Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt

Literary Tourist in London, England. Day 2

The cold (English cold I should say, not Canadian) fresh air slapped my face as I exited the apartment. I didn’t feel like walking, but nonetheless, nutted-up and strode for 15 minutes over to the Thames, where the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) fairly sparkled in the morning sunlight.

The Bookseller magazine‘s offices are across the river from it. A 15 minute walk West gets you to the Tate Britain. Twenty minutes on foot in the other direction, along the Thames, and you’re at the Southbank Book Market.

Given that it was late October, there weren’t too many vendors out. I suspect there’s a lot better selection in the summertime.

In case you’re interested M16’s HQ is a short trot up the road from The Bookseller’s offices. And just so you know, the surrounding district is called Lambeth – as in Liza of Lambeth,

Somerset Maugham’s first novel about the travails of a young factory worker who lives near Westminster Bridge, written while Maugham was a medical student. Lambeth is also the place where John Milton lands after cometing his way down from heaven in William Blakes’ Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

I was here to interview The Bookseller’s chief executive and owner, Nigel Roby.

The magazine goes way back, to 1858, when Joseph Whitaker founded it in order to inform London publishers and booksellers about the latest books, launch dates, and various comings and goings in the trade. It has filled this role faithfully ever since – even published during the Blitz – only today, the coverage is global. Listen below as Nigel (Beale) talks with Nigel about the magazine’s past, along with current topics of concern to the industry. Brexit, which came up in virtually every interview I conducted during this visit to London, was certainly one concern. The uncertainty created is agitating everyone in publishing.

As members of the EU, the Brits have for many years had the English-language market on the continent all to themselves. With the ‘leave’ vote, this could change dramatically. A potential battle looms with American publishers. Britain is currently the largest book exporter in the world (Canada is one of the largest importers). Sales are close to $7 Billion a year, half of which comes from the EU. The U.S. is hankering for an invasion.

The British book business employs 30,000 people. If the country pulls out of the EU, and walls go up, literary culture is likely to become more isolated, a shrinking economy would mean less money spent on books, and writers could lose their generous Euro grants. No wonder it comes up in conversation. There’s much at stake.

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I’d agreed to meet Henry Hitchings downstairs outside the building. There he was, right on time. We hiked briskly back to Airbnb HQ talking all the while about theatre (Henry is the critic for the Evening Standard), Samuel Johnson, and, yes, Brexit. Listen here as we nerd out about the smell of books and stories that can be told around buying them (books not smell), and a book Henry edited called Browse: The World in Bookshops.

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Brattleboro and Books, Greenblatt and Fadiman, Beowulf and Bookstores

If you have to drive for five hours in a row, there are worse routes to be stuck on than the #89 from Montreal to Brattleboro, Vermont

especially in the Fall (okay, this isn’t the actual highway, it’s an image from Vermont Tourism, but you get the idea).

I was heading down to the Brattleboro Literary Festival. We’d attended last year. Caught readings by Richard Russo and Claire Messud, among others. Very pleasant little town. Plenty of granola and veggie burgers on offer, plus a very good used bookstore.

I was pumped about who I’d lined up to interview for The Biblio File.

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Ions ago, when in my late-twenties, I came across Clifton Fadiman’s A Lifetime Reading Plan.

I’d always wanted to read the great works – had studied politics in college, not literature. Clifton’s guide changed my life. Not only did I read all of its concise, well-crafted summaries – a hundred in total – over the years I’ve actually read many of the books on the list, taking great pleasure ticking off titles as I finish reading them. Clifton’s daughter Anne has written a memoir about her relationship with her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. I couldn’t wait to tell her what an impact he’d had on my life, and to learn more about the grand old man himself. Just listen to her. Energy level is off the charts, just as I imagine Clifton’s was:

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Among other things Will in the World suggests that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic. It also details the bone-breaking cruelty that religion brings out in human beings. Heads chopped off, stuck on spikes, displayed on London’s bridges. Fascinating book, and yet considering how little can be proved about The Bard’s life, rife with conjecture. It took a lot of chutzpah to write this book, ergo, I wanted to meet its author. Stephen Greenblatt was appearing at the Festival promoting his latest book, Tyrant, about MacBeth, Richard lll, and Edmund of King Lear fame. A wicked Shakespearean cabal. None bare any resemblance to Trump of course.

Listen here as we debate this

I took this photograph of Stephen by lining myself up beside Beowulf (yes, his real name) Sheehan – using the same angle he used.

Stephen Greenblatt

Why? Because Beowulf is one of the most talented author photographers in the world. He hit it big with a shot of Donna Tartt. It graces the back cover of The Goldfinch, and the front cover of Beowulf’s beautiful new book of photographs, Author,

The writer Donna Tartt (USA), April 11, 2013, New York, New York. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com

Listen to Beowulf discuss photographing some of the world’s top literary stars, here

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One thing I couldn’t understand as I stood in front of its closed, locked doors: why wasn’t this great used bookstore open?

Brattleboro Books

It wasn’t, the whole time I was here. You’d think, what with the Festival on and all, that this would be the time for them to make maximum hay. Perhaps they were busy helping the organizers? Perhaps they were the organizers. Perhaps making money wasn’t the most important thing.

Here’s some tourist information for Brattleboro and environs.

Toronto Trolley Buses, Torosian, Motherhood and Lista

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Next morning I road the rails to Michael Torosian’s Lumiere Press in the West end of Toronto. He has a workshop in his backyard where he produces the most impeccable fine press photography books. (Here’s a look at his latest:

and his immaculate shop reflects it

After our Biblio File podcast conversation (listen here

I jumped in a taxi – the driver was a big Dire Straits fan (he liked it very loud) – and travelled back downtown to spruce up for the Grad ceremony.

All went smoothly. Eleanor copped her diploma, and Marie Campbell (author of Halfbreed) got her honorary doctorate

and delivered a harmless enough convocation address – mostly birds, bees, flowers, motherhood about mother-earth. I’d have preferred something a bit more substantive and inspiring, but it was what it was – an important message that shouldn’t – lest we fry – continue to be ignored.

After champagne, cake and photos, I boarded the trolley bus West again, this time for Michael Lista‘s place, where steaks and wine awaited. I first met Michael a decade ago in his Montreal apartment, right before his first book of poetry, Bloom, was published; one which I think will, over time, come to be recognized as truly important. More people should read it. Given its nuclear content, it will blow your mind, guaranteed.

After perusing his skillfully stacked, wrap-around bookshelves – they carry all the books I first saw in Montreal, and many more I’m sure –

we set about talking. You can listen to what was said here:

Apricot Pie, Michel de Montaigne’s spiritual daughter, St. Emilion and gourmet to go

Literary Tourist near Bordeaux, France

Did you know that Transat flies Bordeaux – Montreal direct? We did, and so decided to avoid the Paris crush by driving from Le Mans, where we were staying, through Chateauroux where my wife’s uncle and aunt live, along to Angoulême, host, every January, to the world’s third largest comic book convention; from here we scooted over to Michel de Montaigne’s Chateau, and finally, into Bordeaux where I visited the oldest, and arguably biggest, independent bookshop in France.

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It was some hot. How hot? Let’s just say we didn’t see any escargot sunning themselves on the sidewalks. It would have been lethal. Luckily Robert had rigged up a garden hose shower in the back yard


Caroline et Robert

and in the shade of some nearby trees it was possible to enjoy, in relative comfort, his chilled red wine, a selection of his choice barbequed meats, and his wife Martine’s delicious apricot pie-like, clafoutis-type desert.

It cooled off a bit over night (the outside temperature that is) so the drive to Angoulême wasn’t as stifling as the one to Chatalroux had been the day before (the a/c in our Enterprise rental car was on the fritz). We arrived in time for a late lunch. Just in time, in fact, for the hostess at the first restaurant on the square where we’d parked, to tell us there was no more food, we’d have to try next door. Yes, they could accommodate us, but we were lucky. The last ones fed.

Most French restaurants outside of Paris stop serving lunch at around 2pm. Despite the inconvenience I kind of like this practice; says something about the quality of the food. Good that it’s not available around the clock like it is in North America. Judging from the glee with which ours delivered her dispiriting news, it’s clear that at least some waiters over here do get a perverse pleasure in telling people, especially Americans, to get lost. But I’m being too harsh. Generally speaking the demeanor of French hospitality toward English speaking tourists has improved markedly over the past ten years.

I wanted to see Angoulême’s comic strip museum, ground-zero for the International Comics Festival that has taken place here every year since 1974. More than 200,000 attend annually; venues are spread out around the city. The Festival is known for the important prizes that it hands out. Unfortunately the place was closed (on Mondays). I did however get a photo

and along the way found evidence of Angoulême’s commitment to comics. Its street-names are displayed in cartoon speech bubbles

There’s also a 4,5 meter high obelisk that’s been erected in front of the train station in honour of Astérix scriptwriter René Goscinny. On it you’ll find memorable lines from the comic strip including “Strange guys, those Romans!”

From Angoulême we went Bergerac, which, I figured, had to have something to do with Cyrano. Turns out it didn’t. Seems like neither the real guy, nor the fictional guy ever stepped foot in Bergerac. The only connection is this opportunistic statue

Cyrano, statue

Still, it offered the opportunity to think about Edmond Rostand and his play, published in 1897. It describes Cyrano’s love for the beautiful Roxanne, whom he woos on behalf of his handsomer, less articulate friend Christian. Cyrano was first performed at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris in 1897, and in English in the United States in 1898. Its translation that year introduced the word “panache” into the English language. Anthony Burgess, among others, also translated the play. There have been numerous adaptations of Cyrano, among the best-known are the 1950 American film starring José Ferrer and the 1990 French-Hungarian film starring Gérard Depardieu.

From Bergerac, with its half timbered houses, we went to our hotel which looked, for a heart-stopping hour, like it might not be able to offer internet service. Luckily it kicked in after we got back from a run to the supermarché. The following morning we headed out to famed essayist Michel de Montaigne’s Château. It’s beautifully situated.


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