Meanwhile, poet Neil Rollinson wonders if I’d like to meet for a coffee. There’s something not quite congruous about this earthy, northern wordsmith living on the south coast. We last saw each other about ten years ago at Lumb Bank, the Arvon Foundation’s West Yorkshire centre, when he was relief centre director and I was guest reader (if anyone from Arvon is reading this, doing the guest reader slot at Lumb Bank is one of my favourite things in the whole world and I haven’t done it for a while and, well, I’m always happy to be invited, even at the last minute should Julian Barnes pull out). We talk about poetry, creative writing and football. All writers need promotion, but in Neil’s case, as a Newcastle fan living in Brighton, he’s probably had enough promotion to be going on with (joke – barely – that only football fans will get). Anyway, Neil is off to the South Downs to do some walking and I tell him I want to go to Fiveways to visit Savery Books. He gives me a copy of his latest collection, Talking Dead, and tells me Fiveways is just beyond the station and we walk that way, parting at the bus stop. When I reach Seven Dials rather than Fiveways I realise I’ve been walking in the wrong direction, so I check the map and turn right. I walk up and down so many steep hills I decide I’ve made it to the South Downs and wonder if I’ll bump into Neil, but then I catch sight of Preston Drove.
Preston Drove is one of those evocative addresses that connect me so strongly to my past I feel as if I’m 25 again. In the mid-1980s I was constantly photocopying short stories and sticking them in envelopes addressed to David Pringle, then editor of Interzone, which in those days was publishing Angela Carter, JG Ballard, M John Harrison and other writers I admired. David Pringle lived on Preston Drove, which I remember checking, not wanting my submisions to go astray. Surely it was Preston Drive, but no, Preston Drove. And David Pringle, of course, was constantly slipping my stories into the stamped addressed envelopes I supplied and returning them to me – until one day he didn’t and he accepted a story, and then another, and I became, to my great and lasting excitement, for a number of years anyway, an Interzone writer.
I walk down Preston Drove and enact a small act of homage outside what was – and may still be – David Pringle’s address. No one calls the police.
Just around the corner from Preston Drove, on Ditchling Road, is Savery Books. Two women browse the boxes of crime novels outside in the sunshine. ‘Mum, have you seen this?’ one of them says and when I enter the shop I think I hear another voice say, ‘Mum, shall we put these railway books out tomorrow?’ As I look over the stock, I listen to these two conversations continuing between two different mothers and daughters, visitors to and proprietors of this lovely shop bursting with books. The shelves are full and piles of books grow from the floor like stalagmites. ‘I put out two more Du Mauriers,’ says one mother and, ‘I’ve read that one, love,’ says the other.
I find some Picadors I don’t have – Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars, Hunter S Thompson’s Songs of the Doomed, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Sebastian de Grazia’s Machiavelli in Hell – and take them to the till. I ask how long the shop has been there. Twenty-five years, they tell me, but selling exclusively books only twelve. I hear later, from Professor Peter Boxall, Nicholas Royle’s colleague at Sussex University, that they used to have shops on both sides of the road selling antiques.
I walk down the hill back towards the centre of Brighton, reading Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s new novel in manuscript as I go. It’s strange reading about the Black Country in an environment that is very different. There are flyers and posters everywhere demonstrating support, in the coming election, for the Greens’ Caroline Lucas. Cyclists climb the hill in first gear, expending extraordinary effort to achieve walking pace. The English Channel, in the distance, has the appearance of a vertical blue wall, creating the optical illusion that, even near the top of this steep hill, we have somehow found ourselves below sea level. I think of Ballard’s story, one of his most haunting, ‘Now Wakes the Sea’, with its brilliant opening line – ‘Again at night Mason heard the sounds of the approaching sea, the muffled thunder of breakers rolling up the near-by streets.’
I drift eastwards, aiming for Kemptown. My friend the poet Michael Kemp and his lovely wife Sooty, who I hope will come tonight, don’t live in Kemptown, but I think my other friends the artist and illustrator Les Edwards and his equally lovely wife Val might. (I am lucky, I think to myself, to have so many lovely friends.) Outside the Studio Bookshop on St James’s Street are shelves of books that appear to stay out in all weathers: £1 each and customers are invited to post money through the letter box if the shop is shut, but it’s open, so I’m able to pay in person for the 1972 poetry pamphlet/revolutionary tract edited by Bernard J Kelly that I buy as a gift for Michael Kemp.
When I was a student and then a ‘struggling writer’ living in London in the 1980s, I would travel down to Brighton once or twice a year, drawn by the junk shops and secondhand bookshops of North Laine. It’s to there I head next. In the Oxfam Bookshop on Kensington Gardens the only Picadors on view are the ubiquitous Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth and Last Orders by Graham Swift. It occurs to me, not the first first time, that I could start buying up copies of Last Orders – by some way the secondhand Picador book one sees most often – as an art project inspired by Rutherford Chang’s collection of copies of The Beatles’ White Album. But what Oxfam does also have is a 1984 Abacus edition of Shena Mackay’s collection Babies in Rhinestones, which will sit nicely alongside my Abacus edition of her later collection, Dreams of Dead Women’s Handbags.
In Snoopers Paradise, a warren of stalls selling everything from books to beetles, stuffed foxes and pheasants, mannequin heads and dead men’s jackets, I find another attractive Abacus collection, Paul Bowles’s Pages From Cold Point, and, in Picador, the second volume of F Scott Fitzgerald’s stories, as well as The Torch in My Ear by Elias Canetti, which contains not one but two inclusions – a London Underground Travelcard dated January 1992 and a ticket for a London Film Festival screening of Stella Does Tricks in November 1996 – and Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary.
By the time I enter Brighton Books at the north end of Kensington Gardens I am experiencing the beginnings of Collector’s Fatigue, the surest sign of which is the faintest desire not to find any books you might want to buy. But fatigue or no fatigue, I can’t resist a couple of Picadors – MJ Fitzgerald’s Concertina and Haniel Long’s The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca.
Finally, there’s just time for a quick visit to the Books for Amnesty shop in Sydney Street. As I browse, I can hear birdsong. Is it a recording? Have studies shown that birdsong encourages shoppers to buy? But as I work my way around the shop, picking up only one book for use in an art project that I do intend to work on at some future point, I see that at the back of the shop is an open door and beyond it a tiny garden filled with greenery and sunshine and actual birdsong. The signs of fatigue melt away as house sparrows and a wren sing their little hearts out and I head off to meet my namesake and his publisher for a couple of pre-gig St Stefanus blondes with a definite spring in my step.
Does the double act have legs? Michael and Sooty Kemp enjoy it and my old school friend Brian ‘Brimo’ Walsh and Man Met MA student and short story writer Bee Lewis and Confingo art editor Zoë McLean. (Again, I feel lucky.) I drink a lot of water to dilute the effect of two St Stefanus blondes and on the train back to London I read Neil Rollinson’s collection. His ‘Ode to a Piss’ makes me laugh out loud in hilarious yet painful recognition.