MARTIN STONE : HEROES & VILLAINS

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The Independent Culture
Martin Stone hopped, pre-dawn, through the Cheshire street market, scavenging books. Winklepickers, tourniquet trousers, mildewed beret, bulging swagbag: Blind Pew impersonated by Max Wall. Cigarette grafted to trembling, prehensile fingers, he was an anthology of retro fashion. And in his wake there shimmered a vortex of gossip and, amazingly, goodwill. The stallholders, having been swiftly dispossessed of their choicest treasures, reminisced so wistfully about him that he was granted a prematurely post- humous status. His regular disappearances were eagerly anticipated: nobody speaking to him could believe he was actually there. Conversation seemed to be post-synchronised. If I now revisit Ron with his cargo of competitively priced publishers' "seconds", the first thing he'll say is: "Any news of Martin? Lovely feller." (By contrast, a baseball bat waits under the green baize for the advent of Drif Field, Martin's rival book-runner and spiritual contrary.)

Drif and Stone, the yin and yang of it. The cavalier and the squarehead. Sacred monsters. You can hear Drif's teeth grind if I call Martin "The Guv'nor". (Hard-bitten West Coast antiquarians rave about Stone's eye, his impeccable taste, even as they return to find the books they've paid for a year before still stashed under the table.) Drif's mistake was to go public, to start believing his own fictitious CV as the skinhead Evelyn Waugh, the punning diarist to a dying book trade. After that, you can vanish as often as Houdini and it makes no difference. Driving these boys around, I picked up enough material to let them write a book for me - White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings. Their lives were auditions: Drif, the good-hearted auto-didact with the dress sense of a bad PG Wodehouse dustwrapper, and Martin Stone, who dissolved into smoke as you listened to him.

Heroes to their chauffeur, they remained villains to plenty of others - stiff-necked creditors, innocents who thought a cheque was something more than an unsubstantiated autograph. Being of fixed abode, my sole function then was to field telephone calls: "I have absolutely no idea where Martin/Drif Field is at present. Try Yellow Pages."

I ran Martin everywhere: Holland, Belgium, France - an unsentimental education. I learned of the existence of MP Shiel and William Hope Hodgson, Uranian poetry, Sexton Blake novels penned by Flann O'Brien, shilling shockers, Cornell Woolrich, Queen's Quorum, Dope-Darling by Leda Burke (aka David Garnett). Martin was the occult historian of the book trade. He had to be a thousand years old. I pictured him bagging Oscar Wilde's library, punting Chatterton's forgeries, conspiring with Michael Moorcock to "discover" previously unpublished tales by Arthur Machen. Even on trains, he was always bumping into people like Elvis Costello (who, he reported, collected nothing but multiple copies of A Clockwork Orange).

Once, Martin talked me into writing off a distressed motor in a madcap dash to Bordeaux. He'd had a preview of a catalogue, first editions of Virginia Woolf, unimpeachable rarities. We had to beat the pack: away from Camden Passage and on to the road, toothpicks propping up our eyelids. The phone calls from sawdust bars were all bad lines. But we made it, steam hissing from a punctured radiator. One sad table of Book Club editions of Iris Murdoch. "No problem," Martin said, "we'll hit the Channel Islands."

Give him his due, it worked out pretty well - after the strip-search (Martin had mislaid some energy-giving medicinal compounds), and the Prevention of Terrorism forms. Jersey was a time warp: shopping malls of apartheid tat, brandy and cigars and perfume, backed up by miraculous books, sacks of them. Pre-First World War Ford Madox Fords in pristine jackets. Take away the expenses and the terminated hatchback and we almost broke even.

The pace began to tell: stomach ulcers, justified paranoia. Martin tried a shop. It was conveniently situated near King's Cross and opened only in the middle of the night so that he could call in to exchange suitcases. His modesty was such that it wasn't until he pounced on a Mighty Baby LP ("Britain's answer to the Grateful Dead") that I learned of his legendary past. "One of the two great guitarists of his era," announced rock archivist Brian Hinton. "Makes Clapton look boring and provincial." The Action, Savoy Brown Blues Band, Stone's Masonry, Almost Presley: whenever success threatened, Martin made his excuses and bowed out. "The game", he would admit, "has been annulled."

It had to be exile, Paris. Busking tourist cafs with a jug-band version of "Heroes and Prophets", swamp music. But his most poignant role was as doppelgnger for another reinvented spectre, Derek Raymond (the former Robin Cook). In neighbourhood bars, Martin accepted cognacs intended for Cookie, and graciously signed the proffered paperbacks. "Salud!" When the two men met, it was nuclear: twin X-ray Hamlets. They drank the City Airport, Silvertown, dry. Cook soliloquised on mortality, and Stone (like Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show) lamented the passing of the scavenger. Martin is one of the great repositories of urban memory. Without him, I'd never have found the path into Whitechapel for my first novel.

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