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.