We drive back into Inverness. Despite the fact I’ve been in the vicinity since Monday afternoon, this is my first opportunity of the week to visit one of the best secondhand bookshops in the British Isles. With its exposed spiral staircase, mezzanine floor and balconies, Leakey’s (pictured above), on Church Street, achieves the remarkable feat of making the majority of its stock on at least three levels visible to the visitor from almost any location inside the premises. There’s a woodburning stove in the middle of the ground floor, not required to be lit on our visit, and a large desk/counter where you will find owner Charles Leakey busy making sales and graciously accepting compliments on his extraordinarily beautiful bookshop.
The first book I pick out is actually a Paladin paperback. The New Review Anthology edited by Ian Hamilton is packed with stories, poems and articles and has a wonderful cover illustration by Neil Breedon. But my eye is soon alighting on the white spines of Picadors. I have a large collection of titles by Jonathan Raban, but I’ve never seen Bad Land before. Brian Appleyard’s Understanding the Present will join the ranks of some of Picador’s non-fiction that, if I am honest, I am unlikely to read; at least some, if not all, of the science will have dated since 1992. I am more likely to read William Styron’s The Long March, which, at 88 pages, is only four pages longer than his Darkness Visible, which I have read. John Livingston Lowes’ The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination looks not dissimilar to the lovely covers on Hermann Hesse’s Picador titles; they share the same cover artist in Peter le Vasseur. I also pick up a copy of Denis Johnson’s Already Dead, in spite of the red band that runs right around the cover, including across the spine. I add it to my pile for two reasons: one, because I am, even if I don’t like to admit it, assembling a side collection of those Picadors on which the art department were permitted to break the mould (wraparound photographic covers, inset illustrative details, solid blocks of colour etc), and two, for another reason to do with novelist Stav Sherez that will be covered in a future post.
We drive from east coast to west, fetching up in Ullapool, where I find, in the New Broom Community Shop & Hub, the following Picadors: The Greenpeace Chronicle by Robert Hunter, Picture This by Joseph Heller and Sex & Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility by Germaine Greer. I already have the Heller and the Greer, but the shop is practically giving them away at £2 for three and both these books, I am delighted to see, contain inclusions. Just twelve pages from the end of Picture This is a Polaroid – a picture of a window ledge with a pot plant and some bottles of perfume – while at pp46/47 of the Greer is a handwritten receipt for Aus $26.55 from a medical & scientific booksellers in Carlton, Victoria, dated 22.4.88.
After a couple of days’ walking, driving and birdwatching – from the plump house sparrows of Plockton to the redpolls, ravens and golden eagles of Skye (the publication date of my new short story collection, Ornithology, from Confingo Publishing, happened to fall on the Friday at MM) – we find ourselves in Edinburgh. There’s time to visit just two of the city’s secondhand bookshops before getting back on the road. Edinburgh Books on West Port has an impressive collection, and the stuffed head of a water buffalo, but a number of signs advising customers to leave bags at the desk (handbags excepted). Whether or not my laptop bag could be classified as a handbag, I react to these signs as I always do. I take them personally. Don’t the two staff present in the shop this morning know I wouldn’t steal from a bookshop in a million years? Of course they don’t; nevertheless, I bristle. If they ask me to leave my bag at the desk I will instead simply leave. On the way out I will attempt to explain why I am leaving and I will get flustered and the words will come out wrong. I am like John Hegley, who has a line in his poem ‘The Stand-up Comedian Sits Down’ about coming up with the perfect reposte to a heckler, but coming up with it on the bus home. It is only later, halfway down the M6, that I will craft the perfect response to the proprietor’s perfectly reasonable objection to losing however many hundreds of pounds a year to shoplifters. But they don’t ask me to leave my bag and I get over myself sufficiently to purchase a Fontana paperback edition of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence with its superb Tom Adams cover featuring a white dove and a black crow. It’s somewhat expensive at £4 and I feel weirdly transparent and predictable when I see, next to the price on the flyleaf, the pencilled words ‘Tom Adams cover’.
There’s a different vibe over the road in Armchair Books. There appear to be just as many books and just as good a selection and the prices are again a little on the high side, although Brenda Maddox’s Picador biography of WB Yeats, George’s Ghosts, is only £2 and I feel that William Burroughs’s The Place of Dead Roads, in a Paladin edition, is worth £3.80, partly for its inclusion (pp40/41) of a scrap of paper featuring a handwritten eight-digit number that I suspect relates to a bank acount. But it’s the Picador edition of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, with a striking cover by Richard Parent, that animates the young man at the till. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘This is a fucking great book.’ I have to admit I haven’t read it, but I’ve been asked twice by poet Robert Sheppard – Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University – if I’m a Malcolm Lowry fan, so I’ve long felt I should read him. The young man tells me the novel contains the greatest description he’s ever read, something to do with the sound of the name, when spoken, of a town in Mexico. I resolve to read the book partly inspired by the young man and partly so that if Robert Sheppard ever asks me again I’ll be able to give him a better answer.
As we drive down the A7 towards Carlisle and the M6, and the dramatic scenery of mountains and glens of the Highlands gives way to the softer, gentler landscape of the Borders, I reflect on the outcome of my MM comedown coping strategy and decide it has been a complete success. Maybe, before next year, I should recommend it to the rest of the group.