Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Homing Instinct

I went back to Twickenham on Sunday and, for the first time since moving to Lewes, felt a slight pang of homesickness. I love living in Sussex, but it feels as if I'm on an extended holiday.

Twickenham and Teddington, where I spent the first three quarters of my life, is still home.

I began my visit by walking down Church Street. I wanted to see if the bookshop I used to manage was still there. It was, but only just.

In the 1960s and 70s, it was a thriving business; the largest for miles around. As a child, I always bought my Enid Blyton books in Langton's, all of which featured children with names like Peter, Janet, Colin, Anne, Dick, Susan and Ernest. The books seemed wonderful at the time, but reading them to my son, a few years ago, I quickly lost the will to live.

Later, as an awkward teenager, I purchased Pelicans with impressive-sounding titles like 'Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom' (I don't think I ever read it, but the mere act of buying the book made me feel terribly grown-up).

Sadly, in the 1980s, the owner decided to sell the business and the  shop entered a period of decline that seemed almost as long and drawn-out as the Byzantine Empire's.

Langton's was bought by a couple who wanted to run it as a retirement hobby. They both looked bookish - tweed skirts and bow ties - but the husband was a complete philistine who huffed and puffed around the shop floor, expressing his disapproval of certain books.

Holding a copy of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde in his hand, he once said "Do we have to stock books by homosexuals?"

But the Major's posturing was all hot air; his wife was very firmly in charge. She was a highly educated woman who quickly learned the rudiments of bookselling and maintained a decent stockholding. Unfortunately, she was also a very abrassive character, whose loud Lady Bracknell voice and hectoring manner alienated as many as it amused.

The second nail in Langton's coffin was the appearance of a large branch of Waterstone's in Richmond, only a mile up the road. As well as losing sales, the owners also lost two members of staff, who couldn't wait to jump ship to a workplace where they wouldn't be treated like naughty children.

In the face of growing competition and the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, the owners decided to retire for a second time. The business was put up for sale.

A week or so after Langton's new owner had taken over, I decided to visit the shop. The moment I walked in, the atmosphere was completely different. Van Morrison was playing in the background and sitting behind the till, a balding, middle-aged man, with a long, grey ponytail, was chatting to a young woman.

I bought a copy of 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'. Five minutes later, I was sitting in a pub across the road with the ponytailed owner, who offered me a job running the shop. "The thing is," he exlained in a soft Ulster accent, "I've got three other shops, so I need someone who can manage things here. How much are you being paid at Waterstone's?"

Like a fool, I told the truth. He offered an extra £500.

It all looked promising enough. I would be managing three people and have complete control of the stock. I was also given the impression that there were more shops in the pipeline and that I had joined the next Waterstone's. I could hardly believe my luck.

I spent several weeks decorating the tired-looking interior and improving the depleted range of titles. I felt that I was restoring the shop back to its former glory and was confident that the sales would begin to rise. Sadly, after only a month, it was clear that something was not quite right.

My new boss was a charming, likeable man, but he was also maddeningly mercurial and disorganised. In hindsight, I now understand that the challenges of running four separate businesses and having a son with cerebral palsy must have been extremely difficult. But at the time, all I could see was a man who undermined everything I did.

The owner specialised in secondhand books and his business mantra was "If people can't find what they want, they'll buy something else instead". I would often return to work after a day off and find that my carefully arranged bestseller bays were covered in a completely random selection of review copies, bought as a job lot from a journalist.

At the time, the bestselling title was the Alan Bennett Diaries. Finding that our only copies had been concealed behind a single copy of 'A History of the Belfast Telegraph' for a whole weekend was frustrating, to say the least.

But the thing that really got to me was the staffing. After beginning with three staff, my boss gradually whittled it down to one person: me. Each time someone left I was given the same story: "Cashflow's a bit tight at the moment...if you can just hold off for another month...things will pick up soon..."

Managing a shop alone is challenging both practically and emotionally. The essential day-to-day tasks like banking, unpacking, shelving and cleaning have to be combined with manning a till point and dealing with enquiries. At Christmas, when deliveries are four times larger than usual, it is an almost impossible challenge to sell books and replenish the shelves.

There is also the small matter of being able to buy lunch, eat it, or answer the call of nature. Eight hours is a long time to go without a break.

However the greatest challenge was the sense of isolation. I had regulars who came in for a chat, but they were usually lonely individuals who would talk at, rather than with me; often at great length. After two years, I was well acquainted with the minutiae of their lives, but I doubt if they knew a single fact about me.

As time passed, I realised that things wouldn't get any better. I now had occasional help from part-timers, but the money had stayed the same. I found a job with Ottakar's, where I went on to spend the ten most enjoyable years of my working life. My boss and I parted on good terms and to his credit, he gave me a very nice leaving present.

Before my return visit to Twickenham, I'd heard that Langtons now had a cafe and was keen to see what it looked like, but as I walked towards the shop I saw that the windows had been whitewashed and a sign announced that the shop was for sale.

I peered through a small gap in the window and saw the outline of a doorway that led to the children's section. I wasn't sure what was worse: a closed bookshop or a dying one? Perhaps the thing I'll miss most is the shop sign, with the font that has been the same for over half a century.

After Langton's, I walked with my wife and sons down to York House Gardens:

Unlike some parts of Twickenham, the riverside was reassuringly familiar, unchanged since I first went there in the 1960s:

These statues, imaginatively known as the Naked Ladies, were acquired under mysterious circumstances by the notorious Victorian fraudster, Whitaker Wright - a man who evaded justice by taking a cyanide capsule after he was convicted.

In some ways, the Naked Ladies have been a barometer of postwar Britain. When I was a small child, they were clean but the fountains hadn't worked for years, then as we entered the era of Punk and industrial strife, they were frequently vandalised, with the regular addition of blue pubic hair.

At some point in the late 1980s, the vandalism ended. Ten years later, the fountains were restored.

An arched 18th century footbridge connects the gardens to York House. I was very disappointed when I discovered that it houses offices for the local council, instead of a rakish lord. However, it had some auspicious former owners, including Sir Rajan Tata, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff and Philippe, comte de Paris.

York House isn't famous, but anyone who has seen the film Alfie may experience a flicker of recognition:

The main centre of Twickenham is grotty, but the walk along the towpath from Richmond Bridge to St Mary's church has barely changed since the 18th century and I'd forgotten how idyllic it was.

When the good weather returns, so shall I.


Kid said...

Another fascinating reminiscence. When are you going to write a book? (If you haven't already done so.)

Steerforth said...

Thanks Kid. Who knows? If I ever have an idea for a book, I might have a go. But when I spend a large part of my day dealing with forgotten unwanted books, it does take the wind out of my sails.

Debra said...

I totally understand your last comment, Steerforth...
The York council in the ch√Ęteau ?
Sounds like the Republic has crossed the channel, definitely.
The trip through town was lovely. The old font is beautiful too. I like to think of England being that way, Steerforth.
Something like still holding out against the barbarians.
This time the barbarians aren't any identifiable tribe though, are they ?
Funnily enough, I get homesick walking through Newark in Nottinghamshire where my daughter is going to school, and I'm not even from the U.K....

Steerforth said...

Debra - It's surprising how much of the past survives, in spite of the best efforts of the Luftwaffe and postwar town planners. But I'm worried that some of the more scenic parts of the country are turning into 'heritage' theme parks, with local people being priced out of the areas they grew up in.

What's your daughter doing in Newark? Is there a particularly good school there?

Martin said...

You write so well. Thanks for maintaining The Age of Uncertainty as a vital oasis. Happy Christmas, Steerforth, and all the best for 2014!

Steerforth said...

And a very Merry Christmas to you Martin. Thank you for reading and also for your kind words about the blog. All the best for 2014.

Modern Dog said...

Another wonderful post. A merry Christmas to you, Steerforth, and a happy (and prosperous, I hope) New Year.

Kid said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Steerforth. Hope it's plain sailing for 2014.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Merry Christmas to you and your family. All the best for 2014, and I look forward to many more wonderful posts here.

Rechelle said...

Happy Christmas Steerforth-

Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,
Whispering 'it will be happier'...”
― Alfred Tennyson

Steerforth said...

Modern Dog - Glad you like the post, even though it was too long. Merry Christmas!

Kid - As the song goes, there will be trouble ahead, but let's face the music and dance. All the best for next year.

Annabel - Wishing you a very Happy Christmas. I look forward to more book recommendations from you in 2014.

Rechelle - That's a lovely quote. I can only hope that it might be prescient. I wish you all the best for next year.

AndrewH said...

I'm lucky enough to live in Richmond, and the walk you describe from Richmond Bridge to St Marys is one I make every few weeks. I was saddened when earlier this year I saw Langton's was closing but, the truth is, at least in the few years I knew it, it was not a great bookshop. The stock was so limited that I usually ended up leaving without finding anything to buy (and me leaving a bookshop empty handed is a rare thing indeed). It ended up being more a cafe with books than a bookshop. A shame all the same, but you could see it coming. Now, if the Open Book in Richmond were to close...

Steerforth said...

Andrew - Does a Robinson Crusoe-esque figure still live on a raft in the Thames, a short distance from Richmond Bridge? I used to vaguely know him and hope that he's still around.

AndrewH said...

Yes, I think he's still around. Lives in a self-built hut of driftwood on a raft moored on the river in front of Marble Hill Park?

Steerforth said...

Glad to hear it. I have fond memories of being invited onto the raft, one summer's day, where we sat and ate strawberries.

TEL Dranlor said...

That was a wonderful trip down memory lane (without getting mugged) I had forgotten about Langtons, it had a bit part in the film 'Carve Her Name with Pride' where Church Street serves as a little piece of France for the cameras. As for the blue public hair of the statues - yes indeed memories of the walk home from school past the faded glory, shame nobody has photos of them in their punk finery.

Steerforth said...

Lord Dranlor - I didn't know about 'Carve Her Name With Pride'. I've got it on DVD somewhere, so I must have a look.

My mother was laughing the other day at the way we used to slowly amble home, via York House Gardens and the riverside, while my dad sat freezing in his car near St Catherine's, wondering where we were.

When I think of all the days we spent cycling along the towpaths and parks, I realise how lucky we were to live there. No wonder the house prices are so high these days.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

What a terribly sad tale re Langton's Books, though I suppose it would be a challenge to anyone to return it to its glory days in this day and age.
Glad the riverside remains beautiful though.

Mummy Looks Fab said...

I love this post - I am coming late to the party but my family used to own Langtons back in 60's and 70's. I was 8 when we left in 1980 as a result of my parents splitting up. Having spent a large proportion of my early childhood in Langtons - hiding behind and under things to read the books I had "borrowed" off the shelves, it was lovely to hear that I was lucky enough to be there during it's heydey. It would have been my mum and dad that ran it with energy and passion and although he passed away a couple of years ago, he would have been really happy to hear that their work there was remembered fondly by more people than just us....and saddened to hear it didn't manage to carry on in the same vein..... Thanks for the post and the beautiful writing. Sam

Anonymous said...

A good read! I was looking to see if Langton's was still around and stumbled here. I used to hang out with Tom, whose parents owned/ran the shop during the late 1970s. I'd sometimes record music with a band in the basement below the shop and pop over to the Eel Pie for a pint afterwards. Good memories. Shame I lost contact with Tom.