This week brought a snazzy new addition to the book bag collection. I shall be brandishing my ‘Books are my Bag’ carrier with pride from now on. The campaign was launched on Monday with a party in the Gallery at Foyles in Charing Cross Road. Speakers, including Maurice Saatchi and Gail Rebuck, enumerated some tragic statistics: in 10 years, a third of the country’s bookshops have closed – which is one every week. When a bookshop goes, readers vanish, never to return to the printed vale. The supporters of the campaign believe passionately that the best way to sell books is via bookshops and the blissful hours of serendipitous browsing they provide. The Gallery was decorated with giant photos of the many writers and celebs who are backing the campaign.
In his speech Lord Saatchi gave a touching tribute to his late wife, the much-lamented Josephine Hart, whose books brought the delights of poetry to so many. I had a brief chat with him afterwards. Apparently he has been cataloguing Josephine’s vast collection of poetry books. I told him about my treasured memory of one of her events at the British Library, at which I had a long conversation with the knowledgeable Bob Geldof about W B Yeats.
On Wednesday it was Polari night at the South Bank. It was a spectacular line up. My part in the proceedings was to announce the shortlist for the third Polari Prize. The shortlisted books are The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah; The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf; The Sitar by Rebecca Idris; Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan by Mark O’Connell; and Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson. We have till November to come up with a winner; it’ll be a tough decision.
Bernardine Evaristo read a hilarious extract from her new novel Mr Loverman, about a raunchy pensioner and the secret he has kept from his strict religious wife for decades. Damian Barr chose a passage from his memoir Maggie and Me highlighting his experiences as a teenager with gay Lonely Hearts ads: ‘This is what we did before there was Grindr.’ And Susie Boyt read a touching short story about the twilight years of a Hollywood star, now in a retirement home with her ever-attentive, chatty companion. It was camp and funny with a heartbreaking conclusion. Our inimitable host, Paul Burston, sported various outfits variously comprised of feathers, rhinestones, a silk scarf, a top hat and a giant silver cape.
And there was yet more glamour last night as Wendy Holden launched her latest novel, Gifted and Talented, at a beautiful Georgian mansion in Fitzroy Square. George Bernard Shaw, Ford Maddox Ford and Virginia Woolf once lived nearby, she informed us, and Roger Fry founded the Omega workshops in that very building. Later I headed off to one of my favourite London bookshops, Treadwells in Store Street (where Mary Wollstonecraft once lived, history fans). It was the launch party for the graphic novel Briony Hatch by sisters Ginny and Penelope Skinner (Limehouse Books), featuring a schoolgirl obsessed with a fantasy series about a female exorcist, Starling Black. All the hapless Briony wants to do is bring a touch of magic to a dull world, and the first step is – go to a bookshop.