 750th anniversary of the writing of Shota Rustaveli's epic Georgian poem, The Knight in the Panther's Skin.  The fact that Stalin himself was Georgian probably goes a long way towards explaining why this particularly anniversary was such a really, really big deal.

Like the people of the whole of the Soviet Union, freed by the Great Socialist Revolution from exploitation and oppression by native and foreign landlords and capitalists, the Georgian people for the first time in their history possess the necessary political, economic and cultural conditions enabling them to restore, develop and enjoy the best heritage of their past.  The triumph of the Leninist-Stalinist national policy has made it possible for a reborn Georgia to commemorate the Rustaveli anniversary as a truly people's holiday.

The editor goes on at great length in that vein. And, the entire second page is devoted to Rustaveli--with a portrait, excerpts from the work, and analysis of the story and its importance to Georgian cultural history. 

     Hardwicke Knight was in Moscow during this time and undoubtedly purchased the newspaper.  He could have easily placed the article within the pages of the book later on, but I enjoy believing that the book was there with him in Mosocw at that time.  Hardwick Knight was a man of many interests--a book on Georgia history would not be out of place on his bookshelf.

     The next item was a typed, legal-size page, inserted next to a plate depicting Georgian King Irakli II.  The narrative outlines his (presumably Knight's) experiences at the Koban archeological dig "on the Military Road."  (The Military Road connects Tbilisi, by way of a tunnel through the Caucasus, with Russia.)  A little research revealed that the Koban site is in what we would now call North Ossetia.  The archeologists were employing native Kasbek tribesmen to help with the excavation of recently-discovered catacombs.  The workers were digging out the artifacts behind the archeologists' backs and then having their children sell them back the next day.  Knight decided to leave.

I have no desire to remain and work here for the search for untouched tombs is going to be a heartbreaking job and better fitted to the enthusiasm of a bunch of young communists....Archaeology has often been a military undertaking, and there is much to be said for it.  Discipline is most important.

     The next find is an undated "letter to the editor" of the Times of London by the author W. E. D. Allen, then of Tonacombe Manor, Morwenstowe, near Bude, Cornwall.  The letter is titled "Social Structure of Albania," and begins, as follows:

Sir,--The Begverlazzi referred to by your Special Correspondent in Tirana is presumably Shevket Bey Verlaci, who is undoubtedly the richest man in Albania, and who controls a wide area round Elbasan...

Allen knew a thing or two about a great many places, it seems--as did the owner of his book.  In comparison, we know nothing much at all.

     Between pages 274 and 275, I found a folded page with a simple sketch of a woman.  In one sense, it was little more than doodling, but obviously done by someone with artistic talent.  There is no clue as to her identity.

     A few pages further on, a small grainy photograph is inserted.  The pictures shows six children on some sort of cart, with a stone wall for a backdrop.  For someone who later made his career as a photographer, this snapshot is not particularly clear.  Maybe that is why is was stuck between the pages of a book.  One can only guess as to the location of the picture--but I would suggest the southern rim of the old Soviet Union, perhaps at the time of the Koban archaeological dig.

   Finally, there is a short note from Cambridge University Press, dated February 20, 1941 (this, I believe, during the Blitz) to W.W. Hill, Esq., "The Schoolmaster", Toddington Manor, nr. Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.  I do not know how Prof. Hill fits into the narrative.    The publisher regretted to inform him that they would be unable to supply a review copy of W.E.D. Allen's The Ukraine, A History, "as the number of copies available was severely limited.
     I realize that I am merely the caretaker of this book and the treasures it contains.  Perhaps one day it will fall into someone else's care, and I can only hope they get as much enjoyment out of it as I have done.  Try doing that with a Kindle.


John said...

Yeah. Right. I am completly in sympathy with what you say about books, though I have pretty much gone all digital (I'm reading and commenting on my Galaxy Note 2). A library will be to look at and a device to read in a few years I guess.

elizabeth said...

How lovely. What a treasure! I love actual books as well... my Husband was given a kindle and it is gathering dust somewhere, unused...

s-p said...

That. Is. Awesome! What an amazing find. And I'll bet Kindle couldn't come close to a "scratch and sniff" version of the smell of that book either. :)

ochlophobist said...



I tried my parents' Kindle. I just won't and can't. It is not the same mental experience. It is not the same human act. I believe my retention is less, and my relationship to the information and words intrinsically different.

When bloggers post something that is really meaningful to me, I print it out and put it in a file. Pixels are useful and extraordinary, but reading via pixels vs. reading a paper book in hand is identical to the difference between porn and coitus.

So, I guess, thanks for the titillating post.

Any serious bibliophile will have those 2 or 3 or 4 books over the course of a lifetime that amount to the summit and apotheosis of all those years of buying and looking and scraping up cash and whatnot. Maybe this is one of those for you. It makes everything around the time of the acquisition better. Some years back I was showing this set of books I have to a friend and I told him that I think of 1999 as a good year because that was the year I acquired that set. My wife overheard this and said, "uh, that was also the year we got married."

"Oh yeah, right, that too."

Brad said...

Wonderful to read. I'll be coming by very soon to look at this book -if I am found worthy!