The phone is ringing, it’s Roma.
“Sandra, I’m worried,” she says, in a worried-sounding voice. “What if no-one comes next week?”
“I think they’ll want to see what’s happening in the bookshop,” I say, in what I hope are soothing tones, thinking of how many weeks and how much time she’s devoted to this residency, the first of its kind at Blackwell’s. We’ve been considering whether to ask BC&C to join in – that’s Brown, Clegg and Cameron – though the BBC might also like a look-in, not to mention the local newspapers.
Still with an election coming up and less than two weeks until the big day their newsdesks might be hard-pressed to cover the story, though I’m sure they would be interested if “he who lives down the road” drops by. Perhaps that’s not likely with all the canvassing and pressing of flesh going on, not to mention the live TV debates on the political agenda. Will there be a good turn-out for the Great Genre Election rather than the General Election – who knows? All the usual factors might have to be taken into consideration. Weather, whether people think their vote will make a difference, what’s on the tellie that night. The votes for books and votes for MPs will be counted one week apart, the only difference is you’re not stuck with a genre you don’t like if your particular favourite doesn’t win at Blackwell’s, unlike the Parliamentary elections, after which you’ll have to wait years to make a change.
Roma’s got this idea that we can all vote for our favourite kind of book. Romantic, historical, crime, thriller, biography, none of the above, e-book. She’s got ballot boxes and bunting going up outside the shop but there’s no obligation to stop browsing the shelves and spending a relaxing lunchtime in Blackwell’s, it’s just a bit of fun, in the main, though I like the thought and can’t help but speculate about which will come out on top.
What the tourists will make of it, you might ponder, will they want a say too – and if they do have a say will they skew the results? All those Inspector Morse and Alice in Wonderland fans who visit the city each week, not to mention Lyra and Harry Potter fans who want to see where their favourite films were made. Imagine, for a moment, if the police really did have Colin Dexter’s murders to deal with. Oxford would be the killing capital of Europe and the local politicians would have more than refuse collection and rats to think about. Perhaps it’s a good thing we can distinguish between fiction and fact.
Roma thinks we can’t, not always and she’s out to prove that the lines are blurred between truth and lies, fact and fiction. She’s provocative like that, I’m discovering. This I find a little worrying. Reading is my great escape. As a writer, I realise the latter looks odd in print. No-one I think, would find Reading a great escape, reading yes, Reading no.
Perhaps we should also be asking where people read. Bath, bed, train, café, desk, sofa, kitchen table, library, airport lounge, queue for the last boat home? Part of me thinks that reading is about getting away from thoughts of the EU and volcanic ash clouds and taxes and politicians. But that’s because I naturally gravitate towards literary fiction – there’s so much of it and so little time. How do you choose when you go into a bookshop and why go to a bookshop when you can buy on-line or in a s-u-p-e-r-m-a-r-k-e-t? Why bother with books at all when there’s an app for your i-Pod and The Kindle and you can download reading material virtually. Why bother buying when you can (whisper it, because the New Bodleian is next door) go to a library?
Bookshops can make your head spin, all those titles, covers and spines and wondering why some books face outward and whether it’s good or bad to choose from a three-for-two deal. But bookshops can also be a place of sanctuary, somewhere to recover your good humour, like going to The Priory, but without the Slebs.
“I’m holding a memory clinic, you know,” says Roma, sounding more like her usual self.
“I hadn’t forgotten,” I say, coming out of my reverie. “It’s a kind of Roma therapy, this residency.”