Happily my visit to Barcelona coincided with the celebration of St. George’s Day (on Tuesday 23rd April); ‘Sant Jordi’ is big in this city, which honours him with a much higher profile than we extend to him as our national patron saint. It was, of course, also World Book Day. I’m not sure whether it was owing to Spanish influence that the UK and the USA have chosen this date for their annual bookfest, but I am certain that the people of Catalonia got there first. In Barcelona, it is an ancient tradition to celebrate St George’s role as the patron saint of books. Booksellers bring book stalls out on to the pavements and everyone enters into the spirit of celebrating the book. Sales throughout the day are brisk; almost everyone I saw travelling on the Metro in the evening was carrying a bag of books. There is a carnival atmosphere. St George is remembered by a rose and an ear of corn, symbolising the damsel that he rescued and himself as her rescuer. Traditionally, the Spanish man of honour presented his lady with a rose accompanied by a corn stalk, to which she responded by giving him a book. Christina James, I am proud to say, received her rose (well, three, in fact!) and, for pleasure’s sake, not duty’s, gave her man a book. (For the romantics amongst you – and to the smiles of Catalan onlookers – kisses were exchanged…)
To walk the streets, roses in hand, amid the throng of local people intent on having a good time, was to share in a general joie-de-vivre and to have a precious opportunity to talk to enthusiastic lovers of books. Beautiful displays of roses and red and yellow striped ribbons and flags adorned street corners and pavements everywhere. Music filled the air and the sun shone.
On a more business-like level, I feel that there may be something for us to learn from this. It did strike me at the time that Catalan booksellers are fortunate in being able to place such confidence in the weather; I could imagine a similar event in London or Leeds being suddenly dampened (in every sense of the word) by a sharp shower. And World Book Day is a remarkable achievement, a miracle of co-operation and generosity between all the elements of the book industry and a huge army of volunteers. Nevertheless, no-one was being given anything in Barcelona: roses came at €3 each; books were sold at full price. In a sense, it was all about celebrating the skills of booksellers themselves and the pleasures that they bring… and showing that they are worth paying for. We in the UK should honour our booksellers more and they should learn to expect and accept our homage gracefully and with attitude.