How I’d love to be rich and in England right now . . . The Telegraph reports:
Spend half an hour in Franklin Brooke-Hitching’s library and you’ll go around the world twice. The titles that line the bookshelves of his Berkshire home are wonderfully evocative: Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque; The Sperm Whale and the South Sea Voyage. And my favourite, if only for the image it conjures: Through Persia By Caravan.
Brooke-Hitching has spent the past 46 years collecting these volumes and others chronicling the exploits of British explorers. By last year, he had amassed 1,400 books charting the voyages of adventurers such as Charles Darwin, Francis Drake and David Livingstone.
Among his collection is the first map of Australia, commissioned by the botanist Sir Joseph Banks in 1772. Then there is the first book to be printed in the Antarctic (its jacket fashioned from a tea chest), specimens of cloth collected by Captain Cook in Tahiti, and a signed copy of Ernest Shackleton’s The Heart of the Antarctic.
Remarkably, he claims only half a dozen people have seen his collection. “If you want a real conversation killer,” he says, “you tell people you buy and sell old books.”
Next week , however, anyone who wants to will be able to inspect the tomes when the library goes up for sale at Sotheby’s. Every volume will go under the hammer in a series of four auctions, which are expected to raise £5 million.
Even before he began his collection, a young Brooke-Hitching had fallen for adventure. In his early twenties, he rode a motorbike across the world. He lived in a beer factory in Australia and learnt Arabic in Lebanon. At 26, he decided to buy his first book, searching for a first edition of the first collection of voyages to be written in English, published with a fold-out world map by Richard Hakluyt in 1589. He found it in a bookshop off St Martin’s Lane in London.
“I said: ‘I’m interested in English voyages,’ ” he recalls. “The shop owner said, ‘How about this?’ I gulped. That was £900 then, which was a lot of money in 1968. I just said, ‘OK.’ ”
And so it began. Over the years, he kept strict criteria: each book had to be about a British explorer, and it had to be in mint condition: “God’s copy,” in his words. So, most are centuries old, but their covers gleam.
He had a precise definition of “exploration”, too. “It could not be mere travel, so Europe was out,” he explains. “It had to have some sort of exotic flavour. They were going into strange lands. The countries might have been visited a few times before but they were bringing back new information.”
Brooke-Hitching’s global hunt would make a page-turner itself. Once, he discovered that a rare book by John Harrison, who invented a device to measure longitude at sea, had recently been auctioned in Birmingham. He immediately telephoned the dealer who had bought it, who told him he had already sold it to another in London. The latter dealer, it transpired, had dispatched the book to America.
“So I called up this dealer in New England. ‘You must be joking,’ he said, ‘if you think I’m going to sell you that at a reasonable price.’ OK, we’ll make it an unreasonable price. And that’s how I got it.”
. . .
Now, however, Brooke-Hitching’s own exploration is at an end. He has added just a couple of tomes to his bookshelves in the past five years, and believes he owns a copy of almost every book on British exploration. This is largely because he dismisses any book published after 1939, which he claims is when exploration stopped. “There was the Antarctic; shipping lines and train lines went everywhere else. It became more and more travel rather than exploration.”
What about the final frontier – space? “I’d better save money for my first book on it,” he chuckles. Until then, he says, he will be content to live a leisurely life, interrupted only by occasional games of tennis. Will he still look at sale catalogues? “Yes, probably. But there won’t be a feeling of loss. It’ll be: I remember that, that was fun.” Now it’s time for another adventure.
There’s more at the link.
I can’t imagine all the specialized, almost one-of-a-kind volumes that must be in that collection. How I wish I could afford to buy a hundred or two of them and bring them over here! I’d read them first, of course, but then I’d donate them to an organization that would use them to foster the spirit of adventure and exploration in youngsters. What a treasure!