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Opinion

‘Spare time on a sunny winter’s day is never wasted wandering around a graveyard’

Robin Ince’s 100 bookshop tour visits the quaint Worcestershire spa town of Great Malvern, which is like a set from a 1940s period drama

Spare time on a sunny winter’s day is never wasted wandering around a graveyard. Though I am distant from many of Morrissey’s 21st century politics, I have not lost all his 20th century habits, although I hung around cemeteries before The Smiths had even formed. Today, I am struck by a high, solid and simple stone that remembers Gervas Howe who died in 1839 after a life of “integrity and liberal kindness”. In a turn of phrase I’ve never seen in a churchyard, he was “gathered up to his fathers like a shock of corn fully ripe”.

It’s a striking epitaph.    

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My 100 Bookshop Tour is amiably frantic. I am frequently rushing to make connections, but then sauntering through the town and to my next bookshop, occasionally swearing in a medieval cul-de-sac that appeared to be a thoroughfare. Great Malvern is almost like walking into a fiction. It looks like England designed for a 1940s Hollywood set, it seems almost impossible not to hear Elgar’s cello concerto when you look at the summit that peeks out at the top of the town. Though I have rarely visited it, it is alive in my imagination from the now legendary, once nearly forgotten, TV play Penda’s Fen. It is a play of adolescence, of a boy detaching himself from the conservatism of his culture, race and sexuality. 

My lengthy obsession with Charles Darwin began here too. It was here his sickly daughter, Annie, came for hydrotherapy. She did not survive and died at 10 years old. 

Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, found a box containing mementoes of Annie and, from that, grew a book that dealt with Darwin’s science, fatherhood and how he and his wife Emma survived the loss of Annie. It is tragic, beautiful and enlightening. 

It was not the science that first led me to Darwin, it was this very human story. I visit Annie’s grave at Great Malvern Priory – it simply says: “A Dear and Good Child”.

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I don’t believe in the ghosts of headless horsemen or wailing sheets, but a town like Malvern is full of ghosts for me. We can make our own ghosts and sometimes they travel with us.

The Malvern Book Co-op has home-made cake, lots of lovely volunteers and even people turning up to get signed copies of my book. Every independent bookshop I go to has at least one book I haven’t spied before. This time it is Out of the Darkness: Greenham Voices 1981-2000, stories of the women who protested at the military base who were so regularly vilified by the press.

My grumpy grandmother lived near Greenham Common, so I remember her many rants about the protests. She was far more supportive of nuclear destruction than feminist protest. Born in 1890, the vision of womanhood she saw protesting at the perimeter fence, dungarees, knotted hair and attitude, appalled her. She complained that they would come and shit in her garden, but we saw no evidence for this. She said she’d set her whippet on them. I don’t carry her ghost with me. Too grumpy. 

Cake in stomach, my wheelie suitcase leads me back down the hill to a train that will take me to Ledbury. Tonight, I play one of the town’s many wood-framed buildings and I am told, with only a hint of playful exaggeration, that the room has been hosting book events since William Caxton fixed up his press.

It is one of the older audiences I have talked to, but the curiosity is as energetic as any primary school. I also meet the author Lucie McKnight Hardy whose latest book, Dead Relatives, is a collection of stories that is a casting couch for my nightmares. Like most, perhaps not all, authors I have met who commit gruesome acts on the page, Lucie seems quiet and kind and fails to murder me at any point in the evening. It’s the writers of the nice stories that you’ve really got to look out for. 

@robinince

Robin Ince’s 100 Bookshop Tour – Cosmic Shambles concluded in late December

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