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What the Dickens
• Michael O’Reilly's Deirdre & Me
TWO books arrived in the shop this week and left again with remarkable speed.
One was Claire Tomalin’s Life of Charles Dickens; the other was The Presbyterian Cavalier, Andrew Lownie’s biography of John Buchan.
They were brought in by a Welshman who’s selling up and heading home.
What surprised me was that among his other books there was nothing by Dickens or Buchan.
“Why read about the writers if you don’t read what they wrote?” I asked Deirdre.
“Well, it’s not as though he has to have Greenmantle and Great Expectations on his bookshelves just because he’s interested in the authors,” she said.
“If you read a book about Barack Obama it doesn’t mean you want to be president.”
This was oddly conclusive but, I felt, not entirely satisfactory.
“Would you like me to bring you a sticky bun from the supermarket?” Deirdre asked.
Predictably, when the subject shifted to sticky buns the debate about literary correctness wilted.
Deirdre went to the shops and I began pricing the new arrivals.
“What have you there?” asked Beate, one of our regular customers.
Beate is from Bremen and is a PG Wodehouse fan.
Her husband, Alec, is from Belfast and reads thrillers in German so as to perfect his mastery of Beate’s native tongue.
She picked up The Presbyterian Cavalier and scanned the blurb.
“I wish to buy this!” she said.
Seeing my surprise, she added, “I am an admirer of your Richard Hannay.”
Beate has the gratifying habit of using the possessive pronoun in such a way that the person she’s speaking to is granted ownership of plays, books, museums and even whole towns (“Your Brighton is an architectural gem”).
“Ah, The Thirty-Nine Steps,” I said.
“Not the book!” she interjected quickly.
“The film! Your Robert Powell is very handsome!”
The connection between the biography and my Robert Powell – Richard Hannay in the seventies film of The Thirty-Nine Steps struck me as somewhat tenuous.
But I’m a bookseller. When a sale is in the offing I don’t quibble.
“Here’s Alec!” Beate announced with schoolgirl enthusiasm. “Look what I’ve bought!” she told her better half.
“Oh aye?” he said in his cautious, understated way.
Almost at once, Alec’s glance fell on the Dickens biography and he picked it up with interest.
I began to wonder if we should abandon the whole system of putting books on shelves and just pile them willy-nilly on the counter and let chance do the rest.
“This any good?” he asked.
“It has excellent reviews,” I replied truthfully.
“But you don’t read Dickens!” Beate told her husband.
“I did when I was at school!” he said, a bit defensively. “I read Oliver Twist and Vanity Fair.”
“Vanity Fair?” I raised an impulsive (if commercially irresponsible) quibble.
“That not Dickens?”
“There you are!” Alec told his wife triumphantly.
“I’ll take this! Clearly I don’t know enough about Dickens, and I’d like to know more!”
Deirdre returned with sticky buns. The two biographies had been snapped up, I said.
“By fans of the authors?”
“Sort of,” I replied.
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