The Independent on Sunday's gardening columnist, Emma Townshend has a garden in West London which she regularly hears passing children refer to as "the Amazon Jungle". She has spent years researching Victorian horticulture and teaching history of science in adult education, while growing the biggest plants she can. Her basic ambition in life is to keep up that important neighbourhood reputation.
I went last night to Windsor, for the first Firestation "Book Swap", organised by prolific blogger, Bookseller columnist and publisher Scott Pack. I was expecting a good evening, because Pack's blog writing is funny and thoughtful, as is that of his co-host, blogger and author Marie Phillips. Both instructed us to bring along a book to swap with a stranger. The evening turned out to be delightful for several reasons, not the least of which was the free homemade macaroons. Mmmm.
The invited guests were Jessica Ruston, new glamour novelist on the block (let's swiftly distinguish between glamour novelists and glamour models - Ruston's book is a sleek, sexy black and silver affair about the world's most luxurious hotel); and the Observer's Robert McCrum, who was charmingly bossy about what we should all be reading: Strunk and White, "essential", and [addressed to me] "The new Anne Tyler, what on earth are you thinking of, swapping that?". "I've read it," I stutter, "so someone else can have the enjoyment now?". I sink into my seat and am glad the houselights are so bright they make picking out individual audience members nice and difficult.
All the writers present got asked questions right off the normal book event radar - ranging from "how long could you manage without the internet?" to "I've just wormed my cat, how long will it take to work?". But for me the best bit was the book swapping. Despite having to do it under the hawkish and possibly disapproving eye of Robert McCrum, we all threw ourselves into this with enthusiasm. Everyone had brought top quality things with them - an old Faber Rupert Brooke got swapped for Emma Darwin's latest historical fiction; Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, Flat Earth News by Nick Davies and Netherland by Joseph O'Connor were also all on offer. One girl wandered around saying sadly, "I can't get anyone to swap with me", but when she revealed what she was trying to swap, her failure became more clear: it was an account of the sex abuse investigations in Pitcairn Island in the 1990s. Still, by the end even she had found a home for her uncheerful offering.
I found the whole event really heartening. It was lovely to hear from the writers, but chatting to people about what they'd been reading and why they were giving it away was the most interesting part. And I like the democracy of swapping, as opposed to the totalitarian rule of the book group, where you have to spend time reading someone else's choice even if you know you will hate every minute of it. In the case of the bookswap, I came away with such goodwill towards everyone involved - just the sort of mood in which people buy lots of books. I can't help thinking this is exactly the kind of blog-linked, local event that publishers should be really encouraging, a sort of odd cross between a public reading and a book group. Plus those delicious macaroons....
The next book swap is scheduled for September 17th, in Windsor Firestation Arts Centre, tickets £5.