Friday, January 20, 2012

Who was F.B.T.?- or: My Love Letter to Books, to History, and to the History of Books

A book can have the power to stick with us. Once it has served its immediate purpose and told its story, it can come to represent much more. With age it can become a reminder of the time in our life when we first read it. It can also serve as a tangible connection back to that time- for we have changed but it has not. Most of all, unless we trade it away or throw it out, a book tends to have a shelf life beyond almost anything else we use in our lives. Even if it just takes up a small space on our shelf and is otherwise forgotten, it still might physically remain with us for the rest of our life. So it's funny that when buying a book we rarely think about just how long it might live with us, or even after us.

Last year I decided to purchase a book of the poetry of Rupert Brooke, a young World War I era poet. I had discovered Rupert through a reference to his work in F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel This Side of Paradise which I had recently read. I loved Fitzgerald's book and I ended up loving Brooke's poems as well. First some background on Brooke: This great talent- scholar, writer, activist, an associate to the likes of W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, and even Winston Churchill, was cut down on his way to fight in the war he glorified in his best known poems- not in battle but of blood poisoning following an insect bite. However the fact he died on a Greek island in the Aegean only served to bolster his reputation as an almost mythic figure, an Adonis once called "the handsomest man in England".

Brooke died on the edge of his fame, his series of five sonnets about the war were widely circulating in England, striking a chord with a rush of patriotism which accompanied the outbreak of war. The sonnets culminate in his best remembered lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

This sort of sentimentality would eventually cause Brooke to fall out of favour as the savage waste of the war became horribly clear, but in that early phase of hope and excitement it was all the rage. Soldiers carried Brooke's poetry to the front lines and in the trenches with them, reading it for inspiration and as a noble reminder of why they were out there. It is with this background in mind that I recount my own tale in all this.

After purchasing and thoroughly enjoying a modern republication of his poems, I randomly decided to see what, if anything, might linger on eBay of this once renowned poet whose reputation has since abandoned him. One of the results intrigued me, it was a book of his poetry published in 1915 in the wake of his tragically premature death aged 27 (which happens to be my own current age). Though I already had a modern printing of the book, the idea of it with its plastic cover didn't quite hold up next to this history-infused book almost a hundred years old. Also, it had zero bids and was dirt cheap so what was there to lose? Nobody even outbid me and I got it for a shamefully low price, likely barely even covering the shipping cost.

The book came from a seller in England, and as soon as I got it I noticed that Inside the cover had been scrawled the initials "F.B.T.", the date "Jan 15, 1916", and the hopelessly cryptic word "Tanqueray". I was pleasantly surprised to see this link to the past within my new book- despite knowing its age this evidence of provenance complete with a timestamp somehow made it easier to appreciate its journey through history. The initials and date were obviously those of the original owner, but who could that be? And what on earth did that other word mean? I felt a bit like the explorers who returned to the site of the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island might have, finding that all the settlers had vanished and nothing was left but the opaque word "Croatoan" carved into a tree. It seemed the initials would remain a tantalizing peek into the past and nothing more. However, I still had one advantage that the Roanoke Island explorers did not- the internet.

I searching for the mystery word Tanqueray, the only real piece of evidence I had to go on. Perhaps it would turn out to be the name of a place or an otherwise forgotten word which had a less opaque meaning at the time. To my surprise I found it instead to be an uncommon last name. Of course the last name of the initials was also T, so perhaps I had the book of one "F. B. Tanqueray" in my hands? I turned to, which is a great resource for turning up names collected from cemeteries, especially military ones, across the globe. A search of the last name Tanqueray turned up a mere four people- one of whom was "Frederic Baron Tanqueray, killed July 1, 1916 in the Battle of the Somme"- six months after the date in the book. Was he F.B.T.?? It certainly made sense, and was an absolutely spooky discovery. With just some scribbles in the cover of my book to go on, I was able to discern exactly who might have owned it ninety-five years prior. Not just his name either, but a considerable biographical sketch and even a photo were found on this site.

I wrote to the bookseller with much excitement regarding my discover to see if he could add anything more. He had been collecting books for decades and unfortunately did not know where or when he had found this one, but that he often traveled around making purchases from shops and sales, including in areas not far from where Tanqueray was raised in Bedfordshire. This led to many other unanswered questions: How did Tanqueray originally get the book? Did he have it with him on the battlefield? Did he die with it in France? If so, how did it get back to England- and from there back into circulation? His biography helps to shed a bit of light, as it reveals Tanqueray was with his regiment at the front through the winter of 1915 into the spring of 1916. He signed the book, presumably upon receiving it, right in the middle of this period, so perhaps it was his family or a friend who sent it to him at the front. Tanqueray went home on a quick leave later that spring, so perhaps he had finished with the book and brought it home with him to England, leaving it there upon his return to France and his rendezvous with death. Did his parents treasure the book as a memory of him until their deaths in 1929 and 1932? Did one of his siblings keep it after that? Had its significance been forgotten a generation or two later and it was given away? Or did it leave the family in a different way all together? Of course this is all speculation, and the book is not prone to giving up any more of its secrets, but at least some of these guesses are highly probable. One last fact I know is that unfortunately he wasn't his family's only sacrifice to this cruel war, three of his first cousins were also killed in action.

Touch any old book and there is sure to be hidden stories within it that will never be known. Being that these stories have all passed into obscurity without a trace, it is impossible for us to appreciate what each book has seen. It was only because somebody a century ago wrote both his initials and his last name within it, and that a resource like the internet now exists, that I was able to discovery the hidden history within what is now my book. His little act of inscription has allowed for Tanqueray to be remembered again and for his story to be told via a medium he couldn't have imagined. It has brought me closer to this stranger across the century which separates us. While it is now my book, this makes me all the more cognizant that nothing is really ours, at least not for good. At some point in some way it will leave me, and like Tanquerey, I can't imagine who its future owners might be or how it will come to them, but I hope they appreciate it in the same way I do... and that someday they might give a thought to the book's litany of forgotten former owners, whose ranks by then I will have joined.