Background colour 2: Cecil Torr

Our storyboard included this foot’s-eye-view of Joe passing a pile of books, so I set to work gathering some from nearby shelves. The Complete Book of Budgerigars was selected for the comedy of its title; the book on the Raj was chosen for its ornate red and gold spine. But the third book down in this pile was chosen for a rather different reason.

I had spotted it earlier that morning, whilst standing behind the camera in Baggins Book Bazaar, preparing a take. As the actors took their marks and the equipment was set up, my eyes drifted idly over the spines of the nearest shelf, before I suddenly realised what one of the titles was. I waited for the take to be completed, checked everyone was happy with it, then reached immediately for the book. As I have said before, filming in bookshops is fraught with wonderful distractions.

Small Talk in Wreyland was first published in 1918, and is quite an obscure and unique book. It comprises the musings, anecdotes and reminiscences of its author Cecil Torr, who lived in a small cluster of thatched cottages known as Wreyland, just outside the picturesque village of Lustleigh in Devon.

The book unfolds like a fireside conversation; Torr flitting from topic to topic, rarely exceeding a couple of paragraphs before pursuing some tangent or other. The result is neither autobiography, nor stream-of-consciousness; lacking coherent structure but nevertheless absorbing. Peppered with extracts from Torr’s family letters, it paints a quaint and often amusing portrait of this small Devonshire population across the late nineteenth century and up to the First World War.

Many of Torr’s anecdotes relate the amusing observations, quotes and misadventures of his neighbours. And here’s where the book’s sudden appearance during filming of The Last Bookshop struck a curious note of coincidence. Because during the nineteenth century, the small population of Lustleigh included ancestors of mine. Most of the names are censored in the text, so reading it has a tantalising genealogical effect – is Torr gossiping about my forbears?

I own a smart, neat 1996 reprint of Small Talk in Wreyland, and so the frayed beige copy I spotted during filming leapt out at me as a far older edition. When we broke for lunch, I gave it a couple of minutes of my attention, and was amazed to discover a yellowed old newspaper clipping, slipped between the pages by a previous owner. It was Cecil Torr’s obituary. Torr died in 1928. It never fails to amaze me how long things can be preserved between the pages of books.

Encounters like this are all part of what makes a visit to a second hand bookshop so enjoyable. No website or online catalogue can ever synthesise the thrill of biblio-archaeology. That’s why I made sure that the script for The Last Bookshop included a taste of this, by having the Boy discover an ancient bank note and reading a Victorian inscription.

Attentive viewers may also have noticed that the book pile includes a white paperback entitled A Portrait of The Arsonist as a Young Man. This pun-tastically titled novel was written by Andrew McGuinness, one of my creative writing teachers at the University of Kent. Back in 2009 The Bakery produced a semi-dramatised interview feature about the book for BBC Radio Kent. We thought Andrew might be reassured to know that his novel, though out of print, will survive the decades and end up among the world’s final remaining books, inside The Last Bookshop.

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2 Responses to Background colour 2: Cecil Torr

  1. Roger Alford says:

    I have just finished re-reading Cecil Torr’s Small Talk at Wreyland. I still find it entertaining and consoling, with roots deep in the Devon countryside and its history. He was a great traveller with an almost professional interest in the ancient world and I would like to read his obituary to know more about him. My copy is the 1926 abridged edition and is inscribed as a Christmas gift in 1973 from Lionel Needleman, a colleague at the London School of Economics, who took great pleasure in the book and wished me to share his enjoyment.

    Roger Alford

  2. Thanks for stopping by our blog, Roger.

    I’m glad to hear you also enjoy Torr’s charming book. Your 1926 copy may well be the same edition (or similar) to the one I discovered in Baggins that day.

    Torr was indeed a great traveller. I was delighted to be reminded, when recently dipping into my copy, of Torr’s account of recognising Oscar Wilde in a hotel in Naples in September 1897; despite the great author booking in under a pseudonym (Sebastian Melmoth, I gather). Reading this, it occurred to me that Wilde would have been very recently out of prison, and only a couple of years away from the end of his life. It is typical of Torr to include such an historic encounter alongside the book’s more wonderfully trivial topics, such as neighbourly disputes about field boundaries.

    The obituary clipping was pretty comprehensive. Its previous owner evidently considered it interesting enough to warrant preservation within the pages of the book, where it remains 80-odd years later. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if both the book and the clipping were still sitting on a shelf in Baggins Book Bazaar. So, if you’re ever in Rochester, Roger…

    Thanks for your comment. Do please pop by again!

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