Opinion

Lady Macbeth's dress, experimental poetry and a midnight train to Watford – all in a day's work

Why are bookshops so endlessly tempting?

Robin Ince with Book illustrator Marcia and his friend Kate

Robin Ince with book illustrator Marcia and his friend Kate. Image: Robin Ince

Walking into Tate Britain with my friend Kate, I unzip my rucksack for the bag check. I rarely travel lightly as I always chop and change with my reading desires, so usually have a portable library on my back mixing up books on cloud formation, neurodivergence and stories about women who unpick themselves and discover they appear to be part ant and part sewing machine (quite a specific one that, Camilla Grudova’s The Doll’s Alphabet – my favourite book of the year so far). As I lift the flap of the bag, I jovially say, “Books, books, books, books, books.” 

“We have a good bookshop here,” smiles the security person.

I look ruefully, knowing all the temptations I will see today. 

“Oh, I know.” 

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The other security person tells us that she has a book in the bookshop. We ask what it is, and she bashfully replies that it is not really her book. We want to know more and, under our expert interrogation, she explains that she illustrated the Tate book on visibility. The moment we are out of earshot, I tell Katie we must go straight to the shop and buy two copies of Visibility

Marcia is surprised when we return three minutes later (pictured) and ask her to sign our books.

In the John Singer Sargent exhibition, we bump into her again and she tells us a few things about the famous “strapless” painting. 

It is a portrait of Virginie Avegno, who was known as the “it girl” of her day, because Sargent painted her with one of the straps of her dress hanging off her shoulder. Already notorious, this ruined her reputation and she left public life. Marcia explained some of the strokes of paint that reveal amendments, then leaves us to look at Lady Macbeth’s dress. We eat cake and talk ants and sewing machines, and depart via the existential agony of Francis Bacon and the pop art vivacity of Pauline Boty.

Marcia is now at the exit, so we wave goodbye with a happy sense of new connection. Accidentally looking in the Oxfam Bookshop window which I just happen to be walking past, I spy a title that beguiles me: Rebel Women of the Apocrypha by the artist Marcelle Hanselaar. With etchings of Lilith and the Witch of Endor, I decide it must be mine and place it in my portable library sack which is now coming with me to Walthamstow Trades Hall for a night of poetry which includes the magnificently monikered Other Theresa, a joke that my pal Joel only gets when she is introduced on stage. He delights in the revelation. Later, Other Theresa delivers a poem about smear tests while lying on her back. This is one of the many differences between Other T and Mother T. 

One of the first poets on stage, Eithne Cullen, starts with, “my first poem is about Robin Ince” and then proceeds to deliver a second with me as the absurd subject. Immediately, I rifle through my sack to find a pen and paper as I realise that I must open with the words, “my first poem is about Eithne Cullen”. I write two poems about Eithne who possesses both forename and surname that are not rhyme handy. 

Taking the stage an hour later with a sheaf of poems in hand, as ever, I keep meeting new tangents and steering wildly into them, so I think I only manage to perform four poems in the hour (six if you include the two on Eithne). 

I drink one more pint than I should and am the last to leave the Trades Hall. It will be 1am before the train gets me home, but I am safe in the knowledge that I have an emergency bar of chocolate in the rucksack that I will share with the rebel women of the Bible during any points failure outside Watford Junction. 

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

Robin Ince is a comedian, writer and broadcaster.

His book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £10.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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