By Suzy Lines
As a young girl, I was the one that was quiet, well spoken, who didn’t quite fit in. Having moved from the South to Bow, East London in 1981 at the age of five, I didn’t speak like the other kids (my Dad policing any H’s and innits emphatically) and didn’t dress like them; we were firmly in the 80s, but my wardrobe was 70s hand-me-downs (think itchy green knits and brown cord flares), rather than the latest Reebok trainers and Naf Naf gear.
With little-to-no money to splash on entertainment, and my mum being ever-resourceful, the local library became a regular haunt. My most vivid memories of this start in my pre-teen years. I devoured Roald Dahl, the (age-appropriate) Judy Blume, The Worst Witch, The Narnia Chronicles and Sherlock Holmes. I didn’t fare well with Blyton. Her boarding school hi jinks and eager 1940s language were too alien to be enjoyable.
I remember surveying the bookshelves beyond the children’s section for the first time and feeling a little overwhelmed. Where to start? The choice seemed immense! From Conan Doyle, I moved on to Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. Down the line, I discovered plays and worked my way through whatever the library had. An appetite for reading was sparked and, while it ebbs and flows through different periods of my life, it has never left. The feel of a book in my hands, the worlds they create in my head, the art of the cover, and the joy of discovering a new literary love, still sustain me.
In the playground, I’d dodge bullies and flying footballs hidden behind a red electrical box, where I could sit in peace and read. And sometimes write. I’d written poems from around eight years old, some requested by teachers, some just because they seemed to be my way of capturing something I’d felt or seen. The old man I watched tending to his garden from my bedroom window, the reports from war zones that flashed up on the news. Precocious I may have been, but I was completely unpretentious in my enjoyment of writing them.
Looking back, my aptitude for writing may have been more in my blood than I knew. Every birthday card from my English Grandmother and Spanish Grandfather came with a handwritten, heartfelt poem inside. They may have been in different languages, but the desire to express their love and thoughts was the same. I have kept all of them, the old-fashioned swirling handwriting in blue fountain pen ink bringing me comfort and happy memories after their passing. My father also writes poems. Scribbled down in notebook after notebook, often over a pint in the local boozer in the times when he was a drinker, and between surveying the pages of that day’s Times. Though not something we particularly acknowledge to one another, we share the same impulse to use words as our outlet to interpret the world and our emotions.
Tower Hamlets being (to this day) one of London’s most deprived boroughs, attracted brilliant and dedicated teachers who would invite guests into the school, including poets. The two I remember most vividly were Benjamin Zephaniah and John Agard. Though decades ago, I remember the buzz of John performing for us and the pride with which my class shared their own poems with him. I felt both encouraged and legitimised; my solitary playground notes had value.
When the time came, a few years later, I chose to go to Art School rather than study literature. My thinking was that books would stay part of my world regardless, but Art would be a real challenge. I’d been given perhaps unorthodox, but sage, advice from a friend’s parents I respected greatly, to make a choice not based on alignment to future jobs, but on my passions as they stood. I was so in love with all forms of culture in my teens that I wanted the option to explore and work across all mediums, rather than choose between them. Art seemed the best lens to enable that, though I never had any intention or aspiration of becoming an artist by profession. So off to Manchester I went, the home of many of my musical heroes like The Smiths and New Order. ‘Madchester’ and the glory days of the Hacienda were still palpable in the air. Art I produced in that time often incorporated words in some way.
I moved to Brighton after college, having missed blue skies after three years in the heady, but often grey, confines of the northern city. Moving seemed the antidote to the temptation to stay where it was comfortable. Work was thin on the ground by the sea, the main options being cafes or the soulless behemoth that was the Amex offices I heard so many bemoan working at. By a stroke of luck, Waterstones had just bought out the Dillons chain and was moving to a huge new location a few metres away by the Clocktower. My enthusiasm for books swung the interview and I helped fill its five floors of shelves before opening.
Then came four years of bookselling in Brighton and in London’s Notting Hill. I’d often note people sighing sweetly, thinking how lovely it must be to work in a bookshop when I mentioned where I worked. The image of days spent reading classics, sipping tea in tranquillity almost visible as they floated through their thoughts. The reality was much harder graft than their wistful notions of bookshop life. Eight hours on your feet, shifting huge piles of stock from floor to floor and endless shelving and reordering, being much closer to the truth. And, of course, there were customers to contend with. Sometimes wonderful, inquisitive and full of takes of their own, sometimes obnoxious, rude and utterly indifferent to the person attempting to serve them with grace.
The sheer size of the stores and amount of stock required to sate demand, meant that there were some titles I couldn’t bring myself to open due to the sheer volume I’d had to carry or sell. The covers of The Alchemist, White Teeth and the Harry Potter series still make me shiver and remain unread as they were so ubiquitous to daily life, stacked and sold in volume.
The huge upside was, I got to explore every shelf in the store, across every subject and was free to search Whitaker’s Books In Print catalogue (back then in CD form) in the later, quieter, opening hours. I would search according to my whims. I explored the works of authors from all over the world to my heart’s content. Writers I came to know and love over those years include Paul Auster, Banana Yoshimoto, Bohmil Hrabal, Jose Sgaramago and Italo Calvino. There was a thrill of pleasure in placing a stack of something I’d chosen on the recommended books table, then witnessing their purchase by readers curious enough to put their trust and money in the short handwritten paragraph on the bands around my earnest choices. The first place I look in any bookshop is the staff recommendations section. There are always gems to be unearthed.
I moved on to Book Club Associates (BCA) and then legal publishers Sweet & Maxwell after bookselling, eventually developing a career in marketing spanning multiple industries and many years. Though on the surface, my work was a million miles away from my passions, and completely commercial in its purpose, marketing did have links to my interest in images and writing. It allowed me a certain level of creativity through devising campaigns and developing brands. It gave me the opportunity to write daily and create visual identities for products and brands in collaboration with designers.
It seemed as though my path was set to continue in the same vein until a post-pandemic move to Margate and redundancy forced a change. My introduction to Andreas Loizou, Margate Bookie founder and captain (as I fondly refer to him!) came through a good friend who knew Andreas through the Faber Academy. Beginning with a small piece of consultancy, my role has gently expanded over the last ten months, and I find myself at the core of the team, and in the thick of helping to produce this year’s festival.
To be involved in the biggest Bookie ever, now in its ninth year, is much of a pleasure as is an unexpected plot twist. The Margate Bookie 2023 takes place over four days and five venues between October 19-22, with a programme that spans literature, music, poetry and podcasts. To help shape and bring the event to life is far more love than labour. I know all the hard work the team is putting into its creation is going to translate into a fun and inspiring experience for everyone who comes to an event.
The programme includes two days of children’s events, the majority of which are completely free to attend. We’re inviting children from across Thanet through outreach to schools and libraries. It’s the part of the festival that takes me back to being that girl back in Bow who used books to escape, had a thirst for reading, and an imagination ready to be set alight.
It’s one of the ambitions of the Bookie that spoke to me the most: how the festival gives a new generation the opportunity to be inspired and delighted by books, poetry and performance in the same way the books I read and poets I saw back then did.
I still write often. The other love of my life, music, is so influential that my words most often appear in the form of lyrics, although sometimes a poem will reveal itself as the best way to externalise my thoughts. I always felt that writing a novel was too audacious an ambition to even consider; my respect and awe for the authors I admire being so great. Then one day, while staring into the blue of the sea, an idea arrived that felt true and worth pursuing, and slowly (very slowly!) a novel made its way onto the page.
Reaching an audience with my words has never been my primary motivation. That my inner workings and imagination have an outlet is purpose enough for me. I’m still so enamoured with books and writing and can share that love with my community through the Bookie, which honours the bookish young girl at the back of the playground that I was. She is never far away.
Margate Bookie in on from the 20 – 22 October 2023. You can find out more about the events and book at margatebookie.com.
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The feel of a book in my hands, the worlds they create in my head, the art of the cover, and the joy of discovering a new literary love, still sustain me.