Obituary: Donald Ireland

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The Independent Online
Donald Ireland was a bookseller of a type that did not exist fifty or more years ago. It may well be that he was the last of his breed.

He specialised in what "the trade" (the old-time antiquarian bookmen whose notorious bibli-myopia and inflexibility is only exceeded in terms of capacity by the prodigious greed of today's practitioners) loftily dismissed as inferior, not to say unsellable, goods: second-hand crime and detective fiction. Energised, however, by the example of the late Frank Vernon Lay, the groundbreaker in this particular enterprise, Ireland never found any difficulty in selling at all.

He bought in quantity; he sold in quantity, all over the world. His bookrooms (a double garage housing more than 15,000 books next to his house in Sherborne, Dorset, as well as two lock-ups rented from friends) were a Mecca for fans not only of the thumpingly obvious and (in the awful cant of those who buy as investments rather than reading matter) most bankable fictional detectives - Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Marlowe, Morse - but those sleuths of a more recondite appeal, for book buyers who actually read - Inspectors Cockrill and Purbright, Clifford Flush, Basil Willing, Gregory George Gordon Green, Miss Silver, Mr Budd; quantities more.

A big man, red-faced, with an all-embracing personality and, especially, laugh, Ireland had a curiously timid policy when it came to pricing his wares. Bargains on his idiosyncratically typed lists were commonplace. He found enormous difficulty in crossing the border from pounds 9.99 into double figures, his average price per book still around a fiver, however rare and desirable an item might be.

This was certainly appreciated by his many clients world-wide, particularly those from America who, on book-hunts through Europe, unfailingly ended up in his garage, rubbing their hands in glee at some choice, and absurdly cheap, book they might have been pursuing for decades.

His descriptions, it is true, could be maddeningly - on occasion excitingly - erratic. A mere "Good" could turn out to be practically mint; there were times, on the other hand, when "VG" hid a veritable cripple, sans fly-leaf, sans half-title, sans title-page itself. An anguished phone call invariably elicited an apologetic "Sorry, ol' boy, can't have looked at it properly. Just chuck it back".

Ireland was Gloucestershire born and bred: born in Gloucester itself in 1928 and educated at the Crypt School; later at St Luke's, Exeter. His "real" life was spent in education, at the sharp end of the private sector. For a long period he was Housemaster of Cobham House at Bromsgrove Junior School (a pupil was Nicholas Evans, the author of The Horse Whisperer). From 1975 until his retirement in 1989, Ireland was Assistant Head of Hazlegrove House, the junior school for King's School, in Bruton, Somerset.

His passion was sport; rugby, of all, a grand passion. Over a period of nearly 30 years he poured his immense knowledge and enthusiasm into a succession of highly regarded books, Rugger for Schoolboys (1963), Successful Rugby (1968), Rugby (1988, for the "World of Sport" series), and, with the England coach Mike Davies, The Science of Rugby Football (1985). He was a qualified rugby, as well as boxing, referee, a keen tennis and table- tennis player, cricketer and cricket-watcher. He could be seduced into doing pretty well anything in return for a couple of days under the elms watching white-clad figures walloping leather around.

Donald Ireland was not a greedy man. He was baffled by and deplored Thatcherite principles in the book trade and elsewhere, and his clients, many of whom became close friends over the years, will miss him. They will also mourn the passing of probably the last shifter of books on the large-scale whose business was at the same time a buyer-friendly cottage industry, rather than a slick commercial venture in which price is all.

Jack Adrian

Donald Culpin Ireland, teacher and bookseller: born Gloucester 5 August 1928; Assistant Headmaster, Hazlegrove House 1975-89; married 1952 Jean Whitteron Logan (two sons; marriage dissolved 1975), 1976 Monica Norrey; died Sherborne, Dorset 10 June 1997.

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