James Roose-Evans on the diaries of Fred Bason

Sam Pepys from Walworth

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It was the second-hand book-dealer Malcolm Applin, whose catalogue I find always opens doors and windows, who first introduced me to the Cockney bookseller and writer Fred Bason. Fred had been encouraged to keep a diary by James Agate who told him, ‘Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.’ It was, however, his friend and mentor, Arnold Bennett, who gave him the most valuable advice when he told the young Fred, ‘Talk it, then write it. If you say “ain’t” or “Cor, luv a duck!” then put it down just as you do in ordinary conversation. And that will be your style.’

Fred was born in 1907 and at the age of 16, without any education or help of any kind, he set out to become a bookseller, wheeling his barrow daily from Walworth to Bermondsey. He also began collecting autographs of the famous, building up a collection of over 12,000 signatures. Clearly there was something out of the ordinary about this young autograph-hunter which caught the fancy of such writers as Arnold Bennett, James Agate, John Drinkwater, Stephen Graham, Walter de la Mare, L. A. G. Strong and many others.

It was in this way that he met and was befriended by the writer and illustrator Nicolas Bentley who, learning that Fred had kept a diary since he was 14, asked if he could make a book out of it for him. In his introduction Bentley wrote, ‘Against all odds, and by sheer force of ambition . . . Fred chose to be a second-hand bookseller, to which trade he has obstinately stuck through all hazards. His diary is a record of hope triumphing over poverty, hunger and unemployment.’ When the first volume was published in 1951, it was hailed in the Spectator as ‘a vernacular classic’. It went into two editions and sold over 10,000 copies.

The following year a second selection was published, edited and introduced by L. A. G. Strong, who described Fred as ‘a born writer’ although, like Bentley, he had had to struggle with endless scraps of paper, notes scr

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About the contributor

James Roose-Evans has adapted and directed Helene Hanff ’s 84 Charing Cross Road in the West End and on Broadway, and edited Darling Ma, the letters of Joyce Grenfell to her mother, as well as her wartime journals. His own memoir, Opening Doors and Windows, is now available in paperback.

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