Thursday, 5 January 2017

Drif Field, Raymond Carver, and the infamous Guide


I have in my possession a little pocket-sized guidebook published in 1991 that I bought in Bromley on 16th July 1992. I know that, because by then it was my habit to note such things in my own fair hand just inside the front cover (holding the Guide open are the ultra-modern 2017 Melford fingertips, not those I had in 1992). Click on the photo to enlarge it. Same for the rest.


I called the book 'an amazing find'. It was. It was rarely seen on sale, even when new. The likes of W H Smith were unlikely to stock it. A small independent seller of new books might - but then on which shelf? Because it was a book about second-hand and antiquarian bookshops and their owners, and the stocking and selling policies of those owners. So into which category would you place it, if, say, you as the shop proprietor had ordered two or three copies from the indie print works? General reference? Hardly. And what kind of customer was actually going to buy it - if they came across it - assuming they were immersed sufficiently in the book world to know about Drif Field and his infamous Guide?

Well, I came along at the right moment and snapped it up. I had heard about it from a friend who had all his life taken a deep interest in old books - loved them completely - and he had told me about this Guide. By then it had run into several editions, and two more were to come. For although the Guide does contain a list of bookshops, with dry commentaries and directions, it is the little essays that Drif writes in between those lists that are the real meat in the sandwich.

It is, by the way, a proper book, with all the usual publishing and ISBN information. The choice of page layout and Courier typeface combine to suggest that the author painstakingly hammered out the Guide at home on an old mechanical typewriter he found in his attic, and that the book is a basically a reduced-sized photocopy of that typescript. Which gives it a certain charm.


The author's personality is up front from the start, with no concessions to the readership nor the victims of his smouldering impatience with the bookselling world. Just inside the front cover was this four-liner:

THIS BOOK IS NEITHER FICT NOR FACTION
IT IS BOTH FRICTION AND FRACTION
IT IS SHORTER BECAUSE I HAD LONGER
IT IS WORSE BECAUSE I AM BETTER

Which suggests to me that the earlier editions back to 1984 were an even more controversial read. Although 'Drif Field' may not necessarily have been his real name, the author was a real person, and actually gets an entry in Wikipedia - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Driff_Field.

Back to his style. It's a take-no-prisoners look at booksellers and what they are doing wrong - or in a very few cases, who are the heroes who stand out. The Dis-Contents page really says it all:


DIRE TRIBES                                                                               1 - 241

MINOR INSULTS                                                                         1 - 241

GROSS INSULTS                                                                         1 - 241

GRATUITOUS REMARKS                                                          1 - 241

REMARKS IN POOR TASTE                                                      1 - 241

REMARKS IN NO TASTE                                                           1 - 241

RACIALIST OR RACIST REMARKS*                                       1 - 241

ANTI-FEMINIST, ANTI-GAY, ANTI-LIBERAL REMARKS    1 - 241

REMARKS DESIGNED TO ATTRACT ATTENTION               1 - 241

PIECES WRITTEN TO TRY TO PERSUADE                                        
YOU TO BUY THIS BOOK WHEN YOU ARE                                      
STANDING IN A BOOKSHOP READING IT                             1 - 241

PYCHIATRISTS REPORT                                                             1 - 241

AFTERWORD                                                                     See addendum

*I have never worked out which one I am supposed to be.                        


And yet, in the background, it clearly wasn't an entirely solo effort:


Note the name Raymond Carver. Carver was an American writer and poet, born in 1938, who had moderate acclaim - despite alcoholism - during the 1970s and 1980s. He is supposed to have died in 1988, aged 50, and here is his Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Carver. But Drif claims this death was faked, and that the man began a new life, still alcoholic, in the UK as his personal chauffeur - Drif needing somebody to drive him around the country in his quest on behalf of clients for rare and probably arcane books. The back cover of the Guide pays tribute to Carver:


That's him, all right, although I don't know why he is crouching down in a white suit, as if he were a Hawaiian detective at the crime scene. There is at least one written contribution from him in Drif's Guide, in the section on Sussex bookshops, and a description of how acute his alcoholic addiction was in the same section, when no pub could be found after a long dry day touring bookshops, latterly in Worthing. Of which more anon.

Of course, at this remove, it hardly matters whether or not Raymond Carver was really alive and well, and living in Paris, at the time of putting together the 1991 edition of the Guide. Perhaps he really did die in 1988. In the immortal words of Erich von Däniken, who knows. Drif might have had reasons for concealing the death of his chauffeur in 1988 - good reasons - and I suspect that something very strange was going on. It's the sort of thing that makes you want to put on your Girl Detective raincoat and get out there, sleuthing and asking questions.

There is obviously (and genuinely) a full story to be unravelled. The professionals ought to take it on. Considering the twaddle that the TV channels regularly cover as 'major documentaries' in prime time, I think they should get a reporter on this and find out the truth. I especially want to know what eventually became of Drif himself, for nobody seems to know for sure. Back in 2001, when a member of the Charles Close Society (to which I contributed two articles - see https://charlesclosesociety.org/) I somehow brought the name of Drif Field into the discussion forum, and was told he had retired to Poland. That seemed an unlikely place for him to end up, but I've lately discovered this two-part article about him which repeats the rumour: https://web.archive.org/web/20140223211357/http://homepage.ntlworld.com/kathleen.gilligan/bob/RevewsDRIF.htm. This is where the newspaper photo of him (the one that heads this post) comes from. And I suppose he does have a vaguely un-English, Eastern-European look to him, so the Poland notion may be true. But then there's this: http://www.urbanrealm.com/blogs/index.php/2010/09/19/drif-and-the-death-of-scotland-s-bookshops?blog=16. This writer seems to know a lot about him.

He looks unexpectedly young in the 1991 photo - well under forty. He's actually holding the very edition of the Guide that I have. He must surely be still alive and well, still only in his mid sixties, and presumably - discounting the other rumours about his mental health - still active. But not in books.

Back to the Guide itself. I can do no better than let it speak for itself, and select a couple of passages. This is the opening essay on the state of the bookselling business. Click on the picture to enlarge it:


And here are the pages that deal with Sussex, arranged as if the reader mainly travelled by train:


The left-hand page above is allegedly written by Raymond Carver, and relates what happened when Drif bought a book but didn't pay up promptly, and his subsequent huge disappointment that the bookseller, who specialised in books on the supernatural, didn't use occult powers to punish him. (The snide abbreviation NETGOW means 'not easy to get on with')


This passage about a visit to Badgers Books in Worthing - still trading in 2017 - resulted in a desperate early-evening dash up the the A24, looking for a pub. Raymond Carver had been deprived of a drink all day, on the basis that if he stayed sober - and capable of being chauffeur - Drif would stand the first drink of the day. In his desperation, Carver's driving was ragged to say the least, and they ended up at a posh hotel (which, I do not know) at which Drif was stripped of cash, such were the outrageous bar prices in the Cocktail Lounge. I dare say they never again returned to West Sussex.   


I highlighted the shops in yellow and orange, but I don't remember what this colour-coding meant. I'd say that two-thirds or more of the bookshops mentioned in the 1991 edition of the Guide have now gone. Even the mighty Kim's, which blossomed around 2000, has shrunk back to two shops in Arundel and Chichester only, abandoning their vast Worthing HQ. Such is the unequal battle with business rates.

On 28th August 1995, in Winchester, I managed to track down a later, larger, red-covered edition of the Guide, published that same year. I think it might be the final edition. Here it is.


There's an 'urban guerilla' element there now!


A signature! I added my own footprint (handprint?):


I won't deal with it in the same detail. This later edition wasn't much like the 1991 edition, and seemed bitter and exasperated in tone, as if Drif were tired of making no measurable impact on the bookselling scene, which indeed he hadn't. The dire shops he had always railed against were still there unchanged. Customers were still having to put up with inconvenient opening hours, condescending proprietors, mis-priced books, and poor shelf arrangement. The hurricane winds of the Internet - and changing tastes and reading habits - were around the corner, but hardly discernible even to the far-sighted. His Guide was now in larger, easier-to-read print, and glovebox-sized, and it did list a large number of bookshops, but that was no longer its point. It was now a platform for venting Drif's frustrated point of view. It was shorn of the lengthy and imaginative (sorry, true) anecdotes that made the 1991 edition so fascinating. No mention of Raymond Carver, either - presumably he had really died, and Drif had somehow managed to dispose of the body.

Here is a flavour. The entire opening essay, the end of another, and the first page of his A-Z of terminology:


It all has the tone of a man about to bow out, and leave the blinkered inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah to their well-deserved ruin. And his prophesy has largely come to pass. The ranks of second-hand booksellers have thinned drastically. There are still some left in Sussex, but like antiques in general it's a dying trade in which a very few discreet high-class niche dealers (without the overheads of a shop) might still do well, but most bookshop-owners won't. The times are against them. Reading hasn't gone out of fashion, but second-hand books have, and rising rents and other costs make a good living, or any reasonable living, impossible. I also suspect that the supply of saleable books that ordinary mortals might want to buy is beginning to run out. It's much easier for families to dump Grandad's old books on Fly Fishing or whatever in a skip, than to hawk them around whatever bookshops there still are, endure the proprietor's disdainful manner, and make zilch in the process.

It was my October 2016 visit to Hay-on-Wye that probably germinated this post. Drif scorned the place as a graveyard for books. Well, I visited several bookshops there. They looked the part, and in general they were welcoming, but I saw nothing I wanted and I bought nothing. Which must prove something.

4 comments:

  1. Walls lined with books is what passes for insulation in this old house. Some seem to be worth something most probably not, will anybody bother to do anything with them if we meet a sudden end...?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Coline, why not bequeath your finest volumes (such as the Collected Short Stories of Raymond Carver) to the National Museum of Scotland? As for the rest, you could specify that they be used to fuel your Viking Funeral. Rather better than ending up in a skip. The books, I mean, not yourself.

    Lucy

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fascinating piece, Lucy - would you mind if I linked to it from my blog?

    ReplyDelete

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