Over the years I have seen references on numerous blogs to the collections of Nick Hornby’s essays first published in The Believer. I know Hornby as a novelist and have also enjoyed the film adaptations of his books but other than via these blog posts I’ve not come across him as an essayist. So, last week, having read yet another paean of praise, I decided to buy a copy of the first of these collections, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree. It arrived in yesterday’s post and I took it with me when I went for my morning walk, which is always punctuated by a stop for a little something and a well-earned read. Much to the discomfort of everyone else in the tea room, I chuckled my way through the first essay and I’m already completely sold, partly because there were certain sections of the essay with which I could immediately identify.
Hornby writes about having spent a weekend in Hay-on-Wye, the small border town noted for the number of its second-hand bookshops and, these days, its week-long literary festival. It’s clear from the list of books that he bought that it was not a cheap weekend. Oh, I do know that feeling. I’ve only been to Hay once. It’s just too far away to be an easy drive there and back in a day. But, given the aftermath of that one visit, this is probably a very good thing.
Perhaps twenty years ago now, certainly before the festival was established, I took a cottage there over the Easter holiday, not for a weekend, but for a whole week. And, as Hornby says:
buying books is what you do in Hay, in the absence of any other options.
Take away the bookshops and there really isn’t anything else to do, especially if the weather is bad. A quick calculation, allowing for inflation, suggests that I probably spent about a month’s wages. The bank manager was not impressed. I didn’t, however, go wild in some of the bigger shops. There are bookshops in Hay so large that I wouldn’t be surprised if they have to send an assistant round at closing time to make sure that no one has mislaid themselves in their furthest regions. For me these typify the old saying about not being able to see the wood for the trees. There are just so many books I can’t focus on any of them. Such places frighten me and I steer well clear. But there were, when I went at least, several much smaller, specialist shops and these were the ones that drew me to them irresistibly.
The two that I remember most clearly are one that specialised in Children’s Literature and another dedicated entirely to poetry. The poetry shop was still there when Hornby visited in 2003 because he writes:
Hay is a weird town on the border of England and Wales that consists almost entirely of second hand bookshops – there are forty of ’em within a few hundred yards of each other – and one of which is an immaculately stocked poetry store.
Hornby bought Robert Lowell; I bought Charles Causley and Elizabeth Jennings. Both books are still on my shelves and now extremely well thumbed because I love both poets work very much indeed. I first met Causley through Timothy Winters while I was still at school and Jennings was a Stratford Poetry Festival discovery a few years later, when the actor Norman Rodway threw away the published programme and read her poem Song at the Beginning of Autumn instead.
The Children’s Bookshop was about half a mile out of the town, a useful walk; it meant there was at least part of the day when you couldn’t be handing over good money for books and also limited the number of purchased volumes to those you could actually carry back with you. Of course, there was nothing to stop me going every day which I duly did and came back with books I hadn’t even realised L M Montgomery had written, half a dozen of Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey Girls series and an equal number from the Dimsie and Springfield series by Dorita Fairlie Bruce. It’s a good job I hadn’t then discovered the Chalet School books or it might have been two months wages.
I’ve never dared go back to Hay. The temptation would be too much. And it would have to be out of Festival season. I’m not good with crowds, especially not in such a small area. But I have fond memories and I’m grateful to Hornby for bringing them to mind for me. If each of his essays is as fruitful I’m in for a great deal of pleasure and I can see me buying all the other collections as well.