How to Bankrupt Yourself in One Easy Lesson.

tumblr_lptmh1EY1E1r1sle6o1_500Over 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.


24 thoughts on “How to Bankrupt Yourself in One Easy Lesson.

  1. Sadly, I no longer have funds to indulge in book buying at anywhere except the once-a-year town library book sale. Luckily, though, the library one town over, which is on the same network, has a small bookshop annex which features a free book section; I can’t tell you how many excellent books I’ve picked up there recently (and it’s a lucky thing I haven’t kept count, because my roommate periodically rebels at the number of books that I have already and that I cagily bring home when she’s not looking or is otherwise distracted).

    1. The only thing worse than not being able to afford books is not having enough room to store them. I have a one book in, one book out policy these days, unless it’s something I want for work purposes. I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal and she had it worked out to a fine art just how many books you can get under your bed before it starts to rise of the ground. You might want to follow her example.

  2. Glad you are enjoying Hornby’s essays! A number of years ago my husband and I planned a trip to the UK that included a few days in London and almost a week in Hay. We had it all settled but for the plane tickets and hotel reservations when our cat was diagnosed with diabetes and needed insulin shots twice a day. We didn’t have the heart to board the cat for so long so we never took the trip. Probably just as well though as I am sure we would have spent way too much on books!

    1. Poor Puss! I bet he had very strong feelings about having a needle stuck in him twice a day! Hay would have been even worse for you because not only would you have had to buy the books you would have had to pay for their transport as well. You might still have been in debt to this day:)

      1. Kitty was actually ok with being stuck twice a day much to our surprise. Probably because he had to be fed at the same time. You are right though, if we had gone we’d have double the expense would still be paying for it 🙂

  3. I’ve been meaning to try Nick Hornby’s essays, thanks for the reminder. I have a book about Hay, Sixpence House, which I’ve had half-read for years. It definitely added Hay to my list for my next visit. Like you, though, I’d plan my visit to miss the festival.

    1. If you make it, Lisa then do let me know. We can try and keep each other on the straight and narrow path. Or at least sympathise when we fall too far from grace.

  4. Next time I visit the UK, I must got to Hay and see how 40 some used book stores can be situated within a few hundred yards of each other. Must be quite a sight. I’ve just come back from buying a few books from a used book store in our City. They’re 60% off because, alas, the store is closing. Not many of them left I’m afraid, in my city of a million. What a contrast to Hay.

    1. Hay is something of an anomaly, Arti. There are other decent secondhand shops and if you are ever here then you must let me take you to see my friend Anna, who runs a wonderful bookshop in Much Wenlock which stocks both new and secondhand books. In general though, bookshops of all sorts are closing down which especially in the case of the independents is a tremendous shame.

  5. I went to Hay a few years ago – not during the festival week, I couldn’t have coped with the crowds either – and was overwhelmed by the number of bookshops and books in the larger shops – and the crowds!!!. In the smaller shops I was more comfortable, but not really able to settle enough to actually buy a book! So many books and so many people, it was exhausting – and the price of some of the books seemed exorbitant. It didn’t help that it was a rainy day and some of the books were on display outside, only flimsily covered over. I’ve never been tempted to go back.

    But Nick Hornby’s The Complete Polysyllabic Spree has been on my wish list for ages. I’m glad you’re enjoying it and must see if the library has a copy.

    1. Do get a copy, Margaret, it is perfect reading for when you just have fifteen minutes or so to spare. I don’t do well with short stories, but essays are another matter entirely. Hay is exhausting, especially if you’re just there for the day. I needed another week off after I was there.

  6. Hay is one of those places that I long to visit and dread visiting for exactly the same reason. How would I get them all home??? And I loved the Nick Hornby essays I read recently – they really gave me a chuckle.

    1. Maybe we should go together and each keep a check on the other. Except somehow I see us egging each other on rather than keeping a grip on the purse strings:)

  7. I am allowed to go to Hay once every two years at most as it causes horror to arise on the TBR shelf … but it is a great place for finding those weird, forgotten books that you might just love. Luckily I have to get a lift there from a friend or get a train and a very long bus ride, which keeps me away from the place. There’s a book town on the Scottish Borders, too, I think.

    1. Yes, Liz, it is precisely because you find those unexpected, but must have, books that Hay is so very dangerous. Fortunately, I live even further away from the Scottish equivalent than I do from Hay!

  8. Oh, I love Nick Hornby. The fourth collection of his essays from The Believer just came out, and I devoured it in one sitting. Nothing adds to my wishlist like reading his essays.

    1. I have to ration myself to one essay a week, Nathalie, or I would never have any money at all. Mind you, I suppose that in the end I buy just as many – I simply do it over a longer period and therefore don’t feel so bad about it.

  9. I just had a weekend in Hay-on-Wye about a month ago and it was wonderful. The landscape around there is lovely, great for walking, and the bookstores made it heaven on earth for me. I don’t mind a big bookstore… I kind of like to get lost in them. There were specific old nineteenth-century books I wanted and was able to find some of them. Of course I also ended up lugging home a number of “finds,” causing issues both financially and luggage-wise!

    1. One of the reasons I don’t go is that my bank manager won’t speak to me afterwards and I find that I do need to keep on the good side of my bank manager:)

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