On one of the hottest days of the year I manned the book stall at our village street market. I hadn’t been for a few years, and I regret that. I won’t miss it next year. I’d forgotten how tightly woven the village fabric is, yet the stitches loosened enough to let an old resident become part of the pattern. It was a joyous occasion. Young girls ran around selling ice lollies; flags and bunting adorned the street between the little terraced cottages on Church Row; there were stalls of fresh vegetables, handmade cakes, paintings and bric-a-brac.
When I was little my great joy was book stalls and shops. The shops because of their quiet, library-like dignity; the virgin volumes with their crisp smell of new paper and ink; their stiff, glossy covers. The stalls because between creased spines and dog-earned corners a hidden gem would sparkle: a childhood story not quite forgotten, the one title outstanding from a collection you’d been building for years. (The Talking Parcel by Gerald Durrell was one of these and I’m horrified to see it out of print, and scarcely available online – I think I’m going to have to buy a very old battered copy from Amazon.) I’d forgotten that very simple pleasure. Ironically considering it’s my number one hobby, I don’t think I’ve bought enough books.
I recently pruned my Hydra of a library. As a rule, I find it very hard to part from books as they are old friends, but I’ve tried to be strict. I came home with 17 new (old) potential allies – Victorian horror stories, Caitlin Moran, Ruth Rendell – about three times the amount I’ve given away over the last year. I felt intoxicated, fat and replete, hugging my book bag to me like a pregnancy. (When I was really, really poor, about 7 years ago, I sold all my Beanie Babies on eBay. Then suffered such excruciating pangs of guilt and regret that I promptly spent double my profit buying them all back. I have become a serial seller-shopper.)
I’ve got a pile of of brand new books waiting for review in one corner; twelve library loans sitting patiently in another; a heap of well-loved tomes on my shelves demanding to be re-explored and discovered; plus God knows how many queuing quietly on my Kindle – but there’s nothing like the feel of a physical book in your hands, bending it and flipping the pages, opening it at random to see the font, taste the author’s prose. E-readers are wonderful: carry thousands of books, are feather-light and cost nothing to carry in your hand luggage; but what if they break? The battery dies? There’s a theft, a fire, a drowning? The thought of being without a book fills me with nameless dread.
I polished off Peaches for Monsieur le Cure by Joanne Harris in a couple of days. Perhaps not up to the standard of Chocolat or its sequel The Lollipop Shoes, but nonetheless richly written, full of the tastes and smells, sounds and textures that have become Harris’s trademark.
My sweet, succulent appetiser was immediately followed by a most unsavoury plat de jour, The Wasp Factory. I’ve wanted to read this for a couple of years, but not dared. Of late I’ve found it less easy to forget the dark stuff I imbibe via TV, book or internet; I find I’m fast-forwarding through sections of Hannibal and I turned off a Moors Murders documentary last night long before I was due to go to bed. I read The Wasp Factory peeking between my fingers (the rabbit and wasp scenes) but I can see why Banks became the household name he was. His unmistakeable black humour is injected into the book to lighten the darkness of the tale from the very beginning, but I much preferred The Crow Road. I intend to read all of his books in due course, as I regret not doing so when he was alive, Sorry, Ian. (Not that I can imagine it makes much difference to you.)
Wasps are gritty, and leave a bitter aftertaste. I’m washing them down with a gently sparkling Daughter of Time.
PS – I’ve now discovered The Talking Parcel was renamed The Battle for Castle Cockatrice and thank God it’s available on Amazon for less than £45. Buy it quick before everyone else finds out and the cheap copies disappear!