SORRY, WE ARE CLOSED AT PRESENT said the sign, hung in a glass door sprayed with cracks. But despite the opening hours chalked up on a black, cat-shaped board in the window (11.40–5.40), The Scientific Anglian, Booksellers and Scientific Consultancy, 30– 30a St Benedicts Street, Norwich, was closed for good.
It looked as though it might have been shut for years. The two large display windows were more strewn than stocked. A stranded, bleached copy of The Hidden Places of Nottinghamshire curled up in the left bay, covered with nuggets of plaster. Nearby lay an electric razor, plugged in, and a cat-shaped draught excluder. The overlapping, mirror-backed shelves of an almost empty display rack chopped the neck from my pygmy reflection. In the top corner of the window, a suspended pair of riding boots promised Three Shelves Of Horse Books. The only evidence of recent intervention was a clock showing the right time and date. In the right window, a lamp like a ship declared on its sailing shade We Buy Books. Inside Is Like An Aladdins Cave Of Hardback Books said another sign. Growing on the flaking front of the upper storey, two buddleia bushes shook purple spears over the street.
In fact, the shop had only just, grudgingly, shut down. Until June 2002, Norman Peake (no relation to Mervyn the novelist, despite local rumour), its 81-year-old proprietor, could be seen standing at the door, picking out change for customers from the pockets of his suit. He was legendary for knowing his way around the medieval city of his stock – its towers, alleyways and dens. Browsing by oneself, however, was something like taking an eye test on an assault course.
Driff’s, the defunct guide to Britain’s second-hand and antiquarian bookshops, described the shop as it was in the mid-1980s:
Much declined from its former glory, not always poss to get upstairs, depends on owner’s mood. He is alleged to be related to Mervyn Peake and the place is very Gormenghast. Perhaps he is Mr Flay. Dislikes dealers espec this one! The day I was there somebody had thrown a brick through the window. I already have the alibi prepared.
We Are Not Members Of The A.B.A. (the Antiquarian Booksellers Association) declared a yellow sign set in a neon hoop in the doorway’s upper light: Lapidemus Igitur Norvicences Cornices (Let Us Therefore Throw Stones at the Norwich Crows).
During the few years I knew it, The Scientific Anglian was perhaps most reminiscent of Mr Krook’s Rag and Bottle shop in Bleak House – where, Dickens says, ‘everything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold’. After my visit last year, I realised that I had unguardedly put down, and not picked up, a volume of the Sphere History of English Literature, just purchased from Oxfam. Inevitably, when I went back, it was nowhere to be seen – a small titbit to an insatiable maw.
Perhaps Mr Krook’s fate in Bleak House – spontaneous combustion – was at the back of the mind of the fire officer who finally insisted that the fuel-crammed premises cease trading, several years before its octogenarian owner had reckoned on retiring. Now, instead, Mr Peake was busy transferring the stock from his other Norwich property – an estimated 250,000 books, bought at auction and lured in by the ship-lamp over the years – to the St Benedicts premises, where he said that he would continue to live, with his cats, after selling off the contents.
The shop’s curious name, painted in white Gothic script on black across the shop front, was originally a combination of targeted messages. When Mr Peake moved to Norwich, the UEA – a mile or two away – was also about to open for business. It was expected at that time to specialise in agricultural studies, including geology. The ‘Scientific’ set out what he thought would be his stall; the ‘Anglian’ answered the charge that he was a ‘foreigner’, despite having been born in Essex. (A Norwich crow had told him that only Norfolk and Suffolk were really ‘Anglia’.) After thirty-five years in the city, there was now an occasional Norfolk inflection to his speech: ‘nearboy’.
Peake studied geology during the Second World War, but ended up working as a chemical engineer. He continued with geology as a hobby, and visited Norfolk on holidays, particularly at Easter, when the low spring tides allowed him to pursue his study of the chalk layer. He became an expert on chalk in the county, which was then regarded, academically, as ‘Cambridge’s back garden’. In 1960 he published the first account of Norfolk chalk, a work for which he ‘visited every conceivable hole in the ground, even rabbit holes’ – 340 in all – and explored the chalk tunnels dug under Norwich.
After that, Peake was regularly sought out to advise on the problems posed by these tunnels. In the early twentieth century a sleeping couple were suffocated when their house dropped into one overnight. More recently, a bus sank into the road where another caved in beneath it. One of his last commissions saw him lowered down three 150-foot holes in a cage, armed with a telephone and chisel, by the developers of the Castle Mall shopping centre.
He retained his passion for the substance. The basement of his shop was, he told me, solid chalk towards the bottom. And there was a building site up the road where they had just reached the chalk in their excavations. ‘I shall probably go and have a look at that tomorrow evening.’
We talked in the middle of the front part of the shop, Mr Peake parked squarely in the main gangway, while I sat on a stool in the narrow entrance to the Earth Sciences section. Short, white-stubbled, with thick, square glasses and various surviving teeth, he was dressed in an old tweed suit, dark-blue shirt and brown floral tie. Describing the geological underworld of Norwich, he sketched invisible diagrams with his finger down the spine of a cookery book called Creative with Cream. Behind him the labelled shelves ascended from Giles annuals to Nuclear Power – Weapons.
During the Cold War, Peake was a member of CND and the National Peace Assembly. He also belonged to the Communist Party. When his employers were taken over by an American company in the late Sixties, he decided to quit his chemical engineering job, fearing a McCarthyite witch-hunt.
He started the shop in 1967, moving up from Sussex and acquiring the Victorian premises from a greengrocer. The earlier name, Walkers Stores, is still visible, spaced down the seaweed-green tiles on either side of the Art Deco-era shopfront. In the Sixties the kiosk at the back, where regular customers came to settle their accounts, was still in place. Mr Peake recalled with relish a notice inside it on the subject of How to Sell Bacon. This featured a labelled dissection of a pig and a note advising the grocer, in case of maggots, to cut out the rotten area and sell as quickly as possible. Now the back room of the shop was dominated by a handsome wooden cabinet once intended for the sale of geological specimens – a sideline which fell through.
The Scientific Anglian was originally on three levels. The basement closed first, in 1974, when the ceiling was ruled too low to serve as a shop. The upper floor went next, in 1985, when two schoolboys started a fire by stacking open books face down (Mr Peake demonstrated with a copy of Biggles in the Orient) and inserting a firework beneath. It was shut for having no fire exit. Fire regulations finally closed the remaining ground floor, for lack of a rear exit, and for high shelves where over-reaching browsers might collide fatally with the fluorescent lights.
Even though the low piles of books once set out on the floor itself had been hustled away in an unsuccessful attempt to appease the safety inspector, the ground floor was still chock-a-block. The strange counter which ran down the centre of the shop was originally part of Walker’s Stores, its low, deep, slanted shelves – designed to display biscuit tins – packed with paperbacks. Around the walls, in amongst the bookseller’s wooden shelves, the grocer’s sturdy slices of marble were still visible, strata in the shop’s own geology.
The narrow ways between the tall shelves were awash with printed matter, other matter and dust, all monitored by a system of angled convex mirrors. In one of an infinite number of corners I found a squash racquet in a plastic bag, an orange safety helmet, a book on The Rise of Modern China and an ancient Midland and Great Northern Railway Ledger.
Between floor and shelves was an uncertain region of casual storage, an unstable moraine of (among other things) sunglasses, photographic slides, string, a scarf, a roll of brown tape, flat caps, maps, rust-speckled aerosols, shoe polish, sheet music, bulldog clips, a belt-buckle, a Real Ale beermat, a large scrap of floral pattern wallpaper, a badge which demanded Dogs Not Bombs, and a cat-food tin. Immaculate, outdated local bus timetables were kept in a pocket on one side of a bookcase, marked Do Not Remove. A pile of leaflets advertising dog racing years ago at Great Yarmouth Stadium lay on a lower shelf.
I asked about the plastic dinosaur skeleton suspended above our heads. Mr Peake explained that he liked to decorate the shop with symbols relevant to each section. There was a miniature ship’s wheel in the Nautical section, pressure gauges from a steam train for Railway, a desiccated crocodile’s head for Natural History, a cardboard cut-out Kodak girl in a bright yellow bathing suit for Photography. The dinosaur represented Earth Sciences. A bulbous anti-Zeppelin bomb was bracketed to the War shelves. These visual aids to navigation were, however, of less use in the latter years of the shop when – due to an increase in the average book size for certain subjects – the stock they represented gradually drifted to differently proportioned shelves.
Everything was labelled with little lettered stickers, black on white. The signs they composed had a distinctive humour – a mixture of irascibility and courtesy. A bulb dangles from a shelf in a little metal bowl-shade, the back of which barked More Light? Just Ask. One, below a genuine bee smoker – a conical contraption, dark with age, and fixed to the end of a book case – declared: We Regret That There Are A Number Of B – – Smokers Who Still Do Not Use The Ashtrays Which We Have Provided. It was, Mr Peake said, a ‘rather terrible joke’, although a metal ashtray, decked out with bright orange stickers, was accordingly provided – something else which must have given the fire officer palpitations.
Past the undecorated Poetry section (‘I couldn’t think of a symbol to represent Literature’) was a doorway which led into a corner bricked from floor to ceiling with Everyman and Similar titles. On the left a high square-paned window, veiled with dust, let a little prematurely aged light in from the street. Where the walls met, thick gossamer wefts connected the window to the books. To the right, stairs led to the upper floor through a ravine of books. Near the ceiling, an ear-like fungus extruded itself from a hardback copy of The Silence of the Lambs.
The shop was in an undeniably decrepit state, but its owner remained alert and active, despite a violent robbery seven years ago, which left him unconscious in a pool of blood. At some point, he told me, he would have to find the time to write a scholarly note to accompany the ‘Eel Pritch (Suffolk Pattern)’, which he was donating from his walls to a nearby museum.
A potted lecture. Eel-pritching was carried out in glass-bottomed boats by men who speared the eels in the mud with ‘pritches’. Pritches had backward-pointing barbed prongs, which made it impossible for the eel to wriggle off. The practice was outlawed in the early years of the twentieth century. This long forked thing was, said Mr Peake, the only example known of a commercially sold eel pritch, which were previously supposed to have been supplied directly by the blacksmiths to the eel-catchers. But his specimen’s thick black enamelling was proof of passage through an ironmonger’s, where paint was applied to prevent rust. Mr Peake bought it at the auction of a city-centre shop’s contents.
He seemed to have been a keen collector of local oddities over the years. Hanging next to the pritch was a strangely shaped ceramic grid, which turned out to be an unusual example of an insulator for laying electric wires, patented by a Norwich firm before guttapercha was employed.
As I took my leave, Mr Peake said, ‘My life has been so full of unusual things, if someone asked me to write an autobiography…well, it would fill a book.’ This prompted him to recall a witticism once lettered upon the Autobiography section: More Fiction Upstairs (And which reminds me, now, to mention that his History section started, decisively, From 1066 – Earlier With Archaeology.)
Peake’s cynical, non-conformist humour was also evident in the handwritten account of the shop’s battle with health-and-safety officials over the years, entitled FIRST FLOWERS – LAST STRAW and sellotaped to the split glass of the door. It ended with the municipal motto, NORWICH – A FINE CITY. But fine had been crossed out, and safe pencilled drily above it.
The shop is now a men’s outfitters.
Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).