When I was an art student in the 1970s I was obliged to work at weekends and during the holidays in order to make ends meet. For a Season of Hell I worked in an Oxford Street shoe shop (a nightmare of turquoise Bri-nylon pinafores, acryclic carpets and metal shelving that would give you electric shocks every time you touched them) before seeing the light and moving up the road to Claude Gill, a bookshop adjoining Tottenham Court Road Underground station, in the block that has since been razed to make way for Crossrail.
And it was in bookshops that I found My People, more or less: a real live poet called Barry, who ran the poetry section; a glamorous bohemian called Judith, who became something of a a role model (she seemed very old – probably about 40 – but was unmarried, had affairs, and hung out with artists and opera singers; she also advised me that it was better to be The Other Woman than The Wife); my first gay friend, who gave me LSD.
Best of all, I got a discount on books; it was while I was working at Claude Gill that I read J.G. Ballard’s Crash (recommended by Judith), all the Philip K. Dick I could lay my hands on, early Tom Wolfe, the entirety of the Scott-Moncrieff translation of Proust and those lovely Panther editions of H.P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson with cover artwork by Ian Miller. When management realised I was an art student I was given felt-tip pens and sheets of card and a lot of signs to write; I wasn’t paid extra, but lettering was more fun than serving customers. I met James Mason, who came in to sign copies of his memoirs (and JFC how I wish now I’d paid more attention, got his autograph, taken his photo or generally grovelled at his feet), illustrated a slim volume of poetry by a friend of Barry’s, and decorated the shop window once or twice: once using a lot of black plastic bin bags as a backdrop for the Pirelli Calendar Book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with a real motorcycle (not my idea, but provided by the publishers, I think), and sackfuls of pasta from nearby Camisa & Sons for an Italian cookbook. I don’t have photographs for any of these windows; I wish I had, they were wild. But in any case head office disapproved of my proto-punk art installations and put a stop to the aesthetic mayhem.
Also around this time, the IRA were setting off bombs in central London, so we were told to Stay Vigilant and Be Suspicious of all abandoned packages, bags etc, though I don’t remember anyone being that worried about it.
At some point I moved around the corner to a bookshop called Words & Music, which was a mixture of new publications and remaindered books and records. (Just along Charing Cross Road, The Booksmith, where I would later work, dealt exclusively in remaindered books, in which there was something of a 1970s boom.) Whoever sat at the cash desk had control of the record player. If we didn’t watch out, one of the unreconstructed hippies would keep playing The Eagles (ugh) or Fleetwood Mac (ugh ugh) but I played Television and Ian Dury endlessly, plus some Nils Lofgren, and at the end of the day we would put on Wild Man Fischer’s Merry-Go-Round – from our favourite remaindered album – which invariably resulted in remaining customers stampeding to get out of the shop.
The first floor of the shop had been gutted in preparation for redevelopment or redecoration that somehow never took place; we called it The Void, and went up there to smoke grass. I was stoned quite a lot of the time, though I don’t remember it affecting my efficiency as a shop assistant – I enjoyed showing off my knowledge to customers who would try and describe books without knowing titles or authors, and I knew my way around Faber & Faber, Calder & Boyars and City Lights (just try finding a high street chain bookstore nowadays with this kind of thing in stock). Once I got so stoned that I listened to an entire Pink Floyd album before realising it was all in my head, and another time I became convinced that a customer who offered me a sweet was an evil sorceror who was trying to poison me. But our drug of choice was alcohol; there was a lot of going to the pub, and steak & chips at Jimmy’s in Soho, and once I drank too much champagne at an in-store celebration of high book sales, threw up in the office and had sex with a book rep twice my age. (I didn’t look on this as a big deal at the time; the term “date-rape” had yet to be coined, and I had yet to read Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will.)
I remember looking at the shelves of new publications and thinking, one day, I’ll write a book that will be displayed on those shelves. And one day, many years later, I did write a book, several books in fact. When my first two novels – Suckers and Stiff Lips – were published by Pan Macmillan, I walked up and down Charing Cross Road, looking in all the bookshops. And what do you know, I couldn’t find my books on display in any of them.
I think I took these photographs with my first camera – a secondhand Pentax Spotmatic – on Ilford HP5 film. I wish now I had taken more, and taken more trouble with these, but at this point of my life the technical niceties (exposure, aperture, focus) were still escaping me, so the results were invariably varied and random; it’s only thanks to a first-class scanner and software the photos on this page are even printable. My contact sheets are so slapdash and unhelpful – frames wildly under- or over-exposed – that in some cases this is the first time I can actually see the image properly.
PS If you are in any of these photographs and would like me to remove it from the blog, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
Hello Anne I loved this memory. Loved the photos. I have passed it on to a friend Vicky Fullick who is producing a small literary magazine with personal short stories called Friends on The Shelf. You may be interested to contribute to it…who knows. http://www.friendsontheshelf.co.uk I am still here in the south of Italy, in the sweltering heat. Just yesterday I had some Belgium friends from Brussels over for lunch, one being a poet, musician, DJ, performer, music selector, presenter, stable master and everything else possible called Jan Ducheyne. He gave me a copy of his latest collection of poems, noodzakelijk kwaad – altijd were het da see, but sadly for me all in Flemish, so no understanding. I can’t even use my favourite phrase of ‘Lost in Translation’ as no translation to be lost. At this late age, I am finding it hard enough to speak any Italian and my English is even more dodgy than before, so no hope at all of mastering Flemish. Look forward to more stories of your student days, I was there but can hardly remember anything so as the saying goes, it must have been bloody good. Xxxx Shelagh.
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Hi Shelagh, How lovely to hear from you! I now live in Antwerp, and whereas my French is now fluent-ish (though still riddled with rookie errors) I have been trying to learn Flemish/Dutch for the past ten years; my Dutch is still at the level of a dimwitted child’s, but yesterday I managed to understand most of a South Korean film with Dutch subtitles, and at least my reading level is slowly improving. (The main problem is that native Dutch speakers don’t know how to speak their language slowly and clearly to foreigners because it’s quicker and easier for them to switch to English, so I rarely get much practice. Also, you know, one’s memory is not improving with age.) One day I shall visit you in Italy! though not in summer, which is increasingly hellish, even in Belgium. Currently packing for the expected heatwave later this week; my top-floor flat turns into a microwave with potentially lethal temperatures, so preparing to squat in friends’ slightly cooler flats (with cats! hurrah!) for the interim xx
Wonderful stuff Anne. My first “adult” jobs (ie. after dropping out) were in bookshops and i too felt that i had found my people. And as you note – lots of great stories. We would buy books from public also and we had one fellow from the American Academy of Sciences selling us his review copies of some fantastically expensive science texts. He was courteous, elegant and erudite and we called him Sam Sam the Science Man. Being a bit of chemistry nerd i was always cheered by his latest stock. We hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks when a couple of dicks walked in the shop asking after him. Turned out that Sam wasn’t a scientist at all – but worked in the AAS mailroom and had discovered an additional source of income in redirecting books being sent to the Academy.
Hurrah for bookshops! Maybe I should get a job in one now… It would surely pay better than writing. I am not nostalgic for those days, but that whole area around Centre Point has now lost its soul, and I’m not sure that Charing Cross Road, Soho, St Giles are worth visiting any more. Did you see this article? https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/aug/07/outernet-london-now-building-review-denmark-street-tottenham-court-road-redevelopment-soho
Lovely post Anne. I was at CSM in the 80s – based in Long Acre – and spent many an afternoon browsing the bookshops of Charing Cross Road.