In Swansea institutions don’t get more crustily venerable than the Royal Institution of South Wales. But people too can grow into institutions. Jeff Towns, the first speaker in the RISW’s new season of talks, can’t deny that he too is a Swansea fixture. True, he doesn’t go as far back as 1835, but since he opened his first second-hand bookshop in the High Street in 1970 his enthusiasm, knowledge and sheer ubiquity have earned him fame far beyond his beloved adopted city.
There was little in his family background, he said, to suggest the course of his future. There were no books in his house in West Ham, where he grew up. The only book he remembered his father reading at home was a volume hidden in a plain paper wrapper; this, it turned out, was the Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley’s lover. But his Welsh mother encouraged him to read in the local library, and a Welsh teacher in his school persuaded him to go to Cardiff to train as a PE teacher. Cardiff never grew on him – it never won me over either, in the fifteen years I lived there – but he discovered the allure of Swansea early. And he avoided becoming a PE teacher. The High Street bookshop was a complete shot in the dark. He had no previous experience of bookselling, and confessed that he learned the tricks of the trade from the long-established Swansea bookseller Ralph Wishart, ‘Ralph the Books’.
Gradually the name of Jeff Towns spread, and not just in Swansea. From the start he had a nose for good publicity. ‘Dylan’s’ was an obvious name for the shop, but it was also very appropriate, as Jeff’s Dylan Thomas interest grew into an all-consuming obsession. He set aside a corner in his early shops to feature new books on the poet. Eventually there was little Dylanalia on the market that didn’t pass through his hands – books and pamphlets, manuscripts, photographs, everything – and through him much important material found permanent homes in the National Library of Wales and other public bodies.
The shop moved about town according to the caprice of landlords – one of them was Michael Hesteltine. Its ‘classic’ location was in Salubrious Passage, where a well-known Dickensian cutout figure peered into the window, until he was stolen and Wind Street nearby became a ghetto for drinkers. Driff, the cantankerous compiler of an infamous directory of second-hand booksellers, thought he’d gone to heaven when he visited. Later the shop reappeared in Ty Llên, now the Dylan Thomas Centre and a pale shadow of the hopes originally invested in it before the Year of Literature in 1995.
Once he discovered the advantages of booksellers’ fairs Jeff travelled all over the globe, often in the company of regular companions, including the Swansea lecturer and bookseller manqué Malcolm Parr and the eccentric Eric Korn, polyglot, polymath and undefeated Round Britain Quiz contestant (until, that is, he encountered Swansea’s own walking encyclopedia, Peter Stead). My first business encounter with Jeff was when he suggested taking our rare first edition of JRR Tolkien’s The hobbit – the author had corrected by hand a misprint on the dust jacket – to be sold among the affluent former hippies and trippers of California.
This, of course, was long before the internet transformed the business of bookselling and placed all the economic trump cards in the hands of the online buyer. In a slightly sad coda to his talk Jeff lamented the end of antiquarian bookselling as he’d known it and the coming of a new era, when a purchaser can come into a bookshop, smartphone in hand, and make instant comparisons of prices with those of online suppliers, usually to the detriment of the owner.
Jeff closed the last of his shops, in King Edward’s Road (though it’s still there and full of books, he says) and gave up the round of big book fairs. But he didn’t turn his back completely on the bookselling business. He bought an old Wakefield Council library mobile library van and turned it into Dylan’s Mobile Bookstore. The van, packed full of books, turns up at fairs, festivals, the Uplands Saturday market and all kinds of other venues, and it’s a hard-hearted booklover who can resist a peek inside. An added bonus, if you’re lucky, is a chat with Jeff.
I suspect it’s since he’s been less tied to the shop that Jeff’s found time to pursue Dylanology to even insaner lengths, and become even better known through television and radio and book writing (his is the definitive published guide to the pubs associated with Dylan Thomas – not a particularly thin volume). He’s one of the outstanding ambassadors of Swansea, and one of its greatest adornments.
He’s also a man of great generosity. In his talk in Swansea Museum he acknowledged his debts to many people who helped him, and paid tribute to them. And before the talk started he took me to one side. He said that, remembering my harmless interest in the subject, he had a gift for me, a slim volume about the art of chairing meetings that he’d found in a library he’d acquired. The book has a home-made jacket, like Jeff’s father’s Lady Chatterley. Its cover is inscribed in fine italic copperplate by the owner: ‘The Chairman’s handbook, June 7th 1877’ (this is the first edition). Inside the owner wrote his own name and residence: ‘William Jones, Tynyrheol’.
Tŷ’n yr heol was a large early eighteenth century gentry house in Neath Road, Tonna. It’s now in ruins and the site is currently on the market as an ‘ideal investment’. William Jones was a solicitor – the kind of gentleman who might have found good use for a guide to chairing – contemporary newspaper reports mention him presiding over local meetings – and on the half-title he’s reproduced, again in his neat script, some highly complimentary reviews of the book (‘exceedingly useful, not only to novices in debate, but also to chairmen of experience’ – Stamford Mercury).
The author of The chairman’s handbook – its subtitle reads ‘suggestions and rules for the conduct of chairmen of public and other meetings, drawn from the procedure and practice of Parliament’ – was Reginald Francis Douce Palgrave, the Clerk Assistant of the House of Commons (his brother Francis was the Palgrave of Palgrave’s golden treasury). Palgrave spent virtually his entire career in the House of Commons, from 1953 until his retirement in 1900. A grim photo of him seems to show the scars. Not surprisingly he was an expert on Parliamentary procedure. It seems he was a thoroughly Establishment figure: according to the Dictionary of national biography, ‘officially neutral in politics, he was personally a strong conservative’. In his ‘introductory letter’ to the Speaker he praises the usages of Parliament, ‘the result of English common sense, acting with precision and uniformity for at least three centuries’.
Palgrave’s text reflects the confidence and certainty of his age. His prescriptions are almost invariably rule-centred, and there’s no difficulty, he suggests, that cannot be overcome by a well-sharpened procedural weapon. One chapter is entitled ‘The mode of putting the question upon amendments to amendments’, a topic I suspect seldom rears its ugly head in 2016. But there was clearly a demand for Palgrave’s sage words at the time: his book went through fifteen editions by 1911.
Palgrave died in 1904. I guess if he came back to life today he’d still recognise the use of at least some of his iron rules and arcane procedures in Parliament today. As a devout traditionalist he’d probably deplore the fact that meetings held outside that unreformed, moth-eaten and creaking institution no longer feel the need to stick to his prescriptions.