John Walsh: 'How much for Janis's letters? Holy cow. Is rock 'n' roll the new literature?'

Tales of the City
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Collectors of modern first editions greet the arrival of a catalogue from RA Gekoski Booksellers with unusual interest. The man behind the Bloomsbury book-dealership, Gekoski is a voluble American academic, author, broadcaster, Coventry FC fan and Booker Prize judge, whose attitude to the second-hand book market is mischievous.

His catalogues often feature things which aren't strictly books, but have a physical association with a famous author. The most celebrated example offered buyers a (fully authenticated) lock of Sylvia Plath's blonde hair, snipped from her head when she was two. In the current catalogue, you can weigh the appeal of "seven hand-painted ceramic tiles" from Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell's hearth at Charleston, or a 1902 edition of Thucydides's Historiae owned by the schoolboy Kingsley Amis in 1939, or a menu card from London's Ivy restaurant, signed by guests at TS Eliot's 75th birthday party in 1963 (a bargain at £1500.)

Gekoski also deals in letters from notable authors: you can, from the new catalogue, acquire a charming letter written in 1918 by Joseph Conrad to a working-class fan, or umpteen missives sent by Dylan Thomas to his wife Caitlin and his mistress Liz. But one entry brings you up sharp: "Joplin, Janis, four holograph letters to her fiancé Peter J du Blanc."

Janis Joplin? The blues singer whose raspy-voiced renditions of "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain" were part of the soundtrack of the late 1960s? That's her. A note explains that the letters were sent by the tormented Janis after she'd moved home to Texas in 1965 to detox after two years living on the edge in San Francisco. The letters complain about her growing pains and plaintively hope "I look pretty enough to show to your family and friends." Sweet. But are these letters worth £12,750? What are they doing in a catalogue of literary classics?

Gekoski is defensive about including the defunct songbird among the Woolfs and Shaws. "It's a personal indulgence. I'm a big Janis fan. And no, I don't think she's to be bracketed with the literary stars because she wrote a few songs. But there's a market out there for letters from legendary musical figures." Would correspondence from Bob Dylan fetch five-figure sums? "Most certainly. I couldn't say more precisely what, without knowing the contents." I asked if letters from, say, Ozzy Osbourne, would fetch a high price for their extreme rarity value, but he wouldn't speculate. Instead, he sent me to Biblioctopus, the US rare-books website.

Book fans will scroll through this catalogue with jaws hanging slack. It offers a first edition of Sense and Sensibility (3 vols) at $80,000. You can snap up a first edition of The Last of the Mohicans for $50,000, and the first sighting (in 1843) of A Christmas Carol for $28,000. But all these giants of literature are eclipsed by a single scrap of paper: a page torn from a spiral notepad, it contains just 10 lines of writing in blue-black ink. It's the only known original handwritten first draft of "Lovely Rita Meter Maid" from The Beatles's Sergeant Pepper album in 1967, identified here as "the most famous album, and most identifiable commercial product, in the history of rock & roll" and is valued at $225,000.

Of course, rock memorabilia has been out there for years, regularly auctioned off at Sotheby's and Christies: all those burnt guitars, leather jackets, platinum discs and memorial plectrums. Song manuscripts have fetched some fancy sums under the gavel before now. But I've never before seen rock lyrics and associative letters invade the hallowed turf of first edition literature. Here's a tip. Next time you write a fan letter to Leonard Cohen, keep his reply safe and it'll make your fortune in years to come. Don't bother trying to get a response from Lily Allen. In First Edition Land, emails don't count.


Just in time for the Test Match on Thursday, Constable Books have brought out The Art of Sledging, a collection of the finest on-field cricket insults, edited by J. Harold. My favourite is the interchange between Aussie wicket keeper Rodney Marsh and our hero Ian Botham. As Botham reached the crease, Marsh welcomed him with, "So, how's the wife and my kids?" Botham replied, "Wife's good but the kids are retarded." Wal-lop!