Lockdown Newsletter 4
A fortnight has passed by in a flash and we are sending you some more stories of our lockdown life. Debby has found a new author to read, Gabriella enjoyed VE Day, Edwina's been painting her dog, Kate wishes she was better at teaching, and I am talking my usual rubbish. We hope that it entertains and amuses you for a minute or two. Our next newsletter will hopefully include some details on our planned reopening, all things being fine.
Debby : Revealing Secrets
I hope it's not just me, but I'm getting a distinct sense that there's a faint flicker of light at the end of the lockdown tunnel. It's definitely not daylight, but I don't think it's an oncoming train. It's more like the gleam of a torch held by a chap who's trudging down the line towards us, saying that if we proceed v-e-r-y carefully we might be able to manoeuvre ourselves around the rock-fall that's blocking the exit. Let's hope so, yes?
While we've been sitting in the metaphorical dark of the last two months I'm sure a lot of people have been madly creative, or have mastered new skills or generally used the time productively. Me – not so much, alas. I suppose at best I could say I've acquired, or at least confirmed a level of self-knowledge. I'll never write a novel. (I probably won't even clean the windows.) I have not seized the opportunity to improve my French, parce que je suis une paresse (j'ai utilise Google pour ca).
I absolutely do not have it in me to be a scientist – I really can't imagine myself devising, manufacturing and fitting frosted contact lenses on pigeons as part of an experiment around avian navigational skills. It's fascinatingly described though, in 'Incredible Journeys' by David Barrie – one of the Richard Jefferies/WHB Nature Writing Prize shortlisted books.
And so to reading. Yes, well. Gather round. Not too close....just so that Angus can't hear. I'm going to let you in on a Bookseller's Secret, and he might not like it, so this is strictly between us, OK? Good.
It's this. We haven't read all the books.
I know, shocking. Take a moment. But think about it before you start lodging complaints about Trades Descriptions and sale of untested goods. We have about 25,000 books on the shelves, and more coming in all the time (normally – ha! Remember 'normal'?), so we can't reasonably be expected to have read everything. We have and do all read a lot, believe me. A lot. We read reviews and discuss books with our customers – you – and we select our stock carefully. So when we sell you something, you can be confident that we've got a pretty good idea about whatever it is. There are modern classics, award winners, and books that we know are excellent examples of their particular genres. This month I decided to seize the moment and read some books that I hadn't and felt I probably should. Everything I do, I do it for you. It beats housework.
I've never, until now, read anything by Ann Patchett. I can hear your howls of disbelief and disenchantment from here. Sorry. When The Dutch House was published earlier this year I read the reviews and several interviews with the author, and thought 'You sound fantastic!'. So over two days last week I abandoned all the things I wasn't doing (see above) and read Commonwealth. Oh, but it's good, the sort of book you want to read slowly because you don't want it to end. So confident, with a lovely flexible structure and unexpected yet entirely plausible narrative developments; why on earth have I never read this author before? But hurrah! Her entire back list is waiting for me. I'm now itching to get my hands on The Dutch House and I'll be pressing AP on customers with my trademark swivel-eyed enthusiasm. Don't be scared.
The other thing on the Really Ought To list is Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. Fantasy is absolutely not my thing, but the Earthsea books are genuine classics of the genre and hugely esteemed by people who know what they're talking about. Kate told me to give them a go, and we generally share reading tastes, and I trust her opinion, so I picked them up. When I read the jacket blurb - 'Ged was but a Goatherd on the island of Gont'- I groaned. I'm persevering, though increasingly conscious that I'm being supernaturally summoned by the magical bottle of Windolene.
Gabriella : VE Day – Roll Out the Barrels!
By the time you are reading this, it’s highly probable I’ll be stretching out my calf muscles having spent all of last Friday (8th May) lindy-hopping round the garden to Glenn Miller. Yes, it’s 75 years since Victory in Europe Day. Some of you might know (certainly my colleagues do, sorry guys, I see you yawning!) but I am a bit of a vintage-history-re-enactment-costume enthusiast. I have been involved with 1940s re-enactment since I was about 12 years old, having first been invited by family friends to Twinwood Festival in Bedfordshire. My fascination with the past has grown ever since, not just specifically with the forties, but 20th Century history in general. No I don’t dress up every day, and no, I don’t pretend to live in a time-warp. I love social history, and I particularly love learning about what people wore. I always talk to my mum and dad about ‘life when they were young’ as both of their childhoods and early adulthood in the 1960s and 70s were totally different. I find it fascinating.
I’ll be remembering VE Day and having my own ‘street party’ (no cakes though, can’t get any blasted flour.) Both of my grandmothers joined in with the celebrations on VE Day. My grandmother on my father’s side who was an art student in London was in the crowds outside Buckingham Palace waiting for the King, with her best friend and their American GI boyfriends. There’s a famous piece of film footage showing a little boy standing with his face squashed up against the palace railing’s chanting ‘we want the King!’. I sadly never got to meet my paternal grandmother, but whenever she saw that piece of footage, she would say to my dad, ‘I was there, I’m in the crowd somewhere!’ My maternal grandmother was a few years younger, but as she was living with her family in Windsor, having been bombed out of London, we think she went to the parties happening in town, or indeed in Windsor Great Park. I’ll be remembering them, and wish they were both still here, not least because of all the questions I have! I’ll also be joining in because I love music and dancing. I can jive, even with Mr Invisible, and if big band music can’t make you get up and dance, then what can?
There were meant to be lots of events and street parties taking place this weekend to commemorate 75 years since VE Day, but they have of course been cancelled. Instead, virtual parties and celebrations are taking place, and the one I discovered was organised by English Heritage.
So, it’s never too late to put your glad rags on and party like its 1945. One day, when this current crisis is over, I hope we’ll all want to celebrate and have another ‘proper knees up’. Captain Tom is proof that victories, large or small can still be won, despite the awfulness of what is happening around. Peace, accomplishment and resolution are always worthy of celebration, right?
Edwina and Freddie : The week I took up “Painting”
The garden has been my latest victim. It’s only small and should be easy to keep tidy, but my lack of interest and motivation shows. I should be ashamed of myself really, as my parents had a plant nursery and I basically grew up in a greenhouse. From the age of eight I would earn pocket money pricking off bedding plants for 4p per tray. (it was the 1970’s and no, my parents weren’t into child slave labour, although at the time I sometimes did think they were) So being weaned on everything green should have turned me into a keen gardener. NO.
I enjoy planting up my many pots and watching the birds as they feed on the bird stations, but as for colourful borders and abundant hedges, I lack. Anyway I decided things needed doing, with brush in hand and a large tin of Harvest Gold fence paint, I set to. Sadly, so did Freddie. He wasn’t happy to lie on the lawn and just watch me work; he decided to lie against the fence as I progressed along the back of the garden. After a loud “NO FREDDIE!” he stood up. Thinking he was now out of the way I carried on painting, little did I realise he had rubbed his face along the fence. Harvest Gold proved quick drying and soon Freddies whiskers were rigid, and very brown.
He didn’t seem bothered by it all, his only objection came when I scooped him up and took upstairs and bathed him. What a palaver. Freddie attempting to climb out of the bath whilst I tried to wash the fence paint off him. Then I realised I hadn’t taken his old towel into the bathroom to dry him with. I reckon it took me five seconds to run to the airing cupboard and find his towel. Five seconds it took Freddie to create what looked like a murder scene with all the splashing. Harvest Gold now looked like splattered blood all over the bathroom. He appeared to be enjoying himself attempting to climb up the bath only to slip back down and make a tidal wave. I rinsed him off and wrapped him in a towel and took him downstairs to dry him. After a rub down and a cuddle he was quite content to sit in the sunshine and dry off. I on the other hand had a bathroom to clean and clean and clean. Next time it will be a bucket of cold water in the garden for him!
So, my garden fence is freshly painted and my bathroom now super clean.
Oh and Freddie's white again.
Kate : More family tales
First I must mention the important topic of Pineapple Jaffa Cakes. I finally found some to buy in Marlborough's most central supermarket, in fact they were on special offer, so I snapped up a couple of boxes and presented them proudly to the family when I got home. Reactions were mixed – youngest and oldest child not very impressed, middle child loved them – so she is clearly the one destined to be a bookseller when she grows up.
Home schooling continues with conversations with my children often reminiscent of Just William...
“Compound interest.” said the teacher firmly. “Now, William, let's say you lend Ginger £100.” “Well I wuldn't do that” said William indignantly, “I wuldn't be such a mug.” etc etc
If you'd heard the row between me and my youngest on the correct use of greater than and less than signs this morning I think you'd feel sorry for me – especially when I tried to bring in the middle child to back up my case and she also got muddled up and took against me. It turns out my husband is not clear on this topic either – so I shall blame his genes this time. Similar unrewarding school topics include: Should we draw straight lines with a ruler or just attempt it by hand? Are the grown-ups right to expect a capital letter at the start of every sentence? And could mummy possibly know anything about the Tudors?
It's clear that I'm not a natural teacher, my cooking is getting terribly dull as I have run out of ideas, and as I've previously admitted, the cleaning is not going that well either. I thought I was making some progress on gardening this spring, until the late frosts killed all the seedlings I'd carefully planted out on the weekend. So I have given up domestic pursuits and turned back to books (hoorah!).
I enjoyed The Last Landlady, by Laura Thompson. A crowd-funded book published through Unbound, it deservedly won the Spectator book of the year. Its a memoir of her grandmother who was a publican through and through, and describes nostalgically the story of the English pub. But the best novel I've read recently is Alas, Poor Lady, written in 1937 by Rachel Ferguson and now published by Persephone Books. It really is an excoriating read – you feel both sorry for and horrified by the behaviour and life of the many daughters of an upper middle class Victorian family, some of whom 'successfully' marry and some who remain stuck, unmarried, with no independent life; infantalised and unregarded. Their gradual descent into genteel but abject poverty is awful – but then, frustratingly, they refuse to help themselves either. Rachel Ferguson really sticks the knife into every single character – I think she had a lot to get off her chest. Perhaps she'd been in lockdown too?!
Angus: The Kindness of Authors
There have been countless stories of kindness over the last two months. This is as it should be and, quite frankly, how things usually work. At the risk of being contentious (moi?) I would suggest that it is not now, nor perhaps ever, that unusual for great kindness at times of great need. Our minds are focussed in that direction, our sensibilities quite keen as to how we deal with ours and others predicaments. Is it not perhaps better to celebrate kindness when it isn’t on the menu? In normal times when life is consuming all our energy with its relentless forward movement? When time, energy, money and mind are focussed on our own presents and futures. Regardless of whether you agree with me I thought I would share a few moments of kindness from authors I have met over the years. They stand out because they were unexpected.
John is a crime writer (The Charlie Parker series) as well as previous horror novels and one about Stan Laurel. He is as sweet a man as you could ever wish to meet.
When I managed a shop in Windsor he was a yearly visitor, having done an event there previously (at the behest of Eve, who was a huge fan). He came, not to sell books, but to go to the pub. One year I had just hired a new Assistant Manager (a South African called Ryan). Ryan joined everyone in the pub. Things got messy. Ryan got rather drunk and at the end of the evening was sick all over John’s shoes. John laughed it off. He came back the following year, jokingly asking if Ryan was still with us. He was. Ryan joined everyone in the pub again. The exact same thing happened again. John laughed it off, again. I can’t remember if he came back the next year.
Many years later, in a different shop, we bumped into each other. As I always do I introduced myself saying “Hello John, you probably won’t remember me...’. ‘Hi Angus,’ he replied, ‘How are you? It’s been a while.’ Never ceases to impress me that.
The late, truly great, chef Gary Rhodes came to Clapham Junction for a signing on one Saturday afternoon. Tall, slim and elegant he was and, like all the chefs, very professional and organised (Gordon Ramsay stories another time).
The signing went very well. At one point a woman, having made it to the front of the queue, walked cautiously up to Gary with a young, silent and nervous teenager in tow. ‘My son’ she said ‘is a very keen cook and is thinking of maybe becoming a chef. Do you have any advice?’. Gary took out one of his business cards, scribbled on it and handed it to the boy. ‘Call my restaurant on Monday and ask for this man. He will organise for you to come and work for me for a couple of days and you can see if you like it.’ They were obviously thrilled and slightly dumbfounded. I told Gary that that was very nice of him. He replied ‘Yes, maybe, but who knows, he may turn out to be the greatest chef who ever lived!’.
His passing saddened me greatly.
Now I know that there are some of you out there who have already made your minds up about Will. I can only tell it like I saw it.
I did a couple of talks with Will over a few years in south London. He was always very pleasant, witty and polite. At the second talk I already knew that, later in the year, we were having an event with the great cartoonist, and his great friend and collaborator Ralph Steadman. I asked Will if he would be willing to interview him. ‘I don’t think so’ he said ‘but call me nearer the time and I might be able to do something’. So, nearer the time, I did. ‘I tell you what,’ he said ‘I could introduce him if you want. It would be nice to see him’. The evening arrived and Will popped in just before we started and had a chat with Ralph. ‘I’ll just say a few words, if that’s ok?’. ‘Sure thing’ I replied. When we were ready to start Will appeared in front of a now bemused, and rather thrilled audience. ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Gordon Ramsay and I am here to introduce to you my great friend Ralph Steadman. Have a great time.’ He then turned to me, shook my hand and whispered ‘Was that ok? I shall just sneak out the back.’ And off he went.
As a postscript I do just have to mention that Ralph spent two hours later not just signing copies of his book (which was an A3 sized limited edition called The Curse of Lono’) but doing full page one off illustrations in each, much to the fury of his wife - he had RSI and was flying to New York at six in the morning. He just laughed.
Stay well everyone.
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