set fast

“Architects plant their imagination, weld their poems on rock,
Clamp them to the skidding rim of the world and anchor them down to its core;
Leave more than the painter’s or poet’s snail-bright trail on a friable leaf;
Can build their chrysalis round them; stand in their sculpture’s belly.

They see through stone, they cage and partition air, they cross-rig space
With footholds, planks for a dance; yet their maze, their flying trapeze
Is pinned to the centre. They write their euclidean music standing
With a hand on a cornice of cloud, themselves set fast, earth-square.”

A.S.J. Tessimond, Earthfast

Image by Wenjie Zhang

La Pedrera, Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudi

Unsquared again! And the boy who bought his sister a bookmark

A big old straggling family come into the shop. Lots of them and stretched across a few generations. It was raining outside, the wind blowing it against the door. All of them had rain on their shoulders. One man was wiping if off his glasses. A girl texted on her phone with the rain misted all over it. They were lively and unorganized, so I gave them Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance (on my Boombox speaker hidden away behind a pile of Dickens).

‘Oh my God, remember this song? Remember this movie?’ A young man elbowed an older man, an uncle maybe, who didn’t respond; he was looking at a biography of Mao.

The young man moved into a small private dance.

The family began to disperse. Some back outside, some into Classics, some into their phones. The dancing man continued on next to me. He used just two soft square feet of carpet, eyes closed, one hand still holding a copy of Treasure Island, the volume he had picked up just as Brubeck began his idea.

The family talked in small groups. Rotated and change their gestures. Head to head; an argument about tall ships, chin and eyes showing authority. There is whispering, hissing, and then pushing. Family member are on phones, on knees. The dancing man still scratching the beat in the air. An old lady, a grandmother maybe, looked at him over the top of her glasses. She has a copy of Wolf Hall. Later she puts it back. The music ends, and the young man straightens up unconcerned and moves into the front room. My playlist moves to Pavlov Stelar’s Hit me Like a Drum. The old lady suddenly becomes mobile and warm and strong. She dances three steps, one after the other. Then she stops and looks at me sternly. She moves into another room.

I play Alexis Ffrench’s At Last, and a lady in Gardening sighs and puts her head on one side. Who is she? Is she with them?

There’s another argument. What’s the capital of Romania? ‘You wouldn’t know, Graham.’

‘Look, mum, it’s a bunch of breeds of cats. You don’t want that, mum. Look at this. Get it. Get it for your shelf.’ Mum shakes her head.

Someone reads out loud three times, ‘The Cats of Dipping Dell’.

‘Found anything of interest, Margaret?’

‘Well. No.’

A boy buys a bookmark for his sister. He says, ‘Quick, before she comes back.’

The all stream out, and on the way Papa purchases a copy of Pinocchio for Lilly, who says, ‘Yes, I’ll read it. Stop asking me that all the time.’

The boy who bought the bookmark is last. He looks back at me. His face is a lit lamp.

They’re gone.

Illustration by Sarah Jane

The reds

I put small shelf of reds in the front window. It looks good. It looks warm. It’s just a random selection of reds.

People go past and it catches their eyes. Their heads swivel so they can look at the shelf as they walk past. Finally they are looking at it over their shoulders.

Somebody said, ‘That’s nice. Did you see that?’

The books are random, chosen because they are stout. The one on the end is Les Misérables, and people know this one. They read the title out loud. They are walking past, and they stop and lean in and read it out loud, ‘Ley Miserabels’, wasn’t that a film? Pretty sure it’s a film.’

‘My brother’s read that.’

‘Ley Miz.’

‘ God. Imagine reading that.’

‘Want to go in?’

‘Na. Already got too many books.’

‘You do.’

‘Get fucked Ryan.’

‘My God, babe. Love you.’

I image Fyodor listening in from Russia and enjoying it.

Some people stand and stare at the books, silent. Then they walk on.

Some people come in and pick up the books and examine them closely. Then they say, ‘Thanks’, and leave again.

Once a child ate a bag of chips outside, staring at the shelf through the window and nodding and nodding at the books as he ate his chips – as though listening to music that nobody else could hear.

I imagine the books lit up at night when I’m not there. Catching the midnight pedestrian and shocking them into walking properly. Forcing motorists to slow down as they drive past and stare into the window at Fyodor Dostoyevsky who sits burning on the end of the shelf, still troubled by his death sentence and six years in a Siberian prison camp. Maybe it shows.

In autumn, colours change

There’s a couple outside my book shop. They are standing at the kerb looking into the boot of their car. She has lost her bag.

 ‘I’m looking. I’m looking.’

She has striped hair; pink, purple, white and silver and it is beautiful. Her shoes look like running shoes, and they are striped with pink, purple, white and silver.’

She says, ‘Give me the keys.’ He does. She disappears along the street. He comes into the shop. He says, ‘I’m retired now, and I have a shed full of engineering books where I spend all my time. There’s not enough time.’

He muzzles along the shelves for a while. ‘Very nice here. What made you do this then?’

‘Don’t know really.’ I have to put down Elizabeth Jolly to answer. Elizabeth Jolley has just said that old age is like flipping  over pages in a book at a deafening rate and not reading any of them. I am shocked because this is true.

‘Don’t really know.’

‘Well. It’s nice here.’

Suddenly his wife blooms against the door with a sacred pink purple white and silver presence.

He shouts, ‘Are you lost, lady?’

‘I’ve just been over the lady’s toilets over there. I have to tell you what I saw.’

It’s cold. Her breath frosts on the door. They leave.

Yesterday at home I noticed that the windows have changed colour. I mean, the glass in the door holds different colours because it’s autumn. Maybe the light has a different angle. Maybe the temperature of the light is different. It was morning when I looked at the glass. Hot grape becomes cool rose. Thick sage thins. Hot lemon chills to its rind. Pink fades and becomes tough. I look at these pieces of glass all the time. With Elizabeth Jolley.

I went walking. It rained a bit. There is only six minutes to the edge of town. Then it’s paddocks.

On the way back through the short streets I saw the empty wheelie bins wearing their lids like yellow capes down their backs, and they sit there, mouths open drinking in rain that lands in their bin throats with tiny fast liquidy thumps.

A  man is standing at the counter in the shop in front of me with Gail Godwin. I say, ‘Oh, she’s GREAT’. He asks me for Haruki Murakami because ‘He’s GREAT. Look what HE does with reality.’ I say, ‘Oh yes’. And decide to start reading Haruki Murakami. The man stands there beaming. There are no words to explain Haruki Murakami. This man has grey hair, worn long, and he wears a sapphire blue sweater and good boots.

In autumn where I live, the evenings are grey like steel and beautiful.

In autumn, unnecessary belongings start bothering decent spaces. We sort and prune like mad. I fill the green wheelie bin’s mouth with green stemmy food.

The grape vine is as yellow as a pair of bananas. Soft, and with conversations going on in black ink.

It’s not possible to keep up with autumn. The windows are an authority on what’s out there. Each colour has an opinion.

There are delicacies

There Are Delicacies

there are delicacies in you
like the hearts of watches
there are wheels that turn
on the tips of rubies
& tiny intricate locks

i need your help
to contrive keys
there is so little time
even for the finest
of watches

Earle Birney (1904 – 1995)


The Mind’s Eye by Chen Chi-kwan (1921 – 2007)

This life, by Andrew Greig

It is a big sky and its changes,

the sea all round and the waters within.

It is the way sea and sky

work off each other constantly,

like people meeting in Alfred Street,

each face coming away with a hint

of the other’s face pressed in it.

It is the way a week-long gale

ends and folk emerge to hear

a single bird cry way high up.

It is the way you lean to me

and the way I lean to you, as if

we are each other’s prevailing;

how we connect along our shores,

the way we are tidal islands

joined for hours then inaccessible,

I’ll go for that, and smile when I

pick sand off myself in the shower.

The way I am an inland loch to you

when a clatter of white whoops and rises…

It is the way Scotland looks to the South

the way we enter friends’ houses

to leave what we came with, or flick

the kettle’s switch and wait.

This is where I want to live,

close to where the heart gives out,

ruined, perfected, an empty arch against the sky

where birds fly through instead of prayers

while in Hoy Sound the ferry’s engines thrum

this life this life this life.

Painting by Jane Glue

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