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