#MondayBlogs Small Good Places: On Bookshops – Prof Andrew Thacker

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Issue 5 of Dawn of the Unread saw Byron Clough address the closure of independent bookshops

In this guest blog, Professor Andrew Thacker explores the challenges faced by contemporary bookshops. The rise of online selling and the ease of reading on digital devices paints a pretty bleak picture for print media. But then in 2015 something strange started to happen in America…  

On a recent trip to Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham my conversation with Ross, the owner, was interrupted while he got on with the proper business of selling books. First up, someone who wanted the book companion to BBC’s television’s Blue Planet. Ross found the book she wanted.  Then there was a guy who brought a couple of slim volumes of poetry to the counter: ‘I’m not sure you’ll want to buy that one once I tell you the price’, said Ross.  Sure enough, the high cost of this slim volume imported from the US put the buyer off, but he picked something else up instead and then a conversation was held between the two about a future reading by the said poet.  Finally, a man with a holdall laden down with what seemed to be second-hand books came up to the counter, his arms stuffed full of left-wing pamphlets and magazines: ‘Have you got the latest Socialist Register?’ he enquired.  Not yet available was the reply, but Ross did furnish him with a tote bag for his purchases with the hammer and sickle upon it, a freebie that delighted the customer. A short conversation about the radical bookshop, Housman’s, in London then ensured.

This is the culture of the modern independent bookshop that I love, the experience of which you cannot get with one-click buying on-line. Recently I was lucky to be at an academic conference in Boston, in the US, and took time out from the papers and panels to visit a bookshop.  This was the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, located just off the campus of Harvard University, and a shop that has been supplying poetry alone since 1927.  The shop was beautiful, a small place which treasured books as material objects and which exuded a calming presence, wonderfully suited to the somewhat rarefied pleasures of slim books of verse.  I browsed and soaked up the atmosphere, admiring the numerous photos of visiting poets, as well as the broadside poems printed on a wall, a tradition going back several centuries.  I bought a tiny book of obscure poems and left, recharged by the cultural aura of the shop as much as by the pleasure in purchasing the actual book.

How much longer, however, will such places as the Grolier – the independent bookshop devoted to the culture of books, poetry and otherwise – continue? I suspect all academic bookbuyers of a certain age (which is what I am) will have memories of a favourite bookshop, whether on campus or nearby, or a secondhand store in which bargain copies of textbooks could be snapped up. For me the musty smell of an old bookshop is a sensory pleasure akin to Proust’s madeleine. But does the bookshop still hold a special place in the hearts of all academics?  And do the obscure pleasures of the bookshop still appeal to our students?  With the disappearance of many independent bookshops often staff and students just don’t live anywhere near to one of the ‘small good places’, as the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg, described certain bookstores (along with cafes and bars) that formed the heart of particular urban communities.  We might well give our undergraduate reading lists to our campus bookshop, but do we – like 72% of our students according to a recent survey by market researcher Nielsen’s – then purchase our own books online, aware that time spent browsing away from our office in a physical bookshop for the latest monograph recommended by a colleague is time away from attending meetings?  Isn’t it just quicker to order via Amazon’s ‘one-click’ service on the app on our phone, then turn back to our emails? On the Berkeley campus of the University of California the central student union now has an Amazon pick-up point for students (and presumably staff) to order online and collect on campus: with around 40,000 students enrolled here I am sure they are doing good business, even though the spartan book-free space does not resemble anything like the glorious labyrinth of a traditional bookstore.

book readers

I have been carrying out research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, on the history of the modern bookshop, exploring how independent bookshops such as City Lights in San Francisco (publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl) or Shakespeare and Company in Paris (publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses) have been important institutions in the development of modern literature and culture.  But I have also been interested in the wider culture of the contemporary bookshop, challenged as it has been over the last two decades by the rise of online selling and digital reading devices, as pioneered by Jeff Bezos with the founding of Amazon in 1994.  A few years ago it appeared that bookshops were in a state of terminal decline. According to an article in Daily Telegraph in 2011 nearly 2000 bookshops had closed in Britain since 2005; while The Bookseller reported that independent bookshops closed at the rate of one a week in 2012, leaving just over 1000 such premises. Even the big chain booksellers, partly responsible for the closure of many independents in the 1980s and 90s, were threatened, and the closure of Borders in 2011 was taken to be a sign that the days of physical bricks and mortar bookshops were coming to a close.

However, in 2015, Oren Teicher, the head of the American trade organization, the American Booksellers’ Association, announced a rise in the number of new independent bookshops, and boldly claimed that “We are engaged in decoupling the word ‘endangered’ from ‘bookstores’.” While in the UK, the Publishers Association this year revealed that sales of print books were rising, while sales of e-books fell for the first time since 2011.  Of course, some or much of this rise in sales of print books could have occurred online rather than in physical locations, but the decision of Amazon in 2015 to open its first bricks and mortar store in Seattle seemed to indicate that the times were changing for bookselling.

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Foyles bookshop appeared in issue 7 of Dawn of the Unread

The endurance and (partial) revival of the bookshop is due to more than simply the sale of books: bookstores for many years now have been places where other activities have proliferated, such as drinking coffee, listening to authors reading, attending a book group, or viewing an exhibition.  Many of these practices have been around since the early twentieth century: Harold Monro’s famous Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury opened in 1913 and hosted weekly readings for many years; it also rented out rooms above the shop to poets and artists such as Robert Frost and Jacob Epstein.  The current manifestation of Shakespeare and Company in Paris has carried on this tradition, with Jeanette Winterson writing in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011), of a recuperative period spent within its booklined walls. The lure of a well-designed spatial environment for a bookshop, as seen in the revived Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London, shows that what continues to attract people to the physical bookshop seems to be more than simply its new or used contents.  The Last Bookstore, in downtown Los Angeles, is perhaps the last word in what might be called a ‘destination bookshop’, ones visited by tourists for the experience of their interiors more than for the quality of their stock.  The Last Bookstore offers a fascinating use of interior space and dimmed, noir-esque lighting to creating an atmosphere of the bookshop as purveyor of quirkiness.  Some traditionalists might blanch at the use of books as architectural features, as in the hundreds used to support the cash-desk or those that carve out its impressive ‘book tunnel’. But for anyone who has ever been entranced by the quiet charms of a bookshop, it is certainly worth a visit.

It is not surprising, then, to learn that Blackwells, one of the oldest and most established academic booksellers in the UK, announced in The Bookseller recently that it was trialling two ‘enhanced concept stores’ on the university campuses of Cardiff and Liverpool, integrating their online selling into the physical location and creating a more ‘spacious’ and ‘social experience’, according to Blackwell’s head of sales, Scott Hamilton, that combines a café, seating, and digital display screens. “The big thing I wanted to change was the look and feel of the shops,” said Hamilton. “They are more modern, the ceilings are more open.’  It might only be a matter of time before the styling of The Last Bookshop has an impact upon a new campus bookstore, hoping that students will rediscover the pleasures of bookshop browsing as part of metropolitan hipster culture, along with craft beers and vinyl records (The Last Bookstore has a very good vinyl section).

The Nielsen’s survey suggests that bookshops, of all varieties, retain an important function in the student experience: of students buying new print titles during last academic year, 41% bought from a physical bookseller, with 25% from a campus bookshop, and 18% from a high-street shop.  Not surprisingly, however, Amazon still dominates the selling of books to students, with 70% of respondents having brought from the online giant, although the share of total volume sales had grown in campus bookshops. Small, good places might have a long struggle ahead of them, especially if Amazon move onto more university campuses, but there are at least the glimmers that the pleasures of physical bookshop culture will endure and the interactions between bookseller and customer that I witnessed recently in Five Leaves will continue.

Andrew Thacker is a Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University. As part of the Being Human Festival he will be giving a talk on ‘The rise, fall and revival of the modern bookshop’ 7-8pm, Tuesday 21 November, Five Leaves Bookshop, FREE. You can book your place here

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Five Leaves shortlisted for Independent Bookshop of the Year Award.

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Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham’s radical and independent bookshop, is on the shortlist for the regional round of the UK and Ireland Independent Bookshop of the Year Award, for the second year running.  

In November 2013 Ross Bradshaw decided to do something radical, he opened up a bookshop when we were all being told that print media was dead. The opening of the shop coincided with some pretty alarming statistics, many of which inspired the creation of Dawn of the Unread. These included: independent bookshops had dropped to below 1,000 for the first time, libraries were seeing hours cut back, and according to various literacy trusts, the YouTube Generation were apparently bored of books. At that time it was the first bookshop to open in any city centre this century. It took balls as well as books.

Since then Nottingham has become a UNESCO City of Literature, and Five Leaves has established itself as a hub of intellectual debate thanks to some thoughtful events. Talks over the next fortnight include a book reading from one of the publishers of Noir Press, who publish Lithuanian fiction; rescuing refuges, a celebration of the work of Derrick Buttress, and Irish Republican women. This is all neatly rounded off with the annual States of Independence festival, now in its eighth year.

The regional shortlist covers bookshops from the Midlands and Wales group of the Booksellers Association, which will be trimmed to a national shortlist on 15 March with the final winner being announced on 8 May as part of a range of bookselling and publishing awards. The overall winner will receive £5,000 towards their business.

Five Leaves is the only shortlisted bookshop from the East Midlands this year. Ross Bradshaw, said “We are really pleased to be shortlisted again. Five Leaves is a destination bookshop rather than a shop aimed at the High Street, our strongest areas are probably politics and poetry! We also run many events – 63 last year plus an all day event in Leicester, and run bookstalls as far apart as Wakefield and London. Many of our events are in conjunction with local community groups.”

People have been predicting the death of the book for years, but they seem to be having a bit of a revival at late. Sales of printed books rose for the first time last year in four years, while ebook sales fell by 1.6% in 2015. This trend is happening across the arts. Vinyl records, another art form supposedly doomed with the advent of digital technology, outsold digital downloads last year for the first time in yonks. Digital offers ease and convenience as well as infinite duplications of content. But records, and books, have an aura, a magic about them. Tangible reality is not quite over yet, although the future of bookshops could be unless they become valued both by customers and the government.

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The pressures on opening or maintaining a bookshop is hopefully a concern for David Gauke, chief secretary of the Treasury, who this week received a letter from the Booksellers Association who fear changes to the business rate system will make it impossible for bookshops to survive on the High Street. The business rate payments are changing because of a new revaluation of property, meaning some bookshops will end up paying double of their current rent. The letter from the Booksellers, as reported in the Guardian on 25 February, “points out that the Waterstones in Bedford pays 16 times more in business rates per square foot than the nearby Amazon distribution centre.”

The main hope for Booksellers is that bookshops be given the special status of “community asset value”, given the benefits they bring to the local area. This is more important than any award, although recognition is important. We recognise bookshops as a community asset and this is why we featured Ross Bradshaw and the Five Leaves Bookshop in our Byron Clough issue of Dawn of the Unread.

You can read an article about Ross and the history of bookshops in Nottingham in one of the embedded panels in Dawn of the Unread here.

 

#MondayBlogs Nottingham Does Comics

NOTT DOES COMICS HEADER

Nottingham Does Comics – ‘Taking Comics Forward’

Nottingham is a UNESCO City of Literature and now it’s also home to an exciting gathering of comics professionals thanks to John ‘Brick’ Clark.

John ‘Brick’ Clark, the writer and artist for issue#2 of Dawn of the Unread has been in contact to inform us that a bunch of comics readers, creators, academics, retailers and possibly their dogs are about to launch our city’s version of the hugely successful London forum Laydeez-Do-Comics. Called Nottingham Does Comics, their brief is a little different and best typified by their by-line, ‘Taking Comics Forward’.

The inaugural meeting is scheduled for 26 April and will feature three fifteen-minute slots from a combination of speakers: an old hand, a newcomer to working professionally and a seasoned academic.

Brick said: “Nottingham Does Comics is a bi-monthly forum by and for anybody interested in reading, creating, publishing, selling or studying new work and new horizons in the comics medium. It is a platform where those curious about comics can explore and exchange ideas with established and aspiring practioners, where the mainstream meets the indies, and where embryonic projects will be supported to find their wings”

Nottingham has a thriving art community so it’s good to see an attempt to draw enthusiasts together. The proposed talks are as inclusive as possible and selected from an open callout. So please submit ideas for presentations. To give you an idea of possible topics, here’s some of the issues that have affected Dawn of the Unread: How to create an equal collaboration between an artist and writer; digital v pen and paper; funding – is kickstarter the way forward for publishing comics?; black and white or colour pages; the difficulties of being a freelancer; given the time it takes to create a page, what’s a fair wage for an artist? How can panel shapes and sizes enhance reading and meaning; what to do when an artist or writer suffers from lack of confidence? If there are a lot of submissions it will also help Brick to potentially theme sessions.

Brick is a fantastic ambassador for comics so I’m not surprised that he’s behind this. During the consultation process for Nottingham’s UNESCO accreditation he was constantly pushing for comics to be part of our bid and reminding that literature comes in many shapes and forms.

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Embedded content works by clicking on a ‘star’ icon within a panel which takes you to a contextual piece, such as the Cloughie page (Top, right). Ok, it’s just a glorified hyperlink…

I chose the graphic novel format for Dawn of the Unread because it was the right medium for our target audience: reluctant readers. I had no prior knowledge of comics and basically learned as I went along. In some respects this was an advantage as I wasn’t influenced by other styles or approaches. I’m pretty sure that Dawn of the Unread is unique in the way that we’ve used embedded content on panels as a means of contextualising and furthering reading. Now I can go and hang out with professionals and find out.

At the end of each issue of Dawn of the Unread we included a ‘how to’ video so that artists could share their approaches and techniques to that particular issue. The aim of this was to show that artists are a varied bunch: some have been to university, others simply practice everyday when they get the chance. The hope was that it might inspire other people to try similar. I suspect that Nottingham Does Comics has similar principles and in addition to offering engaging conversations and guidance will develop into a meaningful support network.

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#MondayBlogs Llangollen bookshop: Cafe and Books

Pontcysyllte_aqueduct_arp

Readers of this blog or LeftLion will know that my special power is an ability to link any person or place with Nottingham. So while visiting Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Llangollen, Wales, my one degree of separation was English civil engineer William Jessop (23 January 1745 – 18 November 1814). Jessop designed this 38m high tramway system that connects local industry to the north of Rhos and the Trevor basin. It was completed by Thomas Telford.

Jessop, with surveyor James Green, were also responsible for the Nottingham Canal, which once covered 23.6 kilometres (14.7 mi) between Langley Mill in Derbyshire and Nottingham. It opened in 1796, having cost twice the initial estimate of £43,500 (£3,820,000 in 2015), but by 1937 it became obsolete due to the railways.

The canals were where Arthur Seaton, the hard-drinking womanising anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), would go fishing to gather his thoughts. Towards the end of the book the canals offer a rare moment of reflection for the head-strong and guttural Arthur Seaton:

Arthur Seaton (played by Albert Finney) fishing. Taken from www.sillitoetrail.com

Arthur Seaton (played by Albert Finney) fishing. Taken from http://www.sillitoetrail.com

“Everyone in the world was caught, somehow, one way or another, and those that weren’t were always on the way to it. As soon as you were born you were captured by fresh air that you screamed against the minute you came out. Then you were roped in by a factory, had a machine slung around your neck, and then you were hooked up by the arse with a wife. Mostly you were like a fish: you swam about with freedom, thinking how good it was to be left alone, doing anything you wanted to do and caring about no-one, when suddenly: SPLUTCH! – the big hook clapped itself into your mouth and you were caught.”

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But I was also in this neck of the woods to visit the appropriately named Café and Books which is owned by a softly spoken, and stereotypically friendly, scouser called Darren Preston. My first question to any bookshop owner is always the same: What books do you read? Dan pauses and smiles. ‘To be honest with you, I don’t read.’ He’s refreshingly candid and turns out to be a genuinely pragmatic businessman.

Darren, or ‘Dan’ as he prefers to be named, originally bought the café but later acquired the upstairs bookshop when the owner passed away 15 years ago. The bookshop had been going since around 1989 and so clearly complimented the café. Quite simply, his ethos is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Although trade has been a bit slow of late he’s optimistic of a revival, ‘like what happened with record vinyl’.

Owner Darren Preston

Owner Darren Preston

His hope is that people purchasing books will nip downstairs and have a read in his café, which probably explains why there is no till in the bookshop. You need to walk along a counter of cakes and sandwiches to purchase it at the only till. Equally customers are encouraged to bring books down and read while drinking, using the bookshop as a kind of library. Any left on the table are simply returned back upstairs when he has a minute.

It’s because the café takes prominence in his business model that he’s not bothered about selling any of his books online. He explains that it would take too long to stock and he’d have to close down the bookshop for a couple of weeks to catalogue them all. He’s more interested in the physical space of the building and so has recently built a play area to the back of the café, to give parents a break over a cuppa.

Dan seems happy as long as things are ticking over and the bills are being paid, high profit margins aren’t his ulterior motive. It’s no wonder the business appears to be doing well. ‘My philosophy is you can’t know everything. What I know is cafés. There’s probably some real gems of books up there but we don’t have the time to find them. Dealers come in and find specific stuff which will make them some money. But I don’t care about that. They keep coming back because I charge a fair price. It’s a food chain and we’re happy with what we get. And if a book is priced too high then people just ask me to knock a bit off and I do. I’m really not that bothered.’

Author Paul Spackman

Author Paul Spackman holding up his book.

However when a book comes in that’s a bit specialist and is worth the effort then he’s happy to sell it on eBay or Amazon. As he’s not much of a reader, this is where the expertise of Paul Spackman is required. Paul is a part-time author who has worked at the bookshop for 21 years. He was such a regular visitor, both for research and pleasure, that Dan offered him a job, pointing out ‘you might as well work here’.

He takes me around the upstairs bookshop which is an absolute labyrinth of snaking trenches of books covering every niche and genre imaginable. I’m in Women’s Studies for one moment before spinning around and discovering a section on industry. There’s books by and about DH Lawrence. Some of the spines are battered, others look like they’ve just been born. I find one of Graham Joyce’s many award winning novels and some maps of the local area.

Quote from Dr Don Trubshaw, from a previous post.

Quote from Dr Don Trubshaw, from a previous post.

Like all good secondhand bookshops, this one is geared towards serendipity. There’s absolute gold on these shelves but you need a good few hours to stumble upon it. The sheer randomness means I end up with a composting guide by an irate author who bemoans being unable to shit in his own compost any more for fear of frightening the neighbours. And at the other end of the spectrum I find a copy of David Mitchell’s first novel Ghostwritten, which is a lot better than his most recent offering, The Bone Clocks.

Paul explains the stock is mainly job lots from house clearances or car boots. He then sifts through them and creates an order out of the chaos. There doesn’t seem to be a particular type of book that sells better than others although the recent popularity of TV adaptations, such as Poldark, seem to have triggered an interest in your more casual reader.

When I ask Paul about his own books he walks off and returns with the shop’s copy of ‘God’s Candidate’. This was his first book, published in 2008, and ‘it’s about Pope John Paul I, the one who became famous for allegedly being murdered but (pauses) he wasn’t. I’ve recently updated it and I’m hoping to have it translated into Italian later this year or early next year. I’m currently finishing a book entitled ‘Sarah Palin: With An Alaskan Heart’ and am hoping to find a home for it with an American/UK publisher. And if all goes well my next book will be about Italy from 1945 – 1994’. As you’d expect from someone working in this kind of bookshop, his own writing is pretty eclectic.

Trenches of books twist and tower above as you navigate the shop.

Trenches of books twist and tower above as you navigate the shop.

Together Paul and Dan make a good team, working to their respective strengths. They are both open to ideas about how the bookshop can become an intrinsic part of the community. Although Dan is not actively seeking out events he’s happy to accommodate the needs of local authors who might want to use the space for book signings etc. He strikes me as someone who would say yes to anything, as long as it doesn’t cause him extra hassle.

As I’m leaving Dan tells me the shop’s been used in a short film which was based on a popular vampire book. He’s got a copy if I want to buy one. He’s not read it himself, of course, but he’s happy to stock it to support the local author. Later that evening I check out their website. It’s pretty basic, as you’d expect from an owner who lives very much in the physical present. There are two books listed for sale. One is a first edition hardback of Mein Kampf going for around £1,000, the other is a signed copy of God’s Candidate for £12.99.

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#MondayBlogs Hong Kong Bookshops and the search for Sillitoe

Hong Kong Central Library

Hong Kong Central Library

Ben Zabulis is the author of Chartered Territory: An Engineer Abroad. He is easily Nottingham’s best travelled author and has recently moved (back) to Hong Kong. In this guest blog he ponders on the popularity of Alan Sillitoe novels in Asia’s secondhand bookshops…

It’s funny how second-hand books can yield a certain reaction, absolute abhorrence from some to the musty, even grubby, well-thumbed pages while others, myself particularly, ooze untrammelled glee at the potential locked within. After all, not only is one gaining a good book (hopefully) to read but a little bit of history, even mystery, having undergone numerously-handed exchanges within its life to drop suddenly into yours –  admittedly it’s a  history and mystery that for the most part will remain totally imaginary. But not always.

Years ago, when I’d returned back to the UK after another stint abroad, I was drawn to a book in a charity shop called The Hong Kong Club. No surprise really given I have lived here before. It was a cop-type thriller and not my thing at all but I decided to read the author note anyway, and that’s where interest gathered pace. Andrew Whittle (1942- ) it said, ex-Royal Hong Kong Police Officer and Commander of the Special Task Force, Hong Island until 1976. Not so unusual I thought, someone writing about their own thing, fair enough, but then I read he was Nottinghamshire born and bred. Well, that was it, coincidence or not, I had to buy it – the book’s history being far more enticing than its words! The mystery element lay in the whys and wherefores of the author’s life: Nottinghamshire? Hong Kong? Why? How? I yearned to know but, alas, despite the wonders of the net and having a few pals in the Hong Kong police, enquiries drew a blank and the conundrum remains.

Although ‘my’ patch in Asia is a bit sparse re charity shops it does nonetheless excel in a fine line of second-hand book stores – travellers and expats their main contributors and customers. I refer here to the lovely Merman Books in Bangkok and the restful Leisure Books in Hong Kong where Milky the cat should be meeting and greeting but spends most of her time curled up and snoozing atop ‘children’. Never mind. Although much of their English-language stock comprises the usual assortment of dated travel guides and ‘literature’ of the yawningly-awful airport tat variety, gems can sometimes surface. In this instance two old editions of Alan Sillitoe books.

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However did a 1962 and 1967 printing of The General and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner respectively, both Pan Books Ltd priced at 2/6, turn up so far from home? They certainly don’t strike me as the sort of books packed by long-haul backpackers heading for a lengthy Asian sojourn, neither in 1962 nor in 2013 when we stumbled upon them, not the sort of books a booky-type would easily give up either. Although not keen on defaced books, I have to admit the modern habit of successive owners noting some identification to the inner front cover would certainly have added value, curiosity-wise, here. No, I suspect these were probably offered up by a long-term resident, maybe from a deceased person’s house clearance, maybe from a retiree, may be from an ex-Royal Hong Kong Police Officer and Commander of the Special Task Force, Hong Island until 1976, just maybe. As an ardent map- and travel-buff, Alan Sillitoe would doubtless be elated at their having swopped hands so distantly.

Having spent the last ten years in Nottingham and being frequent library visitors we were constantly dismayed by the lack of Sillitoe books available, is there no demand or were they simply always out? Time after time, still no Sillitoe. Local hero? Didn’t seem it. (Editor’s note: As of today spread out across Nottingham City Libraries there are 34 copies of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and 17 of Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, suggesting they must be regularly loaned out if Ben was unable to find them. But it does raise the issue of making greater prominence of local fiction in libraries)

Alan Sillitoe features in Issue 12 of Dawn of the Unread. It includes a homage to Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Alan Sillitoe features in Issue 12 of Dawn of the Unread. It includes a homage to Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

So we thought, having just returned to Hong Kong and expecting even less, let’s see what they can do here. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a total of 52 works – novels and biographies – in English within the Hong Kong library system. A good start, now for the acid test and a visit to our local branch in Shatin to see what’s available. They had three Sillitoe books (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Death of William Posters and Understanding Alan Sillitoe by Gillian Mary Hanson). A reasonable result, putting some Notts libraries to shame…

The return stamps suggested a healthy lending rate since the mid-90s though modern computerised systems of course wouldn’t show up as such. I asked the delightful Miss Wong (librarian) if it was possible to determine more accurate circulation statistics, but unfortunately no. Incidentally, the cover of the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning edition depicted a smashed bottle of Shippo’s and a pack of 20 Gold Leaf, a nice touch and a strange feeling to see two home-grown icons so far around the globe, could almost have been planted by the Nottingham tourist people themselves! Anyway, no Chinese versions but I did note several translated Graham Greenes on the library website. So with moderate success we decided to check a bookshop too, one of the largest chains in Hong Kong: Swindon Books Co. Ltd; they also scored okayish with current editions of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Guzman Go Home. Not bad, but it could be better! So why isn’t our man more popular, or at least as popular as some of the more accepted imports, Conrad, Maugham, Greene?

Graham Greene makes an appearance in Issue 14 of Dawn of the Unread

Graham Greene makes an appearance in Issue 14 of Dawn of the Unread

Well, Sillitoe certainly had direct Far East experience having spent a couple of years in Malaya with the RAF during the Emergency as a Morse code and wireless specialist; during which time he developed a love for the landscape, people and culture, even attempting to learn the local language, Bahasa Malay. Worthy snatches of this period appear in a few stories particularly, Key to the Door (1961), The Lost Flying Boat (1983) and Lost Loves (1991) introducing such exotic destinations as Penang, Butterworth, Kedah Peak (all in Malaya, now Malaysia) and Seletar (now in Singapore). The Asian milieu is pleasingly described. Oddly enough some Asian lives, those too often mired in desperation and pity, nicely parody a number of Sillitoe’s stories drawn from 50s Nottingham. Those unfortunate souls finding themselves entrapped in a humdrum existence which they generally put up with until a minor physical escape, could be via a day trip, hobby, boozing or flirting, aids their sudden realisation that a solution lies within. Consequently they rediscover themselves and, in doing so, return rejuvenated and more accommodating to the life they led before.

Hong Kong publishing and modern culture abounds with such imagery, the local music industry churns out myriad Cantopop videos in which a forlorn singer stares melancholically into nothingness whilst crooning-on about some personal injustice, you get similar in China (Mandopop), Japan (J-Pop) and Korea (K-Pop) and it drives you bloody nuts because they’re all the bloody same !

Sillitoe’s stories should really have no problem in capturing local imagination, time for a run of translated works perhaps? Deffo, ‘Gerrit bleddy sorted,’ I can almost hear Arthur Seaton yell. After all China is a huge market and a receptive one too, so is Japan, they’re madly in love (just like in the J-Pop videos) with anything quaintly British, time to introduce Nottinghamu as they call us; Nottinghamu and the Seatons seen through manga? An enticing prospect and although admittedly a respectable number of Sillitoe novels do exist in proper Japanese I could only find one Chinese (Mandarin) version: Xingqi Liu Wanshang he Xingqi Ri Zaochen or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – a very sad result!

It’s sad because they love reading here, in tiny Hong Kong alone there are 68 public libraries, 163 community libraries and 12 mobile libraries to fill in the gaps, and they’re all well used. Library closures?  – not here comrade, they’ve even more planned. Could Hong Kong’s educational top-of-world-league status have anything to do with this reading frenzy? You decide.

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