Literary Tourist in Kingston, Ontario and environs
I couldn’t tell at the time. He looked pretty fresh to me. But, as I later learned, the convocation that marked my youngest daughter’s graduation from Queen’s University, was the eighteenth such ceremony that Daniel Woolf had adjudicated over as Principal and Vice Chancellor in just the past week. No wonder he’s clenching his fist.
It was a clear, clean morning, sunny and blue-skyed. So poetically blue in fact that one wanted to call it azure or cerulean. We’d driven down from Montreal the previous day. I love Kingston, both for the memories it conjures of studying ( and carousing) here back in the eighties, and for the fact that I get to visit one of my best friends, Pat Grew.
The building in which the aforementioned ceremony took place was bright and airy. The event moved along at a pleasing clip and it was wonderful to see Dorothy’s smiling face as she turned triumphantly to the audience, scroll proudly in hand. Here she is all successfully graduated with said scroll
The reason that I mention this event and Woolf is not to brag about my daughter (yes it is) but to emphasize the fact that I’m always on the lookout for book collectors to interview. There’s a very special buzz in the air when I talk to them. Just listen for example to cardiologist Bruce Fye as he describes gaining exclusive access as a mere boy to the hallowed second floor of a cherished bookstore in Philadelphia, here
or David McKnight’s passionate resolve, going after Canadian little magazines and presses, here
I’d put out feelers in Kingston the last time I was down and learned from Richard Peterson (the Peterson in Berry & Peterson’s, purveyors of fine used/antiquarian books), that the Principal of Queen’s was a known collector of items Elizabethan. I duly drafted an email, and Daniel and I arranged to meet in late July after his administrative duties at Queen’s had officially concluded.
Back down the 401 I drove, this time just past Kingston, on to the nearby village of Yarker
As we waited for the cleaning lady to finish up, I asked Daniel about his first wife, Jane Arscott. Her name had come up after I’d Googled his. I remembered it from Sutherland elementary school in Saskatoon. I was fresh off the boat from England, complete with school uniform shorts and a ripe English accent. Needless to say I lost both post-haste, not wishing to be at all different from the other kids. One of the first things our grade seven teacher shared with us was the fact that two students, Will and Jane Arscott, had tragically lost their mother that summer in a drowning accident. I never forgot this.
After the vacuum stopped and we’d calmed down about the coincidence, Daniel and I took our seats in his living room and started to talk about his collection. Listen here
I ‘d been browsing Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer with some pleasure, and noticed, after conducting one of my regular panoramic literary event scans covering a circular territory – centre in Montreal, circumference a 3 1/2 hour drive away – that she was scheduled to speak in a few days time right out on the edge of the circle, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.
The Skidmore readings are connected to the New York State Writers Institute, at SUNY in nearby Albany. Together they draw some impressive talent, so I’m very attentive to what goes down there. In fact, today, Salman Rushdie happens to be on deck.
Time was limited. I put in a couple of calls, but predictably wasn’t able to tee up a Biblio File interview with Francine. Still, I was interested enough to jump in the car and drive down. I’d overnight near the college and drive to a bookstore in Cooperstown the next morning, July 4th. I’d dropped in on it years ago, but the visit was rushed, and I’ve harboured a desire to return ever since.
On the way down to Skidmore I listened to a podcast called Think Again.The guest was Martin Amis. There was some interesting talk about Joyce – 25% of Ulysses is brilliant, says Amis, the rest, not so much. He’s read about a third of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest ( I flamed out at a quarter) and is respectful, suggesting that while DFW’s essays are good (agreed), especially the ones on tennis, his fiction tends to burns up the reader’s good will very quickly. Too quickly, unless of course you’re young and love the challenge of reading boring-as-a-pound-of-suet text. When the podcast host, Jason Gots, offers up that he’s “enraptured” by Wallace’s digressions, I have trouble suspending my disbelief. When Part ll of the podcast comes on and the discussion turns to AI, it was all I could do not to change the channel. I never turn Amis off, but this was over the top.
Another thing that bothered me was Jason’s sudden outbursts of maniacal, paradoxical laughter. Amis does his best to talk through it, I opted to listen to the country & western station.
I should perhaps come clean here. Prior to driving down to Albany I’d been organizing a trip to New York, lining up various stars to interview. I was keen to talk to Amis. Have been since I read London Fields. Who wouldn’t want to meet the man responsible for siring Nicola Six. So I fired off an email to his agent Andrew Wylie. “No,” was his firm response. Not a hard, final no, just no this time round. The prospects might brighten closer to the time his next big ‘baggy’ novel hits the shelves.
So this “no” was ringing in my ears, at the same time I sat jealously listening to the jarring hyena laughter and inane discussion of the possibility that AI machines might one day replace novelists.
After arriving at Skidmore I walked the campus a bit
found the classroom, and took a seat close to the stage. I wasn’t in the most sanguine mood. The talks weren’t terribly enlightening. Both participants made a point of repeatedly referring to “their students,” in much the same way a mid-level bureaucrat is wont to talk about his “staff.” Once the floor opened up for questions I asked Francine what differentiated her book from How to Read a Book, written by a ‘dead white male’ more than fifty years ago. Few seemed to have heard of Mortimer Adler. Basically he advocated close reading, which is pretty well what Francine does in her book, along with providing some engaging exegesis.
More women, was the obvious answer. That’s pretty well it. I should add that although my question was presented provocatively, the intent was to facilitate Francine making this point.
As the tents were folding, a robust, busty young tatooed student glided past me and said “I’m looking forward to the day when you’re a dead white male,” missing entirely the good-natured purpose behind my question.
A couple of items of note about nearby Albany: McGeary’s Irish pub in Clinton Square has an excellent happy hour during which good, large, stiff, cheap drinks are poured. Plus Herman Melville’s childhood home – the plain pink edifice – can be found right next door.
Speaking of buildings, check these out:
They’re right downtown, part of a complex of state government offices called The Empire State Plaza. It was built between 1965 and 1976 at an estimated cost of $2 billion. There’s a major public collection of 1960s and 1970s monumental abstract artworks on permanent display throughout the site, plus there’s a performing arts center. The supervising architect was Wallace Harrison.
And final note: a year or two ago we were in town and I decided to check out the books section at a local thrift store. Damned if I didn’t find a 7th printing of the British Faber paperback edition of Anna Burns’s Booker-Award winning novel Milkman on the shelf!
The reason for my overreaction was, first that it was the British edition (it’s published by Graywolf in the States – which means that someone had to have lugged the thing over the Atlantic) and second that not two months prior I’d talked about it during a Biblio File interview conducted in London with Faber CEO Stephen Page, listen here
Next morning I headed off to Cooperstown, NY, home to The Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a beautiful sunny day, which brightened the already colourful surroundings.
But I wasn’t here for the Hall, or for my name to be engraved for free on a baseball bat
or for the baseball gear. Not even the dogs, although I did dunk a couple for lunch.
No, I was here for the books, and Willis Monie Books had loads of them to offer at sparkling good prices. How good? Well check out the pile I bought ( mostly publishers’ histories). I think Willis was pleased.
This hog print also spoke loudly to me
as did a number of dust jackets from the forties and fifties on books all priced below $10, including a striking one by Milton Glaser, and this beauty published by the aforementioned Faber & Faber. Had to buy it.
After wobbling out of the store with my pile, I was greeted by this
actually, my first encounter with it was earlier in the morning after a breakfast I’d enjoyed at a diner across the street. At the time, I’d decided to squeeze out all the good I could from a bad situation by leaving the car parked where it was for the day. Still, I couldn’t believe that the town would stoop to ticketing me on the 4th of July. How damned unpatriotic.
A bright and sunny morning. Perfect opportunity to bury ourselves in Winston Churchill’s bunker, the underground nerve centre where Winnie and his inner circle choreographed the Second World War. My wife had reserved tickets for 10am. At first sight, the prospects didn’t look good.
I hate lining up. For anything. Thanks to the tickets, however, we were ushered into a very short line that started to move directly through the entrance the moment we joined it. The timing was exemplary.
Lots here to take in. I liked the special bedroom set aside for Winston’s wife, Clemmie. Apparently the two couldn’t abide being apart for long. The exhibit, which focuses mostly on the war years, also covers much of the glory of Churchill’s long life. One thing it skips however, is his writing career. He published a prodigious number of words, and won the Nobel prize for literature. Some years ago I interviewed Ron Cohen, Churchill’s bibliographer. You can listen here.
Despite an absence of books, Churchill’s war rooms are still worth a visit – lots of authentic material to take in – film footage, letters, even the door of Ten Downing Street – plus there’s a gift shop filled with bulldogs,
cigars and this sexy navy blue and white number that Churchill favoured. Looks a mite big for a bow-tie.
From central command I surfaced and walked a short distance over towards Westminster Abbey to admire this bronze sculpture by Ivor Roberts-Jones
past this iconic statue-still symbol,
and onwards to Portobello Road via the tube and a short walk past this colourful curb-side grocer,
and these sun-dappled townhouses.
Sophie Schneideman led me to the back of her husband’s photography shop, where she keeps her fine collection of fine press treasures. It’s a cosy little nook, packed with beautifully printed books. Perusing some of her catalogues while she popped out, I noticed that they were designed by the revered Jerry Kelly (must interview). Her shelves supported books by Cobden-Sanderson, William Morris, Charles Ricketts and Gaylord Shanelic, who I’d recently interviewed out in Minneapolis, listen here.
Sophie was on a tight schedule, so we set to it. You can listen to our conversation about some of the great fine presses (Kelmscott, Ashendene, Doves, Circle) and how to go about collecting them, here
From Sophie’s I made my way back down to the tube station. Destination: Notting Hill
I wasn’t so much interested in Hugh Grant, as I was Hannah Knowles, senior commissioning editor with Canongate (I’m thinking Churchill would’ve liked that blouse).
After scouring the neighbourhood on foot and in taxi I eventually found her offices and was led into a slightly echoey boardroom. One of the walls was a beautiful choral colour, decorated with repeating purple foxgloves. Years ago I’d interviewed Hannah’s boss Jamie Byng at BookExpo in Washington, D.C. Listen here
Now it was time to talk to someone who really knew him. Actually we talk mostly about Hannah’s role, the freedom she enjoys, and how cool and eclectic Canongate’s backlist is. If that doesn’t arouse your interest, you might want to pay special attention to the part where she talks about a guy having sex with a cross-dressing lizard. Listen here:
From Hannah’s I made my way over to the British Library. Had an appointment to see a literary publicist just across the road. After 10-15 minutes pounding on the door to no response, and several unanswered telephone calls, I strolled back across the street to check out the free Treasures of the British Libraryexhibit. It included original Lennon and McCartney lyric manuscripts, complete with doodles. From here I walked past St Pancras station where you’ll find a statue of John Betjeman by sculptor Martin Jennings.
I decided to take a powder on Harry Potter’s train Platform 9 ¾ located in nearby King’s Cross Station, and headed straight for one of my favourite London bookstores, Collinge and Clark ( aka Black Books).
Favourite because it specializes in books on books, and private presses. Oliver lets me go down into the basement too – a rare privilege, despite appearances. I collect publisher’s histories. Didn’t find much this time round, but I did spot this:
Pretty obvious what Oliver collects. Next time I’m in town, I hope to interview him about this, and other hot collectible items.
we headed for Bordeaux. Since we were staying on the outskirts, I took the bus downtown. The first thing I spotted was this giant column, supported by a spectacular chariot
guarded by this arrogant rooster.
If his name isn’t Napoleon it should be.
I started walking in the direction of the Mollat Bookstore that publisher Heloise D’Ormesson had recommended I visit (at 15 rue Vital-Carles). It’s the oldest independent bookstore in France, and one of the biggest. It’s been in business, in the same family, since the 1890s and it’s located on the site of the last house that philosopher Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu lived in. I found it easily enough. When I arrived I figured I’d try to meet the owner, Denis Mollat. Turned out he was due to show up in 45 minutes, so I asked where all the charming little dying-to-be photographed ‘libraries’ were at, and was told to visit a nearby side street. Here’s what I found:
This is no longer a bookshop, but the old sign’s still here so it counts. I love the lettering, and the colour of the paint.
The owner here wouldn’t let me take his photograph, but he did give me his latest catalogue.
Before heading off to Wales for a sneak preview of what that principality had in store for literary tourists the following year (2014), I took an inventory of what I knew about the place: Dylan Thomas of course: grew up in Swansea, lived in the coastal village of Laugharne, baritone, had a tempestuous marriage, died in New York, drank a lot. Tom Jones, baritone, drank a lot, tempestuous marriages, hairy chest. Richard Burton, baritone, movie idol, Taming of the Shrew, tempestuous marriages, drank a lot. Hay-on-Wye, leeks, and the Gregynog Press.
The team at Visit Wales did a superb job touring us around, rounding out my limited knowledge of the territory. Part of that rounding involved my interviewing people about Dylan Thomas for The Biblio File podcast. Annie Haden for instance.
She’s a tour guide who specializes in the poet. With over 20 years experience in the tourism sector, she uses an easy to listen to story-telling technique which keeps her charges both awake and informed.
I also interviewed George Tremlett an author, bookshop owner, and former politician. After leaving King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon he worked for the Coventry Evening Telegraph from 1957 onward as a TV columnist and pop music reviewer. In the 1960s he became a freelance rock journalist and in the 1970s wrote a series of paperbacks on pop stars, including The David Bowie Story, the first bio of the musician.
He’s also a biographer of Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin. In Caitlin: Life with Dylan Thomas he argues that the poet was the world’s “first rock star.” In 1997 he published a book with James Nashold, The Death of Dylan Thomas, which claimed that Thomas’s demise was not due to alcohol poisoning but to a mistake by his physician prescribing cortisone, morphine and benzedrine when it wasn’t called for, because Thomas was actually in a diabetic coma.
Tremlett runs the Corran Bookshop in Laugharne, Wales – has since 1982. The shop is located right across the street from Browns,
the pub that Thomas frequented (frequently). In addition to a selection of used books, his shop offers tourist information and it’s where I met George to have this conversation: