The Good Life

A jour­ney of ex­treme ad­ver­sity is ame­lio­rated by a wry Scots­man and a ‘Welsh com­mu­nist’.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - Greg Dixon

Au­gust 27, 2018 Books I’m read­ing: one. Chap­ters read: one.

Here’s a piece of advice: on no ac­count go to Feather­ston for sup­per on a Mon­day night. You will find it closed.

We’d driven the 40 min­utes from our place to the south Wairarapa town­ship hop­ing to have din­ner at the Royal Ho­tel, a re­cently ren­o­vated 19th-cen­tury pub just off the main drag, be­fore ad­journ­ing to nearby Tarureka Es­tate to hear Shaun Bythell, an im­pos­si­bly wry Scot who au­thored the fun­ni­est book I’ve read this year, The Di­ary of a Book­seller.

Long-dis­tance travel al­ways gives Michele and me an enor­mous ap­petite, so as you can imag­ine, hav­ing jour­neyed lit­er­ally dozens of kilo­me­tres, we were ut­terly rav­en­ous as we cruised down Fitzher­bert St just mo­ments af­ter 5.30pm. It turned out we were mo­ments too late. The Royal was in dark­ness, the evoca­tively named Messines Bar and Restau­rant de­serted, and the Brac and Bow Cafe closed for the day. We didn’t fancy a take­away.

If courage is grace un­der pres­sure, then when you’re both starv­ing and you can’t be­lieve the other didn’t check some­thing was open be­fore em­bark­ing on such an epic jour­ney, and you still have to find a place to eat in an­other town, then eat, and then some­how get to a lit­er­ary event by 7pm … well, not hav­ing a mon­u­men­tal tiff un­der that sort of pres­sure is just the sort of pluck and val­our this coun­try needs more of.

We drove to Grey­town. It was open. At The White Swan Ho­tel, we had top-drawer fish and chips, and a serendip­i­tous en­counter. Mark and Kate, who own Master­ton’s sec­ond-hand book and cu­rio shop, Bear Flag Books and Retro, hap­pened to be hav­ing din­ner there as well, be­fore they, too, moved on to hear Mr S Bythell in Feather­ston. Kate is warm and friendly. How­ever, we like to pre­tend Mark is an aw­ful, crabby com­mu­nist, though ac­tu­ally he’s an ex-pat Welsh­man who, as well as be­ing a sec­ond-hand book­seller, has a mu­sic show on RNZ and is the owner of a well-bound sense of hu­mour in near-new con­di­tion.

We ar­rived at Tarureka Es­tate af­ter dark, found our way by join­ing the grey­ing, lit­er­ary herd mov­ing towards its his­toric barn – ap­par­ently and coin­ci­den­tally “one of the world’s top-10 barn wed­ding venues” – and were in time to se­cure a de­cent seat, but, more im­por­tantly, a de­cent glass of wine to calm the nerves.

Bythell had lost his glasses. Some­where be­tween Scot­land and New Zealand he’d in­ad­ver­tently put them down. “Some­one on an Emi­rates aero­plane has got the strong­est glasses they’ll ever find,” he be­gan. “Un­for­tu­nately, it’s left me with [a pair] that I will pos­si­bly strug­gle to read with.” He de­claimed like a man stum­bling about a dark, un­fa­mil­iar room, but proved over the en­su­ing hour or so to be as wry in per­son as he is in print. His book, if you haven’t read it, is a year in the life of his sec­ond-hand book­shop – re­put­edly Scot­land’s largest – in Wig­town, a vil­lage half the size of Feather­ston. It’s a di­ary re­plete with wit, whimsy, Wig­town char­ac­ters, mad and mad­den­ing cus­tomers, and a fierce an­tipa­thy towards moder­nity as rep­re­sented by the evil em­pire of Ama­zon and its mon­strous Kin­dle ma­chines.

His book is also filled with odd, un­ex­pected ob­ser­va­tions about his trade, like the fact that cus­tomers who ask if he has the Bi­ble in stock never ac­tu­ally buy a copy. Mark has no­ticed this in his book­shop, too. What is that about, he asked?

“I don’t know, I haven’t quite worked out the psy­chol­ogy of it,” Bythell said.

“We ac­tu­ally sell signed ones,” Mark de­clared, get­ting the big­gest laugh of the night.

“Do you want a job?” said Bythell, which you’d have to say was aw­fully wry.

Glass of chardon­nay: $6 per. Ar­gu­ments: none.

Cus­tomers who ask if he has the Bi­ble in stock never ac­tu­ally buy a copy.

Writer and sec­ond-hand book­seller Shaun Bythell be­ing wry in Feather­ston.

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