When Neil Pearson was six, he won a copy of the children’s classic Nico and his Mule for singing ‘Frère Jacques’ on Clapham Common bandstand. It’s not stretching a point to say that long-ago Saturday afternoon foreshadowed the two activities – performing and reading – that have since provided the narrative to his life.
Everybody knows about the performing, of course. There’s Pearson as the louche, good-looking newsroom hack Dave Charnley in Drop The Dead Donkey and as D.S. Tony Clark in Between The Lines, bedding so many willing ladies the series was known in the tabloids as Between The Sheets. There are the films – Fever Pitch, the Bridget Jones movies – and the West End productions, from Pinter plays to Patrick Marber’s Closer.
Later this year, he will be back on TV in a new series of the hospital drama Monroe, in which he joins James Nesbitt as a new, regular character.
“I’m a singleton who’s been put in charge of budgeting the hospital, which gives the opportunity for plenty of friction between me and Jimmy,” he says.
Anyone who reads collects, like a bee inadvertently collecting pollen. Books gather in the course of your lifetime and gradually silt up your living space to the extent that you don’t know what you have
The series has also given Neil the opportunity to launch his bookdealing website, Neil Pearson Rare Books, which is absolutely lovely and immediately makes you want to buy everything in it.
Neil, now 53, has been an enthusiastic reader since childhood. “I used to queue for the library to open, which was insane,” he says. He has collected books since he was barely out of his teens.
Neil says: “My idea of success has always been working less doing what you want to do. I’ve been lucky in terms of my day job. Over the course of the years I’ve been able to pick and choose and, knowing Monroe was in place, I thought now was the time to devote time, attention and start-up money to do what I do for love.”
A great age to branch out
He likes to cite the case of Henry Miller, who didn’t publish his first book until he was middle-aged, kicking over the traces to become a writer and virtually start his life all over again.
Neil reckons that, without going to such an extreme, 50 is a great age to start branching out into something you really want to do. You have more disposable income, he argues, so why not put it into something you’ve loved for ages and want to develop?
Neil sees the website launch as “formalising an ongoing project”. He says: “Because I’ve collected formally and seriously for 30 years, I’ve also dealt. You trade, you move on.
“There’s a saying that a dealer is someone with a duplicate: as soon as you have something that’s surplus to requirements, you deal.”
Catching the collecting bug
The collecting bug started when Neil was appearing in the West End with Leonard Rossiter in Joe Orton’s Loot. At the time he was reading Books Do Furnish A Room, the tenth in Anthony Powell’s 12-book sequence A Dance to the Music of Time.
One day, when he was passing a second-hand bookshop, he spotted a first edition of Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final novel. He paid £30 for it, realising it would in due course cost him a lot more as he then felt compelled to track down first editions of the other 11 Dance titles. (He succeeded in his hunt, in case you were wondering.)
Then, in 1986, in his mid-twenties and when success meant that at last he could really splash out, he bought a very rare, very sought-after first edition of a certain book. “I took it home and I cried because it took me so long to earn the money to buy it,” he says.
As news spread of Pearson’s hobby, people asked him to look at their own book collections. “If I’m in their homes, I do anyway; it’s a reflex. People who work in my day job inadvertently collect around them ephemera and books that have a value outside their home. So sometimes they would ask me about insurance, how to sell etc.
“Then numbers got a bit big and I thought I should put it on a formal footing.”
Another reason for the website was that Neil is getting involved in projects that involve “institution-grade material” (the kind of books that belong in museum and university collections). “These people need to deal with someone who has a proper business, not just someone on the telly.”
The thrill of the chase
Neil says that for the serious book lover “the thrill is partly in the chase, partly in the possibility of discovery”. He says: “I still go out in the field, to book fairs, car boot sales, auction houses.
“My favourites are house calls. Anyone who reads collects, like a bee inadvertently collecting pollen. Books gather in the course of your lifetime and gradually silt up your living space to the extent that you don’t know what you have.
“Going through these is lovely, finding books that are virginal as far as the trade is concerned because they haven’t been seen.”
What’s the difference between collecting books and collecting art?
“With books, there’s more than one of everything,” says Neil. “If you own a Picasso, I can’t have it unless you sell it. With books, the hunt doesn’t stop.”
And you don’t need vast sums of money to get started. “You can pootle around in the foothills and get a collection for not very much. Build a collection that reflects your taste. Plant your flag: ‘This is what I think is important. This is what I collect.’”