As many of you know, I am in the process of reissuing over fifty Brian Aldiss books from across his career. Obviously I had not read them all before we did the deal so I am filling in the gaps in advance of publication.
Over Christmas I read three of his books.
The Brightfount Diaries was his very first novel and is based upon a column he wrote for The Bookseller in the mid-1950s. It takes the form of a diary, that of Peter, a young man working at Brightfount's bookshop in an unnamed cathedral town. It is a fascinating insight into the world of books in the middle of the last century; so much has changed but so much has stayed the same. You may not get as many sales reps visiting stores these days, or 'travellers' as they were known then, and the nature of the books sold are rather different but the annoying customers, the competition between branches and the wonderfully bitchy shoptalk will be very familiar to anyone working in bookshops today.
One episode I particularly enjoyed involved the staff reacting to recent UFO sightings by starting a science fiction section which proves to be extremely popular, the twist coming when it is revealed that Peter and a colleague are responsible for all the fake letters to the local paper which have prompted the fad in the first place.
Alongside all the booky stuff is a Wodehouse-esque family comedy of batty uncles, mean aunts, louche cousins, fastidious landladies and Peter's own ongoing romantic escapades. It is a fantastic romp and an entertaining history lesson for the booksellers of today.
The Brightfount Diaries were inspired by Brian's own time working for Sandford's of Oxford, something he writes about in the early chapters of Bury My Heart at WH Smith's, a memoir of sorts. Subtitled A Writer's Life, it covers much of his career as an author and offers a glimpse of the man and the ideas behind some of his most famous, and a few of his lesser known, works. Every page has a quotable anecdote or a splendid piece of namedropping. He writes about being one of the first people to publish JG Ballard, of his friendship with CS Lewis, of John Betjeman turning up at Sandford's with a van load of books he'd been sent to review and which he now wanted to flog, of Evelyn Waugh being a grumpy sod. And then there is this unforgettable line:
Sharing a jacuzzi with Doris Lessing represents the peak of my otherwise obscure literary career.
If Brightfount is a book that all booksellers should read, then Bury is a book that all writers should read. They make a splendid pair, which is why we have published them together this week.
In Bury My Heart at WH Smith's, Brian talks briefly about the creation of the mini-saga. For many years he chaired the judging panel for a Daily Telegraph fifty-word story competition and wrote a number of them himself during that time. Fifty of the best, plus a fifty-word introduction, are collected in this 99p ebook, 50 x 50: The Mini-Sagas. Here's one of my favourites:
Marlene Dietrich, cool and lovely, playing a Russian princess, came down the wide palace steps to confront a mob.
Revolution had begun.
I must have been five when I saw that film.
What happened next? Not that ugly mob - only lovely Marlene is remembered.
Ah, one's first erection!
All three books and/or ebooks are out now. Fill yer boots!