Sunday, June 6, 2010

Topping times

David Mitchell: what’s not to like? He’s intelligent, critically acclaimed, charming, self-effacing, courteous, and if Cloud Atlas (the only of his books I’ve read so far) is anything to go by, an interesting and talented writer – and he watches Dr Who. He proved all this and more on Friday 28 May in Bath at an event organised by Topping and Company.

I’ve referred briefly to Topping’s before. I hope that when I die I go to Topping’s: it’s heaven. The independent book shop in Bath has got hand crafted bookshelves, probably more signed books than you’ll see in any other bookshop, and friendly and knowledgeable staff. If you go for a browse they’ll make you a pot of coffee served in pretty blue cups and saucers. If you go to an event they’ll pour you a decent glass of wine. If you tell them you’re looking for a book by what’s-his-name and you can’t remember what it’s about but it’s got scholars in it and you think the author’s Canadian they’ll tell you it’s the Cornish Trilogy and take you straight to the shelf where it stands.

No day out in Bath is complete without a visit to Toppings. In fact, we often go to Bath just to go to Toppings. And they put on the most fantastic programme of events. Just look who’s coming: Simon Callow, Christopher Ricks, Emma Donoghue, and the frabjously wonderful Stephen Fry. Sometimes you are squeezed into the bookshop for cosy readings, sometimes you’re literary lunching in St Michael’s Church, but for David Mitchell we were in the lovely church of St Swithin’s in the Walcot Parish.

This eighteenth century church is special to me because of its connection with my literary heroine, Frances Burney. She is buried here with her son Alexander, and her husband, le Comte D’Arblay, both of whom predeceased her. The church also has a connection with Jane Austen, whose parents were married here. William Wilberforce married here too. So David Mitchell was amongst very friendly ghosts.

Mitchell never stops wanting to improve his work. Even as he read on Friday he stopped to remark that this didn’t sound quite right, or he’d rewrite that if he could. He was particularly worried about “the guard stood by the garden gate”, muttering something about repetition, though personally I thought it worked quite well. He said that his latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, had been conceived in 1994, but he’d had to wait until he was a better writer before he could tackle it. Finishing the book had almost finished him! He talked about clichés (not necessarily a bad thing and at least a marker of what not to write about: a book set in Nagasaki mustn’t have a geisha falling in love with a handsome American), the transmigration of souls, death. Death worries him more the older he gets, he told us, and referred to the Dr Who episode where Queen Victoria says that ghost stories are not meant to frighten us but to reassure us that there is continued existence after death.

But I won’t go on about what David Mitchell said when you can much more interestingly hear the man himself talk about his new book on the Guardian Books Podcast - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/books

You can also read the discussion of Cloud Atlas which is currently the Guardian Book Club’s choice at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books.

And for more on Topping & Co (who also have a shop in Ely) and their events see http://www.toppingbooks.co.uk/

For more on the history of St Swithin’s see http://www.walcotchurch.org.uk/history.php

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