Friday, 22 April 2016

Travelling in bookshops

Bookshops sell travel books, and in the case of some (Daunt's, on the Marylebone Road in London, or Stamford's in Long Acre) specialise in them. But this isn't a post about buying travel books.

Rather, I've been fascinated by how we can use bookshops to travel in time and space.

For instance: I had an hour to waste at Hualamphong Station in Bangkok before my train to Nong Khai could be boarded. So I did what I so often do when I'm waiting for a train at home - headed to the station press kiosk and bookshop, and browsed the magazine racks.

I don't happen to read Thai. Fortunately most of the titles are in English, even when the rest of the magazine is in Thai only (some have the occasional page in English, probably advertising). The pictures on the cover also give you an idea of what's inside.

And what a fascinating little journey I was on! Here were no fewer than three magazines addressing that little known (to farangs, anyway) niche market, the Thai Cowboy. On some future tour, I have to identify and visit some of these Thai Cowboys; I can't think of anywhere less like the Wild West, and Thais are not exactly ringers for the lonesome, rugged heroes of the western, but somewhere, on the trail of the lonesome banyan, a Thai cowboy waits for me.

Most tourists do know about Thai amulets. If you're a Buddhist you'll have been given a few. But I was taken aback to find a whole shelf of magazines devoted to amulet collecting. (Imagine someone took over your local WH Smiths and replaced all the home and garden and interior decorating section by magazines about crucifixes and St Christopher medallions - which one to buy, which are the most effective, how to spot fakes, how much to pay... That's the size of section I'm talking about.) It seems that Thai men don't do DIY, don't collect stamps, don't have model railways; they have amulet collections. (I say men: it's usually been men I've seen haggling at the amulet markets. I may be wrong.)

I was also pleased to see that Hello Kitty thrives in Thailand. Given the national love of pink, and the national love of cute, I should have expected it, but it was still nice when Thai ladies came over to admire my Hello Kitty watch (100 baht from MBK), and nicer still to see Hello Kitty stationery. Stationery shopping being, of course, just as good a way into a nation as bookshopping.

India is quite different. Station bookstores in India show you very well how this country has evolved into a masterly agglomeration of cultures, taking in influences and conquerors alike and popping them into the pot where they simmer down and, in their turn, become Indian. First of all you get a mix of languages from English (US version), English (UK version) and English (Indian version) through Hindi to the 'local' languages whether Gujarati, Bengali, Telegu, Malayalam, Tamil...

And you get a weird cultural mix. Lots of management magazines - India is in some ways a technocracy, where business schools have immense pull on the imagination and Chetan Bhagat's clever novels of a modern India of callcentre workers and computer geeks are to be found everywhere - jostle for space with devotional texts or the Mahabharata told for children, cool white shirts and office blocks with technicolour pastels of dancing gopis, and warlike Shivas in electric blue. There are railway timetable books that look as if they've arrived from the 1950s with typography and paper quality to match, though alas there are no steam trains in their pages any more, and local papers for which Dilli door ast* might be a suitable motto.

And travelling in time? For that you need a secondhand bookshop, like Poor Richard's, in Felixstowe. There  are fewer of them than there used to be, even on the Charing Cross Road, the name of which used to be synonymous with secondhand bookshops, but a good one will still take you back through time, and teaches an interesting lesson in humility if you have the patience for it.

Secondhand bookshops give us glimpses of what was fashionable once. The date of that 'once' varies from shop to shop. In some, you find the earlier 20th century; no Joyce, not much Woolf, but huge piles of Hugh Walpole, Maurice Baring, Somerset Maugham. In others, the 60s and 70s; lots of Roots, Fear of Flying, Valley of the Dolls. (And once, gloriously, an original Whole Earth Cookbook which I snapped up for a quid.) If you wanted to compile a piece on popular culture of a particular date - or rather, middlebrow culture, not the pulp fiction or the Mills and Boon - you couldn't do better than to start with a good secondhand bookshop.

The humility? When I look at all these books, and when I consider how very few of them are still regarded - how very few have anything much to say to us now, and how many have sunk without trace - it makes me feel very humble as a writer. It makes me, almost, despair.

It's the antithesis of the great library. A great college or royal or museum library is like a heaven for books; a great illuminated psalter, a Newton or Blake manuscript, first editions of Scott or Tennyson or Beckett, can make us all dream. The signature in the front of a neat little Aldine printed text, 'Sum Erasmi', suddenly brings you close to that great humanist. But a secondhand bookshop is the purgatory of books, where they wait in fear and trembling, destined perhaps, eventually, for heaven... but more than likely for the yawning gates of hell and its eternal fires (or more probably the slow mouldering of landfill).

Of course the reductio ad absurdum of all this is the plethora of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey now to be found in charity shops, replacing How to Dress which was the charity shop book of five years ago and the rag rolling paint books and Kaffe Fasset knitting and embroidery books ten years back. I did enjoy Oxfam's wonderful idea of turning all those copies of Fifty Shades into a fort.

* Dilli door ast - 'Delhi is far away': the words of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, 

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