Books and their readers: The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

A bookish read

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.

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In praise of Terence Conran

A Conran legacy

I was a big fan of Habitat in my twenties and thirties. I loved the clean design of the furniture, kitchen wear and dinner sets. I’m typing this blogpost on the 23 year old Habital dining table (now my working from home desk) seen in the photo, while drinking from the pictured 31 year old coffee cup from the store. Somewhere I still have a Habitat fondue set and towel rail.

It’s all thanks to Terence Conran, who has died aged 88. Conran was one of the entrepreneurs who changed the face of Britain, bringing fresh, modern design to the high street and the home.

“It is hard to overstate how uninteresting London was then,” Conran later said. “You could go along a terrace of houses, and every living room you looked in was the exactly the same, with the same extremely dreary furniture.” (You can see a glimpse of that world even today in many chintzy guesthouses.) Design was a hugely under appreciated discipline, as a glance at almost any household product would show. Conran opened the first Habitat store in 1964, and the stores quickly became a symbol of the Sixties. Over time, Habitat made the duvet (or continental quilt as my parents and grandparents called them), beanbag, wok and fondue part of everyday life.

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Poundbury: Prince Charles’ model Dorset village, 30 years on

Poundbury

As you approach Dorchester from the west, you see a dramatic sight: a fire station that looks like a design from the era of George III. The royal connection is real: this is Poundbury, the model village created by Prince Charles to bring to life his dream of building new communities using traditional architectural styles.

Charles famously campaigned against modern architecture in the 1980s, describing a proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. He made those comments in a 1984 speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects – and incidentally compared the design to that of a municipal fire station. We now know what Charles would like a fire station to look like. The speech killed the proposed design.

Charles later said that he didn’t intend to drag Britain back to the 18th century, or to begin a style war. “All I asked was for room to be given to traditional approaches to architecture and urbanism.”

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Coasteering: Dorset delight with Cumulus

Coasteering with Cumulus near Swanage. As amazing as it looks

Owen, 12, was thrilled when I booked a coasteering adventure with Cumulus Outdoors, a company specialising in outdoor adventures and residential programmes. We’d hoped to go coasteering in West Wales but Storm Ellen sank that plan. We arrived at the Cumulus base in Langton Matravers, just outside Swanage, with a sense of excitement – and, for me, a few butterflies.

Our guides were welcoming and patient, which was good as we took time to get into our wetsuits. (Karen, as a former guide leader, would have hurried us up.) We began the trek to the starting point, the stunning Dancing Ledge on Dorset’s Jurassic coast, England’s only natural world heritage site.

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Return to Thomas Hardy country

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace, Higher Bockhampton, Dorset

Few writers have become as inextricably linked with a region as Thomas Hardy. The novelist and poet brought Dorset and neighbouring counties to life as his reimagined Wessex.

Greenwood Grange: its Hardy history

We’re enjoying a holiday in the heart of Hardy country. His birthplace is a short walk from our holiday cottage at Greenwood Grange, a group of buildings built by Thomas’s father. One gable (shown in the photo above) shows its 1840s heritage. Our holiday home Coomb Barton is reputedly mentioned in the last verse of Hardy’s 1915 poem, The Oxen:

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

I confess to thinking it’s more likely a general reference to the then lonely farmyard (or ‘barton’) but it’s nice to think Hardy might have meant the cottage in which I am typing this sentence!

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St Davids: a happy return to Britain’s smallest city

St Davids cathedral, Pembrokeshire

One of my favourite memories is getting a high speed train in the rush hour in London in the 1980s and finishing my journey five hours later at an isolated stone cottage near St Davids on Wales’s Atlantic coast. At first, the train was packed with commuters to Reading and Swindon, but as we travelled further west into Wales the train took on a different character. I savoured a beer watching the evening reflections as the train followed the Tywi estuary. My father collected me at the end of the line at Haverfordwest. We then enjoyed a magical car ride in the fading summer light to the dramatic Atlantic coast at Newgale and on to the quietude of St Davids, the smallest city in Great Britain.

Whitesands Bay, St Davids

I was fortunate enough to return for a work management offsite a few years ago in St Davids. I’m sure some of my London colleagues wondered why our boss had chosen such a remote location, but if you want to reflect there’s no better place to go. We stayed in the excellent Twr y Felin hotel. It was nice to be able to speak Welsh on a work trip!

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Exam results day memories

Today, thousands of young people were celebrating after getting their GCSE results. But these were unique results, based on their teachers’ predictions of how they’d do in an exam, rather than the outcome of actual exams, which were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Exam memories

I still remember the tension of awaiting my O level results (the predecessor of GCSEs) 40 years ago this month. We were on a family holiday in California when the results came out. I knew the results slip would be waiting for me as I walked through the front door. The journey from the Severn Bridge back to Cardiff on the final part of the journey from Gatwick airport was excruciating. I grabbed the envelope from the pile of post and tore it open. The first thing I read was, ‘This is not a certificate’. In my nervous tension I thought that meant I’d failed! But I hadn’t. It was a mixed bag, but I’d passed maths as well as getting good results in my favourite subjects. And I hadn’t failed any.

This year, young people have had a lesson in taking things seriously from day one and not relying on putting in a performance on the day of the exam. I did poorly in my O level mocks, getting around 20% in chemistry. I enjoyed the subject earlier in my Cardiff High School career, but struggled as it got more complicated. The school told me it wouldn’t let me sit the O level, but put me in for the easier CSE exam instead. I was mortified, feeling like a failure. (Years later, a friend told me how surprised she was to see me joining the CSE class.) But it was the best possible outcome. I was at the right level, and enjoyed chemistry once again. I got a grade 1, the equivalent of C at O level.

I also sat two combined syllabus exams in maths and biology. Passing these gave both an O level and CSE.

My school report after my mock O levels makes painful reading even 40 years on. No wonder my mother read the riot act after she found me time wasting rather than revising in January 1980.

Follow the instructions…

If I thought my 1980 results experience was stressful, I had a further shock to come. When I sat my degree final exams in law in 1984 and 1985, I discovered that the University of Leicester posted everyone’s results on the door of the law faculty. That meant much jostling on the doorstep as I tried to find my results. Fortunately I was happy with the outcome. I assume things are done in a more sympathetic way in today’s online age.

Congratulations to everyone who has got their GCSE results today, including my great nephew Mylo.

The Landsker line: Pembrokeshire’s language border

We’re on holiday in Tenby, Pembrokeshire this week. This intriguing town is called Dinbych-y-pysgod (little fort of the fishes) in Welsh. Yet Tenby has been an English speaking town for the best part of 900 years.

South Pembrokeshire: an English (language) landscape

Look at the map of South Pembrokeshire above. You might think you can’t learn anything about the state of the Welsh language in a region from a map. But think again. Look at the place names. They are all in English. There’s nowhere else in Wales that the landscape and place names are all in English.

North Pembrokeshire: a Welsh language landscape

Now look at the map above, showing Pembrokeshire place names just a few miles north of Tenby. All the names are in Welsh. The border between Welsh speaking and English speaking Pembrokeshire is often called the Landsker line. That name in itself echoes the history, as it comes from a Norse word meaning divide. South Pembrokeshire has often been called little England beyond Wales.

We’re looking at the impact of events 900 years ago. The Normans and Flemish conquered this part of Wales and unusually changed the language of the landscape as well as that spoken in the market place. By contrast, the Vale of Glamorgan west of Cardiff was similarly Anglicised but was later re-Cymricised.

Vale of Glamorgan: Cymraeg a Saesneg

Take this modern Ordnance Survey map of the Vale. Welsh was banished here many centuries ago as in South Pembrokeshire yet yr hen iaith was resurgent in the 18th century. As a result, the place names returned to the old Welsh versions. In time, however, especially in the 20th century, the tide turned once again, and the Vale became overwhelmingly an English speaking part of Wales. But intriguingly the names on the map largely remain the Welsh ones.

Welshness is not just defined by the language spoken. Tenby is a very Welsh town, regardless of the language spoken on the streets by locals and visitors. At my mother’s funeral in 2018 I talked about the old saying that the dragon has two tongues. in other words, Wales isn’t solely defined by language. Our country has made enormous strides over the past 60 years to restore the status of our ancient language. Whether you recognise Tenby or Dinbych-y-pysgod, you have equal status as a Welsh person. Cymru am byth.

Gloucester: the must-visit motorway services

Gloucester M5 service

We drove to Wales the old way today, along the A40, before cutting down to the Severn Bridge on the M5. There was a bonus: discovering the wonderful Gloucester services.

Most motorway services are awful: overpriced identikit Burger King, Costa and Starbucks. Gloucester is different. A farm shop with local food and drink, beautifully presented.

We had brought a picnic with us so we bought some cakes and drinks to go with it. Had it been a fine day we’d have eaten outside the building, which is beautifully set into the landscape. Such a contrast with the usual ugly buildings at motorway services.

By a strange coincidence, today’s Guardian carried a feature about good places to stop for a meal away from the motorway. It featured Tebay M6 services. There’s a wonderful story behind it: John and Barbara Dunnings owned a hill farm in Cumbria that was cut in half when the M6 was opened. They saw an opportunity and opened a cafe serving home cooked, local food. It became a much loved M6 institution. Later they opened a similar venture on the M5 at Gloucester. I saw that the food and drink came from Gloucestershire and neighbouring Wales.

This felt so different from Leigh Delamere (westbound) or Stafford, my previous favourite services. Judging from the VW California parked with awning up, this is a destination in its own right. The ethos is right – a family run firm that thinks local is best, and global mass produced fast food is best avoided.

What better tribute than this family firm of motorway services featured in that Guardian article headlined ‘Skip the Services’!

The making of a railway: watching the birth of HS2

Cutting through the Chilterns: Looking towards High Wycombe from Loudwater tunnel: SWA Newton

At the end of the 19th century, a photographer called SWA Newton documented a unique event: the creation of a new mainline railway from Sheffield to London. The Great Central Railway tore through the medieval heart of Leicester and Nottingham, and as a student in 1980s Leicester I was fascinated to find Newton’s photos of familiar sights being built just over 80 years earlier. Sadly, almost all that magnificent line was closed in the 1960s.

The Great Central was the creation of Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of a high speed railway linking the north of England with France through a channel tunnel. Ironically, the politicians who pushed HS2 scrapped a link between HS2 and HS1 – the channel tunnel rail link – to save money. How desperately short sighted.

I thought of SWA Newton and the birth of the Great Central in 2010 when I learned that the new High Speed 2 (HS2) railway would pass through our village. As you’d expect, there are few supporters of the line here. That’s partly because of the disruption that the construction will cause (though for me that’s been minimal so far) but also because people in Buckinghamshire won’t get any benefit from the line. It will still be quicker for us to get to Birmingham via the Chiltern line than going to London to get a train on HS2.

The line will pass through our village in a 10 mile long tunnel. That will spare the Misbourne valley although part of me thinks it’s a shame that travellers won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of the southern Chilterns. Railways blend in to the landscape unlike airports or 12-lane motorways.

I’ll never be a 21st century SWA Newton, but I do want to witness and record the work being carried out on HS2 around our village. So over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been to see the two main sites: ventilation shafts for the Chiltern tunnel.

It’s official….
On Bottom House Farm Lane, between Chalfont St Giles and Amersham

To get to the Chalfont St Giles site, I cycled down a lane for the first time, even though it’s barely a mile from our front door. I wouldn’t like to drive down Bottom House Farm Lane in a big car (it’s very narrow and badly potholed) but it was wonderful on a mountain bike. In the photo above, you can see spoil from the works. I was captivated by the forgotten valley, with its handsome farm buildings and classic Chiltern rounded hills and woodland – and with now ubiquitous red kites circling overhead.

The site on a map
The route of HS2 (in tunnel), Misbourne valley
Ready for action, Bottom House Farm Lane

HS2 has published a lot of information about the project and its impacts on its website. See HS2 in Bucks and Oxon. Ironically, some of the places mentioned such as Calvert, Twyford, Finmere and Brackley were on the route of the Great Central Railway. I blogged about this irony in 2012 here.

The access road, Bottom House Farm Lane

The contractors are building an access road alongside Bottom House Farm lane to take the construction lorries to the site of the shaft. You can see that it’s like a dual carriageway alongside the narrow country lane, although it will be restored to nature after work is finished.

Bottom House Farm Lane sights

I had no idea that this tiny lane and valley were so picturesque. This is a few hundred metres from the main London to Amersham road.

The view from the London road
Warning: railway works ahead
HS2 travellers won’t see this: the route passes under Chalfont St Giles village centre here

As I said earlier, the HS2 route passes under the heart of our village, Chalfont St Giles. This is the Misbourne in the centre of the village; the tunnel passes under here.

The access road to the Chalfont St Peter tunnel site

This is the other major site near our village. The HS2 contractors have built an access road for construction traffic to the the Chalfont St Peter tunnel shaft.

Closer to London, HS2 is forcing the closure of Hillingdon Outdoor Activity Centre (HOAC). Our son Owen has just enjoyed a wonderful summer water sports course at HOAC, and previously camped at HOAC with Chalfont St Giles Scouts. Owen and Karen were distressed to see the destruction that HS2 is causing at HOAC. We hope HOAC will move to a new site, as seems to be the case. Meanwhile, this is what the HS2 viaduct in the area will look like.

Back to where I began. The remaining parts of the Great Central (and the Great Central and Great Western Joint line through Beaconsfield and High Wycombe) blend beautifully into the countryside. Admittedly, electric lines with their overhead wires aren’t quite so unobtrusive. But I recall my view of the West Coast Mainline in the fells of northern England last year, contrasting with the eyesore of the parallel M6. True, it was better looking in the days of steam, but I knew which I preferred.

The northern fells. Spot the West Coast mainline…

I’ll end as I began, with a couple of wonderful SWA Newton images from the birth of the older high speed rail line, the Great Central and associated joint line with the Great Western. Those construction workers – navvies as they were called in the past, recalling the men who built the canals – were photographed at Wilton Park, Beaconsfield.

I respect the protests of those who object to HS2. (Do read the comment below from Janey, who lives on Bottom House Farm Lane, about the impact the work is having on her family and other residents.) And the claims that this is Britain’s new railway are strained – it will do nothing for Wales. But I think it’s time that the country that invented railways moved beyond the Georgian and Victorian network that shaped and the constrained the nation. It’s almost 60 years since Japan introduced the Shinkansen bullet train, and 40 years since France began TGV services. Great Britain is catching up.