A Ramble on Books and Collecting after John Baxter

(November 2020)

I don’t get to read many books these days but here’s one that has captivated me and which I only managed to put down without reading it straight through by sheer force of will. It’s A Pound of Paper, Confessions of a Book Addict by John Baxter.


Doctors seem to be taking a special interest in my blood of late. Perhaps there is something interesting in it or perhaps they just need something to worry about, but whatever their problems it doesn’t seem to have much to do with my blood which is working just fine. In fact, Dr Oh, my general practitioner, told me that, despite how I felt and looked, my blood was perfect, apart from having more vitamin B-12 in my system than usual. More important was today’s visit to the fellow I call my ‘blood doctor’ who is keeping an eye on my blood since I ended up in intensive care with blood clots in my lungs a few years. It’s interesting that when I was lying there they didn’t make much of a fuss about my condition but each time I go to see the blood doctor he feels freer to mention how serious my condition was. But that’s not what I wanted to write about.

Usually a visit to see this doctor is a long drawn out affair. The consultation lasts only a quarter or an hour or so but waiting to get in to see him usually involves a wait of an hour and a half. So, after the first visit I go prepared. Sometimes it’s a draft I’m working on, other times it’s been a fanzine but this time I thought I’d take along some research for the history of fandom that I’ve been putting off. John Baxter’s kind-of autobiography, A Pound of Paper, Confessions of a Book Addict was recommended to me because in one part John mentions going to meetings of what was known as the ‘Thursday Night Group’ of Sydney fandom. There is not much written about this aspect of Sydney fandom so I thought I’d see what John had to say about his experiences of it and bought a copy of the book over the interweb to find out. It has been laying around for the past couple of months because I’m trying to be disciplines about my writing and the time and effort that goes into it, and I don’t need to know the details of the Thursday Night Group until the chapter after the one I’m working on at the moment. But since I expected to be waiting to see the doctor for a long time and had no fanzines to read (except the latest SF Commentary) and no drafts to work on, I dusted off John’s books.

Before I get to John’s book I have to begin by saying that, although John and I have spent little time together and I don’t know him very well, he has had a great effect on my life – he and his mate Lee Harding. Sometime around the mid 1980s, while Valma and I were living in Canberra, we went to a Word Festival at the ANU run by another acquaintance through fandom, Colin Steel. At the event we met John and Lee who were having a great time knocking back the tax-deductable bubbly, cavorting with exciting and interesting people and living it up. After that we went back to our lives as public servant and teacher but had decided, within a couple of days, that we wanted lives more like John and Lee. (And here we are thirty five years later.) A little later we were staying in Sydney courtesy of Eric and Jean and had a delightful lunch with John on a terrace in some fashionable part of Sydney before John has to dash back to his job at the ABC, and then a few years later Valma and I stayed with John and his wife in Paris, a real experience. If I had to find a short description for John it would be ‘story teller and bon-vivant’.

Back in the reality of covid 19 September 2020, I find myself sitting in a rather pleasant waiting room with half the chairs removed wearing a less than comfortable face mask. I open John’s book, look at my watch and decide that, since I have plenty of time, I won’t go looking for the part I need to find for my own work, I’ll start on line one on page one and work my way into the story. It begins: ‘In 1951, Robert Bloch, not yet the author of Psycho, published a short story in …’ and off it runs, an endless story of people, books, experiences and observations, all with John’s dry, ironic sense of light humour. What a memory, what an ability to encapsulate an idea or a feeling, what an exquisit ability to drop in names and places to heighten the story and convey the feeling that John is slipping you a few confidences along the way. It is a long time since I have enjoyed reading a book quite so much.

I knew that John collected books, I recall him showing us a small part of his collection when we were in Sydney. I did not know, however, quite how passionate he was with it. It is, as he explains later, partly the experience of owning something special and partly the thrill of finding and then owning it. The thrill of the hunt. Valma and I own a lot of books, a real lot in comparison to most people, but only a paltry little collection in comparison to a real collector. Part of the reason we don’t own more is that we don’t have room for them and, more important I think, living on the income of a PhD student and part time teacher cured us or many of our earlier easy spending ways. But the thrill of the hunt is still there and when we’ve been a bit flush I’ve enjoyed going into book shops looking for books of Australian history. While we were doing the Barwon Water book in Geelong I spent of few hours in Corio Books a few streets away shuffling through their shelves and when we were doing work in Castlemaine and Bendigo we sometimes stopped in at second hand shops along the way, just on spec. In one of them I picked up a mint copy of Palton’s self published Law, History and Politics of the Australian Two Airline System which I’d only previously seen in a library. (It’s all but unreadable, but that’s beside the point.) More recently, trying to buy something novel for Valma’s birthday and thinking that an art book might be the go, I found a second hand bookshop downstairs towards the Spencer Street end of Flinders Street which was like Aladdin’s Cave. After picking out a couple of books for Valma I found my way into the history section where I saw, among other desirable things, the first printing in the original Melbourne University Press dust jackets, of Manning Clark’s A History of Australia. (I have most of the volumes, but in assorted paper back printings.) I don’t think they were first editions but they would have looked a lot better on my shelves than the rag-tag books I have now. But I didn’t buy them, mainly because I was on my way to Haileybury and I couldn’t take them with me. (They may still be there when I get back to that shop again. Let’s hope so.) Of course, my most prizes books are the complete set of the Historic Records of Australia that I traded with Murdoch Uni for my fanzine collection. My historical interests lay mainly in the 20th Century these days so the HRA is of no research value to me, but they look, feel and smell wonderful. I pull out the first volume that was printed in 1914, the spine is a little worn and sun damaged, and riff through the page, feeling the paper and smelling it. All books should feel and smell like that.

John introduces us to his collecting habit in the first chapter by talking about the people who are collectors, the collecting game and the obsession with Graham Greene. He brings all three to life so it is easy enough to understand what drives him. Fortunately for me I have not, so far as I know, ever read a word of Greene’s writing and so I am immune to him. More fortunately perhaps, I’ve not immersed myself in the lore of collecting Greene’s output, but I can understand what drives John’s obsession.
Later in the book John gives us a lively description of his early life living in Junee, a railway town in central New South Wales. Valma and I drove through it once and I recognized it because it was a railway town and I also grew up in one. The only real difference between Junee and Dimboola is that, as I recall, the railways line and yards ran through the center of Junee and off to the side in Dimboola. John’s writing is so vivid in his description that I identified with it and felt that it explained Dimboola to me better than I had done myself. The difference between us is that John hated Junee and I was bemused by Dimboola, and endlessly bored. John could not wait to get away from Junee and I could not wait to get away from Dimboola where, so far as I could tell, nothing of any consequence happened. Within a few weeks I had found my way to the Melbourne SF Club in the same way that it was inevitable that John found his way to what remained of fandom in Sydney in the late 1950s.

Having grown up in country towns, John and I have a lot in common, of feeling left out of whatever it is that country towns seem to offer people. Whatever that is, it wasn’t for us. But there are also differences which make us quite different people. John grew up in a fairly lax Catholic family and I grew up in a Methodist family that lived the life of the church. John was lucky enough to discover a barn of science fiction pulps that fed his interest in the genre whereas I had to subsist on the weekly paperback or magazine, ‘Venture’ I think it was called, that the local newsagents got in. Until I read this I did not realize that John and I had also developed a passion for aviation and books about it. The difference seems to be that John then discovered science fiction and concentrated on it whereas I kept an interest in aviation as well as science fiction so at least half the books in my room are about aviation and the science fiction is either out in the lounge or stacked up waiting to be unpacked at our new place.

There are two significant points at which our lives diverged. When John started work it was with the New South Wales Government Railways, which was just a job, and I started with the Department of Civil Aviation which was something that interested me, even if I rarely got near an aeroplane. Perhaps the most significant difference is that when my parents saw my interest in aviation they encouraged it by buying me an Airfix kit of a Hawker Hurricane IVRP as a Christmas present in 1959. John seems to have missed out on this pleasure. It was one of the 4/9 kits that you picked up in almost any shop in the late 1950s but it captivated me and, if John is addicted to books, I’m addicted to scale model plastic kits. If I collect anything I collect them. Most modellers plan to build all the kits in their collections but I have long realized that I’m not going to live long enough to do that. Besides, some of the kits that I’ve collected are too priceless to make and at a lunch with a friend whose hobby is buying and selling kits we finally gave in to our addictions and admitted that we were ‘collectors’
One of the areas in which I’ve built up a collection is the work of the French model maker Jean-Pierre Dujin. About twenty years ago I learned of Dujin who made very limited run resin kits of very obscure aeroplanes, mostly French. They are very primitive by the standards of most kits but highly desirable in terms of their rarity and subject matter. You can’t buy these kits in Australia under normal circumstances but if you go to the various swap-and-sells that modellers hold and rummage around in the boxes of stuff that nobody is interested in you might come across one for a few dollars. When I learned that Dujin had died I set out to buy everything of his that I could find in the on-line catalogues of model shops in Britain and Europe, ending up gathering perhaps a third of what he made. Last week one of his earliest kits turned up on ebay but it went for too much for me. I already have that aeroplane kit from two different kit makers so if I’d managed to get this one it would have been for the collection, not to make. More recently a consortium of modellers had got their hands on some of Dujin’s moulds and is re-releasing them in little cardboard boxes with additional parts and detailed instructions, but usually quite expensive. I’ve bought quite a few of them but, since they aren’t original Dujin versions, they are to make rather than to keep.

Until recently my kit collection has been stored in about 40 large moving boxes but now that we’ve bought the new place with the second garage and I’ve put shelves in it, I’ve been able to unpack all the kits, sort them out and put many of the smaller kits into archive boxes so they won’t get any more damaged. Unlike our book collection which is in chaos at the moment, I have a data base of all of the about 1,800 kits and can tell you that, for example, the three boxes of six pre World War I aeroplane kits released by Renwal in 1964, that I got off ebay maybe fifteen years ago, are now resting comfortably in box K71. In another box is another copy, untouched, of that first Airfix Hawker Hurricane I got in 1959 in almost mint condition that I picked up relatively cheaply at another swap and sell. There’s also a Frog Hawker Sea Hawk of even older vintage that I recall buying the first time in a newsagency in Horsham, just down the road from Dimboola, in about 1961.

That memory reminds me of another collection I built up rather assiduously over the years, starting with a copy of the Flying Review International that I saw in the same newsagents where I bought the Frog kit. Sitting on quite a few shelves in the back shed at our new place is an extensive collection of aviation and modelling magazines built up from the early 1960s until about the mid 1990s when we ran out of money and, more importantly, the information in those magazines started to become available on the interweb. Neverthelessss, it’s all there, carefully listed with the gaps that need filling highlighted in a way that would have made the Futurian Society of Sydney science fiction collectors of the 1950s proud.
At the beginning of chapter three John writes about the first book he ever collected, a collection of poems by Rupert Brooke. I seem to lack the poetry gene so my first book wasn’t poetry. At the beginning of chapter four John writes about his fascination with aviation and the aviation books that he collected. Some of the titles he mentions are ones that I once owned or now own. One that he mentioned that I really enjoyed as a boy was Adolf Galland’s The First and the Last which covers Galland’s flying career from flying gliders in 1927 to flying Messerchmitt Me262 jet fighters in the last days of the war in 1945, hence the title. John remember the title of Galland’s book as I Flew for the Fuhrer, which is another and less agreeable book, but I guess John was writing from memory and it is a small thing. I so much enjoyed the Galland book that in later life I tracked down a copy, in hard cover with dust jacket. (My copy was a translation originally published in English in 1955 and then by the Readers Book Club in April 1955. It says that there was five printings of the book in 1955 so this one may have been from the sixth printing.) I see today that you can buy, on Amazon, a paperback copy of this book for $351.96 or you can get it on Kindle for $2.84. If I had a boyhood hero out of all the reading I did it was Adolf Galland and I just missed meeting, or at least seeing him, on day in 1966 when I was working in the Aviation Medicine Branch. It was just across the corridor from the Departmental conference room and I learned, later, that Galland had been at a conference in that room so if I had looked up from my desk at the right moment I would have caught a glimpse of him.

John still has that first book that he collected and I still have the first book that I knowingly collected. I must have had books before then but the one that started me off was one that I have here now, William Green’s War Planes of the Second World War, Fighters Volume Four. I see from a handwritten note inside that it was given to me by my Grandmother on 30 September 1963. It contains descriptions with photos and drawings of all the American fighters of the war, most of which I then knew nothing about, and then two Yugoslav fighters at the end. I was transformed, I didn’t know that there was so much to know about aeroplanes. What set me off as a bit of collector was that this was volume four, which implied that there were other volumes, which I sought out at Technical Books the next time I was in Melbourne. Over the years I tracked down the others of the first six volumes in the series but could find nowhere volumes seven to ten which were of bombers and reconnaissance aeroplanes. Eventually I began searching for them on the internet and eventually tracked them down, from a bookshop in Paris. When they arrived they still has the strong aroma of French cigarettes on them, which has since then sadly dissipated.
In chapter two John writes about marginal notes and elsewhere about the value added to a book by the signature of its author and its provenance. These things have not interested me very much but, on occasions … I was reminded of the time we were staying with John in Paris and I found my way into a book shop, what else? Everything was in French, of course, and my French is tres pauvre indeed, but that didn’t stop me. Fossicking among the books I came across a copy of one of Michel Foucault’s texts which I thought might look good on my shelf – this was at a time when if you couldn’t talk Foucault and his mates at history conferences you needn’t go. Flicking through it I saw copious marginal notes, lightly penciled in in precise writing, all in French of course. I was about to buy it to boost my image as a historian who was really on top of things when I noticed the price was 70 Francs. We were on a budget so I couldn’t afford that much, but I regret it now. Another book buying regret is from when we were staying with John Berry and Eileen Gunn in Seattle and there was a wonderful second hand bookshop only a couple of blocks away. I picked up quite a few lovely books there that never appeared in Australia but my regret is that, as I was leaving the last time, they were unpacking a box of second hand miniature music scores that had just arrived – which is something else that I used to collect – but I didn’t have time to wait for them to price them so that I could pick up a few, so I didn’t.

I’ve been aware that many people like to collect books with the author’s signature in them, but that seems to be another gene that I’m lacking so the only books you will find in our collection are the ones that I’ve written that I’ve had signed by the people who commissioned the work. One of them lacks a signature because the person who commissioned it died before it was published but, generally, I’ve gone to some trouble to collect commissioning signatures. My first book, the history of Main Roads Western Australia, has the signatures of Eric Charlton and Ken Michael, the Minister for Transport and the Commissioner of Main Roads at the time. Things got a lot more elaborate and my history of the Tax Office has sixteen signatures and dedications in it, working from the Commissioner of Taxation down to everyone who had helped with the research. This got a bit out of control because they were all signing my copy while I was signing other copies at the launch and my copy was passed around to all those people who then had a lovely time writing in it. Unfortunately many of them used a purple roller ball pen which has smudged in places, but it’s still fun to look at.

At some juncture I got called into the doctor’s office, we had a brief chat about vitamin B-12 and I left. Ordinarily I might have come home and got on with my work on the history, but this book is too good for that. Putting aside my deeply ingrained Methodist work ethic, I read on. As you can see from my diversions, one of the things I enjoyed in John’s story is the way that it kindled so many of my own memories. In reading John’s experiences and reflections on them he encouraged me to reflect on and think about my own experiences. This is a good thing? I should hope so.

Moving along, at the beginning of Chapter 5 we find ourselves in a lift ascending in one of those city office buildings that people of a certain age recall. We share the lift with a couple who have seen better times and emerge to be guided into the Sydney Bridge Club where the Thursday Night Group met. The description is vivid and brings the room to life, and John’s description of Dave Cohen is so accurate and concise that I know who he is referring to even before we learn the book seller’s names. Later we meet Doug Nicholson and learn that the names Stone and Molesworth are only spoken in hushed tones because of something cataclysmic that happened in the past. That something is … no wait, you can read about it when I’ve written it. I had suspected that there had been a remnant of the Thursday Night Group after the cataclysm and this confirms it. I feel as though I’m at an archeologic dig where there is no historical evidence so we have to make sense of shards of evidence that survive, and this is a very beautiful shard.
I remember John telling us about how he had come to leave the railways and launch himself upon a writing career, but I don’t recall it being such an entertaining story. I also knew that John had collaborated with Ron Smith on a couple of stories about, if my memory is correct, a galactic librarian, but John tells a lovely story or two about Ron and his activities that rings true with our experiences of Ron when he was in Melbourne and Valma worked for him for a short time. I do recall that there was a big bed in Ron’s little place just off the StKilda junction that used to get some use at the Friday night parties, but being a good Methodist boy I don’t know much about that. There was a small pool too, as I recall, but it was dark outside.

Eventually Australia was too much of a cultural desert for John and he had to seek a wider, more interesting and challenging world beyond. Like too many young Australians driven overseas by the cultural cringe, provincialism and the narrow mindedness of Australian culture he was attracted overseas. In 1969 he made the voyage to Europe to see what the wide world was like, traveling for thirty days on a migrant ship returning to Europe to pick up another load of New Australians. The conditions sound frightful, to put it mildly. (The world changed mightily after that. When Valma and I went to visit fans in the United State five years later we flew in a brand new and thoroughly lovely Air New Zealand Douglas DC-10. The trip back in an older Qantas Boeing 707 was, in its own way, quite frightful, but over in half a day.)

There are a few factual errors that I picked up which need not concern most readers. I’m guessing that John wrote this from memory and that’s fine because I find the stories of people’s memories much more entertaining than the cold facts most of the time. I’ve already mentioned the title of the Galland book but there are only two others that I might mention. One is that John’s description of his ascent to the Thursday Night Group meeting suggests that the lift went up many levels whereas, I think, the Sydney Bridge Club was on the third floor. (This is something I need to check again.) Where the story is much more entertaining than the fact is John’s memory that the SS Patris in which he sailed from Australia to Britain in 1969. He had probably been told that it was the old SS America, remodeled and renamed, and his memory of its ageing beauty is part of the experience of traveling in it. I was intrigued that, on his trip to Britain the Partis had taken him across the Pacific and the Atlantic rather than just around to Britain the short way, so I looked it up. It turned out that the Six Day War in 1967 had blocked the Suez Canal, hence the trip the long way around. Incidentally I learned that the Patris had originally been the Bloemfontein Castle, built after the war to carry migrants from Britain to Rhodesia, and had been sold in 1959 to the Greek Chandris Line to transport Greek migrants to Australia. By 1969 she had been fairly well battered by a decade of Greek migrants going one way and young Australians going the other way, so it was no wonder that she had such an interesting patina by the time John traveled on her. (Despite the facts, I like John’s story better.)

John’s trip to Britain is where the first part of this book ends and that is where I finally managed to tear myself away from it. I wanted to read on, John’s earlier stories about book hunting and collecting in Britain make the rest of the book too tantalizing to forget so it is on the top of my ‘current reading’ pile. If I read on now I will satisfy that need for immediate gratification, a Catholic trait if you ask me, but as a good (but lapsed) Methodist I know all about deferred pleasure. If I don’t put John’s book down now I will not get back to work on the history of Australian fandom which will explain, among other things, why the names Stone and Molesworth were not to be spoken in Dave Cohen’s hearing.
In the meantime, thanks for the memories John, yours and mine.

(First published in ANZAPA mailing 317)


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