Waste Lands are selling like hot cakes. There has been a BBC 4 documentary on T.S. Eliot and things that appear on TV have an immediate effect on our customers’ buying habits. I recognize it in myself. Having been tormented by having to study Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party, for A Level – I mean for heaven’s sake what on earth is a 17 year old supposed to do with a nun being crucified on an anthill? – I have spent years thinking that the only Eliot I’ll ever read for the rest of my life is his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. ‘There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39 when the night mail’s ready to depart …’ being the verse I recite when suffering from insomnia but having seen A.N. Wilson’s passionate and strange documentary on Eliot I feel I have some context within which to read his more difficult stuff and so it appears do all our customers. On the other hand, it might have something to do with austerity, Brexit and Trump.
There is something called BSSL not under any circumstances to be confused with BDSM. BSSL is Bookseller’s Sod’s Law and it means that the book that a person comes in and asks for on one day and that you do not have appears immediately they have gone. As if a genie has pulled it out of a hat and laid it down nice and neatly in your eye line with a note stating, ‘Ha, ha lost sale.’ So obviously half way through my next day at the shop I find a book of Emerson’s essays. There it is in a box in the back. Ooof. I try and comfort myself with the thought it wasn’t there last week but the truth is it probably was and I didn’t look hard enough.
I contemplate the fiction shelves. Obviously this is influenced by the fact I write it. I have an ambiguous relationship, shall we say, with the bestsellers. I try not to feel bitter and twisted. Wouldn’t it be nice I sometimes think to have written a book that had sold so much that it came into charity shops frequently? As I place, for example A Perfect Spy on the shelf I imagine what it must be like to be John le Carré and open your royalty statements, as opposed to being me and opening mine.
Onward and upward. It is interesting noting trends and things, these being different in a second-hand bookshop to new bookshops. For example there was a book titled Golden Hill by Francis Spufford which was Waterstone’s Fiction Book of the Month last October. I was hand sold it by a very enthusiastic Waterstone’s bookseller. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that part of the reason I bought it was because I thought the name of the character played by the gruff-voiced child in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was Francis Spufford III and I love that film. It is my go-to film when I am feeling depressed. Perfect for when I have just received a royalty statement. It’s the camp silliness combined with the extraordinary Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell that always cheers me up. But in fact the name of the character the child played isn’t that, I discovered, it’s Henry Spofford III. So there we are.
I read the first paragraph of Golden Hill and then thought Oh, Henry/Francis you strange gruff-voiced child what are you doing to me? Just forget it. And obviously a great many other people did exactly the same (well, not the gruff-voiced child bit) because we had loads of it come in quickly and in very good condition. That’s quite unusual because it was recent. This made me curious and I picked the book up and tried again and did manage to finish it but it was a pastiche of an 18th century novel and hard work to get into. In my opinion Golden Hill is not the kind of book you would contemplate reading again or recommend to friends so it’s easy to give to a charity shop. Incidentally it won a huge number of prizes so other people obviously felt very differently to me. I’ve noticed that now, a year after being long listed for The Booker, A Little Life is just starting to come in. The great bestseller (in the world of newly published books) of this year has been Eleanor Oliphant is Unwell. We do not have that because everyone is reading it or has just read it and that probably won’t be in for a while but then, my oh my, it will come in and in and in…
I spy a novel with the beguiling title of Putney Bridge. Well, maybe beguiling is the wrong word but I was standing on that bridge just an hour ago waiting for my bus. This is close-ish to the shop and to where I live so I put it out on the table even though I think they could have tried harder with the title. I mean Putney Bridge?????? It’s not exactly The Elegance of the Hedgehog is it? Truth be told I’m not a fan of cutesy titles and every time I come across The Elegance of the Hedgehog I think I am never going to read you ever but then I’m not a fan of utterly prosaic ones like Putney Bridge either. I like to think the author has suffered a bit to come up with the title (because I do) and didn’t just glance out of the tube window and sigh, ‘Oh, Putney Bridge, yeah, fine,’ before going back to their Sudoku. Then I remember didn’t Seamus Heaney title a poem The District Line? or was that Circle and District? or even District and Circle? If he can do it then why not?
Back home I have a bit of a rifle through The Waste Land and realize that this is obviously the go to poem for book titles: The Grass is Singing (Doris Lessing), The Violet Hour (Kate Roiphe and a great many others), A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh), Sweet Thames Run Softly (Robert Gibbings). Better than Putney Bridge. To be frank I find it a bit baffling but having struggled through it (rats, fog, bad sex, oh God, bad teeth) I come to the notes. I have to say I do love notes on poetry. I remember reading or trying to read Tom Paulin’s poem, The Invasion Handbook, and coming to the end of that and thinking, ‘Tom couldn’t you have thrown this poor reader a bit of a bone?’. But actually if I cast my mind back to the glory days of Late Night Review, Paulin was always uncompromisingly stroppy; never a bone thrower and it was one of the things that made him so watchable. I read the notes and come across this, ‘Anyone who is acquainted with these works (The Golden Bough) will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.’ And for some reason somewhat obscure to me start howling with laughter. I think it’s the use of the word immediately. And then it dawns on me. Maybe our customers are all writers looking for titles or maybe they have just received a royalty statement and like me are in desperate need of being cheered up. Unfortunately I don’t think the vegetation ceremonies of The Golden Bough/Waste Land are going to do it, do you?
On the other hand Marilyn just might. Here she is in all her fabulous glory … Someone went a bit overboard with the Grecian 2000 I can’t help thinking and I wonder if those dancers got bonuses for being hit so frequently on the head by her fan.
Incidentally, when I reach the back of this copy of The Waste Land a card falls out. It says:
Dear Maurice – Eureka! Elusive Eliot has come to hand! Pleasant reading Maurice. Love Felicity
Eureka! I tell you Felicity, Eliot is not elusive in our shop at the moment. I wonder what Maurice made of the fog, the rats, the bad sex and bad teeth.
Shantih shantih shantih*, as Eliot would undoubtedly have said.
Leave me comments, lots and lots of them.
*The last words of The Waste Land which mean The Peace which passeth understanding.