Next art talk is on Thursday evening, 30 June – via Zoom, so you can join in from anywhere, you are guaranteed a comfy seat, your choice of beverage, no issues with parking, you can even attend in your pyjamas! This week it’s the astonishing Jan van Eyck – an hour looking closely at the details in a beautiful painting, all very welcome. See our Art Talks tab for more details and ticket link!
As well as running the Tree House I am an art historian – I have just given up my last university teaching job, but am restarting my own talks. I may get back to face to face talks at the bookshop at some point, but for now I am resurrecting the Zoom talks that I started during lockdown.
I am doing a series looking at paintings in detail – particularly paintings from Northern Europe in the Renaissance and the 17th century, which is my specialism. It’s easy to overlook some of the details, and some are barely visible to the naked eye. I will talk briefly about the works of art (there may be sculpture occasionally too, since that was my PhD subject!), to give some info and context, then we will spend time homing in on the details of both content and technique.
The talks are very accessible, but hopefully of interest whatever level of engagement you have had with works of art previously.
The first painting is one of my favourites, and combines reading with art history, my two great interests! It’s in the National Gallery in London and is the perfect size to hang on the wall – if you ever hear of it being stolen, track me down… It’s Mary Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden (from about 1435).
So if you are interested, buy a ticket via this link and join us via Zoom on 14 June. All very welcome, wherever you are in the world! I have an international audience, which is exciting.
Most mornings I have that ‘really don’t want to go to work’ struggle. I love being at home. And as soon as I leave the house I have the ‘really don’t want to go to work’ struggle even more, because then I encounter people, and I don’t like people. I went to Sainsbury’s this morning – 9am on a Saturday morning, I have never done that before and never will again…ugh, people. But I needed stuff for lunch, and snacks for Eurovision tonight! Ahem. Anyway, I am now at my little bookshop and very happy to be here. It is a little haven away from the chaos out there. Of course there are people, but they are almost all nice, they come in a few at a time, and nearly all (not quite all but nearly) have one thing in common with me: they have some level of interest in reading books. Anyway, it’s good to be running this lovely place, and it’s a fab place to spend my days given that I do have to go to work, and one of the things I love is that it is shelter from the storm. (Hope you are getting the Bob Dylan references here – I have put a truly stunning performance below to help you get one of them!) The whole reason for this post – why do I witter so much when I start typing? – is to post my favourite internet meme of the moment (apart from the ones lampooning the Tories, but the Tories are a big part of the chaos, so they are covered by this). Drink your coffee and read your books – I am off to make a pot of Monsoon Estates‘ finest.
It’s been a year since we reopened after the final lockdown (oh no, now I have an unwanted earworm…), and 11 months since I last wrote a proper post – I am hopeless. We are having a brand new website built – by professionals! – so I hope to be so inspired that I remember to post a bit more regularly.
I have lots to say about hosting music gigs, which I used to do about every month at the bookshop pre-pandemic, but I won’t say any of it for now. I will treat you to an essay at some point! Suffice to say that we are going very gently on that front. It is a stressful thing to do, organising gigs, selling tickets, hosting on the night, and I know some are still cautious about attending indoor events. We have had two incredible gigs – Jenny Sturgeon in November and Jon Wilks in February, both of which sold out without me needing to advertise much. But we have another one coming up in June, with tickets still for sale! Percussion and violin duo Intarsia are playing for us on Friday June 10, so do come! Half the duo, percussion supremo Jo May, came once before, and it was a great night – she had us all playing the spoons at one point. Now she has teamed up with fiddler and singer Sarah Matthews, and they have are touring their record Sistere, a mixture of original and traditional tunes.
More soon on the future of music at the Tree House, but tickets for Intarsia are £13 available here – not currently available at the shop, so do use this link to buy them. Friday 10 June, 8pm. Live music is the best – support it when and wherever you can! Here is a taster of their music.
The bookshop has been full on since we reopened at the start of May, just 7 weeks ago – which is great! But hard to find a moment to stop and take stock and keep everyone posted about what’s going on.
One thing that has become clear to me, however, is which charities I would like the bookshop to support. I have chosen one local, one national and one international.
The local one is the Kenilworth Centre, doing such wonderful things especially for young people in Kenilworth, and also hosting various groups. If you need a room for a one-off event/meeting or a regular session, do get in touch with them. It’s right in the centre of town with parking outside, and a variety of rooms to offer. It also encompasses Radio Abbey, and I would like to find a way to support the radio station in particular. I am no longer doing my radio shows, but my heart is still there!
The national one is Help Musicians UK. I have been doing what I can to support musicians during the pandemic, those whose gigs we had to cancel and others besides. Despite the return of sporting events and some indoor entertainment, live music is still struggling, and group singing indoors is still not allowed. So touring musicians and other live performers have lost nearly a year and a half of gigs, and while things are looking more positive, it will be a while before things get back to normal. I decided that rather than try to support individuals, I would support this national charity that offers help to musicians in need. One day we will get back to live gigs at the Tree House, but as we are so small, it won’t be for a while.
The international charity I have chosen is brand new. It is Ellis Park, a wildlife sanctuary in Sumatra co-founded by our wonderful patron Warren Ellis. He has been so lovely to us, and generous, and when he announced this new project, I knew we had to support it. There has been work going on in Indonesia for some years with animals who are so badly treated by humans that they can’t survive in the wild, and now, with Warren’s help, there is a team setting up a permanent home for such animals. It’s a heartbreaking but beautiful project to read about. They need funds to build enclosures and other facilities, so do have a look.
And here is an interview with Warren from The Quietus about the park.
We will give regularly to these three charities. We are not a charity, not even a social enterprise, so our ‘non-profit’ status is not official, but we use any profits we have to improve our own business and premises but also to support charities. I take a wage, though not a full-time one, and everyone else is a volunteer. Our books are all donated, which is a system based on our operating model, but also means we can keep prices low.
Yesterday, Wednesday 23 June, we had a day where all our takings went to Ellis Park, and our takings were £125, which is a good midweek total for us. Recently the wonderful Simon from The Gauntlet pub in Caesar Road gave us £150 from books sold when he was housing donations for charity while the charity shops were closed; £100 of that went to Help Musicians UK and the rest to support a couple of individual musicians. We give a small amount each month to the Kenilworth Centre, and I will look to increase that or add to it by supporting Radio Abbey specifically.
Do have a look at all these charities:
And now you know where the profits from your purchases and donations go. I also have a collecting tin for the Brompton Fountain for loose change or any time people pay us with coppers! The shop has been doing really well since we reopened, so I hope that carries on and we can continue to support these three wonderful causes.
We are open again – back to normal hours of Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Donations welcome any time we are open – we take books (any), DVDs, CDs, maps and jigsaw puzzles. We also have some lovely greetings cards (including handmade ones), Tree House mugs and pens (Bad Seed Warren Ellis said our pens were ‘awesome’ and bought 20 of them!), some handmade bookmarks too. Come and see us.
The Tree House will reopen post-lockdown on Monday 3 May 2021.
Last night I watched the film The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, for the first time. Richard Burton as John Le Carré’s hero Alec Leamas. I think he’s a hero, anyway. A spy disillusioned with corruption, with the price paid for loyalty to national security, with the concept of national security, with the moral self-righteousness of nations, with the soul-destroying nature of espionage and the cheapness of human life that it involves. It wrote large my current preoccupations over the current desperate move towards nationalism, patriotism, clan-based responses, isolationism, countries breaking away from each other rather than pulling together, and all these things at a local level as well as a national and international one.
As I said before, the thing that has been most difficult through this pandemic is facing the introspection of a small town, the introspection of lots of people, the sense that ‘community’ is a local thing. I loathe the rise of overt nationalism that has come to the surface in the wake of the Brexit referendum, and has grown – not just the thugs and Farageites of this world, but the kind of isolationism at different levels of society that is painful to see. At the moment, there is a trend for politicians to appear in Zoom calls with the union flag in the background – often two. We are in danger of starting to worship the flag, as Americans are wont to do. People say, Why are other countries not allowed to be proud of their flag but not us? That’s not the right question, for me: no one should be proud of their flag. Nationalism and patriotism are destructive. The flags are an emotive thing that undermines careful thinking. Lately a Tory councillor has taken to putting up quotes about how many here have been vaccinated with a union flag as the background to his posts, and it’s nauseating.
Why am I ranting about patriotism and nationalism? Because this emphasis on local places and local people is patriotism writ small, and narrows the world for everyone. This year I have spent a lot of time grieving for Kenilworth Arts Festival. It is still going, and the current committee did a lovely job of putting on a small festival with online events. But for four years, the amazing Lewis Smith organised the most beautiful Arts Festival for Kenilworth – put together quite fabulous events bringing some of the most interesting and exciting writers, musicians and creative groups to Kenilworth. Whenever I tried to spread the word, people would say. ‘But what’s it got to do with Kenilworth? Where are the Kenilworth artists?’ And it always broke my heart. It was never meant to be about Kenilworth, it was about bringing the highest quality arts events TO Kenilworth – like Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Hay-on-Wye and others. The parochialism is soul-destroying. It was a shock when someone just mentioned almost casually that Lewis would not be part of the Festival any more, and I have been crying over it ever since, and still going through a grieving process for something that we should have nurtured, developed, continued to grow into a nationally-respected festival. But all people want is a platform for local artists.
The musicians who have come to the Tree House have all been professional musicians on national – sometimes international – tours. They may not be household names, but they have all been significant, sometimes stellar, names on the folk and acoustic scene, which is producing some of the most talented singer-songwriters around. We should be excited that these musicians made Kenilworth part of their tours, but Kenilworth rarely was, beyond a handful of people who were either knowledgeable or adventurous. There was very, very little in the way of sharing our gigs, encouraging others to come to them, spreading the word about how good these musicians are. Lots of businesses and individuals ask me to retweet their stuff on a daily basis; I can count on one hand the number of people who regularly share(d) our events, and three of those are personal friends. We are a very small venue, and without selling 30 tickets each time, we struggle to meet the fees of those musicians, let alone pay for extras such as giving them food, and the shop almost never gets anything to help with rent and paying for my time. This is my livelihood too.
I am being unkind, I realise. But I don’t mean to be, only honest. Having the shop closed for eight months of the last year has given me plenty of time to think, and seeing people not just locally but around the country responding in inward-looking ways to this pandemic has been very sad. For me, sadness and anger can be emotions that overlap and it can be hard to find the line that separates them.
The quotation in the title of this post is from Bob Dylan’s Sweetheart Like You, and is adapted of course from Samuel Johnson. Bob’s song goes on to say, ‘Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.’ We have had a chance over the last year to change our way of thinking about society, about capitalism, about lifestyle, about our place in the world and the cosmos, and it feels as though we have largely failed to do that.
One of these days I will list the things I am most proud of at the bookshop, and half of it won’t mean anything to the people of Kenilworth, but we have done lots of things. The live music, however, is the pinnacle of what we have achieved, though hardly anyone acknowledges it as anything at all. That’s OK – those of us in the know, know! Thank you to those who have supported our gigs.
Enough rambling for now. Others may be looking forward to returning to their normality, but I don’t want that at all. This is a chance to change, a chance to rethink and re-evaluate, and as I said in my previous post, I am not going to go back to how things were before. We may lose followers and customers, but ours is not a business in the conventional sense, and I am not going to compromise my beliefs and hopes in the interests of commerce-led values. I hope my accountant does not read this.
Here is Bob’s song. On a more positive note, here is something that my other hero Nick Cave wrote the other day: ‘The world still turns, ever perilous, but containing its many joys. Music remains a balm. Friendships endure.’ Thank you Nick. Thank you Bob. Music transcends national boundaries and cultures and languages, music is fundamental to us as humans and so it unites us in a way that being part of a political clan never can. It teaches us to look both deep into ourselves and then out, as stronger people, to others and to the world and the universe of which we are all a part. I will continue to champion music – and live music – in whatever ways I can, and there will be the occasional live and fabulous gig at the Tree House, and we will support Bob and Nick and Nick’s friend our wonderful patron Warren Ellis in all their endeavours. Music Matters.
Next time I will focus on beautiful things not the ones that make me angry.
23 March: one year today since the country went into the first national lockdown. It was a Monday, and I had decided to close my shop on the Saturday, having deliberated for several days about what to do for the best. I don’t think any of us realised that a year on we would still be in lockdown, albeit with breaks along the way. But the Tree House has been closed for over seven of the last twelve months. The government has given us grants so that the bills can still be paid, I have been furloughed so I can still take the few hundred pounds a month I earn from the shop, and I am grateful to a government I generally don’t like much for that. We would not have survived without it.
Ours is not a business that lends itself well to click and collect, nor even mail order, though I did send out some surprise books during one part of the crisis. So the decision to close and go on furlough was not a difficult one. I am actually proud of the tiny part we have played in helping to keep everyone safe, in not encouraging people to leave their homes, and I have stayed at home through much of lockdown. Not being able to walk has made that easier in one sense! Though an extremely generous friend offered me money to buy a mobility scooter just before the first lockdown, and my secondhand scooter has been a lifechanger and means I can get out much more easily. I still stay at home mostly though, sometimes venturing out somewhere people-free, and otherwise only going to the bakery or the library as necessary, once a week or less.
We are due to reopen on 12 April, as long as there are no further setbacks, and I am gearing up to that. But this year has changed me in all sorts of ways. It has taught me about the dangers of parochialism – a kind of nationalism writ small, and little repels me more than nationalism. There has of course been a wonderful pulling together in many ways in our community, with a quite brilliantly organised volunteer team which was set up quickly and has done amazing things – very well run and full of committed people. But there has also been a sharpening of a sense of individual rights being removed, which has led to people pushing the covid restrictions to the limits. Town has been busy, social distancing very hit and miss (more miss than hit), lots of shops open that I can’t see are essential, and discussions on social media that make me feel quite desperate. I am not interested in my own town beyond all others – I am lucky to live in a lovely place, but I find some of the attitudes very hard to take. Having lived in Bristol and London, and spent large amounts of time abroad, I find the introspection of small towns tricky. The lack of interest in wider issues, the shutting down of broader views, the focus on the small and close to home rather than the worldwide picture is disheartening.
The world is my community. I am sad we have left the EU, for all its problems, because I now feel less connected to that world. But the EU is a political institution, and I am still part of Europe, still part of the world, still free of national restrictions. The realisation of this over the last year – the year in which we left the EU as well as dealing with the pandemic and in which the world got rid of Trump as a person of power – has changed my thinking about the bookshop.
Alongside all the other things, my heart has been with musicians. We hosted a couple of gigs a month prior to the pandemic, and my heart is especially with those musicians – the independent touring artists who have always had to struggle to make a living but whose livelihood and identity was swept away overnight and who are still facing a deeply uncertain future. Not many locally have been interested in this, and yet it’s at the heart of what the Tree House is about.
I raised £2000 to pay those musicians whose gigs we had to cancel and then to give a small amount each to a number of other musicians. I give art talks via Zoom so that I have a little money to spend on buying music each month. I have been to lots of online gigs. I share whatever I see of musicians on social media, to try to keep their situation in people’s minds. Drops in the ocean, but something each of us can do. The musicians themselves have been amazing – continuing to find ways to make music, to make recordings even, to keep in touch with audiences and fans, to keep their world alive. And in fact out of it all has come some positivity – nothing replaces live music, but online access has opened up audiences a little, and surely streaming live gigs in future will be something to think about, to increase revenue as well as reach more people.
So when the shop reopens, it will have a slightly different focus. More outward-looking. I like to think we have been that anyway, but the focus will be on books and music – selling books in order to support the music industry as well as to keep books in circulation. The community hub aspect will be less of a priority – in terms of the events we host, for example, and getting involved in things at a local level. My heart is with the wider world. We will raise funds to support musicians – whether we do that via donations to Help Musicians UK or more directly has yet to be decided. Shop profits will go to this, as will events or initiatives through the year.
Ironically, I won’t be hosting much live music, to start with at least. We are very small, and there have always been problems with organising gigs, exhausting problems for me. I am rethinking that, but it is not in any case possible while social distancing is still in place. We have had INCREDIBLE gigs from so many amazing musicians over the last 7-8 years, and I am so proud of having brought so many fantastic musicians to Kenilworth. But it was always so hard to sell tickets and I was not the most dynamic host. So I will focus on books – my original dream was to run a secondhand bookshop, and I want to make it a better bookshop than it currently is. And that now has an extra aim, of raising funds to support the music industry. Our glorious patron Warren Ellis remains my daily inspiration; he has lost two years of touring, but remains a major creative force. (The title of the post is a quote from him, a word of encouragement to his great friend Nick Cave in the film One More Time With Feeling.) Warren reaches for the stars while staying completely grounded, and that’s how we should all be living. Exploring our creativity but staying focused on the world around us.
A long-winded post, I am sorry. It may annoy some people – that’s OK. None of us can please everyone. It’s been a tough year for every single one of us, in different ways, many of them unexpected ways. But as spring now starts and the clocks move forward this weekend, we at the Tree House will embrace the light and the warmth of each day as it comes, and work towards creating a wonderful bookshop that keeps the essential presence of the arts in full view and accessible, with standards of quality but aims of affordability, and we will do so by being creatively adventurous and being fully focused on the wider world. It will be great to see customers again and find ways to promote the joy of reading and of owning books, and through this to help to keep the world of live music afloat.
Well that’s not quite how the song goes, but sing it anyway.
My previous post proved overly optimistic regarding book donations: it is proving too complicated to arrange drop offs, and so I am afraid we won’t be taking any further donations of books until we reopen on 12 April (God willing…). Not too long to go, if you can hold onto your books until then, but if you can’t, I am afraid you will need to find another destination for them.
Stay safe! And protect each other.