Book No 5 (2021): A House by the Shore

This slim volume has been on my bookshelf for many years, I can’t even recall how I came across my copy, which was secondhand when I got it! Despite there being so many new books and never enough time, this (along with Judy Fairbairns’ ‘Island Wife‘) is one I have returned to and re-read several times.

Scarista House is still a highly successful hotel, well known for its shoreside location and gourmet food. However, it wasn’t always as polished! Alison Johnson and her husband were working as teachers when they decided to relocate to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, where they renovate an old manse and turn it into a guest house.

Far from being DIY experts, the young couple, although practical, have taken on a huge project. Many of the rooms are uninhabitable, there are not enough bathrooms. Floors and windows have rotted, everything needs re-wiring. Alison herself spends a lot of time outside, digging trenches for the various pipes, drainage and services. It isn’t glamorous at all!

The renovation begins in 1974, so there is no internet to ease the communications involved in ordering, finding expertise, seeking advice. Battling with the difficulties of being in such a remote location and the inherent problems of getting supplies, combined with the frequently awful weather, Alison and Andrew persevere. With an immense amount of hard graft, lots of mistakes but a little bit of good luck, they are eventually able to welcome guests. There are several Fawlty Towers moments, with a big discrepancy between what is happening front of house in the dining room and Alison’s frantic scrabblings in the kitchen. Let’s just say it’s probably a good job this all took place before ‘elf and safety was A Big Thing.

A gentle read, with lots of comical moments, the opening of Scarista House is testament to how Alison and Andrew adapted to life in the Outer Hebrides and made it their own. I return to this book because it contains my dream; to move to a Scottish island. I relinquished the dream years ago; there has never been the right time and the opportunities to start again have passed. However, part of me still hankers after it so I live the experience vicariously. Although the Johnsons have moved on, the hotel is still there – I’m going to visit next time I’m in that neck of the woods. Hopefully the plumbing is no longer dodgy!

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……