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Monday November 20th
Autumn crispness had arrived, early dusk turning the year and beckoning the descent into times of burning fires, spiders, fear and mystery. Amongst the spanking new plazas of King’s Cross, once a forgotten hive of Victorian warehouses and gloomy arches, we found Word on the Water a bookshop on a barge.
This floating jewel was forced to move every six months after losing their mooring on the Regent’s Canal due to development. Forced to be continually on the move was a constant up-heavel for bookshop owners Paddy Screech and Jonathan Privett. Luckily, some enlightened soul at the Canal and River Trust likes books and has given them a permanent mooring at Granary Square. It floats like a fragment of Dickensian treasure, nestled below the spread of chain coffee stores, soaring glass towers and frantic motorists that skirt this point of the canal. And its position, moored solo, in the new open plan city scape means that the barge can be seen from far and wide, brilliantly promoting its stubborn difference.
A spread of new and not so new titles greet you, displayed on pull down boards on the side of the boat, as you descend the towpath. The books have been chosen by an individual eye – and that is the glaring difference between corporate bookselling and the independent. Especially somewhere as unique as a bookshop on a barge. No doubt in the high street mega-bookstores, the titles on display as you enter have been through a mass of managerial decisions and marketing strategies. That’s not to say all of them are not of quality – of course not. Each one has been the product of talented individuals and enormous hard work. The sheer wealth of talent on such a huge scale, bamboozles the reader and humbles any would-be writer.
Yet the few books presented to me at Word on the Water are chosen not for their marketing in-the-moment power but because they caught the bookseller’s interest. Subsequently, this enquiry is then passed on to the browser through the books. A small eclectic mix of non-fiction, classics, new and old best-sellers rubbing cheek by jowl communicates story, poetry and character – and most of all excitement in the possibilities of discovery. Books are a bit like cheese: an expensive piece of comte always tastes better bought from a small trader than from Sainsbury’s. My brief time working in Dillons before they were sucked in to Waterstones, further corroborates my dissatisfaction with the mega-bookstore experience. We were not allowed to be seen reading the books on the shop floor and my main task was to stack the shelves in such a way that no book would lie horizontally. The atmosphere did not encourage conversation. Stacking tins of tomatoes would have been more satisfying as at least you would not be tortured by being forbidden to read the label.
While I leafed through Wedlock, the story of how the 18th century aristocrat Mary Eleanor Bowes became hoodwinked into marrying a narcissistic psychopath, a visceral tango was played overhead. Musicians set up on the roof – a brilliant venue as it is visible from several surrounding acres of urban sameness. The band, La Miseria Deluxe, who describe their sound as ‘raw tango marinated in red wine’ wisped and spun their tunes while Amanda Rodgers, hostess of club night Stranger than Paradise welcomed the towpath audience dressed in a dizzying phantasmagorical creation. Her black lace crinoline orbited by the water’s edge, bedecked with dismembered doll limbs. She sported a fin de siècle style cloche, crowned with a plastic baby head; Mistinguette met Jake and Dinos Chapman. Amanda’s joie de vivre and heady zeal permeates all that she does. Her dedication to promoting Gypsy/Folk bands in London and her outré humour are one good reason to live in London.
The interior of the barge holds many delights. Like the display of paperbacks outside, the selection inside shows the same curious eye. Pop biographies nestle by the side of guides to pagan festivals or the secrets of geometry. Italo Calvino’s Why read the Classics? leaps out while my son peruses George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces and sinks into a dream of building his own modernist home. On the limited shelf space, titles have an air of familiarity. The cosy wood burner encourages you to linger and read rather than being lost amongst thousands of sparkling gems in a non-descript setting.
I fell into conversation with Caroline Brothers, journalist and author. Her new novel The Memory Stones, tells the story of the babies stolen during the 1970s from the disappeared in Argentina. They were adopted into families of the regime and grew up in ignorance. It is enlightening as I had little knowledge of this and thought it was only in Chile that this took place on a grand scale. But approximately 30,000 people vanished and their parents have been seeking justice ever since. We discussed the editing process of a large document and it is heartening to hear from a novelist, with already three published books to her name, that she applies the same strategy as I did: write one whole rough draft and then go back and edit, expand, edit, expand…I can’t imagine being able to write one complete chapter after another and just seeing where it takes me, but many authors do. I approach a story much like a builder and that metaphor is constantly humming away as I create.
This gets me back to my son’s preoccupation with Amazing Spaces, my own obsession with buildings from an early age and a desire to map out grand buildings so that I knew where every passage led. It took seven years to research and write my first novel – about the same time it can take to build your own home. Perhaps I should have trained to be an architect but I am reminded of a conversation in Norfolk with an architect Pete Taylor, who improvises his buildings. He makes it up as he goes along with only a vague idea of intention. These improvised structures have a vertiginous, light and expansive quality on a small scale. Walls become doors, windows extend and roofs have the ability to expand. The shape can be changed at whim or to suit temperature. His cliff top dwelling perches precariously on the cliff edge at Overstrand, – the architectural metaphor for those that write without knowing what happens next…