Diary

Nigel Hamilton

Monday. The bookshop manager is away and my partner and I are running the shop, he in the morning, I in the afternoon. Today is different, however, for our new bank manager is coming to discuss long-term financing. We have been in business three months now and can at last ink real figures onto our accountant’s computer predictions.

Robin is there early, the lights are on and he’s opened the windows. The Market is still quiet – a far cry from its days as a fruit and flower nexus. I read in the Observer that Michael Caine’s father had worked in one of the London markets. Now the Market – like Caine – is gentrified, no stalls, shops or clientele operating much before 11 a.m.

The figures, when we spread them out on our desk, are still below profitability, but encouraging nevertheless. The notion was dreamed up in February, on my 42nd birthday: six months later, we are trading in our own premises in the southern colonnade of Covent Garden Market, with customers calling in from every continent. We have assembled the world’s largest specialist stock of biographical books.

Our intention was to use my experience and standing in the world of biography to develop artefacts, a publishing house, a magazine, film company, database ... The Biography Bookshop was meant to be stage one in this enterprise. It promises to fulfil a much-needed role in making new and out-of-print biographies available to scholars, researchers and general readers, but also to feed our other biographical schemes with valuable market information, showing where there are gaps in the market, what sells, what sort of people are interested, how much they will pay.

Our book-keeper arrives at 11 a.m., and by 2.30, when the bank manager is due to arrive, we have amended our original predictions and are ready to talk turkey. So far we have ourselves financed the purchase of the lease, the fitting and decoration of the bookshop, the stock, and the appointment of a brilliant if mercurial Finnish manager – backed in part by a loan from the Booksellers’ Association, for which we have had to provide 100 per cent security. We have watched Nat West’s advertisements on television and we hope that the manager in charge of new business, Mr Kramp (sic), will be helpful.

Alas, he never turns up. It transpires that his secretary is away and no one at his office knows whether he was meant to come to us or vice versa. Belatedly Robin and I walk over to his office nearby, having collected our figures. Robin is my oldest friend. Our wives are sometimes sceptical of this ‘bio-mania’, as Robin’s Russian wife Julia is wont to call it. But they have loyally supported us, even to the point of messengering cream cakes and preparing Russian tea for the august visitor.

The figures do not satisfy Mr Kramp. His office is sparsely furnished, the walls are bare; there is a Kafkan blankness that is uninspiring to an entrepreneurial author and his partner, seeking to finance a new and somewhat speculative venture. We argue over the reliability of the sort of detailed figures and further projections he wants. Our Indian accountant is unwell and unable to attend the meeting. I miss him: he understands the reality of small businesses as this bank man, in my view, does not, attempting, as he does, to apply business-school criteria to something too small, too human, to benefit from such disciplines.

‘You look as if someone had poured cold water over you,’ says Julia when we reach the bookshop. Takings, in our absence, have been paltry, adding injury to insult. At six we lock up and go our several ways, Robin to Barnes, I to my newly-acquired house in Pimlico, behind another market where they sell fruit, vegetables and flowers from traditional barrows and the streets are littered with blue and white packing paper.

I am depressed. We watch Marnie, Hitchcock’s thriller, on the television, with stringy, frightening music and a wooden plot. I close my eyes but cannot go to sleep. Should I give up business and return to the ‘little’ author I was in Suffolk for almost ten years while working on Monty? Philip Ziegler and others have written kindly about the final Monty volume, hoping that I will not abandon writing. I won’t: I have finished the manuscripts of two short novels since finishing the first draft of Monty last summer, one steamy, one very proper, and I scribble each morning almost as if demented by years of fictional starvation. I feel like Thomas Mann when he spoke of the ‘passionate truancy’ of his political speeches and writings in opposition to Hitler: a truancy which aided rather than subtracted from his creative work. After eight years in rural Suffolk I was fed up with life as a commissioned biographer: no longer on speaking terms with my publisher, with whom I seemed to replay, with each volume of Monty, the same bitter arguments about editing, design, production. I yearned for a chance to work creatively with people whose calibre I respected, and whose characters, however different from mine, were compatible with it. Perhaps naively I had hung the sign ‘Author and Entrepreneur’ on my London door. Must I take it down? Do I just trim the financial floorboards of the Biography Bookshop and, having furnished its future as a successful little specialist company, return to my ivory turret, overlooking Westminster Cathedral and the Peabody Estate?

Tuesday. Took the children to school, walking with Jahangir, a Bengali friend whose English wife goes to work while he pushes the pram. ‘That is the first thing you should have decided – what you want out of business!’ he remonstrates when I recount my woes. ‘What does your accountant say?’

My accountant thinks the bank manager is demented. ‘It is far too early,’ he considers, protesting against the bank manager’s suggestion that we go to the City to raise private share capital. He favours our current strategy of putting the bookshop on a sound footing, while picking out those areas in our other ambitions where we can make a modest start.

I read over the first chapter of my new novella. Outi, my wife, has read it and thinks it might work. It reads quite well, and the characters are strong – stronger than I am, or feel after yesterday’s bruising. ‘Every day one has to swallow a toad’ was the advice Thomas Mann once gave his distraught son (who later committed suicide). Restored to calm, I walk across St James’s Park, beneath Lord Nelson and up the Strand to Covent Garden. Robin has not slept either. Business, however, is good, and continues so for the rest of the day. A small independent publisher delivers an order personally. One of his eyes squints, but he is enormously knowledgeable and encouraging. In fact, everyone who sees the shop and knows our plans is encouraging – save ‘that damned bank clerk’, as the Brigadier (looking suspiciously like Lord Carver) cries out in the Dad’s Army film.

Bus home, though I wonder why, since it is quicker to walk. I ought to call in and see my sick father, who is still knocked sideways if not backwards by the emotion and commotion of selling his country house near Chichester. Strangely, I feel no sense of loss regarding the house in which, in part, I grew up – just as I don’t feel sentimental about my old Suffolk house, a Georgian rectory with 11 acres, which we have now exchanged for a cramped, narrow Victorian tenement house. I love London – love its size and squalor. As with my own chaotic desk, I feel London has a disorder out of which I can create order. I have not felt so fertile for years.

Wednesday. Reading practice, in bed, with my five-year-old son, who has a speech problem. He has been tested at the Westminster Children’s Hospital after an alarming interview with a family psychiatrist who berated us for ‘doing nothing’ save speech therapy. The test, however, was even more depressing: he is of below average IQ and will always have problems keeping up in class, the psychiatrist predicts, on top of his speech problem. He is the most lovable and tender-hearted lad, demanding but a joy to watch.

Chapter Two is delayed by a report in the Times of the Manchester air disaster. A passenger tells of a mother who becomes separated from her little girl; the mother gets out, but the child does not. I think of Christian. I know I would rather not live than survive him.

By lunch I have written three pages – Arnold Bennett’s thousand words. Strange how a story weaves its own pattern within the guidance of your loom.

At the bookshop another excellent day of business. Our non-executive design director, Robin Dodd, comes in with huge hanging posters and ideas for biographical artefacts. We leave Becky to run the shop and repair to our ‘inner sanctum’ to discuss our first out-of-print book catalogue, the reprints we wish to publish, and the idea for a documentary film series we would like to produce, with a world market. The two Robins exchange opinions across my mahogany Georgian breakfast-table, temporarily serving the boardroom. I have known them both for over twenty years, I love and admire them. I think: if only one of our many plans ever gets off this kitchen table, it will have been worth the sleepless nights and the bare, haunting walls of the bank.

Thursday. Geoffrey, a young impresario producing his first show in the West End next month, is at lunch with Robin when I arrive. The bookshop is full of customers, the profusion of new book-covers and spines resembling Joseph’s many-coloured coat. Geoffrey began life as a hack musician in the pits, then decided to ‘beat the system’ by becoming an agent for theatre musicians, and is now a producer in his own right. A weirdo is phoning him in the middle of every night to destroy his sleep – another toad. He merely piles more cushions on the bell and refuses to be deflected from his ambitions. He treats bank managers as narrow-minded morons, and has an adorable Finnish bride, recovering from near-mortal illness and surgery. Misdiagnosed by her GP, she had the sense to ring her sister in Finland, who told her boss, a surgeon. Within a few hours she was on a plane to Helsinki, thence by ambulance to the operating-table.

Friday. No progress on the new novel. Am still seething at the memory of the ‘damned bank clerk’. In anger I phone three other banks, arranging meetings. At the shop Robin and I re-dress the window, drill shelves to hold new stands, wipe away the film of London dust that settles within hours inside and out. In the evening we are taken to an Italian restaurant in Fulham Road, with garlic-grilled seafood and a dance floor.

Saturday. Heavy hangover, belated sleep cut shorter by my five-year-old’s arrival in our bed. My typist rings from Notting Hill Gate to say Byron’s Woman, Novel No 1, is ready. I drive over to collect the typescript, traffic not too bad. We do not discuss it until I am halfway out of the door.

‘I didn’t really like it, I have to say, Mr Hamilton. But then you knew that I wouldn’t.’

She is in her seventies now. Yes, I knew – but no one else can read my handwriting as she does!

‘It was quite readable, though.’

Does she mean handwriting or the style?

My parents would like to see how the shop is ‘coming along’, so I collect and take them to Covent Garden in the car. They look impressed. Papa buys Frank Giles’s new book Sundry Times – amazingly, the author has not seen fit to send his old boss a copy. Papa says it takes at least two years to break even, I should not worry about small-minded bank managers too much. Robin considers that I am becoming neurotic, certainly obsessive, on the subject. Am I? I suppose I am an obsessive, otherwise why would I have written three interminable volumes about Monty when only one, of modest length, was requested?