• Marc Hamer

In praise of Independent bookshops

This was written before the ABA picked my subsequent book, Seed to Dust also as an Indy Pick. I'm posting it here today because I just came across it while looking for something.

It is a 'thank you letter' to all independent bookshops.

In October 2019 my book ‘How to Catch a Mole’ was published in North America, the American Booksellers Association picked it as one of the top 20 books of the season for independent bookshops, an ‘Indy Pick’. I was asked to write a response to this and at short notice I wrote a little note of thanks and a few words about how important bookshops and especially independent bookshops had been to me. But I didn’t tell the whole story of just how important they were.

As a child we moved around a lot, travelling from town to town. We were often very poor as my parents looked for work. My father working on the railway, a chauffer, factory worker, Santa in a department store, eventually renting a guest house in Blackpool for a few years then became a pub landlord. My mother usually finding work as a cook wherever we went. As a child this meant moving from school to school, making friends, losing them and eventually becoming very isolated. The day came when I thought, ‘there is no point making friends in this new school, we will be off again soon’ and so I didn’t bother, and we did move on. Education and relationships were continually broken. Poverty is hard on children in so many ways, not just because of the poor chances in life and lousy education. I would take time off school from time to time when it suited my father because he needed work doing in the cellar of the pub or a 56lb sack of potatoes needed peeling in the guest house. After school was over it was more of the same labour and constant worry and punishment for homework left undone.

I came from a house with very few books. A couple of old paperbacks about cowboys that were my father’s. Other books I had been given as Christmas presents four or five paperbacks of horror stories, a hardback collection of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, a copy of ‘Heidi’ which I had secreted away – stolen from a caravan in Wales we had stayed in for a week. This handful of books I would read over and over, my family joked that I was always reading instead of out playing football with the other boys. “He will read the back off a cereal packet that one” I remember my father saying. This made me an oddball. Very early in life I was banned from one school library because I had library fines that my father refused to pay. I never bothered joining another one because I was embarrassed, I didn’t know how a library worked. I was horribly shy.

At 15 I left school and began working as an apprentice in a steel works in Wigan, Lancashire. I was there for about a year before my mother died and I was made homeless and went wandering. After a couple of years of living rough I found a home and a job on the railway and grassroots bookshop in Manchester. I was 18 and bought the first book I had ever bought, it was ‘down and out in London and Paris’ by George Orwell, chosen because I had been a ‘down-and-out’. That was followed, of course, by ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

In that bookshop I discovered that I was not alone in the world, I found a family, a tribe. I fell in love with Gudrun Brangwen in D.H. Lawrences ‘Women in Love’ and then with Lawrence himself having discovered that he was the son of an illiterate miner. I started to write for those authors because they had written for me. I met Winston Smith in ‘1984’ and Apeneck Sweeney in T.S. Eliots ‘Sweeney Among The Nightingales’ and through them and their creators I learned that there were men unlike any other men I had met in my life, men with passions other than football and beer. Men who did not tell me what to do or how to behave. Men who did not do what they were told. Men who said ‘Fuck the Authorities’. Lusty brave men like Jean Genet and wanderers like Thoreau, angry Bukowski and grumpy Ted Hughes and Larkin and all the demented poets Thomas, and I fell in love with Plath of course and crazy Stevie Smith. I came home to them and they to me and the more I read the more I wrote. I found people who showed me how to be a man, they showed me there were different ways of being a man.

Others taught me how to think and what to think about, when school had just fitted me to go down the mine or work in the steelworks. Sartre and Nietsche, Seneca, Kropotkin and Christmas Humphreys and my beloved George Orwell all gave me big questions, questions I could have fun with, that asked me what I wanted to do with my life.

I wander into bookshops now, wherever I go, travelling around the country to speak at book fairs, festivals and little independent bookshops just like the one I used to spend so much time in as a hungry young man, and there on the shelves by my heroes and teachers and friends, there is my own little book, ‘How to Catch a Mole’, published by Harvil Secker / Vintage, Orwell’s publisher and I am so very very grateful to those publishers and those dedicated people who curate and run those little bookshops.


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Being called a ‘Nature Writer’.

My last book, Seed to Dust has been long listed for the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing as How to Catch a Mole was before it. I seem to have been firmly planted in the Nature Writing camp. This is not a place I expected to be. Like Wainwright himself I am a wanderer but I never set out to be a nature writer, I love to be in nature, I particularly love to be in a garden surrounded by the life it creates and attracts, but I’m not a naturalist, not a plantsman or an ornithologist or any of the experts who write nature books. I am a self-taught gardener as was Vita Sackville West whose writing inspired my last book. I am by nature a meditator and the garden is often my subject, my mandala if you like. As I look after it, it teaches me about myself and as I am just like you, as we are all connected, it teaches me something about you and our lives together.

My real interest as a human being living this short and often hard life is exploring how to live, what we are, why we are here and what we are supposed to do while we are here, I have spent decades thinking about how we can be happy in a world that is full of cruelty and suffering. Much of it has been done while wandering or working in nature because it has much to teach us and working as a gardener is an ethical and honest way of earning a living that was respectful of the earth. My books are set in gardens because that is where I do my thinking and often my writing.

I have found that gardeners are very often the kind of people who ask such deep questions, it is after all a contemplative occupation, and my work is on the whole bought by gardeners and for gardeners, and it appears they are loved. With this next book I want to try to expand the audience a little, reach some people outside of the gardening/nature writing world who might enjoy what I have to say. It hasn’t started well, I’m writing about a garden again so I am not doing myself any favours, but I can't help myself, the garden is such a great metaphor not only for the world we live in but for what goes on in our own lives and I know it so well.

I don’t want to tell you in my writing how wonderful and beautiful nature is, I want to remind you that you are part of nature and so you are wonderful and beautiful. Because as you deal with many of the same hardships that the animals and the insects and the flowers deal with, it is easy to forget that you are beautiful too.

Maybe I’ll try to break out of this little niche I find myself in by not using a subtitle. I’m not a fan of subtitles really, I think they limit the readership. Or maybe I will argue with my publishers (the truly wonderful Harvill Secker/Vintage) that Tales of Spring Rain should have a more open ended subtitle something like:

Tales of Spring Rain

a story about being beautiful or

a story about change or

a story about growth?


Progress report

Well, to the book itself. I am half way through and I have gone away to a town in France for a few months where all of my books have been written, or finished at least. I have family here and access to a room where I can write intensively without distractions, a quiet meditative space where I can crack on. I am surrounded by thousands of swifts that nest in the roof and church bells at the end of the road that call out every quarter. I am deeply lucky to have this little space.

Tales of Spring Rain is at a sensitive point. I am right in the middle, a place where I am always tempted to make something happen, add some conflict that twists the story in a new direction or gives the hero a new challenge which he must overcome, it is what people do in fiction and so I am tempted to do it too, it would be easy to make something up but I want to do something harder, I want to write a story that is true, and honest, that does not slot neatly into the accepted structure of western novels and yet remains a story that is engaging and enlightening and beautiful, I don’t want conflict, I want to create peace and harmony. Above all I want it to be a beautiful thing in itself. If you ever read Japanese short stories you might know what I am talking about.

Somebody once said that a reader often does not remember what happened in a story, more often they remember how it made them feel, and I want to make my reader feel beautiful. I think this is my main aim as a writer.

There is with any piece of writing a struggle, life is not lived in words and so the writers job is to translate the rich multilayered quality of life with all of the relevant ideas and opinions, scents and tastes, loves and all of its nuances and bits of ‘meh’ into a linear structure that is readable and makes sense and is enjoyable to read in that it creates enjoyable feelings; excitement or love or joy or calmness, or fear. So the words are sometimes wrestled out, battling with and wrenching the story, beating it into a shape that it keeps on springing out of. A couple of hours can easily go by following a thread and furiously writing away at a strand that, on standing back to read it, changes the direction of everything and suddenly you realise that you are writing a completely new story and it has to be somehow incorporated or deleted, or even worse the new strand tells it better than what you wrote before and you have to junk everything up to page 200. It happens. It has happened. The book is better for it and tells the intended story in a clearer way.

There is an old zen story. Condensed into a song that is known by all old hippies like me. A few of us know what it means. This song distills the essence of how the writing is going at the moment, the key line of the song is this: ‘first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain then there is'. Already some of you of a certain age (i.e. Hippies) have the tune and some of you (i.e. Buddhists) know about the idea - at first we see the solidity of things, we live here firmly in what we think of as the ‘real world’ then some of us will see that there is no real world, no substance, that everything is just a matter of perception. Then we take another step and begin to feel comfortable living in a world that is illusory and treat it as if it were solid, walking on the firm earth with our head in the clouds. As far as the book is concerned I knew it from front to back, it was solid and clear and I just had to write it, but as I wrote I began to lose sight of it, it became something more evanescent, ungraspable, vague and illusory and I felt that I had lost my way. It was a struggle and that’s why I haven’t been blogging for a while, I have been trying to hold a cloud, to smooth it and roll it into a solid ball as if it were a dorodango. The only thing to do in that situation as a wanderer is to accept being lost, and to keep going until the truth reveals itself. I’ve just reached that third stage. Accepting feeling lost, keeping going, and the solid dorodango suddenly appears and begins to shine. But like a dorodango it is still very fragile and I can still ruin it and would have to start again.

(If you don't know what a dorodango it, please google it, it is a wonderful thing!)

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Kate and I talk constantly about our writing. We have done it ever since we met over 30 years ago. We don’t always agree but we are the first reader of each other's work and regularly flag up points for each other; passages where the writer thought they had explained something but hadn’t or where things were unclear, unravelling plot points or just letting off steam about frustrations with our work. Last night Kate and I were eating a takeaway, and were chatting about general stuff that had happened recently and our ongoing project ‘Ten Years of Fun'. Out of this conversation came the spark of an idea based on some photographs we had been taking. At first I was hesitant - thinking it was a bit radical, possibly dangerous so I asked her what she thought of it, I’m thinking 'probably not, it’s a bit too weird' and she says: ‘Brilliant! You have cracked it!’ The more I thought about it the more I realised that perhaps I had found the perfect ending to not only this book, but to the whole series of books. The risky writing that you do for your own amusement is so often your best work, and this morning I sat at my desk and roughed out the last chapter. I think it is good. Sometimes I will try something that I have got very excited about and my beloved idea just doesn’t work but this time I really think it is there.

The ending relates to everything that went before, reframes and summarises in a way and gives me an angle that I can use if I get stuck anywhere in the middle. I have been a bit stuck about how to handle certain sections which needed to be written but my rough notes were not giving me the spark that I wanted, the ending now can feed back and give me that spark. Perfect! Now all I have to do is write the bits to keep me excited from the beginning to the end.

Literary non-fiction demands hard choices be made, it takes a massive amount of creativity to find your path through the billions of random events and impressions that make up even a single day and depending on your style, can be just as risky as fiction. Often personally more so.

This is the way it goes when I write, some writers are planners and work everything out exactly. By nature I am an essayist, I explore and don’t always know where it’s going to take me, for a writer that can be dangerous, we could spend months, years even on something that cannot be completed, it happens all the time, writers get frozen into years of inaction having written themselves into a corner they can’t get out of, the book gets abandoned. For me writing is like a scientific experiment, I start with an idea of what I want to explore, and maybe even a prediction about what I will find, but I am always aware that something surprising may turn up. I am exploring an unmapped island only seen from a distance. I could get there and there’s nothing, leave on the next boat and look for another island to explore. I could get there and fall down a sinkhole and remain there until I rot. I could get there, and explore it for years, write a marvellous piece on it and then get told by the first person I show it to, that they know it well, in fact they know it so well they have a holiday home there where they grew up as a kid and have a book coming out on it next June complete with photos and maps. It’s a risky business.

My writing process is simple. I set out to write chapters that are in themselves short stories, each telling a story with a beginning a middle and an end. I want these chapters to be as beautiful as possible, I want to be seductive, or dark, or playful. I want to enjoy each and every word. These short essays link into the next one and that links into the next one and they all loop right back around to each other and to the beginning and the ending so that the whole collection of chapters have a beginning a middle and an ending. That’s a book!

When I have discovered the ending, the natural conclusion to what I have been writing I feel an enormous sense of relief. The story needs an ending, I could do it without one but it would be like an inconclusive experiment that showed only that the question found no answer. Writing, like any art, is a practice of problem solving. A painter sets out to make a work and his journey is about how to resolve this colour with that one to create harmony or vibrancy or drama, how does this line balance this with that shadow? For a writer it is no different. The ending creates a harmony with everything that has gone before.

If a piece of writing tells no story it is a manual. Lots of nature writing is like this, how to identify this bird or plant, how to nurture this species. Nature writers often don’t like my work because they think they are getting a book like this but they are not, they are getting a story about human beings with all their strengths and frailties living in nature and coping with it. So an ending and a narrative is vital. It doesn’t have to resolve everything - I quite like Japanese storytelling where endings are often easy transitions into new or continuing stories, in the way that a Haiku, a piece finished in itself, can be added to to create a Tanka which can then reframe the whole poem. But this book, 'Tales of Spring Rain', this has a clear ending which completes the book and completes a cycle of books and I am a very happy writer.

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