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Review – 18 Bookshops by Anne Scott (Sandstone Press)

Quirky, original, wonderful writing;  a celebration of 18 bookshops in the life of the author; half of them set in Scotland with the rest in London (5), Oxford (1) Ireland (2) and New York (1). However, this is a storybook, not a travelogue. Nor is it a bookshop guide, as I thought at first.  I bought 18 Bookshops supposing it to be a book about shops. I was wrong. Instead this is an adventure story – about all that is excellent in making good literature available and of its potential for massively widening our horizons.

The book is beautifully descriptive, and at times deeply insightful about what is of value in literature and bookselling. It also pays homage to that very good office of ‘Bookseller’ in hushed tones.

18 Bookshops - Anne Scott

This volume is a pleasure to handle; a solid hardback beautifully produced and packaged, with orange and black leaves and end-covers, and a black and orange typeface. There are no page numbers but surprisingly it’s easy to find your way around the chapters. I do hope numbers are not added to any reprint as it would so spoil this delicious little book. Here are 18 short chapters to read and savour; it’s very difficult to read this book in a hurry. It’s a book clearly forged in Scotland with a Scottish slant and a Celtic view; and all the better for it.

If you love bookshops, you’ll love this book. It captures the essence and atmosphere of a good bookshop perfectly. We need to guard such treasure before it soon becomes a thing only of its past. You’ll have to buy the book to see which shops are selected and if you know any of them? However, be aware that several of them are from as far back as the 1500’s and many are long gone. Each chapter evokes the wonder and power of literature as seen through the eyes of owners and customers of these very diverse shops. Spanning many centuries and winsomely written, it has real emotional appeal to all lovers of physical books and physical bookshops. In an age of simply clicking a mouse to purchase a book, we need to be reminded of this pleasure.

Chapter 7 contains the delightful story of Robert Louis Stevenson, then aged 5, entering James Smith’s bookshop. Stevenson in his later memoir tells of the transforming effect that this Edinburgh bookshop had on his imagination; ‘the place smelt of Bibles and it was wonderfully dark’. In Chapter 9, another Edinburgh bookshop, the Grail Bookshop is the subject. Anne Scott writes, ‘This bookshop gave me more than just books’. Bookshops do that to you. The chapter evoked strong memories for me of a rather different bookshop, owned by the Church of Scotland and also in George Street where I too spent much of my time. Both these shops are now closed; ‘defeated chiefly by rising rents in George Street’.

Scott writes of ‘a Bookman’ in Chapter 10, not ‘bookseller’. Note that subtle distinction; good book people don’t just sell books. I like that description. I think I’d like to be known as such. She writes of one volume, ‘No-one closes this book unchanged for it releases dreams’.  In Chapter 11, the doorway to an Oxford bookshop is described thus; ‘The entry loudly and harmoniously belled’.  There seems a wistfulness and a longing running throughout the book.

I enjoyed Chapter 12 with its history of bookselling in London (and of Paternoster Row in particular) interwoven into the story of Thomas Davies, a Scot, an actor, a bookseller and quite a character it would seem. Davies was a friend and contemporary of both Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Johnson’s father had been a bookseller in Lichfield. His son had ‘seen the suffering caused by failing custom, broken orders, lost money, and the fickleness of the trade’. Quite an apt narrative for the book trade! An English Heritage blue plaque is now assigned to Tom Davies bookshop near Covent Garden.

Chapter 14 comes with a good description of a good bookseller: ‘Here is an owner who reads her visitors and leases out time to those who need it, who want it in this place’. For me, Chapter 15 is THE chapter in the book. It’s called ‘Leaving’. I read it twice – it’s beautiful, haunting and sad; a love story involving the author and a bookshop overlooking Waverley Station in Edinburgh. This is very personal writing indeed, with hidden depths in its language, hinting at a monochrome past but now a life transformed by all that’s best in British literature.

Chapter 17 on Kenny’s Bookshop, Galway contains a description of the perfect bookshop, ‘to sit somewhere out of the way and look: to read and buy, and read and leave, and return’.  This shop has now moved online. Anne Scott comments, ‘I send for books, pay in silence online: but the book comes in and is real then, though from whom and by whose hand, I can never know’.

The final chapter covers an occult bookshop in London. For me, this is the poorest of the chapters and sad to end such a delightful book on such an unsatisfactory note.

18 Bookshops is as much about good literature as it is about bookshops; the subversive impact of a well-written book on the mind and the imagination down through the ages. It contains the manifesto of why I personally have been involved with books all these years.

I think I must write my own ‘18 Bookshops’ before it’s too late. It’s not quite the same to describe 18 websites! If I did, I’d have to include a far-too-short visit to Maria Brothers in Shimla, Northern India – a musty, dusty shop full of old volumes and maps left over from when the British left India, where stock crumbled in your hand as you explored but which was a treasure house of old books in which to browse. I still vividly recall this shop as I write.

That’s what all bookshops can and should do – I commend 18 Bookshops to you as a celebration.

Maria Brothers, Shimla, India

Inside Maria Brothers, Shimla

Final note – I do find it offensive – given the subject matter – that this book is advertised by Anne Scott’s publishers as available via Amazon of all places!

Travel – Review of J.G. Farrell’s, The Hill Station (1981) : Shimla in India

May 12, 2012 3 comments

I’ve just finished reading J G Farrell’s half-completed novel, The Hill Station.  Farrell, a past Booker prize winner (1973) for The Siege of Krishnapur; recently picked out by UK Broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman as one of the nine books which have made him who he is, calling it a ‘stunning novel’. Farrell died in 1979 aged 44 after being washed away by a freak wave in a beach fishing accident in Ireland.

Between 1970 and 1978, Farrell wrote his Empire Trilogy: Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip. The Hill Station was supposed to be the final book of a quartet (similar to those of Paul Scott) but remained unfinished due to his untimely death.

Farrell had said in an Observer Magazine article,

‘The really interesting thing that’s happened during my lifetime has been the decline of the British Empire’.

In his writings, an absorbing collection of post-colonial fiction, he explored the economics and ethics of empire doing much to dismantle the staple elements of the British imperial story. This particular story is excellent in pointing up the hypocrisy and double-standards of the Raj, especially in a place like Simla, a cultural pressure cooker which many of those living there found ultimately unbearable.

For me, having visited Shimla (note post-independence name change) in northern India by hill railway from Kalka last year, this book brought back some wonderful memories. For the first three chapters I was back on the train: such marvellous detail and excellent descriptions for the journey up to Kalka; which was then the railhead for Simla. Anyone who’s travelled on a hill train in India will recognise it from this book. The remainder of the journey to Simla in those days was simply punishing. The 58 miles up into the hills were covered by Landau or by Kabul ponies pulling a ‘Tonga’.  

The novel evocatively recreates the Simla of the British Raj, something it shares with Kipling’s Kim.  If you’ve been to Shimla, you’ll recognise many of the places in the novel although interestingly Farrell never visited. He was due to go there in the autumn of 1979. Sadly, Farrell’s book finishes in mid-stream after just 150 wonderful pages, leaving one feeling bereft and a little short-changed. It ends just as it is getting into its stride but, thankfully, one of the author’s acquaintances has attempted to fill in the gaps and make sense of Farrell’s silence by developing the story further using his detailed research notes.

Not only is the book set in the India of the Victorian era but is one with a fascinating religious theme; the heated 19th century dispute between High Church Ritualism and Low Church Protestantism which led to the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 (repealed in 1965).

The Hill Station is not kind to institutional Christianity. The Bishop of Simla goes not emerge from this very well, being as he is, more interested in maintaining the party line. However, Revd Kingston, the Anglican ritualist priest cast as the outsider, is given generous treatment by the author on account of the fact that his beliefs are actually central to the way he lives his life.

In the book, the arguments on both sides of this now ancient debate are superbly presented, predominately through the riveting dialogue given to the central characters. The characterisation is strong particularly in the case of the vaguely agnostic Scottish Doctor, McNabb. I loved the underlying tension developed by his longstanding attempt to write a treatise on Indian medicine when all along he was investigating the unexplained effects of religion on the human spirit.

These photographs of Shimla were taken on a visit to India in October 2011. The now fast fading Victorian architecture reflect something of Godalming High Street incongruously set 4,000 miles away in the Shivalik foothills of the Himalayas.

Photography – Iconic images of India

November 5, 2011 1 comment

Iconic images of India from a visit to the Golden Triangle of Jaipur, Dehli and Agra plus Shimla in the Himalaya foothills.

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