Percy H. Muir
Published on 08 March 2011
Half a League Onward
By Percy H. Muir
As I sat, or stood, on the platform in Amsterdam in 1947, presiding over the first ever international meeting of antiquarian booksellers, I often wondered just how far the enthusiasm displayed by those present was shared by members of their respective associations. With seven participants (including wives) the British Association was, apart from the Dutch, the most numerous. Just for the record they were Harold and Olive Edwards, Winnie Myers, Stanley Sawyer and his sister and my vife and myself. Only five countries were represented, - Einar Gronholt-Pedersen (Denmark) Andre Poursin and Fernand de Nobele (France) Gustav Ronnell (Sweden), our hosts and ourselves. There was much lofty speechifying from the idealists, especialIy in respect of the new international body that we hoped to form. The speeches related mostly to what the duties of the new body should be. These made me nervous for I was very well aware that in at least one quarter there would be strong opposition to the formation of such a body, and that any attempt to dictate terms for its formation might well be self-defeating. Therefore I repeatedly tried to move the assembly to a more realistic approach. In this I was strongly supported by the French representatives. In the sequel I was to be proved all too right about this. But I am not proposing to write the early history of the League. That, if it ever comes to be written, will need a more trenchant and more objective view than mine. I am more concerned with personal experiences mostly arising from League activities, and here I may begin with more speechmakers — those who addressed the assembly at the farewell dinner as enthusiasts for internationalism in principle.
I had been warned by Menno Hertzberger, whose brilliant brainwave was the cause of our being gathered together, that those wishing to speak would pass their names to me at the top table, and it would be obligatory to caIl them. He added that they would be numerous and he strongly advised me to adopt the Dutch usage by calling upon two or three between courses. Numerous indeed they were and I went into a huddle with the maitre d'hôtel who dealt with the routine with the efficiency and dispatch implicit in his occupation. »There will be four between the soup and the fish, five between the fish and the entre ..« and so on, he told me. During each course he saw to it that the names of the speakers, clearly printed out, were in my hands in good time.
Insularity is discernible in no field so strongly as in the language barrier. The Netherlanders have turned this inside out, as it were. »O.K.« they say, »You won't learn our language so we'll learn yours«. Thus no foreigner need despair of finding his way about in Holland. Whatever his native language there will always be someone near at hand who speaks it fluently. Unlike one of our later polyglots of whom a French friend said, »Ce pauvre X, il est incomprehensible en toutes les langues«. Unfortunately at our banquet most speakers confined themselves to their own language and, although they were eloquent and, as we were later assured, complimentary, their contributions added little to the gaiety of nations. There was one exception, an impassioned orator who, having expressed his views emphatically in Dutch did it all over again in French.
However, we left Holland deeply impressed by the hospitality we had received and comforted, or discomforted, as the case might be, by the thought that we would all meet again one year later with the conviction that a new international organisation would be formed. Naturally a pessimist, I felt that the fact that the invitation was left to another small country, Denmark, was ominous. Three further nations were represented there - Belgium, Finland and Switzerland. Several attempts at forming an association in the U.S.A. had failed and in consequence they were not invited to any conference until 1950 in Paris, although Laurence Gomme attended as an observer in London in 1949.
It had been thought impolitic to invite representatives from Austria, Italy and Germany. Thus with Denmark holding a proxy for Norway all the European countries with associations of their own were accounted for. I was again invited to preside, an honour that I accepted with mixed feelings. For, with the agenda before me, I saw that my first duty would be to present the assembly with a highly insular proposal. In terms of our present day forms of protest the reaction of the Copenhagen assembly to this proposal would be ludicrously peaceful. Let us say that the discussion was lively. Astutely, if uncourageously, I opted out of this by adjourning the general assembly and inviting the presidents of the associations present to meet à huis clos to find a solution to the impasse.
I had been succeeded as President of the ABA by Dudley Massey; and André Poursin had handed over the presidency of SLAM. Neither of us, therefore, was entitled to attend the special meeting. I had never spoken to Poursin at Amsterdam, indeed he was based in Haarlem, having found his Amsterdam hotel wanting in several important respects. But I had noticed that his interventions were infrequent, sympathetic and relevant — rare and welcome qualities in general discussion. He now took me by the arm and said « Alors, les deux présidents limogés vont prendre un drink sur la terrasse de l'hôtel d'Angleterre. « I accepted this pleasant invitation but found the adjective incomprehensible. He then explained that the headquarters of the French XII army corps is situated at Limoges and when high-ranking officers were succeeded by subordinates they were posted there. Thus when Joffre, in the 1914 war was succeeded as Commander-in-Chief by Foch he became a général limogé. So, in escaping the turmoil of the conference room a friendship was formed that lasted until Andre's death in 1969, a friendship that changed the whole course of my life.
The conference itself then pursued a tranquil course. The league was formed, a committee was appointed with William Kundig of Switzerland as President, myself as Vice-President, Menno Hertzberger as Treasurer (afterwards nominated Pore de la Ligue) Einar Grønholt-Pedersen and André Poursin. One feature of the Copenhagen Conference that seemed to be outstanding was the speech made at the splendid farewell banquet by Ilmari Jorma of the Antiquariat Oy. Three of the Scandinavian countries, Denmark. Norway and Sweden, use a second language, a pâtois common to them all. Finland is an exception and I doubt whether anyone understood a single word of that speech, but as he stood, with a rose in his hand, addressing Madame Grønholt-Pedersen to whom he finally handed the flower, his eloquence rivetted attention. His oration ended with the Finnish equivalent of “Good health” or “Lebe wohl”. lt sounded exactly like “Kee Peess” and the bull-bellow of Kundig drowned much of the applause with “Quelle question indiscrete”.
I did not take to Kundig. He was a boaster and a bully. But he was the right man for the presidency of the League in its infancy. Certainly the greatest of his achievements was to compel the Americans to form an association and to affiliate to the League. This was his own description of the way it was done. He enjoyed bullying people in a good tempered way. His own good humour was impenetrable. Once when he had made me a victim of sharp practice I told him what I thought of him. He said »My dear boy, there are only two kinds of people in this world — smarties and suckers. I am one and you are the other.« Both halves of this statement were true. He boasted that he was the king of the black market; but it is fair to say that the laws he broke were not those of Switzerland. But it came to a point when for him to pass the French frontier would mean instant arrest. Eventually he compounded his troubles with French officialdom and was able once more to return to Paris, where his father had a shop in which Kundig had worked as a young man.
He was a good raconteur. One of his best stories was about the taxi that he used to hire to take him to sales outside the City and bring him back with any purchases he had made. The driver's name was Jacques and he called Kundig “Monsieur Willie”. One day Jacques seemed very much off colour. When Kundig remarked his ill humour he was told that Jacques had been hoping to buy a taxi of his own but had found it entirely beyond his reach. Kundig asked him how much one would cost? »Oh! Monsieur Willie, c'est dans les millons.« »How much?« Kundig undertook to put up all the money, specifying that at the end of every day Jacques should come to the shop and hand over 25 % of the day's takings. One day, returning from a sale, Jacques stopped in the middle of the Place de la Concorde, looked over his shoulder, pointed to the taxi meter and said delightedly, »Monsieur Willie, le taxi est à moi.«
I saw Kundig taken aback only once. It was in a Brussels bookshop where he was haggling over a Russian illuminated manuscript. There remained a wide gap between seller and buyer when Kundig said »Madame, I am going to count up to three and if by then my offer is not accepted the deal is off.« Quite mildly the bookseller replied, »No Monsieur Kundig, it is I who will count and for you to decide. « He paid, but once having the manuscript in his hands he recovered countenance. »I have bought many things on this trip,« he said, »but this manuscript is la crème de la crème. For every Belgian franc it has cost me I shall get 10 Swiss francs.« André Poursin said that he was a polichinelle, a French word with a double meaning - not just Punch, but a mischief-maker. In this there was no basic harm; it just amused him to set people against one another. On one occasion the treasurer had sent out, rather tardily, reminders that subscriptions were due for renewal, with the result that the dues of one country were raised by 25% owing to devaluation. It was, of course, the concern of the committee to decide whether any allowance should be made for this and if so how much. Kundig, by a series of provocative remarks, worked the discussion to such a degree of exasperation that the meeting dispersed with a written resignation from every member of the committee. Next morning, with our matutinal tea or coffee, a waiter handed to each of us a box of 25 Havana cigars »With the compliments of your President.« We all withdrew our resignations.
Committee meetings were always held in Switzerland, usually to coincide in time and place with an auction sale, either by Kundig or one of his colleagues. In winter it was my habit to go by train to Paris, stay there for a few days and complete the journey with André Poursin by overnight train to Geneva, for we had become close friends. The train was due in Geneva at 7.30 a. m. If it was punctual and the French and Swiss customs officers were in a good humour there was time to breakfast at the hotel and get to the meeting at 9 o'clock punctually. Frequently the margin was too limited and poor André, with his game leg, and I had to hurry to accomplish this. As we approached Kundig's office he would be standing on the balcony outside the first floor window and would roar down the Rue du Rhône:
»André, Percy, vous êtes en retard. Considerez vous comme engueulés«, much to the amusement of others hurrying along to their offices to beat the clock. In the better months of the year foregathering in Paris was the prelude to motoring to Geneva in André’s car. We seldom took the same route twice. I was very familiar with holiday-cum-business routes in central Europe and I now made the acquaintance of booksellers in France. Dijon, with its superbly named Capharnaum des Livres where excellent bargains were to be found; Nançy, where the hospitable Roger Poncelet “A l'homme de fer” was as generous with splendid local wines as with discounts to colleagues; Lyons, where a profusion of booksellers was to be found, among them one with a large notice in the window “Fermé — raison fatique”, and Maçon where I was greeted by the bookseller as »une espèce de collegue«, at which André roared with laughter and afterwards explained the idiom to me.
In one town, which I shall not name, there was a shop run by two female dragons who resented being visited by the trade, but treated André like a son and even gave him discount. I came in for a grudging welcome because I was with him, but when I visited them later, alone, I was shown the door.
I have always regretted that, though there was a bookseller there, we never took in Chambéry to have the pleasure of tasting the best of all vermouths in its home town.
Our itineraries were, however, chosen with an eye to assuming suitable spots for lunch and dinner. Thus we would leave Paris late in the afternoon to dine at the Royal in Troyes for their excellent andouillettes and sleep at the Toison d'Or at Dijon. This was what André called “raisonable”. Troyes is equidistant from Paris and Dijon each almost exactly 100 miles either side of it, so that, leaving Paris at about 5, p. m. one would sit down to dinner at about 8 o'clock, rise from the table reluctantly at about 10.30 and arrive at Dijon at about one hour after midnight.
This was a route much favoured by me for the magnificent Jura scenery and fortunately also by André, because Bourg-en-Bresse, whith its superb restaurant, Auberge Bressane, was within easy reach of Dijon, a hundred miles for lunch, with Geneva rather less distant on the other side.
On the return journey there was a choice between Nantua and Lyons, both gastronomically well served, Mère Guy quite unforgettable.
On one occasion, having lingered to buy in the bookshops of Dijon, we left after 8 p. m. with the avowed intention (by André) to reach Paris that night. Some fifty miles out of Dijon we ran into a thunderstorm so heavy that we were compelled to stop for the better part of an hour. André was all for going on to Paris, but yielded to vociferous determination on the part of the rest of us, but only if suitable accommodation could be found in the Michelin. Triumphantly we found Châtillon-sur-Seine just round the corner and made the first of many subsequent visits to the patronne of the Côte d'Or and her delicious Coq au vin Nuitanne, accompanied by a fine vin d'Arbois,
This gastronomic record would seem to lend support to the suggestion of an ABA committee member that subscriptions to the League were largely used to finance European gallivanting by its committee members. The double reply is that a) we did our travelling in our own time and b) that we were recompensed only for air-fare to and from the place of the meeting. Moreover, we did work. André and I produced for the League the first of the series of the International Directories, then purchased only under protest by some associations. That was in 1951-2. In 1955, after the German association had joined us, we issued an addendum including their membership and the membership changes in the other 12 associated countries. Nobody who has not attempted to prepare such a publication can have any idea of the amount of time and energy it entails, especially when like André and I, one is a novice at such tasks. We did not ask for any payment from the League and the expenses entailed in cross-channel journeys was considerable.
The latest edition of the Directory, edited by Hans Bagger, lists the membership of 16 countries and is a bestseller, being acknowledged by all concerned as a great booster of business. In 1956 Menno Hertzberger, at his own eagerly accepted offer, produced the first International Dictionary of the idiom of the antiquarian book trade. It is in 8 languages and I observe that the possibility of a new edition is now mooted.
A charter of rules and practice for members, and information on the legal aspects of import and export in each country were circulated. At one time in West Germany there was an import duty of 4 % on books. Thereby hangs a tale to be told by Willy Heimann.
The parsimony observed in the distribution of funds by the League in its early days was miserly even to the point of avarice. The committee arranged a competition for a design for a League emblem, the winner to be paid £ 25 and a small royalty on every one sold. To my personal knowledge he has never received a farthing.
Considering the dubiety with which our activities were treated it is pleasant to record that the Congresses in London in 1949 and in Paris in 1950 were very successful both socially and professionally, while the standard of hospitality in both cities was impeccable.
Thus one may well feel that the foundations of the future were soundly laid and at least one Englishman had good cause “to think not the struggle naught availeth”, if I may quote from one of my own early presidential addresses, I know that I represented the feelings of my fellow-countrymen when I said:
»Believe me when I say that despite our traditional insularity, despite that irritating air of superiority we sometimes appear to assume in countries other than our own - but which is no more than a combination of excessive shyness and the fear that we are making fools of ourselves - despite an incurable assumption by some of us that tea is preferable as a beverage to the finest vintage wine and that all that is British is best - deep down in the hearts of every one of us is a lasting affection for you all and a real desire to further better feeling between the nations.«
The article was published in “Aus dem Antiquariat”, Issue 9 (1977), and is presented here with thanks to the editor.