I can remember the day I discovered and bought this book. I was in the local post office to buy a stamp when I saw a small display of books. The post office never had books before. I suddenly saw Reptile Life. I took it off the shelf and was astounded by what I read. Here was a book from behind the Iron Curtain describing reptiles and the happenings to the author on expeditions and in his herpetological institute in Czechoslovakia. I then looked at the price on the inside flap: 35 shillings. Too expensive for me. But then I looked at the display again and found it was not 35 shillings but was reduced to 10 shillings and 6 pence! That I could manage with a little help. I ran to my grandparents house and borrowed the necessary 10 shilling note and a sixpenny piece and then ran back to the post office arriving a few minutes before closing time.
So there I was with an amazing new book, bought from the local post office, six miles away from the proper bookshop in Nottingham (which I checked every week or so in the hope that a book on reptiles might appear) and a Saturday evening to read it.
Before moving on to the book and its author, I need to explain how it was possible to make a find like this in 1959 in a local post office but not in a regular book shop. The publishers were Spring Books of London and the printing was done, like the writing and photography, in Czechoslovakia.
Book publishers in London in the 1950s (and much later) had a very cosy scheme with book sellers—the Net Book Agreement—that enabled them to fix the price of books in the UK. Book sellers were not permitted to reduced the price, even of excess stock and the rule was that such books were pulped. But the rules of the cartel allowed excess stock to be sold to remainder merchants who could then sell these books to the public at reduced but by no means low price through shops other than established book shops.
Starting out as a remainder merchant under the Books for Pleasure imprint, Paul Hamlyn, later Lord Hamlyn (1926-2001), then moved into the reprint business, buying copyright of existing works and reprinting in large numbers. He set up Spring Books to handle the reprint end of the business.
Hamlyn’s story and success is explained in Immigrant Publishers: The Impact of Expatriate Publishers in Britain and America in the 20th Century, edited by Richard Abel and William G Graham (Transaction Publishers, 2009):
A key element in Hamlyn’s early success was Paul’s association with ARTIA, the state-controlled Czechoslovak agency…After some aggressive bargaining both with ARTIA and his clients, Paul was granted exclusive rights to sell ARTIA publications in the English language.
The book bears the statement that it was designed and produced by Artia for Spring Books.
The binding and paper of Reptile Life are of high quality. Again, Immigrant Publishers explains why:
It is probably a well-kept secret to this day that Paul was given an elaborate signed and sealed contract granting him exclusive use of Czechoslovak printing for books in the English language. Reliability of supply on agreed dates was not a feature of the relationship, and paper quality could vary, not always downwards, without warning. Very cheap books would arrive beautifully bound in real book cloth, because “Rexene”-type materials were not available in Czechoslovakia.
Spring Books from the maverick Paul Hamlyn, like the remaindered books, were sold to whoever would stock them for retail to the public. Because they fell outside the Net Book Agreement between established publishers and retailers, they were not available through the book trade. Hence, my local post office had Reptile Life for sale. I think the pricing was also a ruse to make customers feel they were getting a bargain: 10/6 vs 35/- (£11 vs £37 in today’s money)—you can’t go wrong.
So, that explains how Vogel’s Reptile Life appeared on the British scene in 1958. It was just totally different from anything else on the British market. Here was an author with a private herpetological station in a country behind the Iron Curtain describing reptiles from all over the world (especially central Asia) and how to keep them, his expeditions, and his bites from venomous snakes.
In 1947, at my home in Suchdol near Prague, I founded a herpetological station. I had two reasons for doing this. In the first place it was necessary to lay the foundations of an institute for conducting intensive research into the bionomics of amphibians and reptiles, which would later extend its activities to further branches of science connected with herpetology. In the second place, I had received requests from friends and colleagues abroad for help in making exchanges of amphibians and reptiles from different parts of the world for terraria and for scientific purposes. This meant that the animals which passed through the herpetological station must be cared for and acclimatized.
I therefore got in touch with other institutes, zoological gardens, breeders and hunters abroad and was thus able to obtain a considerable number of animals, both small and large, many of which were very rare and some of which had never, or only very seldom, been previously brought to Europe alive. I began in particular to import many species of reptiles from Central Asia and the Far East. In exchange, breeders abroad send exotic specimens from their own terraria.
In 1948 I embarked on the building of a special glass reptile house for breeding purposes and for scientific research work. The temperature can be regulated quite easily, there is the maximum possible light and air, and conditions for photography are very good. It is not, of course, equipped for visits by the general public, since it is not intended to, and cannot, serve the same purpose as the reptile house in a zoological garden…
The Smithsonian marks him out as having made particular contributions as an amateur to exotic animal husbandry. Their website says that he ‘primarily supported his scientific studies via popular writing, although he was also a breeder and supplier of reptiles’. How he did what he did during the communist regime and a command economy, and managed to travel so extensively, I cannot imagine. Was he supplying animals within the Soviet bloc or to other countries as well?
He is described in a Czech publication as having discovered new species and having published several hundred scientific and popular scientific articles and papers in domestic and international journals. He wrote 16 books, including a popular aquarium book. He was, of course, the author of Reptiles and Amphibians. Their Care and Behaviour published by Studio Vista, London in 1964 (the original German version was published as Wunderwelt Terrarium in 1963.
He died on 9 December 1986 in Prague.
Here is a review of the book by Alfred Leutscher in Fishkeeping and Water Life, June 1959:
The book can be downloaded here or the Downloads page above: