09 +00002013-02-26T12:19:10+00:0028 2012 § 2 Comments
I have just finished Whatever You Love, by Louise Doughty. Although I have read some of the author’s journalism, I didn’t realise until recently that she is also a novelist.
Whatever You Love is a highly-accomplished and sensitive novel about a mother’s sorrow after her nine-year-old daughter is knocked down and killed by a careless driver. The novel describes Laura’s progress through grief and how it changes her and her relationships with others, yet nowhere does the account become maudlin, tedious or sentimental. Running like a thread through the story is the history of her relationship with her husband, the child’s father, an impetuous Welshman who has dumped her for one of his work colleagues. A lesser author might not have been able to escape the minefield of clichés offered by this situation, but the intricacies of Laura’s relationship with David are teased out and presented with great subtlety. Although Laura herself tells the story, it is clear that she was not an entirely innocent party when her marriage broke down and that her current relationship with David is not simply inspired by negative emotions of mistrust and jealousy. There is real warmth in some of their encounters.
Although this book doesn’t really belong to the genre of crime fiction, several crimes take place: hit-and-run; dangerous or careless driving (the police down-grade the hit-and-run crime, much to Laura’s chagrin); the sending of poison-pen letters; threatening behaviour. At least one murder is contemplated, though it doesn’t take place (or so, on balance, we believe – the author introduces a certain amount of ambivalence here), but the most profound crimes in the novel are those committed against the soul. Each of the main characters suffers deeply and each is, to a certain extent, the author of his or her own misfortune; overarching this is the sense that they are pawns in a bigger game – to survive, they must adjust to what Fate has given them. Not all of them make it.
I’m delighted to have come across Louise Doughty’s fiction and even more delighted to discover that she also writes about the Fens. I’ve now bought Stone Cradle, a novel set in the late nineteenth century and in the area in which I grew up. Not many writers set their work in this region – Graham Swift and Charles Dickens are the only ones who spring immediately to mind. I’m certain that the power of Louise Doughty’s pen will capture to perfection the unique grandeur of the Fenland landscape.
09 +00002013-02-24T15:33:47+00:0028 2012 § 17 Comments
I have interviewed many would-be booksellers… and appointed quite a few. Candidates often have a misconception of what bookselling is about. Every bookshop manager will have experienced that sinking feeling when an enthusiastic prospect earnestly says, ‘I love books.’ Most bookshop-lovers will have had at least one experience of waiting patiently for service while the bookseller sits back from the till, absorbed in a good read. I’m not knocking booksellers, though – far from it. I’ve known very many excellent ones and one or two who could be described only as geniuses. Yet, without exception, however much they have loved books, their passion has been for serving real people from all walks of life, often by providing the book that is being sought, but also frequently by suggesting one that the customer would never have found without their expert skill and intuition. Good bookselling is all about caring for the customer.
I’m digressing a little, however, because I meant to begin by saying that the popular perception of a bookshop is probably that it is a quiet haven of peace where nothing much happens, a place in which to relax and browse and take a little time out from the humdrum demands of everyday life. And this is how it should be; I know many bookshops that can create such an ambience and I’d be proud to own one myself.
However, as with any other organisation or enterprise, within the inner life of bookshops is concealed – and sometimes, unfortunately, revealed – a maelstrom of human emotions and behaviour. I think that it is likely that there is more intrigue going on in bookshops than in any other kind of retail business, because most booksellers are well-educated and well-read and excel at being creative with their time. Mostly, this wealth of ideas and inspiration is channelled into supporting the shop and making it unique. Very much more rarely, it assumes a deviant quality.
Theft is a despicable crime. It isn’t much written about by crime writers, perhaps because it isn’t ‘glamorous’ enough. Persistent theft from a bookshop will kill it as surely as acute oak decline will fell a mighty tree. The reason for this is that bookshops operate on wafer-thin margins. Therefore activity that persistently undermines the profit of the shop will not only hasten it towards closure, but also demoralise the staff. In most bookshop chains, the staff (not paid a fortune in the first place) are disqualified from receiving bonuses if so-called ‘shrinkage’ reaches a certain figure – usually three-quarters of one percent of turnover. Some book theft is casual and opportunist; some is highly-organised. One of the bookshops in East London that came under my aegis suffered for months from the carried-out-to-order stealing of the textbooks that supported certain courses at the local university.
Of course, there are sophisticated systems available which help to reduce the risk of theft, but it is surprising how wily some thieves can be. A bookseller in another of ‘my’ shops apprehended a man who was wearing a specially-adapted overcoat that could hold twelve average-sized volumes at a time. He was spotted spending an undue amount of time riding the lift, where he had gone to rip out the security tags.
Some bookshop theft, the saddest kind, is ‘internal’, i.e. carried out by one of the members of staff. I hasten to add that it is comparatively rare, but when it happens it is the most difficult kind to discover, because the perpetrator is familiar with the shop’s systems and routines. The largest bookshop that came within my remit, one that turned over millions of pounds a year, had been suffering from serious shrinkage for some time when we decided to fit tiny security cameras over some of the tills. We quickly discovered that one of the cashiers had been operating an elaborate scam. (I won’t say what it was, as it would still work now, if someone were prepared to try it again.) She was brought to the manager’s office, told that the police would be called and asked if she wanted anyone to be with her when they arrived. She asked for her husband and he was summoned.
I had thought that perhaps he had been her partner in crime, but when he arrived he was genuinely stunned to discover that his wife was a thief. The police had yet to turn up. We waited rather tensely. I asked her if there was anything else that she wanted to tell us.
To my utter astonishment, she said that there was. There has been a handful of occasions in my life when I have been truly gobsmacked, rendered speechless, shocked to the core, whatever the appropriate term is. This was certainly one of them. The shop was adjacent to a large university and an intranet had recently been set up to allow academics to place orders and ask for advice without having to leave their desks. The woman standing in front of me now confessed that she had been using this facility in order to run a brothel. Most (but not all) of the clients worked at the university. Perhaps at this point I should pause to say that I am not exaggerating a word of this and, when an investigation was carried out, all of the details that she gave proved to be true.
The intranet was closed down immediately, though, on police advice, no further action was taken about the ‘business’ that it had been used to support, because the complications, notably the risk of implicating innocent people, were too great. The bookseller was charged with grand larceny (far too aristocratic a name for such a tawdry crime) and, because she had stolen a large amount of money over many months, received a custodial sentence.
I still think of this quite often. She was a pretty, vivacious young woman who had a presentable husband, himself with a very good job. It came out in court that she was not in debt and enjoyed good health and a comfortable lifestyle. Why did she do it? Why did she expend her considerable intelligence on working out two quite ingenious ways of making money illegally (one of which directly harmed her colleagues), instead of concentrating on developing her career or retraining if she felt dissatisfied with it? Perversely, perhaps, there was something about her that stirred pity in me, too. Did she survive prison well? Was her husband waiting for her when she came out? Did she succeed in rebuilding her life? I shall never know the answers.
Finally, before you worry that I have taken to cutting up my own novels, this one was a stray proof. I was asserting an author’s editorial privilege.
09 +00002013-02-23T15:19:09+00:0028 2012 § 2 Comments
Since I have heard it said that you can find out a lot about people’s characters from their bookshelves, I thought it would be interesting to put it to the test. Books have always formed a kind of parallel universe in my life; I can usually remember how I came by them and what else I was doing when I read them. This is probably why I find it so difficult to discard them; a recent cull produced only four volumes to send to the jumble sale.
I have homed in on one of my bookshelves at random to see if the books that it contains say anything about me. I should perhaps add that it is one of thirty-six bookshelves in my dining-room, some of them stacked two deep, and there are others in most of the other rooms. This may dilute my objective somewhat, but still it provides a bit of fun on a snowy Saturday! I should also confess that, despite my husband’s best efforts, there is no logical order to the way in which my books are arranged.
- The Gunpowder Plot, Antonia Fraser. I read this in a hotel in Scotland, just after I handed in my notice to go to another job and my old boss was trying to persuade me not to leave. Great account, well-told, in which I was able to lose myself completely.
- Mrs Keppel and her daughter, Diana Souhami. Took this on holiday to France in 1996 and read it in the garden of a gite miles from anywhere (a place called Measnes). Excellent period piece that answered some of my questions about Violet Trefusis (a writer who intrigues me).
- The Bicycle Book, Geoff Apps. Not mine! Bought to support one of my son’s enthusiasms, circa 1999 (at a time when the author could have had no idea how topical his last name would become!).
- Condition Black, Gerald Seymour, and eleven other Gerald Seymours, all dutifully signed by the author, who presented them to me after I organised an author event for him (as a library supplier) in 1991. I have to confess that I haven’t read any of them, though my husband now tells me he has read them all, and I know that they have been popular with visitors.
- Waking: An Irish Protestant Upbringing, Hugh Maxton. I bought this in the late ‘90s from the bookshop at Goldsmith’s College (London) and read it on the train on the way home. My old supervisor, Bill McCormack (see Sheridan Le Fanu article) was teaching at Goldsmith’s at the time. He writes poetry as Hugh Maxton.
- In Praise of Folly, Erasmus. Given to me as a sample by Wordsworth Classics when the imprint was launched. I haven’t read this, either.
- Nothing Except My Genius, Oscar Wilde. A slim volume containing a selection of Wilde’s sayings and aphorisms, for dipping into. Not sure where it came from – maybe a Booksellers Association Conference ‘goody-bag’? Precious wit from one of my favourite writers.
- Restoration, Rose Tremain. In my view, the best novel by another author whom I much admire. A present from colleagues. I read some of it when I couldn’t sleep while staying in a dive of a hotel after a party to celebrate Hatchard’s 200th birthday (which both Princess Margaret and Salman Rushdie, at the time under the threat of the fatwa, attended. Security was tight!).
- Damned to Fame: the Life of Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson. A long and sombre book; well-researched, but for me it fails to capture the essence of Beckett’s genius. I have certainly read all of it, but (unusually) I don’t remember when.
- The Battle of Bosworth, Michael Bennett. One of a small collection of titles published by Alan Sutton about the Wars of the Roses, all of which I have devoured. I acquired them in the 1990s but have read them all again much more recently.
- Nature is Your Guide, Harold Gatty; Dowsing, Tom Graves; Flowering Bulbs, Eva Petrova: None of these is mine. With the exception of Dowsing (an interest of my husband’s for a while) I have no idea where they came from.
- The House, Deborah Devonshire. This is an account of Chatsworth by the Duchess of Devonshire and was given to me in at the launch which took place at Chatsworth. The occasion was memorable for two reasons: Harold Macmillan, the Duchess’s uncle, then a nonagenarian, gave a very witty speech; I fainted – it was a hot thunderstormy day – and had to be carried outside and deposited on one of those pieces of Victorian wicker garden furniture that is half chaise-longue, half bath-chair. (My son was born eight months later.)
- Back to Bologna, Michael Dibdin. A recent read that I much enjoyed, by a favourite author.
- Balzac, by Graham Robb. I was reading this book in 2006 when, by a wonderful piece of serendipity, I found myself sitting next to his wife, at the British Book Awards ceremony (she is a librarian).
- British Greats, John Mitchinson. Another BA Conference goody-bag acquisition. I’ve not opened it before; now I come to do so, it is interesting, in a coffee-table, lazy-afternoon sort of way.
- Kennedy’s Brain, Henning Mankell. I read this while in bed with ‘flu, Christmas 2008. One of Mankell’s most serious novels, it is about Africa, a continent on whose behalf he is a well-known crusader. I enjoy and admire all of his books.
This row of books gives a fragmentary account of some of the things that have happened to me. I’m not sure what it says about my character or brain, except that it certainly exposes me as a magpie! It also suggests that my husband and son are inextricably entwined, for better or worse.