Library Stories: Peter Huffam

In Library Stories we investigate the tales behind your book collections and book rooms, visiting the homes of Folio members, collectors and enthusiasts from around the world. If you have a Library Story you would like to share, please email us at social@foliosociety.com.

This month we speak with Peter Huffam. Widely travelled with an array of interests, Peter is an English lecturer, former magistrate and, as we recently discovered, a successful fashion entrepreneur – as well as being a regular at the Folio Bookshop here on Eagle Street. He has an excellent collection of Folio editions, and a well-considered library, built up since 2000. 

FS: First of all, tell us a little about your library …

PH: This room in my Whitley Bay family home is, in lots of ways, imbued with emotion and biography. I returned home, after working abroad for a dozen years and purposefully wanted to construct a haven, a refuge – call it what you will – to reflect my travels, which was this lounge, a conscious self-curation. My brother jokingly refers to it as my grotto because it has a certain ‘packed to the gills’ Aladdin’s Cave quality.

DSC00939_lowresFS: And when did you start collecting Folio editions?

PH: The first one I saw was in the Observer magazine, an ad for The Lord of the Rings in about 2000. I’d read The Hobbit as a boy and I thought, should I buy the leather-bound gilt-edged one as a nice collector’s piece, or even an investment …? After that the collection was built up essentially over six years while I was working in Newcastle and has been supplemented since on an ad-hoc basis – I returned overseas for a further four years before relocating to my hometown, London. So far, I must have over 300 Folio volumes.

These [pictured] are what I see as my core collections, although I can always see the gaps. I’m not an obsessive completest, however. I love Bob Dylan, for example, but I don’t have to have every last bootleg!

FS: We often talk about libraries being a reflection of your experiences …

PH: Yes, I spent 16 years in various foreign locations across the world as an English lecturer and researcher, and my library has certainly incorporated a reflection of those disparate locales. I began my travels in Turkey, near Istanbul and Izmir, and since starting collecting Folio editions I have invested in John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium set, Lord Kinross’s Ottoman Empire and the recent The Fall of Constantinople, 1453. I would love to see you complete the Patrick Leigh Fermor London-Istanbul trilogy, A Time of Gifts being a reread favourite of mine.

huff1I also spent a couple of years in eastern Germany, based in Erfurt near Weimar. Buchenwald concentration camp lies between the two and I worked on the updated English guidebook to cover the Soviet era and I also visited Colditz Castle; your new edition of Pat Reid’s Colditz was, therefore, an immediate buy. I also found it fascinating exploring the German attitudes to their past, particularly in east Germany after reunification. I have editions of Churchill’s World War II histories, Shirer’s landmark The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Primo Levi’s accounts, as well as many WWI volumes and ‘Boy’s Own’ wartime accounts such as Ill Met by Moonlight.

Reflecting four years spent in Taiwan and Hong Kong – straddling the handover period – I have the History of Chinese Civilisation among my East Asian titles. Four years residency in Cape Town is represented by Coetzee’s Disgrace – in my mind, sadly, quite an accurate reflection of modern South Africa – and South America by Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude. I would love to see you do more ‘magicical realist’ literature from that part of the world, having been at my happiest living in Brazil. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy – and replica lion bookends from the New York Public Library – mark my time in the US.

DSC00928FS: You’re a regular in the Bookshop here in London, but where is your library based?

PH: I don’t have any books in London, where my working life is based; all of them are kept in Whitley Bay. I think of it as my retirement library as, reflecting the speed of purchases, I haven’t had time to read many of them. It’s not just books, it’s music too – my CD collection is also up there.

FS: Where do you think book collecting started for you?

PH: My Dad was a keen reader. He used to go down to the South Bank where they have all those open second-hand cabinets of books, still there today, and buy Readers Union hardback editions and later many well-loved BCA volumes such as Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, recently repurchased as a Folio edition. I was thinking, ‘Well, Dad would have done this sort of thing, so there’s sentiment and continuity there with a family tradition of book collecting.’

lionsFS: Is there anything you would like to see in a future Folio edition?

PH: I’m a big Murakami fan. I can imagine the fanciful illustrations for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. Also, Laurens van der Post’s The Seed and the Sower, which essentially became the film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, is, I think, a compelling read with lyrical evocations of the South African veldt – the bouncing springbok, farmstead and stoop. I love those descriptions of a home suited to a landscape imbued with spirituality. I would love to see this in a Folio edition, again for the illustrations, as there’s also a memorable visitation of Christ in Palestine. I’m a sucker for nostalgic vintage travel posters, and I have one of ‘Visit Rhodesia’; the dreamy sunflower-yellow sunlight swirls are just gloriously mesmerising.

DSC00937FS: And do you have a favourite Folio edition?

PH: The large-format Paradise Lost with Blake illustrations, ditto the Dante trilogy. This, for me, is what Folio does best – they are magnificent. Also, as a big fan of the British Museum, your Tomb of Tutankhamun and Pompeii titles stand among my favourites – they sit between the British Museum ionic column bookends. They recall fond early memories of a family visit to file past the boy king’s mask in 1972.

FS: What we have spoken about in previous interviews is libraries being an extension of your memories. Do you agree with this?

PH: Absolutely. I created this collection as a form of autobiographical self-curation, from literature at school and university to professional interests and travelogue – for me, not necessarily for anybody else. It’s my own little world to escape to – the room comprises juxtapositions of eclectic, though complementary, objects and images – I feel it’s a thematic, cohesive whole. I say ‘curate’, but in some ways it wasn’t conscious; I simply wanted to construct a familiar homely environment, and memorabilia is part of this. If you’re stripped of your memories, who are you? I came back to England with purpose, to construct such a haven, which I did one shelf at a time …

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