‘Lost and found: The secret treasures found between the pages of my second-hand books’

Jul 13, 2020
Rod has found all sorts of treasures in the pages of his second-hand books. Source: Getty Images

During the ages between nine and 12 or so, the highlight of Christmas morning was to find the latest Champion Annual in my stocking. For days after, whether at home in Sydney or on vacation at Port Macquarie, I would be riveted by the exploits of Fireworks Flynn, Ginger Nutt, Roy Race and Colwyn Dane. Until high school and adolescence suggested there were more enticing items out there beyond another ‘rap’ or ‘crack’ from ‘ace’ detective Dane.

About that time, my Knox family cousins must have also decided it was time to move on to other things because they offloaded on me their hand-me-down collection of English public school mystery stories. Despite their cookie-cutter stock characters — the upright prefect of the Sixth, the sneak of the Fifth, the scamp of the Fourth, etc. — these stories were almost required reading among middle-class Aussie families at that time.

But among the pile of dog-eared old volumes given me, one stood out: a 1947 Champion Annual, with this particular edition exuding a sense of new hope and light, as though six dark years in the tunnel of war were gone for good. And so it became second nature for me to assume that the exciting Champion Annuals were a creation of post-war British optimism.

Fast forward a few more decades and you’ll find me on a day trip to the upper Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. I’m walking through Leura when I come upon the cliff-top mansion of the Evatt family, those pillars of small-L liberal-minded law and politics. I paid my admission fee and wandered from room to room trying to imagine the Doc (HV Evatt) in any one of them, thinking deeply about Governor Bligh or the United Nations charter or bank nationalisation, when I stumbled upon a children’s playroom.

Period toys and bric-a-brac and curiosities were strewn everywhere but my eye was drawn magnetically to a bookstand, upon which, and seeming to glow with the enthralment of the Ark of the Covenant, was a copy of the Champion Annual. A 1933 edition! Yet later, when, through the wonders of the internet, I acquired my own copy of this edition, what captured my attention was not the longevity of any of those characters of my childhood.

For on the fly-leaf, before I’d even reached the table of contents, was a script in perfect copperplate: “Alan Chester Browne, Xmas 1932, with dear love from Grannie.”

As though I had intruded, quite uninvited, into someone else’s very private world, I was overcome by a wave of emotion regarding this clearly loved little boy, aware that he was a prime candidate for army call-up six years later on the brink of World War II. Who was he, and did he survive that long, drawn-out conflict? My journalistic curiosity was twitching.

Thanks to his grannie’s long-handed Christmas wishes, plus the internet, I was eventually able to find that Alan Chester Browne had, indeed, survived the war and went on to live (I presume) a full life as a solicitor, passing away aged 78 in 1998. He was buried at Grimsby, where he lived and worked all his life, in north-east England.

You see, every old book, with its loving inscriptions on the flyleaf, tells a story about the owner, if only how much the book meant to him or her. My 1947 Champion Annual, I found, had an inscription on its flyleaf that asserted, quite proprietorially, that this volume belonged to “John Love of South Street in (the Sydney suburb of) Strathfield”.

I was concerned. The book was obviously valued by young John, but it had reached my hands through other parties no more than eight years later. What happened for it to leave his hands so soon? I wondered. Was there misfortune or even tragedy in his family? Once more, I fell back on the internet and searched the house number in South Street, Strathfield, but instead of the small, darkly-lit brick box I expected, I found, instead, a huge McMansion. Not everyone had had a family tragedy, it appeared.

Another second-hand book inscription told its own little story. A couple of years ago, I spotted a Women’s Weekly anthology of women’s popular writing, which I thought would be a nice gift for my wife. When I opened it, the fly-leaf revealed it had once belonged to Lyndall Ryan, an academic involved in the 1990s culture wars over ‘black-armband’ history.

More significant to me, however, was that Lyndall Ryan was already a political giant on the University of Sydney campus when I first arrived as a dewy-eyed 17-year-old. She was also the first person I ever had the nerve to ask a direct question of, that year in 1962, but I doubt she remembers.

Nevertheless, the prize for the most surprising inscription in a second-hand book I ever bought, must go to A Soldier’s Story, by Brigadier JOE Vandeleur. ‘Joe’ Vandeleur, some may remember, was the character played by Michael Caine in the 1977 blockbuster film version of Cornelius Ryan’s book on the 1944 Arnhem campaign, A Bridge Too Far.

I had seen the film not long before I interviewed Captain Terence O’Neill, formerly prime minister of Northern Ireland and in the course of our subsequent informal discussions, he revealed that like Vandeleur, he had also served in the Irish Guards during the war. Thus, my interest was latently stirred in this man with the unusual French Huguenot name.

Eventually, while idly doodling on second-hand book sites, I found that Vandeleur had published his memoirs and while the price was more than I would normally pay, I felt impelled to buy it. Putting aside my bewilderment at the prosaic book title (much sexier would have been, “Christ, not us again”, the words he uttered when told he would be the spearhead of the assault on Arnhem), what fell out from the pages was unbelievable.

It was a folded-over hand-written note, from Vandeleur himself to Field Marshall Earl Alexander, commander-in-chief of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean, then governor-general of Canada (and also an Irish guardsman), paying his respects to the great man for his assistance in the unfolding of Vandeleur’s career.

What I had in my hands was, clearly, an author’s copy, sent as a gift by Joe Vandeleur to one of the most famous figures of World War II, and that the book had thus been the property of the late Lord Alexander himself. To think it may have been otherwise destined, like so much of the written word, for eventual landfill. Ye gods!

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