A Nation of Shopkeepers


Today - lockdown is once again lifted and people can dash off to the shops with little or no concern, the freedom creating in most of us a light-headed, dizzy feeling. And with that in mind, and the lure of shopping once again existing in my mind, I thought I would republish an article from 2018. Enjoy!

If the City of Bath is synonymous with Jane Austen, the Somerset town of Frome is synonymous with the wool trade, which began in the 14th century, the last representative of the trade finally closings its doors in 1995. Dating back even further is a tradition for fairs which began in 1270 with a licence for a single fair, graduating in 1492 to hosting three annual events. What a record over 700 hundred years! Now held monthly, the popularity of the market attracts sellers from France, and closes the main car park and main street from 8 am, an army of officials co-opted to cope with the influx of tens of thousands of visitors. They even run a Park & Ride Service.
     Except, today I’m not researching the fairs or even the history of Frome but directing my footsteps to a bookshop, one of a brave but dwindling band that pepper the small towns and villages of our countryside. This particular bookshop is Hunting Raven, and it just happens to be situated in the most perfect example of a medieval street, Cheap Street, once known as the Ceap, where archery was practised. Hunting Raven is now part of a chain of three shops, Winstones, the other two in Sherborne and Sidmouth.
    Do you ever think about Amazon or like me, do you simply, and almost daily, dial them up, clicking on the item you want to purchase? So stop and think now. To me they are the Goliath of the book world and the tiny independents, David with his slingshot. Amazon published over one million titles last year and it is because of them, that our bookshops are struggling to survive. How can anyone, let alone an independent bookseller survive against that power? Look at what online shopping has done to our city high streets?
     I for one believe the majority of Independent booksellers will survive because they offer something Amazon cannot. Push open the door of your local bookshop into a world of imagination, where you can browse at your leisure through a cornucopia of gloriously coloured book-covers that evoke the smells and excitement of childhood. How can the Internet with its fake news and aggressive marketing compete with that?
     By all means use Amazon for E-books and audios, but not paperbacks! If, like me, you buy one at a time, search out your nearest independent bookshop and wander in. If you've never pushed open the door of one of these magical enterprises, prepare to be amazed by their range and selection. (It’s rather like The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale, where the inside of an object can be larger than the outside.) And if it’s a particular title you are looking for and they haven’t got it, they will have it in stock in 24 hrs because wholesalers deliver daily. Which means you can repeat this wonderfully satisfying experience the following day.
     And feel good about it. Like the dollar you give to charity, you are helping an ancient craft, which began with Caxton around 1472, to continue its existence.  
     Yes, I know Waterstones are bigger and may have the book you are looking for without waiting 24 hours, but they will survive simply because they can negotiate huge discounts with publishers. Haven’t you noticed that every Waterstones shows the same titles in its windows? Besides, these medieval towns like Frome and Sherborne are far more exciting than our city streets that are swamped traffic.

     If you like markets and have already decided to go to Frome for the next one on December 2nd, pop into Hunting Raven and browse their books. When you emerge, you have a choice; head back into the market or into the cafĂ© opposite and open the pages of yur new book with their promise of adventure, magic and escapism that will last for days. 

     I don’t live in Frome. My quickest route is over the Mendips weather permitting. These picturesque hills create quite a formidable barrier in winter when they are dogged by mist and ice. But come Saturday, 24th November, whatever the weather is doing, I shall be in Frome at Hunting Raven with my latest novel: The Year the Swans Came. Written for adults/top teens and published in time for Christmas, it is a magical fairy tale. Please push open the door and say hi!


A Journey back in time


We are conditioned to look forwards – our bodies growing upwards in balance with our vision and understanding, and so often childhood is looked back upon through rose-tinted glasses.
My own childhood, the youngest of three girls with a younger adopted brother was … uneventful. By that I mean there was no violence or extremes of poverty, beyond the privations of the post-war years.
My father an engineer and obviously earning good money because he complained about paying supertax, which was 19 shillings and 6 pence in the pound on anything over £2,000 per annum. Mother received £11 a week to clothe and feed a family of six and had to beg for money to pay Miss Hirons, our piano teacher. Father paid for a beach holiday each year and expensive dinners which he alone enjoyed with his golfing cronies.
We didn’t mind. Except at Christmas when I had to write a list with prices before he gave me some money to buy them, detailing precisely every penny … even the penny for the public convenience.
As I said, we didn’t much care about that because we hated his being in the house and equally he hated being there. Thank heavens for his job which meant he departed early every Monday morning for work in Darlington, Scunthorpe, Sheffield or London, and as the house relaxed, we ate our breakfast and headed off to school.

Why did we hate his being in the house?
Looking back, I cannot remember a single kind word, his entire attitude being one of criticism. If I got 90% in an exam, why hadn’t I got 100%? If I was third in a piano competition, why wasn’t I first? Never a well done … and I was his favourite. He loathed my brother because he was adopted, spent all his time picking at him and we spent all our time protecting him.
But no violence – he never once smacked us. I learned many years later that Mother, when we were bombed out of our homes in Croydon and living with relatives near Birmingham, had taken him into the garden and told him, if he ever laid a hand on any of us, she would kill him. And he never did.

And Mother? Don’t get me wrong. She cared for us – we had good food and clean clothes. That was her way of showing love. Looking back, I guess all the gaiety and affection she had possessed as a young woman was driven out of her by father’s constant criticism and bad temper, and the bits  left she hid deep inside herself. A hug and a kiss didn't exist or if it did, I don't remember them ... we made do with a distant smile of approval. Although she nursed us all religiously day and night when we were ill.

Christmas was the best for us and the worst for Mother. At Christmas, she cleaned brass and washed curtains, expected of any housewife in the times through which we were living … cleanliness is next to godliness … and so hard did she work, by Christmas Day she was too tired to eat her dinner.

My aunt visited every Christmas. I was probably thirty because Mother admitted that she was my brother’s real mother. Born out of wedlock, a slur on any self-respecting family, she was lovely and helped defuse the two days my father was at home … Christmas Day and Boxing Day. We didn’t care, for us it was Christmas and exciting; for Mother two days of torture, although even the walls gave a sigh of relief when he departed for golf the following day.

I remember his being sent luxury gifts from grateful clients at Christmas Time, although Mother had to beg for the money to tip the postman and the dustman and milkman. One year it was a turkey. Sent by train from the north, we drove to New Street station to collect it. Delayed – it had gone off – its feathers ruffled and disintegrating.  One year it was a car – an A30. He had been responsible for the heating system in Austin and Morris.
So every year, his contribution to Christmas was an unctuous smile after a glass of whisky and a walk to see his relatives, particularly his mother. Clad in black, it was easy to see where he learned his critical ways. I was sitting with her the day she died. It was a Sunday and she told me off for knitting. We hated going to visit. It was our penance for all the wicked things we had done throughout the year.

So why go back?
Because it wasn’t all bad. There was laughter and fun; me, arguing ferociously with my best friend next door, all of us loving to read. And to get him out of the house, I took Father to the cinema on a Saturday night.

There was even laughter at the way we scuttled about whenever we heard his key in the lock; and the sitting room where we had all been relaxing emptied. Later as we entered our teens, the laughter turned to mockery at his behaviour together, coupled with a determination to leave as soon as we could do. (That didn’t stop him shouting at me in public – the year I was 21. I was working weekends in a highly respectable cocktail bar in a highly respectable hotel. He wandered in with golfers and saw me. On that occasion a gang of rugby players provided a barrier against the abuse, while another smuggled me out.

One famous occasion, Mother hadn’t been well and had drunk some of his whisky. When he came home that Saturday night with his golfing buddies and demanded whisky, we huddled in the scullery wondering what to do – he would definitely notice and demand an explanation.
In the end, I rushed into the sitting room where he was sitting with his pals. ‘Father, I’m ever so sorry but we spilt the whisky.’
Leaping to his feet, he chased into the scullery, where Mother had decanted a teaspoon of the amber liquid into the sink.
But we got away with it.
And laughed afterwards.

I was glad to leave at 18. But the house wasn’t to blame for our childhood. That held many wonderful memories – many of them funny and so for the past few years I have been promising my brother (who is disabled) to visit. Three times we have cancelled our train tickets because of his health. This time we made it.

It was tough, up and down steps, and discovering the new Birmingham to be overwhelmingly different from the old. New Stree that was has, over the course of half-a dozen years, been moved along to make way for longer platforms and a concourse full of shops.

However, if there is a word stronger than nightmare, it should be applied to the traffic in the roads around the city centre. Eventually finding the correct bustop, we stop-started our way along the Coventry Road, exclaiming at intervals and eagerly looking for buildings that we knew. One was the cinema in Small Heath – boarded up but still there.
I went to Church Road Primary and my Auntie Kate had a sweet shop further up the street. I vividly remember walking past and seeing the window draped with purple and a picture of King George VI. The house and shops are long gone replaced by tall buildings, broad roads and a Tesco petrol station.

But there exactly as we had left it was our house.

The road was shorter than my memory of it, the house and garden smaller. Knocking on the front door, the owner was thrilled … wondering if TV cameras might jump out of the bushes. The rooms had also shrunk, the dining room where we were allowed to rent a TV for one week at Christmas time. The sitting room with its door opening into the garden through which my sister made her escape (see: Age and the Antique Sideboard)

The current owner has been there thirty years and she remembered our neighbours, the Stanleys. Mr Stanley had died about ten years before. That’s where I first saw television. June 1953, all the neighbours were invited to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. We sat in rows, plied with sandwiches, for that’s what you did on special occasions, never moving throughout the long ceremony, ending with a magical coach ride in a golden coach and a royal wave from a balcony.
Good memories.

A Fishy Tail - Chapter 2 - Islands in the Sun

The great day arrived. Micky was so excited he could hardly eat his breakfast. He watched for the taxi to take them to Heathrow Airport, his nose pressed against the windowpane. And he asked, at least a hundred times, ‘Mum, when’s the taxi going to arrive?’
   At last, with a screeching of brakes and a loud blast from its horn, the taxi pulled up at the front door. Next minute, the family were off. Micky stared out of the taxi window, his nose pressed against the glass, watching to see his first airplane. And he asked, at least a hundred times, ‘Mum, will we be there soon.’
   ‘Look a plane,’ he shouted suddenly, making them all jump. ‘There it is, see!’ Micky held his breath as the monster climbed into the sky, trailing exhaust fumes behind it. 
   The airport would have been exciting even if Micky hadn’t been catching a plane, with people there from every country in the world, many of them wearing clothes quite different from Micky’s jeans and jacket. He kept asking David, ‘Where does that man come from?’ and ‘Where’s  that?’ because most of the countries he’d never heard of: Kenya, Nigeria and Sudan. 
   They checked their luggage and, once their flight had been called, walked down, what seemed like, a million identical corridors – all with moving-walkways. They walked so far that Micky began to wonder if they were walking to Barbados.
   ‘It’s huge,’ Micky whispered to his brother as they finally boarded their plane. ‘It’s bigger than our house.’
   Actually, the plane was bigger than four houses. And, by the time Micky had explored, watched the stewards serve everyone a drink, it was time for lunch. He ate every bit, it was so delicious.
   ‘Micky you’ve eaten your carrots?’ His mother pointed at his clean plate. ‘But you never eat carrots,’ she continued amazed. ‘You don’t like carrots.’
   ‘Oh, I like carrots now,’ he said. ‘I just didn’t like English carrots.’
   Mrs Wells was speechless. She glanced at her husband who grinned happily at her and carried on eating.
   ‘Told you so,’ he whispered between mouthfuls.
   The journey was really long and took nearly nine hours. David, Penny, and Micky played cards, read, watched the movie, slept a little, and listened to their radios. Gradually it got warmer and, just as Micky was beginning to think they never would arrive, the Seat Belt sign flashed on. The plane began to descend; hardly noticeable at first until Micky felt his ears go pop. Then, with a series of horrendous groans and thumps, the wheels dropped into place. The plane banked tilting sideways and, through the small porthole window, Micky caught sight of the sea. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It was blue exactly like the pictures his dad had shown him, deep, deep blue. And he could see straight down to the bottom.
   ‘Can I go in the sea straight away?’ he shouted, trying to bounce up and down in his seat with his seat belt fastened. ‘It looks smashing, ever so friendly, not like the sea in England which looks cross.’  
   ‘Micky, you are just like the sea,’ his mother laughed at him. ‘You’re always cross in England, too.’
   ‘Can I, Dad?’ he said. ‘Can I go in the sea straight away?’
   ‘Not today, Micky. You’ve got a whole year and the sea will be there tomorrow, just as friendly.’
   The big jet touched down onto the tarmac, its engines screeching loudly as it slowed down. It taxied across the runway, following a truck on which were painted the words, Follow Me. They arrived at their parking bay and the engines died away.
   By the time the crew had opened the doors, most of the passengers were already out of their seats, blocking up the aisle. Out of the plane they rushed into a burst of warm, sunny wind. Down the steep flight of steps, across the tarmac, with its black and white zebra crossing, and into the terminal. No moving pavements, only trees and flowers and the bright colours of sunshine.
   ‘It’s not like England, is it?’ Micky whispered to Penny who was walking beside him.
   ‘No,’ she whispered back. ‘But it feels very comfy not strange at all.’
   ‘Wow!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s exactly how I feel.’
   The Arrivals Hall was hot and sunny with lots of people and lots of queues. Finally, it was Micky’s turn to cross the big red line in front of the Immigration desk. He handed his passport to the officer.     
   ‘How long are you staying?’ The tall man in a white uniform peered down at him.
   ‘A whole year,’ Micky boasted. ‘My dad’s come to work here. Is a year a long time?’ he asked as the officer handed him back his passport.
   ‘Yes, sir. A whole long time. Long enough to get a nice tan and take plenty of sea baths.’
   They smiled at one another, and Micky moved on.
   ‘I like Barbados,’ he announced as they waited for their luggage. ‘I’m going to like it very much indeed.’

A spot of trouble in my waterworks

So there I am sitting on the floor with my head under the sink.

The question: what am I doing there? is the wrong question. The answer is plainly obvious, since I am surrounded by the bowels of plumbing: two outlet pipes and a u-bend.

The question: what am I doing there at eleven o'clock at night? is also the wrong question. And, had it been asked at the time, I would have said, it is also somewhat irritating. It is quite obvious what I am doing: I am cleaning the drain.

However, the question: do you know how to fit these pieces back together again? That question - however hurtful in its tendency to cast aspersions on my mechanical ability - is entirely relevant to the problem in hand. Bulls-eye!

You could then continue and ask: But shouldn't you be in bed?  Or: Won't you get cramp sitting on the floor like that?

However relevant such questions might be when you are in a tight spot (as I was, crouched on my side with my head jammed inside the cupboard under the sink), such perception, however kindly meant, does nothing to resolve the jigsaw puzzle in my lap. And however much I lecture myself that I have done this before (several times) and have profited by having clean smelling drains for yet another six months, the pieces fail to gel: for I simply cannot remember.

Was the u-bend under this drain or indeed under that?

Have I lost a piece?

I rush outside and examine the spot on the ground, where I had tipped the disgustingly gruesome water. No! There are no misplaced pieces of pipe … only an inquisitive cat.

So if it is all here in my lap, why does this pipe have three outlets? I'm positive it had only two before I washed it. I scrutinise the pieces. Honest, there really are only two bits of pipe into which it can fit.

So how come I also have three washers left over?
And: where the hell did I hang my rubber gloves?

Visualisation of the drainage system fails to produce an image of the piece of pipe on which my rubber gloves have, in fact, hung for the past five years. Instead, it produces cramp, my toes curling up like slices of stale bread, causing me to screech in agony and hang on to my toes until the spasm has passed.

I glance at my watch. One o'clock! I look outside at the peaceful square, neighbours on all sides sleeping soundly, the square cocooned in a haven of blissful quiet.

Nothing for it but to give in. And yet …

'Tomorrow,' I say aloud, my tone as sorrowful as a solitary nighthawk over Kurdistan, 'the moment I awake I will call the plumber and that will cost me at least a hundred pounds.'

It is amazing how the threat of unwanted expenditure clarifies the aging mind.

Instantly the pieces make sense, the long white tubes clipping neatly together to form two drains, one horizontal bar (on which my rubber gloves hang), and a u-bend, each piece clean and sweet-smelling and designed to carry, without leaking, waste water into the municipal drain. 

One last job to be done: I stick my head back under the sink, working my way along each pipe inch by inch, trying to memorise where each piece lives in relation to the next.

'Well' I say, glancing at my watch and a silently sleeping square. 'At least I've saved myself a ton of money.'

And on that happy thought I take myself off to bed.

Age and the Antique Sideboard Augut 2017: Copyright Barbara Spencer 
Published by Troubador