In Browse, Henry Hitchings asks fifteen writers from around the world to consider the bookshops that have shaped them; each conjures a specific time and place. Ali Smith chronicles the secrets and personal stories hidden within the pages of secondhand books; Alaa Al Aswany tells of the Cairo bookshop where revolutionaries gathered during the 2011 uprisings; Elif Shafak evokes the bookstores of Istanbul, their chaos and diversity, their aroma of tobacco and coffee and Ian Sansom remembers his time working in the Business Department at our very own Foyles. You can read his piece below.
The Pillars of Hercules by Ian Sansom
In 1991 I resigned from my job at Foyles Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road in London. I’d worked there for two years, two years which may or may not have been the happiest two years of my life: it depends on how you look at it; sometimes it can be difficult to tell.
I’d written in on spec, having been drifting aimlessly from job to job, and hardly expecting a reply, but to my surprise I was invited for an interview with Christina Foyle, daughter of the shop’s founder. Miss Foyle—everyone called her Miss Foyle—interviewed prospective employees in her luxurious apartment over the shop. (The other penthouse apartment over the shop was owned by the popular female impersonator Danny La Rue, who would sometimes arrive in the loading bay at the back of Foyles in a pink Rolls-Royce, a vision in grey chiffon, and who would call out to us as were unloading boxes from vans—“Hello Boys!”) All I can recall of my job interview is Miss Foyle sitting on a vast white sofa, surrounded by lamps and cushions and cats, and her asking me if I spoke French, to which I replied that I did, although the only French I could and can speak with any degree of confidence are the words “Je voudrais un sandwich au jambon, s’il vous plaît”, a phrase which had been drilled into us at school in preparation for day trips to France, and which certainly did the job when purchasing filled baguettes in Calais, but which I hardly thought would have passed muster in the Foreign Languages Department of the world’s greatest bookshop. Fortunately, Miss Foyle didn’t ask a follow-up about my French and I got the job, though not in Foreign Languages; maybe she sensed me bluffing. Over the next few years, working away downstairs, I often thought of Miss Foyle, perched high above us. I would think of Kubla Khan:
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
Working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap. The old employment policy ensured that everyone was fired at the end of two years—in order to prevent them gaining any employment rights—but by then most people would already have resigned anyway from boredom, or been sacked for stealing books. I never stole any books myself, being both too timid and also in recovery from a long, draining, intense period of adolescent piety which meant that the mere idea of stealing anything, or of coveting another man’s wife, say, or his cattle, was simply unimaginable; I’d have been about as likely to nick the new Philip Roth as to rob a bank. Many of my colleagues, however, managed to combine both a great enthusiasm for literature with the kind of casual unscrupulousness which is common among people in their twenties, who are often more dangerous and unreliable even than teenagers, possessed as they are with the same giddy adolescent drives and desires but also suddenly with the confidence to fulfil them, and they managed to come up with any number of inventive ways of stealing books: some of them used to throw books out of the window to friends waiting down below; others used to just walk straight out the door with the books and sell them directly to the second-hand bookshops located farther down the Charing Cross Road, towards Leicester Square. Mostly, though, they were stealing simply for their own personal use and they’d take the books into the staff toilets, and walk out with them in their bags, or stuffed up their jumpers, and it wasn’t just that I thought this was wrong, although I did, of course; it was also that it was unbecoming; as is usual and traditional among ex-religious fanatics, I was gradually transforming from a prig into an aesthete. If there’d been a better, cleaner, more aesthetically pleasing way to steal I might perhaps have been led into temptation.
I liked working at Foyles. I worked in Business and Economics with a middle-aged Czech exile called Henry, which wasn’t his real name. He wouldn’t tell us his real name: he said it was too difficult for us to pronounce. Henry used to talk about life in Prague before the Communists came, and about Václav Havel, whom he despised, for reasons that I can’t now remember: it was either because he was too liberal, or perhaps because he was not liberal enough. Henry was like a mentor to me, the first person I’d ever met in a working environment who I felt I could really respect, the kind of bluff, no-nonsense bloke who taught you about the ways of the world and who told you rude jokes, but who was also intelligent and kind and well-read, and me and Henry and the others in Business and Economics used to spend many happy hours meeting sales reps and cutting open big cardboard boxes of books with sharp knives, and talking about life, the universe and everything, and after work we’d sometimes adjourn to a pub round the corner from Foyles, called the Pillars of Hercules, a
pub with all sorts of literary associations—Ian Hamilton had edited his magazines, the Review and the New Review from there, and I’d read about novelists and poets arriving at the pub, clutching their manuscripts to be edited by Hamilton over pints and cigarettes. The Pillars of Hercules was really just your average London boozer but to me it seemed impossibly, fabulously glamorous, even though Hamilton and the New Review crowd had long since moved on by the time I arrived, and what I mostly remember about it is being sick in the toilets, and also that it was the first place I saw anybody drink themselves sober. Henry would often reach a certain point in the evening’s drinking where he would be slurring his words and ranting in Czech, and suddenly he’d snap back into consciousness, and into English. It was heroic drinking—totally pointless, and an act of self-harm, but in some way also an assertion of man’s free will and dignity. He missed Prague.
Working with Henry in Business was the closest I’ve ever come to actually working in business and paradoxically it gave me more time to read than I’d ever had before or since. I read business books mostly—books with titles like Negotiate to Win and The Genghis Khan Way of Management, books whose lessons I never quite seemed to learn. I wasn’t the only one. The authors of these books would sometimes turn up unannounced in Business and Economics, to sign copies of their work, or to try to persuade us to take more stock: they were the first authors I’d ever met, and I was shocked and surprised at how dishevelled and desperate they all seemed to be; men in shiny, crumpled suits, with shiny, crumpled faces. I thought authors were supposed to be above it all, like Ian Hamilton in the Pillars of Hercules, or like Henry James and Oscar Wilde, wearing smoking jackets, and trading bon mots. I didn’t expect them to have business cards and mobile phones, or to try to flog me job lots of their soon-to-be remaindered books. These days, of course, I know better.
Working in Business, I also started to read Czech novelists recommended by Henry— Karel Čapek and Ivan Klíma; and Bohumil Hrabal and Josef Škvorecký. Škvorecký I liked, although I could never pronounce his name, and Čapek I admired. But Hrabal I loved, and have loved ever since. For better and for worse, reading Hrabal made me the writer I am today. I also started to read lots of American novelists I’d never really read before, picking them up from Fiction, down on the ground floor—Donald Barthelme, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Pynchon, William Gass. I did Updike. I did Roth. I did Bellow. All the usual suspects. I’d spend all day every day—with one weekday and Sunday off—talking with other members of staff, reading, and trying to hide from the customers.
The Business department in Foyles used to be located on the fourth floor, next to Drama and Music and Religion and Philosophy, and I read, or at least browsed a lot of the books from the shelves all around. This was where I first read Descartes and Richard Rorty, where I first looked at books about jazz and the blues, and where I first discovered William James and Gershom Scholem, and the chord sequences for The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues. I came to regard the shop as my own personal library. It was better than any library there’d been at college: there was no restriction on borrowing rights, and the stock was bang up to date. I used to stack up the books under the till and read them carefully, trying not to break the spines. One of the only things I didn’t read much of at Foyles was poetry, which was on the ground floor near the men in suits selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica—it was damp and badly lit down there. But I didn’t need the half-light of poetry: the world of the fourth floor of Foyles was my oyster. Life was good. Life was sweet.
And then one day my old Economics teacher from school came into the shop. I’d always liked her. Her name was Miss Legan. Once—it was when I was in the fifth form—she’d come into class and told us that she had changed her name and we now had to call her Mrs Koozekhanani. She wrote it on the blackboard. The rumour was that she’d met an Iranian student on the Tube who said he needed a visa, and she’d agreed to marry him. It was certainly possible; she was an extraordinary woman. She wore cords and a donkey jacket, and she had a kind of Joan Baez hairstyle, twenty years after Joan Baez, and she had a National Union of Teachers bumper sticker on her 2CV that read “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” She used to give us copies of the Socialist Worker to read in class, and she would talk about the miners’ strike and the evils of free-market economics. There were also rumours that in the evenings and at weekends she worked as an usherette in the cinema in South Woodford. We were only allowed to study something called “Social” Economics at school— this was a comprehensive school, after all—but Mrs Koozekhanani invited a few of us to learn “Pure” Economics at lunchtime and after school, where she introduced us to the ideas of Karl Marx. In the end, she left—a copy of the Socialist Worker too far?—and we got a teacher who wore suits and who preferred Friedrich von Hayek. If we weren’t socialists before, we certainly were after.
“What on earth are you doing working here?” Mrs Koozekhanani asked me when we met in Foyles, years later, her hairstyle and cords still intact. “You’re wasting your life,” she said. “You have a responsibility to yourself and others to do better. You have a contribution to make to society.” I thought working in Foyles was my contribution to society.
After leaving school and a few false starts I’d eventually gone to university and studied English. Like most university students studying English I’d chosen to do English at degree level because I’d been good at English at school, or at least I liked reading books, and at school these two things—enjoying reading and “doing English”—happily coincide. Of course, the further you go on in education, the more they diverge, until you eventually meet people with doctorates on Abjection in Early Modern Literature who hate reading and who hate writers, and who haven’t read a book for pleasure or out of mere curiosity for years. Unfortunately, it’s not until you actually go to university and start reading literary theory and literary criticism that you realize your mistake, by which time it’s too late. I flirted with the idea of changing to study theology, or art history—something more useful—but in the end I stuck it out with English, despite, or perhaps because of the fact that I was told by one
supervisor, in my very first term at college, that I was, quote, the most inarticulate student it had ever been his misfortune to teach, unquote. I regarded it—as he probably intended it—as a challenge. I spent three years learning how to punctuate, and ironing the Estuary out of my voice.
After university I got married, travelled around for a while, slipped back into glottalstopping, gave up on semicolons, did a lot of odd jobs, moved with my wife to Belfast, worked as an adult literacy tutor, and eventually moved back to London. I did a TEFL course while my wife worked as a shop assistant at H. Samuel, the jewellers. For years we were happily going nowhere fast. Then I got the job in Foyles and my wife was accepted on a graduate trainee scheme: things were getting serious; things were looking up.
The great thing about Foyles was you got paid in cash every week in little brown envelopes, so it seemed like a real job, like you were working in a factory or in the shipyard. For the first and last time in my life I felt like I was paying my way. I felt like my dad and my grandad must have felt during their working lives—I felt that somehow I was providing. With commission, you could earn £150–£180 per week, more than I’d ever earned before. At the time, we were living in a one-room flat in Crystal Palace. It was cramped, with one wall partitioned off from the next flat by a sheet of wallpapered hardboard: we could hear when the woman next door used her deodorant; when she entertained male guests we retired to the pub. We ate out occasionally in a cheap Chinese restaurant in West Norwood, went shopping in Brixton and to the cinema in Streatham.
And it was then that Mrs Koozekhanani came along and shook things up and spoilt everything. Maybe she was right. Maybe I was wasting my life. Maybe there was more to life thajn hiding from customers and reading books at random and pissing away my wages in the Pillars of Hercules.
So I moved on and didn’t return to Foyles for years. Then one Christmas I was visiting my family in London and I thought I’d look up Henry in Business and Economics. I went up to the fourth floor and sure enough, there he was, still there, hiding behind the desk, and we went out to the Pillars of Hercules, for old time’s sake, just me and him. We talked about books and about the book trade, and he told me about his plans to go back home to
Czechoslovakia, and how he was going to set up a factory manufacturing gloves, or maybe beer, or plastics, or something, and I said how good it was to see him again, and he said it was good to see me too, and how we should meet up again soon, and when I got home that night I opened my bag and in there was a big bottle of brandy—he must have bought it at the bar and slipped it in while I went to the toilet. A true act of kindness.
Six months later I moved back to live in London and again went to find Henry, up on the fourth floor, but this time he’d gone. Disappeared. No one working there had even heard of him. I never even knew his real name, and I haven’t seen him or heard from him since, and I don’t ever expect to. Foyles has gone as well now, of course: it’s not the same place. It’s moved a few doors down the road to the old St Martin’s School of Art and is now indistinguishable from any other fancy bookshop in the city. Long gone is the strange payment system, with the Soviet-style double-queuing, and the big red heavy volumes of Whitaker’s Books In Print, and there is of course the obligatory coffee shop, and there are scanners and computers and a website. Life moves on, and everything changes, even in the greatest bookshop in the world.
The last time I was in London I took my son for a drink in the Pillars of Hercules. “This is where it all began,” I said, as we passed the building that once was Foyles, though what began there I’m not entirely sure—perhaps it wasn’t the beginning at all. Perhaps it was the end.