There are some people on your roof

They are workmen, and they’re doing the gutters on my shop; they’ve been busy up there for three days. Customers, noticing the boots treading above their heads, tell me that it’s busy up there. There are hammers, drills, voices calling out, ‘Where’s the end of  that one going?’

Crashes. Things dropping. More footsteps, faster this time, criss crossing above me, mapping out a hard day’s work. My customers look up, then down. Some lean backwards, allowing for stiff necks, and screw up their eyes to help them see through the roof.

‘Something going on up there, I reckon.’

‘You got pigeons up there?’

‘I used to do roof work.’

‘I see their ladder out there. It’s in the wrong place. They ort to go up over the tanks. Be safer.’

‘My word, what a noise. Do you have anything by Di Morrissey?’

I fiddle about and tidy the shelves. A drill shatters a customer conversation about Freud (that has been going on for some time).

‘God. What was that?’ (Freud probably).

A man told me about his successful teaching career (nobody can teach properly anymore etc) until a series of precise deafening blows silenced him with a different kind of success. He left abruptly, refusing to buy his book…which lay on the counter looking up at the dust shifting left and right under the hammer blows.

I read a bit more of The Lady and the Peacock and I can’t hear anything around me because I’m in Burma.

A man in History, jerks around at the drill. He says, ‘That’s not right.’

A young man wearing a backpack and earphones can’t hear anything either. He is serene underneath a crash of guttering. He is reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A young mother (with twin babies and a toddler) sways over the infant story books. She is also oblivious. This kind of chaos is her every day. She smiles. She’s reading a Mem Fox. The toddler leans against her. Her pram babies bubble and breath.

The drill screams.

The man in history leaves.

The toddler yawns and leans tightly against the smiling mother, and the babies in the pram joggle about, kicking against the sides of comfort.

Image from “The Sistine Madonna” by Raphael, c.1513

No Go, the Bogeyman

How do people select a book? Well, I know it’s intensely private. Books are sharp. Readers look at them from every angle, examining especially carefully the blade.

Books, like any tool, fulfil a purpose if they are good enough. They can remove (with one sweep) a lifetime of tiring and inaccurate responsibilities. And, they can move inwards to the core of beliefs, at best an uncomfortable and confronting experience. For instance, I read Ethan Frome, and realized that I was normal. Only a blade can do this.

Readers come to the shop and pause over books for long periods of time. There is always this pause. Then they decide and carry the book to the counter.

I am respectful no matter what the book is.

I once chose a book called No Go, the Bogeyman (after a pause). I haven’t read it yet. It’s a history of terror by Marina Warner. The kind of terror that comes softly and sits with you at night. I don’t know why I bought it, but I treasure it.

Painting by Sasha Beliaev

The thing about a massive library is that

People think you don’t know what’s in it. You do.

People think you have read it all. You haven’t.

People think you are trying to read it all. You aren’t.

People think it’s up for borrows. It isn’t.

People think it’s in alphabetical order. As if.

Those of us who collect are indulging in something without end, although we don’t start out that way. We soon learn (that Terry Pratchett is right, and ) to accept that our libraries will eventually control us, and that our collections live way beyond any trivial hope for order we may nurse.

Libraries sprout in any direction they want, and this is because our capacity to be nourished by literature is vigorous and unpredictable. You can be hauled anywhere. It is ok to go from a biography of Leonardo De Vinci to a history of Myanmar and from there to Moominvalley and then back to clocks.  

Margaret Atwood said, A reader can never tell if it’s a real thimble or an imaginary thimble, because by the time you’re reading it, they’re the same. It’s a thimble. It’s in the book.

Oh no….

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains the the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary Oliver


Painting by James Crandall

Four people

This morning four people jumped out of a car parked directly in front of my shop. One had gloves attached to his belt and they twirled about his waist. They were all hungry. They fairly leapt from their car, bouncing and leaping toward the bakery.

Then they came back to eat on the pavement. They looked briefly into my window. One man said, ‘I’ve bloody read that one. God, it was good.’

Another man answered, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in my life.’

The other man, still eating, looked at him and said, ‘Try it.’

Painting by James Crandall

Another thing I used to read and read. And read.

It was Mrs Pepperpot. I thought she was real, and luckily she was real, so at least I didn’t get that wrong. Mrs Pepperpot always shrank to the size of a pepper pot at the worst times. What was a pepper pot? But then she saved the day. She had her hair in a bun with bits sticking out. I think she had an apron, and she took no nonsense.

She could talk to animals. Once she bought macaroni. What was macaroni? She heard the singing midges. What were midges? She went to a bazaar! There was Mr Big Toe, and bilberries. Mrs Pepperpot was written by Alf Proysen who was Norwegian; Norway, land of cabins on fjords, ogres with single dinner plate size eyes and bare feet like boats with toenails. Snow. Deep cold shivering water that spoke.

Mrs Pepperpot was stronger than weather. She was Queen of the crows. She was possibly a witch.

My copies are blue puffin paperbacks, soft, silky and trustworthy with use, like small coffers containing bright stamps of your childhood nights. Still have them.

The lady

The book was In My Father’s House by Gabrielle Carey.

The lady, who had been browsing in my shop for a little while, picked it up and stared at it and then placed it on the seat of her walker. She stood looking down at it for a long time. She looked over at me.

She said, ‘I’m pleased with this.’

Painting by Gerrit Dou

When D. H. Lawrence fell

I had to read Sons and Lovers in high school, but I don’t know why.

It didn’t matter. I read it anyway. There were three things that were important about this book (to me). The first was when the mother peeled potatoes before putting them into a saucepan of hot water. The second was when she thrust the child’s pudding at him. The third was the scene with the children playing outside the row of miner’s cottages at the end of the evening. These things broke upon me in searing images: clean hot water in a metal saucepan. A tired mother. A potato peeler. Children in skipping games at dusk in the dirt before being called home. Not just skipping. These were strong, muscular, dangerous skipping games where a child’s position in society was challenged and set. I got that.

But I didn’t know it was England. I thought the author’s first name was Deeaitch. I didn’t know it was about ‘young men’. I didn’t know about coal mining, except that it made families tired. I couldn’t, in year ten, articulate seduction or grief or death. But I read it, and it gained a hold. It was about earth, potatoes, your mum, your sulking brother, poor people’s skipping ropes. And anger. I got that, too.

I read it decades later; they (whoever they are) were right – it is a masterpiece, and it is about life, potatoes, and anger. So, I was right – even though I did not shine in the essay. But the reason I didn’t shine in the essay is because I was up all night reading The L Shaped Room, the next book on the list that I didn’t understand, and was so so so good.

Anyway, the reason that D. H. Lawrence fell is because my grandsons knocked them all off the shelf, my entire collection in cool olive green leather, all ten of them, onto the floor – and there they lay amongst the strong skipping feet, the saucepans, the anger, the mother that died, and her son, D. H. Lawrence.