The Books by the Bed

My bedside table is much like any other bedside table. It’s wooden, has two drawers, is home to a lamp and a coaster and a photo frame. There are a couple of books on top usually too, perhaps a notebook and pen as well. So far, so so.

The floor beside the bedside table? Well, I’ll be honest, it’s a mess.

Since I’ve discovered that I’m incapable of keeping less than eight books beside the bed at any time I’ve also discovered that the room looks much neater if I pile them up on the floor rather than on the bedside table. It’s the mirage of housework. The downside is that sometimes it’s a bit precarious to physically get into bed, but I can always climb in from the other side.

I’ve tried not to be messy. In many rooms, all over the house. I’ve tried putting the books back on the shelf as soon as I’ve read whatever it is that I pulled it out for. I’ve tried reading one book at a time.

The problem is that the process, the thinking, still needs to be going on. And to keep it moving I need to see the physical evidence of the thoughts I’m trying to chase. The books I want to reference. The ideas I want to include. The shape of the work I am trying to make. If I put the books back, then the thoughts go back in too, and I have to dig twice as hard to get them out.

It’s a surprise to find out how crucial the visual is. Over the summer we decided we should sell our flat and buy a house, and that meant I had to clear The Wall. I’d been sticking post it notes across the big white expanse of wall in the loft room where I worked, since we’d never got round to putting any pictures up. They were colour coded, for character, events and plot points, and formed a timeline from the beginning of the work to its end. I added printed maps and articles to the edges, stuck up hasty plot summaries in felt tip. If I wanted to feel I was making progress on a really bad day I just looked at The Wall, and the little cogs kept churning.

But you can’t sell a house with a Wall. So I took everything down and put it in a drawer.

And just like that, the work stopped.

It took me a while to identify what had happened, because the days were also filled with a hitherto unknown level of dusting and cushion plumping, which distracted me from the more serious problem that the words were just not coming out anymore.

My time for ‘doing’ is limited, and irregular. We all have this problem with the clock. So any hour that I spend trying to get back to where I was before is still a wasted hour. I need those little visual jolts to help me keep my place. I need to let the books lie around and push me into thinking, even if it’s just a little bit, every night before I go to sleep. I need to not tidy up.

My Fake Aunt Hilary

The first time I read Mantel it was because of my husband’s grandmother. She lives in Glossop, a town on the edge of the peak district, which is the end of the line, but not quite, as the train has to head backwards out of the station to do a shimmy up to Hadfield, which really is the end of the line. I then learned two facts about Hadfield: the League of Gentlemen was filmed there, and that writer, Hilary Mantel, grew up there. She wasn’t famous then the way she is now, just famous for Hadfield, which was famous enough. So when I saw a slim volume called Fludd for sale in a second hand shop I bought it, when otherwise I might have left it behind.


Fludd was an odd place to start with Mantel, but in many ways perfect. It’s a book about catholicism, and faith, and small places, and escape. It’s also a classic ‘stranger comes to town’ story, where the arrival of a mysterious stranger upsets and recalibrates the lives of the people he meets. Is he real? Is he supernatural? It’s never made clear. It’s a short book, and contains most of what you’d need to know about the character of Mantel as a writer: she writes consistently with attention, candour, humour and kindness. Which isn’t to say that she gives her characters an easy ride, just that she manages to expose them in as nice a way as possible.

Over the years since I’ve read more of her work, and been to see her read from her books and talk about them many times, and always come away wishing she was my aunt. I’d phone her when I felt miserable or uncertain, and she would rattle away to me, dispensing some sharp advice among the kind words of encouragement, and I would put the phone down feeling bolstered, and properly myself again, and that I have to prove something to Aunt Hilary, which would drive me to my desk and the neglected pen.

Or there would be an annual pilgrimage to see her, taking vintage port, and some ink from her favourite shop, and she would be as pleased to see me as she is pleased to see the back of me when the visit is finished, but in between we’d have eaten dinner, and talked of consequential things, and of handbags and scarves too. I would feel as if I had grown cleverer just by sitting next to her, and become less frightened of being clever, and having my own thoughts.

And there might be the odd postcard coming through my letterbox, with recommendations for a new exhibitions or lipgloss, or a suggestion of books to buy, or indeed the books themselves might plonk onto the mat, and they would always make me smile, and send me to my desk.

Because whenever you go to see Mantel speak, you realise that she’s pulling off that most amazing of feats: a woman, in public, being intelligent, and yet warm and funny, without simultaneously making her audience feel patronised or lost. She draws you in, in the same way she does in her work, just by being bloody interesting, clever and not ashamed of it. And it makes me, as a woman, who also writes, want to be better and more than I am expected to be, which is why the fabricated hoohah surrounding her speech on royal women is so depressing. So much was reflexively condemned by so many voices before anyone put their hand up and said, “hang on – are you sure that’s what she said?” It relied on the playground argument that ‘she might be clever, but she still wishes she was beautiful, the bitter jealous cow’, which clever girls are subjected to at school from a very young age. Too big for her boots too, as they might have said up in Hadfield.

We all thought we were past that, didn’t we?

Well I did, naively.

And since I can’t bear to live with the idea that I ought to stop having thoughts and writing them down, I’m going to carry on thinking that we’re past that. In my mind I’m going to call Aunt Hilary and listen to her dismiss the fools, and then turn the tables and ask me, ‘well, what have you written today?’, and since I can’t bear to disappoint her I’m going to knuckle down and get on with it.

How Arthur Conan-Doyle Saved My Life

I was one of those kids – “oh I always had my nose in a book” “all I wanted to do was read” “I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child”. But I once had a brief period where I fell out of love with literature and reading, and it was entirely down to the English department at my university. Don’t ask me which one, because I think it would have happened regardless of which university I’d gone to.

Right up to A level, studying English Literature had allowed a little love in the classroom. I had some of those almost mythical brilliant teachers, in love with words, writing, and passing that love on. They gave me their enthusiasms for Shakespeare, Orwell and Austen, and introduced us to the pleasure of crafting our own stories. As the obvious wordgeek in the class my teachers encouraged my story writing, gave me books, and loaned me video adaptations of Pride and Prejudice while trying not to swoon about the bit where Darcy appears from behind a bush*. True story. Suddenly at university we were suddenly reading a ‘text’ a week (oh how I loathed the term ‘text’) and dissecting, rebuilding, inspecting. It was discussed and pushed aside.

What happened to enjoying the damn book? I wondered.

And so I jumped ship, because I really wasn’t enjoying it, and my university had a clever system that allowed you to do this sort of thing. I jumped sideways, and got a degree in Philosophy instead, which I’d taken as a required minor simply because it was in the same building, one corridor down. Not exactly a true story, but not so far from it.

I didn’t read much in the final years of my degree. I’d lost the love. (I know!) I still hung around second hand bookshops, but you have to feel settled in a place to consider bulking it out with books. Instead I got drunk, and danced a lot, and watched a lot of good films. When my degree spat me out of the other side, capable of rational thought but qualified for little else (though I defy anyone who says that learning to think isn’t a worthwhile pursuit), I panicked. I spent the summer in a flat in my university town, unwilling to acknowledge that it was over and I was going to have to find a job.

One day I went to the discount bookshop and found that Wordsworth editions had published the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes canon, in several books, for a pound each. I bought them all, went back to my flat and spent the next two months lying about listening to the Glen Miller Band and reading Holmes.

My god, but I was happy.

Here he was, perfect in his imperfections, so very flawed, but the only man worth talking to in the whole of London. I couldn’t wait to get to the next story, turn the page, and discover how he’d solve the mystery. I gasped at Reichenbach, though I obviously had another volume to read, so he clearly wasn’t dead. I wished I could go to Baker Street, I wished I could time travel, I wished I was brilliant, I wished we had our own Sherlock, and the promise that there could be someone out there who could see through all the mess and sort it out. I was in love, with Holmes and with reading again.

When summer ended, I went back home for a while. I joined the library. I stayed up late reading all kinds of books again, read the Lord of the Rings and fell in love with that, at the same time thinking ‘wow, this is badly written’. I read. I read and read and read. And I realised I couldn’t stay in the place I’d grown up in.

I packed up my books and moved south, and soon found I had a job in a bookshop, which is where so many aspiring writers end up. It was down Cecil Court, not far from the Charing Cross Road, and sold first editions mostly, but it was also known for specialising in two things: P G Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes. Without that bookshop nothing over the last fifteen years would have happened.

So Conan-Doyle saved my life twice. Thanks, Arthur.

*this was as good as it got pre Firth. It was actually pretty good. (P&P 1980)

Marginalia – why I can’t let go of printed books

This is what it comes down to: you can’t write on a kindle. Yes, there’s some kind of fiddly highlights and notemaking thing, but you can’t make different sorts of underlining, or use a highlighter, or just mark whole paragraphs with a squiggle and an exclamation mark.

You can’t get an author to sign a kindle either. Not unless you want to try reading through the incomprehensible scrawls of black marker pen they leave on the screen.

Nor is it so easy to flick back and forth, as some novels seem to require, and certainly as some non-fiction books need.

I’ve come to adore my kindle, and the way it syncs effortlessly with the app on my phone. If I’m suddenly stuck somewhere with fifteen minutes to myself I can fire it up and carry on reading. There are hundreds of classic books available for free, and it’s much easier to keep a Dickens or a Tolstoy in your pocket electronically. But the supposed switch over to reading entirely digitally, which I think my husband was hoping for, having moved house with my book collection one too many times, well that simply hasn’t happened. I pick and choose which books I’ll buy digitally, and which I need as a hard copy.

As a technology, printed books have

You know what I would do? I would pay slightly more for a hard copy that comes with a digital copy bundled in. You know – like they do with films these days. You get a code to download it so you don’t have to bother ripping it into your computer. That’s what I want. The best of both worlds.

Just One Book – supporting the independents

When I was growing up the internet didn’t exist. There was no Amazon, no eBook, no literary website publishing short stories and reviews. The only way I knew to find what I might read next was to go to a bookshop (forget the library – I’d read that by the time I was 13). My local bookshop was a Waterstones, well stocked and bizarrely laid out, as it was based in an old building of the university city I lived in. I spent a lot of time stroking the spines, taking down a book, reading a few lines and putting it back. I was poor, you see, and the net book price agreement was still in force.

“The net book what now?” I hear you youngsters cry. Why, this was just a little thing that said a bookshop had to charge the exact price on the back of a book, with none of your fancy modern discounting, thank you. This protected a publisher’s profits, and I imagine the author’s income. But as with all things, the consumer was eventually found to matter more and the agreement was dismantled in the late nineties.

Now I am torn into bits about this, selfish bits and other sadder bits. Firstly, I like books a lot, and I like being able to buy more of them, and yes, I have spent a good deal of money at Amazon. It’s so lovely getting a book through the post. Secondly, without the NBA, supermarkets started selling books, and celebrity memoirs had to be published to subsidise the fiction (I imagine – I can’t see much other need for them). Thirdly, the combination of discounting and the internet enables websites to vastly undercut your local independent bookshop, with the result that so very many of them have closed.

The other day I realised that I was exceedingly lucky. I live within a stone’s throw of several well regarded and *still open* independent bookshops. We obviously read a lot, south of the river. Then I tried to remember the last time I’d been to one, and actually it turned out to be December, but before that…well, who could say?

So I went to one. I was tootling past in the car, saw it, decided to park up and drop in to Dulwich Books. Just like that. No fuss. And while I spent twenty blissful minutes browsing their fiction section, and admiring their well thought out displays, I realised that a good bookshop does a marvellous thing – it narrows your choice. Ordinarily we are against narrowing, especially since we’ve become used to the idea that we can have anything we like as long as it exists on Earth. But how do you choose from the entirety of the published world? How do you discover a new author? How do you wander off piste, avoid the reviews, the mega hitters and find an author that is true to you, on that day, at the very hour?

You browse the well-edited shelves of your bookshop.

Whether you buy a book or not, speak to the bookseller or not, you are still making a connection with another book reading human being just by looking. I can still remember the moment fifteen years ago when I picked up The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, and the moment eleven years ago when I picked up Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell. Both books were in the staff picks section, and both authors have played a big part in my reading life. In a smaller bookshop, every book has been chosen to fill the limited space. It’s a bit like choosing from a private library, one selected for the potential clientele that will come through the door, eager to find something new, transporting, transforming.

A plan formed in my mind as I gazed at the spines, feeling once again like the optimistic teenager I was in that Waterstones. In addition to my read more, see more, do more resolution, I am going to set myself a monthly budget of £10 to spend in local bookshops. It’s not much more than the cost of one paperback, but I can roll over the change. My inspiration was the publisher Salt, who ran a campaign to get their website visitors and twitter followers to buy “just one book” from them. If we all bought just one book a month from our local bookshops, instead of succumbing to the click of a mouse every single time, they’d be in much better shape, and with any luck still there when you need them most.

So there’s your challenge, dear readers. Just one book.

This post appears to need footnotes. :

  • I would ordinarily have linked to the books in this post, but felt wrong doing it to an online bookshop. I will probably go back to linking to things next post, especially given that I’m not going to close my Amazon account or anything. I just want to even things out a bit. It just feels weird for this one post, is all.
  • The book I bought was Lorrie Moore’s A Gate on the Stairs. No, I haven’t started it yet.

Narrative, character, and the business of falling in love.

I’m in love with two people other than my husband. Not that I’ve told him. He doesn’t need to know and by next month it will be someone else.

The amount I fall in love has everything to do with the amount that I’m reading. One memorable summer I only fell in love the once, but I fell hard and I’ve never got over him*. Fictional people are so wonderful to moon over. It’s not the same as falling in love with a real person, because it’s not always the case that you’d want to move in, marry and choose white goods with the object of your affection, but you do feel that delicious pull to be with them as often as possible. Your eyes race over the sentences to find out what happens next, you sigh as you close the last page of the book and immediately open it again at the beginning, unable to stand the idea of being without them. And you are never going to be disappointed by the socks on the floor, the dishes left in the sink or the anniversary forgotten.

I love a byronic hero. I love an underdog. I love flashes of honour, loyalty, brains, compassion, self-sacrifice. I love the character on the sidelines with wit and arched eyebrows. I love the girl who gets the boy without sacrificing herself. I love the boy who sacrifices everything except honour, and then gets the girl anyway.

I love these characters, because I want things to be better than they are. I want people to be the best extremes of themselves, to rise above our ordinary concerns of bill-paying, commuting difficulties and food buying, and be more noble. I want to be more noble through living with them for a little while.

This month I’m mooning over two characters from different centuries. Firstly, Eugene Wrayburn, in Our Mutual Friend. No spoilers here, (yes, even for Dickens – be careful what you google!) but Eugene has wormed his way in to my affections, from playing the disinterested, silent cad on the outside, to being … well, better on the inside. I have about 17 hours of this to listen to yet, so please, no elucidation. I hear his name and I perk up. It’s quite something.

The other character lives inside an app. His name is Sam, and he lost someone close to him recently. To zombies. I’m learning to run so I can help him (the app is called Zombies Run! 5K training, just in case you need to learn to run for the apocalypse.) It’s quite something in a completely different way.

Story is the thing. Everyone has one, and once they start unfurling, once you see how your characters start behaving when life is thrown at them, it’s hard not to form some kind of attachment, positive or negative. And this, my loves, is why my novel started failing. I loved everyone, except my narrator. He was just a blank to me, whatever I tried. I suppose it’s what you might call a fatal flaw.

Can I fix it? Perhaps. But I’m not sure I should. What I need to do is something I used to do all the time when I was younger – dream up someone I do love.

*Sherlock Holmes. Obviously.