I dedicate this blog to each and every Scottish bookshop opening its doors today after another long period of lockdown.
This is the first time I’ve been able to peruse any shop since March 2020, so decided to pay a first visit to my most local independent – The Book Nook in Stirling. They mostly sell second hand books, but the new ones you meet at the entrance are all carefully curated (or so they told me)!
If they are carefully curated then by some miracle I’m there – sharing a shelf with some of the finest authors I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Writing a book, in case you’ve never tried, is a chore as well as a delight. The words sometimes flow easily, yet at other times they reluctantly hit the page in a spattering that barely makes grammatical sense and have to be wrestled into shape. I’m an author who doubts my words; sees them lined up for inspection and feel they barely pass muster much less ever be ready for publication. Maybe all writers feel this way?
One thing about a pandemic – it concentrates the mind on what really matters by throwing mortality into focus. These days that slide by, cast into some kind of time-traveller’s oblivion; make the most of each one because they will never come back. Somewhere in our future exists the final farewell to a well-known and well-loved friend, relation, lover. Quite often we nonchalantly say goodbye to somebody who was once so precious to us without realising that we will never cross paths again. Perhaps H G Wells wrote the Time Machine with that in mind. If any of us were given the one opportunity to clamber inside that device, surrounded with brass instruments and spinning wheels, when would you go? To view the birth of Christ, see the dinosaurs or to meet with an old friend once more?
I used to regularly walk in Westonbirt Arboretum, near Bath, and once passed by an old man sat on a bench in the autumnal sunshine sometime around 1990. He bid me a good day as I walked past, in the manner of one from another age. It was many years later that I suspected him to be Laurie Lee, whose Cider with Rosie and As I walked Out one Midsummer Morning had such an impact on me as a boy entering adulthood. Lee died in 1997 in Slad, just 30 minutes drive away from Westonbirt so it is entirely possible.
It’s that point in time I’d head for, to talk to him and tell him how much I loved his books – how he magically transported me to another time. Then I’d add that it’s his fault I spent most of my young adult life hitching around Europe instead of getting on with a career – head full of romantic notions about the road ahead. He’d look me in the eye, a twinkle definitely there and tell me ‘good for you, young man.’ If it wasn’t him then he’d probably make his excuses and leave quickly, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the gibbering idiot newly arrived in some steam-punk device.
This pandemic has made many pause their headlong rush, stop and look at the world around them and think about their place in it. That can only be a good thing. The pursuit of money, fame, success – what is the point in only focussing on the destination when it’s the journey that must be savoured?
That’s where bookshops come into play. They are our Time Machines, holding thoughts and imagination magically in store for everyone to share just by picking a book off the shelf. Some books even have the power to change you, so tread carefully!