In his entertaining best-selling books Shaun Bythell portrays himself as the grumpiest bookseller in Britain, providing service with a scowl, but he seemed perfectly amiable at 10 AM this morning in his lovely bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland’s book town. In his 20 years in his shop he thinks he must “have handled a million books”.
Be warned! If you enter his shop you may end up portrayed unfavourably in his next book. When I visited I was relieved that he was not there, but I still had an uneasy feeling that he might be watching from his home upstairs – shades of Bentham’s panopticon. His staff also find their fads and foibles exposed to the world – in fact his books are now available in 20 languages.
If you do venture in, then don’t mention Amazon as he proudly displays a shot Kindle on a wall near the door. This retail monster of course featured in the discussion, excellently chaired by Michael Gallico, our festival Chair, It has caused “a race to the bottom” in the book trade, he said, as “people don’t want to pay much now”.
Another major change in Wigtown since he started his shop is the development of the now internationally famous Wigtown Book Festival. It was encouraging for us festival volunteers to hear of its small size when it was first developed. If you fancy briefly running a bookshop then you could book the Open Book shop in the town. Unfortunately, the waiting list is twenty years long!
Nowadays he sits in his shop “hoping that customers will be rude” as this will provide more material! He has already accumulated enough material for more books and a TV series is planned.
Tamsin Calidas left a good job and a house in London to move to a derelict croft with no heating (“poor shape” does not seem to do the problems justice) on a Hebridean island. She and her husband “dared to try” to follow their dream. Her account of her subsequent life on the island has attracted rave reviews and became a Sunday Times bestseller. Initially “they lived outdoors” and “I walked everywhere” in “the beautiful summer landscape”.
She began the session by speaking in Gaelic and I guarantee that we will not experience a better beginning to a talk this weekend. Throughout her readings from her memoir were entrancing – I liked to visualise “the granite faces of the mountains”.
The poor accommodation was only the beginning of her problems. Her marriage ended, she endured parental bereavement and was in “constant pain” for months because of “broken hands”.
As for many redemption was to be found in nature – “nature will always show us the way through”. She found “the courage to start over” and talked of “giving ourselves permission” to do so. “Difficult times can be good times” she discovered and fortunately she discovered “an inner resilience”. Much solace was found in the “incredible texture of water”. She swims in the sea every day, “immersing herself in the elements” and exulting in the consequent “transformative effect”. Our superb interviewer, Chloe, is also a wild swimmer and rushed off to the beach after the session.
Tamsin “is still evolving” as she is on “an ongoing journey and I don’t know where I am going”. We do know another book is on the way!
Alex Larman then took us back to December 1936, when Britain faced a constitutional crisis that was the gravest threat to the institution of the monarchy since the execution of Charles I. The ruling monarch, Edward VIII, wished to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson and crown her as his Queen.
Interestingly Alex did not set out write about this crisis, initially studying Walter Monkton before switching to an account of the problems caused by the couple’s relationship. This is popular history. “written as a novel”. Most significantly Alex had access to previously unseen papers in the Royal Archive and elsewhere.
Alex regards as a blessing that Edward abdicated as “he was useless as a monarch”. Mrs Simpson fares no better as she is portrayed as a “frightened woman massively in over her head … who did not know what she was doing”.” Money was important to both of them and fortunately his brother had deep pockets. Much time prior to the public furore was given to assessing the public mood, it being believed that the people would “accept fornication but not adultery”, At one stage Alex tells us that Mr Simpson was “the most famous cuckold in Britain”.
At the end of his book on the crisis Alex Larman thanks Harry and Meghan for providing their own mini-abdication to help publicise his account of the abdication crisis. That is not the only contemporary echo though as Alex also writes of ‘the People’s King’, a ‘China dossier’ (dodgy?), a powerful press Baron (who “wanted to bugger Baldwin”) and royal brothers in conflict, while protestors marched on the streets, some demanding that “Britain be made great again”.
And now for something completely different … We are only a wee festival so we felt privileged when Neil Astley approached us to present the launch of Being Human, the fourth in the hugely successful Staying Alive anthology series. Neil is the editor of Bloodaxe Books which he founded in 1978.
Meryl Streep (who read at an Astley event in New York) is a huge fan of the series. She wrote about two earlier anthologies thus:
“I love Staying Alive and keep going back to it. Being Alive is just as vivid, strongly present and equally beautifully organised. But this new book feels even more alive – I think it has a heartbeat, or maybe that’s my own thrum humming along with the music of these poets. Sitting alone in a room with these poems is to be assured that you are not alone, you are not crazy (or if you are, you’re not the only one who thinks this way!). I run home to this book to argue with it, find solace in it, to locate myself in the world again”.
Well if Meryl was not in the audience today she missed a simply breathtaking event. Neil and his eminent guest poets, David Constantine and Imtiaz Dharker, who are represented in all the anthologies in the series, read over 40 poems from all over the world to our biggest ever audience. There are some merits in a virtual festival – if as planned the poets had come to Berwick many disappointed people would have been turned away.
An event which will remain long in the memory!
Then suddenly we were in Northumberland at the beginning of the last century with Simon Boyd. The second daughter of Albert, 4th Earl Grey, Simon’s grandmother Lady Sybil Middleton (née Grey), was born into a world of privilege. She was nevertheless avid for new experiences and loved adventurous travel, which led her on an extraordinary journey from comfortable Edwardian society to Russia at war and then the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution.
Aged 33 in 1915, single, brave and determined, Sybil Grey (that is how she signed herself) went to Russia in the winter of 1915 to establish a British volunteer hospital in Petrograd (today St Petersburg). The Anglo-Russian Hospital, established to treat only ordinary Russian soldiers, was Britain’s gift to its Russian ally in World War One. She was well connected. She dined with Sergei Sazonov, the Russian Foreign Secretary, and she met the Empress in the Tsarina’s palace.
Sybil then led the first of several field hospitals to the front, where she was accidentally wounded in the face by a Russian hand grenade, Having recovered she witnessed the first Revolution of 1917 (the February Revolution) which overthrew the Tsar and whose leaders tried to establish a constitutional government, only to be toppled in turn by the Bolshevik Revolution in October of that year.
After returning from Russia to look after her dying father, she took on leadership of another hospital in Dorchester House (her uncle’s home in Park Lane, now the site of a hotel). Later she went to France as Commandant of the Women’s Legion, the first all women-uniformed detachment of the British Army which provided ambulance and staff car drivers. At 40 she married and had two children but continued to travel for the rest of her life.
Simon had given us a fascinating insight into the life of a courageous woman from Northumberland.
Buy the books from a local Bookshop (or I will set Shaun on you!) Click here!
Seven Kinds of People you Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell
I am an Island Tamsin Calidas
The Crown in Crisis: Countdown to the Abdication Alexander Larman W & N
Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive Neil Astley Bloodaxe
Lady Sybil 2017: Empire, War and Revolution Simon Boyd Hayloft