Belfast with Medieval Murderers

Medieval Murderers with Sharon from Northern Ireland Library Service

Medieval Murderers with Sharon from Northern Ireland Library Service

Last week I was enormously lucky to be invited to Northern Ireland to talk to some library audiences.
I confess, I have never been to Northern Ireland before purely because the stories of bombings and shootings made it a less than attractive proposition. Still, I remember distinctly my brother telling me that he had met an American on a plane.
‘Where do you live?’ Keith asked.
‘I’m from Chicago, but I live in Belfast.’
Keith was shocked. ‘Belfast? What about the bombings, the terrorism …?’
The man looked at him pityingly. ‘The crime and murder rate’s a lot lower than Chicago.’
And that is the silly thing. Although, yes, Belfast and the North suffered from being much more violent than the rest of the United Kingdom, in fact it tended to be safer than most other countries. I have a suspicion that even at the height of the Troubles, Glasgow’s own murder rate may have been worse. It’s long been called the Murder Capital of Britain with good reason.
But none of that bothered me when I landed last week. I had the great good fortune to be travelling with Susanna Gregory and Karen Maitland, and Karen had a wealth of memories. Back in the 1980s she took advantage of a scheme whereby people could have their university degrees paid for. She worked for six years in Belfast, and spent a fair time working in the Falls Road.
Karen had been looking forward to her visit, although she was shocked to see no police officers (armed or not) at the airport. Then, driving out of the town, she expected to find roadblocks, but there were none. Even the sentry-watchtowers looming over the countryside were conspicuously absent. She found it all very perplexing and confusing.
I didn’t. I found the whole visit wonderful. The people were friendly, welcoming and couldn’t have been kinder to we three waifs. I have to say that the libraries were fabulous – Holywood was the more gorgeous library I’ve ever visited – and filled with dedicated, enthusiastic staff. I and the other Medieval Murderers were truly overwhelmed with their generosity.
Of course, things are changing. Already there are chilly winds blowing through the library services. They’ve been hit with a horrible budget cut that must hit staff and probably buildings. When finances are tight, libraries are an easy target, I suppose, for politicians without much imagination.

Doing the touristy thing with Jo and Sharon at Stormont

Doing the touristy thing with Jo and Sharon at Stormont

Our last day in Ireland was spent walking all around Belfast and seeing the sights with the delightful Jo, who gave up her entire afternoon for us. We were hugely grateful.
And last of all, we visited No Alibis, a fabulous little bookshop in the city, where you can buy anything. I proved that to myself because I was able to buy a copy of Laurence Block’s first Burglar story: Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. I’ve been trying to get that ever since having supper with Larry some fifteen years ago when he was passing through London!
What was shocking, though, was to hear that No Alibis is now the last independent bookshop in Northern Ireland. It is a terrible thing, to travel through the United Kingdom and see all the places where little bookshops once were.
In France, there was a similar experience. They had a book price-fixing policy. They stopped it so that books could be discounted, and swiftly saw that numbers of bookshops closed. So they brought back their price-guarantees and banned any discounting or even free postage.
The result?
Karen was at a French festival recently. There, buyers were walking out of shops with armfuls of books. The higher price does not deter purchases over there. If anything, it leads to buyer valuing their books more.
Here in England we probably could not bring back the Net Book Agreement for the simple reason that Amazon would make it unworkable. It is the problem with a vast corporation that can control all sales over the English speaking world.
But I look at what has been lost. In the past a small shop could afford to stock the most bizarre and eclectic collection of books to suit varying tastes, because they made just enough from the sales of the latest John Grisham, JK Rowling, or even Agatha Christie, to cover the cost of holding on their shelves the stranger titles that were not so much in demand.
With the end of the NBA, that protection disappeared. That meant little corner book shops have to compete with Amazon and supermarkets, who can sell the books at less than the corner shop can buy in the titles. In America this problem was fixed, to an extent, by ensuring that there was equity of discount. So if you have three stores, you must be offered the same discount as Waterstone’s or Barnes and Noble. In Britain that’s not the case. So while a local shop can get 40-50% discount, bigger chains will receive up to 80%, like Amazon.
Publishers have had to rationalise their lists. Now only the very top authors receive marketing and PR budgets. All the books that used to bring in their profits, the mid-listers, get no support. And the authors at the bottom – well, they don’t get new contracts. When I started, new authors were taken on because there was a view that they had potential. Now, if you aren’t selling, you’re out.
Which means that the number of books on the shelves will reduce. As fewer and fewer authors get contracts, so the books available must decline.
However, to counteract the gloom and doom, last week I learned of a new bookshop in Sidmouth: Winstone’s. Well, I’ll be going down there to check it out, as well as the existing Paragon Bookshop as soon as possible. Hopefully they’ll both thrive.

Belfast at night

Belfast at night

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8 Responses to “Belfast with Medieval Murderers”
  1. Me Too says:

    The publishing industry has always had its problems (somebody selling papyrus cheaper than the next guy) but it seems that there is less appreciation for good books and good writing these past few decades. Perhaps it is age and imagination but discernment in reading, or even just the desire to read, is waining. There have always been books that one might not like for a variety of reasons but you used to have the opportunity to test them and make your own decisions about them and their content. For one thing, there is an increasing ‘dumbing down’ of books. I have read old titles that were magnificent linguistically but then read the same title in reprints over decades, e.g. have read something from the 1920’s reprinted in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s …. 90’s, etc. and the language is almost alien and the original intent of the author lost. That problem is increasing and the joy of the library and bookstore would seem to be passing. There is a relatively new author that I have seen (has friends in the business) who spends a great deal of effort to tell you that they have a BA in English (‘fancy school’) magna cum laude (or was that lousy?) and all the effort that they put into the titles including travel. Well, with all that said one would think they would try to put something worthwhile on the pages. The answer to bad writing and errors is that it is “artistic license.” When one points out the limitations of ‘artistic license’ (diplomatically) when the writer themselves establishes parameters, one gets a response, “No good deed goes unpunished!” That suggests that that author thinks they are beneficent in some way and are just not appreciated. I call it ‘aflare,’ Latin for ‘puffed up.’ It is also the root word for expulsion of a gas. That kind of writer not only harms readers but the good authors, like those pictured in this blog, who do their craft well with less appreciation on multiple levels. That said, the green / white lit sign that appears in the one photo (near top) to show you where the drinks can be found is quite cute.

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    • Many thanks, MT. It’s not easy to write accurate books that also appeal, as you can tell, but while there are discerning readers, hopefully there will be writers who can try to satisfy your whims! Take care!

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  2. I find it sad that corner bookshops are disappearing, however, I also find it difficult to make myself fight the traffic here in Austin, TX to get downtown to our few remaining (though excellent) book stores. I know, that as an aspiring writer, I should be out buying books at those very shops, but life is busy, and Amazon’s at the tips of my fingers. They deliver in two days too. I feel ashamed just writing that.
    On a side note, I love Belfast. All my in laws are there and it’s lovely! I’m a fan of Glasgow too! If it makes you feel any better, my Lurgan native husband had never been to Scotland before I took him there! I’m pretty sure he wasn’t worried about the murder rate! I’m now following your blog!

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    • Personally I would much prefer Austin to Glasgow! It’s a lovely, clean town. But as things stand, I am avoiding amazon. It is only interested in money. Books are just products to them. As a company they pay next to no tax and seem determined to control all pricing and publishing and supply of books. Just now they’re beating up publishers – next they’ll hit writers in their search for more and more profit. America needs to hit them with anti trust suits.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re right about Amazon. I think the same about places like Walmart and avoid them like the plague… Hobby Lobby too. Austin is lovely! We’ve had such a boom with well over 100 people moving here a DAY, which is great for my day job, but traffic truly sucks! We don’t have good public transport either!

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      • Sorry to hear that. Last time I was over was (I think) 2005, and I just loved the place. So open and green everywhere. Absolutely the opposite of what a Brit would expect of Texas. Build more roads!

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  3. MoldiOldi says:

    I live in a smaller Pacific Northwest city of about 50,000 people. We have a lovely independent bookstore which carries a large, varied collection of books, from best sellers to smaller, lesser-known books by local authors. These books are very often locally published. If they don’t have what one is looking for, they will order it, with no charge for postage. The books are full price, of course, but the atmosphere and top-notch customer service make it worth while.

    They also accept some like-new hardback books and issue a fair credit to the seller, which is lovely for those of us who are voracious readers.

    They also host events when a local author has a new book out, featuring both the author and his/her latest book. They are really flourishing, and I hope it continues.

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