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

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.


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.”


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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 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

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
  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!


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 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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


My favourite book came into the shop this week in a hard back version I’d never seen before. It’s called Firmin and is by Sam Savage and is about a rat, which lives in a second hand bookshop, and learns to read. Read this book and you will never feel the same way about a rat again. How I love it. Here’s the book produced by Weidenfeld and Nicholson with a lovely fake nibble along the top of it.

Firmin cover

‘A rat of deep humanity and intelligence’ says Philip Pullman.

What a creative piece of publishing! So obviously I cleaned it up and bought it.

Books may be stored in all kinds of places before they are donated to us and those places can be dirty and damp and vermin infested. So sometimes books do come in which have been chewed. Mice, rats…? Who knows? Children’s books may well have been chewed by babies who are teething. Whatever has chewed them, they get thrown out immediately, as do books which are covered in mould. Some of those you can feel tickling your lungs in a way you know is not to be recommended.

I experienced something of this recently when going through my father’s papers with my sisters prior to sending them off to a library. They’d been stored in a garage and mice had got in to one box and some of my father’s correspondence had clearly been turned into mouse bedding. So it goes. We just have to hope that anything of interest was in the top half of each page since the mice attacked from the bottom up. The papers are somewhere safe now where no mouse can reach them or read them.

This week it is the question of sticky labels I am pondering. To try and remove or not. You know the ones those round labels saying three for two or Richard and Judy’s Book Club or long listed/short listed for the Booker/Costa/Orange etc. Or as read on BBC Radio 4. If they’re relatively new they can be peeled off quite easily and don’t leave a residue. However if the book is older and has a more papery cover or it’s sat in the sun for a while,  then getting the label off without tearing the cover can be tricky, and sometimes you don’t know how tricky until you start doing it. Then you’re scraping label glue off with your finger nails for the next ten minutes and you end up with a book looking scruffier than if you’d just left the label there in the first place.

No saints and butterflies falling out of books this week. Instead, the card of a man who is a partner at a large city law firm, a bookmark of a Parisian seafood restaurant called La Marée, several sheets of toilet paper (unused) and an old Waterstone’s bookmark with a quote from H.G. Wells.

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.


I took nineteen more of my books to the shop bringing it up to a grand total of 60 in three weeks. Not bad. I’m feeling rather pleased with myself and sense my shelves are breathing more easily but then my partner says, ‘It’s a drop in the ocean, isn’t it?’ And I look and think maybe I should adopt a more brutal approach. Maybe I should attack my white-spined Picadors. My Coastings and my Songlines, my States of Desire and my Beloveds. Maybe it’s time for them to go as well. I’m gradually getting into the swing of things. Marie Kondo would be pleased with me, I think.


In the course of sorting through my books I discovered I actually own a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Good lord! It’s called Nature, part of the Penguin Books Great Ideas series and is completely impenetrable (to me at any rate), so I’m going to take it into the shop, in case the man who was looking for him comes back. Where on earth am I going to shelve it though? We do have a nature section but I think it will get lost there. I could put it in philosophy but it will get lost there too, so maybe flat on a table or into essays.

A book comes into the shop which is by someone I know slightly. It’s a 2018 hardback and has a personal dedication in it. Well, someone got rid of this quickly, I think. The dedication, I have to say, is mildly passive aggressive. If someone had written a dedication like that in a book I had bought, I’d have lobbed it in the direction of a charity shop straight away, perhaps via the author’s head. My personal opinion about dedications is this:

  1.  Say thank you.
  2.  Say I very much hope you enjoy it.
  3.  Throw in a lot of love and kisses.

That’s it.  Do not make mildly barbed comments about the person’s character; it’s arrogant and self-defeating. Anyway, I price it (maybe slightly too low), stand the book upright in self-help and wonder if it’ll be there next week.

This reminds me incidentally of a great literary feud between V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux which was made worse by Theroux flicking through a rare books catalogue one day and discovering that books he had given to  Naipaul and his first wife with written dedications, were for sale at the princely price of $1500 each. He assumed from that, that their friendship was no longer of any value to Naipaul. It can be a mistake as a writer to equate one’s self with one’s book. I mean what do you say when someone says they don’t like your book – throw a punch? However in this case I would probably have drawn the same conclusion.

I spend some of the day pondering the bookseller’s great philosophical imponderable – how do you shelve a name for example like Victoria Waters-Blake vis à vis Victoria Waters Blake? My personal approach is that Waters-Blake goes in the Ws and Waters Blake goes in the Bs. What do you think? Of course in a shop of many volunteers everyone abides by different rules or like me forgets the rule they are abiding by between one cup of tea and the next. There is also the tricky moment when there is lots of room in the Ws and none in the Bs, so one might veer off the straight and narrow due to laziness or not wishing to bend down – Ws are always at floor level. All I can say to you as a customer is always look in both the Ws and the Bs if you are looking for this sort of author. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example.

This week we are inundated with Atonements (Ian McEwan). And for some reason they are making me cross. Everywhere I turn there is another one waving at me, falling on my foot: small paperbacks, large paperbacks, hardbacks ones with covers from the film, ones without. Yoo hoo over here. Look at me. What about me? Oh, and you missed me. Go away, I want to shout. In all your different formats, leave me alone. In order to calm down I go over and stroke the Viragos, all lovingly gathered together on a small table. And then I throw some of the grubbier, creased, coffee-stained Atonements out. That’s better.

Mis-shelvings are fun. This week’s winners are Women who Run with the Wolves (psychology /self-help) in Nature, Men are from Mars Women Are from Venus (self help) in fiction, and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (fiction/it won the 2015 Booker. The cover has a vinyl record on it) in music.

charlotte mew

Incidentally, one of the pluses of sorting out my shelves has been coming across a book called His Arms are Full of Broken Things (1998) by P. B. Parris. It is one my oldest TBRs (to be read). I’ve held onto it for 20 years without reading it. I’ve tried fairly frequently. This time I was determined and you know what it’s fantastic. It’s about Charlotte Mew, a poet, and each chapter begins with one of her poems. They are strange and baffling and I love them. Thomas Hardy fell in love with her but she, although loving him, did not want to sleep with him. She had passionate and possessive platonic relationships with women and, after her father died had his suit and coat cut to fit her. I do love a bit of cross-dressing in my books. I like the idea that this book has been sitting on my shelves for 20 years waiting for me to read it. If you’re out there P. B. Parris I just want you to know how very much I enjoyed your book. Thank you for it. And could you tell me what the tarot reader in St James’ Piccadilly said to you, as mentioned by you in the acknowledgments.

You see this is where I disagree with all the de-clutterers. If you haven’t read it you are not going to, they say. Rubbish. If you have read it you won’t re-read it. More rubbish. If you haven’t worn it in the last year you never will etc etc. Absolute rubbish. This book did not spark joy (obviously) for 20 years but now it has sparked a whole bloody fireworks display of joy.  So, you’re all hideously wrong. And by the way because of the heat wave this summer I’ve worn two skirts I bought about ten years ago and had barely worn. Incidentally, despite this rant I have a great deal of affection for the book by Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying because it always sells very quickly when we get it in and I always put it out on one of the tables.


In case you think I’m making this stuff up: an elephant, a butterfly and a saint.

This week’s things that fell out of books:

  • A few book marks; the most interesting of which is one advertising the world’s strongest chilli with a cartoon of a sneezing elephant.
  • A gift receipt from Tiffany’s for the eye watering amount of £285. It’s for a bow brush. No, I didn’t know what it was either. Anyway, it was bought in Zurich Airport 22/08/2012.
  • Another saint – this time S. Francesco – Greccio, crying. I have to say I like these saints that keep falling out of the books into my hands. On the back of his picture are the words of a prayer in Italian.
  • A small cabbage white butterfly, yellowy white with black dots on its wings.

I have an extremely odd conversation with a customer. It all starts off OK. She tells me she bought a book from the shop in which a woman had put a lovely dedication to her husband. I say something general about dedications and second-hand books and then she’s off. ‘How could he give the book away and not cut out the dedication? She doesn’t deserve him? She should divorce him.’ I’m baffled – does she know them? How does she know the circumstances of the books coming into the shop? The books might have come in because he or she died. And I’ve never thought that someone would cut a dedication out of a book before giving it to charity. I smile slightly and nod and breathe a sigh of relief when she leaves.

I took another 23 books to the shop this week. And this time I managed to get them all there without retrieving one at the last minute. However the following night I wake up with the absolute certainty that one of the books I have donated contains a dedication to me and my partner. I utter up a silent prayer to S. Francesco, Please let it be there next week. Then I can buy it back from the shop. Or at least cut out the dedication.

P.S. I should also probably confess to having bought a book from the shop. It is called: Wait, The Useful Art of Procrastination by Frank Partnoy. And if you’ll pardon the pun, I can’t wait to read it. Once I’ve read it, of course, I will be able to wait before reading it but then I will already have read it so it will obviously be too late. Or maybe I will manage to wait without reading it and will end up reading it in 20 years time.



Since receiving my royalty statement I have been re-reading The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes. It’s really good. I came across this bit which I liked.

book of hope

“When your Daemon is in charge do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait and obey.”


Daemon is an interesting word. I wonder what Kipling meant by it? Of course I thought of Philip Pullman’s books because in those each human has a daemon in the shape of an animal. I have always loved that idea. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Drift, wait and obey. And I’ve been doing a lot of tidying and sorting. I have in fact been doing to my own books what I do in the shop. Taking them in hand and considering if they’re worth the shelf space. And I have been discovering things about myself I did not know. I seem to be a person who reads poetry because it turns out I have 76 poetry books. There’s been a cold, high moon these last few days.  Change is in the offing. If I were a dog I’d be sniffing the air and looking far into the middle distance. I can’t keep doing what I’ve been doing. Something is going to change. And part of that seems to be making a large pile of all my poetry books.

Another obvious change was that I have decided to donate some books to the shop. Usually the traffic is all the other way. There were 18 of them. There are others but 18 is the largest amount I can carry at a time. Unfortunately, I was early for work and settled into Caffé Nero with the companionship of a flat white and no newspaper to hand and without a notebook and a pen. What to do, what to do…? The bag of books was at my feet. The book on top was Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes.

Flauberts parrot

Well, yes, of course I did. I picked it up and started to browse through it and I discovered I had marked it up. Not only am I a reader of poetry, now I am apparently a marker-up of books. Or I was in 1985. There was a flurry of markings all the way through. I know you long for me to share some of them with you. Given my receipt of the royalty statement that I might possibly have mentioned earlier, this paragraph amused me.

“Let us have the modesty of wounded animals that withdraw into a corner and remain silent. The world is full of people who bellow against Providence. One must if only on the score of good manners, avoid behaving like them.”

And so did this one:

1880  “When will the book be finished? That’s the question. If it is to appear next winter, I haven’t a minute to lose between now and then. But there are times when I am so tired I feel I’m liquefying like an old Camembert.”

I have to say that is an exact description of how I feel when contemplating finishing off my current work in progress. Anyway I swiftly transferred the book out of the bag of donations to my shoulder bag. Time for a re-read I think.

Now then, back to the book trade. There was a dreadful doll which my colleague found in the children’s department. We have no idea how it got there. It was ghastly in a 70s horror book sort of way. Do you know the sort? It was stripped of clothes had one eye half closed and the other one was staring hard at us? Stephen King comes to mind. We both looked at it and my colleague went and placed it head down in the rubbish. As I walked backwards and forwards past its dreadful and pathetic plastic legs, it reminded me of the time we had a great many books on poltergeists come into the shop. I was basically being less than reverential about the contents and throwing some of the dodgier ones away. The books weren’t just about poltergeists; they were also about unexplained psychic and spiritual phenomena. And then the books started flying round the room. No, they didn’t, sorry that was a huge lie. I’m a fiction writer and I had a relapse. Actually, what happened was that a pile of books appeared to jump off the table. It was enough for me to stop saying what I was saying and consider if there was something present in that room that might possibly be a bit pissed off with me. And, put it this way, I certainly didn’t want it to get any crosser. So I extended a sort of aura of propitiation into the room and shut up. No, I don’t know what that means either but it seemed to do the trick and I recommend it if you find yourself in similar circumstances.


Things that fell out of books.

This week’s offerings from the books were as follows:

  • A stained white paper napkin with the following written on it in biro: ‘excoriating’ with the tail of the ‘g’ running all the way back beneath the word in a flourish and then underneath that ‘keep eyes open Keith?’ Had Keith fallen asleep? Was Keith a spy? I imagine a group meal gone badly wrong.
  • An old bookmark with the words Give Book Tokens. What a Good Idea! I know it’s old because the value of book tokens listed is in shillings: 3/6, 5/-, 7/6 etc
  • A Take Away menu for the Pin Petch Thai Restaurant in Islington and Earl’s Court
  • A nice leather book mark of the porch in Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire.
  • A Masonic prayer, well I think it’s Masonic: it talks about ancient spiritual fires and the rose of love … it’s actually rather lovely.
  • A Catholic prayer card with a picture of San Filippo Neri – he is the patron saint of Rome. He was always happy apparently and known as the Saint of Joy. He obviously never received a royalty statement. On the back of it is a prayer by John Newman in Italian. I am placing this somewhere prominent in my eye-line just beyond the top of my computer to aid against liquefaction

So that’s me this week, a dissolving Camembert drifting, waiting and obeying. But if the daemon expects me to read all this poetry I might have to put my foot down unless s/he starts hurling the books round the room and then I will undoubtedly obey.