Artillery Row

Re-building a library

Confessions of a bibliomaniac in the South Atlantic

Stanley – and, by extension, the entire country of the Falkland Islands — has no bookshops. Zero. Zip. Nada. I knew this sort of thing before I came, of course, because I am an obsessive purchaser of books and had researched the place on Google Maps. The nearest bookshop is in Uruguay.

Amazon does not deliver here; my unexpected sojourn in the UK over Christmas had proved fruitless, books-wise (my usual haunts – FOPP, Charing Cross Rd, the Maidstone Oxfam – closed for Covid lockdown purposes); and while I brought a few things in my hand luggage, of course (two or three thousands pages, say), the ‘rest’ of my books (well, 5-10per cent of them; those not in storage in my parents’ house) were on a ship somewhere, en route from Asia.

So by the time we’d finished two weeks’ quarantine, I had a serious itch to scratch — and it was really my wife’s fault she took me to the only place in town that sells new books: the West Store supermarket. I came away with two (I thought) rather-improbable finds from their discounted section: a Brazilian novel about the Marquis de Sade, and the Australian prison memoirs of a Kurdish asylum-seeking journalist. Good start.

That weekend, we went to sign up at the local library (the nation’s only library, that is; but quite well stocked). And they were having a wee sale, I noticed – 50p per book! – for the usual, slightly-depressing public library reasons of making space and generating funds for acquisitions. So, like a good immigrant, I felt it was my civic duty to put my shoulder to the wheel. While Fiona filled in forms, I pounced on a handsome Everyman Gargantua and Pantagruel (0.06p per page, I estimated), as well as some Farrell, Faulkner, Keneally, MacLaverty, Malamud and other such, before Fiona, forms completed, dragged me away, wearily assuring the librarian that she’d be seeing me again.

It’s a running joke between librarian and three-year-old as to whether Daddy is allowed to buy more books

I was back there at nine on Monday morning but not before my neighbour had alerted me to a much bigger sale, in the disused smithy building of the waterfront Museum. I arrived before the 10am official start time, and saw to my amusement (by which I really mean “clammy horror”) that I was not the first one to have thought of this. No harm done: by 10:15 my TBP pile was so tall I had to stop someone from browsing it. Harold Nicolson’s The Age of Reason; Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy; Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Gentleman; an extremely-well-read Maigret; and maybe 10 or 15 more. Half of these books contained the ghostly markings of collections housed in schools, on cruise ships, and in army barracks. I chucked a quid, for each, in the donations box, and hoped that was the sort of thing expected. The walk back up the hill was not enjoyable.

By Feburary, Fiona had discovered the town’s charity shop, open 4:30-6pm, twice a week, in an old hut tucked behind the cathedral. She probably ought never to have mentioned it. Amidst the usual airport junk and cookery books I found some wonderful Boy’s Own-type titles like The Red Goddess by Flt. Lieut. S.C. George, and The Mystery of Mar Saba (from the Evangelical Publishers in Canada); Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus, in a cheap Panther ‘fiction/fantasy & horror’ edition; The Garden of the Finzi-Continis; Steinbeck’s WWII despatches; Goodbye Mr Chips; and a textbook on the history of pearls. At four books for a pound(!), that’s the kind of temptation I don’t even tell myself I’ll be resisting.

As though by design, the library is the closest government installation to our house, and as I pass it several times a day, on foot, it didn’t take me long to realise that their sale continues on a rolling basis. They have some 7000 books to get rid of, the librarian told me (we were on first-name terms already) — and who am I to stand in their way? In the ensuing weeks, I snapped up Kelman, Meek, DeLillo, Hollinghurst, Highsmith, Carter, Swift (Graham), Joseph O’Connor, Crace and Richler, and dozens more contemporary novels, both in paperback and hard cover, often merely because they were unknown to me; the Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica; a (pretty-used) first edition of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and a fine but boring-looking (and utterly unborrowed?) Thomas Hardy, which I bought solely for the first line of the jacket copy: “A Laodicean is not one of Hardy’s great novels…”

I also popped back — once or twice — to the museum. You find what you find at these things, and there is no logic to it, which is exactly what I love about the second-hand scene: Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth; two travel books by Freya Stark (for whom we named our daughter, and of whose work I’ve read too little); and a rather ugly OUP copy of Tristram Shandy (my only real concession to book-collecting, per se: this one’s for scribbling on); books on geology, penguins, Irving Berlin, Lenin, the Incas; and tomes by Jared Diamond, Henry Kissinger, and Gore Vidal — which, transported all together, contrived to wrench a hole in our damn “baby”-carrier.

And what of Audible, to which I became a zealous convert six or seven years ago?

There was also a garage sale, one Sunday morning, which could not possibly have contained more than ten books for adults, but from which I emerged with Vonnegut’s quite-hard-to-find debut Player Piano, and P Roth’s late numbers, Everyman and Nemesis (a pound apiece).

And a second raid on the charity shop which turned up a shelf of lovely early-Sixties bookclub pocket hardbacks with coloured top edges, frankly waiting for some interior-designer type to turn them into wallpaper. Not wishing to appear greedy, I picked out seven, including Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case and Anthony Farrar-Hockley’s The Edge of the Sword, on the Korean War — only figuring out later that it was obviously his son, Dair, who’d been the Para company commander during the Falklands War.

I was still congratulating myself on not accidentally purchasing two different (but equally-interesting-looking) editions of Peter Høeg’s The History of Danish Dreams when I found I’d bought two copies (hardback and paper) of The Photograph by Penelope Lively. This is to say nothing of having purposefully acquired ‘replacements’ of James Joyce (HB of Ulysses), Ballard, Jerome (humorist, not saint), Golding, Eliot, Saint-Exupéry, et al., really just so that one can sleep at night.

Then there are review copies (work, Fiona!), of which I have, in fairness to myself, received considerably fewer than usual, thanks to the recent switch of continents and Covid-enforced postal delays. Nonetheless, books by Richard Flanagan, Charlotte McConaghy, Michael Blencowe, Geoff Dyer, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, James Clammer, and Maria Stepanova (International Booker shortlist) have wung their merry way to me. Plus those by writerly acquaintances, including forthcoming works by Jack Grimwood, footballing journalist Seth Burkett, an ex-military friend of a friend (Dave Bentley), and a mate’s brother (Brendan Whittington-Jones) who worked in Baghdad Zoo.

And there is, yes, as people never tire of mentioning, the option of downloading books [spits, dances round anticlockwise]. I will hardly mention the library’s e-reading system, or the reviewers’ service NetGalley. But from time to time, not least when curfewed, quarantined, locked down, or at the ends of the earth, one must succumb to such distasteful practicalities. I’ve recently condescended to review e-books on sentient trees and Alexandria (in Afghanistan); but I’ll admit my thumb may also accidentally have clipped the ‘Buy now’ button on some Chinese stories, essays by Schopenhauer, WWI letters, Goethe’s stage biography of Götz von Berlichingen, a Damon Runyon omnibus, Defoe’s History of the Devil, George Melly’s memoirs, Doggerland, and Vanished Years by Rupert Everett.

I’ve not read any of these books, you understand

And what of Audible, to which I became a zealous convert six or seven years ago? To wit, a further twenty purchases since mid-Jan, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to The Magic Mountain, via Hitch-22. The Mann alone will occupy some 37 hours. 

I’ve bought four books as gifts. But then I have been given six: Barry Lyndon, Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, and John Julius Norwich’s three-vol. Byzantium, locally (these last delivered to me from West Falkland by a complex set-up of ferry, foot and in-laws/nieces); and, from London, a friend just sent Shalom Auslander’s latest, Mother for Dinner.

In front of me, meanwhile, there is a pile of half a dozen books I’ve borrowed from the library — y’know, like a normal person. Fiona will be pleased to think that these, at least, can all go back. Except the ones I’ve read I will now want to buy, and the rest I, er, own anyway. 

We’ve been here 12 weeks now (post quarantine), and it’s long-since been a running joke between librarian and three-year-old as to whether Daddy is allowed to buy more books. The library assistant, last week, saw me browsing and immediately asked to get a head start on the ringing up. Down at the charity shop, they flip the sign when I come past, and even tried to offer me a discount.

On World Book Day, I totted up, just for the lols, how many books I’d bought in the preceding two months. Issues of space preclude a complete inventory, but I reckoned a total of about 140 books – or well over two per day, on average, not counting Kindle free stuff. 

And there’ve been plenty more since.

I’ve not read any of these books, you understand (OK, a few…); but a) that’s not the point, and b) I don’t care. I subscribe — naturally — to Eco’s dictums on the antilibrary, as well as to the amply sufficient defence that my obsession costs not much and harms nobody. Besides, per Wetherspoons, I simply enjoy the things as furniture. Until late March, anyway, the whole “collection” still only covered three short bookshelves (not even double stacked) and one long row between the wall and dining table.

But then our shipping finally arrived — two car-sized crates of it — and now our friends drop round and say such well-intentioned things as, “Oh, you must be so glad all your books are here.” My wife just laughs at them.

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