There’s something sacred in a bookshop - all those hushed tones and muffled coughs, the reverence for aged texts. Occasionally a cantankerous old person at the front, glaring at those who do not display sufficient respect for the agreed rules. There is a bookshop pace - a speed which cannot be exceeded. No one may march or strut in a bookshop. You may gently glide or humbly dodder, or even muse and nudge - but all movement must be self-contained. Anything bold or at all staccato is much too much too much.
But then - a bookshop is not a library. Murmured conversation allowed, casual perusal much more of a treat. There is no laminated flimsiness, no posters on the wall that screech at children in ghastly green fonts. Even the smell is different - not dusty like some distant relative’s front room, but warm and reassuring, like coffee with a favoured friend.
As some might spend an hour a day in a gymnasium or a casino, I deem an hour a week in a bookshop to be strictly necessary. For pleasure and relaxation, yes, but primarily as a reminder of all the books I will never read.
I could learn to speed read, and perhaps get myself into the Guinness Book of World Records if I displayed a real aptitude. Even then, I’d only be able to read a few lines in the great tome of humanity. On one floor of a humble village bookshop is more than I could ever hope to read even if I live to a hundred and two.
There have been times when this thought terrified me. Life’s finiteness rendered yet more evident - if you can ambitiously, read two books a week, you can do 104 a year. If you live 80 more years if you’re lucky (and not diabetic), then that’s an optimistic 8320 more books.
These are obviously fairly large numbers, certainly capable of filling a personal library or even a Kindle. But you have to be selective with your range. All of us are only capable of knowing and reading the tiniest fraction of all there is to know and read.
So to be in a bookshop is to be valuably humbled. You can browse and muse and delve among shelves. Choose what you’d like to read next - slide it right off and hold in your hands. See splendid spine soon to be cracked, uncrinkled pages soon inky-smudged. A crisp and proud front cover stands resplendent, decorated with a quote from a figure of note, soon dog-eared and weary, aged quick and read well.
Maybe there is something misleading about the physical fact of a book - that it is perfectly formed and finite, compact and self-contained. ‘The History of This Place’ suggests it as the only and authoritative work on the subject - the only one you need to read to achieve a real expertise. Subjects, fictions, stories are rarely as simple, they will spill out from pages and continue years after you thought them finished or extinct. Something may change unexpectedly and fundamentally in the blink of an eye.
Perhaps our various News Feeds are more honest in this way. Always something new to process, to capture your attention. A book is instantly out of date - an ambling walk through the hills so you arrive late when you could’ve just taken the train. The platforms we spend our lives on are always refreshing, always more and more uptodate. This is honest, no, about knowledge itself - new knowledge to know and new thoughts to be thunk, every day, every moment, every Tweet.
But I feel our capacity to process information is rewarded more by the pages of a book. A collection of ideas, a tale of two lovers, an absurdly detailed autobiography of a septegenarian Australian who lives in a wood - these can be contained in a volume. If you think about the finite amount of time we have to read or do anything, would it be worthwhile reading Emma or The Goldfinch or One of Us or Great Expectations or 20,000 threads. That is a real choice that we can make on a weekly basis.
I’ve picked some classics to make a point - you don’t have to arbitrarily get through Shakespeare’s or Dickens’ back catalogue just so you can tell your friends. It could be the best book about a topic you’re fascinated by. It could be a collection by an amazing writer you’ve never heard of (e.g. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett). Or anything else that takes your interest.
And then you will have finished something worthwhile, even if you hated it. ‘The End’ is just the start of your ignorance, and the beginning of the next chapter. It starts in the bookshop.
To haggle is an ancient art - a calling, a song, a dance-off in the street. You must trace your opponent’s next steps in your mind as you circle each other. Never underestimate or patronise, never give them a clue as to your next move. Be vigilant and primitive, attuned to it all and ready for anything. If they tremor or twitch, it’s likely some devious plot or ploy which you must guard against with your life. And we do not want to die today.
To commence, I go low - for I have played this game before.
“I’ll give you…” I sniff arrogantly, pausing, as if I am genuinely pondering how much I will offer. Little does she know it’s a ruse - I know exactly how much I will say! I may well be a master of the art.
I tap my fingers on my chin in a silent repetitive rhythm. I am either sculpture or sculptor, lost in perpetual thought, but also fingers braced dextrously and ready for action. The planets rotate, tides rise and fall, stars implode millions of lightyears away and heavenly choirs sing.
And still I stand, deep in thought.
“Two pounds…. fifty-three pence.”
I cast out the pence as an afterthought, almost callous, certainly casual, and not a little indifferent to the outcome. I could just as well spend my money elsewhere - I am honouring my opponent with any offer at all. They would do well to take the money and run.
She recoils - presumably eager to maintain my attention and my interest in her wares. I prepare for the inevitable and immediate acceptance, and open my face and mind to gratefully embrace it when it comes.
“Sir, it’s £17.99, as you can see from the sticker.”
She thrusts a finger at the item I hold to a garish piece of paper plastered there. It does indeed say the mentioned amount and I see now that I have underestimated her. She is fully prepared, possessing a dangerous artillery including this ‘sticker’ which seems to be so convincing.
I must take heed, and respond in kind.
“I see,” I muse, outwardly confident and assured. But in the depths of my mind, the panic has set in. I wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t prepared for her confidence, her dismissiveness, her sturdy correctness. Damn her, and all her assertions.
I’m on a slope now through a thickening forest and I don’t know which way to turn. Before, there were a great many paths open to me, each offering a languorous and relaxing Sunday stroll to my destination of a price I determined. Now all I see is crows and other rabid woodland creatures scuttling up tree trunks and laughing maniacally at me.
The haze thickens and I revert to early childhood, I am lost and alone - inconsolably uncertain of how things will ever be the same again. I feel myself shrinking to the height I was when I was three years old, and I stare up at her, open-mouthed and loomed over.
“Sir?” she continues.
My god, the affront! The aggression! Can she not see that I am down, in the midst of an existential crisis of uncertain adulthood. Still she insists on stamping down hard on my prone form - she’s probably enjoying this, the merciless sadist. It’s too much to bear.
I’m reeling, I know, but I must respond. I must pull myself from this pit of despair and pluck triumph from defeat’s malevolent grasp. Remember who you are, I tell myself quietly.
“Hmmm…. interesting,” I begin, before the ground swallows me again and I start weeping aggressively.
I had thought that my own speech would restore me, coax me back and undissipate my sense of self. But it’s hoarse and whispery, choked and non-existent. If anything, it dissuades, and makes me realise the shell I’ve become. There is nothing physical that this can be attributed to - I don’t have a cold or even a sniffle.
“Sir, please if you don’t want the item, then can you please step aside - there are other people waiting.”
She truly is relentless. I turn and there is indeed a gathered mass, each of them murmuring to one another quietly as if engaged in some bizarre and chaotic game of Chinese whispers.
“Don’t you people know the rules!” I cry, falling to my knees in despair.
“Sir, again, I must ask you to step aside if you’re not going to buy the item.”
“Alright,” I whisper, “I’ll give you five pounds.”
She points to the sticker with a cold unblinking glare. I clutch the item to me now, as I know our fates are intertwined.
“Ten?” I wonder hopefully, all childlike innocence and curiosity.
“Sir, I’ll be calling security if you don’t either buy this product or leave in the next ten seconds.”
Ah, of course, I should’ve known a time would come when she would call for back-up. The heavies, the muscle, the reinforcements. At least I can take solace in the fact that she has resorted to this. But I must now, I suspect, accept defeat. I’m only one man - after all.
“Right,” I swallow, “seventeen pounds ninety nine it is.”
I reach out with my card an extension of my digits. The plastic which I’ve come to cherish trembles gently in the artificial light. Broken, I brush the machine and it beeps instantaneously, the cruel God of capitalism sated briefly by the movement of tokens from one imaginary place to another. It belches out a receipt in contentment, and I tear it off meekly without another glance.
“Thank you,” I murmur chastened and abashed. The whisperers behind continue to do so as I shuffle through the automatic doors, past the heavies who are braced and ready to crush my skull without a care.
How terrible the haggle is, when you’ve forgotten how to win.
I wish I owned an umbrella - one that keeps me safe and dry. I might even give it a name - Engelbert or Alfred or something similarly warm, absurd and reassuring. It wouldn’t matter too much I suppose - as long as it did its job.
I wouldn’t use it all the time - just when clouds brew. When the sun shines, I’d leave it at home, safe in its corner by a shelf. Even as summer bleeds into autumn, if the day holds promise and the sky blue enough, it could remain there propped resolute and proud. Ready for use but no offence taken when deemed unnecessary - a resilient umbrella, it would be.
There would always be days when I need it. When the rain beats down hard and ceaseless, or when the clouds themselves press you down and in, oppressive drudgery, watery slush.
Any tool, umbrella or otherwise, can’t fully protect you from those moments. You’ll still feel the wet and the grey. Puddles as you walk, mud up legs, wet socks, breath short. But you don’t succumb to the rain. It slows you down, dampens your morning - but it does not stop you.
I can’t predict the clouds. They come and go. Sometimes from a distinct source - a long-simmering storm numbs the base of your skull, a quick and violent hurricane assault.
Other times, they are more subtle, gliding in stealthily overnight. They settle on your chest mockingly, push you down when you try to get up.
This is when I could use an ultra high-tech umbrella, radiating light and heat, burning the clouds to a higher form of vapour and becoming a beacon to all those similarly afflicted.
“Back, you devils!” I would cry, brandishing my trusty weapon skywards as it emanated blades of flame. Afeared and scornful and robbed of their grey, the clouds wisp off, never to return.
I’d sell such umbrellas by the bucketload but I don’t know where I’d find them.
Maybe the best you can hope for is a sturdy and colourful umbrella. One that protects you from daily bombardment. It won’t insulate you or eliminate the elements, the pure cold facts of rain, sleet, snow and sludge. But it keeps the worst off.
Then, on a morning, it may dawn on you that the storm has passed. You can leave your umbrella in its resting place - it is content to have been of service. And you are lightened by its absence, no longer clutching its handle as you go outside and taste the air - the sun and the light, a glow on your skin and a quiet thrill in being alive.
Sometimes when I buy a pint of beer, I am handed a receipt. I stare baffled at the limp paper, quivering sadly on the edge of a finger. Easily, it might drift from its resting place, going to and fro through the air like some whimsical orchestra conductor, before settling under a stool. Normally, it does not - I scrunch it angrily or leave it on the bar, proudly advertising that I have indeed spent £5.95 on half a litre of foamy fermented fluid.
Even now, I struggle to publicly purchase a drink that is not a beer - the drinkers of wine too pretentious, the drinkers of cocktails enjoying themselves far too much. It’s better with a beer - safer. No one will question my approach. I can sit sad company in a corner or alone amongst a group of friends. Beer is firm, stout, weight and all - a pint glass the evidence of this. I savour that hoppy taste of how it speaks to my character.
But I have questions about the receipt. I resent the reminder of the absurd sum I’ve just stumped up, this is true. But a receipt also fails to grasp what a beer, or an alcoholic drink of any kind, truly is. For I am not parting with such a sum for liquid alone. It is not just an economic transaction - not a magazine or a stick of candy floss to be consumed and then forgotten. Here is what you’ve paid, this is what you’ve received - no, not it.
In a glass of beer, there is much more than a pint. I am paying for a moment - a window of time snatched from the maelstrom of the everyday and given to this group of people I am with. A gathering feeling. Yes, practicality - meeting at a mutually inconvenient halfway point between my place and theirs. But really a drink is the pleasure of being in a place with a person at a particular time - to truly be in company.
I do have concerns about how dependent we are on it in this country. Alcohol is often needed to grease the wheel of conversation. In any number of social situations, you can detect a gentle stirring by the end of the first drink which blossoms gently into a warm, subdued comfort somewhere between the second and third.
It would be useful to have a wider repertoire of possible social arenas. I respect the people I know who go climbing or gyming or strolling together. Coffee is also useful. An alcoholic beverage is such a go-to I forget that social time does not just have to be spent in public houses. Indeed, a friendship is probably deeper if it is flexible and versatile, exists across a number of different contexts and formats.
But still - there’s value in a pint. So much of it that I’m alright actually, I don’t need a receipt.
There’s nothing like a bad pun to get things off to a good start.
‘How was your train in?’ the interviewer asks.
‘Ah, well -’ I begin, ‘hopefully I’ll be training here soon enough!’
I pause in anticipation of the inevitable roar of laughter.
It takes longer than expected. The interviewer cocks his head slightly to one side, like an owl that ultimately decides a particular worm is, in fact, too disgusting to eat.
‘Oh,’ he says.
Perhaps the joke wasn’t clear. I make sure.
‘Train! TRAIN!’ I mime the choo-ing of a train, and then the chewing of the brain that takes place when knowledge is ingested.
‘Yes,’ he says.
A pause. Then -
‘Please - have a seat’, he gestures with a veiny, hairless palm.
‘Many thanks,’ I respond assuredly, moving on from my underappreciated gag by decisively placing my posterior into the outstretched hand.
‘What?’ he asks.
‘Hm?’ I say.
‘No.’ he shakes.
‘Ah. The chair.’
He nods sadly. I apologise generously and move from hand to seat.
Things are going well.
‘This is my colleague - Ermingsworth.’ He introduces a seated and commanding woman next to him.
‘Pleasure!’ she barks treeishly. I nod at her curtly, suspicious of this outsider to the interaction.
‘And I am Smith,’ he gestures to himself as if he is about to sing a breathily intense acoustic reinterpretation of Miley Cyrus’ eternal classic ‘Wrecking Ball’. He refrains - for now.
‘Excellent, excellent,’ I speak out commandingly, dominant and at ease in the room.
‘So, to get things started, I’ll just give you a rough outline on how this interview will proceed -’
‘I’m going to cut you off there, Smith my boy,’ I interrupt assertively, ‘for I’ve heard this organisation is full of dynamic action takers, and there are few more dynamic takers of action than myself. Just this minute for instance - you were touching on the format of the interview and other meaningless necessities and I decided, no! Time to take action! Let’s get things done!’
I slap the back of my left hand into the palm of my right, and clench it into a fist finger by finger then finally thumb. Conviction writ large through medium of limb.
‘Hm’, Smith wonders.
‘Haha!’ cries Ermingsworth.
‘Next question,’ I demand, rolling up my sleeves and placing my legs on the pot plant in front of me. I am expertly demonstrating that I am not to be trifled with or even custarded.
‘Well,’ Smith recommences, ‘this will be a rather short, introductory set of questions just to make sure you’re comfortable -’
‘Comfortable, ha! Do I not seem comfortable to you?’ I remove my tie hurriedly and begin unbuttoning my shirt. If it’s comfort they want, then they shall have it! I produce my old mahogany pipe from my back pocket.
‘Please, Smitherson’, I ask, ‘do you perchance have a light?’
‘No,’ he writhes uncomfortably.
It takes me several minutes to light my tobacco, due to the airless nature of the room no doubt. Eventually, after an abyss of silence in which I swim free and easy, I achieve my goal.
‘See,’ I gesture, ‘I am persistent and tenacious and I like getting things done. Comfortable, too.’ I unloosen my belt, puff out a great hoop of smoke and belch loudly.
‘I like the cut of your jib!’ Ermingsworth screams.
‘How dare you, it’s not for sale!’ I retort.
This woman is quite evidently dangerous. I must mind myself.
‘Right, well, this is all most unusual,’ Smith quibbles.
‘Indeed - I am quite an exceptional candidate.’
Smith nods in ponderous agreement. Ermingsworth lolls her head back and moves from side to side in a great rush of delirium.
‘I think,’ Smith glances at his watch, ‘that we only have time for one more question.’ He coughs nervously.
I knew I was good, but I have clearly blown them away in my 2 minutes in the room. This is unprecedented.
‘Go ahead, Smith, old chum.’
‘What would you say is your greatest weakness?’
I am struck by his sincerity and honesty. This is an astonishingly direct line of questioning for a professional interview - Smith has shown great emotional depth here. It shows me that this organisation does not seek to simply know the excellent job I would undoubtedly do - they also seek to know the very fibre of my soul.
Amidst the chaos and concentration of the interaction, I am suddenly alone in the forest of my own subconscious, kept company only by my dreams, my hopes, my regrets, my frustrations. The trees move softly in the breeze, as all my thoughts agglomerate into one whole and then, just as quickly, diffuse one by one into the sky.
I fight back the tears, and find myself back in the room.
Then I speak poetry and wisdom true- ‘Well, I’m something of a perfectionist.’
Smith looks up from his notepad, bewildered. Ermingsworth stops her to-ing and fro-ing for the briefest of moments as if she has caught the final notes of some beautiful aria.
This brings the interview to a close. We have shared something special here today - it is palpable to all three.
I have learnt from my earlier error and when Smith extends his hand, I do not sit, but rather nuzzle it in a professional display of warmth. He looks down, presumably deeply moved.
‘We’ll be in touch,’ Smith nods sympathetically. Ermingsworth has commenced a slow-motion macarena.
‘Excellent,’ I murmur, and move gracefully into the night.
I often wonder what kind of bald man I’m destined to become.
Some bald men glint wisely - their wrinkled eyes speak laughter, their temperament so calm. They always seem to be engaged in a throaty congratulations to an old friend on the day of their daughter’s birth. A reassuring chuckle wrapped up in a dusty book. I’d like to be such a man one day, but I’ll need to be shown quite how.
Some bald men are gruff, unyielding - their gristle like bristles of brush. I fear these ones and their taste for violence, testosterone slowly fermenting. If I push past one on a tube or a stair, I’ll always receive a ferocious glance. I’ll shudder, apologise, and pray that is not my fate.
Some bald men are smooth like seals, always perpetually moist. They glisten in dark and light, on mushy walks across autumn fields and on summer holidays in Iberian peninsulas. They look like dough kneaded ready for baking - oil painted carefully on. I like them, but don’t envy them, as I pass them on the street.
Some bald men are shrewd like acorns, hardened and close like a nut. Their skulls protrude quite sharply, their heads just a little too small. These ones I am suspicious of - I can never determine their intentions or propositions. A smile can be deceptive. Perhaps another life, that’s me - but this one, I think not.
Of course, there are those who cling to a hair, a wisp like some stubborn tree in a desert wasteland. These men I respect for their hardy commitment to youth, and to doing what they think they must.
The men whose hair migrates down their face to beard then chest then down. There is something untamed and wild in these creatures - one must be a philosopher or barista, or preferably both if you have the time. I admire these ones, fear them too - for I cannot hope to emulate them.
There exist countless other categories of slapheads - too numerous to list here. There are of course those who retain their locks, all coy and eternally young. Slow fade to silvery grey or white, comb kept in back pocket, just in case. A pot of Brylcreem in one hand, Kerouac in the other. I can’t bring myself to envy these men for they are so high above me.
I wonder about these things as I sit in a car or a tree. All the men of the world pass around and below me, with all their various follicles, haired or not, blurring into one. I peek from behind my mirror or branch and see what’s there to be seen. Which baldie is it I’ll become, whose bonce will I possess?