Hooray for Hay and Shame on Sheffield

I’m back now from a long weekend in Hay-on-Wye, with my wife, daughter and son-in-law. When a friend of my daughter’s heard where we were all going, he said, “Hay-on-Wye? You lot’ll be like pigs on smack.”

Which is true enough. Hay really is the ideal destination for a family of booklovers with a dog who enjoys leisurely strolls by the river.

I picked up a number of bargains, and will doubtless report on a few of them here in due course. I’ve just whizzed through a most enjoyable book by John Terraine, The Smoke and the Fire, a collection of essays about the myths of war. The essays add up to a thoughtful defence of Haig – essentially on the ground that the war of attrition was an unavoidable strategy if Germany was to be defeated. There are telling comparisons between Haig’s approach to war and Ulysses S. Grant’s in the American Civil War. Both faced the grim truth that victory could only be achieved at the expense of casualties. Terraine is tough on those who will not face that truth, from Lloyd George, with his search for alternative blood-free routes to victory, to Liddell Hart, who gets caught out in some imaginative jiggling with the facts. An engrossing book.

Next on my reading list is Journey’s End, by R.C.Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett, a 1930 novelisation of Sherriff’s play. From a quick flick through, it looks as though the book doesn’t reach the trenches till half-way through, but spends a fair bit of time on Raleigh’s schooldays. Promising thesis-fodder.

Something that disconcerts me at Hay (and second-hand bookshops elsewhere) is the number of books that are ex-library. Once I foolishly thought that libraries were storehouses of knowledge, preserving the past for future generations – but it doesn’t work that way. I can see why reference books get replaced when they are outdated, but why did Shropshire County Libraries get rid of its bound volumes of the Times Literary Supplement? Did nobody in Shropshire ever use this most valuable resource to get an idea of a book’s reception?

Most depressing was that my daughter was able to buy (very reasonably) a thick collection of Rebecca West’s writings that had been chucked out by one of the Sheffield universities. Don’t the librarians of Sheffield realise what a good writer West is? Do none of the feminist students there want to explore the development of probably the most intelligent British feminist of the twentieth century? Do none of the tutors there put her books on the reading list? Shame on you, Sheffield.



  1. Posted May 21, 2008 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    There’s a digital version of the TLS, which may explain that one. It also identifies the reviewers which is a nice feature.

  2. Posted May 21, 2008 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Yes – let’s hope they’ve got access to that in Shropshire.
    The digital version is extremely useful – but in a different way from the print copies. When I started researching war fiction, I spent a day in the Bodleian Library leafing through old volumes of the TLS, to discover what war novels were published during the twenties. I found enough titles to disprove the myth that there was a ten-year gap before people were able to write about the war. You can’t do that sort of survey with the digital version.

  3. Posted May 21, 2008 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    As a Sheffield resident and lifelong supporter of our libraries I was horrified (but not surprised)to read of your daughter’s experience in rescuing discarded books from one of our universities.Which one?
    This was common practice but we thought those in charge of book collections had stopped this activity -or at least dumped the unwanted book discreetly under cover of darkness.
    Sheffield Libraries has stopped paying pulping companies to cart off their unwanted stock after all these years.But still insist on inserting sale prices in ink which totally diminishes any future re-sale value.

  4. Posted May 21, 2008 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    True! I’d much rather browse the real thing than a digital version, at least for a weekly like the TLS. (A few months’ worth of newspapers is another matter!) And the digital TLS apparently isn’t fully OCRed, since you can’t do searches on the text of reviews, so it’s not as useful as it could have been.

    Still, being able to access it from home is a tremendous boon …

  5. Posted June 17, 2008 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I would like to stand up for librarians in Sheffield and elesewhere. 1. Libraries often buy duplicate copies of titles to meet demand on publication and there is no reason why duplicates should not be discarded when the demand has passed or an electronic version is available. 2. If the West book has been removed from reading lists by tutors then the library is under enormous pressure to discard the title to make room for new titles. No library can hold a copy of every book ever published! We would end up like that planet on Doctor Who?!
    3. All libraries can obtain a copy of any book on demand through inter-library loan.

  6. Posted June 17, 2008 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Fair points, Carl.
    But I can’t help noticing that libraries of all sorts are shedding books these days to make room for more fashionable media.
    I like the idea of the library as depository and custodian, looking after books for the sake of future generations, not just for present consumers.
    I rather liked that library in Doctor Who. I could happily have lived there for a while, if it wasn’t for the danger of being eaten by shadows.

  7. Posted May 18, 2009 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post. I can’t understand why Rebecca West is almost forgotten. Her late novels, The Fountain Overflows and This Real Night demonstrate her literary genius. I’ve yet to read The Return of the Soldier. I suppose it will take a film or a television series to restore her reputation.

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