I recently bought five books at Voltaire and Rousseau in Glasgow, Scotland:
- The Modern Gaelic-English Dictionary by Robert C. Owen,
- Fiddles and Folk by GW Lockhart,
- Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow by Peter Hoeg,
- Scotland: An Anthology by Maurice Lindsay, and
- Ants by Julian Huxley.
Why? Did I intend to find a spare plot of earth, bury the five, and watch them subsequently grow into a library? Was there a particularly unifying similarity in these five, beyond the experience of buying them in Glasgow itself? There are moments where Miss Smilla and Maurice Lindsay’s anthology seem to overlap, sure. In the latter, Ruthven Todd tells us how he “went to school over the high bridge / Fringed with spikes, which, curiously, repel the suicides.” Norman MacCraig characterizes the world as “a bear shrugged in his den. / It’s snug and close in the snoring night. / And outside like chrysanthemums / The fog unfolds its bitter scent.” In the former, set in Copenhagen, “December darkness rises up from the grave.”
The shop is in a part of Glasgow the outsider’s mental associative atlas doesn’t immediately associate with Glasgow, and that’s a good thing, just as most of the world outside of Australia isn’t aware of the fact that for six out of seven days a week, the Sydney Opera House dedicates all of its time, energy, efforts, and considerable resources to making utterly delicious jam. (And I know that suggests that the bookshop isn’t real – I know, I know – but I love the hovering microsecond of doubt in a joke that might fool one or two people into thinking that – just for a moment – Australians really, really care about jam. Like, cabinet-level position care about jam.)
The bookshop itself is a stack of books loosely assembling itself into aisles. Shelves are, in fact, something of a dream. There’s also a decidedly comfortable cat in the neighbourhood, who pawed at the door to the anteroom filled with cheap books as my girlfriend and I browsed, then passed us and pawed at the door leading into the shop proper, and what had we done when we opened the door and let the creature wander inside? Had we just let a stray into the shop? Would we soon see the creature given the heave-ho and ushered out again?
A few steps away from Voltaire and Rousseau, overlooking the river, is a tea hut called Tchai Ovna. You wander over to the kitchen and order Moroccan Apple and Mint tea, some vegetable curry, and then kick your shoes off and ensconce yourself amongst a pillowed alcove and a copy of The Scottish Review of Books, which I’d picked up at The Mitchell Library a few hours before as I wandered through the deco-tiled hallway, with its quiet echo of old Duke Ellington songs, and looked up at the cavernous glass-ceiling expanse of a room near the old entrance that seemed like it could double as a tank for some giant, floating fish that would quietly mutter Gaelic words again and again, and the inside of the Review had bits worth underlining, too, like, “I think there should be Reality classes in schools … ‘Oh, I’ve got Double Reality, then Maths’”; and there is a confetti burst of mint leaves as the tea is poured; and you underline bits like, “WH Murray … was taken prisoner by Rommel’s Panzer Division and spent years of starved captivity writing about Scotland’s mountains on scavenged sheets of toilet paper” and “Is there a connection between the fact that Sturgeon’s father lived in a tied cottage in Dunure and land reform being declared a priority by the new First Minister?”; and then my girlfriend – that is, Frances – informed me that there was someone across the street doing their dishes, and they were, and then the question became, “Well, hang on – what would Rear Window have been if it had just featured one window, then?” “You mean, Window?”
When Frances and I had finally opened the door to the shop proper, some half an hour before that moment and that exchange, the cat was there, perched at the end of a desk buried in books, staring us down and welcoming us a la Al Pacino in Scarface or Goffrey in Game of Thrones or the mice in Hitchhiker. The dictionary, the Folk and Fiddle book, and Ants nearly tumbled out of my hand in surprise.
I bought the latter – that is, Ants – because a quick scan suggested that it might tee something gloriously unquantifiable up, because – I mean – if you have sentences like this in your book, i.e., “It will be well to point out at the start some of the radical differences between social insects and social man” and “Ants are among the very few organisms other than man which go to war. Individual insects or spiders, fish or birds or mammals, fight each other for food or mates or breeding-sites; but this is not war,” and if you’re the type of person who can slide into a creative rhythm the way a session musician says, ‘Okay – what key?’ then these kinds of things are gold, and can inspire all sorts of questions, like, “Did you know ants and humans are different?” and “Who is the Douglas Haig of freshwater salmon?” or, “How well would a swan do in boot camp?” and its subsequent corollary, “What do you think? Ten push-ups for the swan? Maybe twelve?”
Fiddles and Folk found its way into my collection because I’d already been to a ceilidh, a folk circle jam session, as well as folk concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and I was ravenously hungry for more. I wanted to dance my way down the aisles, but early dips into Lockhart’s book are leaving me cautious. Sentences like these – “I read recently that these songs are not sung nowadays. Not so, ask anyone who entertains in Old Folks’ Homes” and “Radio deserves a pat on the back for its help in promoting folk music in Scotland” – raises all sorts of flags for me and suggests that – as I progress – it might end up turning into something like Peter Mallinger’s So You Think You Want To Be A Director Of A Football Club, a book whose potential was maligned by these perpetual beige micro-digressions that take something as vital as this –
– and threatens to turn it into a hotel impressionist painting in an elevator that never sees a rider step in, morning, noon, or night. That’s not the Scotland I know. The Scotland I know is the moment after a terrific reading by Imtiaz Dharker, where she riffs on phrases like “witch’s tit”, and the event organisers announce that they wish to take a respectable photograph of the audience, so Frances and I look at each other and stand up with the rest of the audience and grin and snog and Scotland is all this and more, too.
Evan Fleischer lives in Boston, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Paris Review and elsewhere.