DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Opinion

Robin Ince: formal dinners and drunken elks

The broadcaster's 100-bookshop tour takes him to Hay-on-Wye, where he meets his match in a crème brûlée

Bookshop window

Photo: Wal_172619 / Pixabay

There are too many books in Hay-on-Wye. Finding a treasure does not have the same sense of victory as finding something at a jumble sale in Invergordon or a junk shop in Stalybridge.  But it doesn’t stop me browsing. I find a tiny pocket book of myths and a biography of Stanley Baker, a tough-guy actor you could really believe would knock you flat if you got mayonnaise on his tweed suit. 

I am at a book festival and right before me is a celebrity historian who has lately become something of an amplified conspiracy theorist. Festivals often have an author’s dinner at the end of the day, and my wife has told me to keep quiet and try to sit in the corner and so I do. I keep my head down in the pea risotto, quietly observing and sticking another breadstick in my mouth every time a contrasting opinion springs to mind. We do briefly talk about the astronomer Tycho Brahe, who owned an elk that he would drink with. I am surprised the historian was unaware of the elk’s sad death, inebriated, it fell down the stairs. To be fair, even sober, elks aren’t good on stairs. 

The next day my stomach is discontented. By keeping my mouth full to avoid conflict I had one crème brûlée too many, which is one crème brûlée. I don’t know why I ordered it, I just panicked. It’s a long car journey to the nearest station, so I top myself up with Imodium and hope I don’t have to ask the driver to suddenly pull into some cow parsley. In all this excitement I do not see the red weather warnings. 

By the time I get to Oxenholme Lake District station, it is the sort of weather that suits an old horror film where young flappers are benighted in a lonely house with an eccentric family and a psychopathic butler, but before that demise I get to Sedburgh, England’s book town. Due to train delays, I am a little late, so walk straight into the vast bookshop, past the biography section, through the local interest shelves and find myself stood in front of the embroidery books. 

With my rucksack still on, I start talking. Being in front of the embroidery section I am inspired to talk about Ernest Thesiger, a great actor, embroiderer and First World War veteran who, when asked what it was like on the western front, replied, “Oh, the noise! And the people!” He was also author of Adventures in Embroidery, so I tell the audience of his hope of setting up a disabled soldiers’ embroidery industry after the War.

After visiting wounded men in hospitals, he wrote that he was “struck with the interest invalids took in needlework and the skill they evinced in working their own rather crude designs. I offered to supply them with something a little more decorative in the way of patterns, but while they were still in hospital found they were not easily interested in anything apart from their own artistic efforts.”  Top brass were not keen on Thesiger’s aims to give wounded soldiers purpose and employment through embroidery, as they felt it was not a manly pursuit for warriors.

By the time my night in Westwood Books is finished, we realise quite a storm has been performing around us. Trying to get back to the pub I am staying in is tricky, with three routes blocked by fallen trees. On the fourth attempt we make it. The pub is quiet. I sit in a corner with whisky and Guinness watching darts on the TV and leafing through the collected works of Shelley, gifted to me by the bookshop. It’s the right balance of life to be reading Ozymandias while looking up from the page to see the action from the Barnsley Metrodome. Darts and Shelley, embroidery and foot soldiers, we can be multitudes. 

The next morning, I find that I have to climb through fallen oak tree to get to the station, which gets me the first audience of the day. I hope I make the people of Newcastle, Whitley Bay and Corbridge as happy as I made the locals who watched with intrigue as I weaved my suitcase, rucksack, two bags of books and me through the sprawling horizontal branches, but I think I might have peaked early today. 

Robin Ince is an author and broadcaster

@robinince

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Why Kylian Mbappé has a nose for change
Kylian Mbappé after breaking his nose against Austria
Paul McNamee

Why Kylian Mbappé has a nose for change

Companies put shareholders ahead of people and planet. The next government must change that
Capitalism: Skyscrapers in the city of London
Eleanor Shearer and Chris Turner

Companies put shareholders ahead of people and planet. The next government must change that

Most Brits agree next government must offer safe routes for refugees. So why is nobody talking about it?
A refugee boat
Denisa Delić

Most Brits agree next government must offer safe routes for refugees. So why is nobody talking about it?

Neither Labour nor Tories are going far enough for disabled people – we deserve better
Mikey Erhardt

Neither Labour nor Tories are going far enough for disabled people – we deserve better

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know