Hemlock and After

IMG_1754I haven’t posted anything on this site for months and months – I need to start adding a blog post more regularly!  And I also need to talk more about books on the website.  Spurred on by these two failings, I decided to write about the book I finished this morning, Hemlock and After by Angus Wilson.

I read the book because of a brilliant podcast, which you must check out if you haven’t listened before.  I have only been listening for about six months, and still have lots of back episodes to catch up on, but it’s the best thing – the kind of thing we need on national radio, or national television – even better – why are there no book programmes on television?  Today’s programme makers no doubt think a few people sitting around talking about books does not make good television, without some sort of vote each week to eliminate someone; but it would.  Just like this podcast, with bookish people talking about books – no celebrities, no ‘journalists’ asking questions (the quotation marks are there because I’m really not sure about the current crop so described on television today; I am always sensitive at using quotation marks, I hear the voice of my old university tutor Dr Parkin – Professor John Parkin these days and for many years – who actively discouraged their use).  The podcast I’m referring to is called Backlisted, and is hosted by John Mitchinson and Andy Miller.  I think John M. and I must have been colleagues at Waterstone’s (as it then was) in London in the late 80s.  My first job after leaving university (two years after leaving university…but that’s another story!) was at Waterstone’s in Charing Cross Road; John Mitchinson worked at another London branch, but sometimes mentions people I knew back then.  It was a lovely time to work for them.

Anyway…listen to the podcast, it’s amazing.  Lively, intelligent discussion about a particular book each time (it’s fortnightly) plus what the two hosts are reading, with two guests joining them each time.  Always really good and inspiring.

They discussed this book by Angus Wilson, so I ordered it from the library – and got a lovely hardback copy with a wonderful Ronald Searle illustration on the cover.  I had read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes some years ago, having first watched Andrew Davies’ excellent TV adaptation, and had enjoyed that very much, but didn’t know this novel at all.

Published in 1952, it is the story of illustrious writer Bernard Sands, who has acquired a nearby dilapidated country house in order to set up a sort of colony for young writers.  He has local opponents led by the ghastly Mrs Curry, who wanted it for a hotel – though as the novel goes on, we realise the sort of hotel she had in mind.  Bernard has an ailing wife, two rather distant grown-up children, and a desire to use his wealth and renown to help younger writers.  We also discover that despite his conventional family life, he has had a relationship with one male friend, and is currently involved in another, with a much younger man.  Mrs Curry and her friend Hubert Rose, it transpires, run a coven of pimps, pornographers and paedophiles.

So beneath the veneer of mid-century respectability, there are undercurrents of forbidden love and outright crime.  I won’t say more about how this pans out, but pan out it does, and by the end of the novel everyone’s life has changed.

I love Angus Wilson’s writing.  I love mid-20th-century writing generally: it often has a sort of muscularity – I am still not sure what the right word is – that is of its time, a way with words that it is both matter of fact and very expressive.  There is a lot of focus in many of those books on subtleties of character and relationships, more than on plot.  It is essentially the same story as Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (which was his next novel, so that should be the other way round).  Bernard is very like Gerald Middleton, the chief protagonist of the later novel, and having seen the TV series of that, I could only hear Bernard as sounding – and looking – like Richard Johnson, who played Gerald.  I don’t know all that much about Angus Wilson, but have the impression that both characters are versions of himself.  Both have difficult wives – and one of the things that irritates me a bit about Wilson’s two books is that women generally are portrayed as pretty awful; but Ella Sands is not nearly as awful as Gerald’s ex-wife Inge in the later book.  She’s not awful at all, in fact, but for most of the novel is ineffective; to soothe my irritation about Wilson’s women, however, she actually becomes heroic by the end of the book.

Both books end with a kind of resignation; a sense of good things achieved but acceptance that some things will not be resolved.  I had a conversation about it with someone just the other day, saying I enjoyed it but didn’t think it was a *great* novel; but last night I had about 20 pages to go and deliberately didn’t finish it as I didn’t want it to end.  I do think it’s a wonderful book.

I was trying to think about why I love the writing in those mid-century novels, and I think it’s partly the slightly formal literary style, even of the dialogue; I am now reading Jonathan Coe’s Middle England, which has me completely drawn in, but made me realise that it’s not just the writing of those older books that I love, it’s the way people talked.  The phrases they used, the more complex sentences…  I love films from that period too.  Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films of all, and while its cut glass accents have been mocked, I find the way the characters talk utterly beautiful.  I remember reading Adam Thorpe’s marvellous novel Ulverton, which follows life in a village from the seventeenth century to the present day, and one of the most notable things is how spoken language deteriorates.  Of course we  have no idea how people talked in the seventeenth century!  We only have written language to go on.  But that written language is sublime.  I also recall AS Byatt saying she liked to write historical novels because they enable her to use words that have gone out of common usage.

So those are my rambling thoughts on Angus Wilson’s 1952 novel Hemlock and After.  Thank you to my county library for supplying it.  Thank you to Backlisted for choosing to discuss it.  John and Andy are directing many of my reading choices these days!

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Kenilworth Reads: My Name Is Leon

WP_20180119_002I spent about 25 years living in Bristol.  I went to university there, and after spending a couple of years after graduation working in London – at Waterstones on Charing Cross Road, where my bookselling career began! – I went back to Bristol in 1990 to work in bookshops and libraries, staying there until I moved back to Kenilworth, where I grew up, in 2009.  I am not a city girl; I loved Bristol, it’s an amazing city, but in the end I knew I wanted to come back to Warwickshire, back to a small town, and the lure of Abbey Fields and the Castle proved too much.  I miss Bristol, especially its bohemian, creative side, but I love rural Warwickshire and living in a place where everything I need is right outside my door.

The reason I’m telling you about Bristol is because while I was living there, they launched the Great Reading Adventure, as part of their bid to be European Capital of Culture, and it was great.  The idea was to get everyone reading the same book: in that first year, we read Treasure Island.

I would love Kenilworth to do something like this, and a while back I tried to launch a similar scheme here.  One of the things I struggle with is keeping a lot of plates spinning at the same time, and after an enthusiastic initial response, I failed to follow it up properly, and time has gone on.  But summer seems a good time to boost the initiative.

The book I have chosen is My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal.   I chose it for a number of reasons.  Kit is local – she grew up in Birmingham and now lives in Leamington (and some of you may have heard her speak at Kenilworth Arts Festival last year – she will be back at this year’s Festival too).  It’s a book that can be read by teenagers as well as adults, giving a wide scope.  And it’s a book with a lot to think about and discuss.  It’s also a wonderful story, written with warmth and humanity.  It has an easy, readable style, but it makes you think and it makes you feel.

Leon is an 8 year old boy at the start of the book.  His mother has just given birth to his baby brother; the baby has a different father from Leon.  Their mother is white, the baby’s father is white, Leon’s father is black, both fathers are absent.  Leon loves his baby brother; he loves his mother too.  But she struggles to cope, and the book is the story of what happens to Leon when crisis point is reached.  You will love Leon; his story will both break your heart and warm it.  It’s several months since I finished reading it, and I still think about him often.

So: why not join in our Kenilworth Reads adventure?  You can buy the book from Kenilworth Books, or borrow it from the library.  I will soon have a sheet that you can pick up at the bookshop or that I can email to you with questions and discussion points.  I will create an online forum, and there is a Facebook group already for those on Facebook.  If you’re in a book club, why not read it as a group?  And we will have some face to face meetings at the bookshop.

I have plans for a Christmas read too, a book that will also appeal to a wide age range, and I will also include a book for younger children at Christmas.

I will post more soon, and let you know when the discussion sheet is ready and an online discussion space sorted.  There will be a page on this website dedicated to it as well – you will be able to post comments there, maybe even just let us know you are joining in.

It would be great to get this off the ground and make it an annual event.  I hope lots of Kenilworth people will join us!

 

Happy birthday to us!

The Tree House Bookshop is five years old!  We opened on 26 July 2013.  It’s true that we had a hiatus – we had to move out of our premises at Christmas 2014, and moved to our current premises in April 2015, and there was also a month when Astley Book Farm took over; but in all that time, the company has remained in my name and we never got as far as transferring the lease to Astley.  And we did stay open!  Somehow we have survived.  Huge thanks to all those who supported our crowdfunders, to our patron Warren Ellis who remains a daily inspiration and motivation, and to a great team of volunteers and supporters – plus our constantly growing army of customers.  Amazing.  I am still not earning anything from it, but both I and the bookshop somehow manage to keep going!

I am taking this opportunity to think a bit about what the Tree House is, why we’re here, why we’re *still* here, and some of the issues at the heart of what we do.  There’s a kind of awkwardness to it, as we don’t really fit into the kind of categories we often seem to belong to.  We are a bookshop – but not in the sense that those selling new books are.  We don’t deal with publishers, we are not part of the Booksellers Association, we are not really a retail business in the same way because the finances work differently and the relationship we have with the rest of the book industry is a bit different.  We are not even a second-hand bookshop in the true sense of the word – we don’t buy books, we don’t have much in the way of antiquarian books (we do get some, but not much, because of our policy of only taking donations).  We are a limited company, but operating as a non-profit (not that we make any profit!).

There has been much talk recently of the way the world of publishing works, and how little authors get paid.  There is an excellent article entitled ‘Publish or Be Damned’ on the Kenilworth Books website to which I would refer you for an in-depth study of that. I am aware that the whole issue of selling second-hand books is problematic in some ways.  We are not supporting authors financially, and may be seen as making life harder for them by offering cheap second-hand copies of books in competition with new books, whose sales do provide royalties (inadequate but essential to the livelihood of authors).  This is undeniable.  But is there a place for second-hand books?

There certainly is, despite some of the complications.  One major asset is that books that are out of print or not easily available any more remain in circulation.  Most of the books we have are older books – certainly many contemporary ones, but we don’t get the current titles until people have read them and passed them on.  There is also the issue of what people can afford: not everyone can afford to buy as many new books as they would like to read.  I would add here that libraries, which are under threat, are the biggest asset here, as authors do get a very small amount each time you borrow a book – so if you can’t afford new books, use your library – and if you don’t have one, campaign to get one!  Libraries are invaluable resources on so many levels.  But I digress…  Another factor for us is that people appreciate having somewhere to take books they no longer want.  There is a limit to how many books charity shops can take, simply due to storage issues, and so people bring them to us.  We support charities and local campaigns where we can, and the non-profit promise means that we do give any surplus to charity, so people feel the whole venture is worth supporting.

We have also built up a strong core of regulars who are a community.  Friendships have been made, even couple got together through the bookshop and are still going strong four years on.  Books are a means to that end as well as an end in themselves.  The books we sell would end up in the recycling bins at the tip – but it’s much better to recycle them as books, to offer people affordable reading material, a nice place to browse, even to sit and read, the opportunity to take a chance on a new author.  They might not pay £8 to take a risk, but they will pay £2.  This is dangerously close to the ‘exposure’ argument – that writers and musicians should perform without pay because it’s good ‘exposure’, an iniquitous practice; but it’s not that, and while the author gets no royalties, I hope there might be a knock-on effect.

I urge everyone who can afford it to buy new books, at full price, from independent booksellers.  This makes for the healthiest possible book industry.  If you can’t afford new books, borrow them from the library.  If you don’t have a library, or if you want to own the book, buy second-hand.  That would be my pecking order.  It seems as though I am shooting myself in the foot, but that’s because I am not about the business model, I am not here because I want to be a businesswoman, and the only reason I run a business is because I have to pay rent and rates, and selling books enables me to do that.  Otherwise I would have a completely different sort of environment.  If I were to win the lottery, that’s what I would do – something that doesn’t involve commerce.  The books and the people who want to read them and who want to meet other people who like books – those are the things that matter.  My life would be transformed if it weren’t for the financial side of things – I am sure that’s true for many or even all of us!  I don’t enjoy the business side of things one tiny bit.  But I am proud of my little bookshop, on all sorts of levels, and the good thing about charging for books is that at least they retain some sort of value; one of the big problems in the arts is that we don’t value them enough, we expect free live music in bars, we prefer to buy discounted books than support authors and independent bookshops and small publishers, we think they are some sort of extra, when in fact the arts are intrinsic to the health and richness of any society.  We cannot live without them.  I for one do not want to live without them.  And in a tiny way, I am trying to promote this very big idea.

So I make no apology for selling second-hand books, neither to authors nor to customers.  I think it’s a good thing.  I think second-hand bookshops are vital, for keeping books in circulation especially when they go out of print, for the serendipity they provide in browsing shelves of unexpected things, for promoting the idea that books are valuable objects and for doing all this on the high street, as part of sustaining healthy communities.

As we celebrate five years of being in business, and despite being financially worse off in my 50s than I have ever been before, I am as committed to all of this as I ever was, and with so much of myself now invested in it, I hope to be in business another five years from now.

Happy reading!

Books in the Wild

kafIf you live in Kenilworth, keep your eyes open as you walk around town…we’ve released some books into the wild!  You might find one on a park bench or at a bus stop or who knows where.  The books are free to take, and the slip of paper encourages the reader to pass the book on when they’ve finished, or rewild it!  We’d also love to hear about any finds – there is a Books in the Wild page here for reporting back.  We’re raising awareness of Kenilworth Arts Festival as well as just spreading bookish fun around the town.  Happy hunting, happy reading!

Volunteering

cropped-cropped-treehouse-header.pngThe Tree House was not intended originally to be volunteer-run, but the realities of survival on the high street mean we have had to be.  It does add to the sense of it being a community venture, about people and reading and promoting the arts more than about commerce, but it is also a challenge.  I run the place full time, but have not been able to earn anything since we moved from our old premises.  So I need to find other ways to earn money, if I am to carry on running the Tree House.  This in practical terms means I need a bit more time away from the bookshop.

So I am looking for one or two volunteers who would like a regular commitment and have half a day or a day a week or a fortnight to spare.  We currently have one person who works every other Wednesday morning, and it’s a godsend – if we could find someone to do the afternoon on the days she works, that would be even better!  It would also be good to have Friday afternoons covered, as I have some opportunities to work elsewhere then.  But any days or half days would be welcomed.

You need to be confident of being at the bookshop on your own – though if we have enough suitable applicants, we can pair people up.  You need to be able to engage with customers and keep up to date with what’s happening at the bookshop.  There is always work to be done in terms of tidying and stocking the shelves, but if you have computer work to do or even want to spend some time reading (!) you would be able to do that too.  Some are keener to be physically busy than others – and the main thing is to keep the bookshop open as much as possible and be there for customers.

So if you are interested, do get in touch and we can talk more about it all – what’s involved, what level of availability you have and so on.  Email victoria@treehousebookshop.co.uk or call into the bookshop to arrange a meeting – I can’t always stop and chat then and there, but we can fix a time to discuss things if I am busy.

I am also always looking for evening help – at music events, film nights, etc – so if you are interested in being involved in those, I would love to hear from you too.

Crowdfunding

bookshop
Click on the image for the link to our crowdfunder campaign!

Today we’ve launched a very ambitious campaign – trying to raise £5000 for the bookshop in just six weeks…  So many have given generously in the past, and I don’t want to ask the same people to keep giving, but we now have a lot of followers on Twitter and Facebook, and if everyone shares, and maybe their friends and followers share, we could have a huge reach and the potential for lots of support!  The best way to support us is to keep spreading the word (as well as buying books, of course!), so if anyone out there is prepared to share, retweet, etc, that would be marvellous.

We are hoping for an injection of cash to boost our ongoing efforts to raise our game a little and make our regular income stronger.  The crowdfunding is to help enable us to survive, and to provide funds for things such as producing some good publicity material (flyers, bookmarks, postcards and more) and a window graphic to make it clearer who and what we are, renewing our PRS and Film licences so that we can carry on playing music and showing films, improving the lighting (those who have visited know it’s a bit basic and there are several bulbs/lights that need replacing!), sorting out our hot water boiler to help with washing up, so that we can perhaps do more in terms of offering refreshments, and other things besides.  If we raise enough, I want to go beyond these necessities and make the bookshop itself – the physical space – a lovelier, more magical place than it already is.

So please do have a look at the campaign, and please click here and share the link as much as you can.  The link will stay at the top right of our homepage here, linked through the image of the bookshop, and you can share on various social media sites directly from the crowdfunding page.  We get to keep whatever pledges we raise in the next six weeks, but if we can reach our £5000 target, that would be amazing!  We have raised £90 in the first hour, so let’s see how far we can get…  Thank you in advance!  Every single share or retweet helps.

In the meantime, watch our Tree House Sessions video for inspiration!

Two new schemes!

th2We have launched two new ways that you can be more involved in and support the Tree House, whether you are a regular visitor or live far away – both work on a monthly standing order system.  For locals, a voucher scheme, and for those further away, a surprise book club.

Here is how they work.

If you want to join the local membership scheme, for people who visit the bookshop in person, you can set up a standing order for £5 or £10 a month, and we will post you a voucher each month for your chosen amount.  These are not dated and can therefore be used at any time.  They are redeemable against books, tea and films – not, I’m afraid, against our music gigs, which we need to fund independently.  Bring your voucher to the bookshop to spend; if you don’t spend it all, we will mark it with the remaining balance to keep for another time.  Treat the bookshop as your club!  Come and sit, drink tea, read…we sometimes have newspapers, when the lovely Jane donates her copy obtained free with her shopping from Waitrose.

If you are not a regular visitor and live in the UK – or live locally but enjoy receiving books in the post! – you can join our mail order book club.  You tell us what sort of books you like and we choose books from our stock to send to you – so it’s always a bit of a mystery as to what you will get!  You can give us feedback on what we send to help us refine our selections, and you can let us know favourite authors or series of books – we can’t guarantee any particular titles, but can keep an eye open for something if you desperately want it.  However, part of the fun is getting surprises in the post each month.  £5 a month gives you two books, £10 a month gives you four books – postage is included.

Go to our Membership page for the relevant information on how to join either of these schemes.  Joining will help the Tree House in terms of regular income, will enhance our sense of community spirit by making the place feel more like a club, and hopefully will be fun for those of you who join.

What are you waiting for?!