The Cambridge bookshop

Image: Cambridge University Press

There’s a spring-like feeling of optimism in the air this week in Cambridge, and it’s good to know that the city’s bookstores are opening again this month. One of them is the Cambridge University Press Bookshop at 1, Trinity Street, opposite the University Senate House. It has a claim to be the oldest bookshop site in the UK, as there have been booksellers there since at least 1581. In 1846 the owners Daniel and Alexander Macmillan employed their nephew Robert Bowes as an apprentice. He later became a partner in the business, and the shop became Bowes & Bowes in 1907. In 1986 it was renamed Sherratt & Hughes, then in 1992 the Press took it over, and turned it into the beautiful, light-filled building that it is today.

This historic Cambridge landmark features in a book that I reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement this week. Inventory of a Life Mislaid is a self-declared ‘unreliable memoir’ by Marina Warner, DBE. It’s an evocative account of how her Italian mother Emilia (always known as ‘Ilia’) and her English father Esmond met and married in occupied Italy in 1944, and the postwar years that they spent in Cairo with their two young daughters. Esmond Warner knew William Henry ‘Billy’ Smith, 3rd Viscount Hambleden, personally as they’d been at Eton together, and persuaded his influential friends at W.H. Smith & Son Ltd to set up business in Egypt in 1948: it would be the first overseas branch of the bookselling, newspaper distribution and stationery operation. Esmond became the manager of Cairo House, known locally as ‘the English bookshop’.

‘Opening a bookshop in Cairo after the war seemed a civilized idea,’ Marina Warner writes, but looking back, the colonial assumptions of the wealthy British abroad during that era now make her flinch. Her father’s character ‘was cadenced by the long, deep roots of the family in the empire’, she tells us. ‘I have been writing throughout my life in response to this background.’ Her parents’ comfortable ex-patriate lifestyle in Cairo was disrupted by an outbreak of rioting and mass arson of January 1952, and one of Warner’s earliest memories is of seeing the charred contents of her father’s beloved bookshop which was destroyed. The Cairo Fire ‘called time on a world and an era’, Warner observes. Soon afterwards, General Abdel Nasser emerged as leader of the insurgents and in 1956 he was elected president of Egypt. Soon afterwards, in the face of British and French fury, he took control of the Suez Canal.

The Warners moved to Brussels in 1954 and in 1959 came back to England, where Esmond became manager of the ‘handsome and historic’ bookshop Bowes & Bowes in Cambridge (W.H. Smith Ltd had bought it in 1953 and kept the prestigious name). Esmond loved running the bookshop, chatting with dons and students, and laughing what his daughter describes as his ‘long-cured, confident’ laugh. During the 1960s he opened two smaller branches of Bowes & Bowes in Trinity Street, one specializing in foreign languages, the other in sciences: ‘neither were profitable’ Warner writes, ‘and besides, shoplifting was a problem’.

While Esmond ran his beloved bookshop and grew his prize roses in their garden in Lolworth, Warner’s mother Ilia taught Italian to young people at a local ‘crammer’s’ and learned how to drive. On the quiet Cambridge roads of the 1960s, it seems that she was as eye-catching and beautiful as one of Esmond’s roses. ‘At the wheel of a Triumph Herald coupé, she cut a startling figure in what was then a provincial town,’ Warner recalls, ‘with her big sunglasses and a Hermès headscarf tied under the chin as worn by the Queen’.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 31 March 2021

Sources: Inventory of a Life Mislaid: an unreliable memoir Marina Warner (Harper Collins, 2021); Cambridge University Press Bookshop website (accessed 31.3.21); ‘1, Trinity Street’ on Capturing Cambridge website (accessed 31.3.21)   

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