How many of us now remember the National Book League? There are not many ‘leagues’ left; the League of Nations went the way of the Band of Hope. The NBL emerged in 1944 out of the National Books Council, celebrating league status by acquiring the following year the former Grillon’s Hotel in Mayfair – 7 Albemarle Street, across the road from John Murray’s. The council had been a well-intended publishers’ talking shop; the league became, rather, a centre for the promotion of books and the book arts, a venue for important exhibitions (‘Children’s Books of Yesterday’, English poetry in first edition, Victorian fiction, Bernard Shaw at ninety) and an active partner in the Festival of Britain.
I joined it as a member when I was still at school, not so much for the bar and buffet as for the Book Information Bureau. In 1969, when Jack Morpurgo, stepfather of the author of War Horse, was still director-general, you could write in for reading lists. They posted me back fat bespoke typed lists of books on Scott and Stevenson, with their publishers and prices (in shillings, from the 1930s) – and a list of thirteen secondhand booksellers specialising in Scottish life and literature, none of whom is still in business.
No 7 Albemarle Street was the site, in June 1958, of the first ever antiquarian book fair held in Britain. Twenty-eight booksellers set up for two weeks, every day except Sunday. It must have been mind-numbing. But they came back the next year. In 1959, thirty-nine sat it out for