On Monday, August 3rd, I visited:
(1) Foyle’s Bookstore on CharingCross Road;
(2) the Oxfam Charity bookstore in the Bloomsbury district;
(3)Bookmarks, a bookstore maintained by the Socialist Workers Party; (4) The London Review Bookstore in Bury Place off Bloomsbury Way
Back in the 80’s Foyle’s was fire-bombed by Muslim lunatics because it held copies of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”. My response was to wander all over London reading “The Satanic Verses” in the subways, in restaurants, on park benches and trains. For a brief period I could fancy myself a suicide reader in the name of freedom of the press. It also gave me a feeling of kinship with Foyle’s, that I would still like to feel. However it doesn’t appear to be the same kind of store that I knew then.
Foyle’s is internationally famous. This did not make it interesting from my point of view. Its’ layout is as unfriendly and as stereotyped as any giant Barnes and Noble, holding thousands of books, clerks running around doing your bidding, a coffee shop, sometimes a talk by some fashionable writer. It feels much more like a place that makes money, than a venue congenial to the expression and germination of new ideas, or any other image of romantic novel-stoked idealism to which I am prey. But one is at a lose to imagine any fruitful interaction between writers, students, the personnel, the owner and the kinds of books one is likely to find there. Visiting Foyle’s is not all that different from sitting down at a computer, perhaps going into a café with one’s lap-top and ordering books from Amazon On-Line.
By contrast, the Oxfam used bookstore was very personal, if not particularly cultural. All of its books are donated; I browsed the popular science section and discovered a few interesting items. Within a few days the exchange rate between the pound and the dollar had once more become awful; I was therefore not in the market for buying books in London, only for inspecting its bookstores!
Close by, Bookmarks turned out to be a truly valuable bookstore. Though it’s the official bookstore of the Socialist Workers Party, the books on its shelves cover a very wide range of left-wing political opinion. There were in fact several books I would have liked to buy. I took down the names and titles to seek or request them at the town’s libraries, or purchase them through Amazon. I realize that when writers prove to be as indifferent to the survival of the bookstore as the general public, the world is really going to hell. But most of us are too poor to buy books, even our own. And the tiny apartments we can afford! Where am I going to put them! (Don’t I sound just like Medvedenko,the miserly schoolmaster in the Sea Gull!)
My last visit for the day was to the London Review store in Bury Place, a charming little Bloomsbury street nor far from the British Museum. More genteel, certainly, that the Oxfam store, or Bookmarks, yet more friendly by far than Foyle’s, it also caters to a “liberal” audience (The Nation would call it “progressive”) with a special emphasis on environmentalism: climate change, ecology, conservation . I spend about 20 minutes reading in one of the manuals of Manasoba Fukuaka, the great Japanese radical agriculturalist, a book I will certainly read when I return to the States. Down in the basement I browsed the theatre and poetry sections. Seated in a soporificating easy chair (comfort in reading competing fiercely with the impulse to fall asleep) my imagination revelled in a ‘lavishly illustrated’ history of the Ballet Russes. Although none of the salesclerks appeared to mind my being there, the sense that I was using a bookstore like a library caused me to return it to the shelf after 15 minutes or so.
My first stop on Tuesday morning was at the "Village Bookstore" in North Dulwich. Despite the shared name, North Dulwich is not at all like East Dulwich. East Dulwich’s residents come in all shapes and sizes, including a sizable immigrant population. North Dulwich is wealthy, crusty, snobbish. It is proud of showing its age. There is little in the way of “development” (Translation: shopping malls, commerce, parking lots). The buildings and walls probably date back 2 centuries. The Village Bookstore is about 3 blocks from the train station. On the way one encounters several institutions related to the Church of England, (spelt out in large bold lettering) such as the St Barnabas church and the North Dulwich Society, which hosts flower shows to support the activities of the church. Consulting the Wikipedia one learns that:
A very nice bookstore, unremarkable in every way. Current best sellers are on the tables or on shelves against the walls. One finds the usual silly and expensive literary trivia and gewgaws clustered around the cash register. The poetry, literature and drama divisions are on the second floor. The Village Bookstore sells a charming hemp tote bag for £2, which I purchased on the way out.
The sociology of Peckham Rye is that of another world altogether from North Dulwich, and distinctly different as well from East Dulwich. If East Dulwich is a mix of just about everyone, rich, poor, immigrant, Celt, Norman and Saxon, the concentration in Peckham Rye is skewed towards the very poor, the struggling, and the immigrant. Walking the streets one runs up against the evidences of the Islamic oppression of women everywhere: veils, chadors, “floor to ceiling” body-covers, yet also peoples from all backgrounds, skin colourings, ethnicities,corners of the globe: an ambience of excitement, humanity, struggle and despair, the ‘melting pot’ of the European Union.
Smells of curry, fish and chips, falafel coming from half a dozen restaurants permeate the darkened arcades contiguous to the exits from the train station. A continuous din is provided by Middle Eastern pop music. I asked a woman at a stand-up table outside one of the restaurants if she knew the way to Bellenden Road, where another London Review Bookstore is located. She was Irish, late middle-aged, and, to judge from the incoherence of her instructions, verging on senility. On the table in front of her was a coffee in an insulated paper cup. When she’d absorbed my request she mumbled a few incomprehensible words then started to walk me to the exit.
"Won't your coffee get cold?" I asked.
"Don't worry about that. It's too hot already." However, after a few steps she turned around and said:"Hey, I don't want them to take it away!” Then she turned back: "It doesn't matter. No, come on." And she walked me to the exit, through which I could make out a bustling commercial avenue. Despite a certain amount of linguistic confusion she gave me excellent directions to the bookstore.
Each of the bookstores in the "London Review" chain are somewhat different. I really liked this one. A vivacious young woman presided at the cash register; she greeted me from the door and invited me to step into the back rooms. This Review bookstore carries quite a number of off-beat publications. The slant is leftist and feminist, (prurient to puritan, poetic to political).The Review Bookstore in Peckham Rye is even smaller than the Village Bookstore, yet much more alive, mercifully free from the dark stain of gentility.
Bookstores are not good examples of perfect mixing; they are not like a soup which can be sampled by dipping a spoon anywhere and tasting what one finds. An hour or more would have been needed dig through the shelves of the Review bookstore in Peckham Rye, to all the books I was bound to find interesting.In fact, I may well have had the hour, but I’m always labouring under the impression that I don’t. I therefore put off the task I could have performed immediately, to some future date which may never occur.Ah me! I may have ruined my life that way; I'm too busy enjoying existence right now to investigate the subject.
I returned to Peckham Rye a few days later to buy two pairs of shoes- neither of the two pairs I’d brought with me from the States were up to the job – and a shtink-musique protection kit – a portable SONY radio/tape-recorder to accompany me in all restaurants and coffee shops along my 100-day trajectory.
Leaving Peckham Rye I went into London proper,getting off at the London Bridge station two stops away on the Southeastern rail line. After lunch in the crypt of the church of St. Martin’s in the Fields, I went to Leicester Square to inspect “Quinto's”. This is a second hand bookstore in the basement of an antiquarian shops for collectors, one of many that thrive in this district.
Quinto's stock fills out a bsement of vast proportions. Shelves stocked with thousands of used books fill every utilizable cubic inch of space. The layout is primitive to say the least: even chairs have been deemed a frivolous luxury to be dispensed with. After being seduced and spoiled by the honeyed 5-star hotel comfort of places like Foyle's, The Village Bookstore and the London Review on Bury Place, Quinto's was like a bucket of cold water in my pampered face. But there was true relief in the flip side of this message, to wit: "We couldn't care less about teasing your money out of your wallet"! Once again, the hours which I probably had but imagined I didn’t, and the money which I was saving for buying books in France unavailable in the US, prevented me from doing more than make a cursory browse through its offerings.
Of course theatre of a higher calibre was also being promoted in London this August. A week later I attended an adaptation of Euripedes' Helen, at the restored Globe Theatre. This will be described further along. In the West End one could attend a “Hamlet” production, starring Jude Law, at the Wyndham Theatre on Charing Cross Road.
Jude Law had just produced his 4th child out of wedlock; its mother, Samantha, is married to an Other. When the news was announced Law’s shocked response was: "I thought she was on the Pill!" He seems to be handling it well enough, though he received his full share of ribbing from the tabloids.
As I passed the Wyndham I debated the costs, measured in nerve, inconvenience and potential injury, of attending his Hamlet, just so that I could yell out all sorts of remarks at appropriate moments before being summarily ejected. For example:
Polonius: …” or, not to crack the wind of a phrase, you'll tender me a fool!”
Lisker, from audience: "And we know whose fool it is!"
Hamlet: “Pregnant with false fire!”
Lisker: "Pregnant with Jude's fire!" !”
Ghost: “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be a couch for lust and damned incest!”
Lisker:" Once again the ghost arrives too late!"
Ophelia: "They say the owl was a baker's daughter. daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not
what we may be."
Lisker: “It wasn’t the baker this time!"
Hamlet: “Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty..” !”
Lisker: "Take it easy, Shakes: tread lightly on our friend, Jude!"
Of course I would be bounced right after my comment on Polonius's speech, but it might be worth it. However,although such interruptions would be very funny in a movie or play,I've got nothing against Jude Law. I contented myself by passing by the crowds in front of the Wyndham Theatre with an expression bemused.
The European Bookstore is located at 1 Warwick Street, just off Regent's Street in Piccadilly Circle. The entire first floor is filled with hundreds of books from French publishers. Living in London one never needs to go to France for books in French, except that the ones in the European Bookstore are priced very far above their cost over there. Taking a round-trip Eurostar and returning with 50 books would more that save the cost of buying the same books at the European Bookstore.
Plus all the wine, bread and cheese. And French cuisine. And everything else that makes for the uniqueness of Paris. The shelves on the second floor hold books in Spanish, Portuguese and German. Before leaving to return to the London Review bookstore for what I thought would be a party, I browsed through a book in Spanish about the refugees in France, during the 30’s and 40’s, from the Spanish Civil War.
After an exhausting walk through the most densely pedestrian treaded area of downtown London during the evening rush hour, I arrived at the entrance to the London Review bookstore on Bury Place, only to learn that the party was scheduled for the next night. And so, back to East Dulwich, a house full of adolescent madness, and eventually bed.
Dear Lisa: I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed our visit on Monday, August 10th, to the Tate Modern Gallery’s Futurism exhibition, followed by dinner at your house. It was around 8, I think, when I left you and returned to the house in East Dulwich. Compared to the state to which it was reduced the previous week, the kitchen, and corridors were clean and relatively quiet.
Coming back there on Tuesday evening I met one of the sisters, Tess, in a local grocery store run by Pakistanis. She said that a barbeque party would be starting soon at the house, so I shouldn’t bother get any food. When I arrived I found upwards of 20 youngsters in the kitchen and the yard out at the back. There was also one adult, a man called Jean-Mark whom Megan had run into somewhere and invited to the party. Jean-Mark was dressed in a bathing suit and kept up a wild rant combined with a narrative of stories about his life that either sounded false or had to be lies. I, and the others, concluded that he was crazy (clinically) and perhaps autistic. He didn’t appear to be violent so finally the kids just ignored him.
By 10 PM the number of participants, directly or indirectly invited, or simply coming in off the streets, had increased until there were at least 50 persons walking in and out of the rooms on the 4 floors (3 floors plus an attic extension). The amplifier broadcasting the rock music had been jacked up to a delirious pitch, and the alcohol flowed freely. Sam, age 15, agreed to turn down the volume and to not have any music playing in the living-room, which was adjacent to the guest room in which I was staying. At around 11 I turned in.
Needless to say, the volume of the music quickly returned to its former ear-splitting volume. I didn’t want to appear to be a spoil-sport and ask them to lower it, but it got to be so bad that the neighbours started calling the police to complain. Kids were running and tramping up and down the staircase. The party continued until 3 AM. I don’t know if the police showed up, or if it died away on its own initiative, having somehow managed to fall asleep by then.
When I left the following morning I discovered that the door had been slammed open and shut so many times that the lock had become stuck. Once in London I made a call to Chick, who was staying somewhere on the coast. This was not the first, nor the last: that night’s events had been little more than a replay of what has been going on ever since he and his wife left me with the keys and went away to find peace.
Chick said that I shouldn't have waited until the next day to call, but should have gotten onto the phone as soon as the situation started to get out of control. He’d called Sam and told him how to fix the lock. He also let the kids think that he might be cutting his vacation short and coming back that night. Instead of doing that he contacted his brother, Richard, and asked him to come over and lay down the law. The call to Sam had made its effect, and the building was quiet when I returned around 8. I thanked Tess and Megan for doing an excellent job of cleaning the kitchen and the rest of the house. After making dinner (a microwaved package of (italics and quotes all ironic) ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’, from Tesco’s) I walked up the staircase to the attic floor to use the computer. This sits in an alcove next to Sam's room.
Around 10 PM I heard a commotion on the steps. It was Sam leading a troupe of his friends, their friends, and others who may or may not have been friends. At least 40 juveniles were in the pack, tramping into his room like Ghurkhas on the Northwest Frontier! Sam as usual promised to make no noise, and begged me not to call his father again. We were discussing the possible options when, like a genie drawn from a bottle, Richard, Chick's brother-in-law, showed up.
It would not surprise me to learn that Richard makes his living as a pub bouncer. No nonsense about him! Muscular, crew-cut, an effective orator, (more effective in that his rhetoric lacked a certain polish) , someone used to having his words obeyed, he threw open the door of Sam’s room and shouted:
"All of you get out of there! I'm tired of coming around every night and doing the same thing! You know what Chick said: no more than 5 visitors! Go on! No excuses! Get going!"
He was absolutely magnificent! He was Siegfried besting Fafner, Samson against the Philistines, the mysterious knight in Ivanhoe who arrives at the tournament when all seems lost. My puny intellectual self, always making excuses for avoiding involvement with mass misconduct, could only gape with endless admiration as the adolescents poured out of Sam’s room, raced down the steps and exited by the front doors!
There was no time to thank Richard; he'd run after them to make sure that every last one of them was gone.
After that it was deathly quiet. Only Megan, Tess and myself were in the building. I went to bed at 11 and slept right through without a break until 7 AM the next morning.
I’ve definitely got a talent for striking up conversations and acquaintances in this kind of crowd; at least before they’ve heard my violin playing. Over the next two hours, along with guzzling 3 bottles of Innis and Gunn beer (love at first gulp!) I spoke with painters, writers, gallery owners, and even a representative of the London Review of Books.
My initial conversation was with a casually dressed elderly individual. He certainly looked like an interesting person to talk to. I learned from him that he’d travelled all over the world and done all sorts of things. The problem was that his speech was almost totally incoherent, a mix of repetition and mumbling. I endured it as long as I could, then, without malice, walked away to search for more constructive engagements.
Then I started talking to a real estate agent, someone not much interested in writers or writing. We found that we could talk politics a bit (principally Bush denigrations) always a dependable (if not always safe) fall-back strategy.
Close to the front door stood a table, its recumbent books being browsed by a short woman , light-weight, cute and middle-aged. She revealed that she wrote novels; yet this was only her secondary vocation. Her true passion was for genealogy. She confidently informed me that she had traced back her entire family tree to well before the Norman Conquest. She would have happily reeled off the “begats” had I not felt the sudden need to retrieve another bottle of Innis and Gunn.
Thus fortified I struck up the first real conversation with a truly interesting person: Tony Bradshaw. Bradshaw manages the “Bloomsbury Workshop” a gallery specializing in works of art produced by Bloomsbury's artists from the present back to its hey-day at the turn of the 20th century.
The gallery’s homepage explains that it holds:” a significant stock of paintings and drawings by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Dora Carrington... in addition, the Bloomsbury Workshop holds decorative items, lithographs and woodcuts by the Bloomsbury artists...” Look at: Gallery .
Mr. Bradshaw told me about many of the past residences artists and writers in Bloomsbury that I might want to visit. Some of them have plaques on their brick facades indicating as much, others do not. He didn’t know off-hand where Bertrand Russell had lived, with or without one or more of the Eliots (I do, having read their biographies), but expressed admiration for Ottoline Morrell for taking Russell on as a lover: “His bad breath was notorious”. You learn something new every day.
A conversation with painter Albany Wiseman and his wife led to an invitation to visit them in their gallery (visible through a back window of the bookstore) the next day. This visit is described in the next section.
Finally there was the encounter with the Advertising Editor of the London Review of Books. Although he didn’t think he could do much for me (what else is new?) he took what I could see was a genuine interest in my Ferment Magazine venture, a self-publishing experiment of the cyber-epoch, which carries no advertising, earns just about no income, but is successful in the sense that it receives 35,000 hits a month.
Construction near the London Bridge Tube Station.
Women in Black against Militarism and War, at the Edith Clavell monument on St Martin's Lane
Tindy managed to escape and return to Rwanda. A refugee agency took charge of him. In 2003 he was shipped to England on a rescue transport. Upon arrival in London he was shuttled between the agencies that deal with young, undocumented refugees and essentially abandoned. For awhile he ended up sleeping in Trafalgar Square.
Fortunately there was a “fairy godmother” lurking just around the corner. At a party held to benefit adolescent refugees he was discovered by the Duchesse d'Antan. She and her Croatian husband (the most recent in a succession of 5) invited him to stay with them on their farm in Scotland, on the Cowal Peninsula near Ardentinny. Tindy is very bright, and he quickly became sufficiently proficient in English to enroll at Exeter University. A few years later his celebrity foster parents officially adopted him, not without the inevitable bureaucratic hassles with the Home Office, which is just as bad as our own INS. (Probably worse: the United States periodically needs influxes of immigrants from time to time. Ever since 1066 Britain has been wary of them. )
The right-wing racist press has had a field day with the situation. The Duchesse is very famous. She is also very Scotch-English, and it was inevitable that when she adopted a boy from Rwanda, there was bound to be hostility. Tindy was not dilatory in pouring petrol on the flames. In his first year at Exeter Tindy wrote an article for a leftist student publication. His criticisms, levelled at the Home Office, the treatment of refugees, the political apathy of students and faculty at Exeter U, and his exposure of racist attitudes in South Devon, were relatively mild, but they aroused right-wing sensibilities. The chauvinists and jingoists were outraged because he dared express any opinions short of unconditional gratitude. Up went the hackles of the Daily Mail, which printed a series of columns attacking him and the Duchesse.
In 2007, in the context of one of my perennial quests for the Duchesse (See Duchesse and the final section of Exeter) I was staying at the Backpackers hostel in Exeter for a few days, and came across Tindy’s article. I could see that he was highly intelligent and committed, but that he was having great difficulty in writing English. After producing Ferment for almost 30 years, the instinctive reaction to edit flawed prose has become inbred in me, and I started proofing and revising the article until all of its pages were covered with corrections. When I got back to the States I made a photocopy and sent it to him.
Thus began a 3 year collaboration, mentoring Tindy through Exeter and Cambridge, motivated by a devotion to the Duchesse d'Antan (whom I've yet to meet) , respect for Tindy's abilities, and the enjoyment I received from combining editorial work with mentoring. My lifelong and somewhat bitter campaign to define myself as a writer rather than as a professor - my goal has ever been, not to overthrow the Academy, but to render it obsolete - has had the considerable downside that the obvious satisfaction that I get from teaching and mentoring has been largely unfulfilled.
To graduate from Exeter University Tindy had to write a thesis. The topic was something he knows well, the legality, psuedo-legality and illegality of the treatment of undocumented young refugees from Third World countries. Tindy did all the work of researching and writing the thesis; I did the editing. My work was a major contribution towards satisfying the requirements for his degree. All of the ideas in his thesis are his own, and I’d been very scrupulous in maintaining this distinction.
It was Tindy himself who suggested that he wanted to pay me something. I let him know that it had to be a token sum. There could be no misunderstanding that might suggest that he’d paid me to do his work for him.
We agreed on a fee of 120 pounds. It was in order to collect this sum that I came to Paddington Station to wait for his arrival on the 18:21 train from Exeter. We touched bases in the station’s WH Smith bookstore in Paddington and talked for almost an hour.
Tindy’s appearance, both physical and psychological, was terrific. This is a young man who, having experienced the total hell of central Africa, the death or disappearance of all of his immediate family and the alienation of living in an unfamiliar country, is in strapping health, with a strong enthusiasm for life, good energy and a college degree. The Duchesse dotes upon him in her very mad and very wize fashion, but it’s good for him and has not diminished his drive, nor his determination to accomplish all that he can. Next year he will be going to Asia as a volunteer in the VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas) program. Now he is enrolled at London University working towards his MA.
I hope to continue to collaborate with him. Who knows: he may even find time to arrange a meeting with the long besought Duchesse! That would be very nice.
The uproar in South Devon has not ceased since Tindy’s departure from Exeter: put the two words “Tindyebwa” and “Devon” in a Goggle search engine.