Hay ho, Hay ho, it’s off to words we go…

Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.

Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a  café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…

A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed  Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.

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After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.

The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?)  was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.

Hay illustrators exhib
The book illustrators’ gallery

But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…

Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…

Hay fairtrde shop - Copy

©Jessica Norrie 2018

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A bookshop discovery

If Bah Humbug was a person they’d look like me, and yet even I was attracted by the signs of Christmas in this bookshop. I do like to highlight good independent bookshops, dead and alive. How can a small town like Great Malvern (population under 35,000) support a decent independent bookshop, in these days of discounts and globalization? This town has found one way to do it. Malvern books 3

Their bookshop is a cooperative, owned and run by its shareholders. The website tells me shares cost £50 each, and you can buy one, or two. It also tells me they pay their staff a living wage, whereas I’d been under the impression it was staffed on a voluntary basis by the shareholders. But so much the better (and more reliable probably) if it’s providing employment.

There are two rooms, one with a mezzanine, on this extremely steep hill – if after fortifying yourself in the bookshop cafe, you continue straight on and can walk perpendicularly up “Happy Valley” (I always wanted the chance to write that) you will find yourself on  top of the Malvern Hills. But it may be wise to stop and peruse the books, guides, maps and local author in the room on the right first. You may find a (slightly) less steep route.

Malvern books 1

The room on the left is the main bookshop area, with a good shelved and tabletop collection of contemporary fiction and non fiction, a colourful childrens’ section, the counter where the helpful assistant lets you browse in peace but is on hand if needed, and a jolly looking café with a good selection of high quality cards in support of various charities.  Somebody’s had fun dressing the window for Christmas and there was about to be a talk by journalist Matthew Engel when I was there. Another successful talk the previous night had depleted the stock – which is exactly what we want to hear happens when an independent bookshop puts on an event.

(Presumably they know they have a doppelganger in Texas? I found it when looking for their Twitter handle.)

Malvern is one of my favourite places. It’s a spa town half way up the extraordinary Malvern Hills, home of Elgar, with a theatre, an Abbey, a lovely park with a bandstand, excellent music events, and other places to buy books too – the Amnesty International bookshop, and the St Richard’s Hospice bookshop in Malvern Link which was the cleanest, best organised and most professionally run charity bookshop I have ever visited.

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Photo from the Hasting Pier website, July 2016

I was gladdened by the Malvern Book Cooperative because in the same week I was saddened by what’s happening to another community run project, one in which I do hold £100 of shares. My grandparents both lived in Hastings when I was little, and I have happy memories of visits to the pier. So I was grieved when the already unsafe structure  burnt down in 2010 and only too pleased when local people got together to rebuild and run it again. They made such a success of it – a new, solid, fireproof, elegant pier, with catering and entertainments, helping to regenerate the town, and sharing all it learned with other local projects such as Bottle Alley and St Leonards sea front. Alas, their application for a grant of £800,000 to cover becoming independent over the next three years has been refused, and the pier taken into receivership. The letter to shareholders was upbeat – jobs will be protected, the receivers are specialists in administering heritage projects and there are interested parties already. All is by no means lost. But it seems so sad, for the notional value of a three bed semi in London, that so much goodwill, good design, and regeneration could be again at risk. I’m using these photos from the Pier site, which are not my copyright, and hope they will not mind as it’s part of my response to the request to continue to support and promote the pier.

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Photo from the Hastings Pier website, June 2016

As the website says: “The pier will remain open to the public whilst the administration takes place, and the pier will be fully operational and staffed for 2018….Hastings Pier Charity encourages you to keep visiting and supporting the pier, and look forward to the next stage of the development of Hastings Pier.”

Please visit and use it!

There was more cheerful news from the Herne Bay pier when we visited last month: the local knitting coop had decorated the railings with these eccentric crafts for Halloween and Armistice Day while the beautiful bronze statue of Amy Johnson looked out over the sea nearby. Local people and businesses raised the funds for and commissioned this statue, installed in 2016, which is also significant for being “one of only about 17% of statues listed in the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) of a woman as a lone standing statue”.

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Here’s a last minute addition to this post: the wonderful Dalston Eastern Curve Garden where we sang carols last night, drank mulled wine and enjoyed the light show. Thank you to the Boilerhouse Singers for keeping us warm with some lovely music.

Dalston Curve
The Boilerhouse Singers at Dalston Eastern Curve Garden

If you have a brilliant local community project, bookshop, building or activity, do support it. These are the things that give our towns character, conscience and individuality. I’d be fascinated to hear about any that you’re involved in – and who knows, maybe it would spur me to plan a trip and support it.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

A patchwork of King Penguins

Please ask your parents and grandparents if they remember King Penguins. I put a whole set in order last week in my pre move book sort out. My father collected them because they were beautiful and he thought they might one day be worth something. He didn’t use the Internet so sourcing them was a labour of love. It meant paper correspondence with antiquarian book dealers and occasionally going against his natural instincts to root around second hand bookshops (as a man who’d made his living selling new books, he was ambivalent about the second hand trade).

Ian paid between £2 and £8 for most of them, although I found a couple with £35 written inside and Egyptian Paintings (1954 first edition, with dust jacket) was £40. But the set as a whole turns out not to be worth much, which is great because there’s now all the more reason to keep it.

In keeping with the original ethos of Penguin books, King Penguins were designed to be educational, affordable, and portable. They’re like a written form of evening class, that endangered species that used to give so many people so much pleasure. There were 76 of them, published between 1939 and 1959, with hard covers and sometimes dust jackets, and they cost from 1/- (now 5p) to 5/- (you can work that out). The format was simple at first: text at the front, for about three quarters of the book, and then well reproduced colour plates to illustrate it. Later on illustrations appeared among the text as well.

The authors were at the top of their game: taking them down at random Tulipmania is by Wilfred Blunt, then Head of Art at Eton; others are by university professors of Zoology or Art History, or by Keepers at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Somehow Dickens sneaks in with A Christmas Carol although the rest of the list is non fiction.

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Volumes 21-24

There’s fun to be had from the juxtapositions: Garden Birds (no 19) next to English Ballet (20), Spiders next to Balloons at 35 and 36; and I think I can see why Magic Books from Mexico might segue into Semi Precious Stones (64 and 65).  Why does Romney Marsh get a book to itself when the Isle of Wight and A Prospect of Wales are the only other regions covered? Misericords and Russian Icons, Highland Dress and Early British Railways may have been Christmas presents for difficult uncles (ending up in charity shops, but I like to think they were carefully studied first). The text is serious stuff, thoroughly researched, didactic in a “come on this journey of discovery” way, sometimes opinionated and designed to be used on the most earnest of field trips. Were the subjects commissioned, or offered? Did they reflect the editors’ interests, or the persuasive powers of a professor lunching an old school chum at his club?

There’s just one for children: A Book of Toys (1946) with perhaps less colour in the overall design than many of the others. Perhaps it wasn’t a success as there were no more, but it’s a very clear account of the history of toys through many lands and epochs. As an ex infant teacher, I did sigh at the use of upper case to make it clear to children though. It’s so hard to unteach them that!

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From “A Book of Toys” by Gwen White, 1946

But what I love them for most is the design. I’d have it on wallpaper, fabric, tea cups any day. You want vintage? THIS is vintage. Here are my favourites – do you agree? Or to see the ones I haven’t shown, look up this list, select and comment below and I’ll add them. Enjoy the show!

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

The best independent bookshop in London!

Last year I posted to celebrate what would have been my mother’s ninetieth birthday and this week it’s my late father’s turn. Ian Norrie was what used to be called a “bookman”. He wrote novels, book trade history, and guidebooks, edited, ran a small publishing imprint, wrote for the trade press such as The Bookseller, served on the committees of trade organisations like the National Book League or book prizes, lectured on bookselling and publishing, helped set up an archive of book trade oral history, and worked tirelessly through lunchtimes, evenings and weekends to maintain the bon viveur traditions of publisher wining and dining.

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My mother Mavis and my father Ian at a High Hill bookshop party for author E. Arnot Robertson in 1958

The jewel in the crown was the High Hill Bookshop. In 1956 after jobs including journalism and in Foyles, he went to work in a run down shop in Hampstead High Street. From a literally collapsing building they sold new and second hand books, artists’ materials, and greetings cards, adding records and an art gallery after the company went into receivership and my father and friends formed a partnership to buy and rename it. I think the business cost them £10,000 plus £1,300 annual rent. It became the best independent bookshop in North London. By 1988 when it closed, High Hill sold only books, from three shops knocked into one. Hardbacks, art, travel, history and the university departments were on the left, children’s, sport and religion in the middle, and paperbacks on the right.

 

Working in a bookshop was every student’s dream, but it was harder than it seemed. I did it in university holidays. You have little time to read, and books are heavy, dusty and not always inspiring. The ones that sold best in Hampstead tended to be high quality and well produced, but we also made a good profit from what Ian called “Irene’s crap table” – Irene Anderson ran the paperback dept and had an eye for books you could pile high and sell cheap. The customer is not always right, and in Hampstead could be arrogant too. Some were just vague. In pre computer days, identifying what someone wants when all they know is “it’s about history and it’s green” took knowledge and imagination (although “there’s a poem about daffodils” didn’t.) Ian despised calculators, so his staff had to add everything in their heads, not easy when a famous politician or psychiatrist is glaring at you as you do it. He didn’t like plastic bags either so we wrapped everything in orange and white striped paper. People would spend a small fortune on books and then proudly tell us they reused our paper as gift wrap.

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Ian’s book about the shop, featuring our wrapping paper and cartoon by Nicholas Bentley commissioned for the 1958 Christmas catalogue

There were many famous local customers, not then called celebs. Peter Cook was in most weeks, as were Michaels Foot and Palin, RD Laing, Margaret Drabble and Melvyn Bragg. Then there were the nobility, peeved if you asked for ID when they wanted to pay by cheque without a card (anyone else remember cheque cards?) “You see, there are so many of you about,” sighed Perry who worked in hardbacks, when a haughty grande dame objected: “But it’s a Coutts’ cheque! And I’m a Lady!” Meanwhile you could spot the less well known local authors a mile off; they came in on a daily basis and moved their books into more prominent positions.

My father enjoyed writing adverts and did his own inexpensive window displays, which gained a reputation. One was for a new coffee table book about roses, by Harry Wheatcroft (think Monty Don equivalent). For this he plundered my mother’s garden, so the beautiful tomes were surrounded as she pointed out by blooms complete with greenfly and leaf spot. One year he simply wrote in his terrible handwriting: “Give SKOOB this Christmas!” on a big poster and the staff were plagued by customers asking what on earth it meant. (Not all Hampstead residents are as clever as they think they are.) During the 1966 general election they did a big display for Whitaker’s almanack . That was the year Hampstead elected its first Labour MP, Ben Whitaker.

High Hill door notice
Ian’s view was that customers, as well as staff, needed training.

Of course not all customers were rich and/or famous. High Hill had the account for Camden libraries and a number of schools, and Ian always maintained it was well worth opening just after Christmas because of the trade done through small denomination book tokens. When his shop began trading as High Hill, there were hardly any other bookshops in North London, but they began to open in Kentish Town, Muswell Hill, Highgate and elsewhere. High Hill was the grandee, with Ian to his delight being called a “bookseller tycoon” in a TV documentary about Hampstead. One reason was the excellent staff who stayed because although they worked long hours, they received good pay, holidays and pensions, were given autonomy and respect, supported through illness and allowed to play to their strengths. Sheila Judd and Ros Wesson could find a book to answer any child, au pair or parent query, whether for a “hyperactive teenager who’s…er… going through a phase” or “the most intelligent two year old you ever saw” (a claim made for most Hampstead children). A significant child of the shop’s own was the High Hill Press, which published around thirty titles about Hampstead, London and literature.

 

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Eventually there was a threefold blow: the leasehold costs soared, the policy of ratecapping reduced Camden’s purchasing power so losing the biggest customer and Waterstone’s opened up the road to offer serious competition at last. The property was worth more than the business. High Hill was on its final chapter, but all the staff were head hunted for jobs in bookselling or publishing. Characteristically Ian saw it as an opportunity, and in “retirement” continued for another quarter century to write and travel, frequent the publishers’ table at the Garrick Club and play the part of Hampstead, London, European bookman.

High Hill Michael Foot 1988
High Hill signing party 1988: Bridget Clements, Michael Foot and Ian Norrie.

I’ve concentrated here on Ian’s bookselling achievements but, as I said at his memorial celebration at Burgh House in 2009, he was also a loving son, husband, father and brother, reader, writer, sandcastle builder, traveller, entertainer, host, quizmaster, ham actor, cricket umpire, tennis player with a sense of umbrage to out McEnroe McEnroe (when his son in law beat him 6-0, 6-0 he complained Andy hadn’t played properly), wine drinker and to many people a very good friend. How he would have enjoyed blogging and the chance to show his many photographs as well as his words, even if, trained on typewriters, his heavy fingers did break more keyboards than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Ian is still sadly missed, and Mavis too – we’re toasting you both in Chablis tonight as we browse the Booker prize list and make our own travel and writing plans.

Next time 2

©Jessica Norrie 2017 and estate of Ian Norrie

A day in the life of Agent X

Agent X stretched after a poor night’s sleep. She really ought to get more exercise…spend less time staring at screens…eat more sensibly.

But a new day beckoned. She had a fascinating submission to read – she’d requested the full ms after tearing through the first three chapters and was looking forward to finding out what happened next. She wasn’t entirely sure how to place it, but the writing was so good and the premise so original, she was expecting competitive bids from several publishers. If, of course, another agent didn’t snap it up first, like the author she’d been slightly too slow to respond to last year who ended up with a six figure advance.

Agent 4Her existing authors were clamouring too. There might be answers to their questions among the 112 new emails in her inbox. She made coffee, cut a crisp pear into safely unsticky wedges and took them to her desk.

 

Dear X, Lovely to see you at the Book Fair. I’ve now had time to read The Pontoon Bridge by Amos Fearsome and I agree the writing flows beautifully and the plot has some interesting twists. However, I couldn’t quite identify with the main character, and so, with regret, I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline this one.

Dear X, Thank you for reminding me I’ve had Pull the Other One by V. Erbose since last year. Sorry about that! It’s a great idea, but I’m afraid this one isn’t quite right for our list. I wish you luck placing it elsewhere.

Hi X! Just to let you know I really enjoyed The Darkening Sun by Omar Zafiq, and will be taking it forward for consideration by the acquisitions committee next week. I’ll keep you informed on the outcome.

Dear X, Peter Plainman, Accountancy Services Ltd, is able to offer you a special offer of only £YYY for 12 months insurance against the additional cost of responding to any HMRC investigation during the tax year 2017/18.

Dear X, Please find attached the contract for Above and Beyond as agreed for signature by yourself and author Martin Middleman. Please sign and return…

Dear X, Please join us for drinks at the Globe on … This is a farewell jolly for all our associates over the past ten years. Regretfully we are winding up the company as the pressure on small publishers has become unsustainable. But we ‘d like to go out with a traditional publishing bang!

Dear X, Please join us at Amazon Towers for the Kindle Self Publishing Awards on….

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to The Bookseller is now due…

Dear X, A reminder that your subscription to our worldwide publishing database is now due…

Dear X, I submitted my ms Tedium Dismissed! last week and I’m wondering whether you received it as I have had not a response from you as yet…

Agent 2Dear X, I am emailing speculatively as I appreciate from your website you dont deal with dystopian fantasy.  However I’m sure your going too feel differently when you enter my world! In 140,000 amazing words I explore landscapes no one else could possibly imagine, with my heroine Alexandra the Greatest who’s battles against the greatest evil the universe has yet known are inconceivable! I am a stay at home dad and would be available to meet, subject to childcare duties, at any time convenient to you within easy reach of Basingstoke…

X tapped keys, forwarding, deleting, commenting, replying, congratulating, ignoring. (But it wasn’t really ignoring, as deciding whether to ignore in itself took time and thought.) She remembered to roll her shoulders, a few random yoga moves her nod to preventing back ache. She highlighted sections of a trade press article about the legal ramifications of digital royalties – essential but dull information she regularly digested on behalf of her authors.

Agent 7
A range of agents are listed in The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

It was wonderful working from home (the business couldn’t afford office overheads), but she missed the daily walk to the station, the water cooler banter and opinion exchange. Thanks to some recent successes she didn’t worry about losing touch – her existing connections kept her informed, as did social media and the trade press. For every promotion, move, retirement, or redundancy there was a new appointment, a new intern, or a regretfully slimmed down company to build productive relationships with, and weekly trips to meet editors and authors. She arranged these for coffee or tea times to avoid the cost of lunches – her accountant would only swallow so much – but they made for a change of scene. When she wondered if she wouldn’t be happier commuting all week, maybe to a desk in the foreign rights department of a glamorous trendsetting agency in Camden or Islington, she consoled herself that her one woman operation saw so much variety, personally dealing with each author right through from submission to post publication. Agent 1

Now to be inspired: the new ms! She settled on the sofa with her laptop and more coffee. Chapter Four…

It didn’t grab her as the beginning had. But it was definitely worth pursuing. Three hours later, she’d decided, impressed by the well produced text (no attention tripping typos). The middle sagged, and would need some robust structural editing, which she hoped the author would welcome, because the end more than compensated. What an exciting find (overall)! She emailed straight away to express her strong interest and suggest a meeting. It was important to meet authors, face to face or on Skype, because her role was to take care of their baby. She needed to know if they were open to suggestions, confident, adaptable, able, eventually, to help market their work. If you got on well it helped so much. Ideally there’d be more books later, so this could be a relationship lasting years – she checked. Yes, this author mentioned a sequel in preparation, and had a self published backlist that looked respectable enough to bring to a publisher’s attention.

She’d still eaten only a pear, but decided to tick off some admin before an early supper. (She ought to continue her line edit of a revised draft she’d been sent – it could be sent out once the author had agreed the corrections. But it would be better left to tomorrow; she was getting tired now.) She dumped a pile of unwanted paper submissions firmly in the recycling box. It felt less terrible to do that than it had when she first set up the agency, because she did state clearly on the website that she only accepted work  electronically…Although sometimes the only human being she saw all day was the postman, ringing the doorbell with the latest vast packages.

Dear X, Please would you clarify the position on my royalties for Celebration at the Pierhead. I have been chasing the publisher without success and wonder if you would be able to resolve this…

Agent 3Dear X, I’m very disappointed with sales for Going, Going, Gone. What are your thoughts, going forward, for promoting this? I didn’t realise, when you advised me to self publish because you felt you had submitted it to all possible publishers, that the onus for marketing would be so fully on my shoulders. Also I am wondering whether, if I had it translated, it would do better in the Latin American market. Can you suggest a translator who would be willing to undertake this? I would suggest we share the cost…

Dear X…

But it was time for supper. And to start the debut novel everyone was raving about – always worth trying to identify the spark that had inspired a record advance.

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Dear readers of this blog post/story. If you are an agent, please consider this a submission. Please advise whether it would be better if my heroine was a private detective rather than a literary agent. Please suggest whether it should be set in London or the Outer Hebrides perhaps? Please advise whether I’d have more chance of publication if I submit it under my own name (white middle class middle aged straight UK female) or give myself the nom de plume Fatima Begum or Leroy DaCosta? On the other hand bearing in mind the successes of McEwan, Faulks, de Bernières, and Barnes should I go for John Smith? And btw would I stand a better chance if I considered transitioning before or after publication? 

If you are an editor, edit away! I welcome critiques.

If you are a reader, please review it!

If you blog, do comment, reblog, share…

Note: Agent X is an entirely fictional character drawn from a composite of observations made to me by literary agents big and small over the last few decades. Her head’s just above water, and she’s on the verge of a big, big breakthrough (maybe). Or she may become a private detective. I invented her in response to this blog post which started a lively thread last week in the Facebook group, Book Connectors.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Viva Virago!

Who loves the dark green elegance and quality of Virago Modern Classics? They took paperback design to a new level but not just the design, also the content. I didn’t realise how much their publication matched my own coming of age as a reader, until I caught a BBC4 documentary about them on iplayer (at the time of posting this is available for 12 more days).

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Beautiful covers

In the 1970s and 80s I worked in academic holidays in my father’s bookshop, usually in paperbacks. I know there are conventions nowadays about how specific genres should look, but in fact it was easier then to second guess a book by its cover. Picadors – loved by hippies, tending towards fantasy and allegory – were white and seemed taller. Penguin Modern Classics were a pale grey with fine art reproductions on the front. (My career aim at 17 was to emulate Germano Facetti, their designer. What better job than reading books, then searching in art galleries for pictures to represent them? Naively I thought that was all it amounted to, but biographical material about him shows there was a lot more to it.) Penguin Classics were mostly black, crime green, modern fiction had an orange spine. A brick shaped book with a shiny cover was probably  down market, an “airport novel”., especially if it had gold or silver lettering. Sphere books were thin, printed on cheap paper with narrow margins. Everyman Classics were accessible hardback editions of wonderful works, cheaper even than Penguins and so kept with paperback ranges.

virago-ferrier-braddon

But when Virago Modern Classics came along, initially shelved alphabetically with the rest of the fiction and then on a special revolving display stand of their own, they upped the ante. We tried to keep them facing outwards because they were so beautiful – an astute marketing exercise as well as (at the time) a revolutionary concept. The BBC4 programme tells me the art director of Virago actually did do what I thought Germano Facetti did: browsing in art galleries (fun) and establishing copyright ownership of the pictures she wanted to use, or could afford (not fun). Virago (initially called Spare Rib press like the magazine that started the same year) had already existed since 1972 when they began the Modern Classics imprint in 1978. Their first books were non fiction feminist history and sociology – now themselves classics. Our daughters have much to thank them for.

Why was Virago needed? These three statements give an idea. Carmen Callil, the founder, quotes from the New Yorker: “Women generally – especially women writers – have no use for destiny. They wouldn’t compose a Hamlet if they could.” She remembers the Inland Revenue’s header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.” Margaret Atwood quotes a letter to Alice Munro: “Well, you might be a good short story writer but I wouldn’t go to bed with you.” 

virago-lehmann

Publishing was a man’s world – my literary agent, who started work for WH Allen in the 1980s, remembers women only present as secretaries. Although my father’s bookshop was a place of liberal debate, he also for a time banned female members of staff from wearing trousers (he found the shape of one member of staff displeasing). Despite Jane Austen, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, it was harder for women to get published and once published, harder for them to remain in print. Their books were considered of less value, parochial, unimportant. Virago – whose first offices were above a massage parlour in Soho’s Wardour Street – changed all that.

virago-smithConsider the names published by Virago: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Michele Roberts, Sarah Waters, Linda Grant, Maya Angelou… These were and are contemporary writers, but  Virago also rehabilitated many fading gems: Rosamund Lehmann who wrote delicately of unwanted pregnancy; Susan Ferrier who wrote in 1818 (!) and Mary E Braddon (1862) of unhappy marriage. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)and Emily Holmes Coleman (1930) put postnatal depression and insanity at the heart of their fiction. On a lighter note, did you know that Dodie Smith of The Hundred and One Dalmatians fame also produced the enchanting I Capture the castle? You have a treat in store!

The lists (fiction and non fiction) were diverse: Paule Marshall wrote of a Barbadian girl growing up in New York (1959) and Zhang Jie of life in 1970s China. Amrit Wilson threw a stone into a rippling pond with Finding a Voice, about the lives of Bangladeshi women in the East End (1978). Maya Angelou was published in the US in 1969, but UK publishers showed no interest until Virago took up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1984 and had an immediate huge bestseller. In 2001 Virago as part of the Little, Brown group published the Somalian model Waris Dirie’s memoir Desert Flower, one of the first books to describe what was then called female circumcision.

During various house moves, I jettisoned books. Some I don’t regret: at a certain point the greasy yellow mustiness of old books becomes unpleasant. I’m interested to find the few Women’s Press editions I’ve kept have lasted better than most, pages still quite white and crisp, and the covers of the Viragos have withstood time better than the insides (I’m sneezing from musty spores as I type this). But I’m sorry now that I threw some of them out and I keep my charity shop eye open for replacements. Watching Carmen Callil, the indefatigable founder of Virago, climb ladders in her elegant late seventies to run her finger along the spines of her collection, I feel very jealous. Do visit the Virago website for details of all 687 Modern Classics and their other lists. And do watch the documentary while you can – the nostalgic enjoyment of writing (and hopefully reading) this blog post wouldn’t have been possible without it. It’s not only about nostalgia though: long may Virago continue to give women a voice and let’s hope it’s heard in the White House.

virago-shelf-2

©Jessica Norrie 2016

The great Amazon dinner party

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It’s time to test the water in The Infinity Pool  (seen above taking its annual holiday in its spiritual home). The paperback was published twelve months ago tomorrow, preceded two weeks earlier by the ebook. Why the hiatus? Who knows, but it gives me an excuse for two birthdays, like the queen. Although at the time I remember being dizzy with impatience to hold the printed object in my hand and turn some real pages, nowScreenshot 2 I’m glad because between anniversaries I had a major boost in the Amazon rankings – by over 100,000 places! It’s been fascinating to see who I’m sandwiched between from one day to the next. This week I’ve been in proximity to Margery Allingham, Val McDermid, Jodi Picoult, Kate Morton… honoured, I’m sure. It’s like being a last-minute reserve guest at a stellar dinner party – someone must have dropped out and the hostess knew I wouldn’t be doing anything I couldn’t cancel for the sake of such a night. Three dinner parties simultaneously in fact, because of the different categories we all feature in.

My major boost came about 13872752_10153663698687231_3085885263817280783_nbecause a dear friend, who took the cover photo, returned last month to the island where I’d been inspired to write the book. He took a paperback with him and gave my Pool a plug. The guests there must all have Amazon Prime, so I haven’t made many actual sales from it, but the “pages read” on Kindle Unlimited have zoomed into the stratosphere, burning my ears and returning me to the unhealthy habit of inspecting my Amazon rankings whenever they’re updated (once an hour). That’s how I know that seated to my left is the eminent French crime writer, Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret) and I’m the bulwark protecting him from having to converse with Jeffrey Archer on my right. I have my uses, after all. But it’s one of those dinner parties where guests change places between courses, or even between bites – I may have quite different neighbours by the time I post this. I may even be back where I belong, chopping onions in the kitchen (there’s more than one way to produce a tear-jerker).

Meanwhile I haven’t dined so well chez Amazon since September, when The Infinity Pool shot to no 1 in Australia. I think it was because of Stuart’s cover and the temporary promotional price – 99¢. I’m told books are very expensive in Australia so here was a bargain indeed. Amazon put me into the Crime category, and although the Australians downloaded me until they cracked their computers (I imagine), they didn’t like me much. Not enough blood! Hardly a murder! Where’s the incest and why’s the rape offstage? Boring boring boring, declaimed the worst three word, one star review. We changed the category to Literary Fiction where the expectations are more, well, literary, and I was comforted by sharing a table with Harper Lee, shunting The Girl on the Train briefly into a siding (she’s back now), rocketing past the Martian and bidding ciao to Elena Ferrante.  (No wonder Elena Ferrante’s a recluse, having to sit next to the Martian at the Amazon dinner party).

Screenshot 4Back in UK Mysteries, Thrillers and Suspense, I’m rubbing shoulders with John le Carré and Irvine Welsh. Meanwhile Sylvia Plath has not unreasonably chosen to shelter in Psychological Fiction but found herself next to me. I do hope she’s not feeling too conflicted to chat today, and I think as a grown up I could hold my own. Not like the day when, in my teens, I was introduced to Margaret Drabble at a party given by some friends of my parents. I adored, read and reread her books, identified with the heroines, tried to understand the points she was making (I didn’t attempt her sister AS Byatt). And that’s more or less what I gabbled, blushing and stuttering my generalised admiration. She smiled graciously and moved on to consort with more stimulating fellow guests.

Perhaps the memory of that toe curling embarrassment was what stopped me taking advantage of an even more impressive opportunity a few years later. I was living in Paris as part of my degree, and mentioned to my landlady that I was writing my year abroad dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. “Tiens!” said Madame. It turned out she was distantly related to or had been distantly befriended by or was an old schoolmate, or something, of “Simone”. Would I like to meet ‘er? I could per’aps interview ‘er for my studeez? I shivered. No no, I was busy that day/week/month/year. I regretted it deeply, but it would never be convenient for me to meet the greatest feminist philosopher and writer of her day, who still intimidates me now. What a dissertation chapter that might have been! What a coup over the academics of Sussex University French department!

Famous writers seemed to be two a centime in Paris. The very first day there, gawping the wrong way at the traffic as I crossed the road, I literally bumped into a monsieur who set my shoulders back in the right direction with a polite “excusez-moi, mademoiselle”. But it was the friend accompanying me who had to be picked up off the pavement. “You just jostled Samuel Beckett!” he hissed. Merde alors. Another unsuccessful encounter with a literary giant.

Maybe that’s why I prefer the Amazon dinner party. You can imagine the conversation instead of actually having to hold it, name dropping and star spotting to your hearts content. Now please excuse me: it’s time for virtual coffee and chocolat with Joanne Harris before I slide back down the rankings and lose the opportunity.

Amazon dinner party

© Jessica Norrie 2016