Monday, June 20, 2016

Pride Month Book of the Day: a most legendary abecedary


David Hockney & Sir Stephen Spender, Hockney’s Alphabet (Random House, 1st US ed., 2nd printing, 1992). ISBN 0-679-41766-4. An oversized, illustrated Alphabet drawn by Hockney, with comments inspired by each letter from over two dozen British and American writers, including a number of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. Originally produced to benefit AIDS Crisis Trust; all proceeds from this sale will be donated to Carolina CARE Partners, towards the same end. Hardcover, unclipped dustjacket, very good condition. HBB price: $75.

The author and illustrator spent decades among the least orthodox public figures in the Anglo-American orbit.

David Hockney, OM, CH, RA (1937- ) is one of the most influential British artists of the last 75 years, at home in painting, photography, stage design, and printmaking. Openly gay in the 1960s, he made a name for himself as the artist of upper-class Los Angeles, with men lounging in, and around, pools adjoining Modernist homes. A brilliant student at the Royal Academy of Art, he faced down the establishment and won: the RCA said it would not let him graduate in 1962 after he refused to write a required essay. Hockney replied that he should be assessed solely on his artworks, and submitted a drawing called The Diploma. The RCA backed down, and awarded Hockney his degree.

Sir Stephen Spender, CBE, the poet, novelist, editor, and activist, (1909-1995) was a confusing and irritating man to those who prefer their world- and its inhabitants- predictable and binary. His sexual orientation was fluid even by the standards of his time; he was a Communist for a while then edited a literary magazine the CIA funded, quitting in a huff when that was exposed, though he knew it all along. He was a British poet who, in 1965-66, was the American poet laureate. The holder of numerous academic posts on two continents, he joked of never having passed an exam in his life, and left Oxford without a degree.

A memoir by Spender’s son, Matthew, published in 2015, illustrates the shambolic spin of life in the Spender household:

At the heart of the book is a brilliantly paced account of the Spender family’s Christmas in 1956. [Author Raymond] Chandler has persuaded Natasha to accompany him to Arizona for a period of mutual recovery (his alcoholism, her whiplash). “You could lie in the big double bed and rest and I could feed you,” he tells her, though when she arrives and gets into his car the first thing he does is crash into a fence. While she is gone, Stephen invites Reynolds Price, an aspiring young writer, to spend Christmas with him and his children. For 10 days, Price entertains the family, while Stephen makes no mention of his absent wife. “If there was a Mrs Spender, where was she?” Price commented, looking back. Stephen is pleased to receive a letter from Chandler suggesting Natasha stay for longer, stressing the need for them to “get this girl well” together. He meanwhile suggests Price move in with him, so that they can take on the roles of Verlaine and Rimbaud and “go to the furthest possible degree of every kind of exploration and exploitation of one another”.

Despite what everyone thought they knew about Spender, he was constantly editing his own life and writings, and  in 1994 successfully sued the writer David Leavitt to remove fictionalized references to an affair Spender had with another man in 1933-36.


Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at For more information about any listed book, or more photos, please contact Lindsay at Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like. #RareBooks #HenryBemisBooks #HockneysAlphabet #DavidHockney #StephenSpender

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