I’ve been a bit worried about what will happen when I get to my first Reading Presently book which I haven’t hugely liked. And the time has come. Since it was given by a very dear friend (my ex-colleague Lucy) I don’t want to seem unappreciative – but I also, of course, don’t want to lie. So I’m just going to give my honest review, with the caveat that I’m VERY grateful to Luce for giving it to me (and another addendum, that I’ve just read a really fun, great book which Lucy also gave me.)
As it happens, I didn’t especially dislike A Spy in the Bookshop (letters between Heywood Hill and John Saumarez Smith 1966-74), it just disappointed me a bit. JSS (as I shall know him for the rest of this review) had previously edited the letters of Heywood Hill and Nancy Mitford, which I very much enjoyed – and was actually the first thing I read in the Mitford canon. Obviously buoyed by success, JSS decided to publish his own correspondence with Heywood Hill…
Hill had just retired from the bookshop at 10, Curzon Street, and running the shop was a man with the extraordinary name Handasyde Buchanan (known as ‘Handy’). His wife Mollie worked there too, as well as assistant Liz. The letters JSS sends to Hill are, basically, 165 pages of them bitching about the Buchanans. Forgive the terminology, but nothing else will quite fit.
You know when you’re on a bus, or in a shop, and overhear angry conversation between two people about an absent third – and you think “I bet it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other”? Yes? That is to say, the absent third person would probably have equally as compelling a case against the gossiping couple present? That’s the feeling that I got from A Spy in the Bookshop (2006). JSS writes off a letter saying “THIS is something awful Handy did today”; Hill replies “Gosh, that’s awful”; JSS writes “You think THAT’S awful? What about THIS!”
I don’t blame JSS for writing these letters. I imagine it was rather cathartic – and sometimes, as with the following example, rather amusing:
Instead, he took the chance when Mollie was away, “to smarten me up”: a process that I need hardly describe, consisting as it always does of a catalogue of his own virtues.
but it does rather pall. Which makes it particularly galling when JSS does edit out excerpts which seem rather more interesting. This editorial comment made me gnash my teeth, and pencil two exclamation marks in the margin:
[Some details followed about Rome and some of the people, including Muriel Spark, whom I’d met through my ex-uncle Ronald Bottrall.]
Oh, John! Tell us about that, please!
There is enough about the everyday running of a bookshop to keep me reading, and anybody who can slip in anecdotes about Nancy Mitford is onto a winning thing with me, but I would have loved more. Heywood Hill could also be witty when he wanted to be:
P.S. One of those real hopeless customer questions from a neighbour here. A book about a man in California who kept wolves as Alsatians. She had it in paperback but lost it, she found it such a help with her jackal.
But here again, I’m afraid I have a problem with their outlook. I hate the idea of books being worth a lot of money if they’re first editions, and all that talk of ‘unclipped’, ‘neat copy’ etc. The idea of books as collectible objects based on their appearance or scarcity rather sickens me, as an avid reader. And commercial value, naturally for booksellers, is paramount in their mind.
Heywood Hill has proven to be a worthy correspondent, in the letters with Nancy Mitford, and I did get the sense that he was lowering himself rather for JSS’s petty missives. I don’t doubt a genuine affection between them, but I do believe that Hill wasn’t bringing out his best letters for JSS.
It’s a fun enough collection, and the bookshop setting certainly helps, but it does scream afterthought, once the Nancy Mitford letters were successful. Without either correspondent having her talent for letter-writing, and with such a repetitive, almost bitter, note sounding throughout, A Spy in the Bookshop is only fairly enjoyable – and there are certainly better places to look for this sort of collection. But, once again, thank you to Lucy for being sweet enough to give me a copy!