22 April 2014


'I personally can't think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.'

As I've been working a day a week in a bookshop (a bookshop that also sells secondhand and antiquarian books) for a good few months, I thought it was about time to revisit 84, Charing Cross Road.

The letters between New Yorker Helene Hanff and the staff at the London bookshop Marks & Co, chief buyer Frank Doel in particular, conjure the charms and peculiarities of antiquarian bookselling and all the quaint eccentricities of this bibliophilic world. The twenty-year correspondence is of course fascinating for all the day-to-day details of post-war life, the specific titles requested and then provided, and touches such as books being wrapped for delivery in the pages of old unsalable books. But it is Helene that brings such life to these letters. She is glorious and I would love to be her greatest friend or, indeed, be her.

Helene lives in moth-eaten sweaters and slacks, uses orange crates as book cases, has a sharp tongue and the most genuine love for books. She sits at her typewriter in her apartment and writes requests for titles from London rather than schlepping the however many blocks to a characterless bookstore that can't provide her with what she wants. Through these letters, she charms the booksellers (and also, in time, their families) at Marks & Co with her enthusiasm, humour, parcels of fresh eggs and foodstuffs (she is alarmed to see that a man named Cohen works at the bookshop and writes a hasty note after sending a large ham - 'ARE THEY KOSHER? I could rush a tongue over. ADVISE PLEASE!'), and commentary on the books they send her.

She also teases with gusto: 'What do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? Why don't you try selling a book to somebody?'. (I have to say, on my days in the bookshop I do mentally clock up whole libraries of books I would love to just settle down with in the basement armchair... But the trill of the till brings me back to retail reality.) And she is well aware of her haranguing: 'Poor Frank, I give him such a hard time, I'm always bawling him out for something.' But she gets away with it because she is generous and warm and awesome. I agree with absolutely everything that she writes.

'I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to "I hate to read new books" and I hollered "Comrade!" to whoever owned it before me.'

'I love transcriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins. I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has turned my attention to.'

And of the Book-Lovers' Anthology that Frank sends her: 'I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some book-lover yet unborn.'

One of the most lovely things about browsing through and selling secondhand books is discovering the notes, tokens and messages of previous owners between the pages. A favourite find is a black and white photograph tucked in the front of a 1961 edition of The Toad in the Greenhouse by Deenagh Goold-Adams. The photograph captures a toad looking out from its perch and the reverse bears the legend 'Deenagh's toad', and the book is inscribed to the author's cousin. 

I bought a secondhand book from the shop the other day that was part of the haul from a house call to a local book-lover who also happens to be a former Booker Prize winner, now in her eighties. As I was reading this copy of The Secret History by Donna Tartt on the bus, a cheque from the previous owner's chequebook, written out for £30 and dated some time last year, fell from the pages. Thankfully it was not signed...

Helene is not a fan of novels, which is one thing we do not have in common. Yet she redeems herself by admitting to a love of Austen: 'You'll be fascinated to learn (from me that hates novels) that I finally got around to Jane Austen and went out of my mind over Pride & Prejudice which I can't bring myself to take back to the library till you find me a copy of my own.'

And she cannot abide carving, culling and faffing around with texts: 'I will have hideous nightmares involving huge monsters in academic robes carrying long bloody butcher knives labelled Excerpt, Selection, Passage and Abridged.' I experienced a similar horror on discovering that an essay I sweated over in my second year at university was pretty much entirely meaningless as the references were completely incorrect and mangled - I had unwittingly been using an abridged version of Villette and, wholly unknowingly, been missing out on vast swathes of narrative and beautiful Bronte prose. Devastating. 

She is more ballsy, witty and well-read than me. But am I like Helene? Let me count the ways. She spills coffee over dollar bills and, after a quick sponge down, hopes for the best. She revels in John Donne (and his antics with Anne More). And, best of all, on receiving a beautiful book of love poems: 'I shall try very hard not to get to gin and ashes all over it, it's really much too fine for the likes of me.' Story of my life. 

24 September 2013

So Much

To my knowledge I have never ventured to, or stayed in, Shropshire. Until Friday that is, when I travelled through Housman Country...

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.
A Shrophire Lad, A.E. Housman

Well, the cluster of Clun-dubbed places may be quiet, but I was destined for the buzz and bustle of Much Wenlock. I was there for a bookish event held along the road from the local independent bookshop at a pottery. A working pottery, which also quadruples as a B&B, event venue and bar. It is guarded by the most dark and gentle German Shepherd I have ever encountered who goes by the name of Shadow, and is run by a jolly woman who asked us on our arrival at 3.30pm if we would like tea or something stronger, as she had just had a tipple herself. Her partner at the pottery has a cider press in the garage and makes his own cider using home-grown apples.

The event itself was a great success, with people travelling in from surrounding villages and towns to come and listen to the two editors of a lovely little literary quarterly talk about how they modestly started up their project around the kitchen table over many bottles of wine more than ten years ago. It is now thriving and growing, with mad office dogs wreaking havoc among hundreds of boxes delivered by a broad-accented Yorkshireman named Bryan from the traditional printers at the crack of dawn on a regular basis. Many more charming eccentricities that are part of their working life were touched on too. The audience listened and drank and asked questions and got cosy by the fire. Anybody who had arrived alone was welcomed in and seated by the wonderful owner of the local bookshop, who knows everyone's name and whether or not they have a dog. 'This is Jane. Jane this is Sylvia. Sylvia has a spaniel, Jane has a schnoodle. You may have seen each other out dog-walking.' And the bar did a great trade. One of the woman working behind it clocked that there wasn't enough wine left in one of the bottles for a full glass so took it upon herself to quaff it.

A Much Wenlock door - take note of the terrific sign
So, as I say, the event was splendid, but I was interested in exploring the village the morning after the night before. It is an other-worldly place of crammed-to-the-rafters junk shops, markets awash with fresh veg (soil-clumped potatoes and carrots with masses of thick green tops), home-made pie shops that do a nice side-line in sparsely bristled salty pork scratchings, and the most beautiful 17th century buildings decked out in time-worn timber. One such building is the bookshop. It is gorgeous. Bunting made from comic books hangs in the children's section and The Guardian is spread invitingly on the large round table upstairs. The owner runs this bookshop almost single-handedly and is enthusiastic, passionate and pro-active, with the likes of poetry festivals, children's activity groups and literary events spilling from her imagination into the community. She read The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge as a child and was captivated by the description of the fictional bookshop with its wooden beams. She decided then that she would like to be a bookseller when she grew up. It was only a little while ago, when standing on the upper floor, beneath beams and between second-hand books, that she realised that she has the bookshop she'd wished for.

Dream bookshop
We had a good long mooch among the shelves that morning. I picked up a paperback of my favourite novel. My mother had bought a copy for my chap when he was new to our world (she never, ever lends out her own copy) and he was so taken with it that he foolishly passed it on to friends to read and it was never returned. So we were, appallingly, without this oh-so-necessary novel in London. The second-hand copy I picked up is signed and dated by one who once owned it. The date is the year of my birth. The bookseller gifted it to me. I am so happy.

Just inside my favourite novel

1 September 2013

Letters II

We receive so many bonkers and lovely letters and emails from our appreciative, enthusiastic and very jolly readers at both the small publisher and independent bookshop for which I work so consistently that sometimes I worry that I do not pay all of them their deserved attention. I fear that I could end up taking these bibliophilic outpourings for granted, and this absolutely must not happen.

We have postcards and greetings cards and photographs and drawings and long beautifully handwritten letters posted to us every week, and it is the most cheering thing to slice all these words free with the silver letter opener. So cheering that we have made space on the daily-use-database for a 'corner of good cheer'. This corner holds snippets of delicious comments from our readers - funny, eccentric and heartening.

A letter arrived at the bookshop all the way from Australia the other day. I will transcribe it here (changing the name) as it pretty well made my heart shatter into a million pieces at the end of a long day unpacking and packing up books in a manic tap-gun delirium.

Dear S Fox,
Your ‘gift to a friend’ offer.
I wish to thank you most sincerely for your above service on behalf of my dear friend in Scotland. The book was Island Summers: Memories of a Norwegian Holiday, chosen by me for its vivid evocative value. That it achieved its purpose is apparent from the response I received and partly quote here in some detail in spite of testing your patience:

On the basis that you are the only Edward in my life I am assuming that the exciting parcel that I received today with a card saying, ‘With love from Edward’, is from you. If I am wrong I am stuck!

The book was gift wrapped in thick, dark green paper and tied with a narrow, scarlet satin ribbon. Very elegant. The book itself has a very pretty cover – a seascape in pale blues and pinks – and smells gorgeous. Did you order it online or choose it yourself in their London bookshop? I shall be very cross if you have been in London without telling me…

I can’t wait to start it, but I’m going to force myself to put it on one side till I am able to savour it. This week is going to be hectic and I want to relax and enjoy it. Very many thanks for the kind thought…

You see, as you well know, books mean many things to many people. Your thoughtful action has brought two hearts, about as far distant as it is possible to be on this planet, together as one.

Yours sincerely,

(Dr) Edward Swinton
Oh boy, that last line just about kills me.

6 August 2013


Party Favours
These pencils are tokens I took away from a party in Beckenham on Saturday. Not just any party. The party I have been waiting for most of my life. A party which had as its perfect theme (drumroll please): The Princess Bride. My favourite film. A bit because of this. A bit because of this. And a lot because of this. I carried an actual sword with me on public transport for the occasion, that's how much I love this film. I know every word. And I now have pencils to prove my ardour for the story and script.

My camera is far from top-notch, so I will provide clear text.


Man, I can tell you I had awesome fun storming the castle. I brought Miracle Max's chocolate-covered miracle pills, jelly-sweet shrieking eels, Buttercupcakes and half a bottle of absinthe. The absinthe went towards the 'Iocane Potion' cocktail I invented then drank a great deal of. It was all as I wished.

22 July 2013

Common Dead

I must admit that I only really know South East London because of the bookshops. Through work, I speak to the good chaps at both Herne Hill Books and Dulwich Books every so often and package off boxes of books to those distant climes. However, I am always prepared to venture further afield by various buses to discover a good cemetery. So on a summer's Sunday we packaged ourselves off (by way of hot top decks) to West Norland Cemetery. I would recommend visiting these beautiful burial grounds, designed to mimic paradise and rather successfully to my mind, any time you can make the trip, but we specifically went on Sunday so we could Feast for the Common Dead.

The artist Jane Millar has curated the Curious Trail which is comprised of of 21 works exhibited within the walls of the cemetery, using the architecture, landscape and historic burials as reference points for the artwork. These in themselves are completely fascinating, especially by the likes of Steven Ounanian who unveils a new technology that makes it possible to speak to the dead. He custom made a contraption he calls TELEX-666. This device has electrodes attached to it which plug into the cemetery earth and enable the listener to hear conversations and existential diatribes occurring underground.

Chris McCabe's work entitled Clotted Sun: An Anthology of West Norwood Poetry also particularly interested me. He found details of ten poets buried in the cemetery and researched their poetry. To provide them with another chance of readership he engraved a phrase from one of their poems onto stone and returned it to them. He also had the stones photographed and made into a limited edition book. This is on display at the Columbarium, together with the engraved stone for Sydney Carter who wrote 'The Lord of the Dance' and was cremated at West Norwood.

I could go on and wax lyrical about each and every artist involved. They are very much worth the journey alone. But, as I say, we were there for more ceremonial reasons. For exuberance and remembrance and cake.

Cemetery Map
Sunday's Feast for the Common Dead was a grand picnic held by the Living for those bones and souls who were anonymous, untraceable or simply poor and easily forgotten. The tale begins at Enon Chapel, off Clare Market, in the 1800s. Due to high death rates, lack of space, and the hoards not having money to pay for pomp, circumstance and headstones, twelve thousand bodies were buried, or not even buried, beneath the rickety floorboards. Piled up, filling hundreds of coffins, hacked into bits to make bodies fit, the dead were crammed into a 30' by 60' basement. Not all twelve thousand were present (and rotting) at one time, with corpses being disposed of in rivers and similar when the nooks and crannies between the decomposing dead were simply too small. But these thousands all passed through this underground lair, beneath the chapel which was transformed into a dance hall for a spell, the living dancing over the dead then fainting at the smell.

To cut a long - and fairly gruesome - story short, these representatives of the Common Dead are now at peace in the common burial plot in the cemetery. Dr Ruth Richardson, a medical historian, has steeped herself in this sorrowful tale, researching the lives of the twelve thousand and is passing on the uneasy knowledge. So we joined her and Jane Millar and poets and singers and the general joie de vivre of living breathing people in sunshine to feast for those now resting in the earth. There was a cake the size, shape and spitting image of a coffin, constructed with marble cake and cocoa icing and studded with silver chocolate nails. The artist and grower Elizabeth Myers had created a grave-shaped plot near the common burial area, and grown produce similar to that of a 19th century charcoal burner's cottage garden, and some of this produce became ingredients for the picnic fare. A band, complete with ukulele, played the Jeff Buckley version of 'Hallelujah' and, wonderfully, Pulp's 'Common People'. I don't feel the song sheets were necessary for that particular number, Jarvis being my main man. There was also an eccentric and mostly grey-haired socialist choir belting out a few tunes (and history lessons), and a local community choir who sang the tear-jerking 'Moon Rover' as I leant against a gnarled tree and closed my eyes in the sun. They led us in a procession to the Enon Burial Plot across the cemetery, singing all the way. Flowers and tokens were placed in front of the small squared-off plot, and the dead below were commemorated for the first time. Then something I had never experienced before: a keening. Half a minute of wailing, ululations, drumming, cries of grief, deep sounds of pain, remembrance, joy... I stayed silent but felt at the heart of it.

It all finished with a jolly song. 'The Lord of the Dance'. Of course. Delirious from sun and surreality, we walked through graves and mausoleums, sniffed a few lilies, then sweated back on tarmac.

22 May 2013


A letter I wrote to Hadley:


In other news, THIS HAPPENED:

A friend was drinking G&Ts with Alan in his kitchen on a Monday afternoon, watching birds out the window, and asked him to sign this for me. Oh boy. 

28 April 2013


We'd made a Saturday afternoon plan of an exhibition followed by pints in the Princess Louise, so we met in the rain at the Gargosian Gallery to see Rachel Whiteread's casts of the space inside sheds. They were arresting for sure, solid and stark in the huge white room, but very grey blocks of art on a very grey rainy day. So we wrestled our umbrellas up the road to the Wellcome Collection, a place which always cheers me, being bright, buzzy and full of millions of interesting things. They usually have some kind of rather wondrous free exhibition going on, and I end up scribbling all over the hand-outs and staring at stuff like brains in jars and 18th century prosthetic toes.

The current special exhibition is the opposite of grey blocks. It is colourful and varied and crammed with all sorts of ideas and creations. It goes by the name of Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan. The artwork on show is by 46 artists who attend or live in Japanese social welfare institutions. All the artists have cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illnesses. And they create. The word 'outsider' has somewhat negative connotations, and 'outsider art' is a rather ugly term for works by untutored artists who are not conscience of an audience for the pieces they make and who live the edges of mainstream society. However, the word 'souzou' is much more positive. It has a dual meaning: both creation and imagination. And these artists have imaginative creativity in no short supply.

This is art as therapy or distraction, but it's beautiful and intriguing in its own right. Visual expression is used as a release from the confines and confusion of language, and such different ways of seeing are represented throughout the exhibition rooms, as well as a whole range of materials and methods. Textiles and ceramics require lengthy repetitive processes that have a calming, therapeutic effect. One of the artists, Komei Bekki, takes a ritualistic approach to making his ceramic miniatures. Arriving at the studio at 16.00 every day, after everyone else has gone, he performs a sequence of actions which involve removing his clothes and putting them on again inside-out and partially moulding the clay in his mouth.

Everyday objects and the culture that surrounds the artists - film, television, landscapes and transport systems to name a few - are are very much in bright and bold evidence. Norie Shukumatari makes fluffy embroidery representing beloved subjects such as chocolate cake and a 1970s Japanese pop icon.


Shota Katsubi crafts a vast army of tiny anime soldiers wielding swords and bazookas from coloured wires which, on closer inspection, transpire to be the twist-ties used to fasten bin-liners. And an artist known as M.K. paints on a simple sheet of roughly cut cardboard. The image is called 'Lady with Rainbow Coloured Hair' and is a vibrant depiction of a female bust accompanied by an aeroplane safety announcement in English, beneath which is written: The gnus/were afraid of/the alligators in the/river/They waited for a long/time/before entering the water.

Lady with Rainbow Coloured Hair
Norimitsu Kokubo is a map-maker; his sprawling, intricately detailed drawings are fictional cityscapes that explore real places he has never been to. He plots and constructs from facts he's picked up. The one I was most drawn to was 'Shanghai Disneyland of the Future'. It is relationships rather than landscapes that provide the overriding impulse behind Sakiko Komo's art. She makes round-faced friendly rag dolls, some life-size, representing friends and staff who have been kind to her over the 55 years she's lived in the residential facility. One of the dolls is called 'Looks a bit like an alien'. And Takahiro Shimoda is the artist behind the piece I loved most: a pyjama triptych. Comfy cream 'Ruff Hewn' tops-and-bottoms serve as a canvas for his fried chicken, salmon roe and pigeon-shaped cookies nightwear. Pyjamas printed with patterns of his favourite foodstuffs.

I want to eat a pigeon-shaped cookie. And, after walking through this odd forest of fascinating artworks, I just really want to make stuff. To whip out crayons, felt-tips, sewing kits, pipe-cleaners, paint and PVA glue. To create. That's the effect of souzou.