THE ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSHOP OF THE FUTURE? Pauline Fisk Just Asking
I usually take it to the wire when it comes to writing Authors Electric posts. The closer to the twenty-first of each month it gets, the fresher and more immediate I reckon my post will be. Last month, however, I was hiking in Canada’s Algonquin National Park on the designated date and - surprise, surprise - failed to find a nearby McDonalds or service station with internet connection in order to post my piece, which I feel is still worth reading so, with a few slight updates, here it is now.
It’s on the subject on the life and times of Arthur Granville Bradley, a writer none of you, I confidently predict, will ever have heard of unless you’ve read about him on my website. An author who, you may well think - given that he was born in 1850 - has nothing to contribute to any debate on electronic books. But read on.
A.G. Bradley was an historian and a travel writer in similar vein to George Borrow, though I personally prefer his style and scope of interests, and am fascinated by the little I’ve managed to glean about his checkered life.
I first came across Bradley whilst writing my ‘Children of Plynlimon’ novels. In my local studies library I stumbled upon his ‘Book of the Severn’ and found it a source of inspiration - historical, anecdotal, packed full of people, places and travels, folk lore, legends and obscure facts.
Armed with this book, I followed the River Severn from source on Plynlimon Mountain [in that region of Wales once known, according to Bradley, as the ‘wilderness of Elenedd’] to the Bristol Channel and out to sea. Many of the secret treasures he mentioned on that long river journey were still to be found. I used some in my novel, ‘Sabrina Fludde’, others in my second Plynlimon novel, ‘The Red Judge’ [drawing on Bradley’s book, ‘The Wye’ and his 'Owen Glyndwr'] and yet more in my third Plynlimon novel, ‘Mad Dog Moonlight, following the turbulent journey of Plynlimon’s third great river, the Rheidol, exploring it with Bradley’s ‘Romance of Wales’ in hand.
On Plynlimon Mountain, I found the crumbled remains of Blaen Hafren, once famous as the first house on the Severn, now forgotten, its ruins buried deep in brambles and bracken. Outside Shrewsbury - in a Severn-side pub described by Bradley as having one of the best views in England - I found the old porch from which coracle-poachers sold salmon until Victorian times. On the banks of the Wye, I found the secret cave where Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last real Prince of Wales, slept the night before being betrayed in battle the following day. The walls and ceiling of the cave were covered in graffiti, not only present-day felt-tip scrawlings but centuries-old engravings. Be still, sweet prince… The world will never see your like again… You will always be our prince… etc. etc.
This was a place of pilgrimage, so well hidden that I never would have found it without Bradley. The landscape I explored in my Marches homeland had been explored by him before me, and written about too. Even in Canada last month, reading Bradley’s ‘United Empire Loyalists – the History of the Founding of Canada’ [written at the age of 82, authors take note] he had still explored in advance of me. That man got everywhere, and his writing was prolific. Yet I'd only stumbled upon him by accident. His work went out of print a century ago.
If it were left to the world of modern publishing, I’d never know about Bradley, his fascinating insights and his elegant prose. Thank God for libraries. And for antiquarian bookshops. All the Bradley books I’ve managed to collect are rare first editions, plucked off dusty bookshelves, purchased at some price.
So, if Bradley is an unknown author from a bygone age, why am I writing about him here of all places, on a site celebrating the electronic age? Recently I was interviewed on Radio Shropshire about Authors Electric. The presenter talked about ebooks and antiquarian ones as opposite ends of the publishing pole. The more I thought about this, however, the more it seemed to me that in at least one way – and a significant one at that - they’re doing the same thing.
Writing can be a disheartening business. We’ve heard plenty about that on this Authors Electric site. Struggles to get published; to sell books when they are; struggles with the collapse in publishing of the mid-list. No one knows for sure what’ll happen next or where publishing’s really going. And in the midst of this, we authors simply want a chance to be heard.
The title of this post is THE ANTIQUARIAN BOOKSHOP OF THE FUTURE, with a question mark at the end to encourage you to tell me if you agree. The tendency is to think of the e-book market as shiny, cutting edge and bang-on where it’s happening now. But I’d love to think that in twenty, fifty or a hundred years’ time, when I’m long gone, my books will live on, not just in antiquarian bookshops buried beneath dust, but available to read at the click of a mouse. Accessible to all. Affordable to all – and I say this bearing in mind the quite indecent figures I’ve spent on old books over the years.
This is one of the unsung glories of e-publishing, it seems to me. People throw up their hands in horror at the number of e-books ‘out there’, but do I throw up my hands in horror when I walk into an old bookshop? You bet I don’t. I see those dark corners, winding stairs and floor after floor of stacked shelves as an opportunity to uncover treasures, and I hope the readers of the future, with their kindles, kobos or whatever will do the same.
Not all authors can expect to be publishing sensations, or internet phenomenons or to sell hand over fist. But their - our - books are available. That’s the thing. These books exist. These books - which we’ve laboured over, loved, given our hearts and souls to – don't have to be consigned to publishers’ backlists and finally phased out. And as long as there’s an electric source to plug into, they’ll continue to exist. Surely this is one of the brightest and best hopes for the future for all us authors.
Soon my ‘Children of Plynlimon’ books will be out again, republished in ebook form by Bloomsbury. And soon too one of my earliest novels, ‘Telling the Sea’, will be out on kindle, republished by me, [accompanied by a YouTube film about how I came to write it]. That’ll be six of my eleven novels out as e-books: 'Midnight Blue', 'Telling the Sea', 'In The Trees', 'Sabrina Fludde', 'The Red Judge' and 'Mad Dog Moonlight'.
Like any other author, I want the books I write today to reach out into the future and into readers’ lives. Wouldn’t it be great if any of these books inspired adventures in years to come as exciting as those A.G. Bradley inspired in me?