CLEAR THE LOBBY!

Have you been watching? Have you given up hope? Are you marching on Saturday? Do you just want it all TO BE OVER. My apologies to non-British readers because this first paragraph is  about Brexit, it is not about spring cleaning.  I watch. I give up hope. I say things like, ‘Just don’t talk to me about it.’ I stop watching and then I start watching all over again. I read endless articles but by the time I reach the end of the article I have forgotten the beginning. Last week I watched all those votes (were they indicative? I’ve already forgotten) and became completely confused. However, I did enjoy watching the Speaker, John Bercow shout ‘Clear the lobby!’ at frequent intervals.  Bercow is a man who could stick his head into a badger’s set and pull out its inhabitants with his bare teeth. He is a man not to be cowed and he seems to have managed to infuriate the entire British media, who have plastered deeply unflattering pictures of him across their front pages today. It strikes me that he is a man who doesn’t give a damn.

Anyway moving swiftly away from politics, the purpose of this post is really to clear my own lobby. I have been asked to be one of the judges of the Historical Writers Association Gold Crown Award 2019 which is for the best historical novel first published in the UK in English and given that I am told it involves reading anything from 60-90 books  this blog is probably going to go quiet for a while, since continuing with my own work in progress and reading will probably be taking up most of my time. It may be that I manage to post more than I think but I just don’t know. So, as Captain Oates said as he walked out into a blizzard, ‘I am just going outside, and may be gone some time.’ However the good news is that when I come back (unlike Oates) I will certainly be in a position to recommend some historical fiction reads to you. Be good while I’m away.

Here’s a little bit of John Bercow if you’ve no idea who I’m talking about:

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THE TRUTH CAFE, BITUMEN MODIFIER AND SNOW…

Every morning on the way to work I pass a cafe which is called Truth.  Each time, I peer inside and then think, No, not today. I’m not feeling truthful enough. If I had a cafe I would never name it Truth because it’s intimidating, isn’t it? I mean how do you live up to it? If they pour you a filthy coffee you might feel compelled to tell them which would be  very un-English and extremely stressful. A bit further up there’s  a cafe which is called AntipØde – the coffee is very nice but the music is discordant and percussive and there’s a tiny, dark seating area and often quite a long queue. I assume the music is to discourage lingerers.  I quite like the idea of  The Liar’s Cafe; it would introduce a whole new dimension to an everyday exchange like: ‘Have a nice day.’ Anyway, to cut a long story short this is why I often end up in Caffe Nero. There is nothing to overcome, the coffee is relatively reliable and the music is mellow enough for me to be able to hear myself think. However, if I am running late I go to Coffee Station, which is very close to the shop and where they do a mean flat white and excellent raspberry and white chocolate cake and they’re very generous in their portions. They also have a lovely seating area which has plants hanging down. I like a dangling plant on a chilly morning.

This week I was culling the crime section. I don’t think we really sell much crime but we get a huge amount of it donated and for every Ian Rankin I throw in a hessian sack there will probably be about ten in the back room waiting to be put out.  I save classic crime novels, ones like Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toy Shop and kitsch covered Agatha Christie’s published by Fontana and Ngaio Marsh’s and I also tend to save any crime in translation that is slightly more unusual like Pierre Lemaitre, Dominique Manotti etc.

A customer comes over to me while I am dragging my sack away and holds out a book. I miss what she says to me and I think she’s asking me the price. It’s an Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve probably just culled this from the shelves. ‘The paperbacks are generally £2.50,’ I say. She goes a bit rigid on me and says, ‘I do not expect to have to pay to donate a book.’ She’s so prickly and grand about her one book donation I can’t help laughing and then naturally I have to apologise profusely for having misunderstood. ‘Do you have any others?’ she asks and I show her where they are on the shelf including the copy of the one she’s just given me.  It’s a mad old world.  It occurs to me later while I am eating my large slice of raspberry and white chocolate cake in the chilly staff room that in about 30 years the vast majority of the books I have written will probably have been pulped.

close up of snowflakes on snow against sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This is what the writer Joe Moran had to say on the matter:

We are too sentimental about the physical entity of the book, and too embarrassed about its mortality. All I ask as an author is that, as I should like some say over the disposal of my bodily remains, I am consulted about what happens to my books if they are pulped. My first choice would be bitumen modifier, the pellets road builders use to bind blacktop to aggregate. A mile of motorway consumes about 45,000 books: the M6 toll road used up two-and-a-half million Mills & Boon novels. There is something pleasingly melancholic about converting unread books into the wordless anonymity of a road, like having your ashes scattered in a vast ocean.

If I can’t be a road, I would settle for artificial snow (also made of fibre pellets) falling gently in a Christmas film. At least being shredded is clean and conclusive. 

Bitumen modifier doesn’t sound very glamorous but I love the idea of my books being turned into artificial snow. Well, love is probably too strong a word. Obviously I’d prefer you all to be reading them. But it would be a romantic, magical end to all the blood, sweat and tears of writing if it ended up as snow on the end of a wolf’s nose. A ridiculous but beautiful death.

Here’s the link to Joe’s book On Roads.

KOALAS, ANARCHISTS AND DISRAELI…

Another day in the bookshop. Well, the Elvis books haven’t gone anywhere. I’m in the back of the shop where we store our overstock of books and I come across one of my father’s books. It’s Disraeli’s Grand Tour.

grand tour

Ahhhhh, I think … I tidy it up a bit and flick through it. Have I read it, I wonder? I come to the dedication: To Victoria. For a moment I think, ‘Who’s she?’ Before my marbles return and I remember that Victoria is me. Oh hello me, I think. Victoria. Part of the problem is that I was never called Victoria as a child, always Vicky. So even though my own writing name is Victoria I don’t really identify with the name at all. In the copy he signed for me, Dad recognized this because he writes next to Victoria Vicky with lots of love from the author, Daddy. Daddy is what he called his own father but I called him Dad. My father was a scrupulously fair man so as the youngest child  I got his 6th book dedicated to me after his parents, my mother and my two older sisters had theirs. He was also quite formal so he uses my full name even though it wasn’t one I ever remember him calling me.

Despite the cold, I lounge in the back of the shop reading his book. I like this bit where my father explains why writing his original biography of Disraeli took him eight years by using a quote by Dr Johnson concerning why it took Pope so long to produce his translation of the Iliad.

“Indolence, interruption, business and pleasure, all take their turns of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can and ten thousand that cannot be recounted.”

DR JOHNSON on POPE

I think I might try that next time my agent asks me how close I am to finishing my WIP. I have the feeling that my sisters and I were one of the interruptions and hopefully one of the pleasures as well, since two of us were born within those eight years and one of us two years before.

Disraeli was as far as I’m aware the only British Prime Minister who was also a best selling novelist. Imagine that today! What kind of novels do we think Theresa May would be writing if she were a novelist, or David Cameron or Tony Blair or John Major. The mind boggles. Mind you, Bill Clinton has just written a novel with James Patterson titled The President is Missing, although I daresay Patterson did all the writing. I wonder what that’s like.

Eventually I have to do some work. I come across this book: The Reader on the 6.27 *, which is about a man who works in a paper recycling plant and every day saves some pages from the maw of the recycling machine and reads them out to the people on his commute to work.

the reader

I decide I have to buy it. Maybe I should start reading out pages from the books I chuck in the recycling sacks on the journey back home on the bus. On the other hand …

As for things falling out of books. This week it’s bookmarks of koalas, anarchists and the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction.

anarchists

I like the bookmark for the Anarchist Bookfair. When I turn it over there is the phrase ‘annus horribilis’ written in biro on the back. The Queen used this phrase to describe her year in a speech at the Guildhall in 1992, so maybe that’s the date of the bookmark.

There at the top of the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist is Anna Burns for No Bones. Sixteen years later she won the Booker Prize with Milkman. Well done, Anna Burns. Well done indeed.

* I have started it and am thoroughly enjoying it.

 

 

JANUARY BLUES IN THE BOOKSHOP

On the way to work I’m greeted by a flattened wreath and bundles of Christmas trees all grouped together on the corner of the street. Pine needles are all over the pavements along with puddles of urine. The little dogs (they are mainly little round where I live) are back from their holidays. The bus is rammed to the rafters and it’s not helped by the fact that some bus stops have been closed and so there are larger groups of people at some of the stops than usual.

In Caffé Nero I drink my coffee and read the paper. A couple of headlines stand out. One on obese hedgehogs in need of home improvements and another saying that if you have too much stomach fat your brain will shrink. Oh dear! I wonder how much my brain will shrink when I lob the apricot croissant that I have just bought down my throat at about 1 o’clock. Caffé Nero is eerily empty. Maybe everyone has decided to save the pounds they spend on coffee in January.

All decorations are cleared from the shop and we have a tonne of deliveries.

I eye the over one hundred books on Elvis we still have. We’ve had them for rather a long time now. No one can bring themselves to throw them away. It could be said that we are caught in a trap. There must be someone out there, mustn’t there, who longs for these books? Over one hundred books on the King. Come on …

A book comes in called Mortification. The subtitle is: Writers’ stories of their public shame. Obviously I have to have it. It is followed by Michel de Montaigne’s essays. Someone has stuck a dinosaur sticker on his left ear so it looks like a rather unusual earring. It’s fab. I decide to buy this as well and I do not remove the dinosaur. I think Montaigne would approve.

michel

In case you think I’m making this stuff up.

Customers come in with tales of woe. A mother came for Christmas she caught a cold and now she has heart failure. January is always filled with death and disease. Business isn’t exactly clipping along. I could do with a little less conversation of the gloomy kind.

At the very end of the day a shifty looking man asks how much our audio cassettes are. We have a huge box of them. There is a group discussion and we arrive at the price of £1. When I tell him he says, ‘More like 50p,’ in a sort of sneering snarl and I want to hit him between his mean little eyes. It is amazing how often people come into the shop and try and bargain down our prices. Their thinking, I imagine, is that you got this stuff for nothing so you can sell it to me for less. I hate them. My colleagues are better at dealing with this than I am. I tend to shame people by repeating the phrase, ‘We are a charity…’ about 100 times followed by, ‘We have a duty both to the charity and to the people who donate to us to get a good price for the items/books they give us. We have to respect the effort they made to bring the books to us.’ Because it is an effort. And they could take them elsewhere. There are about three other charity shops along our street. But it’s never a good idea to  get into a face-off and in my heart of hearts I don’t believe in shaming people, however much I might dislike what they are doing. And to be honest if you’re bargaining over prices in a charity shop you are probably beyond shame anyway, so there we are. As I leave, I see the man scavenging over our donated books which have not yet been priced up. He is also looking at the Elvis books. My suspicious mind does not think he will be making an offer on them any time soon. Oh well, the next shift can have the pleasure of dealing with him and his blue suede shoes. No, he didn’t have any but I couldn’t resist…

On the bus home I glance at Mortification and can’t help noticing that out of 72 contributors only 15 are women. The editor in the introduction says that he asked for contributions from an equal mix of  men and women.  I wonder if women are affected more by shame, feel it more deeply and therefore found it too painful to contribute and then I feel really, really angry.

mort

So here is my story of writerly mortification.

The first book of mine that was published was part of a large  promotion of nine debut crime writers. Four of us were from the UK, five  from abroad. The ones from abroad had all been published, I think, the year before in their respective countries. One from Italy, one from Alaska, and three from America. They all had some kind of publishing history and I’ve no idea how much they were paid for their books. The group nature of the way that we were published was unusual and it meant that  we ended up spending quite a lot of time together, wine was drunk etc. It emerged that one of our UK number, X, had been paid an advance roughly four times the rest of us. He was also the one most worried that he might have been paid the least, so he had gone round asking us all what our advances were. The reason he had been paid four times the rest of us was unclear – it always is – none of us had been published before. But it might have had something to do with the fact that he had worked for a well known media outlet and publishers are complete tarts for journalists or anyone involved with the media because they think they have useful contacts that they will exploit on their own behalf. In my opinion his editor or someone at the publishers should have told him to keep his mouth shut about what he had been paid but they hadn’t and he was a loose canon. It was just one of those WTF moments in a writer’s life that you have to suck up but I was younger then and naive about the publishing business and the whole thing made me feel sick, very upset and well, mortified. You see, I didn’t think his book was four times better than mine.

Later, I ended up doing an event with this same writer. It was a crime panel in Newcastle and the title of the panel was ironically Making Crime Pay. On the panel was the crime writer Sheila Quigley, who had had a very well publicized advance for a two book deal of £300,000 which was roughly 38 times what I had been paid. She had a fantastic back story was a very nice woman and I didn’t begrudge her a penny of it.  But it was also clear that she had made a spectacularly better job of making crime pay than me or indeed X.  It was also obvious that everyone had come to see Sheila, (her books are set in the North East) all the questions were for her and afterwards a long queue formed for her to sign her book.  I remember simply not knowing what to do with myself. I started sort of spinning on the spot, maybe in the hope that I would turn myself into enough of a blur so that I would be rendered invisible or perhaps that I might turn into Wonder Woman and fly off somewhere. Does Wonder Woman fly? Or maybe I was looking for the exit. I remember desperately searching for wine and not finding any. I remember feeling as if I had lock jaw. I remember X who had a certain boyish demeanor being surrounded by a group of youngish women. One of the organisers very sweetly came up and asked me to sign a copy of my book. It was the only one I signed. Eventually they took us all out for a meal. My last contact with X was watching him insist that a taxi he was taking somewhere quite far out of town would definitely be paid for by the organisers.

Well, there we are, that wasn’t so bad was it? Give me another twenty years and I might even manage to make that funny.

NEW YEAR IN THE BOOKSHOP

On the top of the bus on the way to work scanning the world going by I have a strange feeling of déjà vu. It’s as if I am myself and not myself at the same time. It’s odd and unsettling and I wonder if I’m coming down with flu. When I stop worrying about that I can’t help noticing  that many a new coat has been bought for Christmas and there is a lot of brightly coloured fake fur going on. New and frisky fake fur that looks as if it might slide off the edge of a hood and scamper up the nearest tree and  very unlike my dear old parka which looks as if rats have nested in the hood  for the last ten years.

There’s no queue in Caffé Nero which means that most of London isn’t back at work yet. I sit contemplating the top of my flat white and wondering what state the shop will be in and what the new year will bring.

The shop is in excellent shape! The window table that was full of Christmas books is now full of green Viragos. A very great improvement in my opinion. And even better we have some good quality books to put out. We have a steady stream of phone calls. Are you open? Yes! Do you take…? Yes! Obviously top of many people’s New Years Resolutions is taking books to a charity shop. Volunteers phone in ill.

The first Eleanor Oliphant is Fine comes into the shop. Last years massive bestseller. I read this over Christmas and loved it. It was funny, thought provoking and incredibly readable. I have a rather ambiguous relationship with the bestseller lists.  As a writer who does not sell vast amounts, I am susceptible to the green-eyed monster getting hold of me and throttling me till my eye balls pop out. It’s annoying and self-defeating but I daresay human. It amused me on holiday to find that I was absolutely certain that the title was Eleanor Oliphant is Unwell. Interesting given that I must have read the title many, many times since the book was published.

A very old bus ticket for the number 11 bus route falls out of a book. Ah, those were the days. Bus conductors! Annoyingly there’s no date on it but the fare paid was 5p.

I can’t help noticing that we seem to have vast numbers of Crime and Punishment. Well, if December is the crime I daresay January delivers the punishment.

On the bus home there is an interestingly diverse number of different types of coughs. Dry and tickly, phlegmy and fruity, a veritable petri dish of disease, and as I step off the bus  the first dry tickle hits the back of my throat.

Back home it comes to me why I was feeling so unsettled. Or a line comes to me at any rate.

London in January  – a city reeling from a million broken resolutions. 

It’s the opening line of the first chapter in my book Cutting Blades. In it my character Sam Falconer, a private investigator, is sitting on top of the same bus I was this morning. So in effect I was being haunted by a character that I wrote 13 years ago. Interesting. Rather bizarrely given all the lines I have written in my novels this line is one I am particularly proud of. As a scene setter it’s not bad at all, is it?  I mean it’s not a *bishop kicking a hole in a stained glass window, it’s not Chandler or McBain, but even so it has a nice noirish feel to it. I grab hold of a copy and begin to browse through it. God, there’s so much of me in this, I think. What was I thinking of? And I snap the book shut. I go on Amazon and check out the reviews of it. I haven’t done that for years (the book was published in 2005) and I read a review in which someone says they ‘almost liked it.’ Then another in which the reviewer states: ‘Like I said the book is good. But just that. Good … Ms Blake just needs to work at her art just a little bit more and then she’ll be a great writer.’ Well, hey, thanks for the encouragement honey. For some reason I then start sobbing with laughter. Being a writer is such a ridiculous thing sometimes. What on earth possessed me to ever think it was a good idea?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and memory and in particular what effect using personal memories and experiences for writing fiction has on the original memory. If for example I take a childhood memory and use it to write fiction and if I do that multiple times, can it end up, over time, altering and overriding the original memory? Does the fiction become more real to me than the reality and what effect does that have on my relationship with my past. Complicated, I know but that is what the journey on the bus delivered to me today, so I have delivered it to you.

I have made only one New Year’s Resolution. To go and see as many of the Laurel and Hardy films at the BFI as I can. Way Out West here I come. It is on with a ‘short’ titled Laughing Gravy, that’s the name of a dog. And here is a clip of Stan Laurel laughing. Maybe he’d just read a review of his most recent film on Amazon. Watch Sharon Lynn’s face. She is definitely having a hard time keeping it straight.

Happy New Year and if you’re looking for a book set in January in London can I recommend Cutting Blades it’s good. But just that. And there’s the chance you might almost like it.

*”It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

Raymond Chandler – Farewell My Lovely

CHRISTMAS TALES OF THE BOOK TRADE

Christmas is coming. Have you noticed? So, in the shop along with the books we have Christmas cards and gifts etc.. etc.. We have people come in who want to buy secret Santa presents and want to do that in our shop which is nice. We have a Christmas tree and decorations. We have customers who come in bearing gifts of chocolates. Yum. It takes me back to the old shop when the previous manager tried to get my shift to do the decorations and we point-blank refused. The trouble with volunteers is that they can’t be ordered to do something. I wonder if we were the most stroppy or amenable shift she had. I do remember the forceful ‘No,’ that came out of our joint mouths at the suggestion.

abstract art background blur

Photo by Tejas Prajapati on Pexels.com

So with Christmas comes a Christmas party. An amusing moment when I first arrived and was hanging my coat in the staff room. One of the young volunteers came in from the front where everyone was sitting and said to the young woman I had come in with ‘Thank God, you’ve arrived.’ The nature of volunteering is that it tends to be done by the retired, so she had been next door with a group who were probably all at least 40 years older than her and was feeling the strain. I burst out laughing.

We are a strange group gathered together. I wonder if someone was presented with a photo of us and told to guess what linked us what they would come up with.  The nature of our work patterns is also that we know the people who are in our shift and maybe the people who take over from us but don’t know any of the others. So we are aware of and accepting our own idiosyncracies  but other people’s can startle us. However, sitting there looking round the room I felt really happy to be there.

There’s also good news. We thought we’d have to be out of our current premises by the end of January but that has been postponed to June. When the last shop shut down and was out of action for a year I felt like an orphan.

Out of the books this week an apologetic note from an editor tucked into a book about the film, Napoleon. The book was written by a Kevin Brownlow:

Keith – hope you like it. Sorry about misspelling Carl David on back flap.

In fact it’s not Carl David it should be Carl Davis and it was spelled Davies (on the back flap). He was the composer of the film’s score. The author of the book was actually Kevin so it seems to me this man had got himself in a right old pickle. If he was sending the book to the author then it could be said that he was heaping insult upon injury. Although I do sympathize because I have a tendency to confuse Keith with Kevin.

It reminds me of the time my first book was published in America. It was a crime novel titled Bloodless Shadow and had a very kind quote from the crime writer Stephen Booth on the front. Berkley Press sent me the jacket to approve which was exactly the same as the English one, other than the fact that they had added to Stephen’s name Stephen Booth, author of China Inc. Now my Stephen Booth (so to speak) was definitely not the author of China Inc, he was the author of a large number of excellent crime novels, any of which they could have chosen. I sent an e-mail pointing this out and there was a resounding silence and so I moved steadily up the food chain of the publisher, my e-mails becoming crosser and crosser until I hit someone who sent me a terse e-mail back saying that yes, they would remove China Inc and replace it with Black Dog. There was never any hint they might have made a mistake. I mean how had that happened? Did they think that an author who was an expert in the rise of China as an economic power had given me a quote? I mean China Inc! FFS what was going on in their brains?

My favourite thing to fall out of a book this week. A bookmark from Rotary International which says:

The Four Way Test of the things we think, say or do

  1. Is it the TRUTH
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned

I think all British M.P. should be locked into the House of Commons and forced to repeat this as a mantra for about 24 hours non-stop. On the other hand make that 48 hours.

My favourite shelving mistake this week  – a book titled Invitation to the Dance by Hilary Spurling. It’s a handbook to Anthony Powell’s 12 volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time and I discovered it in … Sport!

Hope your Christmas preparations are going better than mine!

REVIEW: EXPOSURE by OLIVIA SUDJIC

I was going to begin this post with the line: Emerson seems to have finally deserted me. But then just before sitting down to write it, I came to the end of a short book I’ve been reading called EXPOSURE by Olivia Sudjic. I had reached the second to last page, in fact, and there he was. Sudjic is writing here about the experience of fictionalising experiences that overlap in her own life:

This state reminds me, once I came back to earth, of Emerson’s transparent eye-ball. (“There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair … all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all”.)

exposure

 

I found this book fascinating. It’s extended essay length and, among other things, is about Sudjic’s experience when her first novel Sympathy was published. She writes about the crushing levels of anxiety she felt. So much so that her agent advised her to take beta blockers. She did take them but didn’t like the concomitant feelings of numbness and disassociation she felt when she was on them.

This book is very smart and quite complicated to sum up but I loved it. For an anxious writer like myself, it was reassuring, dreadful and very funny in just about equal measure. I particularly loved this bit:

So why do it? Why continue to write for a living if writing is so solitary and publication is so masochistic, like throwing the contents of your own life out onto the street for passersby to salvage.

My first instinct is to stop. Though the horse has already bolted, I could shut the gate behind it and withdraw in an attempt to protect myself and I suppose recover some feeling of control, assuage some of the identity-loss that accompanies book-births.

My second is to steel myself and carry on like Macbeth midway across a river of blood because … this is what I’ve chosen to do and I hate changing plans. I would then be faced with the anxious dilemma of what to do instead.

My third is to acknowledge the anxiety writing generates as an inextricable element of who I am and that the triggers that exist there are to be found everywhere. Anxiety will fill whatever receptacle I give it …

How I love that line about Macbeth and the river of blood. Recently I’ve been weighing the cost of writing because books do cost the writer. What that cost is will vary of course from person to person. Often this isn’t talked about or writers are chary of talking about it. They realize that they are perceived to be very lucky and as having got away with something. Writers, after all, drag themselves from bed to computer (no commuting to work), they sit about in cafes, they indulge themselves by making things up and then they expect to be read and lauded. What is not talked about is the wrestling with demons and also wrestling with various aspects of the commercial side of getting a book out there: agent, publisher, the set backs, the rejections, the utter bollocks of it all (if you’ll pardon the expression). That side of it is rarely written about with any degree of honesty because writers are not fools, they want to be published and slagging off their publishers or agents is not going to help that at all. We are supposed to be ever so grateful but the reality can be far, far removed from anything that could reasonably be expected to generate gratitude.

As a writer of eight books my experience of publication hasn’t really varied much.  It is both something I am very proud of because I’ve worked incredibly hard and yet at the same time, emotionally, it can feel like a car crash. I do feel very, very exposed. Publication thus becomes something that has to be got over rather than celebrated. And this can be confusing and rather irritating  for the people close to me to fully understand. Well, don’t write a book I hear you say. But I am a writer, I reply.

Sudjic is also very good on the different ways men and women fiction writers are judged.

Female experience tells you that the personal is political while the world tells you there is something wrong with you personally and the system is fine. When (white, cis-gendered) men write even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, … their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women about women are not. That’s Women’s Fiction for which category there is no male equivalent.

For my part I hope Sudjic doesn’t stop writing. She’s very good. But having read this book I could understand if she did. As for me, the jury is out. I highly recommend this book; it’s excellent and extremely thought provoking.

 

NOT MORE TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE?

When I said last week that nothing dates faster than a political book that wasn’t strictly true. Nothing dates faster than a travel book. We end up throwing away about 99.5% of travel books for the simple reason that no one will buy them unless they’re up to date. And people tend to hold onto their travel books for a few years or sometimes many years before donating them.

This week I spent some time with BBHs (‘bloody big hardbacks’). We get a lot of these, the kinds of books that have glossy photos in them and relate to a TV series, for example Life in the Freezer/Life on Earth etc etc… BBHs which relate to art or photography or design are more interesting and often we can put them out for higher prices.

For some reason we had a large number of books on how to put out fires, leading to a discussion about where they should be shelved, a discussion that did not come to any particular conclusion. The ones on fire engines we decided could at a pinch go into our motor section. Maybe they need their own separate section. Appropriate for Christmas though, don’t you think? both literally and metaphorically. I stacked them near a fire extinguisher to make them feel at home.

Things that fell out of books this week:

  • An American  mother’s  account of her son’s second birthday:

Yet he is still so young. Flies, spiders and bees scare him. He still panics if he walks into a room and can’t find me.

This young man was two in 1996. Now he’s twenty two years old. I wonder what he’s up to? If there’s a moral here, it’s to make sure you shake your books before you donate them to a charity. Take it from me, your books hold your life in them. I wonder actually if this woman is a writer. The account has the kind of detail in it that suggests that she is. But at any rate her son should be reading this tender portrayal of himself helping his mother make his birthday cake, (lots of molasses!) not me.

  • The full text of the sermon preached by David Jenkins at his enthronement as Bishop of Durham September 21st 1984 fell out of a copy of the Oxford Book of Prayer.  There’s a strange connection here because he was the chaplain of Queen’s College, Oxford for 15 years, which is where I was brought up. He left in 1969 and my family arrived in 1968 so there is the faint chance that as a small child I was taken to evensong in chapel and heard his sermons.  In due course he became Bishop of Durham where my aunt and uncle lived. My uncle taught English at the university and  since my family background was conservative, with both a small and large C and Jenkins was the archetypal ‘turbulent priest’ (from the establishment’s point of view at any rate) I remember there being a fairly constant critical rumble about him.  But reading his sermon I was struck by how fearless his first paragraph was. 1984 was in the middle of the miner’s strike which hit the North East particularly badly and was a time of extreme social divisions in Britain. The subject of his sermon was this verse from Romans: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace by your faith in him, until by the power of his holy spirit, you overflow with hope. Romans 15. 13.’ Here is that opening paragraph.

“We could do with some help from this “God of hope” here in the North East. Unemployment is at 35 to 50%. They propose to dump radioactive waste on us as if we are the scrap-yard of Britain. The Miners’ Strike highlights how divided and distressed society is, to the point of violence. Christians seem absorbed in bad tempered arguments about belief, or marriage or politics. The organised churches find financial problems looming larger and larger. We all wonder if old men in the Kremlin or in the White House will over-reach themselves and actually use the nuclear weapons which are unthinkable but real. If you stop and think, hope does not come easily.”

I don’t know about you but that is an opening that would make me sit up and pay attention. Towards the end of the sermon he criticized both sides of the dispute, and suggested that Ian McGregor, Chairman of the National Coal Board should be removed. This apparently produced a ripple of applause; the first heard in Durham cathedral during a sermon.

No books donated this week.

Needless to say having donated 70 in the past month I had a trip to Foyles and began buying books like a drunken sailor, including these two extremely stylish books from the publisher Fitzcarraldo.

fitzcarraldo

Fitzcarraldo Editions is a publisher I very much admire. Occasionally, I fantasize about the kind of writer I would like to be: cool, intellectual and so sophisticated as to be completely unreadable by anyone who hasn’t got a PhD in literary criticism or cultural studies. In this fantasy I imagine myself being published by Fitzcarraldo because I love the look (that cobalt blue) and feel of their books. However, as you, dear reader, know perfectly well from having read this blog, I am so laughably not that writer, it is a dead cert that I will never be published by them.

Another reason I am certain I will never  be published by them is because no one involved with Fitzcarraldo sweats. Not one. No sweaty hands there at all. How do I know this? Well, look at this very, very white papery cover of The Years by Annie Ernaux.

the years

Holding back the … but not with dirty hands.

And it’s not shiny, it’s paper. White paper. There could be no more traumatizing book cover for a sweaty handed person than that. Why? because that cover is going to be a complete mess in a nano second if you have got any kind of moisture on your hands. In fact since buying it I have not dared open it. Perhaps before reading it I will have to buy a pair of those gloves that police officers put on when examining the scene of the crime. Either that or make it a nice festive Christmas covering.  It’s not a book cover which will survive being read in the bath (the moisture! the moisture!) or thrown in a bag and taken on the bus, not my bag anyway. You couldn’t read it in a cafe or after you’d read a newspaper… Enough already, I’ll save my deeper thoughts on white covers and why publishers should never ever use them until next week.

Emerson continues to haunt me. Practically the first book I saw in Foyles was The Illustrated Emerson: Essays and Poems which I bought immediately. Pam, who is kind enough to read and comment on this blog told me about a book called Mr Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown which I might read. It’s historical fiction from the point of view of his wife, Lidian, and she also sent me this quote.

emerson

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

RALPH WALDO EMERSON

Something we could all do with being reminded of from time to time. Thank you Pam.

TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE AGAIN

Those of you who have been with me from the beginning with these Tales of the Book Trade posts will remember how everything began with Emerson. A man walked into the bookshop I was working in and asked for books by Ralph Waldo. We didn’t have any. The following week I found a volume of his essays in the back of the shop, then I found I owned a copy of Nature which I found impenetrable and I said I would donate it to the shop in case the man came back. I thought I would update you with the fact that I didn’t and why.

nature

So, this is what happened. I was in Caffé Nero again (I’m a creature of habit) with my bag of books to donate and again I didn’t have a newspaper or a notebook to distract me. When will I learn? In my defence, there are usually newspapers to read or buy there but the recent Brexit dramas seemed to have made these more popular than usual.  So I dipped into my bag of books to be donated and pulled out Second Nature by Michael Pollan and there was this quotation:

When one summer I came across Emerson’s argument ‘that weeds’ (just then strangling my annuals) were nothing more than a defect of my perception, I felt a certain cognitive dissonance.

upstream

Earlier in the week I had bought a book of Mary Oliver’s essays titled Upstream and there was a whole essay on Ralph Waldo including this description Harriet Martineau gave after she had been to his lecture.

There is a vague nobleness and thorough sweetness about him, which move people to their very depths, without their being able to explain why.

So something’s going on, isn’t it? But what? Do all roads lead me back to Ralph? I haven’t donated the book Nature because I feel life is flagging something up and I should pay attention. Otherwise the next thing to happen will be me being run over by a bus with Ralph Waldo Emerson on the side of it. So Nature stays and is being read albeit extremely slowly because his style takes some getting used to.

If last week was characterized by the fact nothing fell out of any book, this week was the opposite. Many, many tickets for musicals, ballet and theatre fell into my hands. A substantial number of them with the price £0.00 on them. I have to say I began to feel rather jealous. Who was this person who had gone to see The Blue God and Firebird for free on the 13th April 2011 at The London Coliseum? A critic, maybe.

There was also rather a sad note sent by someone who had phoned several times and texted with no result and had now resorted to a small card of a dolphin to try and make contact. The kind of card that if you were the recipient of would make you immediately feel so guilty that you too would stuff it in the nearest book and try and forget all about it.

The non-fiction version of Dan Brown (in terms of frequency of donation) is Bill Bryson or as I refer to him ‘Bloody Bill Bryson’ before throwing him in a hessian sack. Is there a single person in the country who does not have one of his books and who hasn’t split the spine reading him and is happy to donate him to us? He comes in so often I groan loudly when I see his books.

My most hated books can best be described as reckless men go on stupidly dangerous journeys in order to write a flashy ‘look at me’ book about it. I mean just stop it. Try staying home for a bit, keeping the cat fed, and renegotiating your energy bills. That would be more impressive than catching jungle rot in the Amazon. Any idiot could write a book about that. Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is a much harder and, to my mind, more valuable thing to do.

Somewhat ironically given the feverish and self-destructive state of the Tory party at the present moment, I find a press release for a book titled Back from the Brink: The Inside Story of the Tory Resurrection by Peter Snowdon March 2010. Ha, ha, I think. Maybe the next book he writes will be titled From Resurrection to Annihilation: How the Tory party destroyed itself and the nation over Brexit. I tell you, nothing dates faster than a political book. Mind you, I also came across a letter to a journalist dated June 2009 concerning another book titled Beyond New Labour: The future of social democracy in Britain. The letter states ‘Across Europe Social Democracy appears to have profound structural problems.’ He got that right, didn’t he?

Finally, a customer comes in and asks if we have any books by Solzhenitsyn. I present her with August 1914, followed by The Gulag Archipelago and finally Cancer Ward (all chunky) all of which she firmly rejects. I feel like a cat trundling back and forth dropping mice at her feet only to be told they are the wrong type of mouse. I’m  irritated, so I say to her, ‘We don’t have One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ (novella length). ‘How do you know that’s what I’m looking for,’ she asks. ‘Because it’s short,’ I reply. She then launches into a loud exposition of the problems caused by a lack of female sanitary products in Mozambique.  She has the kind of voice that I imagine Christian missionaries have, not that I’ve met many. Now, it’s not that this isn’t a really important, worthy subject but she goes on for a very long time and in the end all I want her to do is stop. It occurs to me that she is punishing me for being snide and that I probably deserve it. In the end I’ve had enough and  make some excuse and go and hide in the back room.

The last time I read One Day… was when I was seventeen and suffering from flu. I can’t separate the two experiences in my mind and have never read it again. Just looking at the cover of the book makes me feel that post-viral depression is going to reach up and drag me down into its pit and bind me in chains and never let me go and that the sun will never, ever shine again as long as I live. I wonder if that’s how Theresa May* is feeling.

I took another ten books to the shop this week so my total donation for the month is 70.

*Apologies to non UK readers but Britain is in political melt down at the moment over Brexit.