The Old Boys’ Book Club

Part 3: by Race Mathews

My taste for the story papers of my father’s generation had the side effect of involving me for the first time when I was sixteen in the establishment of a new organisation – the Old Boys’ Book Club (Australasian Branch). E. S. Turner’s Boys Will Be Boys – published in 1948 and widely reviewed – was the first comprehensive account of how story-paper collecting was becoming a widespread hobby, with its own clubs and journals. Thanks to Turner, I was able to subscribe to Herbert Leckenby’s Collector’s Digest from York in England, Bill Gander’s Story Paper Collector from Manitoba in Canada and the distinctively American Reckless Ralph’s Dime Novel Roundup. Leckenby put me in touch with Bill Martin, a London milkman with a profitable sideline in supplying story papers to a worldwide clientele, and also with the secretaries of the London, Midlands and Northern branches of the British Old Boys’ Book Club.

Meanwhile, my local search for further copies of Chums and the Nelson Lee Library – and for the Magnets and Gems I had never actually seen – led me to the Reference Room at the Melbourne Public Library. The librarian to whom my inquiries were directed – Gordon Kirby – turned out to have a story-paper collection of his own, focused largely on weeklies for girls such as those featuring Billy Bunter’s sister Bessie and the Cliff House school. Gordon was also an aspiring playwright, who later had an adaptation of Zola’s Nana produced commercially by the Melbourne Theatre Company. Other local collectors I met included Sheila Stevens and Tom Dobson – respectively a PMG telephonist and a local postmaster – Howard Sharpe who worked for the Wright Stephenson pastoral agency and Don Wicks who was self-employed, perhaps as an accountant. A classmate of mine at Melbourne Grammar – Jim Merralls, now a QC – turned out unexpectedly to be a collector of the Union Jack and the Sexton Blake Library, which featured Blake and his boy assistant, Tinker. The upshot of all this was a meeting at my home on 24 August 1951, where the Old Boy’s Book Club (Australasian Branch) was formed. Don Wicks became the president, and I was the secretary. A regular meeting venue at the Victorian Railways Institute was acquired, four issues of the Old Boys’ Book Club (Australasian Branch) Newsletter were produced and corresponding members from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa were recruited. The Newsletter lapsed when I stepped down as secretary in 1952, but the meetings continued. The episode foreshadowed in the diversity of the ages and occupations of those involved and the manner of their coming together the establishment of the Melbourne Science Fiction Group with which it briefly overlapped.

Earlier on, in the middle 1940s, I had been introduced through the library at Grimwade House to Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives, Van Loon’s Lives by Hendrik Van Loon, Arkadi Gaidar’s Timur and His Team – an exotic Soviet import – and the Biggles and Gimlet books by Captain W. E. Johns. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Dickens’ David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby were other favourites, which I read repeatedly. A tobacconist in the main street of Middle Brighton operated a commercial lending library, where I borrowed thrillers by Leslie Charteris, John Creasey, Manning Coles and Denis Wheatley, and the Tarzan and John Carter novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. My father had given me Rider Haggard’s The Ivory Child and Alan Quartermain, and there was a circuit of secondhand bookshops – Bird’s, Hanley’s, Franklin’s and Hall’s in the city, Quaine’s in Commercial Road and Hall’s in Chapel Street – which I visited regularly in search of such harder-to-get Rider Haggard titles as Nada the Lily and Maiwa’s Revenge. At the same time, I was on the watch increasingly for the American comic books whose colour print so largely set them aside from their drab wartime British counterparts. Comics such as Captain Marvel, Superman, Batman, Torch and Torro and Green Lantern were highly prized at school, and jealously guarded by the relatively few students who had access to them through links with American servicemen or fathers whose businesses took them overseas. Such copies as found their way into the secondhand shops were usually priced at 2/6, which was my entire week’s pocket money.

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