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The Bookseller’s Tale

How do I love Francis Spufford? Let me count the ways….. I first fell under his spell with The Child that Books Built where he writes about his academic parents, his disabled sister, and the books that fed his imagination. I admired the nimbleness and subtlety of his prose in True Stories and Other Essays and Unapologetic where he defends the ‘God-deluded’ against Richard Dawkins. I was blown away by his first novel Golden Hill which is written with such energy that it fizzes off the page. Now there is his second novel Light Perpetual, a brilliant experiment in fiction where, by authorial sleight of hand, he resurrects five children killed by a V2 rocket in 1944 in a Woolworths in South London, giving them names and personalities and ‘what if’ lives. Jo and Val, sisters, Vernon, called ‘Vermin’ at school, Alec, smart and mouthy, and Ben, small and timid—we meet them at intervals until 2009. Jo is musically gifted, but as girlfriend of a rock star she can’t get her songs performed. Val falls for a skinhead, with predictable consequences. Vern becomes a crooked developer, with a surprising passion for opera. Alec is a Fleet Street compositor whose craft is blown away like a dandelion flower-head and replaced by new technology. Ben is a bus conductor whom we see having a schizophrenic episode, oblivious of the danger from skinheads on the top deck. Spufford, like Graham Swift, inhabits his characters completely, and knows them so intimately that I’m sure that he, like Swift, expects to see them walking down the High Street. After the superb opening chapter, I wondered how he could possibly end the novel. I needn’t have worried; the ending is perfect and completely satisfying. 

I have a card featuring a man in a patched coat coming out of a bookshop with an armful of books and a beatific smile on his face, under the legend ‘Wear the old coat, Buy the new book’. This is a sentiment of which I heartily approve, as does Martin Latham, manager of Waterstone’s bookstore in Canterbury, who has written The Bookseller’s Tale, a hugely enjoyable book about book lovers, book collectors, comfort books, incunabula fanatics, chapbooks, book pedlars and more. Latham is one of eight children whose Dad, on a working man’s wage, was a passionate book collector, so the whole family wore patched coats, though his Mum didn’t often wear a beatific smile. He tells stories about the cherishing and even kissing of books, doodling in margins and the handling of rare books—a good thing, he says. A favourite comfort book with his customers is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, a book I too like to read when I’m sick or miserable, along with Nerve by Dick Francis and a few others that I’m too ashamed to admit to. In a chapter called Dubious Dewey Latham pulls the rug out from under the inventor of the Dewey decimal system by recounting how he banned Jews, African Americans and Cubans from his Lake Placid resort while the sanctimonious old wretch was a confirmed groper of women. Latham proudly says that he filed the biggest petty cash claim in the history of Waterstone’s to pay for the excavation of a Roman bath house full of mosaics under his store. His book is full of stories, such as one about Wang Jei the first named printer in history and Marie Pellechet, a collector of incunabula, who was originally shunned by Curators because she was a woman. His last chapter is filled with all the interesting people who have visited his shop, like Manolo Blahnik, whose posh dog got mauled by the bookstore cat, and how when he first started at the store, he employed a graduate to manage the fiction section—David Mitchell. Yes, that David Mitchell. 

One of my favourite lockdown reads was Augustine: Confessions and Conversions by Robin Lane Fox, which so impressed me that I treated myself to his latest tome The Invention of Medicine from Hippocrates to Homer. Greek doctors had bronze scalpels, needles, probes and dilators and they were able to perform delicate operations like trepanning. They used medicinal plants, and some had gardens for the cultivation of plants in frequent use. Bandages were used, and olive oil and honey for enemas etc. They may not have known about contagion, but they recommended healthy food and exercise. Hippocrates is credited with the dictum ‘First do no harm’, as well as the Hippocratic Oath, and the Hippocratic manoeuvre is still used to fix a dislocated collar bone. This is a very learned work in which Fox examines vocabulary, types of diseases, weather, inscriptions, archaeological remains & botany, (as well as being an ancient historian he is gardening correspondent of the Financial Times.) There are five books called the Epidemics attributed to Hippocrates, and Lane Fox takes us on a vivid ride through the island-city of Thasos, while arguing his case for the date of the books, around 470BC, which would make Hippocrates a pioneer in observations and case histories of real-life patients over an extensive period. If you can’t get too worked up about dating controversies and the influence on Aeschylus, Sophocles, Thucydides and so on, you will love Fox’s dry wit and you will be fascinated by the illnesses. The ancients didn’t get measles or venereal diseases, but they suffered from the plague, malaria, mumps and arthritis. Maternal and child mortality don’t get a rating in the index but a few of the women patients died of what could be puerperal fever, but Lane Fox thinks malaria is more likely.  In the ancient world girls were married at the age of 12-14, poor things. Sonia