Book No 3 (2021) : The Diary of a Bookseller

Like most people, I didn’t have a good year in 2020. Although I didn’t feel up to blogging and reviewing books, I found a great deal of comfort in the distraction of reading. I was extremely grateful to everyone who recommended, lent and bought me books. As we start a New Year I’ve decided to clear my backlog of reviews and so count from where I left off in 2020.

First up, a chance find when I went on a bit of a spree in Waterstones, Brighton and was trawling for non-fiction especially. The diarist in question is Shaun Bythell, owner and manager of the Book Shop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway. Wigtown is to Scotland what Sedbergh is to England and Hay-on-Wye to Wales i.e. the National Book Town.

Through his daily diary entries over the course of a year in 2014, the author brings to life a colourful and varied cast of bookshop staff and customers, as well as the atmosphere of the famous annual Book Festival. From the rude to the slightly batty, the bewildering to the belligerent, the intriguing to the indignant (which sometimes includes Mr Bythell himself), the diary paints a picture of the bookseller’s lot. With a dry, sardonic wit, Shaun bemoans the rise of Amazon, despairs at the antics of his staff (‘Nicky’ in particular) and tells us about the visitors to his home and the Festival. This is all set against the backdrop of a planned wind farm and a leaky shop.

I know it is really annoying when someone you love keeps reading random clips out of a book because it made them laugh, but I couldn’t help myself! It really is very, very funny – laugh out loud funny. The combination of the diarist’s observations, together with some slightly absurd situations just made me smile. I also learned quite a lot about how second-hand books are bought and sold, both online and over the counter.

Shaun Bythell has a partner throughout the book, known by the pseudonym ‘Anna’ but who is actually Jessica Fox, an author who recounts her side of the Wigtown Book Shop experience in Three Things You Should Know About Rockets (Shaun is ‘Ewan’ in her book). I will be reading that soon, along with the sequels to the original diary, Confessions of a Bookseller and Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.

I’m not sure I’ll ever dare to visit The Book Shop in case I behave appallingly and end up immortalised in the next diary. Nevertheless, I’m excited to have discovered these books. Mainly because I’ve just got myself a new job. In a secondhand bookshop! Mr Bythell has certainly taught me a thing or two about what to expect. There was a strange guy in the shop last week……

Book No 11 (2018) : This is Going to Hurt

this is going to hurtHaving worked for the NHS many years ago, I have had first-hand experience of the stress involved in working for the UK’s largest employer. I did long hours, juggled many conflicting priorities and dealt with people in genuine need of care. All from the relative comfort of my desk. I was a manager, a tiny cog in a huge machine. I lasted a year.

This is Going to Hurt‘ is an autobiographical account of what it is like to be on the real front line of the NHS, as a junior doctor. Tough doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Adam Kay kept a diary from his early days as a House Officer, the lowest rung of the hospital hierarchy, right through to when he became a Senior Registrar some 6 years later. He is a very, very funny writer, describing his daily encounters with the exasperated tone of someone who can’t help but marvel at the oddities (and sometimes stupidity) of his patients. There is no sugar-coating; some of the anecdotes are graphic, messy and often smelly. But funny nevertheless, in a peek-through-your-fingers way.

About half way through the book, Kay’s anecdotes gradually stop being so amusing. Kay specialises in Obs & Gynae and struggles on, poorly supported by senior colleagues, swimming against an endless tide of mothers and babies, caesareans, ventouse and forceps. Yes, the journal entries are still comical, but the writing is shot through with a permanent sense of panic, exhaustion, always feeling on the back foot, being hopelessly ill-prepared and inexperienced. Kay’s relationships with his partner and friends begin to founder, he has no life other than work.

I suffered an obstetric emergency when my son was born (I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say there was a lot of blood) and I will be forever indebted to the team of doctors and nurses who worked around the clock to save my life. Engulfed by the trauma of my own experience, I thanked the staff profusely, but didn’t give a second thought as to how those medics may have been affected by my suffering. They were just doing their jobs. Adam Kay’s book put me right on that score. The diary ends shockingly abruptly.

This is Going to Hurt‘ does hurt. It is a painful indictment of a system which is broken from the inside, and which exploits those amongst us who are willing to take on the responsibility of  studying and practising medicine, for the common good.

Read this book. It will make you want to hug your doctor. Although probably not just after she has performed your colonoscopy.