An unexpected thing happened last year which catapulted me right back to the nineteen-eighties—a place that I don’t mind revisiting at all, despite the apparently gloomier recession, not to mention the price of an Aer Lingus ticket to anywhere, with no other carrier off the island. It was also a time of almost laughably dark social laws that we had to fight morning, noon and particularly night. On top of that, the waiting list to have a phone installed could stretch to seven years. We had no landline distinction then: a phone was a phone. It would nearly make you stay in a bad marriage not to have to go out to the coinbox on the road. But oh how lovely it was to get on the boat and not to be contactable, pure heaven, total freedom, mind-enhancing silence, a space to get up to all sorts of thoughts and things in limbo land between one island and the other. And of course the visit to the bank and the queue to change punts into sterling at the Foreign Exchange counter added seriousness and grandeur to the journey. This was before boxes in the wall with money in them, before e-mail, before having to listen to the fan of pointlessness on mobile phones, before laptops, I kid you not, and here’s me still alive and dancing.
What happened was that I walked into a Liverpool bookshop called News from Nowhere and the last thirty years vanished into thin air. I was suddenly back to my stolen visits to London in the early eighties, one of which was undertaken in pursuit of a terrific opportunity to get me a new life. I won’t go into the personal circumstances that made this essential, I only do that in the rooms of friends who are versed in the rules of privacy.
It isn’t pointless remembering that drives me to write about this, although I know that one person’s nostalgia can be another person’s golden moment of revelation. What makes me think about it is that it is sometimes crucial to look at what we have almost lost, so that perhaps we can retrieve it, just in time. By that I mean the independent bookshop as meeting place, as metre of our lives, as our fresh air. Outside on the street people were edgy with talk, but in News from Nowhere everything fell away. The irregular arrangement of the shelves gave a maze-like quality to the browsing. The expressed murmurous delight at finding a treasure could not be exactly pinpointed; the stands resting at irregular angles gave the entire experience a tinge of Hundertwasser. It brought back all the bookshops of that time, among them Well Read, our own Books Upstairs, and my first port of call in London, Sisterwrite. Sisterwrite, located at 190 Upper Street in Islington, was an unapologetic feminist bookshop. And no, it’s not true that they didn’t allow men, but it is true that, certainly in the beginning, not many men went there. And before the howls of exclusion go up, let me explain that we understood the necessity of dedicated areas of study, and boy was that what was going on then. And anyway the men weren’t interested in what we were reading. Yet. Each one of us women peering starry-eyed at the titles had spent the previous hundred years, it seemed, reading books that had often left us first uneasy, then furious with longing for descriptions that made sense to us. We had reached the end of our tethers being inaccurately, patronisingly imagined. Obviously, Sisterwrite sold books by women, but not just titles published by Virago or The Women’s Press. It was full of fascinatingly obscure imports and radical magazines that dealt with things you never knew that you didn’t know. The politics were serious but not gloomy. Much of the work on display was about new definitions, an amazing amount of it about Sexuality. And Love and Longing. And Racism. How we had to learn. I should say that I wasn’t a complete innocent in any or all of this. I had already worked in the Miners’ Bar in the Australian desert, poured pints for wandering men, and done some community work down on the dry river bed where many Aborigines made their home. But Sisterwrite and its cousins gave us something else, it wasn’t about reading what we agreed with—often, in fact, it was about what we profoundly didn’t agree with, or were heretofore ignorant of: ‘I’ll buy that just to show how much better my thinking processes are’. It was with that in mind that I bought Andrea Dworkin’s Right Wing Women, and learned explanations that still stand to me. The experience of those bookshops was more about challenging than placating. We knew we were going against the cultural grain but once our feet went over the door we were in a sort of home. And as a fledgling writer I was finding the consolation of seeing work that had its eyes wide open.
If it was the polemical writing that drew me in, it was the fiction that got me. I was attempting a race away from the established myopic view of Irish lives—this would include blasphemous things like women actually thinking for themselves, not simply reacting to what mostly men writers insisted they thought. And also flying a bit further than had already been done by the few women allowed past the bouncers. The politics of course were reassuring, and sometimes amusing, but to be honest, it was easy to split my desires. It was in the Fiction corner that I proceeded to lose time.
It might be an interesting, if difficult, thing to match stories with those buying adventures, but although the events are clear in the mind I’m not sure how accurate the timelines would be. In the collision of memories—a massive pile-up—I suddenly remember picking up a book for a prisoner whom I was visiting. She was an English anarchist who had once wanted to be a rally driver. I was doing Crime and Deviance in my Sociology Studies. The reason I had been asked to visit her was because of things I had written. But when I went to see her in Mountjoy Prison I was too embarrassed (or was it too afraid?) to talk about poetry and short stories. When she finally got out she wasted no time in letting me know how disappointed she had been that I wouldn’t talk about what I was working on. And she had been afraid to ask, because maybe I wasn’t writing at all.
I remember once seeking refuge in the bookshop after a shockingly violent event when a BNP gang had swept through an alternative Finsbury Park type fleadh. The people there, the cut of their clothes, the food they ate, the magazines they sold, the hairstyles, the people they mixed with, their tolerances, the sight of their huggings, all drove the local lodge of racists totally mad. It’s the sound of the first person being hit that I remember most, the crack of fist on face, and then the hurricane-like destruction of the stalls.
Another time I left Sisterwrite, as usual delighted by my purchases, and perhaps being a bit dreamy about that and the escape route from my life that I was working out, still, I walked across the street not seeing a speeding car roaring towards me. It clipped me and sent me flying, along the footpath, luckily, instead of under its wheels. In the process of relocating my brain’s place in the outside world I had managed to become a hit and run statistic. Weirdly, I wouldn’t allow anyone to help me, but managed to get to where I was staying and was asked by an occupant of the place what star sign I was—apparently she had a remedy for Scorpios in shock. Actually she had a remedy for anyone in shock, but more of the one for Scorpios, wasn’t I lucky? As soon as she had administered this, and left me alone, I got to Euston as fast as I could and left the escape route for another time.
In thinking about those bookshop visits—those lifelines—I believe that, as readers, we took across the thresholds with us an almost overwhelming desire not just for the naming of our puzzlement but for a total restructuring of the very questions themselves. We needed bookshops that reflected our hungers. We needed the conferral of acceptance on our voracious burrowing out, our quite savage kicking aside of walls that we felt had hemmed us in. We were of the generation who had sat fuming in classrooms at our exclusions. Well, actually, we had had the nerve to bring up the word and had rather liked the possibilities that the discussion offered. And this was re-education at its most basic level, being taken on voluntarily and becoming the basis of what we believed would be a more equal, and therefore more interesting, world. The books we sought and found were astonishing in that they pushed out all the limits. They most certainly did not have blue, pink, or pastel covers! (There’s a bookshop close to me and I have to put the scarf up over my eyes when I pass it.)
So you may be wondering what ‘loss’ I am warning about. My fear is that we’re in danger of losing the challenge of those establishments. What happens now is that the window can be bought and all the exciting, innovative work has been bulldozed by giddy marketing. Too many people now make straight for the prize-winning shelf. I am not averse to the notion of the occasional prize, and yes I understand that it is a method of bringing attention to the as yet unknown, but when the bookshop experience seems like you’ve been tipped into a tombola then clearly we have lost sight of the art of finding our own books.
I know that discussing the present hurricane of prizes may seem like a hefty jump from walking into a bookshop—but I think not. I am of course seriously aware that this is a very tricky area for a writer to touch—we don’t do it because we are afraid of being accused of having sour grapes. But I’ll chance it, because far too many of us are being silenced by this tyranny and are afraid to be counted as skeptics. I see the over-emphasis of prizes as the devaluation of all those wonderful mysteries we were out looking for. For all that hope flying in on wings. For the expectation that we would have to search for a book that might satisfy our particular curiosities. Now there seems to be a conspiracy to have us all reading the same book at the same time. What could be more awful, more anathema to a non-school-goer’s right to life? Leaving aside the fact that, yes, a prize listing has become the new black—think for a moment that a multinational publishing company has control over what is even allowed to be entered, never mind what makes it for consideration. Of course the occasional maverick gets through, the occasional voice that adds a special light to the way you fit yourself in the world, but surely we must be suspicious of the narrowing consensus of what makes a good work? Suspicious of those who decide talent on marketability and on how ‘palatable’ we can make a real story. In that past era of ferocious questioning we were thoroughly exercised by who got to decide the canon. We were going to change it, forever. And we did in some ways, but unfortunately we merely handed it over to a different set of the same faces, this time including the prize givers. I have recently heard of a book being given a prize because it had been given a prize. When Ben Okri takes it on himself to advise African writers about how to make it, he may be doing so with a heavy heart. He may be suggesting a narrowing of the view to what will pass the boardroom and the new gatekeeper, who turns out to have not dissimilar tactics to the old. ‘It doesn’t sing for us,’ I was recently told, about a book I had just enjoyed. ‘I should sincerely hope not,’ I said, ‘it’s a book, not a canary.’
At the risk of sounding like a creaking fossil, I suggest that in the 1980s you didn’t buy a book because it was on The X Factor; you picked it by what was written on the back of it, and if you were fascinated by the time you’d finished reading it, you told someone else. Just in case you think that was all plain sailing, don’t get me wrong, you could make a mistake. I was once so taken by a back cover and a first page that I bought the book as a present for several people. I still cringe, because I cannot remember exactly who they are, so there are people out there who think I agree with the politics in that dreadful book that I shall not name. And yet I’ll have to admit that there’s a kind of freedom in buying a book just because there’s something on the back of it that you don’t understand, or disagree with.
What Sisterwrite and those related bookshops were about was getting varying views, not being corralled into reading one book because it has had bestowed upon it, not one, but all the prizes that year. This is a worldwide problem. The Australian novelist, David Foster, bravely brought it up when he was accepting a prize himself, the Patrick White Literary Award, the honour that White set up with his Nobel prize money specifically for authors who have made a significant, but inadequately-recognised, contribution to Australian literature. Or, as Foster put it: ‘a kind of literary loser’s compo’. He also went on to take a swipe at another, unnamed, writer (clearly J.M. Coetzee) for putting ‘his hand up for every prize, including—can you believe it?—the Randwick Council Literature Award’ despite having a Nobel and two Booker prizes. I bring this up because I am increasingly saddened for the apprentice writers who think that the only way their work can be judged is by a prize listing. I’ve been in rooms where younger writers don’t think they’re alive if they’re not on some list. How terrible. And what an awful thing for the industry to be subjecting writers to. As if it wasn’t hard enough to do the work, then to have yourself entered into a ring against your colleagues.
Fay Weldon once remarked that prize ceremonies were not so much about rewarding the chosen winner but more about watching the cheque being snatched away from the others on the list. Surely this is not what a writing life should be about. And let’s make something else clear that pertains to Irish writers. It is not true that the many large prizes are open to Irish writers as is always claimed. They cannot be entered for any of the prizes that take place in Britain unless they are published by a British publisher. And not everyone is going to be published in England, why would they be? Also clearly there is a certain type of Irish literature which will never be published there. Naturally. Now, wouldn’t it be an interesting boost to the Irish publishing industry if the Impac prize was only open to books published in Ireland? How that would change the landscape of what is lauded as representing us. Yes, I am sometimes filled with despair standing in front of a group of beginning writers who ask me about prizes. Should I tell them that if they are aiming to live a life on tenterhooks they might just be better taking up playing poker machines?
I found David Foster’s postal address and wrote him a card, congratulating him on the nerve, and he wrote back thanking me. Apparently this was not the reaction that had greeted him in the media. Our communication over the matter was heartening, but, you know, you can have such a thing as a sad dance.
Nostalgia can have its uses. Sisterwrite is long gone, as is its offspring Silver Moon. But News from Nowhere is still in Liverpool and Books Upstairs is still in Dublin (and has expanded in fact—there’s ‘flying in the face’). And in London there’s The Stoke Newington Book Shop, the Big Green Bookshop, and I hope more that I don’t know. And I have remembered why we need to get into them. If you’ve ever looked up at the swishing sound a flock of birds makes you will know that it leaves a freedom in its wake. It brush-strokes the air around you. Diving into proper bookshops can do that too.