Beverley’s Borneo Bookman – as I’ve heard Barry Roper called – is telling me about meeting headhunters. Never had any problem with them, he says. Saw a few heads in their long-houses. But no shrunken ones... It’s not perhaps a conversation you expect to be having in the shadow of Beverley Minster. Borneo, however, is never far away at the Eastgate Bookshop. Just browse the shelves. Here’s Among Primitive Peoples in Borneo. Here are The Home-Life of Borneo Headhunters and Headhunter’s Daughter – A Story from a Borneo Long-house. And, in lighter mood, Jolly Old Borneo and Biggles in Borneo.
They’re part of his South East Asian collection – more than 2,000 books and pamphlets, collected over 50 years, with 1,200 about Borneo. “There’s virtually every book written on the island in English up to the last 10 years,” he says. “There are some books of which there are only a handful of copies.”
The collection includes books once owned by the “White Rajahs”, the English Brooke family who founded and ruled the Kingdom of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946. They wrote themselves – notably Sylvia, the last Ranee, who called her evocative autobiography Queen of the Headhunters.
“I loved Sarawak,” she wrote. “There was no twilight, just a sudden darkness and little lamps flickering amongst the palm trees... Sometimes a boat would go by like a black leaf upon the moonlit river with a Malay boy singing to his love.”
Roper, who stores the most valuable books away from the shop, reckons this is one of the world’s best Borneo collections. Now, however, he’s planning to sell it as a job lot.
“I’m 82 and I’m not going to last forever and there’s no one in the family who’s the least bit interested in Borneo,” he says. “I could send the cream of the collection to Sotheby’s tomorrow and they would sell it for me.” And will he? “No, I’d be left with books I’d get nothing for. How do you like your tea? Milk and sugar?”
The shop, which he opened in 1983, isn’t just about Borneo, about Captured by Cannibals, Head-Hunters’ Moon and The Field Book of a Jungle-Wallah. There are plenty of books on other subjects, though the shelves are gradually emptying as Roper sells off the stock. “I’ve enjoyed every minute, but now I think it’s about time I thought about retiring. I’m trying to retire, but I’ve got all these books to get rid of.”
We sit back with our tea (milk but no sugar) and he tells me how his collecting started. Brought up at Haisthorpe, near Bridlington, he joined the RAF in 1950, trained as an engineer, and spent 28 years in the service, specialising in helicopters. His postings included Cyprus, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore... and Borneo, which he took to in a big way.
“When I was there in 1964 and 1965, it was very rural and there were no roads. The people had nothing, but they were so friendly. If you went to their houses, they’d give you a glass of orangeade. It was very expensive but they kept it for special occasions. The RAF was a good life...”
He looks back wistfully to the sergeants’ mess, the nightclubs and the bazaars. “One place – oh, it was paradise; there was a swimming pool... life was very pleasant.”
The memories blossom, sometimes unexpectedly. “There was a chief of police who had been brought up by the Archbishop of Birmingham and had a Chinese wife who had lost half an arm. We used to go round the garden and she would pick off the leaves and berries to use in curries. That was where I met the Paramount Chief of the Iban.”
This formidable warrior from the Iban tribe was regarded as the most fearsome of the headhunters who have inspired some of the more intriguing Borneo book titles, including Espresso with the Headhunters and – perhaps alarmingly for an RAF chap – The Airmen and the Headhunters.
Was Roper nervous about the tribesmen’s novel line in hunting trophies? “No, not really. There were no heads taken while I was there, except a few Indonesians who came over the border. I never saw any shrunken heads. Most of the heads I saw – in the long-houses – were ordinary size. Most of them were blackened, probably by cooking smoke. Some were Japanese that were still wearing specs.”
Back in the UK for a couple of years in the mid-Sixties, he started collecting books about the island. “Not many people were interested in Borneo books in those days and when you went to London bookshops, there were always one or two in the travel section.”
To help pay for his hobby, he started dealing in books himself, advertising in trade journals and ordering from catalogues during his final postings in Singapore and Hong Kong. He had the books delivered to his parents’ address and when he got back discovered hundreds that he’d forgotten he had ordered.
The search for rare books has gone on from there, with Roper once paying £1,000 for Sir Edward Belcher’s two-volume The Voyage of Samerang.
Has he ever read another copy of it? “No. In the early days I read books as I bought them, partly to see whether the contents were worth the price. People collect all sorts of things. You’ve got to have everything. It becomes an obsession.”
Even so, some titles have proved elusive. “I’ve searched for 50 years for a pamphlet called A Tour Amongst the Dyaks of Sarawak in 1854 by CTC Grant and Borneo Revelations by ‘Scrutator’.” Check your shelves.
He passes me his half-inch-thick South East Asian catalogue, full of booksellers’ notes: “As new in Dw (dust wrapper)... some pencil annotations... damp marks and foxing... cover showing signs of wear... a working copy... internally good”.
Tea finished, we browse the shelves. Who could resist Mr Podd of Borneo by Peter Blundell, author of The Finger of Mr Blee and Love-Birds in the Coconuts? “A lot of the officials out there wrote books to pass the time, but a lot of them are rubbish.”
Roper was last in Borneo in 1968. “I’ve had plenty of invitations to go back but I prefer to remember it as it was. Look, here’s Two Faces in Borneo by A Safroni-Middleton. It’s about interbreeding between Europeans and natives. Some of the natives were very friendly...”