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T.F. Powys’s Favourite Bookseller, the Story of Charles Lahr

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Review

T.F. Powys’s Favourite Bookseller, the Story of Charles Lahr by Chris Gostick

Powys Heritage series, 32pp, £6.00 ISBN 978-1-907286-01-8

When I first met Charles (or Charlie) Lahr in 1967, four years before his death, it seemed appropriate he was running the bookshop of the Independent Labour Party, since in old age he had slipped back into the world of far-left groupings (the ILP having disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932) that had sustained him after his arrival in London in 1905. Born Karl Lahr in the Rhineland Palatinate, he had fled aged twenty to England to avoid military service, working in a bakery and then as a razor-grinder.

Throughout the interwar years, though, he owned with his wife Esther (née Archer, anglicized from Argeband) a notable bookshop in Red Lion Street, Holborn, much mentioned in literary memoirs of the period, becoming the firm friend of such writers as Hugh MacDiarmid, James Hanley, Liam O’Flaherty, H.E. Bates, Rhys Davies, Malachi Whitaker and Olive Moore as well as the painter William Roberts.  John Cowper Powys visited in 1929, noting in his diary:

Went to Theodore’s favourite German bookseller in Red Lion St and signed a lot of my books.  He is publishing a book of Lawrences wh is very rough & crude & violent and angry and plebian and obscene [Pansies]….He corresponds with Violet and gets them an honest penny by selling Theodore’s books (signed)  I gave him some roses for his wife. I liked him very much.  It was the smallest shop I have ever been in.

In the mid-twenties Lahr had published the six issues of the New Coterie for its three editors. Although (pace Chris Gostick) he had little if any editorial input, this was how he came into close contact with two contributors, D.H. Lawrence (by then in France) and T.F. Powys, whom he would visit several times a year in Dorset. Striking out entrepreneurially he began to publish off-prints from the magazine as strange, unglamorous limited editions, no fewer than five in the case of Powys, but one including an original story, ‘A Strong Girl’, together with a fine portrait drawing by Roberts. Christ in a Cupboard followed in 1930 as one of eighteen Blue Moon Booklets.

Another Blue Moon Booklet was Philippa Powys’s collection of poems, Driftwood.  Lahr also published the first volume of poetry by Laurence Powys, that is Francis Powys, Theodore’s son. To complete the connection with the Powys family, one needs to go further than Gostick does and say that in 1931 an essay by Llewelyn Powys was announced as a ‘Blue Moon Octavo’ (yet there couldn’t have been a worse time than at the trough of the Depression to launch such a venture). Llewelyn was to tell Kenneth Hopkins that Now That the Gods Are Dead was originally written for Lahr, although thirty years later Alyse Gregory corrected this to Glory of Life.

Gostick’s pamphlet is in general well-informed and well-researched. However, portions of text get repeated, and there are errors and misspellings: for example, the poet John Gawsworth appears as ‘Gawsworthy’ and P.R. Stephensen, Lahr’s Australian co-conspirator in his dealings with Lawrence, is repeatedly named as ‘Stephenson’. Few people who knew Lahr well are still alive and Gostick is understandably much reliant on the testimony of the two daughters. But he goes too far, captured by them in Lahr family wars in which they take the side of their mother, hard-done-by according to them.

Lastly, Gostick, while struggling valiantly with Lahr’s youthful anarchist activism, has no interest in the political dimension. Entirely missing is the distinctive – and unusual – politics of Lahr’s clientèle: ILP, anarchist, heterodox Marxist including (very importantly) Trotskyist. If Lahr can be said to have discovered any writers, they were not only Rhys Davies but also George Woodcock, the future historian of anarchism and leading man of letters in Canada, a tiny collection of whose poems he printed in 1938.  But Lahr also attracted Africans such as Jomo Kenyatta and the novelist Peter Abrahams, as well as two notable West Indian revolutionaries with whom he became intimate, George Padmore and C.L.R. James, the latter a commanding figure in Caribbean literature and thought.

David Goodway

From The Powys Society Newsletter, No 68, November 2009

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