Monday, 31 December 2012

Days of future post

My second incarnation as a bookseller is drawing to a close during the somewhat eerie post-Christmas period, when the Yuletide shopping frenzy is replaced by a much more gentle pace of book-buying, and books about cats pad softly to the store-room.  This is a useful period for tidying, cleaning and, for the most avidly-rummaged sections, large-scale physical reconstruction.  During this process, joyous cries of 'There it is!' rend the air as long-lost copies of particular titles are found inserted head-first behind the bottom shelves in the children's section; (we think this is the result of work carried out by tiny industrial saboteurs, employed by a consortium of e-reader manufacturers).  Being an appreciator of, and seeker after, accidental poetry, I was delighted to hear one of my colleagues announce, during this process of shop refreshment: 

'I've polished the tops of the gondolas'

and would have worked it up into a sonnet if I could have found a rhyme for 'gondolas'.

During this somewhat more tranquil trading period, thoughts inevitably turned to what literary trends, events and publications will define the coming year, so I borrowed a few divination titles from the (now very tidy) Mind, Body, Spirit section and, after an examination of my soya turkey bones that was forensic in its thoroughness and detail, I scried or scyred the following.

Jamie Oliver, inspired by the success of his thirty and fifteen-minute meals books, produces a collection of tasty and healthy supper recipes that actually reach readiness before you start to make them.  There is the usual petty caviling from those who complain that not everybody's kitchen is large enough to contain the CERN particle accelerator and Professor Brian Cox, both of which are required for this process.

The shameless bandwagon-jumping onto the success of E.L. James' books continues, as the following are published in the hope that hard-of-hearing book buyers will rush towards them: a history of certain nimble-footed young women from Powys, Nifty Maids of Hay; a novel set in a garden centre where the staff are fiercely mandated to sell as many digging implements as possible during spring, Shift the Spades of May and a lyrical, poetic celebration of water-skiing, Drift, ye Blades of Spray.


Film director Peter Jackson carries further his approach to The Hobbit and develops a five-film sequence from a semi-colon in The Silmarillion.


The government Deed Poll website crashes as each leading literary author in the world attempts to change their name to Hilary Mantel before the Booker judges convene.


Publishing house Random Penguins denies that its newly-announced merger with God will stifle competition or give it an unfair influence over the market.


The year's runaway best-seller is an update on the Mayan prophecy called Whoops, we Forgot to Carry One.


I'd like to extend sincere thanks to everyone who's taken the time to walk across cyberspace and view this blog, and leave the year in the hope that 2013 brings a more peaceful world.


Friday, 28 December 2012

Polley-syllabic: a review of The Havocs

The definition and purpose of poetry are not subjects unknown to this blog.  See here, for example.  Many would claim that one of poetry’s chief duties is to arrest the reader with powerful, startling images and statements that invest what was previously seen or known with new meaning, magic or wonder.  

This is certainly a service provided by The Havocs, Jacob Polley’s new collection from Picador Poetry; Polley bestows on us, for example, costumed bee-keepers viewed as

post-industrial seraphim

and observes that to inhale winter air is to

breathe blue knives’.

Those who, as I do, grow joyful at the display of formal ability and dexterity need look no further than this collection, whether it be in the skilfully flexible rhymed iambics of the opening poem The Doll’s House, various novel forms of sonnet or the Anglo-Saxon alliterative style.  

Polley is also blessed with the Fenton/Auden-like ability (not to diminish any party by comparison) to produce lines and poems that, employing simple vocabulary, are able to evoke a kind of timeless, enigmatic declaratory wisdom.  From A Book of Water, for example:

I bought a book of water
its covers bound in weed,
its spine of muscled silver,
its words too quick to read.'

and, as Doll’s House zooms out from the sub-human to the cosmic scale:

What happens if you turn away?
Every god has asked the same,’.

Polley frequently unleashes a keen eye and ear on natural phenomena, producing exquisite lyric descriptions of flora and fauna.  He can also, however, experiment with language in a discommoding way, especially in the title poem and Virus, both of which blend (deliberate) clichés with a vision of a language that has run riot with peculiar usages; a metaphor for and embodiment of the growing gap between the state of the world and our ability to describe it. The more emotionally engaged poems often look back to the troubling puzzles of childhood and are imbued with a wistful and contemplative tone that is never sentimental.

Little streams of reference and theme trickle pleasantly through the book; the mysterious, riddle-like Hide and Seek prefigures a section of literal riddles about occupations; there is a sequence of poems which looks at the ephemeral nature of human activity from various perspectives,  and another which fires off a volley of observations and reflections about the Moon.  Despite the conventional and well-worn subject mater of these poems, the precisely unusual vocabulary and imagery redeem Polley's versions from predictability and cliché. There is also a number of poems which echo and reshape the work of other writers: Doll’s House shares themes with Keats’ Grecian Urn, The News can be read as a response to Auden’s Stop All the Clocks and It Will Snow Before Long is an honourable relative of Louis MacNeice’s Snow.

I must quote in full one of the shorter poems which made me purr with appreciation:


A star-cold dark and silence over
which you hold your face
to look as many lovely others
looked and left no trace.

In summary, The Havocs is a wonderfully inventive, beautiful, and intelligent collection, superbly crafted and justifiably endorsed by the Poetry Book Society.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Chariots of fire and brimstone

Dedalus is one of our most innovative and worthy publishers.  Both qualities are borne witness to in first translations of excellent foreign literature (New Finnish Grammar being a conspicuous recent example); a continuous string of novels mapping the more bizarre territories of human experience and thought (Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf springs to mind, a rare case of a work being as superbly-written as it is eccentrically-titled) and a range of anthologies that are imaginatively and carefully curated.

In this last category, The Decadent Sportsman, kindly provided by the publisher for review, recently insinuated its way through our letterbox, to lie in a louche and seductive manner in the hall; no mean feat to accomplish through a layer of cardboard packaging.

Each book in the Decadent series, of which this is the fourth, is presented by the fictional duo of Durian Gray and Medlar Lucan.  Our hosts are disciples of modern decadence, a religion the central purpose of which is 'transforming one's life - however sordid....into a work of art'.  The relevant presiding deity is the Marquis de Sade; the prophets include D.H. Lawrence and Oscar Wilde, and the required rituals count among their number bizarre and painful sexual activity, the elaborate abuse of intoxicants in all forms and being impeccably dressed at all times.  Around each theme, the editors weave a triple-stranded tapestry of sumptuous and outrageous material, these strands being: their own beautifully-jaded observations on life in general and on their own eventful existences; a series of relevant and often bizarre lists, facts and other information from the real world and choice, often lengthy extracts from various genres of literature which can delight and surprise even the most experienced reader's palate.

Allow me to give respective examples from the current publication.  One of the earliest and best editorial contributions is a Position Paper to the IOC on 'the Inclusion of Sexual Athletics (Fornicastics) as Recognised Sports in Future Olympic Games'.  Typically, this idea is developed at length and in wonderful detail, including a systematic definition of nomenclature ('Individual fornicastics (formerly termed masturbatics')) and calibration of scoring.  Among the strange factual nests that are plundered are two lists which attempt to categorise different types and levels of pain, and the life and exploits of Algernon Charles Swinburne, while the quotations include William Hazlitt's extraordinary description of a prizefight.  This is only to scratch (or lightly flay, as Gray and Lucan would prefer) the surface of the book, among whose other highlights there are a fascinating discourse on gladiatorial combat, some caustic observations on the failings of modern sport and the observation that 'sleeping with a jockey is like a night on a pebble beach'

As are its counterparts, Sportsman is framed by the device of Gray and Lucan having washed up in a particular locale, (this is usually because they are fleeing the attentions of debt-collectors and the law agencies).  On this occasion, we find them in a crumbling Cuban town house which also hosts a boxing gym, and it is from their growing fascination with particular aspects of pugilism - 'there is no more beautiful sight than that of a polychromatic bruise or a bead of blood against dark skin' - that they launch upon their own extraordinary exploration of sport and sportspeople.

This is certainly a book for broad-minded sports enthusiasts, lovers of the curious and the bizarre in life, art and history, and anyone who thinks that best-selling novels about modest sadomasochism define the edge of literary risk-taking.

Tune in again on Friday for the next post in the new, exciting thrice-weekly format.

Monday, 24 December 2012

And so that was Christmas

Having been away from the retail world for many years, I had grown accustomed to Christmas leave periods that were positively decadent in length.  It was with particular intensity, therefore, that I greeted the dawn (in our house, due to certain localised quantum temporal effects, this phenomenon occurs at around 10.30 a.m. on a non-working day) of the first precious day off in a consecutive series of three, and decided it was time to reflect on the current behaviour of Christmas in bookshops.

As someone who has recently and often promulgated the theory that cultural and technological pundits have underestimated the appeal and endurance of physical books, it was cheering to hear many bookshop customers echoing this. As stated in previous posts, I am not motivated towards this stance by any kind of Luddite wish to deny or turn back the tide of technology (that's more Canutite, I know), and if you attempted to locate me around the nether regions of Milton Keynes during the hours of darkness, crawling through the undergrowth in camouflage clothing lobbing clogs at the Amazon warehouse, your search would be in vain.  (You may, however, witness some even more intriguing sights).  I would also question some of the claims that are being made for the superior utility of e-readers, especially the notion that, for hundreds of years now, people have been sacrificing essential holiday items in order to fit a sufficient number of physical books into their suitcase.  I have uttered and heard many a cavil and complaint about holiday experiences in my time, but I can't recall anyone saying that it had been inconvenient to wear the same shirt and pants every day for a fortnight, but at least they'd read War and Peace in the original, thanks to having packed that seven-volume set of Russian dictionaries alongside the novel. There is also the point to be made that most people's working lives are now dominated by computers, and that they may not wish to extend this relationship into their reading hours.

It was refreshing to see that, if our own bookshop was typical, literary fiction can be pursued with fervent popular demand.  Those In Control Of Writing Things must, however, intervene in the problem of Hilary Mantel and Yann Martel having such similar surnames, if we are to avoid more frantic customers asking if they can have a copy of Bringing up Tigers or Wolf Pie, both of  which, in any case, strike me as novels that deserve to be written.

The Law of the Absurdly Popular Christmas Feline Book was proudly upheld by A Street cat Named Bob, although I am sad to report we could not account for one copy yesterday, which situation led to one of my colleagues calling 'Here, Bob, Bob, Bob' around the shop (in a relatively customer-free moment) to no avail.  This outcome was not surprising, as he should of course have put down a book about milk to entice it back.

Finally, it was good to have it reaffirmed that being around books has a benign and soothing influence on the human soul.  During all the hours of frantic trading, the occasional long queue and not always being able to supply people's first requests, there was no flaring of temper or outburst of hysteria.  The customers behaved pretty decently too.

This blog will now become decorously inebriated on Southern Comfort and slur its wishes to you all for the most peaceful Christmas and inspiring new year.  Look out on Wednesday for a review of Dedalus' Decadent Sportsman.


Friday, 21 December 2012

Puns in Royal David's City

Although book recommendations cascade down like snowflakes in a very snowy country at this time of year, I was unable to resist adding to their number a few appropriate festive suggestions, which you may not find in your average list nor, for that matter, bookshop.*

Look Back in Manger

Hollyver Twist

The Mince Pie who Loved Me

Westward Ho! Ho!

Hergé's Adventures of Tinsel

Frankincense and Sensbility

Tom Brown's Yuledays

Sprout of Africa

*Not even, for example, The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City (it doesn't sell coat hangers).


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

On me book, Alan

For me, the day of our Alex Fynn / Alan Smith signing of Arsenal - the Making of a Superclub began ominously.  I arrived at Hitchin train station to be greeted by the sight of half the town standing in the forecourt. Dismissing the notion that these people had been gripped by a spontaneous mass outburst of festive bonhomie and were comparing basting methods, my razor-sharp faculty of deductive reasoning reached the conclusion that yesterday evening's problems with unsteady Flange Capacitors in the King's Cross area had been granted an extension.  Sure enough, the station was full of no trains in both directions, which necessitated my walking back home and driving to Welwyn Garden City.

Once I arrived at The Bookshop, however, a more positive mood was discovered.  Inspired by the imminent appearance of their former stalwart Alan Smith, Arsenal had walloped in an unfeasibly large number of goals against the hapless Reading the previous evening; the books had arrived in timely fashion, (we believe in the old-fashioned virtue of having books at book signings) and the advance orders with special dedications were neatly arranged for the pre-signing signing session. Even the potential and dangerous distraction from our event which manifested itself in the form of a children's choir on the ground floor proved futile, especially when our science-fiction obsessed colleague walked past them several times in the highly realistic zombie costume he had acquired at his last convention.

Soon, a spirited crowd had formed itself into a more or less orderly queue outside the shop, (although things did get a little edgy when someone suggested that Arsenal should be playing with a roving midfield sweeper behind a sagging diamond formation) and I had to suppress the urge to walk past them chanting Tottenham Hotspur slogans, which, I can assure you, required considerable effort.  Messrs Fynn and Smith were friendliness and charm themselves, as they signed for and were photographed with a steady stream of delighted pilgrims from The Emirates.

Smith (left) and Fynn
The business of converting the shop into a signing-friendly zone and then reversing the process, while the Christmas buying frenzy raged around us was a stimulating challenge. We've gone beyond multi-tasking, and have developed numerous astral projections of ourselves which can: simultaneously attempt to look up books described as being 'Blue' or 'About something'; diplomatically urge parents to intervene in the process of their child eating the stock; replace books on tables and displays as they are (increasingly rapidly) snatched up and reassure persistent customers that we're not keeping 'the best books' behind the counter for specially favoured patrons.  Late entrants into festive popularity, by the way, include Alys, Always and (perhaps boosted by Marina Warner's broadcasts) Philip Pulman's Grimm retellings.

In the end, all went well, star guests and customers alike were satisfied, and it was with good cheer that my colleagues boarded the special yaks, thoughtfully chartered by the rail companies, to travel home.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Yoga for booksellers (with apologies to yoga)

I firmly and proudly belong to that section of the population which celebrates (in all senses) Christmas, and am irritated by those who seem to derive a perverse pleasure from sniping at this merry institution.

I recognise, however, that the season carries, like sinister baubles, its peculiar stresses and strains, not least for those of us in the business of handing Christmas over the counter to eager shoppers. I thought, therefore, that I would make the gift of sharing with you the unique, holistic system we have devised at The Bookshop in Welwyn Garden City, to ameliorate these pressures.  We have adapted certain classic yoga postures and blended them with key variants in order to combine and unite the manifold duties involved in modern book relocation with the physical and spiritual benefits of the ancient discipline.  A few examples are:  

Yogic nameArdha Candrāsana (Half-Moon Pose)

The Bookshop name: Reaching For The Shutter Switch At Closing And Opening Times, Avoiding The Rather Large Number Of Books Thrust Manically Into The Window Space To Entice Customers Across The Threshold.  GREAT CARE must be taken when withdrawing from this posture to ensure: (a) the correct breathing and alignment are employed and (b) that you avoid treading on the nice Peter Rabbit gift set.

Yogic name: Balasana (Child's Pose)  

The Bookshop name: Dignified Apology To Customer For Failing To Have Latest Jamie Oliver On Shelf, While Humbly Reassuring Them It Can Be Ordered Rapidly.  Note the alternative name: Explanation To Manager For Omitting To Toggle F9 On Epos System Then Pressing Enter Three Times And Facing West While Selling Book Tokens (see previous blog posts).

Yogic Name: Spinal Twist 

The Bookshop name: Rapid Swivelling Of Head While Tidying Children's Section For The Fourth Time This Day To Maintain Vigilance Over Customers Waiting At Till, Looking Bewildered Or Muttering About Latest Jamie Oliver Not Being On Shelf.


Friday, 14 December 2012

In search of invisible books

Time, I think, to open another window in the advent calendar that is Christmas life in a modern independent book emporium.  I mean, of course,  The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City (it does what it says on the fascia).

We are, (need it be said?) on close personal terms with most of the titles in our shop, but to enquire about the few exceptions, we rely on our EPOS (Electronic Point of Sale) system.  This, as any (retailing) fule kno, is a suite of linked computer programs that records and analyses the flow of stock in and out of shops. It cannot, of course, be relied upon unquestioningly, but is in most cases preferable to that combination of neglected stock cards, faulty memory and voodoo that pertained before the advent of affordable I.T.  

Every so often, possibly because it has downloaded 2001, a Space Odyssey during closing hours too many times and adopted HAL as a dubious role model, it likes to amuse itself by pretending that a book is in stock when the opposite is very much the case, sending booksellers hurtling vainly around the shelves while it sniggers electronically in a corner. The three titles that our Enumerating Phantoms on Shelves system has selected recently are a football book about Crystal Palace, Conference of the Birds (a Persian epic poem) and The Book Thief.  If, in fact, the stock discrepancy is due to eccentric shoplifting, we must alert the North Hertfordshire constabulary to be on the lookout for a Crystal Palace supporter with a taste for ancient literature who - probably due to a psychological quirk arising from childhood trauma - always betrays his or her activities by liberating an appropriate object.  I expect they're very erudite people on the Crystal Palace terraces, and can imagine  them using allusions to Plato's cave allegory to cast doubt on the referee's interpretation of his sense data, before hurling withering insults in rhyming Persian couplets at their visiting counterparts.  It's a funny old game.

The major event of the day was a very substantial stock delivery of Wordsworth Editions, an imprint that combines budget price points (from £1.99) with attractive, elegant designs, highly readable fonts and good quality paper; (and does not sponsor this blog).  We've been doing very steady trade with their adult and children's classics and poetry, but have now branched out into larger format hardback collections, non-fiction and supernatural classics, the last genre including many authors whose work prefigured the current supernatural literary crime wave.  The hapless colleague who was attempting to tell our Eccentric Piece of Software system about the arrival of these goodies was not assisted in her task by the rest of us wandering in every few minutes and snatching up the books which particularly took our eye, and cradling and cooing over them in a manner that wasn't in the slightest bit peculiar.  That any of the books made it to the shop floor was a minor miracle. How Wordsworth achieves this, I'm not sure.  Their website offers some explanation, but I think they've read some of their own more esoteric publications and have Employed Dark Forces, probably including a Satanic printing press staffed by doomed souls.

Lastly, it's good to see that the notion of supporting one's local book boutique (and other shops) is being given noticeably more frequent and more overt expression by our customers, who often engage us in detailed and interesting conversations about this phenomenon.  For many of our regulars, indeed, a 'reverse showcase' effect is in place, whereby they may come across a book on-line and then choose to buy it through physical means.  This wouldn't be the case, of course, if we didn't include excellent service, literary knowledge and (occasionally) the slapstick  entertainment of running around the shop chasing invisible books.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Yet more dead good books

Today's book trade e-newsletter from The Bookseller delivers the sensational assertion that Ghostwriting Is The Future Of Literature, apropos of Wilbur Smith's alleged plans to outsource the actual writing element of his future book production.  This might have led me to think about the philosophical implications of identity and the nature of creativity, perhaps alluding to the New Critics' assertion of authorial insignificance, and pausing to wonder about the validity of comparing this writing system to, for example, those great fine artists of the past who directed their apprentices to produce or prepare particular sections of their paintings.

Instead, I imagined a crack squad of scribblers in the post-life stage, gathered in a trans-dimensional garret, eagerly awaiting their next assignments. Each a specialist in their particular genre, they would include:

For rip-roaring militaristic techno yarns: Phantom Clancy

To provide moral guidance through anthropomorphic children's stories: The Revenant Wilbert Awdry

For wry poetic quips, Shaderian Henri...

...and for more substantial verse, Sylphia Plath

To add a Caribbean flavour, and furnish the occasional Charlotte Brontë prequel, Jinn Rhys

And finally, supplying free-wheeling, hallucinogenic political insight, Haunter S. Thompson.

Please feel free to swell the ranks of this community by possessing the Comment button. Got to leave you now, the last succubus home is due.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Future perfect

I've just read Utopia, kindly provided by Five Leaves Publishing for this review. This Nottingham-based press has a diverse list, but among its specialities are books which discuss the relationship between people, societies and the land (particularly from the perspective of progressive politics) and Jewish studies.  You have to love a publisher with Rock 'n Roll Jews in its backlist.

It is no surprise, then, that Utopia's main focus is on how relatively small communities have articulated and attempted to realise various concepts of a fair and just society.  These communities include the Moravians, various Back to the Land settlements in Essex, Israeli Kibbutzim and the radical Liverpool bookshop, News from Nowhere.

The book, following its 2011 predecessor, Maps, comprises a number of articles by various authors, with old, new and archive material mixed happily together.  The News from Nowhere chapter is for me, (perhaps because of my bookselling proclivities) the most remarkable and inspiring, describing as it does the phenomenal courage, indomitable persistence and commendable idealism of the various personnel who have guided this outlet from the humblest of beginnings to its present status as a flagship institution in the city, never having sacrificed their principles en route.  My jaw grew ever slacker as I read about how the Nowhere people struggled against financial crises, environmental problems and - most alarmingly - physical attacks by extreme right-wing thugs.  The necessity to clear up after arson attacks, secure and remove steel shutters around a building and sleep on the premises to fend off further raids rather puts my reluctance to tidy the Transport section into perspective.

This is not to say that Utopia neglects the theoretical and ruminative aspects of it subject. The first essay - Let's Talk Utopia, by Mike Marqusee, is a clarion call to the effect that only by striving for better and even ideal societies can we make progress, and Utopias of the Nineteenth Century, by Marie Louise Berneri, is an older piece which, with an admirable combination of erudition and readability, maps out the scope and limitations of the relevant philosophers and social commentators from that era.

In fact, one of the great strengths of this book is the variety in tone, style and genre of its constituent parts, ranging from scholarly pieces, exceptional travel writing (Homeland by Chris Moss), songs and poetry, with not a dud piece of writing among them.  As with any good anthology, there are charming little outcrops of fact and anecdote: Shelley being shot at by deranged Welshmen; the word 'nostalgia' having been coined 'in order to identify the mental condition of Swiss Guards separated from their homeland' and an offhand reference by Macaulay about an envisaged future New Zealand tourist viewing the remains of London Bridge becoming a common trope in nineteenth-century literature.

My utopian version of this book would have included an index, but I was thoroughly satisfied, stimulated and educated nonetheless.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Time of the Signings

Christmas at The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City has stopped taxiing and is now soaring majestically through the winter sky.  Customers' voices are noticeably more anxious; they fix us with their glittering eyes and 'There is a book....' quoth they.  As if the exquisite pressure of finding, selling and ordering books and rebuilding the children's section every half hour were not enough, we are hosting an event next week with the sports writer Alex Fynn and the Arsenal footballer turned pundit, Alan Smith, who will be signing copies of the former's book: Arsènal the Making of a Modern Superclub.  Note - the latter is not to be confused with Alan Smith, the Leeds footballer turned ex-Leeds footballer.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote (so it must be true) that 'No American is so old and poor and friendless that he cannot make a collection of some of the most exquisite little ironies in town'  and, (transposing this sentiment across the Atlantic and diminishing it in scale somewhat) it seems my ironic lot (as a Tottenham Hotspur supporter) to be involved with Arsenal book signings.  For those blog visitors less familiar with the tribal allegiances that pertain in the world of association football, I should point out that far from there being a feeling of chintzy neighbourliness between fans of the two North London clubs, they view each other with a kind of pathological, drooling bigotry that is beyond rational explanation, and almost never lend each other a cup of sugar. Some of us, however, are immune to this phenomenon, and are probably equally despised accordingly by many Spurs fans (no, it's alright - you're not getting confused, it's an affectionate diminutive for 'Tottenham Hotspur').

My last experience in this category involved a signing by another Arsenal footballer turned pundit, Ian Wright, over a lunchtime in a St Albans bookshop.  We knew, of course, being booksellers finely attuned to the cultural and emotional landscape of our community, that Hertfordshire was a veritable nest of Arsenal (and Tottenham) fans, but the sheer size and emotional intensity of the crowd who turned up were astonishing.  This was the only occasion on which I saw a queue for an event snake round the entire shop perimeter, go out of the door, round one side of the large shopping centre wherein we were located, and head down the hill a good way towards Harpenden, thus alarming citizens of that peaceable market town with fears of an invasion.  The demeanour of the people attending betrayed awe and excitement in equal parts, and one couple even brought their baby, so that it could be photographed being cradled by Mr. Wright. At this point, I swore I saw two angelic figures hovering over the Arsenal footballer turned pundit's head, with footballs where their haloes should have been (they had a deft touch and showed a good awareness of where the goal was).

Anyhow - if you're (a) local or (b) an Edinburgh-based Arsenal supporter with sufficient motivation, we'd be glad to see you next Tuesday, 18th December, from 12.30 - 1.30.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Yule Blog (Part the Third)

I remember cutting my literary teeth on the early novels of Russell Hoban. I joyfully discovered his expert blend of realism, myth and humour, while having it confirmed that I prefer fiction which walks a few steps to one side of realistic representation (wearing its hat at a jaunty angle and whistling something in a tricky time signature). In The Lion Of Boaz Jachin And Jachin Boaz, for example, Hoban plays beautifully with the idea of a vision (the eponymous lion) which only certain characters can see, complicating the device by situating it ambiguously in the real and mental worlds, and imbuing it with a dangerous physicality.  The novel also skilfully uses a setting of unspecified place and time, and one of the book's fascinations lies in the ways this world overlaps, or does not, with that with which we are familiar.  Successfully realised in this way, this kind of anonymous, atemporal environment is at once satisfyingly credible and compellingly exotic.

I lost track of Hoban's adult work, but when I heard, late last year, that he had died, my curiosity was piqued by the news that two of his children's books were being posthumously published.  One of these - Soonchild -was released this year, and is an astonishing, magical and potent blend of Hoban's words and Alexis Deacon's drawings.  The book describes an archetypal quest, that of the brilliantly-named Sixteen-Face John, an Arctic shaman, whose wife is about to give birth.  The child, however, will not emerge, because it cannot hear the World Songs that call children from the womb.  John's search for the Songs entails meetings with a series of mythical and other creatures, some dangerous situations and the requirement to solve problems, and also involves him in the discovery of a vital but lost connection with his past, about which he is only dimly aware.  Hoban sidesteps the dangers of banality, bathos and cliche with which this kind of story is beset, and produces a rich, compassionate, mystical and very funny fable. In fact Hoban's uncanny ability to deploy humour in this kind of narrative, without disrupting the tone or content of the more serious matter, is for me one of the things that mark him out as a writer of genius.  As for the pictorial element - I have seldom seen a book in which the illustrations were not only of such stunning quality but were so well-integrated with the text.  The design and production staff involved in this publication ought to be applauded, alongside its creators.

I've been inspired by Soonchild to repair the considerable gaps in my wall of Hoban, and hope you will speed to your nearest independent retailer to scoop up a dozen or so copies of this book to give at Christmas. Keep at least two for yourself; it's always good to have a spare.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Internal promotion

The usual euphoria induced by working at The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City, was made  more intense recently by the news that one of our co-proprietors had been interviewed on BBC Three Counties Radio. If you visit this link, and slide the timer to 34:50, you can listen to this exchange, which was inspired by the sad news that Waterstone's has closed its branches in Stevenage and Watford.  Alternatively, you can listen to all the preceding pieces and become acquainted with the yodelling puppy of Baldock and Amersham's largest rawlplug.  I'm not entirely clear about these things, but I understand that if you don't visit the link within 72 hours, it will have turned into a digital pumpkin, or have exploded. In any case, our man offered some interesting insights into the challenges of running a modern bookstore and into the trade in general.

Things became even more giddy when it emerged that - because we had sold nearly all our advent calendars, and the non-advent calendars could be moved into the space thus created, and that the requisite special shelf label-holders had been reclaimed from the warehouse, (where they had been languishing in a box clearly marked 'Tinsel') - our beloved manager was introducing a 'staff recommends' display.  She Who Is Spontaneously Obeyed sat us down in the Staff Training corner and slowly and patiently explained that we could choose our two bestest books and write ever so much nice things about them on special labels. A period of brief cogitation produced the selections, the descriptions of which had then to be expressed in about five lines of text; a demanding exercise which must have been performed hundreds of thousands of times in bookshops and which might provide the contents for one of those quirky anthologies that emerge only at Christmas, and cause department allocation anxieties to already overwrought booksellers. My brace of titles is Donne's Selected Poems and Philip Reeve's wonderful Mortal Engines, and I was delighted to see a colleague had selected the excellent The Night Circus.

I became something of a veteran of these efforts during my first eight years in bookselling, and have often been amused to see the minor disputes that arise. I have seen beleaguered managers calmly but firmly explain that the resident shop revolutionary couldn't choose 'Easy bomb construction Illustrated', or be obliged to devise a spreadsheet of NASA-boggling complexity to ensure that the books' sales could be fairly compared, taking into account the average number of copies held, the position in display (rotated according to another spreadsheet), the average national popularity of the genre, the current astrological alignment and the prevailing wind direction. Surreptitious re-positioning of books - sometimes without opening hours - was also not entirely unknown.

In the Spaghetti Junction of modern publishing, helpful road-signs are one of the things a good bookshop can provide, and booksellers' choices are an interesting way to do this.  Do come and view the full range - trains from London run regularly, and you will get to see the Shredded Wheat factory, which only heroic restraint has prevented me from mentioning much more often.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dead good books

There was a recent outbreak of polite, mild excitement at The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City,** when the Book Fairy delivered a number of titles from the '1001' and '501' range. In a burst of creative frenzy and lateral thinking, we put them all together on a display table.  Never, surely, was a retail envelope so ferociously pushed. In an inter-surge period, a colleague and I naturally gravitated towards, and began interrogating the volume entitled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. We began making a tally of, as it were, how close we had come to death, but abandoned the effort on the grounds of embarrassment, and then agreed how we hoped to find even less correspondence in 501 Most Notorious Crimes.

This led me to think about a sequel which might appropriately accommodate one's post-life needs, hence my working title 'A Small Handful of Books you Really ought to Read After You Die'.  If the vision of Heaven on which so many Christians were sustained through their formative years is accurate, then surely a copy of Cloud Atlas will be a necessary tool to navigate this realm, so that the trauma of parking one's harp in a reserved space could be avoided.  Assuming that another famous tome offers guidance on etiquette, and lists appropriate subject matter for small talk, then Conversations with God may well ease what could be an awkward introduction to the Supreme Being.  It might be imprudent to mention beetles, for example, the creation of which caused God to get notoriously carried away, and about which It is probably still embarrassed.  If, however, the Buddhists have got it right, you might wish to switch to The (Re)Bourne Identity or even Bringing up the Bodies.

I am resisting the temptation to buy this book as, beautifully-produced 'though it is, and despite the alternate frissons of vindication and outrage I would enjoy as I identified the inclusion and exclusion of pet authors, its girth would finally unsettle our domestic book-to-space ratio, and we would be obliged to move house, which would upset the cat no end.

More on our exciting stock range later.

**Never knowingly mistaken for a haberdashery.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Cold selling

Hertfordshire this morning lay besieged and helpless, like a county-shaped trembling animal, under the indomitable and relentless grip of winter.  Until it got sunny a bit later.  This meant a slow start to trade in The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City, (whose annual 'guess what we sell' competition attracts many correct entries).  During this temporary lull in retail hostilities, I wandered over to the Poetry section and was admiring, if not drooling over slightly, its tightly-packed shelves and strict alphabetical organisation, when I was suddenly possessed by the spirit of John Keats.  This is an occupational hazard in bookshop work, which is why you should never spend too long in True Crime without having an exorcist on standby in the staff room.  In no time at all, I had extruded, like verbal ectoplasm, this version of a well-known sonnet.

When I have fears that books may cease to sell
Before, on Christmas Eve, we close the doors,
And that my till will toll its blithesome bell
No more, because the pestilential claws
Of on-line sales and e-books have embraced
The bookshop in a fatal grip at last;
Then I recall each customer who's graced,
With compliments, our service and held fast
To notions of supporting local trade
And browsing and conversing over books;
To viewing what has newly been displayed
And, as a pilgrim, threading through our nooks.

Should all else fail, and gloom persist, in spite,
I place a book on cats in plainer sight.

Be assured, gentle blogee, that shortly after I had resumed my quotidian identity, trade became brisk and merry, and do look out for this poem in the revised collected works.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Monster mash-up

Today, while herding back a few children's books which had been making a break for Mind, Body Spirit, (at The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City), I noticed a cunningly-titled series; Vampirates.  See what they did there?  This naturally led me to wonder what other supernatural tribes could be thrust into a blender and mixed with various cultural elements, and what the results might be.

The leading contenders are:

Frankensteinway: a blood-curdling gothic tale of a deranged piano-manufacturer, who creates a monstrous instrument, comprising the crudely-joined parts of several dead pianos.  His monstrous progeny will only play pieces by Boris Carl Orff, Benjamin Bitten, Clawed Debussy, etc....

Shaman Andrews: the eerie adventures of a much-loved TV presenter with mystical powers, best known for hosting the series on reincarnation; Those Were Your Lives.

Zombieatitudes:  this mystical tome contains the eight sacred blessings of the Zombie race, held by many to be among the finest pieces of Undead scripture in their elegance and simplicity.  They include 'Blessed be they who they who hunger and thirst for brains: for they will be satisfied'.

This has to be a relatively short blog, as I head now to our Christmas meal, where we will, after a few tumblers of vintage Chianti, discuss the semiotic subtext of Thomas the Tank Engine.  We are such crazy guys.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The pick of the creme of the best of the....

While reading this weekend what seemed like the fifty-fourth round-up of the year's best books (and discovering, sarcasm aside, some enticing unknown titles to pursue), I thought I'd present a few of my favourites, opting for a range of genres and styles.

I hope you agree.


Sebastien Flyteworth

Hurrah for the tiny Abstruse Press.  Their new parallel-text translation of Zolgy Floxen's medieval Hungarian Epic, 'The Not Inconsiderable nor Dissimilar Journeys of  Napkirálycuts like an ancient but still formidable scythe through the vapid floss of 'Christmas' publishing to remind us that the dark and mysterious sap of great literature still courses vigorously through the tree of human culture. To many modern readers this repeated description of the mighty sun god - as he drives his steed from East to West each day, again, and again - may seem lacking in those relatively novel and tawdry effects on which the modern palate has come to rely for literary stimulation: character, plot, style and so on. To anyone with even the faintest smattering of 12th-century Hungarian, however, the subtle, one might almost say microscopic variations across the two thousand pages, gamely realised by Abstruse's translator, are a delight in themselves.  Lest ye doubt, I can bring no more formidable persuasive power to bear than by quoting this section from the nineteenth canto:

 'For lo, full Westward he travelled
 Neither was it true that Eastward lay his goal
 (And that of his horse),
 For the West it was that constituted his destination,
 I fail to speak untruth in this regard.'


Tobi Smecel

Just at the point when our weary, disillusioned heads had slumped onto the gleaming worktops of our Colosseo Oro kitchens, and we despaired of ever again encountering a genuinely new and exciting culinary trend, this book came as our redeemer.  The ear-lobes of a select few had been set twitching by vague rumours that Alessandro di Corta had developed an entirely new cooking system, but none of us were prepared for the full and devastating impact that the resulting book, 'Alliterativo', has had on the entire culinary world.  Creating dishes using only ingredients that begin with the same letter is one of those ideas that, once expressed, seems so simple and obvious, but it often takes true genius to see the precious jewel gleaming in plain sight.  Without this radical yet childlike approach, we would have been deprived of - for example, the sublime dish of Ricotta and Radish Risotto, nor would our palates have been transported to nirvana by his intoxicating range of Yam Yoghurts.  Di Corta lays out his recipes with admirable clarity, and is always, even from his lonely pinnacle of gastronomic eminence, fully aware of the possible practical obstacles his less well-resourced readers may encounter.  Hence his frequent suggestions for alternative ingredients, and his indispensable notes on sourcing (the latter especially useful for those ambitious enough to tackle his Zebra and Zucchini stir-fry).  Buy and give this book abundantly - the results will be indescribable.


Sandra Samson

Thank goodness we no longer have to apologise for young adult novels which recognise and face up to the less fluffy aspects of contemporary reality.  We have moved on, at last, from when the merest mention of illness or accident would cause the Daily Mail nation to fling up their hands in collective despair and bemoan the passing of some mythical golden age, when readers of eighteen or under were fed a stream of bland, optimistic scenarios in which every character possessed two fiercely heterosexual parents (married, naturally) and in which swearing was unknown and suffering more so.  Dixon Malachi's incredible new teen novella, 'The Blacker Blackness of Stephen McDonald' treads boldly into this hard-won territory of honesty and relevance.  Without revealing too much of the extraordinary plot, suffice to say that the titular 'hero' (such concepts are interrogated to impotence by the sheer, persistent malevolence exhibited by the universe in this work) struggles against emotional and physical odds that would render most adults - let alone teenagers - helpless. His trials include include his parents apparently going missing, a sinister and possibly mystical entity that haunts his house and a burgeoning bisexuality which makes him an easy target for school bullies and damages his relationship with his girlfriend, Susan, who herself has profound gender identity issues.  Winnie the Pooh this isn't, but as a compelling and necessary road map to the fraught mental landscape of today's youth, it cannot be bettered.


Sara Frobisher de Beaufort-Smythe

I simply don't know what my dad would say about me choosing my sister Clara's delightful romp 'All's Mayfair in Love and War' as my book of the year.  Not, mind you, that he has any time to say anything in between his author signings for his absolutely riveting memoir, 'The Accidental Ambassador' as recently reviewed in this paper by my third cousin.  'Mayfair' is simply stuffed with delightful and hilarious incidents and characters, as Fate leads the inhabitants of a particular mews on a merry dance of romance and adventure, but the book doesn't shy away from the more sombre aspects of life, such as the frightful complexity of property taxes on third homes.  Do pop down to my nephew's bookshop and buy a copy.

Friday, 30 November 2012

The Re-Extended Excruciating and Indispensable Literature and Publishing Dictionary

Due to no kind of demand whatsoever, the third installment of my reference work, already hailed as having three parts so far, can now be revealed to an undeserving world.

CANTICLE:        Is not unable to stimulate sensitive bodily areas.

EROTIC FICTION:  'It was great for me too, darling'.

FOLIO:           A pastiche lion.

EXPOSITION:      Where something was.

FABLE:           An other-worldly bovine.

FREE VERSE:      A shoplifter's poetry collection.

KINDLE:          A reading accessory deployed by a South African during a        
                                              power cut.

SEMANTICS:        More than one jolly jape, or wheeze.

TEEN FICTION:    'It will be a supervised party, with no alocohol.'

Beware of the next exciting episode....

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Yule Blog (part the second)

Before proceeding with another personal Christmas book recommendation, I have to declare an interest which, if not quite vested, is holding a vest in its hand and seriously considering it as a style option.  The publisher of the particular edition I would like to discuss - Capuchin Classics - once paid my wages. I hereby declare, however, an honest and objective admiration for their list - prompted not at all by the receipt of any brown paper bags whatsoever -  and freely endorse the suitability of their hardback Christmas Pudding, by Nancy Mitford, as a gift to be deployed during the aforesaid season.

The six Mitford sisters (the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire being the only survivor) must be prime candidates for the award of Britain's most eccentric clan, and the family name became a byword for controversy and scandal as various of them developed infatuations with both extremities of radical politics (they were equal opportunity scandalisers) during the 30s and 40s.  I've found a marvellous summary of this (after an exhaustive 10 seconds of research on Wikipedia) by Times journalist Ben Macintyre: 

'Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur'.

Nancy's novels tread a balance between satirising and celebrating the glittering, privileged elite to which she belonged, and she revelled in placing her characters in bizarre and uncomfortable situations, and then standing back to see how they reacted.  She also used her fiction to cast a beady and none-too-favourable eye on her own family members.  In Christmas Pudding, beautifully presented in this recent edition, the gloriously-named Lady Bobbin is entertaining (at Christmas) a typically diverse collection of characters, including a young, earnest novelist whose attempt at a profoundly tragic novel is being hailed as the funniest literary achievement in years.  The activities, passions, subterfuges and uncertainties of the characters meet, intertwine and develop over a bizarre and memorable holiday period.  We are not, by any means, in the neighbourhood of Great Literature here (nor, probably, on the same continent), but as a piece of deftly-written and amusing confectionery, studded with amusing characters and expertly-choreographed set pieces, it's a seasonal treat for oneself or one's best pals and kinfolk.

While I'm trawling my professional history, a highly relevant but considerably less festive book is worth mentioning, namely Maia's novel Unity, by Michael Arditti (I used to be a sales rep (see this post) for a company that carried Maia's books).  Arditti's work fascinatingly frames the story of Unity Mitford's relationship with Hitler within that of a film being shot about this subject, and then assumes further narrative distance by having the narrator examine the reasons behind the dramatically violent events that caused the film to be abandoned.  The interplay between these levels of history and narrative, and the emotional and moral journey undertaken by the narrator, are rendered with immense skill and make this a wonderful modern novel.  There aren't many chuckles, however.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Bookseller's Diary

Being a wholly accurate and faithful account** of a day in the life of an humble book vendor in a Garden City word emporium

6.45     The first stage of my double alarm system (unimaginatively, an alarm clock) summons me to semi-consciousness.

6.45.01     The second stage, our ancient cat Sally, whose voice is aging in the opposite direction (it may also have something to do with her being deaf), suggests somewhat forcefully that I have been indulging in a luxurious lie-in for long enough now and asks whether I realise that if I don't administer her First Breakfast soon, there won't be time for her to demand the Second, and it will have to be called Early Lunch instead, which will discommode her thoroughly and probably compel her to ask for an early tea.  I knew letting her read about hobbits was a mistake.

6.45.01- 7.40     Feed cat, warm uneaten food for cat while she displays shock and disgust at cruelty of treatment, perform ablutions and related activities accompanied by Radio 4, wear sandwiches, make clothes, realise something has gone awry, leave house.

7.40-8.25     Enjoy pleasant walk to Hitchin station, board 8.06 to London (the 8.06 train, for preference) and attempt to restrain feelings of smug superiority that I am licensed to escape the train at Welwyn Garden City.  Disembark, bow in homage to Shredded Wheat factory (see previous post), walk past Starbucks and fail to restrain feelings of smug superiority over those who are indulging therein. Enjoy flat white at The Muffin Break instead, assuming, with possible naivety, that their parent company showers the Chancellor regularly with gold coins. Find it disappointing that I still find it amusing to think that their slogan should be 'Muffin ventured, muffin gained.'  Wonder again why it took so long for a 'flat white' to be invented, and what, infact, it is.  Decide it was probably discovered in a particle accelerator, hiding behind an anti-gluon.

8.50     Report for duty to The Bookshop, Welwyn Garden City.  Perform series of courtesy stretches and helpfulness limbers under direction of manager; sing company song and whoop spontaneously several times before running in slow motion on to the shop floor to the accompaniment of stirring orchestral music.

9.00 - 9.30     Repair major damage to sections caused by previous day's trade (if previous day a Saturday, then this procedure is extended by several hours), deposit small persons, forgotten by parents in children's section, into centralised receptacle in shopping centre.

10.00     Attempt to use middle-aged brain, which had grown accustomed to selling book tokens on paper, to manage the new, electronic variety.  Accidentally charge book token card with £40,000,000 and destabilise several small national economies.  Manager is forgiving.

10.00 - 12.00     Launch exploration party to locate the 1 copy of an obscure Hungarian melodrama which the computer insists we have in stock and about which a customer has, bizarrely, enquired. Mission fails, but a valuable amount of stock is discovered behind the shelving, along with a few more small people.

13.00 - 14.00     Lunch, which is eaten once muscles holding welcoming smile in place have sufficiently relaxed.

14.00 - 15.00     Check in delivery and telephone customers to announce the happy arrival of their book order or that a publisher has sent yet another message about a book's unavailability which is either contradictory to the previous seven messages or lacks the ring of credibility ('our printer is besieged by stoats').

15.00 - 15.30     Decide to resurrect expedition to find lost Hungarian classic.  Expedition fails but considers writing best-selling book based on experience.

15.30 - 16.00     Indulge in childish competitiveness with colleagues over whose display table is resulting in the most sales, and justify own table's poor performance by claiming that all the good books had already been used.

16.00 - 17.00     Retidy shop and place personal favourite fiction titles face out on shelves, often having to rearrange half the section to achieve this.

17.30                  Manager discusses day's performance and allocates merit badges accordingly.  Glow with pride at being congratulated for not answering 'Kurt Vonnegut' to more than half our customer's requests for recommendations.

Rest of the day  Decommute, explain day to wife, feed cat a variable number of times, eat, television, blog, read, sleep, perchance to be leapt on by cat.

**Except for this sentence.