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John Sard.... John Who?

March, 2012
By Michael Pixley

In January 1999 I happened to be included in a small and very discreet diplomatic mission sent to the western Balkans.  The purpose was to find ways to minimize, if not prevent, a war engulfing various parts of Yugoslavia (then in a state of collapse) against the looming involvement of NATO.  The weather was fairly wretched and the wind was so severe one night that it actually dislodged several twenty pound tiles that formed the roof on my extremely modest  “house”.  The rain poured through the opening and I watched in silent awe as a large stream of water coursed its way downward guided by the wires that secured the single light-bulb in my room. The water flowed over the lit bulb (which did not explode) and cascaded precisely into the middle of my bed.  I spent the rest of the night in my sleeping bag on the floor.  This and other events eventually led me to a small book store in Rome…

As the rhetoric heated up, it was decided in February that we should be evacuated and I eventually ended up in Rome with orders to stay there until it was decided whether or not to return us to the Balkans.   And there I was, stuck in Rome for a week with nothing to do except wander the Eternal City on foot each day agog at the wonders it held (also eating very well, thank you very much – diplomacy is not always about hardship…) .  My ramblings eventually led me to a marvelous bookstore where I spent several hours in paradise.  The owner eventually led me to a section dealing with the Middle East and among the truly dusty books, I chanced upon a rather odd volume in French dating from the late 1700s.  I never formally studied French (or Latvian for that matter) and tend to treat it as badly spelt English, beautifully pronounced.  I could only conclude that the book was a novel dealing with a late 15th century Ottoman sultan, Bayazit II.  The asking price was $100 and I readily paid it.

         By late February, I was back in the US with my strange book.  I made several (feeble) efforts to track down information on the book, all of which were futile.  Eventually, I visited  William O'Neill, a retired army colonel and a well-established specialist on books dealing with the eastern Mediterranean, in particular Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.  He, too, was mystified by the book but offered me $200 in trade:  I accepted and walked away with a half dozen books that I had at least heard of.  Several months later, I was back at O'Neill's and spied my book on his desk.  Out of curiosity (aka nosiness), I opened it and saw more than a dozen pencilled annotations in Bill's writing on the front pastedown page: “Not in A”, “Not in B”,  “Not in C”  (you get the  picture.)  What impressed me was the thoroughness of his research.  What depressed me was my own lack of resources or the knowledge that they even existed.  Later I was given to understand that the book ended up in the shop of a prominent London dealer at a rather nice price for O'Neill: one mark for O'Neill, nil for me.  But I learned a lesson: do the research, however long it takes.

That lesson came to mind when I acquired yet another odd book from an obscure auction house outside of the US.  There was little interest in the book and I purchased it for a very reasonable price. The auction listing had, moreover, described the book as “autographed by the author.”  When it eventually arrived, I began to examine the usual sources (I had learned a few things since 1999).  The author was John Sard and the book he had compiled was entitled  “Journal of a Tour Through France, the Mediterranean, up the Nile and Back to England by way of Turkey, Austria, Prussia, etc. etc.”  and published in 1852 in the city of Leamington.  The publisher was listed as one “Richard Russell, Albion Office.”  Well, so far, so good.

The first thing I noticed was that the title page described the author as the “Lat John Sard.” (!)  Barring a miracle, it was therefore highly unlikely that he had returned post mortem  to sign this copy (although in seeing the inscription, I could almost understand why someone made that error).  Since I enjoy research in general, I began my quest by first searching standard on-line listings such as the Advanced Book Exchange (Abebooks) and “Bookfinder.”  To my initial surprise, I found no records of this title. Then I turned to some fairly standard reference sources (more or less) that covered the book’s subject matter. First I glanced through the excellent reference book by Shirley Howard Weber, Voyages and Travels  in the Near East made during the XIX Century,  (Princeton, 1952).  Ms. Weber had been the librarian at the Gennadius Library in Athens for many years and her bibliography includes brief descriptions of around 1206 books.  Mr. Sard, unfortunately, was not included.  He was also not included in the Blackmer bibliography or in the catalogue of the Hopkirk library. This was starting to become interesting.

Now it was back to basics.  I had the name of the author, the book's title, location of publication and the name of the publisher: somewhere there simply had to be some information on this strange title.  And so I began an on-line search with remarkable results: namely….nothing.  There seemed to be no trace that a John Sard had ever existed and no record anywhere of his book. Leamington appeared to be but a town famous (or not) for a spa, somewhere near Warwick in England.  As for the publisher, Richard Russell….again no trace.   More out of curiosity than a sense of optimism, I looked through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (zero) and also Burke's Peerage: no joy whatsoever.   This was now more than interesting: it was becoming positively tedious and I began to wonder, if only idly, if there had been a witness protection scheme in place in the nineteen century…

Having done some “original cataloguing” at the University of Washington in the early 1970s, I recalled the old National Union Catalogue (NUC) which was a printed repository recording the holdings of essentially all major libraries in the US.  This, I quickly learned had been replaced by the OCLC. Established in 1967, the OCLC equaled the Ohio College Library Center which had been transformed into the “new” OCLC:  the Online Computer Library Center (how, when or why I do not know).  This entity included the contents of some 72,000 libraries in 170 countries and provided data on around 1.5 billion items.  In other words, it was (or is) rather complete.  Access, I quickly learned, was limited to institutions: riff-raff need not apply. However, there was someone with access close at hand: the Anne Arundel County Public Library (AACPL).  I quickly fired off a note to them and, to my surprise, got a name and number of a human being in that system who would be very pleased to assist me (in this day and age, that is a rarity).  I immediately contacted  the telephone number I had been provided and had a delightful conversation with a certain Ms. Cindy Hackett of the AACPL.  She was intrigued by my quest and provided me with information within less than 36 hours.  I first learned that her search of the OCLC had yielded no results: in other words,  my book was not contained within the Library of Congress, the British Library or within the 72,000 largest libraries in the world.  Undaunted, however, Ms. Hackett decided to delve into a repository of data I knew nothing about:  Google Books (why that was not searched when I initiated my on-line search), I do not know).  She was pleased to offer me the following about the mysterious Mr. Sard.  This first snippet of information was, moreover, obtained through a search of a wonderfully obscure publication: “The Household Narrative of Current Events (for the Year 1852), being a monthly supplement to Household Words, conducted by Charles Dickens.  London:  Office 16, Wellington St. North.” Here is that account:

An inquest on Mr. Sard, a gentleman who was Drowned by the sinking of the Duchess of Kent, but whose body was not found for sometime, was concluded on the 11th inst. Much conflicting evidence was given , as to the cause of the disaster. A solicitor complained (of the conduct of the Commercial Steam-packet Company Tin not notifying to Mr. Sard's relatives that they had property of his in their possession. The jury referred (to this in their verdict—"That the deceased  John Sard e£me (sic) by his death through an accidental collision between the Duchess of Kent and the Ravensbourne steamers, off Northneet, on the 1st of July, 1852. The jury cannot separate without expressing their feelings in terms of strong condemnation, in consequence of the neglect of the owners of the Duchess of Kent in not advertising the property of the said John Sard in their custody, they having had the means of ascertaining the same from papers found in his luggage which was saved from the wreck.

Ms. Hackett also managed to obtain an even more obscure reference to Mr. Sard as published in “The Gentleman's Magazine”, volume 193, (New Series, 1852) by Sylvanus Urban; p. 322. “Drowned in the wreck of the Duchess of Kent, Ramsgate steamer, aged 51, Mr. John Sard, of London, who, after travelling in foreign climes for many months, perished within a few miles of his native home.”

And that is essentially that.  On more than a few occasions since receiving the help from Ms. Hackett, I tried again and again to tease out more information on Mr. Sard.  He has eluded me completely, as has any other data on his book (no doubt a vanity publication).  All I was able to infer is that Sard’s papers were rescued from the wreck, possibly by a relative.  Since the book was published within five months of his death, that thoughtful individual probably decided to find a local publisher who would print the book immediately instead of waiting months, if ever, for a more well-known publisher in London (say, John Murray) to assume the task.  That, however, is sheer speculation.

With little to show for my efforts, the next task was to list the title on the internet.  In view of the rarity (and here that word is appropriate) of this title, I slapped a highly optimistic price on the book and hoped for a buyer sooner rather than later. I was also prepared to be extremely reasonable in negotiating a lesser figure for this book.  I simply had to wait for the buyer to contact me.

Three months later I am still waiting for someone to ask me about the book.  It did not take me long to figure out the obvious: aside from a question of the book's literary merit (no comment), the book was so utterly obscure that literally no one knew about it. And in view of that understandable ignorance, no one was seeking the book.  After all, why should they since it was literally unheard of, even in the British Library?

And how does Mr. Sard's book read? Not bad at all but certainly not great.  He seemed to have a keen eye for details, say, of monuments, and was ever describing about how such and such a column was 78 feet 4 inches high, with a base measuring precisely 15 feet on each side. His interest in the “natives” was less intense and they seem to have been simply so much baggage that one encountered whilst traveling. He made a point of seeing that which one should see on such a venture and his descriptions are workmanlike: probably accurate but neither inspired or insightful. Still, that has its benefits. I recall an essay by Major Jarvis (who wrote extensively about Egypt whilst governor of the Sinai) written in the 1930s. He recalled how an earlier “Great White Explorer” had written an absolutely fabulous account of a glorious Egyptian oasis. When the good Major visited that same oasis soon thereafter, he had a  rather different encounter. It was essentially a mud-hole, with scarcely a tree in sight, let alone a cornucopia of Oriental splendor....accuracy, even if tedious, certainly trumps narrative in my mind.

With no takers in sight, I may yet settle down some evening and finish reading the book. In a sense, I feel some compassion for Mr. Sard: he seemed to have generated little interest whilst alive and his book has generated even less. 

Requiescat in pace.

Michael M. Pixley served for 22 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State, with 17 of those years overseas,primarily in Turkey and Iraq. He began his second career as a bookseller (Eastern Approaches Books, Annapolis MD) in 1999, specializing in the Middle East.