When I could not eat dinner because of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

In Melbourne I went into the Readings bookshop and it was too full of possibilities to be calm and so I  purchased far too many things. But they did not have The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in 23 volumes. So I have to continue reading my borrowed copies, borrowed from the Flinders University Library and therefore Not Mine.

We went out to dinner that night, an Italian place next to that bookshop, in Carlton, called Tiamo, and inside it was small and hot and dark and magnificent. But I was thinking over the letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This library book is in my bag and under the table, heavy with red covers and cream pages and unable to be purchased by me. She wanted to go to Pisa and her father would not let her. She was 39 years old.

We ordered platefuls of pasta and rough bread. The waitresses were graceful and furious, carrying impossible armfuls of platters and glasses. One of them was shouting at the chef in a kitchen too small for the number of cooks crowded in there! There is a tray of antipasto not to her liking. The chef is looking out across the tables in astonishment.   The back door stands open, it is a hot night. I can see another chef out there, leaning against a wall, smoking in the hot twilight. He is asked to hurry it up and he turns his back, leaning on that hot brick wall, impassive.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning spends years in one room, unable to defy her parent, her father.  She wanted so much to go to Pisa, Italy, has never been anywhere. Sometimes she walks around the nearby park. But her writing, her poetry was about the whole world. Her letters to her lover were a whole world. His and her letters are vast. Her lover was Robert Browning.

There is a couple huddled together over a candle behind us. She is saying: but you never said anything. You never said anything.

The waitresses cross back and forth through the roar, they weave in and out and they never bump into a single thing, still people are crowding in, the owner is shouting and welcoming everybody from the bar. He is wearing a black apron which is covered in flour.

Behind us the young woman is crying, drooping over the fabulous risotto, as a couple they reassure a hovering waitress that everything is good.

The Barrett Browning correspondence was rich and fabulous and teeming with pain and with life.

She writes: …and where is the answer to anything except too deep down in the heart for even the pearl divers…?

There are four young men at a back table, they have rucksacks underneath and newspapers spilling out and onto the floor and they are simply bellowing their orders across the serving counter. But this is not the way to order and they get no food that way. But they don’t care; they just keep drinking the good red wine.

Right next to us, the furious waitress captures the owner and says: it’s out in the street, I told you, it’s out in the street, you can’t do it any other way. But he has seen someone enter that he knows. He lifts both hands in the air and leans back. He delivers  a superb greeting in Italian. The waitress is left with three full plates and no answer. She says: For Fuck’s Sake!

Still people are coming in. The walls are roaring and now we have our enormous food and it is good. Everything is too deep for even a pearl diver.

Then we can leave, push hard to get out into the end of the summer evening and then we are out in it and there is a cellist playing in a doorway across the road and someone is calling out Swan Lake, Swan Lake.

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The Pulley

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I showed David a copy of Cultural Amnesia by Clive James and he said I was naughty because he had to have that book. After all it was Clive James. He said: Oh God, I don’t know what to do. I am chasing up Rimbaud and now you have me with the Cultural Amnesia. He said that all of his indecision comes from his sad childhood.

A lady bought a copy of Penguin Bloom and then took me out to see her own rescued magpie, perching on the edge of a basket on the back seat of the car. She said that he is blind in one eye and the family just adore him. She said there was nothing they would not do for him.

Sharon rang to urge me to find a volume of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, all of them in the one volume. She said she is having a bad day.

Robert said that despite his weariness he will never give up the quest for history and the truth of life. He ordered a copy of Aboriginal Men of High Degree by A. P. Elkin.

A mother and her two young children were looking for dinosaur books. They said that they loved David Attenborough. The son said that he also loved dinosaurs, owls and geckos. His small sister said that she loved owls and ballet. Their mother said that there was not much time for her to read much anymore. She looked happy.

Outside the window, there are tradesmen, leaning against their car, drinking iced coffee and smoking. They are arguing about scaffolding. One says that he is sick of all this shit. Then he says he is going back to the bakery. His mates look at him and keep on smoking.

A very young woman showed me her six month old son. She bought a copy of Goodnight Owl and told me that she has just left home to make it on her own. Her pram had masking tape wound around the handles. She said she was going to read to him every night. She gazed at him the whole time, and he, with huge dark eyes, gazed back and he was smiling the whole time.

Serenity told me that she had to leave school early. Her father, who was carrying all the shopping, looked very tired.

Most days, at some time, I run into the edge of the exhaustion shelf and usually I cannot see the reason for it. It is always when I am not in my bookshop.

An old lady went outside and indicated to me through the window which book she wanted. It would have been easier for her to have remained inside and just picked up the volume from the table. It was The Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke. She took it from me and said: this is the one, his will be wonderful and thank you.

It is Valentine’s Day and a man is so happy that I had a copy of Wombat Divine. Later in the day he came back and gave me a red rose because I had a copy of Wombat Divine and he was going to surprise his wife with it.

The Pulley

When God at first made man,

Having a glass of blesings standing by;

Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:

Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,

Contract into a span.

 

So strength first made a way;

The beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:

When almost all was out, God made a stay,

Perceiving that alone of all his treasure

Rest in the bottom lay.

 

For if I should (said he)

Bestow this jewel also on my creature,

He would adore my gifts instead of me,

And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:

So both should losers be.

 

Yet let him keep the rest,

But keep them with repining restlessness:

Let him be rich and weary, that at least,

If goodness lead him not, yet weariness

May toss him to my breast.

George Herbert

 

I have a customer who is too full of joy.

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I have a customer who is too full of joy and she causes me joy too; no matter how hard I try to be calm and sensible, I cannot. She stacks her choices everywhere and reads lines aloud and loudly. She has a heavy book of poetry, and she is leaning over the pages, chanting the lines and I said: who is that? And she said: oh my God, it’s Yeats.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

 One cannot read everything in a lifetime but we are going to. We are absurd. We will use every spare minute to read. She says that reading divides her in two. There is her and there is her.

She says: do you know…do you have…do you have….do you have…..I am going to find a book of nursery rhymes, you know the ones, the Opies, you know the ones, you know those ones, you must get them….OH MY GOD…what is this book and what is this book?  Should I read the Pepys, do you remember in Charing Cross Road how she read the Pepys…do you have…you know the one….you know the one…..oh my heart. I must just read this out loud.

And then she is sitting on the floor reading to herself, something from Arthur Ransome or Kenneth Graham or Rudyard Kipling or Rosemary Sutcliffe or some other intensity.

“Come see the true flowers of this pained world.”

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Outside, a young boy threads his way across the road and through the traffic. He is guiding a small dog on a lead and he is not watching the traffic. But the traffic watches him and slows down, the drivers look at him kindly. He takes such a long time, encouraging the dog around and through the terrifying dust, the awful engines. He doesn’t pull on the lead even once. And I think that I have never seen such a magnificent show of gentleness.

The last week before Christmas: people are anxiously considering gifts and hoping that I gift wrap. A man brought the Women’s Weekly Farm House Cookbook to the counter. He said: my wife has been looking for this for ages. I don’t know if it will improve the cooking though.

A lady told me that she has a horror of bushfires.

Robert is anxious for a copy of The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manley P. Hall. He comes in to discuss psychotherapy and theories of dreaming.

Three young tradesmen pass the window, one was lighting a cigarette. He said: this is a magic little book shop isn’t it. His workmates ignore him.

I said to a child visiting with her grandmother: do you like to read? And she said: no.

One morning two women are buying science books and they are frantic because they must get to the airport. They loom over the counter and over Robert and criticise baggage limits. They have chosen books on philosophy and they sweep Robert out of the door with them on gusts of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

I can continue to read The Historian in short bursts. I should like to ask someone about the Slovenian Alps. It seems logical to me that Dracula is still alive. I had asked Robert about it and he said: we are all brainwashed by the government.

Then a lady said to me she had better go and get her husband to come and have a look. He was over minding the dog. Soon she came back without him. She said he can wait, she decided to come back herself and have a good look at the Agatha Christies. She said he was moaning at her to get him a couple of good detectives but she wasn’t going to bother with him right now.

I am asked for A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and The Philokalia Volume 4. Then I was asked for Crafting Qualitative Research: Working in the Post-Positivist Traditions by Pushkala Prased.

A retired customer said to David that the unstructured life is very very satisfying and that 50 is when we begin our creativity. David said to her that when we read Haiku we use both sides of the brain, that when we read the final line both sides of the brain are engaged and this accounts for the power and profundity of Haiku. They regard each other, very pleased.

A customer came in with a motorcycle helmet and wearing a T-shirt that said: Holdens were created to keep dickheads out of Fords. He asked for Wilbur Smith and Danielle Steele. He talked for some time about Bryce Courtenay.

Then it is quiet again.

June came back to talk about Spike Milligan; she couldn’t phone me because their pensions did not allow them the expense of mobile phones. She told me that John was tricky to live with, (she said it cheerfully)… been with him a long time. But you know, maybe he might change.She’d always thought it, you know. June is brave. She holds on to the counter as she talks, holds on to her hopes.

Outside a motorcyclist is rebuked for parking in the bus zone. Inside, a small boy is leaning over the biographies, leaning against the window and he says: everybody gets mad at Christmas, like my teacher. His mother is looking through the vintage books and first editions. She says: never mind. Here, don’t lean on Nelson Mandela, you might read that one day. But he replies that he probably won’t.

He says: can we get gelati now?

 

“Come see the true

Flowers

Of this pained world.”

Basho Matsuo: On Love and Barley

I might become a pirate or a rabbit catcher.

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A lady brought to the counter a set of poetry books in soft green leather. She stood for a while, holding the books, stroking the covers and running her thumb over the gold on the spines. She said: I am having these.

I looked for the last time at the green and the silver and the soft rich gold of that precise seven volume stack and I said I will miss these and she said: yes.

I am surrounded by breathtaking wealth in here. It gleams and glitters all around me.

A child asked me if all the pirates in books are actually ok. Because he might become one or he might become a rabbit catcher. He stood on one foot and showed the skill of balancing silently in front of the rabbits. I said: this is excellent.

I am surrounded by breathtaking wealth in here. Although my accountant said I have completed another year without making any money at all. I told Robert and he said: what do they know!

A man said to his wife: I could spend all day in here and she said: well you’re not.

John rang to thank me for looking for his train book and I reminded him that I had not found it yet. He said: that’s ok. Keep looking. He asked if I had Triple Crown by Felix Francis but I didn’t.

Sharon messaged me to read Great Expectations over Christmas. She said she backed into a car at a shopping centre and it is Christmas that caused it.

One man looked at my Christmas tree and looked shocked. I said cheerily: only a few weeks to go and he said: oh shit. He bought an Encyclopaedia of Horses.

I was asked for Cranford, The Good Earth, Soul Mountain and The Secret Garden. Kody’s younger brother picked up Kody’s Boy Versus Beast Books and said: These are for Kody, but he probably won’t let me read them.

I am surrounded by glittering wealth in here.

A tiny girl, about three years old was wearing one pink shoe and one black shoe and she dropped her handful of coins on the floor. After half an hour her parents left the shelves to come to the counter and their child was still collecting her coins, slowly, painstaking, one by one. She had one shoe on and the other one was full of the coins. Her mother offered her Possum Magic but she was uninterested. She just wanted to continue her work.

I was urged to read Poor Fellow, My country by Xavier Herbert. A young reader that I have never met asked me to show her a really good book that she would like.

Robert dropped in again to recite for me a poem about the Garden of Eden. I said to him that I am surrounded with glittering wealth in here and he said that I should get rid of the westerns then.

A customer has lent me The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova because it is phenomenal. I begin to read it. I am interrupted with another recommendation: The Yandilli Trilogy by Rodney Hall. Peter asked me to find him two copies of The Existential Jesus by John Carroll. He said it is the most important book ever written and that I should read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can we please have some focus over here?

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A young father was pleading with his small daughters to attend to the books he had chosen. He said many times: Can we please have some focus over here…you both need to look at these and focus. But one sister was sucking her braid and then painting her sister’s back with it. They both refused to look at the books. The older sister said that she wanted a bell.

The street is busy; a lull in the weather has allowed everyone out again. People say cheerfully: glad to see you didn’t get washed away.

A young man recited a line: I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately… I said that maybe this is Thoreau. He said he had been trying to fine that line for a long time and he was delighted. Then he recited me this: If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there. He said it was from something called Staying Alive. He said he did not know how anyone could live without poetry.

Two young men in beanies and tracksuits outside the door were talking: don’t worry, all you have to do is turn your car upside down and tip all the water out.

Another man outside said: would a bookshop do well in this weather? And his friend said: I don’t know but this rain is a right prick and makes me hungry.

A young boy said that he hoped I would remember that his name Kody is spelled with a K because last time I didn’t remember. He explained to me how the Boy Versus Beast books all fit together. He supervised the list as I wrote down the titles he needed and respectfully corrected my spelling

Ricki is back for more ancient history. She is 73. She loves the ancients and gardening. She admires Seneca and Marcus Aurelus most of all but she is also still having trouble with her windscreen wipers. She said: those young mechanics think they can charge me $150 to fix my wipers but I’m not having it. I think: well I’ve read Marcus Aurelus and I’ve got a shovel over you young fellas. When she left she told me that now she will dabble in some Latin.

A lady told me that at a quiz night she attended she had to argue fiercely over a question regarding Julie Andrews and one of those famous songs. She herself can recite those songs in her dreams but the judge got it wrong and she had to battle to correct the fool. She also went to see the film The Fault in Our Stars with her teenage daughter and she cried all the way through and her daughter was not impressed.

Margaret is over doing her turn in the art gallery over the road but she came to see me. She said she had to run over because they wouldn’t even give her 10 minutes (damn them!)

I have been lent a book called Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

I am asked for The Green and Gold Cook Book and Cloudstreet and Divergent.

But now I am reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. And I think I might get a bell.

 

 

With books, there is no end…

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A young reader, Ben, thanks me for his horse book. He says: thank you for that horse book. Do you think that you could now find a book about how to look after dogs and maybe put it out the back to save it for me or something? As they left his mother said: well that was a lucky find, I reckon.

I rang a lady to tell her that her books were here but her husband said that she is in hospital now and may never come back out.

Outside is full of tradesmen, laden with food and jogging back to waiting vehicles.

Robert has had the flu. He said he caught it in the art gallery and said that he cannot even taste his cigarettes and has not been able to read properly. He is outraged about catching the flu in an art gallery and said that this is typical Adelaide.

David said today that it is very difficult to stay focussed until a whole poem drops out. He said: I just cannot do it, but my mother could.

Outside now the street is empty. There is only a police car and they are in the bakery.

I finish Gould’s Book of Fish and Anaïs Nin (A Woman Speaks).

Two sisters are circling the table of children’s books, eyeing each other and the books on  display.

Karl tells me how important it is to have a chair in a bookshop for the customers. He buys Brother Fish because he knows personally about the Korean War and advises me to keep going, do keep going. Jenny brings a biography to the counter: Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking. Karl reads aloud from the back cover and she tells him to be quiet.

A family come in, a man with a young wife that the children call by her first name. He stands back hopeful, but she sits down and is exhausted. The children are pleased with the books, finding Geronimo Stilton and Zac Powers. She offers to buy them any books they would like but they put them back on the table, even the Geronimo Stilton Red Ruby.

I am asked for Saigon by Anthony Grey and any books by Tamora Pierce

I have found another book to read for myself and it is by an Australian writer called Elizabeth Jolley. It is called An Innocent Gentlemen. I can sense another ambush and I put the book back down for now.

A small boy asks if it is ok to come in if you are wearing soccer boots.

Last night I finished Anaïs Nin and today, the whole day, is about Anaïs Nin again. Once Margaret Atwood ambushed me this way and I could not get away for a long time and it was The Blind Assassin that did it.

A man stands outside the window and stares at a biography of Germaine Greer. He has been standing there for a long time. Another man tells me a long story about a library book that he lost in New Zealand. I decide to re read The Blind Assassin.

I am asked for Memoirs of a Geisha and advised to read it. I tell the customer that the day is alive with choices.

A man kneels with his small daughters amongst the Fairy Wishes books. He says: put them back properly remember. Don’t leave your beanie. The younger sister tells him that she wants every single book. He leans into the shelves to consider a safe response.

A lady says to someone outside, out of view: Stephen, this town has book shops. Later she came back to get a book she saw in the window. She said her friends are at the bakery and she lied to them about where she was going because they said she could not buy any more books. I said that I understood her predicament. She said that not everyone is interested in books.

She is gazing along the shelves, reaching for Sir Walter Scott and she says: with books there is no end.