On 3 June 1997 a small group of writers and other interested parties gathered near the bound catalogues, under Panizzi’s magnificently airy and light-filled dome, in the Reading Room of the British Museum. The new, long-promised British Library had already suffered any number of delays; by all the planners’ schedules the Reading Room should have been closed months before, its contents and purpose transferred to the new King’s Cross site. But any of those present could tell you why the old place had to stay open until this date. A visitor was expected – one whose original appointment had been made, rather surprisingly, a hundred years before, on 3 June 1897.
The person expected was a poet of the 1890s called Enoch Soames. Of all the great figures of the nineteenth century one might have wished to see at work in the Reading Room – Carlyle, Macaulay, Marx, Rimbaud, George Eliot – Soames was a peculiar choice. Max Beerbohm wrote, ‘When a book about the literature of the eighteen nineties was given by Mr Holbrook Jackson to the world, I looked eagerly in the index for Soames, Enoch. I had feared he would not be there. He was not there.’ In fact, the only record of the poet is in a long story by Beerbohm himself, published in his book Seven Men (1920).
I bought my copy of Seven Men in the late Sixties in a secondhand bookshop in Sutton Coldfield. The town had two second-hand bookshops, which both closed years ago, but I can recall every shelf and see titles, bindings and jackets in eidetic detail. I suspect many other lovers of books have this useless but comforting gift, even if they spend half the morning trying to remember where they put their glasses. Seven Men had – has, it’s on the desk beside me – a navy blue cloth binding; on the front cover of my copy, like a partial eclipse of the moon, is the white imprint of the base of a teacup. It is the 1920 second impression of the first edition and on the front free endpaper is the signature of a Francis T. Bellin, followed by the date ‘1922’. When I got it the pages were uncut: Mr Bellin had missed a treat.
The author of Seven Men was consistently self-derogatory in an engaging way. His forebears were Lithuanian but, born in 1872, he was brought up in a classically English upper middle-class way, going to Charterhouse and then
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