The web page of the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford, now closed (as usual) for business: muses and misspills on books, jazz, poetry, stuff like false flags and smoke screen: was randomly decrepit and proven to be more than neo-bankrupt: it was so analogue it was anal and now deceased.
Some of the more noteworthy happenings in the Bookstore of late.
Russian guests meet after hours in the Beatnik the night before Prof of Poetry Simon Armitage’s lecture at University Schools to reflect on songwriter Bob Dylan’s preeminence in the poetry world. Encouraged by the Beatnik official press release at the time – that songwriter Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature was like a garage forecourt shop that sells crusty takeaway sandwiches past their sell-by-date winning International Food Retailer of the Year – Sergei and Stanislav are attempting to hack in favour of Putin as the next Oxford Professor of Poetry.
“And you shall have a trowel,” says Deuteronomy 23:12, “you shall dig a hole” – witness Stuart’s fine handiwork today in the Beatnik reredorter – “and…” – Biblical instructions follow for privy cleanliness. My stopcock is still to be adjusted (talking plumbing, not geriatric surgery) and new wash taps to be fitted, but the Beatnik then hits the modern sanitary age: for the first time in years its loo works without either mischief or subterranean spillage. It combines the invention of Sir John Harington (Elizabethan courtier and dreadful poet who designed the first flush toilet that didn’t leak) and the nous of Sir Thomas Crapper (who exploited the commercial opportunities of the 1848 Public Health Act), whose idea to ‘spend a penny’ was introduced at the Great Exhibition of 1851. My loo is to be a generous loss leader, free of charge. Fred, the Christopher Wren of the Beatnik (who fitted a new front door handle today which purrs like a Rolls Royce), has designs to build a latrine dome in the style of Antonio Panizzi’s in the British Library Reading Room, including a mezzanine floor with Doric pillars; I am less ambitious, happy that the poem by Heathcote Williams that daubs the WC walls will be mirrored on its ceiling, also on the concrete floor (when dried out). Clad with Holmesian deerstalker, the hunt for Moriarty’s leak and its eventual damming took five hours: gentle drilling, trowel work worthy of a sous pastry chef, then cutting, fitting and blowtorching; the concrete dentistry is to follow later. This is William Blake in reverse: “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius,” he wrote. Here the pipes lay previously as a troglodyte Roman road; now an improved Spaghetti Junction of twisted copper. To fund this improvement (and to use this toilet), please buy a book for Christmas. Closed Monday afternoon, but open the rest of the week.
My anecdotal observation is that poets are the worst loo offenders. Poetry – a staple diet of evenings in the shop with several poetry group workshops taking place here each week as well as a raft of readings – is a strange and murky business. I may well publish a scurrilous A to Z gazetteer of the craft and of the poetry world, and only some of it will rhyme, and even less of it need be true. When asked recently for my definition of poetry, quick as flash I replied stacking up chairs and washing up, and it is this backstage entree in to its world that allows me such insight and depth of knowledge. For instance, recent in-house surveys show that poets are far more likely to leave the loo door open upon exiting than non-poets, and I am left wondering what this signifies? And none of those who have ever stood in recent times for Professor of Poetry here in Oxford will be able to guess if it is male or female poets who are the chief privy culprits, so I feel slightly superior as I, of course, do know. And so neatly to political correctness and poetry: in this progressive day and age, people are already suggesting that the next Professor of Poetry at Oxford University should be a woman. So my advice to any male poet wishing to become the next Professor is simply this: have a sex change. Old poetry lags may seek funds for this essential medical procedure through the last scrapings that is the Arts Council; some pros may favour the joy ride to wealth that is the Kickstarter campaign, so many poets these days fund their holidays (they call them retreats) like this. But for some male poets wishing to be the next Prof and untold wealth, I would suggest self-help: a meat cleaver is available cheap at Argos, and (if it helps) I may volunteer to wield it for some of them.
As of last week I have renounced my Jedi subscription. I saw the midnight (first) screening of the new Star Wars movie. Do not be swayed by good reviews, trust me, for in my day Jabba the Hutt was one of my dearest friends. Star Wars’ previous and lofty Wagnerian plot lines have distilled to the first draft of an Eastenders’ script. Its heroes have stubble still, but bijou and topiary rather than rough and tumble (James Blunt ffs rather than Bruce Springsteen), and none of the chaotic panache of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. The villains were more All Souls College then Dartmoor Prison; they could form a great boy band, though a choir of Gary Barlows rather than Robbie Williams (who should’ve been cast as Kylo Ren, not the milksop in the film). Luke Skywalker’s Jedi robe was more like a duffel coat (Debenhams, I think), great for the catwalk but not much twirl when fighting, ’twas as starchy as Hammill’s acting. It’s all gone politically correct as well: Chewbacca, for instance, has become vegetarian.
I have replaced Jedi discipleship with yoga: this enlightenment was commemorated by an evening of kirtan singing in the Beatnik recently. Kirtan is a form of simple, melodious chanting, mostly call and response, derived from the Bhakti cultures and sung mostly in Sanskrit, sort of like mantra (I think) but not quite so Hare Krishna, loony and mindless. Was led by local yoga teacher Derek Elliott who’s trained at it, with a harmonium. For the authentic there were plump cushions on the floor (upon which you sank your chakra), but chairs for those, like me, derelict, repressed or wooden. It was a chilly evening. so people brought a woolly jumper in case the heating packed in; one displayed Jedi, a duffel coat. Namaste la vista, maybe.
The second-hand Book of the Week Deal recently from Dicky the Book Spiv (the shop runner who scours flea markets and car boot sales for bargains) is The Manly Art of Knitting by Dave Fougner. Its condition is generally sound, though there is a bright red lipstick mark (and bite mark) on the spine, it is half bound (the chain marks still show), and with water stain (I think) markings on the cover. I am still not sure if this should be housed in the Arts & Crafts section, or Equestrianism & Horse Care. Dicky, ever the hustler, asks: am I bid a fiver? Dicky, ex of The Scrubs and ex of Her Majesty’s pleasure (“she didn’t ‘arf like it,” he says), is available to relieve your grandmother of her priceless gems for what he calls a “snip” (and that needn’t be a horticultural term, he tells me).
The definition of late nineteenth century U.S. Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door policy: was a sort of a half-arsed attempt to keep China free from financial spin doctors and trade interference (aka gibberish). US & Russia fell out (as always), not a lot happened other than China got resentful, all else plundered at their expense. It was one of those treaties that was never formally adopted, sort of mentioned if convenient, forgotten if not, alluded to often, enforced never, whatever stance taken – the world remained the same as always. My open door policy just as unsophisticated: I had fish and chips one evening in the enclosed space, a need for fresh air. The place still smells. Of poetry mainly.
In the cafe last week: a chap came in asking for decaf coffee. I don’t stock it: I am all for living fast and dying young, and told him that. The conversation broadened, and I asked if he was drinking decaf coffee because he had had a bad day with his knitting. He left in somewhat of a huff and I am baffled. Why be so angry? I mean what on earth is wrong with knitting, I thought.
If you search on the shop website, there is the promise that you can get 10% discount here if you have dreadz (real cool) or can tell me that you like Miles Davis (the coolest man on the planet ever) but also tell me why you like him. One chap came in the other week with a Carpenters album under his arm: I offered him 10% discount immediately. Some people need all the encouragement and help they can get.
I’ve always thought we buy and then keep books, even if never read, to acknowledge who we aspire to be: mirrors of the mind. Bookshop doorways though are where we see who we actually are. Also see that shoes occasionally need a buff.