When I arrive at about 10.30am on Saturday 12 August, the fair is up and running but there’s no sign of Janet, my editor/publisher’s partner and Confingo’s only outward-facing representative (Tim prefers to keep a low profile). One reason I got here only half an hour into the fair was so that I might beat my Manchester neighbour Adrian Slatcher, who has indicated he might come along, to any bargains, so, while there’s no sign of him either, I have a mooch around and come up with a yellowed and slightly battered 1975 Picador edition of Bob Dylan: A Retrospective edited by Craig McGregor. I buy this off the organiser, Lee Stannard, who also kindly gives me a copy of Broken Sky, his collection of stories and poems (pictured below).
I decide to take a reasonably long walk down Memory Lane to Headingley, where I used to visit old friends Mark Morris and Nel Whatmore when we were all a lot younger. There is, you see, these days, an Oxfam Bookshop in Headingley. I text my publisher, telling him there’s no sign of Janet. Headingley looks rather different from how it looked in the late 1980s. There’s a Pizza Express and an artisan baker in addition to the Oxfam Bookshop, which fills two rooms with great bounty and promise. I’m almost too excited to start looking, but I get a grip and go straight to the Fiction shelves. My first find is Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge by Evan S Connell. You’ll see I’ve put all of that in italics even though, as you no doubt know, Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge were separate novels, first published in 1959 and 1969 respectively, but Picador issued them together in this 1987 publication. Picador created similar combined volumes for a number of authors including Bruno Schulz, Marcel Pagnol, Henry Green, Samuel Beckett and Martha Gellhorn, as well as crime writers Raymond Chandler, James M Cain, James Lee Burke, James Crumley, Dashiell Hammett, Carl Hiaasen, and Jim Thompson. They also published ‘readers’ for Beckett and Burroughs. I have all of these, but no doubt there are others I don’t have.
Moving through the alphabet, I find a Penguin edition of Andrea Newman’s Three Into Two Won’t Go, which will go nicely with my other Andrea Newman titles in Penguin with their uniform photographic covers by Elisabeth Novick. I remember seeing Peter Hall’s 1969 adaptation of Three Into Two Won’t Go with Rod Steiger, Judy Geeson and Claire Bloom. In my Film 81 notebook (one of a series of blue, hardbacked exercise books dating from the late 70s and early 80s) I see I rated it an A but only the sixth best film I saw on television in January that year (Wait Until Dark, The Graduate, Papillon, Charlie Bubbles and Spring and Port Wine were, in my generally precocious opinion, all better than it).
I also pick out Paul Sayer’s third novel, The Absolution Game (I already have his first two in my slowly growing white-spined Sceptre collection) and three more Picadors – Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt, Nicholas Shakespeare’s The Vision of Elena Silves and Josef Skvorecky’s The Swell Season.
At the till, I tell the volunteer it’s one of the best Oxfam Bookshops I’ve visited. He tells me confidently that it’s actually the seventh best. When I ask him what he means, he says it has the seventh highest turnover. He shows me a list. You can’t really argue with that.
Tim texts me back. Janet’s car broke down near Rochdale, but she continued her journey by train and should be there by the time I get back to town. Indeed, an hour later, I find her deep in conversation with a gentleman from Co Wicklow who puts forward some surprising views on psychopaths and sociogenesis or is it psychosociogenesis? It’s hard to follow his argument, partly because of his half-whisper and the distracting way the corners of his mouth turn up as he approaches the end of every sentence. Janet doesn’t let him leave until she has introduced me as the author of the book in front of her and asked him straight out if he’s going to buy a copy. His tenner is already earmarked for a couple of hefty volumes from the secondhand stalls, but he’ll get more money and come back, he tells her. When he’s gone I tell her he won’t come back and she insists he will. Do I want to bet on it, Janet asks; 50p is suggested. I accept.
Janet could not be more different from me, and indeed from Tim. If anyone so much as glances towards her stall she immediately engages them and starts telling them about Confingo. When Adrian Slatcher turns up I’m delighted because it means I can be talking to him and pretend to be unable to hear her when I can actually hear her saying ‘and this is the author right here’ and the latest punter, pinned like a butterfly on a board, turns their eyes briefly in my direction. In the look I half-glimpse there is more scorn and suspicion, or just plain indifference, than I can ever remember seeing in a single human face. What’s he doing here, the look says. I’ve never heard of him. He’s rubbish. I can tell, just by looking at him. I wouldn’t buy his book if it cost 20p and each copy had a free £20 note inside it.
When Adrian goes off to visit the Tetley, which he claims is an art gallery despite its sounding much more like a public house, I tell Janet I need to make a move, but first, as if to soften the blow, I’ll have another quick look round the tables. I find a centenary issue, dated 1960, of The Cornhill Magazine featuring a story, ‘The Lorelei of the Roads’, by one of my favourite short story writers, William Sansom. Equally at home in the Pan Books of Horror Stories as in his smart jacketed collections from the Hogarth Press and Penguin paperbacks, Sansom combined an elaborate, lyrical, even musical prose style with a strong sense of the strange and macabre. And, finally, I select a Panther paperback of After the Rain by John Bowen. I’ve never heard of the author, but I like the title, I like the length (140pp) and I love the cover, which looks much more modern than 1967 (the novel was first published, by Faber, in 1958). I will read this next.
After I have left, Janet sells three books and three magazines. She’s clearly more effective without my ‘help’. I may well visit the Leeds Record and Book Fair again, but only as a punter. Also, I owe Janet 50p.