The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
Hill: man of books

Edited by John Saumarez Smith,
Frances Lincoln, £ 12.99

Lovers of London who are also book-lovers know of Heywood Hill's bookshop on Curzon Street. In a market dominated by giant chains like Borders and Waterstones, this quaint shop in the heart of Mayfair has fiercely retained its independence and has its devoted clientele.

Heywood Hill, an old Etonian and a contemporary of Cyril Connolly and Harold Acton, set up the shop in 1936 after an unsuccessful career in the City. His initial capital was '2,000, which his father lent him.

One of the great attractions of Heywood Hill's shop was the fact that for a period in the Forties, Nancy Mitford worked there. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that a customer, having bought the books he wanted, waited while Nancy finished her telephone conversation. Before leaving, he said, 'Less of darling and more of service would be welcome.' Her presence in the shop made it a place of animated gossip of the London set.

Nancy Mitford became one of the closest friends of Heywood Hill and his wife, Lady Anne (n'e Gathorne-Hardy). Nancy and Heywood wrote to each other regularly even after the former had stopped working in the bookshop and was living in Paris. Some of these letters from the period 1952 to 1973 have been brought together here by the editor who has spent his working life in the bookshop and is the zealous guardian of its independence. This book is the remembrance of a rare friendship and tribute to an unforgettable bookshop which brought together so many memorable personalities.

The letters are light, even frivolous; some are even outrageous because of their irreverence. Some of them are full of gossip, which is rarely malicious. It is crucial to place the importance of gossip in the ambience which determined the social life of the Mitfords and the Hills. Guy Burgess, who came from this ambience and continued to buy books from the bookshop even when he was in Moscow, confessed to the actress, Coral Browne, in a rare meeting in Moscow, (a meeting captured by Alan Bennett in his play, Englishman Abroad) that what he missed was gossip. Gossip was a form of socializing, of keeping up with news about friends and of stopping oneself from taking life too seriously.

The letters often had biting social comment directed at upstarts not part of the set. Here is Heywood Hill in 1955 reporting back to Nancy: 'Anne & I went last night, with ghastly groans, to a thing called 'a post-prandial punch party. Black tie. 9 till 11', at some people called Hanbury-Bateman' [we] stood for a hideous two hours being made to drink boiling gum and shriek at the new rich refined neighbours. Mrs Hanbury B seemed to be wearing a satinette bathing costume.'

At the heart of the letters is, of course, the bookshop. Underneath the frivolity is a deep and abiding love for books. The epilogue records an irony that would have made Nancy shriek. Through an odd misunderstanding, neither Lady Anne nor Heywood Hill attended Nancy Mitford's funeral on July 7, 1973.

Email This Page