In the hotel in Corbridge, Northumberland, the day before I left earlier this month, there are men talking loudly about whiskey and fishing. We’re talking about just enjoying the day. It is your day, at the end of the day. Outside, the cold turns to frost and the river slams on the pebbles under the city’s eponymous bridge.
In the mornings, in the Forum bookshop, I sit in the pulpit of the former Methodist chapel, gazing through a congregation of books and imagining that space filled with people dancing to the “silent book disco” from which we have just talk to me. But there’s no one dancing here now, so I finish signing books and talking to the bookseller, and set off on my bike for the heights between England and Scotland, the road climbing rapidly towards a stone ridge and time approaching me.
I cycle – in addition to jumping on rare trains – to as many bookstores as possible in a week. After conducting my last book tour entirely online, it feels good to be outdoors again: meeting people and holding books and putting miles under my wheels. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the world like this, and I’m interested to know what the place is like. The roads are quiet up to Carlisle. There are Ukrainian flags hanging from the windows, builder’s vans in front of every other house, and sometimes the stench of a lawn mower. The hedges are about to come out.
In the evenings in the village of Grasmere, I sit alone in a bookshop first opened by Sam Read in 1887, even before the arrival of telephone service, let alone the technology enabling the reading event in line that I am now organizing with bookstore customers, all participating remotely. When the event is over, I close the laptop and sit down in the peculiar silence that comes from a room full of books, and imagine I hear the grunt of an older gentleman who doesn’t don’t think that’s how things would have been done in his day. .
At dawn, I ride in the mist rising from the calm waters of Grasmere, climbing a steep path between dry stone walls and damp woods where trees have been toppled by recent storms from their mossy ground. Trunks and branches are broken where they fell.
At Linghams of Heswall on the Wirral a woman at the counter puts down her purchases and adds a copy of the Highway Code at the last moment. Everyone talks about it, she says. I should probably see what’s what. Down the coastal path, next to the salt marshes, an abandoned Covid testing center looms alongside walks and nature trails. I cross the mouth of the River Dee and start climbing through the woods towards Wrexham, Shropshire and Wales.
Where I grew up, in Thetford, Norfolk, there was very little to do – there were certainly no bookshops, and there probably never would be – so I often took to the road on my cycling, testing to see how far I could go, heading for the coast, thinking of the stories along the way. For someone who was otherwise unsportsmanlike and uncomfortable in their body, there was a thrill in getting to places on my own; the exhilaration of racing down the hills, the satisfaction of climbing the other side. It is a pleasure that I hope I will never do without. I always scream when I go down big hills. And having written a novel about a stroke and the damage it causes, Lean Fall Stand, I am acutely aware of the privilege this body still affords.
In the Booka bookstore in Oswestry I read my book to a room full of readers for the first time since before all that. I forgot how much I missed it. In the evening on the news, the number of Covid deaths is rising sharply.
In the morning, I take the early train to cross the Welsh border and start my walk in the shadow of Sugar Loaf. In Crickhowell’s Book-ish bookstore, I’m talking about typewriters with the man behind the counter when a reporter walks in and asks if Crickhowell High Street has the most independent shops in Wales. Oh, it absolutely is, proudly confirms the bookseller. Later, from another bookseller down the street, I hear the legend of Costa opening a branch in Crickhowell and being frozen out by the locals, and imagine how long the staff were silent waiting for someone one, anyone, come in through the doors.
In Oswestry, Monmouth, Chepstow and Newport; in Abingdon and Bicester and Bath – everywhere I stop there are thriving independent bookshops. During the closings, these small stores discovered how much they were appreciated by their customers; booksellers tell me about going mail-order, doing bike and walking deliveries, setting up subscriptions, hosting online events and strengthening the personal relationships that have been built over the years . In a store, a customer tells me a life story that makes me cry, and then the bookseller says it happens every few days. People walk into a store because they want to talk. Between these narrow, book-lined walls, people feel able to talk, and they do.
Somewhere south of the Jaffé and Neale bookstore in Chipping Norton, I have to climb the bank to avoid a bus reversing towards me. There are cars parked deep on both sides of the narrow lane, and lots of back and forth to cross. I finally pass a wooden barn with a long line coming out of the front door. What kind of madness of late capitalism has brought so many people here today, I ask a woman walking back to her car, not saying all those words out loud. It’s Jeremy Clarkson’s farm shop, she says; but she can’t tell me about it because it was too crowded to even enter the building. She should have known better. She was just passing by and she wanted to see what it was all about. She tells me to enjoy the rest of my ride, and I descend the long, straight hill, ducking my head and speeding quickly through the Cotswolds: villages with neatly trimmed hedges and high gates, swollen cars neatly parked on raked ground. gravel, vast cottages built of silver-colored stone.
There are a few bad routing decisions that afternoon, and I cross a field before finding the road again. I arrive late in Hungerford for my party, and when I open the door to the bookshop, I find myself exploding onto the stage, the crowd in tight rows facing me like a recurring dread dream.
In London, I cross Westminster Bridge in the morning mist, towards the Bookseller Crow bookshop at the top of Gipsy Hill, from where, with the writer Chris Power, I run to the bookshops of Dulwich, Peckham, Piccadilly, Charing Cross , London Fields , Hackney and Brick Lane, hopping on the midday train to Colchester and Red Lion Books before a final stretch on the road, over the rise and fall of Essex and Suffolk, through tiny lanes and past pink cottages and thatched roofs and roadside honey stalls and even more Ukrainian flags, the sun beating down for the first time in a week and the roads gradually becoming more familiar for three decades until I rolled almost on autopilot past the signs to Norfolk and Thetford and over the three stone bridges into the town that never had a bookshop but where – amazingly and successfully – Not Just Books opened a year ago and half . And it was here, fittingly, that I started to see how far I could ride a bike and think about writing stories, that after 32 bookstores, 500 miles and a lot of flapjacks, I’m buying a notebook, start writing those notes, and head home.