CHANDLER ON COFFEE

“I went out to the kitchen to make coffee – yards of coffee. Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved. The life blood of tired (wo)men.” THE LONG GOODBYE

brown coffee beans

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During the first lock down, once I had stocked up on loo roll,  my main fear was running out of coffee. Obviously a lot of people felt the same because to start with I couldn’t get any. I had some stores but I was fretting. Obviously displacement fretting but all the same fretting. And then I went shopping one day and lo and behold packs of coffee so hurrah and snatch snatch off the shelf. It was only when I got home that I realised they were packets of beans and I have no grinder. I did consider smashing them up with a hammer or a rolling pin; I certainly felt cross enough to do that but my partner dissuaded me and then ground coffee became available fairly soon afterwards and so the bags of beans were shoved to the back of the cupboard. 

Time passed.  

I live opposite a car showroom and this came out of lock down quite early. Lester was the man who used to work for them washing the cars and cleaning the forecourt etc… Lester knew everyone in the district because he used to hang out in the open and chat.  The car show room is situated at the beginning of a cut through which follows along the base of an overground part of the London tube which is lined with garages. It is used by a lot of people and Lester was one of those people who talks to everyone.  Lester kept the cars and forecourt immaculate and did so with very little fuss and other than friendly chat, and a bit of hail fellow well met, not much noise. Unfortunately he also occasionally took to the bottle so  he was fired and everyone missed him.

A replacement was hired who, for the purposes of this post, I’ll call LBM (Leafblower Man). He wears a bright orange jump suit and has a leaf blower which he loves. I became aware of him and the leaf blower because it  was a new and persistent noise. I am used to noise. If you live on a busy main road with the tube rumbling past, and the skip lorries taking the corner at pace and the jingle jangle of the chains that hold them in place you either get used to it or you go mad. I am also used to the very distinctive whine that bus engines make when trapped in traffic.

The leaf blower drove me nuts because it was on so long and he was using it in such a hopeless way. So I took to watching LBM from the window with a running commentary of why I found him so irritating and how there were still lots of leaves under the cars which he had not blown out and that he was simply blowing the leaves into the bicycle lane and the wind was blowing them back and what was the point of that and Lester would quietly have raked them up and put them in green bags while shooting the breeze with whoever etc etc and making everyone feel better about life. So I went on like this until my partner told me to stop.

two coffee latte

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Then one day I looked at the beans and I thought I have to buy a coffee grinder, so I did. This was about six months after buying the beans. I am what is called a late adopter. And on the first day I was happily grinding my beans and I realised how much I was enjoying making a new and not very persistent noise. And now, strangely enough, LBM no longer annoys me. All it has taken is 20 seconds a day in order to drink my own ruthless, strong depraved …. etc. 

So, have you got anything sitting in your cupboard that you bought in a panic/by mistake in the beginning of lockdown? Or have you bought a new gadget? Tell me about it. Has anyone out there got a milk frother?

HISTORICAL SLANG #4

To speak like a …

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In a …

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To speak like a mouse in a cheese: To speak faintly or indistinctly. Late 16th – 20th century. 

This is ridiculous because no self respecting mouse is going to waste it’s time speaking at all while in a cheese. Would you? It is going to be gorging its little chops off. The only conversation will be with itself and it will go something like this: ‘I’m in a cheese! I’m in a cheese!’ It will save speaking for later and then its conversation will be absolutely scintillating because cheese fueled.

HISTORICAL SLANG#3

Before lock down I did a few blogs on historical slang, so here we go again. This one is mid 17th century to mid 19th century.

To put a ….

beige and black hat near swimming pool

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Upon a …

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To put a swimming pool on a chicken? No, fool. To put a hat upon a hen: To attempt the impossible. I have to say this hen looks full of mischief and definitely not hatable or should that be hattable?

Since we’re on the subject have you ever tried returning a phone to Vodaphone? I had the misfortune to buy a Nokia 2.3 from them and it had the interesting foible of being fine when it came to calls to and from and fine when it came to texts out but would it receive a text? Oh, no it wouldn’t. The only text it received during a 72 hour period was regrettably the first time I entered a Vodaphone shop saying it wouldn’t receive them. So when I went back the following day, I had to throw a full raging fit, when I was told I had to speak to science and tech. ‘No, I said, I won’t. I have spoken to your virtual assistant the whole of yesterday afternoon.’ Then I went the full Italian, (no disrespect meant to Italians only admiration), I threw my hands in the air and pretty much shrieked, ‘I’m not moving until you sort this out for me. There’s something the matter with it. Give me another phone.’

At that point another Vodaphone employee looked across and said ‘What phone?’ and I said ‘Nokia 2.3,’ and he said ‘I had a man in here with that problem yesterday.’ And had he managed to sort it out? No, he hadn’t but there was something on their forum about it.So then I knew they could not fob me off with science and tech. So at this point the hat was almost on the hen’s head. It then took about two hours to get everything resolved because Tobi, the virtual assistant had done something he shouldn’t and the system wouldn’t refund me, until it did.

When it was all over the man who had been dealing with me looked at his boss and said he wanted a day working from home which made me feel slightly guilty even though none of it was my fault but he definitely had the look of a man who had been trying to put a hat on a hen, as did I, and as did the very long queue of people who were waiting outside the shop and giving me the evil eye as I left.

How about you? Have you been attempting the impossible recently? Tell me all about it.

HISTORICAL SLANG: BADGER-LEGGED

BADGER-LEGGED: To have one leg shorter than the other. Colloquial from about 1700. Coming from the erroneous belief that a badger has legs of unequal length. So here is a picture of a badger showing a bit of leg.

Badger, Animal, Forest, Mammal

In other news the washing machine is banjaxed. You know you are doomed when the repair man says he’s never heard a machine make that kind of noise before. It was like a deranged metallic cricket. The replacing of a circuit board was mentioned but it’s 15 years old. Then he broke open the door and I got my laundry out. I hope they don’t shut down London before next Thursday, when the new one is due, because if they do I’ll be washing my pants in the sink for the next 3 months.

An attempt at normality was foiled by the absence of croissants in the Co-Op. I knew I was doomed when I saw a substantial woman coming out of the shop cramming a croissant in her mouth. Incidentally, I know the feeling both the substantial part and the cramming part, although I usually wait to get home before eating them. All gone and not a can of sardines to be seen.

On the badger front I have started following a twitter account called Mr Lumpy and Friends. It consists of films of badgers eating things and also an excellent one of a baby badger having its ears scratched. Very soothing. I highly recommend it, especially for those moments when you return home and tell your partner you haven’t got the croissants.

http://www.twitter.com/LumpyandFriends

So now you’ve got a first draft …

A very common piece of advice for writers is to put their first draft in a drawer and wait. I’ve seen a month suggested as a good length of time. The thinking is that after that time has passed you will see it with fresh eyes and the editing will be easier.

Ha, ha, ha …

Now this is all very well but what the hell are you supposed to do in this month? In my case probably a week…

Here are a few ideas for you if you are facing this challenging period of time:

paperclips

Pointless pointy things and paperclips

  • buy paperclips [What? Well, it’s something to do, isn’t it?]
  • buy coloured clips [ditto]
  • buy coloured pointy things [double ditto]
  • colour coordinate your books [no, don’t actually, people will think you are disturbed]
  • dead head and water your … oh, good lord they’re actually dead so instead …
  • throw out your dead geraniums
  • phone your friends – oh, you haven’t got any
  • think about cleaning the kitchen floor [but under no circumstances actually do it]
  • pick up a passing poetry book and try and convince yourself that you are more poetic than you are currently feeling [being acutely aware that you want to inject a sense of poetry into certain parts of your book]
  • if all this fails to do the trick place a cat in a deck chair on the printed out draft along with spider man [you will require super powers to edit it] a glass eye [it happened to come to hand] a red heart and the oldest book you own, a 1799 history of the tower of London volume 1 price sixpence [No, I have absolutely no idea where it came from but here it is].

spiderman

Bonkers alchemy

  • take all your loose change [if your knees can take the strain] to one of those machines where it swallows it all up and gives you a voucher to spend. Feel the weirdness of not having one 1 pence piece in the flat apart from the one the machine rejected. Enjoy the weightlessness that goes with having no coppers anywhere near you.
  • consider the fact that with all your other 8 books you had that phase when you hated them and thought they were rubbish, hated yourself, thought you were… This is just another of those times so aren’t we maturing and isn’t this fun?
  • consider therapy
  • play this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARt9HV9T0w8
  • no, no, no if you’re thinking of rollerskating
  • drink
  • do not under any circumstances start following the news because the toxicity of the national debate [UK/Brexit/October/2019. One month to go etc] will bleed into the toxicity of your relationship with your book and you will want to set fire to your hat [if you have one] or your head if you haven’t
  • don’t read quotes like this because Calvin was obviously feeling exactly like you are now

“The shelf life of the modern hardback writer is somewhere between the milk and the yoghurt.”

CALVIN TRILLIN – THE NEW YORK TIMES 14 JUNE 1987

  • iron everything you can find including the cat and the hamster
  • try to ignore the 147 random pains that may have sprung into your body at the moment you typed the words THE END
  • under no circumstances dwell on that weird dream you had about Boris Johnson wrecking your car and denying it, the one where you woke yourself up shouting in a rage OR-DAHHHHH, OR-DAHHHHHH…
  • do not practice mindfulness because you will sink into the existential nothingness that is your life without writing and it won’t be pretty
  • don’t open that drawer which contains packets of old strepsils, a torch, batteries which may or may not be flat, an ancient camera, a belt that you once put round your waist but which now fits the top of your thigh, many odd gloves and your great aunt’s handkerchief holder, currently containing no handkerchiefs, three old conkers and miscellaneous christmas cracker gifts including a tiny green frog which is supposed to hop but … Wheeeeeeeeeee…oh my god that’s brilliant I’m never throwing that out. DO NOT OPEN THE DRAWER because it will make you feel like falling asleep for 100 years.
  • on the other hand that’s the best idea you’ve had so far. If you can, sleep for a week, it’ll save your liver and  it’ll prevent you buying paperclips and then you can get up and start editing. Good luck and don’t forget to use the pointy things but don’t worry if you don’t there’s always that drawer to put them in where they can point pointlessly at the pointless things in there which you have just discovered include two f*****g bags of coppers [coins not policemen] and that tiny green frog.

THE END (although unfortunately as any fule kno, it probably isn’t).

The Question Every Writer Hates…

There comes a point in every published writer’s life when they receive a questionnaire from their publisher’s publicity/sales department. And on there is a question that no sane writer greets with any degree of enthusiasm: What writer are you like? Whereas your editor and agent may have charmed you by suggesting that they love your book because of its stunning originality, all the bloody sales department wants to do is put you in a box marked ‘Like this (hopefully a bestseller),’ and put ‘Girl’ in the title. This is the point where you realise that your book is a commodity like any other and shops need to know what shelf to put it on. Eggs go on the egg shelf. Beans go on the bean shelf.

It is dispiriting.

It is where you and your precious creation hit the market place and it’s broken egos all round and not even a tasty omelette as recompense.

But don’t despair. Here is what you will now reply:

‘As it happens my book is unique and may I refer you to page 160 of Pen in Hand by Tim Parks and what he has to say on the intensification of conformity. However if you would like to know what Pen in Hand is like I would refer you to the section of the bookshop marked: “Writers who write books about writing which make other writers laugh when they are feeling depressed in late August.” Oh, actually these books should be shelved in the “Gods and Goddesses” section and there should perhaps be a shrine in front of that for small offerings.  Thank you.’

Pen in Hand: Reading, Rereading and other Mysteries

The book’s full title is Pen in Hand: Reading, re-reading and other mysteries. Here are some of the chapter titles to tempt you:

  • why read new books?
  • the pleasures of pessimism
  • the books we don’t understand
  • how best to read auto fiction
  • in search of authenticity
  • raise your hand if you’ve read Knausguaard
  • the books we talk about (and those we don’t)

Do I have to go on? Buy it now. That is all. You don’t have to be a depressed writer to enjoy it but if you are it will certainly cheer you up.

This last bit from the ‘authenticity’ chapter made me laugh:

“The artist,” Simenon remarked, “is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one.”

To which I would reply: Speak for yourself you sex-crazed loon.

But to which Tim Parks replies:

“This is not an easy concept to teach in a creative writing course.”

Well, at least I’m not trying to do that.

P.S. When I first replied to that question, I was writing crime and as I remember it I said I was like Sara Paretsky, a writer I greatly admired. But to be frank the only thing I had in common with Sara Paretsky was that my main character was a female private investigator. And there was one really significant difference between her books and mine. Mine weren’t nearly as good.

 

 

READING, MOTHS AND WISTERIA …

I am currently judging a book prize that unsurprisingly involves reading a great many books. In fact I haven’t read this much since I did my History Finals – ten exams in five days and the whole of my degree resting on it. That was over thirty years ago and my most common recurring nightmare ever since has involved exams. For obvious reasons, I am not going to mention authors or titles at this stage but I thought you might like this snippet from my domestic life, the odd exchange between me and my other half (OH) as I started reading for the prize. Of course you would.

DAY ONE: Me: (ranting) When did books get so thick? I mean over 2 inches thick! Is this a new thing. Why haven’t I noticed? Do I never read long books because I don’t like writing them? Some of these are absolute whoppers! Do editors not exist anymore? OH: Get a grip and take some Rescue Remedy.

DAY SEVEN: OH: There’s more to life than books, you know. Me: Mmm?

DAY TEN: OH: (as another box of books arrives) Actually, I’m beginning to feel sorry for you.

DAY ELEVEN: Me: This one’s very good. OH: Well, thank God for that.

DAY THIRTEEN: Me: (looking at pile of books under the TV) to OH in wild panic. I’m never ever going to get through them all.

DAY FOURTEEN: OH: Are you regretting saying you’d do it? I might be if I were you. Me: This one is a bit bonkers but I think in a good way. Half an hour passes. Maybe, actually, in a bad way.

DAY FIFTEEN: Unfortunately a huge cloud of moths flies out from under the chair I am sitting in just as my partner walks into the room. OH: Do you see the moths there fluttering all around you? You’ve been sitting still so long reading you’re hatching moths! Me: No, no it’s because this package, that you might have thought was filled with a book, is actually filled with those moth-killing-sticky-pads. Look, here at my feet. They can smell the pheromones. I am not hatching moths because I have been sitting here for such a long time reading. No, I am not.

DAY SEVENTEEN: Me to OH: I cannot read more than four books in a week. That’s it. If one is a fat one then I can only manage three. OH: Can’t you cheat? Me: No.

DAY TWENTY-ONE: Me to OH I am never going to give a character of mine green eyes and I am never going to describe a character as having black eyes. Never, never, never… OH: Didn’t Sam (the protagonist in my crime novels) have green eyes? Me: Did she?OH: Whatever. Those moth pads aren’t working.

DAY TWENTY-EIGHT: I realise I have a very low tolerance for descriptions of landscape and also buildings. I wonder if I have ever described a building in any of my books or even a field, if it comes to that. I realise that my vocabulary for writing about buildings is extremely limited and become slightly fixated on it. Me to OH (on the bus heading in to town) Look at that building over there. That bit. The bit that slopes. How would you describe it? OH: It’s a roof! And whatever this is, from my point of view it does not count as conversation.

DAY THIRTY: Me: I need paragraphs. I cannot read a book without any indentations. I feel as if I’m being forced to read Henry James. No paragraphs mean no hope. OH: Is this the prima donna phase? You’re talking gibberish again. Go for a walk. The wisteria is out in the park. Go for a walk now. NOW.

IMGP0018 (2)

When I return there is a large pile of boxes in the hall. OH: (kicking them lightly) More books came while you away. Me: Oh God. OH. But have you seen the sticky moth pad things? They’re absolutely covered. Me: Wow!

Current state of affairs: Total number to read: 86. Number read: 31. Number of moth deaths: 112. Two months to go.

So here’s the question. How quickly do you read? How many books do you read in a week? Just asking for a friend.

 

 

 

 

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

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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.

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.

SIGNIFICANT TALES FROM THE BOOK TRADE

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.

butterfly

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.