Whenever I buy a second-hand book in which the previous owner has written his or her name, I reflect for a while on the unknown person who shares or shared some aspect of my taste in books.  

Usually the name is all there is, but sometimes there is a date or a place, and then I imagine the previous owner in that context.

Many years ago when I lived in Johannesburg  I bought an India-paper edition of “The Oxford Book of English Prose”, published in 1925. The inscription on the flyleaf is “To my very dear Daddy on his birthday September 8th 1926 – Leila”.  Leila’s handwriting is that of an adult, and I have imagined Leila and her elderly father looking at the book together and perhaps discussing some of its fascinating contents. Then on the inside front cover is the name of another owner: “Beckett, Parkwood, November ’48.” I imagine him as a no-nonsense person – no first name, no initial, just “Beckett”.  Below is my signature and the year – future owners won’t be able to make much of that, but more recently I added an embossed stamp (a gift from one of my daughters) which declares that the book belongs in my library!

In May this year I was visiting the seaside town of Deal, in Kent, England, when I went into a charity shop to look at the second-hand books. My eyes were drawn to a shelf containing a dozen or more old Pelican books – plain blue and white covers – in excellent condition, all of which dealt with historical subjects. As I looked through them I noticed that they had all belonged to the same person, Ronald Tidmarsh, in the early 1950s.

I bought three:  “Medieval People” by Eileen Power, “An Outline of European Architecture” by Nikolaus Pevsner, and “England in Transition” by Dorothy George.  Later, when I looked at the books more closely, I was delighted to find what I hoped were clues to who Ronald Tidmarsh was.

Tucked into each book, as bookmarks, were strips of programmes for concerts of the Exeter College Musical Society at Oxford University. When I put the strips together I found that they referred to a concert that had taken place in Trinity Term 1951. So, apart from history, another interest of Ronald’s was classical music. I was beginning to form a picture of him in my mind.

So I turned to Google and entered his name, and I’m sure I found the right man.

Bearing in mind the place where I bought the book, and the date of the concert, I think that the Ronald Tidmarsh who died at Dover in January this year was almost certainly the same man. I saw also that among donors to an old students’ fund at Exeter College in 2007 and 2008 was Ronald Tidmarsh.  I found book reviews by him in The Musical Times in 1957, and I felt that I learnt something about his character when I found a letter from him to the editor of The Musical Times apologizing earnestly for a date error in an earlier review.

Without any further evidence, I now have a mental picture of Ronald – a cultured man, a reader and careful book owner, a music lover …. and this is where imagination must take over. I see him in old age, a slender man with sparse hair, spectacles and a tweed jacket, looking out over the English Channel and remembering his days as a young student at Oxford more than 60 years ago.