guest post – Nancy Gray

Wintering in Scotland

The only thing I really hated about living in Scotland—well, two things, but connected—the weather in January is desperately cold. Unspeakably cold outside. And—here’s the second thing—in 1981, it was cold inside, too.

Central heating, that’s what Scottish houses needed. Maybe the homes of the Posh folks were warm. Trudging along on the icy pavement, I used to stare wistfully into likely windows, but Americans who chose to live on the economy chose a cold winter. One house I passed every day on my way to the charity shops had steamy windows: I knew it was warm in there. This house also had a homemade moat—a deep wide ditch that separated the front porch from the public walkway. A tiny bridge crossed it. At the public end was a gate. A locked gate.

In our half-house we had two narrow radiators that clicked on every afternoon at four and clicked off again at five. By five they were warm to the touch. In our landlord’s opinion, that was all our rent entitled us to. Plus the use of their bathtub once a week. The kitchen had a fine new cooker, but no running water and no sink.

But every morning there was a pint of full-cream milk by our kitchen door, milk in a glass bottle. Scottish dairies delivered! That was wonderful. Another wonderful thing was the currency exchange rate—in 1981 it was $1.14 to the pound. This made the buying of books for future profit great fun, especially for American booksellers stationed way out in the boondocks, far from the bright lights of Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Scotland (perhaps everywhere in the UK?) books are expected to move in an orderly fashion. Start with a book that’s been hidden for years in a Scottish family library in some far corner of the country, how does it get to the bibliographic bigtime? To, say, James Thins’ shop in Edinburgh? By traveling, as do fish, up a ladder.

The book is offered for sale to the bookshop nearest its home, that remote croft or farm. In Greenock, that would be WestWords, presided over by Olaf. Olaf would buy, price modestly, then shelve. In the fullness of time along would come either a “runner” or perhaps the owner of a shop in a larger town, say Paisley. The book is now a step up the book ladder. If not snapped up by a collector who spots it in the huge basement of the shop in Paisley, on it goes, to Glasgow or Edinburgh. By now our book has been brushed and burnished, its gatherings have been tightened, and—of course—its price raised. It may now be offered for sale in Catalogue or Book Fair. Now it is officially an Important Book.

Once I had this sussed out, I spent a lot of my time in Olaf’s shop, where the books began. Snap. I did learn not to boast of my finds to bookdealer friends, since I was not playing by their rules.
Some of the books I bought had a skin of black soot on the covers. This cleaned up easily with lighter fluid, but how had they gotten so dirty? I learned that these books had lived in houses with open coal fires. This made me think about how warm a person could be, when sitting close to a fire in an open grate. Some things were better in the olden days, better than lukewarm radiators and stinking gas heaters, for sure.

Quite often, old books were missing their free front endpaper. Not a major fault, not in Scotland, I was told. It was a blank page, wasn’t it? A usable piece of paper, and not to be wasted. Rip it out! Write a shopping list on one side, measurements for the new curtains on the other , and when its work is done, twist it into a spill and use it to light the fire.

So that’s how Scottish books moved upmarket, or so it seemed to me. I checked out my theory, sort of, with a book I had bought for my own collection in Paisley: the Left Book Club edition of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. It cost me one pound. When I saw another copy in York, same edition in the bright orange cover, it was on offer for twenty pounds. And the soot had not been properly cleaned off, either. Twenty pounds might not sound like much now—but this was 1981, remember, and twenty quid was a fair whack.

Do I want to go back, visit Scotland again? Live there, even? I do and I don’t. It would not be the same. Television has homogenized us, too much for my taste. On the other hand, I bet Central Heating has caught on.


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