“This book business is all uphill. When you have theology the trade wants fiction, and if you get them fiction, they are all the wrong authors. But I’ll stick to it. I am a bookseller and I never want to be anything else”
So wrote Fred Bason at the age of fourteen in one of the earliest entries in what was to become a commonplace book of life. Written on the backs of envelopes and any old scrap of paper, these reflections were later to form the basis of four volumes of diaries giving a unique insight into the life of a dealer, collector and (latterly) author of books.
The world of second-hand bookselling has always been peopled by a rich vein of characters. Eclectic, eccentric, obsessive, they often adopt a mode of dress that would suggest that to them there are more important things in life than conforming to the dictates of fashion. Such a man was Fred Bason. He was most often seen in a cloth cap, muffler and long belted raincoat carrying a large portmanteau and scurrying from bookshop to bookstall, buying and selling books as a book-runner, a term he always used to describe himself.
But, as contemporary reports and his own diaries reveal, there was much more to Fred Bason than just bookselling. His was a life rich with incident. He was a friend and confidante to many literary luminaries and stars of stage and screen. He wrote extensively for the press, made records, broadcasts for the BBC on radio and on television and was in great demand as a public speaker.
Born in Walworth in the East End of London on 29th August 1908, he could honestly claim (and very often did) that he was a true cockney, being born within the sound of Bow bells. However he often reflected upon his humble circumstances and vowed that when fortune smiled upon him he would leave Walworth at speed and with very few regrets. He was a late child in that both his parents were over forty when he was born. He was also an only child, to his lasting regret. His father was a jobbing horse harness repairer and the family lived a hand to mouth existence in rented accommodation in what was, even then, a run-down slum area.
From an early age it was clear to both his parents that they had a cuckoo in the nest, for as well as being a sickly child, Fred exhibited none of the normal traits of an East End kid of his time. He was studious, preferring books and writing stories to playing in the streets with other children of his own age. He received absolutely no encouragement in this respect and, as L. A. G. Strong wrote in his introduction to ‘Fred Bason’s 2nd Diary (1952), “The wonder was not that Fred wrote so well, but that he wrote at all!” When he proudly brought home a copy of his first published work, his mother was dismissive telling him to put it away and get on with his odd jobs. He felt crushed.
On leaving school he was apprenticed to a barber as a lather boy. He worked long hours for a pittance and could not wait to get away. So when at last he was given the opportunity to learn how to shave a customer, he deliberately made a mess of it and was dismissed on the spot.
He subsequently joined a furniture making workshop in Camberwell and was immediately set to work at the wrong end of a planing machine. It was his job to pull lengths of wood through a blizzard of sawdust and shavings that at the end of each day, had to be swept up and bagged before he could leave. Eventually after five months of intolerable noise and filthy conditions he left for good having learned precious little about the trade but having acquired a blistering vocabulary of swear words and a formidable ability to calculate betting odds.
He had been collecting books since he was able to earn a few pennies and he informed his parents that he was going to make his living by buying and selling books until he could afford to become a writer. Neither of them believed that he would make any money this way, but he was undaunted. With just eleven shillings and four pence to his name he bought a substantial quantity of old books from a jumble sale for eight shillings and, after cleaning them up, he loaded them into a sack and took them into the Charing Cross Road and sold the greater proportion of them in a couple of hours, clearing a pound profit on the deal. This was the impetus he needed to leave the carpenter’s shop.
From using a sack to transport his books, he progressed to a borrowed barrow, which he regularly pushed from his home in Walworth to the Caledonian Market or Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey. At this time, he also indulged his other passion for collecting autographs of the famous. He was quick to recognise that an otherwise undistinguished novel could sell for double its asking price if it was signed by the author, and in order to improve his stock, Fred would go out of his way to track down the authors and press them for a signature. In this way, he met many of the famous writers who were living in London at this period, including W. W. Jacobs, G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Wallace.
Fred was an ardent theatre-goer, and would even attend first nights as a ‘galleryite’, from his seat in the gods. He once had the audacity to tell Edgar Wallace to his face that his latest play was “a poor thing and would not run beyond ten days” He bet the author two shillings and sixpence against a signed first edition that the play would fold. It did, and a month or so later Fred was given the book signed with the inscription “ You win”, on the endpaper.
In 1924 Bason met and befriended Arnold Bennett. Normally a taciturn man, Bennett was amused by the jovial cockney, whom he referred to as the ‘book barrow boy’, and he liked to hear a ‘saucy’ story or joke in return for his autograph. Once, in later years, Bennett met Fred in the street and invited him to an afternoon party. It turned out to be one of Edith Sitwell’s celebrated literary soirees, and on this occasion it was attended by (amongst others) a young Graham Greene and a tall gangling man with impeccable manners whom Fred later found out was T S Eliot.
Not all authors were so obliging. When Fred approached Rudyard Kipling for his autograph, the old man raised his stick to him. “Kipling or no bloody Kipling” said Fred, “if you hit me with that stick I’ll Kipple you!”
Despite many attempts, he was also unable to get J. M. Barrie to sign his copy of Peter Pan. Fred began what was to become his occasional diary. Three years later he met James Agate (1877 – 1947) the drama critic and diarist, who advised him to “keep a diary and some day it will keep you” Agate himself went on to publish no fewer than nine volumes of diaries under the collective title of Ego (1935-1948).
It is interesting to note the authors of the books that Fred bought and sold in those early days, and to reflect on their contemporary reputations. He said that, if he could only find the stock, he would sell stacks of Marie Corelli, Zane Grey and Eden Philpotts – names rarely heard today. Fred could be very dismissive of some of the racier authors from America who wrote “salty stories”, as he described them, and he refused to handle their books, preferring H G Wells, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham.
In 1926 he wrote to Maugham care of his publisher to tell him that he had read the author’s play “The Unknown” AND DID NOT LIKE IT! He added that he would like to invite him to tea in Walworth. Incredibly, Maugham accepted the invitation, and so began a friendship that was to last for ten years and which was to benefit both parties in different ways. Fred was later to write about his relationship with Maugham in Volume five of Leonard Russell’s Christmas gift book ‘The Saturday Book’ Fred Bason contributed to every edition of this annual between 1945 and 1972.
One can only wonder at the curious affinity between the East End barrow boy and the literary giant. On Fred’s side the relationship bordered on idolatry. He had read all of Maugham’s work to date, from ‘Liza of Lambeth’ (1897) to ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ (1919) and ‘Of Human Bondage’ was to remain his favourite book.
For Maugham it may have been an amusing curiosity to revisit the East End he knew when he was a medical student at nearby St Thomas’s Hospital which supplied the background for his first novel “Lisa of Lambeth” Either way, he came to tea with Fred, and later he asked his host to accompany him on a visit to Walworth where he hoped to research some local colour for a book (probably “Cakes and Ale” 1930). Before he left he signed eight of his books, with the advice that Fred was to sell them when the market for his books improved.
A month later they met again and Fred took Maugham on a tour of the area, for which he was rewarded with a slap-up meal in a Soho restaurant. In 1931, at Maugham’s request, Fred took him to his local music hall, the South London Palace of Variety in the London Road, close to the Elephant and Castle. At the end of the evening, they shared a taxi back to Maugham’s club – The Garrick and he invited Fred to holiday with him at his villa in Cap Ferat. Fred was most honoured. However, he was not invited into the Garrick, and on the advice of an actor friend, Fred declined all future offers to stay at the author’s house.
On a subsequent visit when he was accompanied by G B Stern, Maugham brought gifts of clothes and chocolates and more signed books. In the years that followed they were to meet often, and Maugham regularly sent letters and postcards from wherever he was in the world. In 1931 Maugham wrote the foreword to Fred’s theatre-going memoir, ‘Gallery Unreserved’ by ‘A Galleryite’. In the previous year Fred had completed ‘W. Somerset Maugham – A Bibliography’ (1931) which was written with the author’s co-operation, and featured a foreword by him. This bibliography has since been eclipsed by more scholarly works but it is still a sought after book.
Fred was already writing articles both humorous and provoking, for magazines such as ‘The Leader’ and ‘Book Collector’s Quarterly’ These were mostly unsolicited,and rarely earned him more than a few guineas. This did’nt bother Fred, who was simply happy to be a published author. He received some guidelines from Maugham: “As for style, don’t worry about that. Put down your thoughts as you would say them. Let that be your style, and don’t use a big word when a little one will do just as well. Finally, don’t write about what you know nothing about. This is the best advice I can give you Fred”. He was never to forget these instructions, and though he was prone to employ ‘cod cockney’, expressions such as ‘lor lummie’ and ‘gor blimey, Guv’, his writings were notable for their unpretentious style and down-to-earth anecdotal style.
Fred had a weekly column on cigarette cards in the magazine ‘Tit-Bits’, cigarette card collecting was another one of his passions and he would often include his home address so that readers could correspond with him directly. Sometimes he would ruefully reflect that the cost of answering what he called ‘me fan mail’ would exceed the original fee he was paid for the article.
Nevertheless this correspondence was actively encouraged by Fred who also included his home address in all of his diaries and in most of his contributions to the ‘Saturday Book’ At the height of his fame he was getting thirty of forty letters a day and all of them were answered. When he began selling books by mail order from his home, he received yet more letters, this time from book lovers like himself. To the more interesting enquiries and to his favourite customers, he would often write at length, and these letters contained many anecdotes and a large measure of Fred’s philosophy of life.
For his forthcoming publications he had flyers printed to his own designs and later designed his own photographic postcards which he would sign and give away. All of this ephemera, or as Fred described it, his ‘Basoniana’ and , because of his sheer output many of these can be found inside his books.
In 1930, Fred sold his collection of signed Maughams, with the exception of ‘Of Human Bondage’ for £100 using the money to set up his first and only bookshop, at 15 New Church Road, Camberwell. The frontage was just five feet wide and he called it, not surprisingly, – ‘The Little Bookshop’. He stocked it with books, magazines, comics, cigarette cards, photographs and ephemera. The rent was just 12/6 per week.
Initially, the shop was not a success. For a start Fred opened it at a time when most potential customers were either on holiday or hop-picking in Kent. He also thought nothing of closing for days on end so that he could complete his research for the bibliography in the reading room of the British Library. When trade did pick up and he was able to make few pounds he would again shut up shop and take himself off for a few days holiday by the sea! Although Camberwell in those days was hardly the cultural centre of the universe, one cannot help thinking that Fred’s bookshop might have prospered had he applied himself more to the business in hand.
In 1930 Fred met H G Wells at the BBC where he was giving one of his short talks. Fred was to make over thirty five of these, mostly for ‘Women’s Hour’ on books, autograph hunting and cigarette card collecting, and these talks did much to establish him as a household name. Fred Asked Wells which of his books he felt was his best, to which Wells replied that, if he were to be remembered for just one book alone, it would be ‘The History of Mr Polly’ (1910)
Fred loved boxing and would travel miles to support his favourites. At about this time, he fell in with, what could best be described as, a ‘fast crowd’ – a heady mixture of minor starlets, boxing agents and promoters. He regularly went to greyhound race meetings and began to collect informed tips on future runners. Ever keen to turn a penny, he put a poster in the window of his bookshop with the name of one of his predictions for that evening’s meeting. There was a bus stop opposite and he appealed to gamblers on their way to work to have a little flutter at his expense, but to remember who gave them the tip. The dog won and soon he had an impressive clientele paying him in advance for his valuable tips. Fred was right nine times out of ten, and he was soon earning over six pounds a week as a tipster, compared with just fifteen shillings a week from the sale of books. Little wonder that he changed the name of the shop to ‘The Greyhound Bookshop’. This state of affairs was soon to come to an end when his wholesale tipping began to depress the starting prices of his selections and his informant found out what he was doing. The information dried up and his tips became unreliable.
In 1933, Fred’s friendship with Somerset Maugham came to an abrupt end. Fred described what happened in an article entitled ‘Postscript to Maugham’ which appeared in the 26th ‘Saturday Book’ (1966). Maugham requested Fred’s assistance in selling a collection of his manuscripts for £10,000, that sum to be used to establish an annual literary prize for young authors. For his part in this arrangement, Fred would be paid £1,000. Fred wrote to some well known collectors, apprising them of this once in a lifetime opportunity, and was successful in attracting a rich American who was willing to pay the asking price if his name could be used alongside Maugham’s in this philanthropic venture. However, Maugham refused “ he was’nt going to have his name associated with any Tom, Dick or Harry”. In Fred’s opinion this amounted to a betrayal of their agreement. It is interesting to compare this account with the one given by Ted Morgan in his biography ‘Somerset Maugham’ (1980). Morgan maintains that Maugham did not want it to become generally known that he was selling his collection, and that he considered Fred to have been indiscreet in his attempts to find a buyer. He wrote to Fred in 1935 expressing his displeasure and withdrawing his authority to act for him in this matter.
Fred continued to press Maugham to sign copies of his books and in 1936 the latter wrote to him “I think you have done very well out of me so far. I notice that you have turned everything I have written for you into cash, for which I cannot blame you, but I think you must rest satisfied with the financial benefit you have got out of me hitherto and expect no more”
When Maugham was hurriedly evacuated from his home in the South of France foolowing the German occupation, he came to England on a coal barge. Fred sent a box of expensive soap to his London home which was not acknowledged. Their final meeting was in the foyer of a London hotel during the late forties. Fred saw Maugham sitting in an armchair, the novelist would have been in his mid seventies. He went up to the great man and introduced himself with a cheery “Good afternoon Mr Maugham, it’s a long time since we met. I’m Freddie Bason, your first bibliographer. You remember me? How are you sir?
“None the better for your asking” said Maugham. It was the end of the friendship.
In 1939 Fred had, through his column in ‘Tit-Bits’ become something of a king among cigarette card collectors and he amassed an enormous stock of them which he would swap with his many correspondents all over the world. He had heard that one Adolf Hitler was also a collector and in 1939 he travelled to German expressly to swap cards with him, despite the war clouds that were gathering over Europe. In the event he got as far as Hamburg, where he bought 30,000 cards direct from a firm of German printers for just £3.00. he had a brief but torrid affair with a German girl called Nalda, and returned home just before the outbreak of war. Ironically, his home was one of the first to be destroyed in the Blitz, with the loss of almost his entire collection of cigarette cards and countless treasured autographs.
His bookshop finally closed in 1939, a victim of his prolonged absenses as well as the failure of his tipster business. Had he kept going a little longer he would probably have made a success of it, for second hand book sales rocketed during the war when the nation was hungry for something to read and new book production was hit by paper rationing. During the thirties Fred met and became friends with L. A. G. Strong (1896-1958) who was at the time a very well known and widely read novelist. They had a common interest in boxing and Fred was able to introduce Strong to a number of East End promoters and champions. In 1939 Strong wrote ‘Shake Hands and Come Out Fighting’ for which Fred took some of the photographs.
In his diary Fred recalls that, during 1939 he wrote over thirty articles for publication. Having moved his stock out of the shop and back home to Westmoreland Road, he was also running a mailing list of over 800 names, three quarters of whom were regular customers.
Fred was now aged 31, and in his writings he constantly referred to his search for a wife who shared his interests. But, despite some amusing encounters, blind dates and several offers from lonely women who had read his articles or heard him on the radio, he was never to find the right girl. It has to be said that it would have been a special kind of person who could keep up with his multifarious interests and passions. But there was always Lizzie Peace, his beloved housekeeper. The date on which she joined him is not recorded, but it is a good bet that she arrived soon after his mother died, initially to look after both Fred and his father. For over thirty years, until her death in 1962, she was to provide the care and encouragement that Fred sought. She nursed him through his frequent bouts of illness and was a constant source of encouragement, especially in his writing. He referred to her as ‘me greatest fan’, and it is probably true to say that she was more of a mother to him than Mrs Bason had been.
When war was declared Fred became an A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) warden based in Southwark, but in the early days, despite shift work, he was able to continue buying and selling books. In 1940 he failed his medical for military service and remained a warden in the East End during the Blitz. His neighbourhood was extensively damaged in German bombing raids on the nearby docks and warehouses and on the evening that his own house was struck, he was injured by falling masonry as he assisted in the evacuation of a nearby street. Apart from his physical injuries, which put him in a wheelchair for a time, it is clear from his diary notes that the bombing caused some sort of mental breakdown, which led to him being evacuated to a hospital in Hertfordshire for rest and recuperation.
Although he continued to write during this period, he confined himself to a bald record of events, offering no reflection or speculation. He was later transferred to a hospital in Watford, where he was treated with great kindness by the nurses. During a visit to Balliol College in Oxford as a guest of the students, he met Hilaire Belloc who was also staying at the College. Swathed in bandages and a plaster cast, Fred hailed him with a chirpy “Mister Belloc, I presume?”
“Mister Bomb – but a very close miss – I presume?” retorted Belloc.
Although Fred had sold Belloc copies of his own books in the past, they had never met. Fred was nothing if not enterprising. If he found a first edition of an author’s early work in good condition, he would (with the assistance of of a copy of ‘Who’s Who’) trace the author’s home address and offer the volume for sale. He know that writers were prone to giving their file copies away and were constantly looking to replace their out of print titles.
Fred was invalided out of the A.R.P. service and, much against his will, he was pressed by the authorities to enter the Civil Service working for the Ministry of Supply. He hated this period of his life almost as much as his time in the sawmill or the barber’s. He could not stand the bureaucracy and the obsession with hierarchy, and he petitioned to be allowed to return to bookselling, which he felt would best enable him to assist in the war effort. For a brief period, he was allowed to further his ideas for the manufacture of children’s toys from odds and ends, he published two slim books on this subject both were best sellers but because fred sold the copyright on them his earnings were meagre.
These activities were discouraged by his employers. He was sidelined into some anonymous department and given the thankless task of sorting and repairing thousands of magic lantern slides. He became bitterly unhappy and disruptive and in 1945 he was eventually allowed to return to bookselling.
Before the war, Fred began to get requests to speak at Rotarian dinners, businessmen’s lunches, Women’s Institutes and other gatherings. Now that the war was over, he was again much in demand and he continued to talk to groups right up to the early seventies. He would take along a selection of his books to sell and would of course sign them. As a collector of signed editions, he know the pleasure that a personal inscription would give the purchaser. So many of his books were sold in this way that it is rare to find one unsigned!
Some of the inscriptions are amusing, some bittersweet:
‘Within is around 40 years of my life and when you (and your friends) have read it you will know far more about me than I will ever know about you. I’m very harmless, utterly inoffensive and because I have no relations, no family, no wife and no children, I’ve got nothing on earth to lose by being friendly! Speak kindly of me’ (Found in a copy of ‘The Last Bassoon’ 1961)
‘I offer this book for 3/6d, 6/- below the publisher’s cover price and at, of course, a loss. But via it I hope to gain a new reader somewhere’ (Found in a copy of ‘Fred Bason’s 2nd Diary’ 1960)
Fred had periods of melancholy when he suffered from self doubt. At the end of August 1948, he recorded ‘In this life one needs fortitude. My private life is terribly lonely. My public life is a mass of chance acquaintances, casual friendships and much mail. If this is fame then it is EMPTY’. However, for the most part he was remembered as a canny negotiator, and as very good company when he was on form and surrounded by his beloved books. He was however a ‘prophet without honour in his own country’ as far as his local community was concerned, and it was a source of great sadness to Fred that, apart from a few good friends among the clergy, he had little contact with his neighbours’
David Low had a second hand bookshop at 17 Cecil Court and in his amusing memoir ‘with all faults’ (1973) he recalls several buing trips he made with Fred, including one to a grand house in Oxfordshire. Not for Fred the fine bindings up stair’s in the master’s library. He went straight to the servant’s quarters where the novels could be found and bought the lot for nine pence.
‘Fred Bason’s Diary’ was published by Wingate in 1950 It was edited and introduced by Nicolas Bentley, the humourist and cartoonist, and has a portrait of Fred by Ronald Searle as the frontispiece. The editor did little to correct Fred’s grammar or syntax and left most of the curious spelling intact, which adds to the volume’s charm. It was an immediate sell out and was reprinted the following year.
‘Fred Bason’s Second Diary’ follwed in 1952 again published by Wingate, this time edited and introduced by L. A. G. Strong, who had the difficult task of making a selection from a mass of diary entries and jottings without reprinting material from volume one.
‘Fred Bason’s Third Diary’ appeared in 1955, edited and introduced by Michael Sadlier and featured a cartoon portrait of the Author by Nicolas Bentley and the dustwrapper was designed by none other than Len Deighton, who worked as a designer before becoming a bestselling author.
The title of the fourth volume ‘The Last Bassoon’ was suggested by James Agate who told Fred that it was taken from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Fred subsequently discovered that the actual quote was ‘The Loud Bassoon’ but he kept the title nevertheless. Although this book was supposedly edited and introduced by Noel Coward, the job of selecting the material was carried out by fred himself (this is referred to by him in the last section of the third volume. ‘The Last Bassoon’ included several references to Coward himself, not all of them complimentary! “ Noel coward is in this film and, with due respect, I wish that he was’nt, for truly I don’t think that films is his medium, especially when we all know he has so many talents for other mediums. I don’t think Mr coward will ever make a film star because he is always Mr Coward”.
Appropriately. ‘The Last Bassoon’ was Fred’s final major work, although he published a handful of additional items which of interest to collectors. The majority of these were small format paperback items many of them sponsored by manufacturers such as ‘Swallow Raincoats, Doulton & Company and Tyne Brand Products, the Chairman of this company was at school with Fred.
The sixties brought considerable disruption to Fred’s life. First there was the death of his beloved housekeeper Lizzie, then in 1968 his house was demolished and he was re-housed in a council flat in nearby Portland Street. Nevertheless he continued to give talks, write articles and buy and sell books keeping in touch with his customers by post. In one letter he wrote “ My days are nearly over – if tomorrow never comes it doesn’t matter at all. I have no debts. Its been a lovely life – I’ve few regrets. I wish I was not alone.” In another written at the end of June 1973, he noted “I go on Wednesday to Peterborough . . . I return on July 13th so there will be silence” This proved to be strangely prophetic, as he was to die just a few days later on 3rd July. He was buried in a quiet corner of the churchyard in Orton Waterville near Peterborough, and the words ‘Cockney Author were inscribed on his headstone.
In his will Fred made individual bequests to one or two friends, but the bulk of his estate – around £22,000 – was bequeathed to a benevolent fund for writers. In the event however, his bequest could not be interpreted exactly, and it therefore passed to the Crown. This would have infuriated Fred, as he had an innate mistrust of authority, and of civil servants in particular.
Fred Bason is without question one of the great bookmen of the century. Anyone who has ever delved in a boxful of books at a jumble sale, or has approached an author for a signature, will understand the instincts that shaped his life. His bibliography is relatively short, but in its diversity it reflects the man himself. How many other writers could have produced books on bibliography, home made toys, cigarette cards and theatre going. His most lasting monuments are the four volumes of diaries which are a treasure house of good humour and anecdotes about some of the great writers of our time. No one would claim that Fred was their equal, but his small body of work is as valuable as it is unique.