In they stride, in muddy trainers or wellies, swirls of cold air caught on their clothes, children in off-road buggies, dogs bedraggledly in tow. I’ve always been thrilled that so many of our customers at Daunt Books in Belsize Park and Hampstead come in fresh from Hampstead Heath.
Growing up in north London, I’ve spent many an hour walking on this scrubby land, as wild as London will get. Every November I march a group of friends across the Heath for an ‘annual birthday stomp’; in the summer I swim in the icy ponds and laze in the hot grass afterwards. Many of my friends think I’m quite dotty for loving Hampstead Heath so much, so it was such a joy to find all these customers who not only shared my love of books but also of the heath. There must be a way to bring these mutual loves together, I thought, as soon as I started working at Daunt’s. There must be a way to take this bookshop up on to the heath. And so, nearly two years ago, the Walking Book Club was born.
I would pick a book, tell everyone about it by way of email, posters and gabbling at whoever would listen, and then a group of us would walk across Hampstead Heath for an hour on a Sunday morning, talking about the book. I thought we could use the landscape as conversation markers — talking about one subject until the top of Parliament Hill, then another until the fallen tree, and another until the avenue of limes. The number of people wouldn’t matter as we could split into twos, threes, and fours, until we regrouped, caught up, and set off again, drifting into different combinations.
The first book I chose was A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I picked it as I thought it was a book that many people had heard of, but not so many had actually read. Muriel Spark is a brilliant author, but were it not for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which so many of us read at school, she could easily slip off the reading radar, fall through the cracks of the canon and languish in the shade. A Far Cry from Kensington, I decided, was a hidden treasure of our bookshelves.
Working at Daunt’s is a humbling experience. There are just so many books — and so many really good ones. After you’ve been there for a few months, you begin to feel a little less overwhelmed, but for someone who hasn’t got this familiarity with the bookshelves, for someone who might not have an English degree or bookish friends, then going into a bookshop can be intimidating. Where do you even begin?
Well, many people begin with reviews, or a Richard and Judy Book Club choice, or the piles of new paperbacks at the front. Watching people choose their books like this made me feel terribly sad that so many very special books that were a little older were being overlooked. Unless someone was in the know, they never thought to pick out Muriel Spark, or Elizabeth Taylor, or Penelope Fitz-gerald. With nothing telling them to read these books, why on earth should they?
So I decided that this was what I’d do with the walking book club. I could point the way towards these forgotten gems and bring them back to life. Of course, it’s not so different to what a bookseller does anyway, but the walking book club lends my enthusiasm a little more weight.
The walking book club seemed to work straight away. On that first April Sunday — the air bright, sweet and mild — eight people turned up, thrilled to have read a brilliant book, and looking forward to having a walk and a talk about it. They were all perfect strangers and yet here they were tramping across the heath together, bound by this appreciation of walking and reading. It was refreshing that this was all we had in common. There was no time wasted gossiping about friends, or whingeing about work, or any of life’s other distractions. This was an hour of pure bookchat. Well, pure-ish – people relate to books in a personal way and inevitably there are moments where we end up talking about our own experiences in relation to the book. It’s only when I hear people discussing their weekend plans that I gently bring them back to the book.
I’m always a little anxious in case we run out of things to say, so I jot down a few ideas and topics on a bookmark. I mark some of my favourite passages to read out, and try to find a bit of something extra, like a critical quotation, to bring along. One Sunday we were discussing All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West and I’d got so caught up reading Virginia Woolf’s letters to Vita Sackville-West the night before that I was up till one in the morning. But the conversation never really flags — people turn up raring to go, desperate to chat about the book, full of ideas and opinions, which flow easily as they fall into their stride. Treading side by side, sharing a view, lungs full of fresh air, blood pounding, a mind that’s never felt clearer — everything about a walk conspires towards great conversation.
There have been some low points. I think it’s important that no one has to pay or reserve a place — everyone is there because they want to be, and so if they wake up hungover, or it’s pouring with rain, or they have a big family lunch, I’d hate for them to feel duty-bound to turn up. The downside of this means that I never know how many people will come. During the first winter of the walking book club, attendance hit rock bottom. I’d picked The True Deceiver, an extraordinary book by Tove Jansson, which I particularly love for her descriptions of different types of snow. A perfect January read, I thought, and, true enough, we sold quite a few copies. But when the icy cold Sunday came around, just one person showed up for the walk. This unlucky lady had never come before and was rather startled at my accompanying her around the heath one-on-one. At the heart of The True Deceiver is the gripping power dynamic between its two main characters — sinister, determined Katri and gentle, naive Anna. As I strove to keep the conversation going with my very quiet companion, I worried that a similar dynamic was arising between the two of us. She hasn’t come back.
That experience made me dread this winter a little, but to my utter delight, the walking book club is now undaunted by the weather. This January I’d picked Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, and the Sunday dawned with an amazing amount of snow. I prepared myself for the worst, but 12 people appeared, all togged up ready for the heath. It was magical — everything muffled and bright and dripping white. It occurred to me, as we were discussing the ramblings of Jake Donaghue in 1950s London, that walking in the snow on Hampstead Heath was just the sort of thing he’d do, only most likely clutching a bottle of whisky and with Mister Mars at his side.
There have been a few less comfortable moments. One lady turned up to our discussion of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont thinking that I was the author, Elizabeth Taylor, who died in 1975, and asking me to read her manuscript. Another time, we morphed into a matchmaking service when a young woman, dressed up to the nines, swiftly paired off with a silver fox of a rare male attendee. They giggled their way across the heath and I felt a spell of schoolmistressness come over me as I realised they were certainly not talking about the book. I nearly split them up, then thought better of it. The two of them left together arm in arm, -leaving the other ladies, and me, out in the cold.
The walking book club is tiny, and yet in the fragile and tumultuous book industry it is one of the few things that seems to be growing, and that has nothing to do with Amazon. Since we featured on Radio 4’s Ramblings, people have got in touch to say they’ve been inspired to start their own walking book club in places as varied as Edinburgh and Exmoor.
As a bookseller, a little bit of me dies every time I hear of another indie bookshop — or indeed a whole chain of bookshops — closing down. The A-word nearly drives me to murder. As yet, no one’s turned up to the walking book club with a Kindle: people have the grace either to buy the book from Daunt’s or to borrow it from their local library, if they’re lucky enough to still have one. As we stomp off, bookchatting our way across the heath, free from the world of ebooks, One-Click™ and tax avoidance, I feel a touch of the pride of George facing up to the dragon.