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September 2014

GUEST BLOG: Tales from old Foyles
12th September 2014 - 12 Midnight Edward Carey Read more »

 

As many of our longstanding customers will attest, before the shop was refitted and modernised following the death of the legendary Christina Foyle in 1999, Foyles was one of London's most eccentric retailers, with a three-queue payment system and an insistence on shelving books by publisher among its many idiosyncrasies.

 

IremongerNevertheless, working at Foyles has been a rite of passage for many who still make their living from books, many authors among them. Edward Carey was employed as a bookseller in mid-1990s, but his since become a successful writer, first of two novels for adults, Alva & Irva and Observatory Mansions, and now the deliciously dark Iremonger trilogy for young adult readers: Foulsham, the sequel to Heap House, is newly published and both books feature his own illustrations.

 

Here Edward shares his experiences of working for Christina Foyle in a place strange enough that he might have dreamed it up himself for one of his gloriously Gothic tales.

 

 

Christina FoyleAbout 16 years ago, before the internet had conquered the world, before 9/11 and the Euro, Christina Foyle was still alive and I worked in her bookshop. Just like so many others before me, I was ushered by her unassuming driver into her flat on top of the bookshop building. She interviewed all her potential employees, I can't remember exactly what she asked me but I do remember thinking that there was something rather fairytale about her, as if she were a tidier version of Miss Havisham. Having barely arrived, I was ushered out once more. 'You only see her once, you'll never see her again,' one of my colleagues told me, and she was right, that was the law of the place. However there was always a feeling that she was present, that this was her place.

 

Christina Foyle's eccentricity filtered down from the top of the building into the many floors below. The Foyles that I remember resembled an empire in decline. You might not notice the strangeness of the place on first entering - the first floor where the fiction resided may even seem negotiable - but travel further in that strange world and it would come upon you very quickly. Suddenly you would know you were not in an ordinary bookshop.

 

Books, books everywhere. But their order seemed immediately strange, the corridors, lanes streets of books seemed to lead you into greater confusion. The books seemed to be whispering, 'Who are you? What do you want?'

 

In Foyles back then books could be put on a shelf and sit there for decades. There were very old books, languishing and neglected in corners, a general notion of books in poor health and confused people wandering about them. In Foyles you had a definite sense that books lived there. But it seemed like there was so much more than books in that rickety tower of words. My colleagues used to whisper that secrets of state were not locked away in some government vault, rather they were secreted among the bookshelves at Foyles where they could be certain never to be found. One fellow speculated that the whereabouts of Lord Lucan could be found inside the bookshop if you only knew where to look.

 

The stairs. The stairs at Foyles. They felt like they belonged to some forlorn educational establishment though what exactly it taught, the place had long since forgotten. The steps were worn away like the marble in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, you feared you would tumble to your death. You could take the lifts, the dreaded service lifts with their old fashioned accordion metal shutters best not to though, those lifts had attitude. There were corners of the place that had not seen light for a long time, and on occasion it seemed that some of the public had got lost in the maze of confusion and had, exhausted and faded, found themselves morphing into yellowing books.

 

But most of all I recall the basement, and there I remember being stationed for what seemed a very long time. The place had all the welcome of a Victorian urinal. There was a strange smell in the basement that I cannot define, and that I've never smelt anywhere else but I can quite ever stop smelling even now so many years later.

 

If, by some fluke, you found the book you were looking for, or discovered a book that had never occurred to you before (I remember one I found all about snails, a tremendous book) and you went to buy it then the confusion grew worse. You had to take it to one counter where a chit would be written for you and the book taken from you and then you had to go to a different counter (often a long way away) to buy the book, then you had to return to the first counter with your stamped chit which would be inspected and only then would you be reunited with your book (now yours) and then you merely had to find the way out and the pair of you (you and your book) were free again, were liberated. It seemed actually that Foyles so loved their books that they hated to part with them.


Auto da feAnd yet beyond the chaos there was still a certain understanding of books, even a passion for them. It was an adventure being there, it was idiosyncratic, infuriating but wonderful. We talked about books with great excitement, I first read Haruki Murakami and Mervyn Peake there. The employees were a very varied army of people who knew they wouldn't be staying long (most of the jobs were not permanent, you were told that you would only be employed for a limited period of time) and those rarer people who did stay there longer looked somehow connected to the place as if they may have lost their organs somewhere between the bookshelves and hoped one day to find them. Of all the bookshops I have ever known Foyles is the one that most recalls the one in which the young Doktor Kien in Elias Canetti's Auto da Fe is deliberately lost in as a child. He loved books and yearned to spend a night with them. To him books were somehow alive, you always felt that in Foyles.

 

Now Foyles has new books and a new home. In the new premises, books breathe in light. In general there is a feeling of lightness and legibility. But still - perhaps leading from the dance floor saved from Central St Martins - a real feeling of both past and future, it's a clean space, still holding on to its old eccentricities; you may still buy a stethoscope there, it still has the sheet music, though now the collection is entirely ordered. It feels like an individual place, it has an identity, but stands proud, it probably still has many secrets amongst it books. It feels related to the old building, a handsome younger giant to the old rusting behemoth. The books are talking to each other again, they whisper through a spine of light in the centre of the store. The whole place is fresh and bright, and a reader there is free to journey among all the clear streams of books; it flows now where before it seemed made up of dead ends. It still holds the character of the old Foyles, but now feels young and alive, full of hope and excitement. A new place to get lost.

 

 

GUEST BLOG: That hoopy frood Douglas Adams
9th September 2014 - 12 Midnight Marie Phillips Read more »

 

Marie PhillipsMarie Phillips, the author of The Table of Less Valued Knights (a epic tale of Arthur's less distinguished followers) and Gods Behaving Badly (the gods of ancient Greece are alive and well and living in Islington), has long acknowledged how Douglas Adams has been a huge influence on her writing.

 

On Tuesday 23rd September, she joins Jem Roberts, author of new authorised Douglas Adams biography The Frood, at Foyles for evening celebrating the man who brought us the answer to the life, the universe and everything. (Book tickets here.)

 

Here Marie reveals how books borrowed from her elder brother were to prove vastly more entertaining than the Celestial Home Care Omnibus and confirms that she does indeed know where her towel is.

 

 

Until today I didn't know when I first read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I guessed that I was eleven or twelve. I can't actually remember reading it for the first time, but I do know that when So Long And Thanks For All The Fish came out I made my parents buy it immediately in hardback, because I was so excited that there was a new Douglas Adams book. I'd been reading the other three books on rotation while I waited. Anyway, I just looked it up and, to my astonishment, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish came out when I was eight. Which means that I must have read the first three Hitchhiker books around the time that I was seven.

 

Marvin Arthur FordI'd borrowed them (with or without permission) from my older brother who loved them too, and we watched the TV programme together, and played the text adventure game (all that I remember is that you had to get the computer to make tea.) To my regret I have never heard the radio series. I'm not surprised that I enjoyed the books at that age - the very words Eccentrica Gallumbits, the Triple-Breasted Whore of Eroticon Six were enough to crease me up, even if (thank goodness) I only understood 'the' and 'of' and 'six'; what amazes me is that 30 years later I love them just as much, and for exactly the same reasons. I can't think of any other book for which that is true.

 

As soon as I read them, I recognised that the novels were extraordinarily, uniquely funny, and took me to amazing places that I wanted to go. They were crazy and mindboggling and completely different from anything I had ever read before. Of course they were: at age six I was reading Sam Pig Goes To Market on a family holiday, so this was a pretty steep learning curve.

 

Sure, I didn't understand who the man was who had been nailed to a tree two thousand years ago for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, or what the small pieces of green paper were whose movements were so crucial to human happiness. I didn't know why anyone would drink a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster if they were like having your brains knocked out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a gold brick. All this I would get later.

 

But the Hitchhikers books were where I learned about the life, the universe and everything: about the planet I lived on (insignificant, blue green, mostly harmless), about space (which is 'big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space'), about God (subject of Oolon Colluphid's trilogy of philosophical blockbusters Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?), and, most importantly, that I should always know where my towel is. (I am literally writing this article in a chair with a towel thrown over the arm.)

 

Large Friendly LettersThe spaceships and planets the book took me to were fascinating and bizarre, the people who lived there loveably odd. Arthur Dent was funny but infuriating, Ford Prefect unsettlingly close to, but not quite, human. Zaphod was perhaps the hoopiest frood ever to have lived. I adored Marvin. Many of the characters I liked most were incidental: the whale, brought into being by the Infinite Improbability Drive, making friends with the ground as it rushed up to kill him; his companion, the bowl of petunias, who turned out to be the vengeful Agrajag with his Cathedral of Hate. Trillian, though, was disappointing. She was the only girl in the first three books, and she didn't do much. But I remembered the advice of the Guide, printed in large, friendly letters on the cover, and I didn't panic. I just decided to write my
own stories, with girls who did interesting things.

 

Looking back, I believe that the Hitchhiker novels, crash-landing so early into my reading like the B Ark onto prehistoric Earth, shaped my brain as surely as Zaphod shaped his. They are the lens through which I will forever see the world - as a place of endless wild possibility, strange and baffling as Vogon poetry, yet, in the end, as comforting and familiar as Arthur Dent's dressing gown. Mostly harmless, entirely hilarious. I wasn't only inspired by Douglas Adams's books, I was created by them. And it's true what they (almost) say: give me the reader at seven, and I will give you the writer. Without Douglas Adams, I struggle to imagine what my novels, or I, would be.

 

 

GUEST BLOG: Creative spaces
4th September 2014 - 12 Midnight James Dawson Read more »


James Dawson is a primary school teacher and the author of award-nominated teen thrillers Cruel Summer and, mostly recently, Hollow Pike. He's also the author of Being a Boy, a teenage guide to puberty and relationships and the forthcoming book for LGBT teenagers, This Book Is Gay.

 

Here he reveals how his search for the ideal writing space led him to become part of a community of writers, using each other's company as a spark for creativity, at the Royal Festival Hall.

 

 

Roald Dahl writing hutLast year I visited the Roald Dahl Museum, the resting place of Dahl's writing hut - a place imbued with great magic. You can still feel it, even through a Perspex screen. It was a room with a single purpose: a space to create. That cramped little shed gave rise to Big Friendly Giants, Grand High Witches and Great Glass Elevators.

 

When I started writing full-time three years ago, I aspired to my very own Dahl hut (which would also, one day, find itself recreated piece-by-piece in a museum). I live in an ex-council flat in Battersea, and they are not known for their spacious gardens so I instead set about cultivating my dream office: framed book covers? Check! Unnecessarily expensive tax-write-off chair? Check! Retro hipster My Little Ponies? Also check. I was ready to go.

 

For a year I wrote like this, growing increasingly more distracted and miserable. I would look for any excuse to avoid writing. No flat has ever been cleaner, my ironing was done, I'd invent errands to take me out of the flat. I became boring too. A guy I was dating dumped me because all I ever talked about was what the fictional people in my head had been up to that day. It took its toll - I'm so perky people often accuse me of being part unicorn, but I strayed dangerously close to some bleak, morose thinking. Spending so much time alone meant starting up a confrontational inner dialogue with myself, a sort of internal therapist's couch. Every thought was analysed and a defined, egocentric concept of self almost became a hobby. In short, I needed to get out more.

 

Most writers choose to work at home, at least according to the ones I spoke to on Twitter. Most seem to have a dedicated work space - a kitchen table, an office room or even, like Maggie and Me author Damian Barr, a shed. It was clear, however, that it wasn't for me.

 

Now settled into London, I started to make friends within the UK young adult (YA) writing community. Skyscraper Throne author Tom Pollock suggested we meet at the Royal Festival Hall one evening as this was where he did his writing. I was wary to say the least. Quite unfairly, I had always thought those people with laptops in Starbucks were hugely pretentious not to mention rich beyond my wildest dreams - who can afford a stream of frappuccinos for seven hours a day? It never occurred to me that they were just like me - lonely self-employed people.


Royal Foylestival HallNor had it ever occurred to me to write in the company of others. I was pretty certain that writing should be a solitary pursuit and that writing in public would only be a distraction. How wrong I was. Like many creative public spaces, the Royal Festival Hall is a melting pot of talent from all disciplines - screenwriters, producers, poets, authors and even dancers rehearsing in the corridors. The environment, far from stifling work, encourages it, it's a professional working space. It also has its own branch of Foyles and I firmly believe being near new-book-smell makes me want to write books.

 

I bought membership and the change was instantaneous. I now have a clearly defined work and home life. Like anyone else with a job (and I feel writing should be a job as it's my chosen career) I now get up and go to the office. I work for seven hours and then come home.

 

It has also changed how I see the writing community, in that I now recognise there is one. Many of us write together and it's helped me to be more creative. Being able to bounce ideas off a fellow author is invaluable - as a group we've ironed out many a plot niggle. The word 'networking' is awful, I prefer to think that I made some friends. I don't understand competition or rivalry between authors; if a person only bought one book in their life it might make sense but people who love books tend to love books and so, to me, it can only make sense to collaborate.

 

I'd love to write with some other UKYA authors. I think we have a wealth of established talent like Sally Gardner and Patrick Ness to up-and-coming names like Non Pratt and Holly Smale. In the US, where Young Adult is arguably a slightly bigger deal than it is in the UK, it is commonplace for authors to co-write titles. John Green, Maureen Johnson, Cassandra Clare and David Levithan have all released collaborative works. It's my hope that similar partnerships will form within the UKYA community and having communal creative spaces could foster this.

 

I certainly no longer judge people with laptops in coffee shops. Writing can be an isolating career, but I have found it doesn't need to be. In fact, and I don't just say this to be sickening, I really look forward to going to work every day.

 

 

 

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Latest Blog
GUEST BLOG: Tales from old Foyles
12/09/2014

Edward Carey, author the Iremonger trilogy for young adults, shares his memories of an earlier career working in Christina Foyle's eccentric bookshop.

GUEST BLOG: That hoopy frood Douglas Adams
09/09/2014

Marie Phillips, an author who definitely knows where her towel is, reveals the effect of exposure to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at a young age.

GUEST BLOG: Creative spaces
04/09/2014

James Dawson, author of teen thrillers Cruel Summer and Hollow Pike, explain how being part of a community of writers can offer a huge boost to creativity.

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