My Literary Britain

Date: Fri, 28 Jul 2000 01:28:08 -0400 (EDT)
From: Tom Frenkel <taf2@***.nyu.edu>
To: Literary discussion <literary@list.cren.net>
Subject: My literary Britain

To the Literary list:

First of all, let me say that it’s a pleasure to see so much activity on the list. On Wednesday, I returned to work from a 2-week-plus vacation to the U.K., expecting to see maybe 1 or 2 postings …

I couldn’t make my vacation all *that* literary, since I had my family (wife and 2 kids) in tow, but in between the wax museums and the castles I managed to get a few bookish things in. I spent my first week in Wales, mostly being a player/coach for an international chamber-music program called Musical Passages. But on a day off, my family and I drove over to the English border (trying not to hit the sheep nonchalantly crossing the road at some points), to a place called Hay-on-Wye. You may never have heard of it, but it is perhaps unique in the world in that it is a town consisting (just about) only of … bookstores! Maybe 2 or 3 dozen of them. mostly selling my favorite kind of books: second-hand and cheap. 🙂 I bought a copy of _Wuthering Heights_, hoping my daughter Jill (14) would read it, but so far not. (However, she did surprise me on the plane ride home when I found her with Austen’s _Emma_ in hand.) We also bought a bird book to identify those European birds unfamiliar to me: jackdaw, magpie …

I didn’t actually hear the Welsh language spoken in person, but managed to catch some on the “BBCymru” Welsh station as we were driving around the countryside. It really did sound beautiful … it reminded me of some recordings I’ve heard of Old English, though I really don’t know if there is any connection there or not. But it’s somewhat ironic that there is now a special BBC station for Welsh, since at one point the British government tried to stamp the language out. As some Welsh hikers I met told me, in the old days a child caught speaking Welsh in school would have to wear a signboard proclaiming his offense — until he managed to turn in *another* student guilty of the same deed, at which point the board would be hung on this new student. At the end of the day, the student wearing the signboard would be given a beating …

After our week in Wales we drove up to Scotland. A few miles before Edinburgh, we stopped at a pub for dinner. We decided to try the haggis, a distinctively Scottish dish consisting of meat and other things prepared in a sheep’s stomach (!) I believe. Too strong-tasting for me! The Scottish family next to us struck up a conversation, mentioning, among other things, Robert Burns’ poem “To a Haggis”. This started some benevolent process going in myself — by the end of my stay in Scotland I finally managed to appreciate Burns, who previously seemed just kind of quaint to me. I found out more about him at the Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh, and bought a book of his poems (not hard to find of course). I read his “To a Mouse” out loud to my family as we had our dinner one evening; I hope they enjoyed it — I know *I* certainly did. Has anyone else also found that being in a writer’s “stomping grounds” has increased your appreciation of them? Maybe hearing the Scottish accent all around me helped too. And I really was impressed that the strangers next to us in that pub would bring up Burns. Can you really imagine going to dinner at some restaurant in the U.S. and having some random stranger next to you start talking about Robert Frost?

Perhaps my new appreciation of Burns was also aided by my recent reading of Walter Scott’s _Rob Roy_. I have come to admire Scott very much, and this trip to Scotland was in a sense a pilgrimage to his native soil. As you might imagine, Scott is even “bigger” in Scotland than is Burns. Scott has a huge (if excessively Victorian) monument smack in the middle of Edinburgh, not to mention his being pictured on the paper money. (Of course, there are no writers on our money here in the U.S.; and can anyone think of an American monument to a writer?) Our family continued the Scott “trail” with a visit to the “Border Country” south of Edinburgh, where we visited his home (Abbotsford), and drove up a hill to “Scott’s View”, his favorite place to enjoy the countryside.

Then it was down to London for 4 days. We visited Dr. Johnson’s house and saw his statue and that of his cat, Hodge. We exited the “Tube” at Baker Street, and on the way to the mobbed Mme Tussaud’s, saw the Holmes statue. (“Is Sherlock Holmes still alive?” inquires my 10-year-old son David. “He might very well be”, says I.) We went to a pub near the British Museum, where our waiter told us that one day, Karl Marx, who of course spent much time in the Museum’s reading room, flew into a rage about something or other and broke one of the pub’s windows. There was another pub we went to, across the Thames, which Dickens visited, and which is mentioned in his _Little Dorrit_. And along with the drinking in of the literary atmosphere, the pints of “Bitter” weren’t too shabby either …

My most exciting literary moment of the trip was finding a book, in London, that I had been searching for all over the U.K. This was _Drif’s Guide to the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain_. I first read about this volume in the “Bookshops in Great Britain” part of the FAQ that is put out by the “rec.arts.books” newsgroup. Drif has visited just about every bookshop in the U.K., mostly by public transportation (there is an essay in this book entitled “Why I No Longer Travel in Motor Cars”). To give you a taste, here are some excerpts from his bookshop reviews:

This shop is both good and promising in that it has promised
to close down for good. … It is a shop for the mind and to
be mined. It should be mined by those who mind about books.

*****

Keen on music. … It is the Te Dium of bksps, a never ending
fugue without rhapsody, crescendo or aria, above all there is no
movement. It is just an endless strain. …

*****
This is the only beach in the world that is not worth
combing. [The shop’s name is “D. M. Beach”.]
The tide of fashion is unknown to it, the waves
of time have not been able to affect its featureless shore.
Its shell is extremely attractive, but inside dwell spineless
creatures whose decaying bodies have become entangled in
nylon lines. The castaways have no exciting tales to
relate, no great sea epics, no thrilling adventures. They
are numb and numberless. The only example of vegetation is
the owner with his palms outstretched. He is hoping to sell
this sad story for an epic sum.

*****

When I went up to the counter, the lady was stamping bks just
like a librarian. I asked her for specific bks and she kept
saying no, but her lips did not move. I was half way down the
stairs before I discovered there was a second lady behind the
counter doing the answering. …

*****

This is the Alcatraz of s/h bksps. At first it seems like a
wonderful site and worthy of better things but in truth it is
subject to sudden mists, deep fog, dangerous currents and
freezing waters. Not one inmate has ever escaped and lived to
tell the tale. …

You may conclude from the quoted reviews that Drif never has anything nice to say. Well, this is not true; some shops are designated as a “Drif Special”. (But then, there is also the “Silverfish Special” …)

You would think that *some* bookshop in Hay-On-Wye would have had this book, or at least known about it. But all the booksellers I queried there professed ignorance. Perhaps they were sincere. But maybe they are all part of a cover-up. After striking out in Wales and Scotland, it was finally in London, at a bookshop in Covent Garden, that I tracked Drif’s book down. I have to thank my daughter Jill, who was with me at the time, for her patience and encouragement in this quest of mine.

–Tom
Tom Frenkel <taf2@***.nyu.edu>
h*tp://*****.nyu.edu/~taf2

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