Dear Howard: Tales Told in Let­ters by David Bat­ter­ham Frances Wil­son


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Dear Howard: Tales Told in Let­ters By David Bat­ter­ham, with a fore­word by Barry Humphries Red­stone Press £12.95 Oldie price £11.37 inc p&p

‘There will come a time,’ writes Barry Humphries in the fore­word to this wines­tained and one-sided cor­re­spon­dence be­tween the book dealer David Bat­ter­ham and the artist Howard Hodgkin, ‘when my grand­chil­dren may ask the ques­tion “What is a book­shop?”’

Bat­ter­ham (pro­nounced Bat­tram) is an en­dan­gered species, one of the gen­tle, ob­so­les­cent breed of he­roes de­scribed by the poet Keith Dou­glas as ‘uni­corns, al­most’. He is, although he doesn’t let on, dis­tin­guished in the book-deal­ing world, spe­cial­is­ing in ‘books one can en­joy with­out hav­ing to read’ – in other words, any­thing ex­cept poetry, his­tory or lit­er­a­ture. Bat­ter­ham’s let­ters to Hodgkin, sent dur­ing what he iron­i­cally calls his ‘buy­ing trips’ be­tween 1970 and 2006, fall into a sim­i­lar cat­e­gory.

Dear Howard is less a col­lec­tion of tales than a flick-book of rapid pen-andink sketches in which Bat­ter­ham catches what he looks like alone and in the com­pany of other uni­corns. We can pic­ture him clearly be­cause he de­scribes, in a let­ter from Venice in 1974, what he is wear­ing and we learn later that he has only two sets of clothes.

‘I am wear­ing my 1964 Jaeger sale jacket with a hole in the el­bow and the but­tons no longer meet­ing the but­ton­holes; my Ox­fam Shop, white, lamb­swool sweater, back to front be­cause of the wine stains and holes burned by Gauloises de­bris, and my Chel­tenham rot­ter’s trousers.’

One book­seller in Porto, who takes Bat­ter­ham to lunch in a work­men’s caff, glee­fully tells his wife that ‘a fa­mous English dealer has been to see him “in rags” ’. Be­cause he tends to write to Howard dur­ing lunch, we need to imag­ine the im­pact on Bat­ter­ham’s lamb­swool sweater of var­i­ous soups and sauces.

His let­ters are of­ten about lunch. In the Mid­land Ho­tel in More­cambe in 1982 he has the set din­ner for £9, where the help­ings are not as large as they were in Carlisle the month be­fore. There he was given a ‘butcher’s tray’ of lamb cut­lets plus lit­tle di­vided dishes for roast po­ta­toes, beans, car­rots, onions, cau­li­flower cheese, rata­touille, green salad and chips.

Bat­ter­ham is not a nat­u­ral trav­eller. ‘It is quite hard be­ing here,’ he writes from Ham­mamet, Tu­nisia, in 1973, ‘although there is re­ally noth­ing to do.’ On this oc­ca­sion, he is the guest of a rich Amer­i­can called ‘Jean (pro­nounced Gene) Hen­son’ whose re­frain is ‘I knew them all; they all knew me.’

Jean, who is sell­ing some books, en­ter­tains Bat­ter­ham with his life story: ‘I’ve been lucky, David. And not just lucky. I’m in­tel­li­gent, an in­tu­itive an­i­mal… When I first saw Cocteau, I de­cided to se­duce him.’ David, not the lis­ten­ing sort, tries to look in­ter­ested.

His pared-down, melan­cholic prose never strains for ef­fect. Each sen­tence comes out at per­fect pitch. In Copen­hagen, Bat­ter­ham com­pares the flight of ‘hun­dreds of trum­pet­ing birds’ to ‘a vast, flap­ping wash­ing line of white shirts’. A book­seller in Lis­bon, where Bat­ter­ham buys a book about child­birth with ‘hand-coloured plates of wombs and tubes’, asks, ‘quick as a lizard catch­ing flies, for £4 in cash’.

From a café in Barcelona in 1976, where he is smok­ing a French cigar (‘the cheap­est brand there is’), Bat­ter­ham tells Howard about a Very Old Artist he has met called Ed­mond X Kapp, who was both Ed­mund Blun­den’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer in the First World War and the ‘only per­son for whom Picasso ac­tu­ally sat for a por­trait’. Kapp’s ac­count of paint­ing Picasso was, says Bat­ter­ham, ‘a barefaced mas­ter­piece of anec­dote’ – which phrase might equally de­scribe this rare and sin­gu­lar book, which will doubt­less soon also be a col­lec­tor’s item.

‘Would you be­lieve it? They’ve lost our lug­gage!’

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