Sunday 24 June 2018

A Unique Bookshop for Alice


In these days of bookshop chains and publishing conglomerates there is much compensatory talk among readers and writers regarding the value of more independent publishing and private booksellers and bookshops.

This has been on my mind this week because I spent a very happy afternoon in a bookshop in my home town of Bishop Auckland, talking with the bookseller about my new book Becoming Alice out this week on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. With my writing friend Avril Joy I was talking with the bookseller Gordon Draper about arranging a book signing for Becoming Alice in his shop in the near future.

In recent years my home town of Bishop Auckland has been brought back to life by the advent of the Auckland Project* which is developing new art galleries, enhancing the historic market square and the buildings that enclose it. The Auckland Project is refurbishing the historic bishop’s Castle and its Park as well as  initiating a fascinating  archaeological recovery of its centuries’ old kitchen gardens.

In the early days a person involved in this project said to me how strange it was that it a place with this history - both distant and recent -  should have no bookshop. But it does have a bookshop of a rather unusual kind on the little street off the marketplace called Bondgate. Not unnaturally the shop is called Bondgate Books.

But this is a bookshop with a difference. When you enter its 18th century doorway you enter a world of book-magic: a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books, The books and papers are stacked from floor-to-ceiling, as well as in boxes and piles on the floor.

Gordon Draper, the Aladdin of the unique Bondgate Books, has been a market book trader going back 30 years. His father before him also dealt in books and - Gordon tells me - was instrumental of bringing magazines like Private Eye to the north-east. Gordon himself still has bookstalls in markets in Darlington, Middlesbrough and on the quayside in Newcastle.

I have a friend who regularly shops there. He tells me he has acquired some literary treasures there at a decent price. The second-hand stock extends from contemporary best-selling fiction - to books from the early 20th and late 19th century - now collectible is a very decent price. There are early 20th century mining textbooks, books on the history of Scotland, of the North East, of Yorkshire. In Gordon’s shop you will find  books on football, books on both world wars, books on science fiction and fantasy, books and nature and science. You name it, Gordon stocks it.

You might wonder how you might find your way around this cornucopia of print. You just need to express your interest and the Aladdin of this particular book cave -  who knows all his books - will lead you to them.

Gordon finds me a very old map of the North. (I love maps). ‘Look!’ he says. ‘No A1!’
There are bargains everywhere here, but Gordon knows the value of his stock ‘See this! £50. See this? Worth £100!’ Collectors call on him regularly to check his stock. He knows their interests and on his travels keeps an eye open for books to match their taste and their pocket.

As for myself, having written novels for so many years, it’s no surprise to me that many of them now are doing the rounds in the second-hand book trade. Gordon seems to know who I was and tells me he has sold many of my novels through the years. He darts away and finds a copy of my novel Family Ties. He gives it to me to sign, carefully finding a rubber to rub out the present price. I am intrigued that my signature may make a difference to the price.
To Buy 

Gordon seems pleased that I will be happy come to sign copies of my new novel Becoming Alice here in his shop. I explain to him that the story Becoming Alice takes place between 1941 and 1951 and is set in this part of Durham and also in post-war London. The story culminates in the Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank in 1951.

 So, I think, this book could very well interest local readers and also some of the more cosmopolitan tourists who are coming into Bishop Auckland to see the changes and visit the regular stunning Kynren spectacular associated with The Auckland Project.

Thinking of my signing event, it occurs to me that some of the other books here also illustrate some of the historic times between 1941 and 1951. I can just picture such books all around me, as Avril and I sit at a little table in a cleared corner, coffee cups in hand, signing copies of Becoming Alice and sharing stories with readers. I would guess that the cross-section of readers here will be rather larger than in the more conventional bookshop.

As we leave the shop. Gordon vanishes again and a return with some flower books and prints for Avril who has mentioned that she is keen on such sources for her collaging.

I will be signing copies of Becoming Alice at Bondgate Books in Bishop Auckland between 2 and  4 o’clock on 2nd August. 

Be nice to see you there.


Becoming Alice Paperback:
Damselfly Books :

Tuesday 19 June 2018

White Silk Tassels

From A Life in Short Pieces: Piece Five. 

White Silk Tassels.

I met my first proper friend, Iris in the year before my father died. I was eight and she was fourteen. For some reason we made friends. At the time I didn’t think this was strange. Iris has been much in my mind in recent decades when - wearing my writer’s cloak - I have been interrogating my own past.

I realise only now -   a generation later – that in my encounter with her I somehow witnessed a kind of
War damage in Coventry
hidden incest. I think I only really recognise this as I was writing the following piece, White Silk Tassels, sixty years later. I realise now that it must have stuck in my child’s mind because, having been my friend for many months, my friend Iris vanished and was never seen again.

Assembling all these feelings and ideas and thinking about my own life at the time as a child in Coventry  the implication of this disappearance dawned on me. In recent years there has been a certain amount of discussion about the phenomenon of recovered memory. I suppose as writers we dip into recovered memory and respond with various kinds of truth and fiction. Perhaps all writing involves both recovered and false memory
But writing this short piece called White Silk Tassels my recovered memory was suddenly moulded into an idea – a final explanation as to why my friend vanished.

I think as well that this memory dug deeper because of the contiguous events of my father’s death.

White Silk Tassels

Men  open their mouths wide
Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos
 at Coventry Cathedral, first conceived
 in the aftermath of the war. Image: Ben Sutherland,  

their teeth bite, bite like lions
their nails are sharp as pussy cat claws.
They go for the cream, lapping it up
with their sandpaper tongues.

In her auntie’s house  my friend sits
on her bedspread; it’s white silk tassels
sweep the linoleum, red as a cat’s tongue.
Her aunt and uncle have red faces too –
his more bulbous, hers pale and sharp as razors.

Weeks go by and the white tassels vanish,
one by one – bitten off by naughty pussycats,
according to her uncle. Our houses - Jerry-built –
are fenced in with chicken wire
but,  unlike me,  Iris has no chickens.

My father - prone to mild mistakes -
bought a dozen chicks for breakfast eggs.
He swings, his golden ring above their fluffy heads.
It swings to the left, so he was wrong.
These fluffy chicks are cocks, every one.

So, no morning chucky eggs for us, love!
Still, we feed these boys, clean their cage,
cluck over them like mother hens.
Come Christmas time we have to wring their necks
Not Daddy – all soft heart – but my uncle does the job,
smiling as his fingers squeeze out their little chicken lives.

Come Christmas too, my good friend Iris
has stolen her own savings - they say -
and run away.  Her red-faced auntie calls her
a sly cat, bad to the core and so ungrateful,
as she burns the white bed-spread in the garden
fenced all round with chicken wire.

Monday 11 June 2018

Piece Four: Mothers and Daughters.

From A Life in Short Pieces: Piece Four:

Mothers and Daughters.

By mother died more than 20 years ago just about the time when my first children’s novel Theft was published. She read this novel in proof, staying up overnight to finish it. As the novel was substantially based on a fictionalised tale from her own youth - as I have said in Piece One (scoll down), she was always the heroine of her own stories - I was quite anxious about her reaction.

Always sparing in praise, she had to admit that she really liked the novel and couldn’t put it down. She didn’t refute any of the contextual facts and information which I had researched without any reference to her. I was only sorry that she didn’t see Theft between hard covers know that the world respected my fiction.

My mother has always been there alongside me,  not quite haunting me but standing at my shoulder when I moved up the professional ladder and when all the books emerged, when my children had their own challenges and achievements.

 Part of that process has been that I often dream of her, still seeking her approval as I did when I was a little girl. The piece below, however, did not come from a dream. I think I had a kind of vision of her there with their arms raised at the top of my stairs. A ghost? I felt it was a kind of visitation and was compelled to write about it in these terms.

Translucent Butter Muslin

I wake up trembling –
time – ringing,
nerves vibrating
invoking the Angelus.

I see you standing on my landing
Dressed in yellow, arms raised
back-lit in translucent butter muslin:
this vision of you  pulses
like the Evening Star
before my eyes.

I see you in another place all rusty hair and
red fluffy coat. I see you in a blue crêpe dress,
toggled at the neck in amber.
Then I see you standing smiling.
My father stoops and slings his arm
 around your shoulder.

Best of all I see you standing
straight and crisp, blue uniformed
and silver buckle belted. But now again
you come to me, standing there,
arms raised, wearing yellow -
radiant in translucent butter muslin.

Sunday 10 June 2018

A Life in Short Pieces: A Daughter's Tale

A Life in Short Pieces: Piece Three. 

My father died when I was eight years old. I have missed him in
spurts on rites-of-passage days,  feast days and holidays for the whole of my life. 

But I miss him with a child’s perception. The child’s  perception is acute and long-lived. This piece contains the essence of my residual feeling for him.

A Daughters Tale

Remember how we walked along, you and me,
Your giant’s hand holding up mine, your  
long fingers poking inside my woollen sleeve?
Remember the nights she left for work -
you read the paper as I scaled your knew
and settled birdlike into that rustling space.

Remember how we cut out pictures
and pasted them into the Panjandrum book.
Remember how you told us stories –
your voice going up and down
like a red rocking horse
singing the story into the air.

Now look at our own youngest boy -
two generations down the line -
standing tall for Tai Kwan Do,
white clad and obliquely Oriental -
or cricket-ready, complete with face-guard.
This one can be pedantic. Like you. Like me.

A long lifetime ago, when
I passed your dying age of thirty seven
it dawned on me how very young
you must have been,  
when you abandoned
your life and mine.

At that time, to my childhood self
you really did seem very old. I had no way then
to process the despair that dug
so deep inside me. And I learned for the first time -
but not the last - to endure deep nameless hurt
in silence.

Note: It has just occurred to me that I plumbed the childhood depths of this experience when I created Demelza – ‘you can call me Dee’ – who elects not to speak at all in my novel The Bad Child.

Thursday 7 June 2018

A Place for Naming

 From 'A Life in Short Pieces.'

This piece was written for and to my late mother who is never far from my thoughts. My relationship with her was part of my understanding of the relationship between Ruth Kelman and her daughter Alice in my forthcoming novel Becoming Alice. This sometimes vexed  relationship between mothers and daughters is also explored in my recent novel The Bad Child.

This piece is about a christening.

Piece No.2. A Place for Naming

The third of four children,
I slipped out – barely noticed
among the dogs of war
and other fine distractions.

In later years I made you tea,
passed hard examinations –
and wrote so many books
just to warm your heart
and catch your eye.  

I think about the family legend –
you were always heroine of your own tales –
 of me in your arms and you walking
to the church in the snow
– his arm around you.

Both waist deep in snow –
visiting church to rid yourself of sin
and to endow me with
a name made up by the man
who loved lost boys.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

A Life in Short Pieces

I am currently in the final stages of completing my novel About Alice. This is the first of three short novels with the overall title Lifespan which will cover the years between 1941 to the year 2000. These novels are fictional but -  not coincidentally - cover the approximate to my own lifespan.

This is not a new idea for me. A few years ago I published a short book of very short pieces – let’s not call them poems - about elements in my own life. I published this small book and it is still I think on Amazon. I have revisited these pieces and, I hope made them sharper and more precise.
I thought I might post them in an occasional series, one by one, on Life Twice Tasted for your simple enjoyment.  


A Life in Short Pieces


 Piece One 


To begin anything
I must bring about
the end of earlier things.

Conception is the end
of one of their
in the beginning of another.

Birth is an end
of a secret affair
and the beginning

of love out there
in the open,
lasting a lifetime

And so on, scrawling back to Eve -
and even she engendered
the end of Adam’s spare rib.

2013 and 2018


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