BMC Honorary Member Geoff Milburn has devoted a lifetime to collecting mountain literature, and is now about to auction the bulk of his library. In this article he recalls the roots of his collectamania, and describes how it grew into five tons of shelf-straining tomes.
Book Avalanche in Derbyshire
The hyperactive ex-Guidebook Editor of both the Climbers’ Club and the BMC Peak District guides recently slipped and took a potentially serious fall from the top of his mahogany library steps while reaching down a particularly heavy tome. The resulting cascade of volumes did not improve his temper as he was already somewhat out of sorts after his wife smugly reminded him that he had promised to auction off his precious climbing library as soon as he hit 70. “If you snuffed it I couldn’t tell if a pamphlet was worth £200 or £2,” had been her cynical moan. Her other jibes at frequent intervals were, “There are no pockets in shrouds,” and “You can’t take it all with you.” There was also the lingering memory of Paul Nunn’s living room ceiling crashing down under the weight of a few hundredweight of books which he had hidden away up in the attic away from his wife’s keen eyes.
Who but an absolute eccentric would spend a week in Bradford sorting out 250,000 French postcards (not naughty ones) just to locate early 1900s cards depicting Mont Blanc, the Aiguilles and the Mer de Glace? Be warned though, if that could possibly be you, collecting climbing books and postcards is an addictive drug and a fierce life-driving obsession which can soon leave you penniless. Collectamania gnaws at one and needs to be fed at regular intervals and even then satisfaction is a fleeting thing.
Over fifty years ago a Yorkshire schoolboy from Richmond ploughed through several feet of Fell and Rock journals instead of studying for his A levels. Visits to Brimham and Almscliffe resulted in the purchase of a small guidebook to ‘West Yorkshire Area’ for 10s/6d, which was followed by the ‘Sheffield Area’ and the last copy to be sold by Jackson and Warr of the 1957 ‘Further Developments in the Peak District’. Fate also took a hand when at the foot of Honister a hand emerged from a speeding sports car and threw out a copy of the Buttermere guidebook. That was merely the start.
The Garrick Bookshop in Stockport had about 100,000 volumes of books stacked high in its many dusty rooms. Oh the joy! After a small shelf of climbing books was acquired a bookcase was then soon needed, but one fateful day at an Antiquarian Book Fair in Manchester John O’Reilly had a whole stand of rare volumes many of which promptly went into a large rucksack. Even lifting that sack required a colossal effort and staggering under the load a dreamy eyed climber headed for the railway station, resting the load at intervals on window sills, benches and railings. Soloing Everest might have been an easier proposition.
The first books cost pence, then it was shillings and eventually pounds. Buying Auldjo’s Mont Blanc of 1828 breached the £100 mark for the first time, when a weekly teaching salary was still only about £45. It was all starting to get distinctly scary. Book lists in profusion then appeared through the post from dealers such as Baines, Dickinson, Jarvis, Chiltern, Baume (Gaston’s Alpine Books) and Chessler in America and early in the morning it was a race to get to the phone first to bag the greatest rarities. Then it was a case of trying to waylay the postman so that parcels could be quietly slipped into the house without the wife getting too suspicious.
Lists have always haunted some people: lists of countries to visit, lists of crags, or route hit lists. With me it was: books, journals, guidebooks, magazines, pamphlets and pictures. Over time a system of replacement of old tatty copies with mint copies with pristine dust jackets took place. The next stage was to find author-signed presentation copies or books which had belonged to famous climbers. The ultimate dream must have been number one of a print run of only 10 copies on vellum privately produced by Edward Whymper, and signed by all the top climbers of the day, finally being bound in full leather by Zaensdorf. Failing that a dream would be finding George Mallory’s personal diary with a summit photograph and an account of how he and Andrew Irvine had just started to descend from the summit of Mount Everest. If only.
Of particular interest were books that were not listed by the Alpine Club Library, or were not in Jill Neate’s Bibliography. Even more fun were numbered and signed special copies of known Welsh guidebooks with only about 10 copies printed. I still possess number one of a special signed edition of the 1990 Gogarth guide which has an extra photograph.
As the collection grew at the rate of about ten books a month over 50 years the shelving also grew in an alarming way, taking over whole rooms from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Eventually when there was no room left books were hidden away on shelves behind other books and even the garage had a secret air conditioned room at the back of it where boxes full of forgotten items reached the ceiling.
The day came when a halt was called and an inventory had to be taken before the books were all listed on computer and packed away ready to go to auction. The final catalogue would fill a large book. Four months of solid work later over 200 large heavy boxes weighing about five tons were lined up to await transportation in three lorry loads. Oh yes, then there are also the 200 framed pictures of mountain engravings, watercolours, early black and white photographs and pen and ink drawings.
The present craze for reading books on Kindle may suit the gadget minded modern generation but to handle a large profusely illustrated rare Victorian book is a joy beyond compare. Very rare was Sir Charles Fellowes’ 1827 Mont Blanc of which perhaps only eight of 50 copies had coloured plates. Perhaps the best though was A Facsimile of Christian Almer’s Fuhrerbuch by Cunningham and Abney in 1896. It caused a furore in mountaineering circles and of the intended 200 copies only 68 were sold before the plates were ruthlessly destroyed.
To dispose of one’s hard won treasures is a heartache that only parents who have lost children can understand. Which ones should go and which ones should remain on a shelf to bring joy in one’s old age. I dithered about departing with some for days. The one crumb of comfort is that the trusty old friends my guidebooks will remain with me till the day I die. They will be the life raft to which I will cling to remind me of the glory days of youth when we spread our wings to reach and record the cutting edge of rock-climbing in Britain.
11.00am, Thursday 11 April 2013 (a revision from the previously advertised 11/12th April two-day sale)
Viewing two days prior, and morning of sale from 9am, or by appointment.
Illustrated catalogue available £23 (by post).
Pdf catalogue available online
Dominic Winter (Auctioneers) Ltd
Tel: 01285 860006
Fax: 01285 862461