I decide, because a former student has been on my mind, to go to Southport. From Manchester you may take a direct train to Southport, but why would you do that when you can go via Liverpool, a city with three excellent dedicated second hand bookshops to central Manchester’s one? But, because I’ve left it slightly late to set off, I don’t have time to visit Kernaghan Books, Henry Bohn Books or Reid of Liverpool. I do have time, however, to pay a quick visit to the Oxfam shop on Bold Street, which, it cannot be denied, has a bigger and better selection of books than Oxfam on Oldham Street in Manchester’s so-called Northern Quarter. Unusually, I don’t find any paperbacks to add to my growing collections, but as I pass a glass display cabinet I do a double take so dramatic I almost pull a muscle in my back. Surely that’s not a first edition of BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, his 1969 book-in-a-box published by Panther in association with Secker & Warburg and reissued in another box 30 years later by Picador? But, yes, it is, and they want 90 quid for it. I wouldn’t begrudge Oxfam 90 quid, but can I afford it? Can I justify it? The latter is easy; the money goes to good causes. As for whether I can afford it, maybe I should think about it while I’m in Southport. I can come back through Liverpool and pop into Oxfam before it closes.
On the Northern Line of the Merseyrail network I work on a short story about dead actors that I want to finish before next Tuesday, when I’m doing an event at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham with Alison Moore, Megan Taylor and Giselle Leeb. The stations pass by, their names mostly unknown to me until Formby and, later, Birkdale. I jump up, closing the laptop and almost dropping it on the platform after lurching off the train. I turn left on to Weld Road and walk, past Prince Charles Gardens, in the direction of the sea, or the beach, since the sea is invariably far, far away in this part of the world. I am a mile south of Southport proper, in Birkdale, an affluent area of Victorian and Edwardian housing. Towards the bottom of Weld Road, from 1866 until its demolition in 1969, stood the reputedly haunted Palace Hotel, which my student Alyson Byrne was using as a setting – indeed more or less a character – in the Gothic novel she was writing for her MA.
A former headmistress, Alyson had not long retired when she started the MA at the Manchester Writing School and found herself a student again, enormously popular with staff and students alike. She was great in workshops, offering honest opinions and sage advice, saying when something didn’t work, but always finding a kind way to say it. She received comments on her own work with great interest; they were almost always positive, because she was writing an excellent novel, the first of a projected trilogy, she told me in one of our tutorials, which I always looked forward to and greatly enjoyed. Anyone who knew Alyson will not mind if I say that she was one of my favourite students, a lovely, kind, vivacious, talented woman.
Alyson suspended her studies in her second year, having become poorly with a chest infection. The chest infection became pneumonia and the pneumonia, very sadly, bewilderingly, turned out to be lung cancer, and Alyson, a non-smoker, died in February of this year.
The only trace I can find of the old hotel is a road name, Palace Road, which turns left off Weld Road just before it reaches the coast, but I can remember the powerful language of Alyson’s novel, with its renamed Royal Sands Hotel and ‘heavy coils of cloud wrapping themselves around the dark towers of its chimneys’. I turn right on to the Esplanade, the route Alyson’s narrator, Emily, takes one stormy night in her badly rusted Mini. Any badly rusted Mini coming down this way today would not fare well. Heavy rain has created a minor flood. Like Emily, I used to drive an old Mini. Three old Minis, in fact, one after another. None of them liked the wet.
Alyson was a devotee of the famous Broadhursts second hand bookshop in Southport, but it’s to Freshfields Book Shop that I head most urgently, for fear it should close early. Freshfields is an animal welfare charity and their bookshop on Wesley Street is one of the best charity bookshops in the region. I last visited in October 2016 and came away with three Picadors, two Picador Classics, a King Penguin and a Penguin, all for £7.75. On this occasion, as previously, there is a friendly, chatty ambience created by the manager and his staff. The books are shelved neatly in sections that mysteriously repeat. So, general fiction, A–Z, is on the wall on the left just past the counter. But it’s also on the free-standing units further in on the right. Under these units are blue plastic boxes containing books by individual popular writers. I pull out the Agatha Christie box. There are several of the Fontana paperbacks with the Tom Adams covers that I collect – The Big Four, Postern of Fate, A Pocket Full of Rye, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Evil Under the Sun – but a quick check on my phone reveals I have them all. I slide the box back under the shelf and continue down the room. I reach the far wall and turn through a hundred and eighty degrees, walking now between two shelving units. On the right is Freshfields’ classics section and visible underneath the bottom shelf are more blue boxes. The authors’ names are familiar, which seems consistent with the two sections of general fiction. I see another Agatha Christie box. Maybe this one will yield a Fontana I don’t have. I pull it out. Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, A Pocket Full of Rye – extraordinary! Like the other box, it contains several Tom Adams Fontanas, even some of the same titles. Postern of Fate, The Big Four. All the same titles! In my head I rehearse a conversation with the manager. You must have done it on purpose, I will say to him. Two boxes containing the same titles.
I’m so glad I realise before I get to the counter that it was the same box sliding one way out from under the shelves – and then the other.
Empty handed I ask permission to enter the store room, which is not really a room, but part of the same shop floor, its access points subtly obscured. Permission is granted. Within I find the B-format paperback edition of American author Mark Richard’s debut novel Fish Boy (Sceptre), a strange and brilliant novel that I remember reviewing for Time Out when it was published in 1994. I have the C-format trade paperback at home. On the cover of this B-format edition there’s a quote: ‘A dazzling novel full of extraordinary imaginative twists’ Time Out. Did I write that? I suppose I must have done, but it’s a curiously dissociating feeling not recognising your own words.
Moving deeper into the gloom, I find some of the B-format white spines that feed my addiction. Three Sceptres – William McIlvanney’s Docherty, Geoff Nicholson’s Hunters and Gatherers and William Wharton’s Franky Furbo as well as Jean Colombier’s The Photograph (Abacus). Plus – and this is a thrill – a first edition hardback of David Wheldon’s third novel A Vocation (The Bodley Head). A thrill even though I already have a copy of the first edition of this novel. Why would I want another? Wheldon is a fascinating writer who I had never heard of until David Rose made me aware of him and having become aware of him I found myself suddenly hungry to read his work – and indeed publish some of it.
This copy of A Vocation has 75p pencilled on the flyleaf. I need no further encouragement. At the till the manager looks at the 75p and says, ‘You realise…’ and instantly I do realise that because it was in the store room it hadn’t yet been priced. ‘Of course,’ I say. He says I can get three for a fiver, twice, so I hand over a tenner.
Broadhursts is still open. On the cheap shelves outside I find two Picadors – Farrukh Dhondy’s Bombay Duck, which I don’t have, and DM Thomas’s The Flute-Player, which I do, but I will buy this for my friend Nick Rogers who gave me some of his Picadors earlier in the summer and who told me the other night he has read The Flute-Player, but no longer has a copy (and not because he gave it to me). Broadhursts is one of those lovely antiquarian bookshops that are lined with leatherbound volumes but also packed with paperbacks. It smells wonderfully of old books on the upper floors, the ground floor being given over to new titles, and you won’t find any sour notices asking you to leave bags at the counter. When I’m here, I always head to a room on the second floor that has a couple of shelves of literary magazines and on this occasion I pick out four copies of London Magazine from 1995 to 2001, when it was still edited by Alan Ross. I’m drawn by the presence in these issues of stories by Angela Readman and Alan Wall, by a story entitled ‘The Nightingale’ (by Rebecca Camu) and by a series of printing errors – four blank spreads – that render stories by Monica Tracey and Robert Raymer tantalisingly incomplete and poems by Beatrice Garland completely invisible.
I run for the train back to Liverpool and, when I get to Bold Street, Oxfam is just closing. BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates will have to remain in its box in its cabinet and my £90 in my bank account.