I was on my way to the pub the other evening, about seven o’clock, rain lashing down on my head, when I saw that there was a dim, yellowish light on in the bookshop. Peering closer through the downpour I could see five women sitting on a circle of chairs around either a table or a cauldron, talking animatedly to one another. Or perhaps chanting, I don’t know.
I crossed the road and stood directly outside the shop window with my arms outstretched, mouthing at those inside: ‘Where’s my book? Where’s my book?’ Six weeks previously I had wandered into the shop to see if they were stocking The Great Betrayal: they weren’t. And when I asked the lady behind the till she became somewhat evasive. This time, after watching me standing there like a loon in the rain, the same woman came forward and opened the door. ‘I’m sorry, Rod,’ she said, ‘but I don’t stock political books.’
‘But…’ I began pointing to the large array of political books in her window. ‘Apart from those dealing with feminism, the environment, climate change and gender issues,’ she replied. I said wasn’t it a pity that a book which was written 150 metres from her shop, which quoted local people and had reached number four in the Sunday Times bestseller list, couldn’t find room among the interesting tracts about why maths is racist and how we’re all going to burn to a crisp very soon, but our conversation was cut short.
Another woman, with long straggly hair and a face like the blade of a freshly sharpened hatchet, got up from her chair and said, ‘This is a private meeting, goodbye’, and slammed the door in my face — and that was that. Community justice in action. A pity. The first woman seemed a rather likeable soul, to be honest, and yet still captured by the totalitarian impulses of the liberal left.
As a kid growing up on Teesside, my two great escapes from what, sullenly, I considered the suffocating boredom and orthodoxy of my surroundings were Fearnley’s record shop on Linthorpe Road and a bookshop in Redcar which sold both secondhand and new volumes. I read everything I could, never pausing to wonder if the book I had just bought — a biography of Mussolini, Updike’s Couples, Turgenev’s First Love, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, Left Book Club stuff from the 1930s by Spender or Zilliacus, poems by Yevtushenko — accorded with my own political beliefs. And so I got a rounded view of the world. Wildly left-wing though I was back then, I never quite became conscripted by the left’s utter, implacable, certitude. Always at the back of my mind was the notion that I might well be totally wrong — because so many writers I admired clearly disagreed with me.
But bookshops today seem a little reluctant to indulge in such breadth of vision. They have become the retail equivalent of virtue-signallers. ‘The only books we will stock are those we agree with’ is the mantra — a terribly stunted disposition, an anti-literary disposition.
And it’s not just the little independents, either. It’s places such as Waterstones as well, the big high-street chains which probably will stock your book if they think it comes from the right, because they kind of have to, but will hide it from the public gaze. I found The Great Betrayal in one Waterstones branch in the cookery section, and in another on prominent display, but a note had been affixed suggesting that the book was shit from start to finish.
I wonder if these shops will stock new books coming out about Boris Johnson? The excellent Tom Bower is working on one right now. I suppose they will have to read the books first to see if they are pro or anti, or just look at the cover: ‘Boris Johnson – Bullying, Lying, Sexist, Toff Bastard’ would probably pass muster.
The latest thing we’ve learned about our Prime Minister is that 20 years ago he may or may not have put his hand on the leg of Robert Peston’s future girlfriend, a lady called Charlotte Edwardes, at a Spectator lunch. Looking through the comments below the articles which covered this, uh, story, I was struck by the degree to which almost nobody gave a toss or indeed found the crime of which he was accused wholly uncommendable. Maybe one in five begged to differ and most of those had user names like ‘Brexitisshit’ or ‘killtoryscum’.
A couple of newspapers rehashed the old stories about the ‘Sextator’ — the extraordinarily libidinous atmosphere at our offices back in the early 2000s when one would turn up for editorial meetings to find naked men swinging from the light fittings and fruity well-bred kitten-faced females with their ankles behind their ears. It wasn’t quite like that, to be honest — for a start, Peter Oborne was almost always there and nobody could contemplate an act of sexual intercourse with that fountain of self-righteousness nearby. But still, my colleagues Toby Young and Lloyd Evans wrote a play about these supposed shenanigans which ran for a bit in a small theatre (I was played by Peter Capaldi!). We always said Tobes and Lloyd wrote the thing out of pique because they weren’t getting any.
But the Trumpification of Boris continues. ‘He lies. He has blond hair. He grabs hold of vaginas.’ The BBC lapped up the Charlotte Edwardes stuff, not really questioning whether if Boris had behaved so egregiously, why didn’t she mention it at the time, or punch him in the face? But I still think it will be Boris’s mischievous penis which does for him in the end: the pole dancer Jennifer Arcuri and the money she was supposedly bunged is the one thing I fear will not go away, despite the ludicrous nature of the demands for impeachment.