this is not a review: ‘sixpence house: lost in a town of books’, by paul collins

Paul Collins is an American who claims some connection to the UK via parents who are British (but have lived in the States a long time; he doesn’t say how long). In any case he and his wife leave San Francisco with their young child and move to Hay on Wye in Wales, the ‘town of books’ and home to the Hay Festival.

We are not entirely sure why.

There he, Collins, meets a number of local village folk including Richard Booth, the chap who started the whole bookstore thing (at one point there were something like 70+ book shops in this wee town) and is madly eccentric, a terrible businessman but brilliant book lover. Collins magically gets a job working for him for (I’m not sure how long… he’s vague on dates) and (surprise!) eventually leaves Wales to return to the States.

In there somewhere is a flimsy attempt to buy a house [in Wales]. Which never happens for one reason or another and mostly, I would assume, because Collins and his family have no desire to stay. This is never stated outright but by virtue of how things transpire, or don’t, how the whole adventure that was supposed to last forever is suddenly over and he’s just glossing over the fact that they’re dashing back to the States, well, it smacks a bit of a) a realization that they aren’t cut out for Welsh village life, or b) that this was all a half-hearted effort at best, a sort of stab at ‘A Year in Provence’, something to write a book about if all else fails. I lean toward option (b) because it really doesn’t feel like he ever gives the place a chance.

Worth reading?

Not a complete waste of time. He writes with some humour and until the part where they up and leave (a schmaltzy return to America by the way, on a British passport for some reason and the U.S. immigration officer giving him a seriously hard time and TELLING him that he is an American and that he should be travelling on a U.S. passport… all a little over the top)… but until this daft and sudden ending, in the interval when you are still being lulled into thinking they might be sincere about making a go of it, it’s not the worst read.

While he notes many comparisons between life in the States and life in this tiny Welsh town, much of this is presented as isn’t it all so quaint and quirky, in a way that caters to mostly to an audience who rarely if ever travel far from their homes or are even aware, via books or other means, that life outside their universe (i.e. in other countries) is indeed different. And pleasantly so.

That said, there a few lovely bits throughout.

On remembering: “It is hard to know just how many times we have been exposed to a word, a face, an idea, before we have it.”

Litter in Literature: “The only civilian is a single forlorn custodian, who stands with his rubbish stick at the ready. He is waiting to spear the first crumpled crisps packet that flutters out of some pensioner’s string bag.”

Fun Fact: Phyllis Pearsall is the creator of the London A to Z map. She moved to London in 1935 after a divorce, thinking to become a portrait painter. “And so she did; but of a place, rather than a person.”

Wisdom: “No situation is so dire that it cannot be interrupted for tea.”

Trivia: The English tit bird “discovered that if they pecked through the foil cap on milk bottles, they could suck down a cream feast so sumptuous that they could barely stagger away afterward…” (bottlecaps were duly redesigned)

Warning: “To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you, the ones you didn’t even know to ask for in the first place.” [There is only one new-books bookshop in the town of Hay.]

Reading recs: Mercy Philbrick’s Choice, written by Helen Hunt Jackson, who was friends with Emily Dickinson. Published while Dickinson was still alive and unknown… “an extraordinary fictional portrayal of artistic isolation…”

On a VERY interesting moment in publishing history: Collins talks about a No Names Series put out by Thomas Niles (Publisher), “which published new works by writers like Jackson, Louisa May Alcott, and Christina Rossetti anonymously, allowing the works to stand or fall in review columns on their own merits. It is hard to imagine hype-hungry publishers undertaking such a  project today.”

Comparisons: Lots of comparisons with American and UK life, media, TV, radio, literature, values, ways of conducting oneself (shouting ‘Hi’ in the street isn’t done, for instance). Of a British TV game show he writes about prizes like egg timers and frosted drinking glasses. [Oh I would love such a frosted glass!]

On magazines: the difference being that U.S. home décor mags look like no house that exists, all lighting and staging, while British décor mags have actual lived in rooms, comfortable untidiness included.

Very funny riff on showers. Collins remembers showers as a child in the U.S. where he’d pretend he was flying a single jet plane, rain whipping into the cockpit, being pounded by enemy water canons or riot police, etc. and wonders what children in the UK imagine… “Perhaps they pretend that they are standing under a rusted and leaking pipe in an unlit boiler room. Or that someone is weeing on them from a great height.”

Having living in the UK for several years, I read such pithy comments on the doings with affection, being reminded of both the charm and the charming eccentricities of British village life. 

That said, the ending was ridiculous and left me feeling like the Emperor was buck naked. Like the whole thing was a planned exercise, a process he went through simply in order to get the material to write a book. Which of course people do all the time. But the best of those books reveal something important or surprising gleaned in the process, something that changes or enhances their lives or world view. The problem with this book is that the author seemed to take next to nothing from the experience.

Except a book. (Of pithy observations that really have nothing to do with ‘getting’ a place.)

What really boggles my mind is how, as a writer, you derive so little from the experience of living in a town of bookshops, a town that is wholly dedicated to books and readers and writers, and has a few other notable qualities as well...

Overall, feels like a bit of a missed opportunity for the author. As well as his family. As well as the reader.

3 thoughts on “this is not a review: ‘sixpence house: lost in a town of books’, by paul collins

  1. In one of those strange coincidences that isn’t actually, because there are none, I’ve just spent an hour watching YouTube videos of an artist who works with antique books and papers. She too is an American who moved to Hay on Wye (a place I clearly need to visit). She, however, stayed. I didn’t know why she moved there specifically until I read your post, but it was obviously because of its abundance of old books and papers. But what’s really interesting is that where Paul Collins says, “To look for a specific book in Hay is a hopeless task; you can only find the books that are looking for you …” she says “the thing I love most [in my creative process] is looking for the stuff because I kind of believe it is looking for me.” Now I’m kind of obsessing on the idea that there are books and papers in Hay on Wye that are looking for ME and I need to do my part and get over there and get found by them! You too, Carin.

    1. That’s incredible, that you just happened to be watching those videos. Honestly, the yeast is at it again. You definitely have to go. Oh, I look forward to THAT post! (I’m remembering the one where you and Chris accidentally stumbled upon some extraordinary event/festival… also in the U.K.?… I can’t think of the details just now but you wrote about it and it all felt so magically ‘fate-full’.) No coincidences, I agree.

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