When I joined The Folio Society in the mid-1960s I was already a committed classics collector.
I bought my first Collins Classic at the age of 10 from money I had earned selling programmes at a race track. It had the exotic title of Treasure Island and was written by a skinny Scot named Robert Louis Stevenson. When my class had to write an essay about our favourite book I wrote mine about Treasure Island and my teacher sent it to the Children’s Page editor of a South Australian weekly newspaper. The editor asked for more and my career as a book reviewer and litterateur was launched.
I wrote regularly for the Children’s Page until, at 15, a daily newspaper editor discovered me. At his invitation, I graduated to writing about books for adults with a review of a long- forgotten novelist named Humfrey Jordan. By then my earnings from the race track had been supplemented by those from a job hauling up the round numbers at a boxing stadium. Most of the money went towards collecting classics. I quickly graduated from collecting Collins Classics to collecting Everyman’s Library titles – 7s9d in Australia at the time. My fate was sealed for many years after a shop assistant in a big Sydney bookshop gave me a copy of the Everyman’s catalogue of 900 titles.
I now had a good idea of the range of classics but not how they fitted together. But I began to understand that when at the age of 16 I bought second-hand copies of Andrew Lang’s History of English Literature, Emile Legouis’ A Short History of English Literature and E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. There was no restraining me then. Looking through the list of 100 titles I read that year I see books by Shakespeare, Dickens, Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Thomas Moore, Stevenson, Keats, Goldsmith, Austen, Thackeray, Pater, Bunyan, Chaucer, Galsworthy, Shaw, Wilde, Hopkins and many more. I was a Folio child before I knew my father even existed.
By the time I discovered The Folio Society in the mid-1960s I immediately understood what it was all about and began to squander my supplementary earnings as a newspaper columnist on Folio titles. I now have more than 400 of them. My column for The Canberra Times featured on the book pages each Saturday for 30 years and from time to time I edited the pages. For one column in 1983 I even descended into the bowels of London to visit the Folio Society and interview the vivacious Sue Bradbury. She was wonderful: unfortunately her motorbike wouldn’t talk to me.
As my stock of review books built up so did my stock of Folio titles until today my whole house, except for the bathroom and toilet, is lined with books. (Yes, even the laundry is lined with them.) In the end I was forced to build a room in the backyard to accommodate the overflow, using a small inheritance, and then added another room to it after I inherited another small amount when an aunt died at the age of 100. It is also full and these days I donate books by the car-boot-load to charities. (Parting with them breaks my heart.)
But the place where I have spent about two-thirds of my waking life is stretched out on my Eames chair and ottoman facing the Folio corner of my lounge-room the same corner that also houses the television. I spend much more time with my books than I do with my TV as I can read and listen to classical music at the same time without distractions. In the first four months of 2012 I read 50 books (yes, I can hear your groaning here in the slums of Canberra).
Like many other members, I love my Folio books. Best of all I love my Dickens: I bought the first big uniform edition. I had already read every title – many of them several times – but their arrival was a good excuse to read them again. It was not a new experience as I had originally read them in the handsome London Edition, which had similar production qualities, when one of my Dad’s mates loaned them to me volume by volume when I was 13 and 14.
I love my Austen, my Brontes, my Gibbons, my Trollopes, my Forsters and my Scott Fitzgeralds. I particularly love the poets. One of my earliest purchases was John Donne but over the years I added most of the others available.
Somehow I missed out on the whopping Folio Poets series until I stumbled across Wordsworth in a second-hand bookshop. (Were they offered in Australia?) I immediately went online and eventually tracked down the whole series in new condition at the Society’s and other websites.
In smaller formats I particularly love the latest Gerard Manley Hopkins: it’s a big improvement on Folio’s first lacklustre attempt.
And I love the tiny pocket editions of The Lady of Shalott, Marvell’s Garden Poems and Sir Patrick Spens. When you have reluctantly to leave your Folio collection at home take a Shallott or Marvell with you in your pocket so that when your hormones begin clanking with Folio lust you will have something with which to alleviate it.
The Society has done a fine job of publishing in a fine way most of my favourite books but it won’t listen to my recommendations at all. Each year it asks me for suggestions for titles it might publish. Each year I tell them to publish Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring but they are deaf. Yes, I know Howard Spring was a popular novelist who wrote some lightweight bestsellers but he also wrote one classic and it was Fame Is the Spur. I first read it when I was 14 and fell in love with it. For decades I abstained from reading it again, fearing I might have that common experience of wondering in maturity why you loved something in your youth. But not with Fame Is the Spur. I read it again a few years ago and loved it even more than I did in the early 1950s. Fame Is the Spur is a neglected classic. Wasn’t publishing neglected classics one of the main aims on which the Society was founded? What’s stopping you, Folio? Is it the history of socialism that underpins the narrative? Think of it as literature, not socialism (literature is your mission). Or is it too long for your selectors to read in the age of the sound bite and the twitter? Get on with it Folio…
Finally I should say to readers: please do not view this piece as a familiar essay. I resolved when I retired in mid-2000 that I would never write again. I have kept this vow. I’m telling you – no argument now! – this is not an essay. This is not writing! This is my stream-of consciousness spilling on to the page. If James Joyce could do it, why can’t I?