Saturday, 7 July 2012

Nightwalks and bookstores


I have just finished reading a very fine - perfect, really - little book called Nightwalk: A Journey to the Heart of Nature.  It is by an English writer named Chris Yates, who for a quarter of a century has written books about fishing - well, he’s English, so the correct word is angling, of course - and he has presented BBC television and radio shows about fishing and the natural world.   I’m not, I have to say, an angler, so I had never heard of Mr. Yates until a few weeks ago, but I am glad to have discovered him.
The book is, just as its title suggests, the story of a walk at night.  Mr. Yates takes us along with him as he pulls an all-nighter in the English countryside.  It’s mid-summer, so the night is short, but it is filled with birdsong, and animal and insect life, and the many shapes of sky and mist, with dew on the grass, starlight and moonlight.  The here and now of this walk is interspersed with his memories of other journeys.  Mr. Yates does not take a flashlight with him on his nocturnal sojourns.  His eyes and ears are practiced in the sights and sounds of the dark.  A dark which is completely free of the light and  noise of the city.  The writing is lyrical, and the book, which is not long, rolls along in short, sweet passages, as the walk itself separates into pathways through discrete woods and meadows, closed-in narrow valleys, and high open ridges and Mr. Yates’ encounters with deer and owls and badgers. 
It was all the more magical a read for me because Janet and I walked with friends on the South Downs Way this past May, and the book conjured up a sort of alternate experience, as I imagined what it would be like to repeat that hundred mile walk at night.  Here is a particularly wonderful passage:
One of the joys of walking a long night path is the way in which everything in my head gradually clears of mundane domestic concerns and personal anxieties, as if I were walking-off a slight headache or a hangover.  And because no one can reach me or knows where I am (I could never own a mobile phone), because I know that apart from the animals I will always, unless I meet a deer poacher, be in perfect solitude, I am therefore able to bring all my attention to bear on the present moment.  Normally, the present is just a transition point, a bit of a blur between one thing and the next, yet in the untroubled and mostly unrevealing dark, past and future have less relevance and I can find myself in a place of endless immediacy. a place known to every wild animal, a timelessness.
That’s the best that walking can be, day or night.  Just one foot in front of the other, and then another, and then another. And sooner or later, nothing else but that.
I would not own this book, or even know of it, if it were not for the afternoon I was given, on my birthday, in London, to head with Janet up to Marylebone High Street to spend an hour at Daunt Books.  My instructions were simple:  “go ahead, it’s your birthday, buy some books.”  So I did.  
I will be among the first to sing the praises of online book-buying, because you know you can get that book you know you want and with one click it will be delivered to your house.  I will also be happy to tell you that e-books are the best remedy for hotel and airport boredom ever discovered, because you never need to run out of something interesting to read, even if you are in a hotel in the heart of downtown Harare and there is hardly a good to book anywhere in the whole country.  But for all of that, for the sheer pleasure of accidental discovery, there is nothing quite like a bookstore.  A real bookstore.  Sorry, but I never browse on Amazon dotwhatever.  A bookstore is a place to browse.  At a bookstore you need to have time on your hands, an appetite for adventure and risk-taking and just enough money to indulge your basest consumer tendencies in the name of intellectual development, or whimsy.  All the more fun, of course, at a good bookstore, where someone else has cleverly whetted your appetite by assembling piles of books in ways that make you want to read all of them.
Daunt is a London treasure.  Edwardian, with galleries and skylights.  Alcoves in odd corners.  Books crowded together on bottom shelves that cause you to want to sit on the floor and stay for the whole afternoon, if it weren’t so un-English.  Books organized in unusual categories - by country, for example.  And if you find the shelf for Ecuador, it has travel books, but also poetry, fiction and history.  Maybe everything you wanted to know about Ecuador, all on one shelf?  
There used to be some great bookstores in Vancouver.  At lunchtime, on wet and grey November days when I was a young lawyer spending untold hours reading volumes of mind-numbing documents in construction litigation cases, the Duthie’s on Robson Street was a heart-lifting oasis.  More books than one could ever read, all in one place, with all the really good books downstairs, and even though it always seemed to me that the staff begrudged my presence, the books more than made up for that.  
Even today there are some great bookstores in Vancouver.  MacLeod’s is a perfect place to go if you want to find the very thing you didn’t realize you were looking for.  And the downtown Chapter’s Indigo is bright and spacious, and the fact that they constantly re-organize the whole store every few months (or so it seems to me) just means that every visit it feels like a new bookstore.  And the shop at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where I usually end up just buying notecards after spending an hour drooling over the expensive art books.  And Hager’s in Kerrisdale, where you just have to stand and stare at one shelf of new fiction and realize there will never be enough time to read all the books that need to be read.
So here’s to bookstores.  I’m sorry they’re having a hard go of it these days.  I’m also not regretting it’s a digital age. But I don’t think their day is quite done yet.  And thanks, Mr. Yates, for keeping me company this beautiful summer morning, as I walked with you through the English countryside at night. 

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