How a Bookshop Changed my Life
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.