During the coronavirus pandemic, we have had to take small pleasures where we can. One of the highlights of lockdown for me has been the chance to participate in literary events like book-themed concerts, prize shortlist announcements, book club discussions, live literary award ceremonies and book festivals that time, distance and cost might otherwise have precluded.
In May I attended several digital Hay Festival events, and this September to early October I’ve been delighted to journey back to Wigtown, Scotland – even if only virtually.
The Bookshop Band
The Bookshop Band have been a constant for me this year. After watching their 21 Friday evening lockdown shows on Facebook, as well as a couple of one-off performances for other festivals, I have spent so much time with them in their living room that they feel more like family than a favorite band. Add to that four of the daily breakfast chat shows from the Wigtown Book Festival and I’ve seen them play over 25 times this year already!
(The still below shows them with, clockwise from bottom left, guests Emma Hooper, Stephen Rutt and Jason Webster.)
Ben and Beth’s conversations with featured authors and local movers and shakers, punctuated by one song per guest, were pleasant to have on in the background while working. The songs they performed were, ideally, written for those authors’ books, but other times just what seemed most relevant; at times this was a stretch! I especially liked seeing Donal Ryan, about whose The Spinning Heart they’ve recently written a terrific song; Kate Mosse, who has been unable to write during lockdown so (re)read 200 books instead, including all of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh et al.; and Ned Beauman, who is nearing the deadline for his next novel, a near-future story of two scientists looking for traces of the venomous lumpsucker (a made-up fish) in the Baltic Sea. Closer to science fiction than his previous work, it’s a funny take on extinctions, he said. I’ve read all of his published work, so I’m looking forward to this one.
The opening event of the Festival was an in-person chat between Lee Randall and Shaun Bythell in Wigtown, rather than the split-screen virtual meet-ups that made up the rest of my viewing. Bythell, owner of The Book Shop, has become Wigtown’s literary celebrity through The Diary of a Bookseller and its sequel. In early November he has a new book coming out, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops. I’m halfway through it and it has more substance than its stocking-stuffer dimensions would imply. Within his seven categories are multiple subcategories, all given tongue-in-cheek Latin names, as if he’s naming species.
The Book Shop closed for 116 days during COVID-19: the only time in more than 40 years that it has been closed for longer than just over the Christmas holidays. He said that it has been so nice to see customers again; they’ve been a ray of sunshine for him, something the curmudgeon would never usually say! Business has been booming since his reopening, with Agatha Christie his best seller – it’s not just Mosse who’s turning to cozy mysteries. He’s also been touched by the kindness of strangers, such as one from Monaco who sent him £300, having read an article by Margaret Atwood about how hard it is for small businesses just now and hoping it would help the shop survive until they could get there in person.
(Below: Bythell on his 50th birthday, with Captain the cat.)
Randall and Bythell discussed a few of the types of customers he regularly encounters. One is the autodidact, who knows more than you and intends for you to know it. This is not the same, though, as the expert who actually helps you by sharing their knowledge (of a rare cover version on an ordinary-looking crime paperback, for instance). There’s also the occultists, the erotica browsers, the local historians and the young families – now that he has one of his own, he’s become a bit more tolerant.
Appearing from Dublin, Mark O’Connell was interviewed by Scottish writer and critic Stuart Kelly about his latest book, Notes from an Apocalypse (my review). He noted that, while all authors hope their books are timely, perhaps he overshot with this one! The book opens with climate change as the most immediate threat, yet now he feels that “has receded as the locus of anxiety.” O’Connell described the “flattened” experience of being alive at the moment and contrasted it with the existential awfulness of his research travels. For instance, he read a passage from the book about being at an airport Yo Sushi! chain and having a vision of horror at the rampant consumerism its conveyor belt seemed to represent.
Kelly characterized O’Connell’s personal, self-conscious approach to the end of the world as “brave,” while O’Connell said, “in terms of mental health, I should have chosen any other topic!” Having children creates both vulnerability and possibility, he contended, and “it doesn’t do you any good as a parent to indulge in those predilections [towards extreme pessimism].” They discussed preppers’ white male privilege, New Zealand and Mars as havens, and Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough as saints of the climate crisis.
O’Connell pinpointed Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as the work he spends more time on in his book than any other; none of your classic nihilist literature here, and he deliberately avoided bringing up biblical references in his secular approach. In terms of the author he’s reached for most over the last few years, and especially during lockdown, it’s got to be Annie Dillard. Speaking of the human species, he opined, “it should not be unimaginable that we should cease to exist at some point.”
This talk didn’t add much to my experience of reading the book (vice versa would probably be true, too – I got the gist of Roman Krznaric’s recent thinking from his Hay Festival talk and so haven’t been engaging with his book as much as I’d like), but it was nice to see O’Connell ‘in person’ since he couldn’t make it to the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize ceremony.
Glasgow-born Douglas Stuart is a fashion designer in New York City. Again the interviewer was Lee Randall, an American journalist based in Edinburgh – she joked that she and Stuart have swapped places. Stuart said he started writing his Booker-shortlisted novel, Shuggie Bain, 12 years ago, and kept it private for much of that time. Although he and Randall seemed keen to downplay how autobiographical the work is, like his title character, Stuart grew up in 1980s Glasgow with an alcoholic single mother. As a gay boy, he felt he didn’t have a voice in Thatcher’s Britain. He knew many strong women who were looked down on for being poor.
It’s impossible to write an apolitical book about poverty (or a Glasgow book without dialect), Stuart acknowledged, yet he insisted that the novel is primarily “a portrait of two souls moving through the world,” a love story about Shuggie and his mother, Agnes. The author read a passage from the start of Chapter 2, when readers first meet Agnes, the heart of the book. Randall asked about sex as currency and postulated that all Agnes – or any of these characters; or any of us, really – wants is someone whose face lights up when they see you.
The name “Shuggie” was borrowed from a small-town criminal in his housing scheme; it struck him as ironic that a thug had such a sweet nickname. Stuart said that writing the book was healing for him. He thinks that men who drink and can’t escape poverty are often seen as loveable rogues, while women are condemned for how they fail their children. Through Agnes, he wanted to add some nuance to that double standard.
The draft of Shuggie Bain was 900 pages, single-spaced, but his editor helped him cut it while simultaneously drawing out the important backstories of Agnes and some other characters. He had almost finished his second novel by the time Shuggie was published, so he hopes it will be with readers soon.
[I have reluctantly DNFed Shuggie Bain at p. 100, but I’ll keep my proof copy on the shelf in case one day I feel like trying it again – especially if, as seems likely, it wins the Booker Prize.]
Susan Hill has published dozens of books in multiple genres, but is probably best known for her perennially popular ghost story, The Woman in Black (1983). Apart from that and two suspense novellas, the only book I’d read by her before is Howards End Is on the Landing (2009), a sort of prequel to this work. Both are bookish memoirs animated by the specific challenge to spend more time reading from her shelves and revisiting the books that have meant the most to her in the past. Though not quite a journal, this is set up chronologically and also incorporates notes on the weather, family events and travels, and natural phenomena encountered near her home in Norfolk.
The Virginia Woolf reference in the title is fitting, as Hill realizes she has four shelves’ worth of books about Woolf and her Bloomsbury set. It’s just one of many mini-collections she discovers in her library on regular “de-stocking” drives when she tries to be realistic about what, at age 75, she’s likely to reread or reference in the future. “A book that cannot be returned to again and again, and still yield fresh entertainment and insights, is only half a book,” Hill contends. Some authors who merit frequent rereading for her are Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark, W. Somerset Maugham and Olivia Manning, while other passions had a time limit: she’s gone off E.F. Benson, and no longer reads about Antarctica or medieval theology.
Hill is unashamedly opinionated, though she at least has the humility to ask what individual taste matters. Her substantial list of no-nos includes fairy tales, science fiction, Ethan Frome, Patricia Highsmith and e-readers, and she seems strangely proud of never having read Jane Eyre. She’s ambivalent about literary festivals and especially about literary prizes: they were a boon to her as a young author, but she was also on the infamous 2011 Booker Prize judging panel, and disapproves of that prize being opened up to American entries.
As well as grumpy pronouncements, this book is full of what seems like name-dropping: encounters with Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley, Susan Sontag and the like. (To be fair, the stories about Murdoch and Sontag are rather lovely.) Although aspects of this book rubbed me the wrong way, I appreciated it as a meditation on how books are woven into our lives. I took note of quite a few books I want to look up, and Hill ponders intriguing questions that book clubs might like to think about: Can we ever enjoy books as purely as adults as we did as children, now that we have to “do something” with our reading (e.g. discussing or reviewing)? Is it a lesser achievement to turn one’s own life experiences into fiction than to imagine incidents out of thin air? Will an author unconsciously “catch the style” of any writer they are reading at the time of their own compositions? Is it better to come to a book blind, without having read the blurb or anything else about it?
You’ll applaud; you’ll be tempted to throw the book at the wall (this was me with the early page disparaging May Sarton). Perhaps on consecutive pages. But you certainly won’t be indifferent. And a book that provokes a reaction is a fine thing.
Some favorite lines:
“Cold room, warm bed, good book.”
“I have had fifty-five years of experience but still every book is like walking a tightrope. I might fall off.”
“People say they can never part with a book. I can. As fast as I get one out of the back door, two new ones come in through the front anyway.”
“How many people are there living in the books here? Only take the complete novels of Dickens and add up all the characters in each one and then multiply by … and I already need to lie down. Overall, there must be thousands of imaginary people sharing this house with us.”
“One of the best presents anyone can give you is the name of a writer whose books they believe will be ‘you’ – and they are. Someone you would almost certainly never have found for yourself.”
Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books was released in the UK on October 5th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
My eagle eye for anything related to Hay-on-Wye led me to this book, a memoir of sorts about moving to the Welsh Borders in the search for a sense of community. Journalist Oliver Balch and his wife had previously lived in London and then started a family while living in Argentina. Although they loved the vibrancy and social opportunities of city life, when they moved back to the UK in 2012 they were in search of something different:
I fancied living somewhere with open skies and fresh air; somewhere I could strap on my walking boots and head out for a hike; somewhere alive to the sound of birdsong rather than bus exhausts. I envisioned the same for the boys. Growing up in wellies and with dirty knees. Weekend camping trips. Swimming in the river.
But it was more than just the natural scenery that drew him to the England–Wales border town of Clyro. “I liked the idea of finding a place where I could truly belong. It would be good to be on the inside for once, to be a thread or stitch in the social fabric.” It was John Updike, of all people, who inspired him to seek out small-town life. “For a writer, it’s good to live between a widow and a plumber,” Updike wrote – to be surrounded by different, ordinary people and get to know your neighbors in an old-fashioned but still desirable way.
After the family settled in at Pottery Cottage, another of Balch’s guiding spirits was Reverend Francis Kilvert, curate of Clyro from 1865 to 1872. He’s known today for the diary he started keeping in 1870. As he went around visiting, he made pen portraits of his parishioners, often summing people up through one apt phrase of Dickensian description. In a sense, Balch is trying to do the same thing with these sketches of his new community members. Meanwhile, he weaves in biographical information about Kilvert in much the same way that Helen Macdonald does about T.H. White in H is for Hawk.There’s still an active Kilvert Society today, and early on Balch joined them for a tour of Clyro. With the River Wye, the Black Mountains and the book town of Hay-on-Wye all in range, it’s a splendid view:
The Wye is at its nearest to the east, huddled in the dip between two rippled fields of honeyed wheat and brilliant yellow rapeseed, its emerald-green waters rushing fast above the reeds. … Burrowed among the trees above its far bank stands Hay, a blue-grey patchwork of tiled rooftops amid a swathe of sylvan green. Poking above the tree canopy is the castle … And then beyond, of course, the barren bouldery bulk of the Black Mountains. Implacably wild. Their beauty hard, unremitting, almost brutish in their bluntness.
Balch starts trying to fit in by joining the regular drinkers at the Rhydspence Inn, an old-fashioned pub, on Wednesday nights. He’s closest with Tony, a farmer, and subsequently observes the Young Farmers group. In other chapters he profiles the unconventional, hippie types drawn to the area, like the owners of Hay’s fair trade shop; and the locals and shopkeepers involved in the Thursday market. He also sits in on some community planning meetings and learns about a recent anti-supermarket campaign. The Town Council and the “Hay Together” interest group are often at odds, he learns. A Chamber of Commerce meeting turns into an argument about renovating the Castle, one of Hay’s chief landmarks.My favorite chapter of all was about the Hay Festival, one of the foremost literary festivals in the UK. (It starts this week, in fact.) Although I’ve been to Hay five times since 2004, I’ve never attended its annual festival. I loved getting a peek behind the scenes, as Balch interviewed an author who’d written a guide to the local area. For Balch, his feelings about the festival prove that he’s finally thinking more like a local than an ‘incomer’:
Part of me is elated that the outside world has landed on our doorstep. For a brief window in late spring, everywhere I turn there are urbanites like me. … Simultaneously, part of me recoils. … I feel invaded. Some traitorous wretch has spilled word of our rural haven and now legions of out-of-towners have arrived, overrunning the place with their unmuddied cars and city manners.
Even in the decade that I’ve been visiting, I can recognize some of the processes Balch pinpoints – essentially evidence of gentrification going on in Hay and the surrounding area. Under the ownership of an American female entrepreneur, for instance, Booth’s Bookshop has been transformed from a falling-down jumble sale into a well-presented independent bookstore with a posh café. Some of the locals Balch meets are delighted with the changes, while others feel that the snobs are taking over and driving up prices for regular folk.
If I was a bit disappointed with this book, it’s because I didn’t fully heed the subtitle – “Sketches of Real Life on the Welsh Borders.” It’s not meant to be a chronological narrative of Balch’s time in Clyro but a thematic tour, with some common threads running through. This means that, depending on the reader, certain chapters will probably seem much more interesting than others. So the best part of “The Young Farmers” chapter, for me, was a description of a cow doing a messy poo (“the most splendid jet of steaming gravy-colored excrement”); otherwise I found it entirely tedious.Perhaps I wrongly expected this to be exactly like Paul Collins’s Sixpence House. This 2003 memoir of trying to make a life in Hay is among my all-time favorite reads. Although similar on the surface, Under the Tump is a very different book. I appreciated it most as a narrative of searching for a place to call home – something that will surely strike a chord with any reader.
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy.
- Other books that reference Hay-on-Wye:
- Reading in Bed by Sue Gee opens at the Hay Festival.
- In The Red House by Mark Haddon, a dysfunctional family vacations in the countryside near Hay.
- In Next Life Might Be Kinder by Howard Norman, the main female character is from Hay.
- One of the settings in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman is a bookstore in a small Welsh village. (Okay, not quite Hay.)
- Plus one from the TBR: in The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, an antiquarian bookseller browsing in a shop in Hay finds a book that sets him off on a quest.