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.
Monday was a horrible day in West Yorkshire. Torrential rain and high winds were battering the city when I arrived at Wakefield One for my afternoon of reading and discussion with some of the lovely members of the reading groups run by Alison Cassels. My husband dropped me off opposite the library complex and I got soaked – and nearly blown away – just crossing the road.
Nevertheless, I felt both philosophical and optimistic. As I’ve already noted, every event for The Crossing so far has taken place when the weather outside has been appalling, and every one has been a success. I knew that the gallant and stalwart members of the Wakefield reading groups would not let me down by preferring their firesides to the library.
Reader, I was not wrong! An extremely lively audience arrived punctually, some having regaled themselves with hot soup in the café to start with, and we all enjoyed a couple of hours of reading, writing and sleuthing, handsomely fortified by the Christmas cake, mince pies and stollen and tea and coffee supplied as generously and thoughtfully as usual by Alison and Lynn.
After listening to and providing feedback on the readings as only Wakefield audiences know how to do, when invited to take inspiration from the first chapter of The Crossing, each of the group members wrote a short sketch of an event that had happened to them and had stayed with them vividly, one that might be used as the opening scene of a novel. I hope the photographs capture the lively and committed participation that has come to be the hallmark of Wakefield One events: some read their own sketches, others asked their immediate neighbour to read for them. Everyone was spellbound by what was on offer. The accounts were fascinating and included bell-ringing for the first time and soaring unintentionally upwards on the rope, riding to London on The Flying Scotsman, walking to school through the snow in the Arctic winter of 1947 and the tale of how an uncle had pawned his wife’s hard-saved-for furniture to buy a red sports car. Novels in the making, every one – and the quality of the writing was of a very high standard.
The afternoon was rounded off by a quiz prepared by Alison. She’d found the photographs of twenty famous crime writers and asked the group to put names to them while I signed some books. It was a brilliant idea, and quite a hard task: no-one got more than half of the answers correct. (I’m going to ask Alison if she’ll let me have the quiz to post on this blog, as I’m sure some of my readers will enjoy it, too!).
The time slid away very rapidly. Braced by a final cup of tea, we ventured out into the cold again before we were trapped by the notorious end-of-day Wakefield traffic bottlenecks. I’d like to thank everyone who took part: the reading group members for giving me so much support (as they always do; it was also good to see several new faces this time), Alison and Lynn for arranging it all so impeccably, the Wakefield Libraries tweeter who, together with them, ensured that the event gained plenty of publicity, and Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books for supplying copies of The Crossing for sale. I hope to see you all again soon!
Rickaro Books, of Horbury, is one of our most distinguished independent bookshops and, like all distinguished independent booksellers, Richard Knowles knows that events don’t just happen: you have to work at them. Therefore, although World Book Day – and, by extension, World Book Week – is getting a huge amount of support from the Booksellers Association and individual publishers, with lots of media coverage, whether or not a bookseller succeeds in making it work is down in the end to himself or herself.
Richard has arranged events for almost every day of this week, leading up to World Book Day itself, which is tomorrow, Thursday March 6th. (If you’re interested in finding out more, please click here.) Tomorrow, he is entertaining a group of schoolchildren in the shop, all wearing fancy dress, and is even going to dress up himself! (I find this amusing: Richard has obviously mellowed since I worked with him all those years ago, when, if not exactly child-unfriendly, he was certainly selective about the children that he liked!)
However, when I read about Richard’s celebrations for World Book Week, the Rickaro Books event that most intrigued me was the one that took place yesterday. I made plans to attend it immediately. It was a live poetry evening, with Ralph Dartford and Matthew Hedley Stoppard (who refers to himself on Twitter as ‘the poor man’s Benedict Cumberbatch’, a soubriquet that immediately endeared him to me). The shop has an excellent track record at organising poetry readings (I’ve written about them on this blog before) and I knew that yesterday’s would not disappoint.
The two poets recited alternately with the fluency and skill which comes from complete command of the material. Both were consummate performance artists, but what really impressed me was the quality of the poetry itself. It is my experience that many live poets are performers first, poets second, but both Ralph and Matthew are exceptional poets as well as being brilliant at engaging with a bookshop audience. The latter was pretty special, too, and included a small boy named George who was dressed as Peter Pan.
If you are not familiar with Ralph’s and Matthew’s work and you like poetry, I recommend that you invest in the two books (AND Matthew’s lovely green vinyl record!) that I bought last night. Cigarettes, Beer and Love, by Ralph, takes the form of a chapbook that has been beautifully produced by the Ossett Observer on hand-made paper. Matthew’s A Family Behind Glass, published by Valley Press, has all the elegance of a classic ‘slim volume’. Which poems did I enjoy most last night?
Well, the Co-op store in Ossett will never be quite the same to me again, now that Ralph has given me ‘Co-op Live Art Fiasco’, which describes his effort to show the individuals in the checkout queue that their investment in the Lottery pays for art (and his wages)… by stripping stark naked and doing some ‘live art’ with a Lucozade bottle. The constable summoned to the event says: “I once saw something like this in Berlin. A scratch card paid for the trip. I quite liked it.” (Ralph was led away at 08.46.) As readers of this blog know well, I’m game for a laugh, but there’s serious stuff behind Ralph’s humour.
Ralph describes Matthew as the ‘cerebral’ one of the pair (but all their poems last night were ‘thinky’, even the most superficially frivolous of them!). In fact, one poem of Matthew’s touched me a lot and spoke to me very clearly from my own past in our first rented marital flat in Leeds.
He set the context of a rented house in Rothwell, his and his wife’s first home, at a time when, he said, they weren’t really ready to be adults, yet. I’ll give you the first stanza, so that you may be touched as well:
Now that the streetlamps have stolen the stars
From the afternoon sky, sleep, content
And lovely as custard, pours over us. We sit
With winter on the settee, arm in arm –
Our legs interlaced like denim snakes,
Bedlam pressed between our palms. [From ‘The Wendy House’]
Matthew is about to take up a post with Leeds City Libraries: I’d like to wish him well with this. Ralph works for the Arts Council, and knows Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery of Salt Publishing. He observed, unsurprisingly, that they are both ‘lovely people’. He kindly bought In the Family before he left the shop, which gave what had already been a very enjoyable evening a considerable extra fillip for me!
I wish Richard every success with World Book Day. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he receives the schoolchildren tomorrow, but unfortunately I have to travel to London instead.) And I hope very much indeed that I shall meet Matthew and Ralph again. In the meantime, I shall enjoy reading their poetry for myself. Thanks to them for introducing me so beautifully to it.
Precious poetry pack
How to get a book signed by two priceless poets
Last Friday, I spent another fascinating evening at Rickaro Books. I’d been looking forward to it with great anticipation since the Ian McMillan / Tony Husband event that took place several weeks ago. This time, the author was Gervase Phinn. I hadn’t met him before – though my husband is very familiar with his books – and he did not disappoint. The event was extremely well attended: I calculate that at least forty people managed to squeeze into this distinguished but pocket-sized bookshop.
He focused upon his latest book, Mangled English, which delights in highlighting the way we all misuse the language (I certainly do!), and touched upon such matters as mis-spellings, Spoonerisms, Malapropisms and howlingly bad verse (guilty!). He also told many amusing anecdotes about people he’d met. He now spends some of his time as a performing artist on cruise ships, so the tales he had to tell were varied. However, the one that I liked best – although it was also one of the most poignant – was the one about the old people in a care home. One of them was actually his mother-in-law. She was obviously out of the conversation (he was very sensitive in the way that he talked about her dementia), but he derived real humour from recounting the reaction of the old man who was sitting next to her when he was asked his name. He wouldn’t give it and, when asked whether he had played any part in ‘the war’, would only reply ‘I might have done’. Getting no other response from him, Gervase turned to his mother-in-law and asked her name. While she was struggling to remember it, the old man suddenly burst out: “Don’t tell him, Pikey!”
In a more serious vein, Gervase extolled the virtues of encouraging children to read at a young age – as he had himself been encouraged as a boy – and deplored the government’s ever-changing education strategy. As a former inspector of schools, he is better qualified than most to do so. He took an especial interest in the children at the event.
It was a privilege to meet him and I had two opportunities to talk to him. However, the best part of the evening for me was actually being at Rickaro Books itself, looking at the excellent rare books collection that is on sale there and drinking mulled wine – it was the gateway to Christmas for me, in fact. The experience was made even better by being invited to join Richard and Carole Knowles, the proprietors of the bookshop, for dinner afterwards in their local Italian restaurant . As I’ve said in a previous post, Richard and I go back a long way, and it was very good to have the opportunity to listen once more to his (sometimes elliptical, always amusing) take on life, the universe and bookselling… and to get to know Carole a little better.
Watch this space: I’m sure that there will be more posts about Rickaro Books in the future. Should you ever be in Horbury, I wholeheartedly recommend that you take a detour (it won’t be much of one, as the bookshop is in the very heart of the town) to pay a visit.
Ian McMillan, South Yorkshire’s own shrewd and very funny poet (the ‘bard of Barnsley’ and ‘poet in residence’ at Barnsley FC), gave a book launch and signing session at Rickaro Books in Horbury yesterday evening. It was an event that I’d been looking forward to for a long time, having heard Ian perform once before, at a school. He is a performance poet second to none.
I arrived early at the shop with my husband. Ian was already there, entertaining all the other early arrivals. Even Richard Knowles, the owner of Rickaro Books, seemed excited. Richard is professionally lugubrious: his catch-phrase when I worked with him a quarter of a century ago was ‘Life is Cricklewood, not Hollywood.’ Yet he’d invested in a big box of Cadbury’s Celebrations (only slightly dimming the gesture by explaining that they were left over from Trick or Treat night and also instructing his guests to take the Snickers chocolates first, as he doesn’t like them) and shared his special ‘bookseller’s provender’- malted milk chocolate biscuits – with Ian. He had even brought along his flat cap for the occasion.
At this point, I should perhaps explain that Ian’s new book, a collaboration with eminent cartoonist Tony Husband, is entitled 101 Uses for a Flat Cap. Published by Dalesman, whose account manager was also at the meeting – he’d kindly brought along copies of all Ian’s books – this latest offering from Ian and Tony does exactly what it says on the tin… er, sorry, book. It consists of 101 pieces about the trademark Yorkshire flat cap, inserted by its author into every possible historical and practical situation: ‘All made up! Every one of them!’ Ian kept on cheerfully insisting. He read several of these poems as well as, with passion, a more poignant extract from another recent title, The Tale of Walter the Pencil Man. Dedicated to his great uncle, Joseph Fletcher, who died at the Somme aged twenty-four, this is the reflective and touching tale of a Yorkshire pit village lad who tries with his pencil and paper to cope with what is happening around him as he fights on the First World War battlefields. It’s very topical, of course, and I’m sure will enjoy many sales this year and next, as we approach the centenary of the start of the Great War.
Tony Husband, Ian’s illustrator, accompanied him. It was a real thrill to meet him: he’s a very accomplished, not to say distinguished, artist, who draws for several famous publications, including Private Eye (Yobs), and has been Cartoonist of the Year several times. He told me that he and Ian Hislop arrived at the Eye at about the same time, twenty-five years ago (about the same time that Richard and I ceased to be colleagues!). Tony worked fast and incredibly hard all evening: he not only signed every book that was purchased, but drew a picture in it as well; he also drew a picture to accompany each of the poems, simultaneously with Ian’s recitation, and distributed them among members of the audience afterwards. The picture he gave to me, which I shall certainly have framed, illustrates the poem entitled ‘The Flat Cap Scene from King Lear (now lost)’. It’s my particular favourite, not least because it’s arch about Lincolnshire (my home county) and Norfolk (home of my publisher, Salt), though Ian did qualify his comments by saying that he loved South Lincolnshire and even recollected an event that he’d given at ‘one of the Gedneys’ – impressive, as the Gedneys are very small villages in the back of beyond.
Here’s a taster of the poem; the rest is hilarious, but you’ll need to buy the book to find out! (Plug, plug…)
Lear: Oh fool, what dost sport upon thy head?
It seems exceeding flat and dull, i’faith,
As Lincolnshire and Norfolk, two flat places in the East.
This occasion was everything that an event in a bookshop should be: convivial, hospitable (Richard’s wife Carole provided a delicious and warming mulled wine) and humorous, with a great deal of ad libbing from both Ian McMillan and Tony Husband, as well as from members of the audience. It was extremely well attended and I’m sure that, like us, everyone who was there went home happy and enriched by all the pleasures that it brought. Richard also used the occasion to promote BOOKS ARE MY BAG, an initiative that is close to my heart, as readers of this blog will know.
And there was no charge for attending: certain chain booksellers, please take note!
Very many thanks to Rickaro Books, Tony and Ian, for an evening to remember:
I went to Wakefield One last Friday, in order to discuss the details of the programme for 29th June with Alison Cassels, the librarian who’s in charge of events there. It’s a truly spectacular new library and events centre and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. It’s heart-warming to think that in these days of austerity and cutbacks there is still investment being made in such buildings, so important for promoting reading and holding local communities together.
During the course of our conversation, Alison mentioned that she’d ordered copies of both my books for the event. The library has itself bought copies of In the Family for its reading group (a very generous action which I applaud!) and has also ordered copies of it and Almost Love for those attending the session to purchase if they want to. I asked Alison who was supplying them and she said it was Rickaro Books of Horbury. It’s a bookshop that I’ve long been meaning to visit, because its proprietor is Richard Knowles, who many moons ago was my first boss. I e-mailed Richard to ask him if I could drop in with some Christina James postcards and he got back to me immediately. We agreed that I would call yesterday.
It seems particularly fitting that my visit should have taken place this week, which marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of my appointment to the library supply company in Normanton where my bookselling career started. Richard, then the manager, had many idiosyncratic interests which married well with bookselling: he was an authority on mediaeval armour and effigies and both wrote about and collected books on them. He liked antiquarian and private press books and had a fine collection of these, and read everything that he could lay his hands on about or by T.E. Lawrence. He was also fond of the poetry of Edward Thomas. Other interests included motor-bikes and collie dogs. He had a small child’s aversion to vegetables and liked nothing better than a currant bun filled with cheese for lunch, bought from the bakery on the corner. Main courses he could take or leave, but he loved puddings and chocolate. I once walked nine miles to work through snow drifts after the bus failed to materialise; he must have been impressed, because he gave me the chocolate bar he had earmarked for his elevenses!
I last saw him about twenty years ago (at the Scottish Library Association Conference in Peebles), but truly he hasn’t changed very much. A little more ‘distinguished’, perhaps, and now wearing spectacles, but otherwise he could have stepped straight out of 1978.
Rickaro Books is exactly what I had expected: a deep Aladdin’s Cave of intriguing antiquarian and second-hand books, with a smaller but select stockholding of new titles. It even has a resident collie dog – Tilly – who lies under the cash desk. I didn’t ask him whether he comes to work on a motorbike; I suppose that Tilly would make this difficult, but otherwise I wouldn’t be surprised. I note with amusement that there is a baker’s shop just a few doors away and wonder whether its currant buns are up to the mark.
Richard said that he’d set up the shop thirteen years ago. He has a loyal local following and the library business, for special orders of new titles, is important to him. His customers for the antiquarian books are scattered throughout the world. He spends much of his time packing parcels to despatch to them. I didn’t buy any of the antiquarian books, but I did leave with two of Anne Cleeves’ titles, having been encouraged to read her by comments on the social networks.
Rickaro Books is a delightful place and one that I shall certainly visit again. I’ve already threatened to present myself for duty in the run-up to Christmas! It’s encouraging that booksellers like Richard can not only survive, but thrive, by building a business such as this, almost entirely on traditional lines; excellent also that Rickaro’s worth is recognised by the local library service.
Richard says that he and his wife plan to come to the event at Wakefield One on 29th June. I am pleased and touched that they are going to the trouble of rearranging their afternoon. After a gap of twenty years, two meetings in the space of two weeks! Like fine old books, old bookselling friendships mellow with age and perhaps get a little dusty, but they don’t disintegrate.
If anyone reading this would like to attend the event at Wakefield One, it starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday 29th June. I shall be giving readings from both books and talking about how I came to write them, as well as offering tips on how to get published.