Away from the front and drifting westwards, Southend acquires a more attractive character. Indeed, it becomes Westcliff-on-Sea. The burble of blackbirds, hum of bees on buddleia, clink of china from tiny wrought-iron balconies. London Road, when I reach it, may be slightly less blissfully suburban, but it doesn’t take too long to reach no.307. As soon as I enter the Bookshop Experience, I know I’m in luck. I’m looking at the shelves and immediately taking books down. Paul Bowles – two Abacus collections, A Thousand Days For Mokhtar and Call at Corazón, in the same series, with excellent photographic covers, as two titles I already have, Pages From Cold Point and Let it Come Down. Calvino’s The Literature Machine, in the Brothers Quai (sic) series of covers from Picador (a separate series is credited to the Brothers Quay). Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains, which I already have in Picador, but this is a King Penguin with a beautiful James Marsh cover (which, when I get home, I discover I also already have, but that’s the way it goes sometimes). And then – increasing heartbeat – I spot an early Sceptre paperback of Siri Hustvedt’s first novel, The Blindfold.
I love The Blindfold. My edition is later and features a woman’s midriff in a crop top that has always felt slightly off to me, as if it was trying to appeal to a particular kind of audience and not the one I would imagine as the novel’s ideal readership. I like this earlier, uncredited cover with its blindfold, its disembodied eyes, Chrysler Building and 109th Street sign. Next, a King Penguin edition of BS Johnson’s best-known novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, cover by Dan Fern, that, as with The Blindfold, I didn’t even known existed. Finally, I can’t quite believe it, but, yes, there, under K, a copy of the white-spined Picador edition of Kafka’s The Trial, which I have only seen once before, in the home of writers David Gaffney and Sarah-Clare Conlon.
When I saw it at David and Clare’s, I was excited, because I had never seen it anywhere before, had not even known it existed. Obviously The Trial exists in a great many editions, from different publishers, with different covers. This Picador cover, by Steven Singer, is not my favourite, but it has the distinction of having been previously, to me at least, invisible. Normally, if there’s a Picador I know I want, because I’ve seen it somewhere, I don’t go online and find it in two minutes and buy it, because I would rather come across it by chance in an actual shop, in, say, Westcliff-on-Sea. In the case of The Trial, however, I couldn’t resist and did go online and did order, off eBay, a copy of what appeared to be the same edition. When it arrived it was a Picador Classics edition, which is of course quite different. The same translation, by Douglas Scott and Chris Waller, but in the black spine of Picador Classics, with a cover illustration by Peter Till. Of course, I kept it, because I’m collecting the black-spined Picador Classics as well, and so the search for the white-spined edition went on but, my lesson learnt, only in the real world, where you can take a book down from the shelf and flick through it to see if there might be anything within its pages apart from the faintest smell of cigarettes.
I’m now carrying half a dozen books and I’m not even half way through the fiction. I’m almost relieved to find the second half of the alphabet a little quieter. I find a lovely A-format Penguin edition of David Storey’s This Sporting Life, cover by Allan Manham, to go alongside Flight into Camden, A Temporary Life, Pasmore and others.
At the till is Celeste, the loveliest, most charming woman I can remember meeting in a secondhand bookshop, and I don’t say this only because she knocks the odd 50p off prices that are already very reasonable (£1–£3). We chat about the shop, about its owner, Andy, who is off somewhere taking care of business online, about there being good days and bad days, about how they hope to attract more passing trade – and I say I hope they do. I say that when I write about the shop I will mention the glass cases full of Celeste’s beautiful handmade jewellery and Celeste tells me I don’t have to and I say that I will anyway. I’m just turning reluctantly to go when I see something that I haven’t seen, outside of my own home, for about thirty-five years: a dedicated Picador bookcase. I don’t mean one of the Picador spinners that one sees occasionally (in Halewood & Sons in Preston, for example, and Abacus Books in Altrincham), but a set of shelves, like those I saw in Skoob Books, filled with nothing but white-spined Picadors.
I get down on my hands and knees – and only partly because these shelves are near to the floor. I start again. The Lay of Sir Tristram, second novel by Paul Griffiths, whose first novel, also in Picador, I already have. Stefan Heym’s The Wandering Jew. Five Black Ships by Napoleón Baccino Ponce de León – I almost leave this because it’s covered in sticky-back plastic, as Blue Peter presenters used to call Sellotape, but it’s only 50p and, like so many others of these books in my arms, I’ve never seen it before. Kenzaburo Oë’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, which Celeste tells me she’s read after Andy recommended it. Caryl Phillips’s The European Tribe. A John Cowper Powys novel, After My Fashion, that not only have I not seen before but Powys-lovers had not seen before 1980, despite its having been completed (and put aside) in 1919. Then, another white spine that I already have in black – Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front – and a book I remember seeing somewhere but for some reason not buying, Letters From a Fainthearted Feminist, ‘introduced’ by Jill Tweedie. And finally, José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda.
Am I imagining it or has a slight nervousness crept into Celeste’s demeanour? Are her fingers searching under the counter for the panic button? Who is this raving lunatic? Why does he insist on showing her a picture on his phone of what he claims is his collection of more than 700 Picadors? She tots up the figures, knocks 50p off the Napoleón Baccino Ponce de León, which, you’ll remember, only cost 50p to begin with. She says Andy has more Picadors where these came from and I’m already looking forward to making another visit to the Bookshop Experience, which turns out to be well named and easily among the best second hand bookshops in the south of England. Andy certainly has some gaps to fill on his shelves, while my bag is full and I still have to walk a mile or so to the next shop on my list, not to mention four miles across the mudflats to Benfleet, if I’m to stick to the plan recommended by my friend Gareth Evans, who advised me to come out here in the first place.
Luckily – and I don’t often say this – the next shop is closed, but it looks good, so I’ll drop in on my next visit. I realise that the home of The Canal author Lee Rourke is between where I am now and Leigh-on-Sea, where I will pick up the path across Hadleigh Marsh; it would be rude not to photograph his house and post it on Twitter with the message, ‘Daddy, that strange man is outside the house again’. Having done so I descend to sea-level, then climb back up over the railway, and strike out across the marsh. The path meanders and time seems to slow down. I take numerous pictures of Canvey Island in honour of my former Time Out colleague Lesley McCave and, indeed, of Lee Rourke, whose Vulgar Things was set there and who has, I see, responded to my tweet: ‘HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!’ he writes.
The sun comes out from behind the clouds and goes back in. To the right, toy trains pass beneath the castle on the hill. Crows and gulls commingle on the mudflats to my left. I stop and try to identify the call of a bird hiding in a bush some thirty yards distant. Chup chup chup chup-chup-chup. It shows itself: black head, white collar, brown and white body. I step off the path, telling myself I don’t have time for this. I have to be back in London for a reading at Burley Fisher Books in Haggerston at 7pm. But what am I reading from, what am I promoting? My new collection, Ornithology, uncanny stories about birds. A bird call to me is a siren, drawing me from the path. I move closer and, as the black-headed bird flies off to a bush further away, I am reminded of a line in TH White’s The Goshawk: ‘… if you saw a bird… it had already seen you.’ I follow it from bush to bush for a while and do what experience has taught me to do if immediate identification is impossible: make notes and check later.
On the train from Benfleet I try the RSPB bird identifier: ‘No Matches found. Please try fewer search options.’ I imagine it was an exotic migrant blown off course, stranded here. Tomorrow there will be armies of men with binoculars and telephoto lenses parking in the narrow lane by the cockle sellers at Leigh-on-Sea. When I get home and check the books I see that what I saw was a reed bunting. So, not an exotic migrant, but a beautiful bird nevertheless.