Thursday, 15 December 2011

Whitman & Co.

Mortality kicks in. My mum once told me she’d been to three funerals in a week, and I’m starting to know how she was feeling. In the past weeks, and limiting this to the Anglo bookworld, Peter Reading, Christopher Logue, Gilbert Adair, Russell Hoban, George Whitman – have died. It’s bloody.

Logue and Adair I’ve mentioned. Russell Hoban I first met in the 80s; I was living round the corner, and asked if I could show him some stories for children I’d written, which were crap, and he said so in the kindest possible way, by praising the illustrations done by my wife. George Whitman I met in November of last year, when three of the CBe writers read at the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris. It was a little late for me to have done so. The NY Times obituary quotes his own estimate of 40,000 writerly wanderers having been put up – been given bed and pancakes, in return for a few hours work and talk and a promise to read – in that shop over the years. Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian: ‘The shop was open from midday till midnight and, if you needed a place to stay, you could sleep in one of the beds hidden under the bookshelves . . . I found a second home at Shakespeare and Company. George always gave special privileges to writers – he lent me his dog to keep me company. He was an affront to modern capitalism, because he ran a successful business that put people, culture and books before money. He made his own world, and that is the best that anyone can do.’

Founded in 1951, a port in a storm for Durrell & Burroughs & Ginsberg & Ferlinghetti and countless others since, Shakespeare & Co has become ‘heritage’, a place to tick off on the tourist map. It can’t help but. Is it just that? Because of George Whitman, and because of Sylvia his daughter, no. They still take in the tumbleweeds. They still have a whole floor of books that are there not for selling but for reading, that’s a library from which you can borrow for free. Saara Marchadour, ex the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill, now works there. If not exactly your own home, it’s like your best friend’s home: a place more interesting, more exciting, than your own, and you wish it was yours, and though you’ll leave or it will kick you out, because that’s the other thing homes are for, it will still be there.

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