Something of a panic in Newcastle this morning. After breakfast with Josie Long, Fruit and Fibre, yoghurt and some righteous ire about workfare, I realised that time was short before our first train of the day, and there may be no time to browse in Books for Amnesty. This could not happen, with the haste of an athlete with a stone in his shoe, I rushed my packing to ensure I could participate in the one sport I am adept at, speed browsing.
I came away with two Colin Wilson’s and a 1960 Rationalist annual in under 6 minutes.
As my fury friend Michael Legge has shouted in the past, I like to walk fast.
I want to get where I am going as quickly as possible, even if I am going nowhere in particular. The one thing that slows me down is the charity shop. I cannot resist checking what lies within, it might just happen to contain what I have always wanted. Of the minor frustrations in my existence, few are more minor or as frustrating as visiting a town on a day of public rest and seeing the closed sign of the Hospice Charity shop. In the distance, I can see the bookshelves, but too far away to focus on the spines. What unreachable and invisible book within is the one that would have provided me with untranslatable joy?
Even only I spent as much time reading as I do browsing.
The delight of the charity shop is that I can offset my unseemly consumer desires with the knowledge that these irresistible paperback purchases may buy a mule or soup for he needy. I am lucky that my retail lusts are for broken in books rather than technology or things that vroom and shine.
I love the charity shop for the element of surprise. Sadly, the pulpy classics of sordid denim hell’s angel intercourse or cannibal tribes are not so frequently found, but the mystery of what lies within remains. (I wrote a book about this sort of thing, here it is).
This is why I do not get excited by the contemporary shopping centre except in the context of zombie satire. Where is the unusual within the multiple chain stores with their autumn roster of knitwear and ostentatious buckles? On the occasions I have been forced into a shopping centre visit for some Early Learning Centre item unavailable by other means, I pore over the map before working out the speediest route in, past the fewest obstacles of hard sell and fogs of new fragrance spray.
As I roll and crawl to my target, I am usually surprised by how furious and/or bored so many seem to be. Here they are, with enough disposable income to purchase what they think they desire. This should be the time of joy. All that time working in the job they loathe but that pays enough to fill a magpie’s nest with trinkets on a weeky basis, shouldn’t this be the high point, the John Hughes freeze frame, air punching moment as that lusted for console or gown is within reach? We have a knack of turning leisure into pain. For some, all this choice and purchase possibility has brought pain not satisfaction. So many things exist not for practicality, purpose or beauty, but just because if they exist, someone will buy them. Each weekend we seek the final jigsaw piece of our happiness. Once we own that piece, all will be fine, but hang on, they’re inventing a new jigsaw, and now I need that one too. It reminds me of those historical anecdotes of American tribes giving up all for pointless baubles for Columbus’s treasure chest. “ha ha, those fools, they gave up their streams and freedom for a purple necklace and big rock ring”…meanwhile, we are often in danger of doing exactly the same, a job you don’t like providing enough money to buy things that give a brief surge of satisfaction as we look at them on the way back from Bluewater. You give away much of your life to have a TV that has mint chocolate flatness, no more the agony of vague curvature of Hollyoaks.
How many more joys for me in the Age UK or Oxfam shop than under the crystal dome of the shopping centre. But even then, I am still hooked like so many others. Why don’t I just accept that I don’t need anymore books. Just by owning a book on continental philosophy or 12th century astronomers or the psychology of consumer culture doesn’t mean I know about it. Sadly, the words cannot be turned into a patch I can wear at night where knowledge seeps into my brain and I can wake refreshed and wise about Aeschylus.
I am both on a solo science tour and off with Josie Long and Grace Petrie. Salisbury tonight, then Norwich, Reading, Liverpool, Uckfield, Eastbourne and 55 more across the UK. All tour dates, science app info and the like can be found here