09 +00002017-11-05T21:07:26+00:0030 2012 § 2 Comments
Saturday 4th November was a wild, wet day. The rain came bouncing down on the A1 as I headed for Walkers Bookshop in Stamford to sign copies of Fair of Face. In places, the water stood inches deep on the road. The lorries tossed out spray which severely restricted visibility. A Reliant Robin three-wheeler (I hadn’t seen one for years!) went bombing along at 70 mph and almost aquaplaned.
It was a relief to reach Stamford, always a haven of civilisation and peace, and, even better, to arrive in time to indulge in a cappuccino and a huge, home-made cookie at The George Hotel, before going ‘on duty’ at Walkers.
I received a wonderfully warm welcome from the staff at Walkers, as I always do – and, as always, I appreciated it: I know how busy bookshop staff are, especially on Saturdays, and I’m very grateful when they spare time to look after me in addition to everything else they have to do.
The rain didn’t deter Walkers’ customers from venturing out from home. They continued to show up steadily throughout the three hours I was there, some very windswept, some clutching wet umbrellas, all dressed in sturdy waterproofs, boots and hats.
It certainly felt as if winter had suddenly taken Stamford by storm, but with it came a sense of excitement, a feeling that there was celebration in the air. I suppose this may have been because it was one of the first weekends when people really start to think about Christmas shopping, but well before they begin to feel jaded and harassed by the whole prospect of coping with the ‘festive season’.
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Walkers – this was the fourth signing session I’ve been offered there – and yesterday was no exception. Many of the shop’s customers stopped to talk to me, and most of these bought one of my books – I was delighted to find that In the Family, Almost Love and Rooted in Dishonour were in demand, as well as Fair of Face. Most people wanted them for Christmas presents, but others supplied different reasons: one lady was intrigued by Fair of Face because she knows Spalding well, having grown up in Gosberton Clough (a place I have yet to feature in the novels, so she’s now given me the idea!); another wanted Almost Love for her husband to read on his frequent journeys to London;
another was bought by an author of Young Adult books who told me that she’d given a signing session in Walkers herself and was strongly in favour of supporting local authors. She said that her reading group might be interested in hearing me speak. If she reads this post, I’d like to thank her for a fascinating conversation and to say again that I’d be delighted to speak to the members of the reading group if indeed they’d like to hear me.
I’m never bored in bookshops: it’s a great privilege to be allowed to sit in one for several hours and just drink in the atmosphere. My time at Walkers was over only too quickly, but I took away some very pleasant memories that I know will stay with me.
I’d like to offer heartfelt thanks to Jenny Pugh, of Walkers Bookshop, Stamford, for making the signing session possible, and also to thank all of the staff there, particularly those who were working on the top floor, for their kindness and generous hospitality.
09 +00002017-10-08T20:18:54+00:0031 2012 § 11 Comments
Yesterday was UK Bookshop Day, the annual event which celebrates the huge contribution made to civilised life by all British bookshops, especially independents. It also marks the beginning of the current year’s ‘Books Are My Bag’ [BAMB] initiative for the run-up to Christmas and beyond.
The whole BAMB drive was conceived of and masterminded by the UK Booksellers Association, which now administers it. Authors and readers alike are very fortunate to have, working on our behalf, this imaginative, dedicated, hard-working and amazingly small team of people led by Tim Godfray, its long-term CEO. I was lucky enough to attend, on 11th September, the BA’s annual conference and there to get a sneak preview of some of this year’s BAMB marketing material, which includes beautiful mugs and book bags designed by Orla Kiely.
I always visit at least one bookshop on Bookshop Day. Yesterday I headed for Rickaro Books in Horbury, one of my favourite bookshops, which is run by my (very) long-term friend and colleague, Richard Knowles.
Richard was my first boss after I left university – I won’t mention how many years ago! His bookshop, situated in a small Yorkshire town of great character, is a veritable jewel. As well as stocking new books (including all the Christina James titles – he has kindly agreed to distribute Fair of Face postcards and to supply copies of the book for purchase at my event in Wakefield One on 18th November), he is an accomplished antiquarian bookseller, with an enviable vintage stock. He provides a world-class service by selling antiquarian books on a limited range of topics and does indeed attract customers from all over the world.
Richard always engages in BAMB festivities. Yesterday, he had decorated his windows with promotional bunting and was offering discounts on new books. His dog Tilly
(the inspiration for the Tilly Club that Rickaro Books runs for children) entered into the spirit of the day by sporting a Books Are My Bag T-shirt. Richard said that he’d suggest that Sophie, one of his booksellers, should wear the same T-shirt on Monday morning. I’m assuming that this was one of his lugubrious and slightly macabre jokes, but, just in case, I shall send the link to this post to Sophie!
I bought three books, two for myself (The Greatest Knight, by Thomas Asbridge, and The Idea of North, by Peter Davidson) as well as, for a young person of my acquaintance, a book which I won’t describe here, as it’s intended to be a surprise. Instead of the Orla Kiely bags, Richard had others featuring Christopher Robin – appropriate for a shop which is a magnet for child readers. Several of them came in while I was there, including a screaming toddler whose tears turned to smiles as soon as she crossed the threshold. Such is the power of a good bookshop!
One of the charms of Rickaro Books is that it doesn’t change very much from visit to visit. However, as soon as I walked in yesterday, I was struck by a very significant new addition to the furnishings. Richard has acquired the striking and quite famous portrait of Thomas Gent, the eminent eighteenth-century Yorkshire historian, poet and printer (and therefore, like all printers of the time, also a bookseller), painted by Nathan Drake in 1770, when Gent was seventy-seven. (He lived for another eight years after this, dying in 1778 at the ripe old age of eighty-five.)
Gent was highly respected in his own day, but was, as his Wikipedia biography laconically states, ‘financially unsuccessful’. I wonder what he would have made of Books Are My Bag? I think it’s likely he would have approved of it and I’m certain that he would have loved to have had the opportunity to obtain support from an early version of the Booksellers Association.
09 +00002017-01-30T12:36:14+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
I’d never been to Latin America when I touched down in Quito and knew very little about Ecuador. Wikipedia had told me that Ecuador was a former Spanish colony, that the first language was Spanish and that temperatures while I was there would be around 19 degrees (which turned out to be a considerable underestimate: it was hot!). Otherwise, virtually zilch. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never taken much interest in the South American continent; I’m resolved to change that now.
I was wowed by the spectacular assault on my senses which began as soon as I could see Quito from the plane. It’s the world’s highest capital city and ringed by magnificent mountains, some of them volcanic. And, of course, it’s right on the Equator.
As the plane drew nearer to the earth, I could see Quito’s imposing array of churches and some of the colourful, flat-roofed dwellings that are home to most of its citizens. (I was to discover that only the old colonial houses have pitched roofs.)
The forty-minute taxi ride to my hotel revealed more of these houses, some clinging precariously to steep hillsides with deep ravines below them, and many incomplete, as if funds had suddenly dried up. Because there are few high-rise developments, huge areas are covered by these modest residential districts. Quito has a population of about two million, but its large number of very small buildings makes it seem more populous than it is.
There isn’t much undergrowth, but there are many shrubs and trees, including the fabulously tall araucarias. Most bushes and shrubs are in flower in late October, in vibrant, clashing shades of orange, purple and cerise, and are often sweet-smelling.
I asked my taxi driver what the main industries of Ecuador are and was told chemicals, including petroleum, and agriculture, especially the cultivation of flowers for export. I’m sure that there are wealthy Ecuadorians, but most of the people seem to be either poor or, at best, of slender means. Many of them make their living by selling things – I quickly realised there is a strict retail hierarchy. The poorest sellers are peripatetic: they roam the streets with a very small selection of low-cost goods – sweets, water, small toys – and accost people as they pass. Some of them are also beggars, who will offer you a sweet in return for alms; often they are women carrying small children. Then there are street sellers with fixed spots on the pavements. Either they lay out cloths or little folding tables exhibiting their wares, or they have small portable stalls.
They peddle cheap souvenirs and a wide variety of foods, especially the glistening heaps of stuff that looks like ice cream but, as I discovered, is really a kind of panna cotta, and cups filled with small pearl-like balls of coloured ice, which I guess are made of frozen fruit juice. Exotic drinks are also on sale. I sampled one of these, a pungent, bittersweet beverage made from green tea, cinnamon and warmed fruit juice. Apparently, it is served at funerals, with cheap cookies so that people don’t ask for too many refills!
One up again from the street sellers are the market traders. Most operate from relatively small, covered markets; Quito contains dozens of these. Most sell textiles, silver jewellery, upmarket groceries (especially local coffees and chocolates) and fancy goods, the latter often too gaudy for northern European tastes.
Carnival masks are a particular speciality of artisan craftsmen, and I found them both more appealing and more beautifully made than the ornate mirrors, leather-clad shots glasses, miniature shrines and fake shrunken heads which were also on sale. It’s possible to haggle with the market traders and I found this less of a problem than the fact that they never let anyone browse undisturbed. Immediately you show an interest in something, they emerge from the depths of the stall to describe with great enthusiasm and speed (and in Spanish!) the many virtues of whatever it may be. I found this approach overwhelming and usually just moved on.
Shops are at the top of the hierarchy. Usually they are grouped in small parades or two- or three- storey malls.
The goods they sell are generally of good quality and the shopkeepers themselves more discreet. They won’t barter: the prices are marked clearly on what is for sale and they won’t budge; but often they charge only a few dollars more for a product far superior to what can be purchased in the market. The textiles, in particular, are made of fine wools and silks tender to the touch. I imagine that many shopkeepers start off as street sellers and work their way up: this would explain the immense pride they take in their establishments and the impeccable displays they create.
I’ve said that, from the word go, Quito made a pleasurable assault on my senses, but there was one exception: as a dog-owner with a very British love of animals, it saddened me to see the packs of abandoned dogs roaming the streets almost everywhere, even in the more affluent districts. At first they look intimidating, especially when gathered in groups of up to ten, but I was assured by locals that they are never aggressive and don’t pose a danger to sightseers and other pedestrians. To be fair, they don’t seem to be malnourished, mainly because both sellers and consumers of street food frequently take pity on them. Cooked street food isn’t really my thing: I’m too prone to stomach ailments to be able to risk it; but I think even the most ardent dog-lover must find it difficult to enjoy a piping hot delicacy straight off the brazier when eating it involves having his or her every move tracked by a semi-circle of drooling, envious canines.
09 +00002016-01-17T21:00:56+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
Last week, the day job took me to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I didn’t have very much time to explore this city, as, for family reasons, I had to cut my visit as short as possible. These impressions are therefore based on two walks that I made within about a one-mile radius from my hotel, my visit to the (amazing) library at Seoul National University, several evening trips to restaurants and what I could see from two one-hour taxi rides.
Seoul is a massive, sprawling city set within a giant curve of the Han River. If you land at Incheon Airport, the city appears to be ahead to the east and to your left. Gradually, the road sweeps round until you hit the city centre quite suddenly. There is a lot of traffic, with bottlenecks and impatient queues clogging the arterial roads at either end of the day.
The city centre had a slightly odd look when I was there, because many shops and hotels had removed only some of their Christmas decorations. Many still sported Christmas trees (the ones at my hotel were adorned with little placards announcing ‘Danger of Electric Shock’). I’ve no idea why Christmas disappears from Seoul in stages in this way; my Asian colleagues were equally baffled.
Although there are many cars, the streets teem with pedestrians. On the Sunday afternoon, many young people, in particular, were out walking, muffled against the cold (it varied from -1 to -10 degrees) in thick padded clothes. What immediately struck me as a Western observer was how the young women continually try to please their male partners, laughing up into their faces when the latter make jokes and hanging on to their arms as if unable to support themselves. To me, it seemed as if there was something formal, almost ritualistic, about this behaviour. It didn’t appear to be spontaneous.
The crowds on weekdays are quite different. They stream purposefully along the pavements, obviously on their way to work. The main streets are broad, often with traffic islands in the middle. ‘Jay walking’ is strictly not allowed: there are notices banning it. Just a few yards down from my hotel, a policeman with a whistle was stationed near a spot where the pavement narrowed each morning. He blew his whistle and waved a kind of luminous wand (reminiscent of a battery-powered Darth Vader light sabre that my son owned as a child) if anyone stepped off it in an attempt to circumnavigate the throng. In the evening, you see the people surging forth again, sometimes stopping at one of the many street food stands that occupy the lanes and alleys branching off from the main thoroughfares. Some of these alleys and passageways are decorated with murals that celebrate Korea’s ancient past.
Food seems to be the national passion. In the network of streets and alleys that I explored, almost every business was a restaurant, café or bar. Some have fish tanks standing in the street outside, from which you can choose the fish you fancy for dinner. (I assume that, once they’re removed from the tank, they’re taken out of sight to be dispatched.)
As well as these individual premises, there are whole malls devoted to every type of cuisine – in addition to Korean restaurants, there are Japanese sushi bars, Italian pizzeria, Swiss chocolate houses, and even an approximation of a British pub, sporting the sign ‘HAND COOKED DINING PUB’ – though, as I found when my hosts took me to an Italian restaurant, most practise ‘fusion’ cookery.
Whether you order a pizza, spaghetti, pie and peas or a hot chocolate, you’re likely to be offered a dish that, although it resembles its national original, is also redolent of Korean herbs and spices. My favourite restaurant, which I visited on my last evening, was a Korean B-B-Q restaurant. (This is how it is always spelt: these restaurants appear to be nationally celebrated.) It had charcoal braziers set into the tables. Patrons order raw meat from a selection on the menu (my own party chose a mixture of beef and pork), together with a range of salad and sauce accompaniments, and cook their own food. The main course was followed by two kinds of soup, one meat and vegetable based, one fish and seafood based, both very spicy. Koreans usually drink beer with this kind of meal, though there was also a strong white wine on offer (you drink it in sherry-type glasses, in very small quantities, and it tastes a bit like saké).
What else do Koreans like besides food? I was keen to find out so that I could buy presents, but even Koreans were at a loss to tell me. I discovered that Korea is home to a renowned type of ginseng and very good for silk ties. There are whole shops devoted to candles (though, on closer inspection, I found that the candles are imports from New York and Paris) and chemists’ shops, often selling vast ranges of foreign make-up, are popular. Otherwise, the main passions do indeed seem to be food and drink. This impression was borne out by the wares at the airport shops, where I saw very little on display except extensive pyramids of food and alcohol and an impressive range of electronic products. I couldn’t even find postcards, either at the airport or anywhere else.
Would I like to return? As I said at the beginning, my stay was very short and I can’t claim to have formed an accurate opinion of Seoul. I certainly liked the people: they were courteous and fun-loving, hard-working but not over-serious: I’d like to go back to become better acquainted with some of them. But I didn’t find Seoul itself as interesting as some of the other Asian cities I’ve visited. I’d be very happy, though, to be told that I’ve completely missed the point.
09 +00002015-11-07T20:26:27+00:0030 2012 § 1 Comment
A wonderfully atmospheric post. A magic melange of images.
‘There was a bird flying round the house,’ the Boxer told me. She had no answer for what happened to it?or, how did it get in and out.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘but it looked quite startled.’
‘i expect you were startled too.’
‘I expect I was,’ she said vaguely, ‘but it was early.’
These days I suspect a slight detachment from reality. Lost in her thoughts she will not answer plain questions deflecting them with vague answers like, I can’t think right now, or I don’t know, you decide. Till I’m unsure whether this is simply because of the effort needed to answer or decide, or whether she actually doesn’t know anymore.
Things have slipped that once were sacrosanct. Take reading the newspaper cover to cover and marking up television programmes not to be missed.
Now, not only are the TV choices not made, but the ability to…
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09 +00002015-03-14T11:45:33+00:0031 2012 § 6 Comments