I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls…
The words of this song drummed through my head yesterday as I walked the bright white malls of the Metro Centre, marvelling at its day-lighted openness and its seemingly endless colourful array of goods to buy.
Even my best friend wouldn’t call me a shopper but I have to admit I'm very tempted as I move through Marks & Spencer and make my way to my destination: WHSmiths
I have always loved WHSmiths – buying school stuff for my kids at the beginning of term and for myself - ink pens, ink, notebooks , biros, pencils, paints and art books. As well as all this, in the recent decade I’ve enjoyed the way WHSmiths' book stock has expanded to incorporate a wide range of titles, from useful factual books to an extensive range of fiction, including prizewinning titles, well priced classical works as well as fiction ranging from the so-called literary to the so-called popular mainstream fiction: all great to pick up after you've bought your pens and protractors!
So it’s a wonderful treat to see my own books on their shelves - Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker amongst others. My special treat today is -alongside my writer friend Benita Brown and Headline’s petite Scottish whirlwind manager Gillian Mackay - to have tea and cakes with WHS manager David Shapiro and his assistant manager Darren.
David (whom I met last year alongside the dynamic WHS Northern boss Peter Day) is both a keen reader and very interested in the writing process, so we have lots on common. Add to that the fact that he - like me - loves France, and we are away! David tells me a very good ghost story which I've tucked away to think about later. Anyway, after coffee, cakes and much talk, Benita and I get down to signing piles of our books, while Gillian and David stick on the pretty silver stickers.
Too soon, we have to leave, to get to Waterstones, where they are very polite and have their nice piles of books, but sadly we have no opportunity here for book talk. So now we break for a sandwich lunch in Debenhams (scarlet blouses, nice shoes…) More book talk here - about what makes a good cover, a good agent, a good editor, a good story location and an historical novel as opposed to a contemporary one. And we talked about Gillian's cats - 'the girls'.
I have a great fancy for a cat. I tell her about my daughter Debora's cats
Then on, on, from the faux marble halls of the Metro Centre to the concrete jungle of Washington, a Sixties new town, built near Washington Village, the ancestral home of the family that bred George Washington, father of the American nation.
Norman (Benita’s husband) is kindly driving us but when we reach the town his satnav goes crazy, sending us up blind alleys and - one time - nearly back out of town. At last, though, we're saved by a lone taxi driver who tells us to aim for the Gala Bingo and the Police Station. So we edge our way nearer the library.
We end up in a Kafkaesque spot – all grey walls with their backs turned to us and concrete steps leading nowhere. We venture up one flight of concrete steps, then another, then along a concrete walkway. Still we are lost. We ask a lone passerby where the library might be and he points towards a wall of glass just beside us.
Glory be! Here it is! Once inside the building we’re in another world: a brand new state-of-the-art library with curving shelves, bright open spaces and friendly faces. Library heaven! We're treated to a good welcome with tea and biscuits before we go to meet a wonderful crowd of readers who ask intelligent and interesting questions - not just about our current novels, but about earlier ones (eg The Lavender House ( my London novel) and A Woman Scorned (about Mary Ann Cotton, allegedly a 19th Century Mass murderer) - which they had also read!
They are a great bunch of people. So, the odyssey through the concrete jungle has been well worth it. Such a pity that the forbidding concrete, the back- turned design, the baffling, unlabelled roadways, should hide away this community of great people.
Come to think of it, there may be a novel in there somewhere…