Thursday, 3 May 2012

new life plan: go live at Blackwell's in Oxford

Last July I got an email from Euan and Zool at Blackwell's in Oxford asking me to go hang with them when 'Weird Things...' was released. So, I did, and it was a very lovely time indeed. Here's why.

Zool asked me to spend a day with them at the bookshop, writing poetry inspired by each section of their store. Now, I'd never been to their bookshop before. I hopped on a train to Oxford, after getting myself very lost at The London Book Fair [I'd gone to do an interview for Shelf Awareness in the States], and wandered along Broad Street in search of Blackwell's. It's not hard to miss. The shop takes up most of the street - with an art and music branch across the road. They also had a poster of my face in the window - a very bizarre experience, made even more odd with a passerby pointing at it, and then at me, and saying 'Is that you, then?'

Do you feel, like I do, that bookshops are like safe havens [except when it's the one you're working in, obviously ;)]? It's raining outside. You step inside a bookshop, and suddenly everything's ok. Well, that's how this felt, coupled with how I imagine Belle felt when she discovered the Beast's library.

True fact. We do.

Blackwell's in Oxford is incredible. It has over 200,000 books on five floors. They have anything and everything; they even have secondhand section and an antiquarian section where all the very expensive books are kept behind locked glass cases. The lovely Euan showed me round, I then went and dumped my stuff at the flat above their music shop, where I was staying for the night, and met up with the booksellers later for drinks and chat. They'd just finished Oxford Lit fest - organising 300 author events in 9 days. That kind of makes my head hurt. In a nice way.

The following day, I went to the staff briefing at 9am. It's completely different to my own staff briefing of a morning in the bookshop, which simply consists of me reminding myself what I'm supposed to be doing that day. Blackwell's is very organised, and obviously huge, but everyone working there is passionate about what they're doing; they all work in their own sections, handselling the books they love.

For the rest of the day, I split my time wandering around each section of the shop, writing. After the 100 Poem Challenge, I hadn't attempted another 'write poems within time frame' thing, so I was a little nervous about it. I was also conscious of customers eying me wandering around with my laptop, like I was one of THOSE people: buying books on Amazon whilst in a bookshop. The horror, and oh the irony. Anyway.

I started in the antiquarian and secondhand sections, curled up on an armchair, surrounded by all the old books, and wrote. I gave each poem the name of a book in that particular section. This one was 'The Lost World.' [extract]

...The leather whispers to remind us 
of evacuees. Their outgrown name tags. 
Please take us in...

After spending an hour there, it was on to the classics and history section. A poem called 'Philosopher-Kings': [extract]

...The gods battle for quarters of the earth.  
Like it’s an orange and this is half time.  

They scrape together, nestle, bite.  
For language.  
For the sun and the planets.  
Hercules turfed out of his home  
and slaying all mythology...

Third section: language and drama. A poem called 'The Translation Zone' [extract]:

...An array of penguins. 
          Book-binding birds.

Mother tongues chasing 
the carpets, looking for their children....

Number four: the children's section. I couldn't resist buying a copy of Tove Jansson's 'Alice', which I'd been lusting after for ages.

For this section, a poem called 'The Magician's Book': [extract]:

...This is Lyra’s Oxford 
and if books had daemons 
they’d whisper stories as well – 
before and after the main one had finished. 

They’d chatter fairy tales in our ears 
before we’re even born....

The fifth section was The Norrington Room [non-fiction section], in the basement. That part of the bookshop, the first time I saw it actually nearly made me cry. That sounds pathetic, I know, but shhh - I'm a book-loving wimp. It sports over three miles of shelving, and you can't see the other sides of the room when you stand in the middle. It also has a stage and, for two months of the year, in the evenings, actors come and perform. When I was there they were performing Hamlet and The Odyssey.

Pretty amazing, right?

So. For the last poem - it was called 'A short history of nearly everything.' [extract]

...Now we go below the ground 
to where the trains run. 
Illustrations chase us there. 

God sits down in his many forms. 

A customer jokes that this used to be  
a swimming pool. That it’s 
like an internet catalogue  
breathing underground. Hibernating...

& there we go. I had a wonderful time writing poems in the bookshop - I could have stayed there for longer - weeks, probably, and written even more. The sheer volume of things waiting to be read, sitting on the shelves is, in itself, powerful. Euan said that, when he walks through the shop, it's like the books have souls and they keep on nudging him, saying 'Why haven't you read me yet?'

That evening, after the bookshop closed, we held an event for 'Weird Things...' where I talked about the poetry writing I'd done, and read the poems out. We obviously also talked about 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' and some of the other booksellers and I read out scenes from the book. Here are some of those:

'Weird Things...' and poetry seems like an odd combination, but it worked surprisingly well! I'm very touched that Blackwell's are now having the poems handwritten, and will be framing each one and hanging them up in their corresponding sections. So, if you're in Oxford, you can go and read the poems in full.

I'll be going back to the shop on the 7th of July, for 'Alice' day. Authors will be reading aloud from 'Alice' all day; I believe the booksellers will be dressing up, too. All manner of tea party related things, and lots of 'unbirthday' songs. I'm looking forward to it a lot. Through the Looking Glass is, after all, my favourite book.

Thank you, lovely booksellers of Blackwell's, Oxford - it was amazing. x


  1. I love book stores, the bigger the better, we no longer have an independent bookstore in my town, as far as I know, just waterstones and WH Smith, there isn't much room to swing a cat in waterstones.

    They used to have a larger one in the shopping centre which is far better. I'm going to have to pay a visit to this one :)

  2. Sounds lovely.

    I'm jealous of that Tove Jansson version, might have to give in and buy one myself.

  3. My daughter performed West Side Story there a few weeks back - it is an amazing place. The show was good too :)

  4. Hugh - do! The illustrations are delightfully creepy

  5. It was a wonderful evening at Blackwells with you. A real privilege to meet you and hear those,wonderful poems first-hand. I share your reaction to the Norrington Room. First saw it 36 years ago and was completely overawed. Best thing in Oxford by a long chalk!

  6. Jen - from all of us at Blackwell's, thank you. Our love for you knows no bounds


  7. Books are about all I've ever had too:

    You're life's all shattered into smithereens.

    Back in our silences and sullen looks,
    for all the Scotch we drink, what's still
    between 's
    not the thirty or so years, but books, books,

    When in later years he was forced on more
    than one occasion to sell his belongings to
    satisfy his creditors, his precious books
    were the objects he held on to with the
    fiercest determination, taking precedence
    even over his paints, the tools of his trade.

    (Penelope Hughes-Hallett. The Immortal Dinner. Penguin, 2000).

    And here is the scene in Blackwell's from the TV dramatisation of my favourite novel.

  8. I LOVE Blackwells in Oxford. It was my favourite thing about working in Oxford, stopping there on my way back to the train station.

  9. This blackwells looks amazing - i think i may have to take a day trip to oxford!