Obituary: George Sims

Anthony Rota
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:20

THE SON of a successful shoe importer and wholesaler, the bookseller and writer George Sims was proud of his grandfather's more plebeian role as a policeman on the beat in a tough London district.

Born in Hammersmith in 1923, and educated at the John Lyons School in Harrow, Sims was in his last year there when he met Beryl Simcock, the girl he married in 1943 and who later worked with him in his bookselling business. After a brief apprenticeship in Fleet Street, part of it with Reuter's, he was called up and served in the Intelligence Corps for the latter part of the Second World War. Even 50 years after, he scrupulously observed the provisions of the Official Secrets Act and revealed scarcely a thing about what he did at Bletchley Park, though it was known that he was liasing with a Phantom Signals unit which was behind enemy lines.

On demobilisation he wanted to be a bookseller, not a journalist, and went to work at Len Westwood's bookshop in Harrow before starting a business on his own account from a room in his father's house nearby, whence - as G.F. Sims - he issued the first of his always readable and highly informative catalogues. Then as later they were devoted to first editions, letters and manuscripts by writers of the last hundred years, especially some of the more recondite authors about whom and about whose books he could weave stories that sold the items under review. In 1952 he moved to Peacocks, a 1603 black-and-white cottage on the outskirts of the village of Hurst, between Wokingham and Twyford, which was to remain his home until he died.

Although Sims had many friends, especially among writers and his fellow booksellers, he was essentially a private and reclusive man. He had an offbeat sense of humour and could be a devastating mimic of mutual acquaintances. He did not suffer fools gladly: indeed it has been said of him that he refused to suffer them at all. One American dealer, constantly rebuffed whenever he tried to arrange to pay a second visit to Peacocks, once asked in exasperation, "How many times a year can Sims be having his bookroom painted?"

Sims put the well-being of his family first, second and third, and if this occasionally caused him to cut corners that was too bad. For example, for many years he kept a manuscript album in which visitors were asked - even pressed - to record their likes and dislikes. Then in 1981, without asking permission or giving a thought to questions of copyright, he produced Likes & Dislikes, a small edition of selections from it. Contributors who thought they were making private statements suddenly found their prejudices trumpeted abroad. Not all were best pleased.

As a writer Sims published several collections of poems and a dozen novels, the sales of the latter arguably suffering because the books were not easy to categorise. It was simple to dismiss them as thrillers, but they actually offered much more. Some won high praise from such excellent judges as H.R.F. Keating, Maurice Richardson, Roy Fuller (a friend) and even Evelyn Waugh. Common to a number of them were heroes, plots and backgrounds based on the world of rare books. Indeed his first novel, The Terrible Door (1964), was virtually a roman-a-clef, various characters being based on adaptations or amalgams of well-known book-trade figures of the day.

Sims researched his geographical backgrounds meticulously and his travels, whether for business or for pleasure, were carefully recycled in his novels, trips to Majorca, Grenada and California, as well as expeditions to less glamorous places such as waste processing plants, all serving their purpose in his fiction. When hearing of his next holiday destination his friends used to nudge one another and lay bets on the setting of the next novel.

He could convey scenes of menace very effectively. When one of his heroes was trapped in a blind alley by a bruiser representing the book's Mr Big, the heavy pulls on an old glove and says in a low, gravelly voice, "I'm going to hurt you, sonny."

Sims could write with a lighter touch too, a particularly funny piece being an exercise in wishful thinking about a typical day in an antiquarian bookseller's life as the bookseller might like it to be. He brushes off approaches from glamorous movie stars wanting him to build book collections for them regardless of expense, and then buys and sells two or three legendary rarities, all before going to lunch. Again, in "A Collector's Piece" (published in No 16 of The Saturday Book), the ultimate naive collector begins his boastful account of his assemblage of unrecognised forgeries and fabrications with the words, "I bought my first Shakespeare letter on July 1st 1954."

Also successful were Sims's four volumes of memoirs, beginning with The Rare Book Game (1985) and ending with A Life in Catalogues (1994; Sims was primarily a mail-order bookseller). The series was based on a lifetime spent hunting for rare books and manuscripts in out-of-the-way places. It chronicles his good fortune in stumbling on manuscripts by such writers as A.C. Benson and F.W. Rolfe (self-styled Baron Corvo); his dealings with various members of the Powys family and their circle; his visits to Richard Aldington in Montpellier, and to Eric Gill's widow and daughters.

His work and his enjoyment were closely bound up. Thus he loved taking long walks over the Dorset cliffs near the cottage of Alyse Gregory, surviving partner of Llewellyn Powys. Julian Symons became a friend after Sims bought from him papers of his brother, A.J.A. Symons. To a large degree the kinds of books he traded in were the kinds of books he read and reread for pleasure. He was interested in the lyrics of popular songs and would sometimes argue that Lorenz Hart was the folk poet of the 20th century. He was a serious student of the cinema and once planned a book about William Holden.

On his first visit to Dublin, James Walsh, of the booksellers Falkner, Grierson, asked him if he had been to Trinity College to see the Chester Beatty manuscripts. Apparently finding Walsh's well-meant advice patronising, Sims pretended to be a Philistine: "I didn't know they were for sale," he quipped.

George Frederick Sims, antiquarian bookseller and writer: born London 3 August 1923; married 1943 Beryl Simcock (two sons, one daughter); died Reading 4 November 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments