My wingman and I
In communion with the beast
Ain’t she a beauty
Cheers to Apeksha Harsh for the photos!
I’m in the wind again, free of house and job for a time. It’s a good time to think on bookshops, and of working in them.
Of course, such pondering has been done before and better by the mighty Orwell. His ‘Bookshop Memories‘ remains pretty much definitive, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the business. From initial expectations of the place…
so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios.
…to dealing with the madness of Christmas…
At Christmas time we spent a feverish ten days struggling with Christmas cards and calendars, which are tiresome things to sell but good business while the season lasts.
…and above all the remarkable number of very strange customers…
In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.
…not much, it seems, has changed in the day to day of the book trade in half a century. Lots of nodding and smiling at marginally insane people and dealing with impossible customer requests…
the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.
…but also plenty of good times. Setting people on to a new author you think they’ll like, chatting with the regulars, and the soothing, relaxing feeling that comes from being around a large quantity of books, of having the wisdom of ten thousand lifetimes compressed into a few dozen bookcases around you. The imminence of such knowledge is a potent thing. Bookshops have an undeniable secular magic.
In the bigger picture, of course, much has changed. One of Orwell’s more confident predictions has sadly been refuted:
The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.
Independents have gone to the wall at a terrifying rate, and even Waterstones (who I have just finished working for) are now in serious trouble. A world in which Amazon and Sainsburys are the dominant forces in bookselling is not is not one to look forward to. On this issue, I am a (self interested) single issue voter. Waterstones, to its great credit, promotes new writing. Amazon and the supermarkets do no such thing. There is precious little space for new authors to gain exposure, and good bookshops are essential to keep new literature alive.
Much of the problem has come with the redefinition of what a book is worth. It is remarkable how little people now expect to pay for them. They will pay £15 for an empty moleskine notebook, £3 for a blank card and £2 for a single sheet of posh wrapping paper without blinking, but trying to sell a £7.99 paperback or (God help you) a full price hardback can be like pulling teeth. Amazon, after a couple of decades in the trade, has achieved a critical victory – it has altered perception of what a ‘normal’ price is. £4.50 for a paperback and £10 for a hardback are seen as the norm. And for a bookshop, this kind of pricing is unsustainable.
Perhaps it makes me an economic Luddite but, the demise of the Net Book Agreement now seems like an act of supreme greed and foolishness on the part of the industry. While it cannot be reintroduced in full – the discounting genie being well and truly out of the bottle – some kind of limiting on discounting seems sensible, perhaps even necessary. I would cap discounts at no more than 33%. This is the margin of the independents, and would allow them to sell books at cost rather than at a loss and still remain competitive with the big beasts. Encouraging market freedoms is one thing. Letting supermarkets punt out bestsellers at a loss in order to sell beefburgers and orange juice is quite another.
But enough of such speculation. Bookshops will survive, though they will become rarer, more niche, and with other sources of income. The Rude Shipyard in Sheffield is a cracking example of this – I’d guess that about 90% of their income derives from the cafe business, but it still has that particular magic that any good bookshop must have. It remains a hub of creative events, a centre for the local community, and this is what must be kept alive.
Would I work in a bookshop again? Certainly, and here there is another disagreement with Orwell, who had no wish to return.
The real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books…The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.
I cannot see working in a bookshop as a long term proposition, as over time they can become maddening, claustrophobic places to stay. But they never made me lose my love of books, mostly because you are constantly exposed to other people’s love of them. Everyday, I got to see people being excited by books, happy at the thought of buying them and taking them home, of having a long quiet time in a shared imagination, of sitting down and enjoying their own company for a time. That, after all, is what books can give us that is so valuable. They make us happy to spend time in our own heads, and, sad as it is to say, for many people that is a rare and precious thing.
It is rare to find a job, particularly in retail, that still feels honest and positive. For a number of reasons, I was often weary and dispirited coming home from the bookshop, but never with that sickly, exhausted feeling of doing something worthless, of doing a trade that is in some way poisonous to the human spirit. Even at the extremes of boredom or frustration, I never doubted that I was doing something worthwhile, because above all, as Orwell says (and it seems fitting to give the last word to him):
it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized.
Sometimes a curl of the lip, always a furrow of the brow.
“Why would you want to live in Sheffield?”
This has been the response of most people I know. They look confused at first, then afraid for me, as if I’d suddenly announced I was about to invest all my money in a pyramid scheme, or that I was considering getting into heroin as a serious lifestyle choice.
It’s a particular anxiety common to Londoners that makes much of the rest of the UK an alarming place to live, especially if you’ve got creative ambitions. There are a few bastions of cool that are still permissible – Edinburgh and Brighton, for instance – but Sheffield is right out. It’s a fear of being away from the centre, of being mediocre and insignificant. But of course, one can be mediocre and insignificant whilst being at the centre – living in London is no talisman against a failing life. I know plenty of friends who should spend all their lives in London, because the city does great things to them. But I don’t think that I’m one of them.
The climbers understand, of course, London climbers being shipwrecked souls who have been swept more than three hours from any rock worth mentioning by career or romance or circumstance. I mention moving to Sheffield and they give a small nod, their eyes dimming, and I know they are no longer listening to me. Instead, they are thinking about whatever gritstone project it is that captivates them, for there are few who can resist the call of that most seductive of rocks. They think of Flying Buttress Direct, perhaps, or Archangel. Maybe they are dreaming further, more dangerously, to Master’s Edge, The End of the Affair, or Gaia. But, of course, no one dreams about Gaia. One only has nightmares about Gaia.
That it’s a home for a climber is without doubt. But is it a home for a writer? Most of the natives with a talent for penmanship end up in the music scene, Sheffield’s bands being well known for both sharp writing and dodgy electronica. The city’s past of steelwork is a useful psychological landscape, for writing is a constructive craft. It is fire and sweat and endless reworking, casting and cooling and hoping that it does not break into pieces.
I try to imagine my life there. I will buy coffee and olive oil from Bragazzi’s, books and tea from The Rude Shipyard, more books and music from Rare and Racy. Train at the Works when it is raining, catch a bus out to the grit every day that it is not. A local brew with Jack and Liz at the Sheaf View at the end of a good day’s work, lunches in the garden with Kaktus and Nome and Chaos the cat. Films at the Showroom and plays at The Crucible. I try to imagine this life, and find it isn’t difficult at all.
I think of being there in Autumn, and remember that is when the Peak is at its most beautiful – sun browned bracken, purple heather, and the morning frost. I think of Sheffield, a city of craftsmen and climbers, and I think of another place to call a home.
The Paris Review interviews really are like crack for writers – addictive, dizzying, indescribably moreish and extremely distracting when you want to get something done. I devoured about a dozen of them in a single hungry night, and it was like sitting down in a room full of my heroes. They are certainly the best interviews that I’ve read.
Here are some of my favourite quotes…
When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.
Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it. Financial security then is a great help as it keeps you from worrying. Worry destroys the ability to write.
Trying to write something of permanent value is a full-time job even though only a few hours a day are spent on the actual writing.
But it has to be said, perhaps with some regret, that the first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone, most fully alive when alone. A tolerance for solitude isn’t anywhere near the full description of what really goes on. The most interesting things happen to you when you are alone.
In theory I would like to work every day. But in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning, so I end up sitting down to write in the afternoon. I’m a daytime writer, but since I waste the morning I’ve become an afternoon writer.
Childhood boredom is a special kind of boredom. It is a boredom full of dreams, a sort of projection into another place, into another reality. In adulthood boredom is made of repetition, it is the continuation of something from which we are no longer expecting any surprise. And I—would that I had time to get bored today! What I do have is the fear of repeating myself in my literary work. This is the reason that every time I must come up with a new challenge to face. I must find something to do that will look like a novelty, something a little beyond my capabilities.
A block is when we can’t get through to the real thing. Many writers write a great deal, but very few write more than a very little of the real thing. So most writing must be displaced activity. When cockerels confront each other and daren’t fight, they busily start pecking imaginary grains off to the side. That’s displaced activity. Much of what we do at any level is a bit like that, I fancy. But hard to know which is which. On the other hand, the machinery has to be kept running. The big problem for those who write verse is keeping the machine running without simply exercising evasion of the real confrontation. If Ulanova, the ballerina, missed one day of practice, she couldn’t get back to peak fitness without a week of hard work. Dickens said the same about his writing—if he missed a day he needed a week of hard slog to get back into the flow.
Art was perhaps this—the psychological component of the autoimmune system. It works on the artist as a healing. But it works on others too, as a medicine. Hence our great, insatiable thirst for it. However it comes out—whether a design in a carpet, a painting on a wall, the shaping of a doorway—we recognise that medicinal element because of the instant healing effect, and we call it art. It consoles and heals something in us. That’s why that aspect of things is so important, and why what we want to preserve in civilisations and societies is their art—because it’s a living medicine that we can still use. It still works. We feel it working. Prose, narratives, etcetera, can carry this healing. Poetry does it more intensely. Music, maybe, most intensely of all.
Lust involves a loss of virtue, in the sense of psychic power. Lust is giving away something that belongs to somebody else. I mean the act of love is a metaphor of spiritual togetherness, and if you perform the act of love with someone who means little to you, you’re giving away something that belongs to the person you do love or might love. The act of love belongs to two people, in the way that secrets are shared. Hugs and kisses are permissible, but as soon as you start with what’s called the mandalot—I invented the word, from the Greek; it comes from mándalos (which is the bolt you put in the socket) and means the tongue-kiss or by dictionary definition “a lecherous and erotic kiss”—these familiarities you should reserve for those whom you really love. I’m on simple hugs-and-kisses terms with several friends. That’s all right. But promiscuity seems forbidden to poets, though I do not grudge it to any nonpoet.
After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever, or even talking to someone you’re not vitally interested in. You’re working, your mind is working, on this problem in the back of your head. So, when you get to the machine it’s a mere matter of transfer.
Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel – “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”
Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death. These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.
To finish is sadness to a writer—a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn’t really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.
You said, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”
It has been said often that a big book is more important and has more authority than a short book. There are exceptions of course but it is very nearly always true. I have tried to find a reasonable explanation for this and at last have come up with my theory, to wit: The human mind, particularly in the present, is troubled and fogged and bee-stung with a thousand little details from taxes to war worry to the price of meat. All these usually get together and result in a man’s fighting with his wife because that is the easiest channel of relief for inner unrest. Now—we must think of a book as a wedge driven into a man’s personal life. A short book would be in and out quickly. And it is possible for such a wedge to open the mind and do its work before it is withdrawn leaving quivering nerves and cut tissue. A long book, on the other hand, drives in very slowly and if only in point of time remains for a while. Instead of cutting and leaving, it allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge. Let’s carry the analogy a little farther. When the quick wedge is withdrawn, the tendency of the mind is quickly to heal itself exactly as it was before the attack. With the long book perhaps the healing has been warped around the shape of the wedge so that when the wedge is finally withdrawn and the book set down, the mind cannot ever be quite what it was before. This is my theory and it may explain the greater importance of a long book. Living with it longer has given it greater force. If this is true a long book, even not so good, is more effective than an excellent short story.
If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know. It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth, and a few remnants of fossilized jawbones, a few teeth in strata of limestone would be the only mark our species would have left on the earth.
I have often thought that this might be my last book. I don’t really mean that because I will be writing books until I die. But I want to write this one as though it were my last book. Maybe I believe that every book should be written that way.
You know I was born without any sense of competition. This is a crippling thing in many ways. I don’t gamble because it is meaningless. I used to throw the javelin far, but I never really cared whether it was farthest. For a while I was a vicious fighter but it wasn’t to win. It was to get it over and get the hell out of there. And I never would have done it at all if other people hadn’t put me in the ring. The only private fights I ever had were those I couldn’t get away from. Consequently I have never even wondered about the comparative standing of writers. I don’t understand that. Writing to me is a deeply personal, even a secret function and when the product is turned loose it is cut off from me and I have no sense of its being mine. Consequently criticism doesn’t mean anything to me. As a disciplinary matter, it is too late.
I guess it is a good thing I became a writer. Perhaps I am too lazy for anything else.