In the hotel in Corbridge, Northumberland, the night before I set out earlier this month, there are men talking loudly about whisky and fishing. There is talk of just enjoying the day. It’s your day, at the end of the day. Outside, the chill hardens to a frost and the river rattles over the shingle beneath the town’s eponymous bridge.
In the morning in the Forum bookshop I sit up in the pulpit of the old Methodist chapel, looking out across a congregation of books and picturing this space filled with people dancing to the “silent book disco” I’ve just been told about. 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 high ground between England and Scotland, the road climbing quickly to a ridge of knuckled stone and the weather closing in around me.
I am cycling – as well as jumping on the odd train – to as many bookshops as I can get to in a week. Having conducted my last book tour entirely online, it feels good to be outside again: meeting people and holding books and putting miles beneath my wheels. It’s been a while since I’ve been out in the world like this, and I’m interested to know what the place is like. The roads are quiet all the way to Carlisle. There are Ukrainian flags hanging from windows, and builder’s vans outside every other house, and the occasional stink of a lawnmower. The hedgerows are getting ready to come out.
In the evening in Grasmere village, I sit alone in a bookshop first opened by Sam Read in 1887, before the arrival of even a telephone service, let alone the technology enabling the online reading event I’m hosting with the bookshop’s customers now, all joining in remotely. When the event is finished I close the laptop and sit in the particular silence that comes from a room full of books, and imagine I hear the harrumph of an older gentleman who doesn’t think this is how things would have been done in his day.
At dawn I roll out into the mist rising off the still waters of Grasmere, climbing a steep lane between drystone walls and damp woodlands where the trees have been tipped by recent storms from out of their mossy earth. The trunks and branches lie shattered where they fell.
In 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’s talking about this, she says. I should probably see what’s what. Down the coastal path, next to the salt marshes, an abandoned Covid testing centre looms beside the boardwalks and the nature trails. I cross the mouth of the river Dee and start climbing through the woods towards Wrexham and Shropshire and Wales.
Where I grew up, in Thetford, Norfolk, there was very little to do – there were certainly no bookshops, and nor would there conceivably ever be – so I often took to the road on my bike, testing to see how far I could get, heading for the coast, thinking about stories on the way. For someone who was otherwise unsporting and uncomfortable in their body, there was a pleasure in getting to places under my own steam; the exhilaration of speeding down hills, the satisfaction of climbing up the other side. It’s a pleasure I hope never to grow out of. I still whoop when I go down big hills. And having written a novel about a stroke and the damage it brings, Lean Fall Stand, I’m acutely aware of the privilege this body still allows.
In the Booka bookshop in Oswestry I read my book to a room full of readers for the first time since before all this. I’ve forgotten how much I’d missed it. In the evening on the news the number of Covid deaths is rising sharply again.
In the morning I take the early train across the Welsh border and start my riding in the shadow of the Sugar Loaf mountain. In the Book-ish bookshop in Crickhowell I get talking about typewriters with the man behind the counter when a journalist comes in and asks about Crickhowell high street having the most independent shops in Wales. Oh, that’s absolutely the case, the bookseller confirms, proudly. Later, from another bookseller down the road, I hear the legend of Costa opening a branch in Crickhowell and being frozen out by the locals, and picture how long the staff stood in silence waiting for someone, anyone, to come in through the doors.
In Oswestry, Monmouth, Chepstow and Newport; in Abingdon and Bicester and Bath – everywhere I stop there are independent bookshops thriving. During the lockdowns these small shops discovered how much they were valued by their customers; booksellers tell me about switching to mail order, doing deliveries by bike and on foot, setting up subscription schemes, organising online events, and reinforcing personal relationships that have built up over years. In one shop a customer tells me a life story that brings me to tears, and afterwards the bookseller says that happens every few days. People come in to a shop because they want to talk. Within these narrow, book-lined walls people feel able to talk, and they do.
Somewhere south of the Jaffé and Neale bookshop in Chipping Norton I have to climb up the bank to avoid a bus reversing towards me. There are cars parked deeply along both sides of the narrow lane, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to get through. I pass, eventually, a timber-clad barn with a long queue winding out from the front door. What kind of late-capitalist foolishness has brought so many people here today, I ask a woman traipsing back to her car, without saying all those words out loud. It’s Jeremy Clarkson’s farm shop, she says; but she can’t tell me anything about it because it was too busy to even get inside the building. She should have known better. She was just passing and she wanted to see what all the fuss was about. She tells me to enjoy the rest of my ride, and I set off down the long straight hill, putting my head down and moving quickly into top gear through the Cotswolds: villages of neatly clipped hedges and high gates, swollen cars parked carefully on raked gravel, expansive cottages built from money-coloured stone.
There are some poor routing decisions that afternoon, and I cross a field before I find the road again. I’m late getting to Hungerford for my evening event, and when I open the door of the bookshop it turns out I’m bursting on to the stage, the audience in tightly packed rows facing towards me like a recurring anxiety dream.
In London I cross Westminster Bridge in the early morning mist, heading for the Bookseller Crow bookshop on the top of Gipsy Hill, from where, with the writer Chris Power, I race to bookshops in Dulwich, Peckham, Piccadilly, Charing Cross, London Fields, Hackney and Brick Lane, jumping on the midday train to Colchester and Red Lion Books before one last stretch on the road, over the rise and fall of Essex and Suffolk, down tiny lanes and past pink cottages and thatched roofs and roadside honey stalls and yet more Ukrainian flags, the sun beating down for the first time all week and the roads growing gradually more familiar from three decades ago until I’m rolling 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 – unbelievably, and successfully – Not Just Books first opened its doors a year and a half ago. And it’s here, fittingly, where I first started seeing how far I could ride a bike and thinking about writing stories, that after 32 bookshops, 500 miles, and an awful lot of flapjacks, I buy a notebook, start writing up these notes, and head for home.