I’ve loved books for half a century. I remember the moment the love affair began: my grandmother giving me an Enid Blyton tale featuring a wooded island. (The Secret Island?) There was no turning back. My reading status changed: in a relationship.
Martin Latham has made books his working life as well as his passion. He has sold books for 35 years, and has produced a book of his own, The Bookseller’s Tale, that is full of intriguing stories and authors I had never heard of. Even his dust-jacket is revealing: it reveals he was responsible for the largest petty-cash claim in Waterstones’ history when he paid for the excavation of a Roman bath-house floor under his bookshop.
Latham opens by talking about ‘comfort books’ – books we love, and keep buying and reading. They may, or may not, be literary masterpieces. The author recalls the novelist AS Byatt buying a copy of Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book in his Canterbury bookshop and admitting she couldn’t be seen buying it in London.
Latham never quite defines a comfort book. A book you read in difficult times? A volume you loved when you were young, and which gives you a heady draught of nostalgia every time you re-read it? A book that moved or inspired you deeply and which you read time and time again?
The definition may not matter. Most of us have books that we remember vividly and which we will happily read again. Here are some of mine.
A Kind of Loving, Stan Barstow
I first read this Sixties classic at the turn of the 1990s. But I already knew the story, from ITV’s wonderful television version in the spring of 1982, as I prepared for my A levels. (I blogged about that ITV series here.) Author Stan Barstow was one of the ‘kitchen sink’ writers who brought a new realism to literature in the early Sixties with stories about on working class ‘warts and all’ characters. The novels were soon adapted for film and TV.
A Kind of Loving told the story of Vic Brown, a working class lad who endured a shot-gun marriage after getting his girlfriend pregnant. ITV’s 1982 classic followed his progress in often-painful detail. Barstow oversaw the television version of his play, and ensured that Vic was not seen as an unvarnished hero. Instead, we saw the pain of his wife, Ingrid (brilliantly portrayed by Joanne Whalley) as Vic lashed out at her and her domineering mother.
It’s a book I have reread several times over the past 30 years. It’s a reminder of how the world and literature were changing dramatically in my earliest years. I recommend it along with another unforgettable kitchen sink triology: The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, which is arguably even more stark in its portrayal of a young woman thrown out of the family home by her father when she becomes pregnant. I will never forget Banks’ description of the slum bedsit that Jane finds refuge in with her baby, and the community of friends that keep her sane, including her new lover, Toby. I enjoyed the film version of the book, noting that few people younger than me would know what the price 2/- on a shop board in the movie meant!
The Escape Artist, Matt Seaton
Guardian writer Matt Seaton wrote one of the best cycling books in 2002. It began with a classic piece of writing, a cyclist’s account of reaching the top of Westerham Hill in Kent. Every cyclist knows that feeling of relief and satisfaction reaching the summit.
The Escape Artist is at first glance a story of one man’s obsession with two wheels. It records Seaton’s growing love affair with racing, gradually improving his bikes as he learned more. I have never raced, but I identified with that intoxicating discovery in London in the late 1980s. But as the book progressed, you realise that it has a sombre side: his wife, talented journalist Ruth Picardie’s descent into the darkness of lung cancer. Few books could carry a bitter line to match Matt’s description of a Good Friday family outing by bike to the Herne Hill velodrome:
“I could not now escape the bitter irony of our outing… We were on our way to watch some of the fittest, fastest men in the world .. men with vast lungs, acres of healthy, life-giving tissue – and my wife was gradually dying, robbed of breath… No hill ever hurt me more.”
I have read The Escape Artist many times since I bought it in 2002. I took it with me last year when I cycled Land’s End to John O’Groats. I started afresh curled up with it in my modest B&B room near Northwich, Cheshire, at the end of a long and wet day, relishing the timeless and moving story. It won’t be the last time.
In Search of Churchill, Martin Gilbert
My last comfort book features the greatest Briton of modern times. Winston Churchill has become a legend, the hero of Britain’s darkest hour 80 years ago. (I’m writing this on the 80th anniversary of Battle of Britain Day.) He found a worthy biographer in Martin Gilbert, who wrote most of the volumes of the classic life.
Yet the book I return to time and again is this little known volume. It brings WSC to life in a series of stories from Gilbert’s long years researching his life. I found it enthralling. I will give two examples. In 1913, Winston was having flying lessons with Royal Marines Captain Gilbert Wildman-Lushington. The captain was killed in his aircraft shortly after one of those lessons. Fifty years later in 1963, Gilbert tracked down Wildman-Lushington’s fiancée, and obtained letters that Churchill had sent him, describing the problems the future prime minister was having mastering the controls.
My other story from In Search of Churchill was about the most famous Churchill photo, taken by Karsh of Ottawa in the Canadian capital in December 1941. Gilbert recounts that WSC was known as the smiling chancellor in the 1920s thanks to his grin. Yet as the years unfolded, he was associated with the grim face of defiance. Karsh took several photos of Churchill that December day after he gave a speech to Canada’s House of Commons. One shot became an icon; it captured Churchill almost growling at the camera. Gilbert explained that Lady Churchill complained that she disliked it as misrepresenting her husband. She added that Karsh took a happy photo in the sequence but this was never used. Gilbert tracked it down and used it on the cover of In Search of Churchill. Karsh obtained the serious photo by snatching Churchill’s cigar as he smoked it and taking photographic advantage of the great man’s displeasure.
Back to The Bookseller’s Tale. I was intrigued by Latham’s chapter about ‘chap’ books. These were hugely popular, cheaply produced booklets – street literature – that began in the 16th century. I had heard of the Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’ but had never heard of these earlier versions.
These sold in staggering numbers. According to South Carolina University, in the 18th century some four million copies were sold in Great Britain, which at that time had a population of around seven million, many of whom would have been unable to read.
But why ‘chap’ book? The answer is interesting. They were sold by ‘chapmen’ – or salesmen. The word comes from the old English cēap, which means to barter or deal. That’s where the word cheap comes from – leading to street names such as Cheapside, and place names such as Chepstow. I never knew.
Latham reminds us that many of the books we now regard as classics were once lowbrow. Dickens and Hardly churned out novels in instalments – often in a rush, and badly produced.
Borrowing a book from Boots the Chemist
Another surprise from Latham is that 450 branches of Boots the Chemist once had lending libraries. Boots even took over WH Smith’s rival service as late as 1961. It’s hard to imagine a time before free public libraries, when private companies could make money by lending books. Yet it was only in the 1960s that councils in Britain were required to provide a free library service. Within two years of that belated move, Boots had closed its lending libraries.
I’ll close with an amusing tale about the Persian scholar al-Sahib ibn Abbad. The Emir of Persia once offered him the dream job of running the empire’s most important province. But he turned the Emir down as it would have taken 450 camels to move his personal library there.
I will never match that collection, but I too have always dreamed of having my own library. When I was 11, and about to move to high school, I told my sister that was one of my life’s dreams. I have collected books all my life, and the idea of having room to store them properly, rather than piled on top of each other like victims of a literary car crash, is still very appealing.
One day. One day.