Monthly Archives: June 2011

On… secondhand books

This bookshop changed my life.

I know, deeply unpromising exterior, right?

It’s in a stretch of the Kings Road in Chelsea in London that is a mix of the fabulous – the wonderful Eight Over Eight restaurant, The Organic Pharmacy, Rococo chocolates, French Sole, etc – and the frazzled – betting shops, no-name pharmacies, newsagents with magazines from 2005 etc.

Anyway, it’s called The World’s End Bookshop, and it’s a secondhand bookshop par excellence. (That’s French, baby.)

When I was in my early 20s and first in London, I earned a pittance as a copywriter. (Obviouslah. Any entry-level media or advertising job pays pittance. It’s criminal, really. If you are junior creative in media or advertising, keep the faith. Just hang on until you’re experienced enough to go freelance, and then you can – in the words of one of my mentors – ‘make them flinch’ with your day rate. Where was I? Oh yes: the bookshop.)

And I really wasn’t well-read. At all.

This is despite a degree in English, and a lifelong reading habit (I mean ‘habit’ in an junkie sense: when I was a child, we belonged to three libraries that permitted six books at a time each, so I could read 18 books a week in addition to rereading my favourite LM Montgomerys and Enid Blytons and Judy Blumes, and my mother would routinely drop me off at the neighbourhood bookshop on a Saturday mornings, knowing I wouldn’t stray while she went shopping). I was vaguely aware that I wasn’t that well-read, but I was also sick of reading lists, which is all English becomes at school and university: one long chore. I should add that I was a particularly lazy university student. I spent all my time having fun and honed the fine art of bullshitting in essays. It’s shameful but it’s true.

(On the flip side, being so good at bullshitting set me up for a seamless jump to a career in advertising, where my job was to bullshit about things I usually didn’t believe in, or in the case of technology and financial copy, understand.)

So I graduated. And, now they weren’t being forced upon me, books beckoned again. But they were expensive. Sometimes I borrowed books from friends (A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, of course – did anyone NOT read that in the year 2000? – and The Secret History, and predictable nonfiction like Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, plus all the Nick Hornbys and Sophie Kinsellas I could swallow), but I hankered for something else – what, I didn’t really know.

I guess I just wanted to lose and then discover myself in books again, the way I had as a teenager, with Nancy Mitford and Jane Austen and Stella Gibbons and Jilly Cooper. I wanted that feeling when you love a book to the point where you actually want to kiss and hug it. (I’m a big book-hugger. Fuck trees.)

Then, one day, I found the World’s End Bookshop. It’s tiny, musty, messy perfection, and most books back then were about £1.50 (with 20% off on Sundays). I was pretty damn excited: finally, books I could afford. The interior is such a dark, poky chaos that every discovery really is utter chance.

I’d pick up a book, read a page, and unless I hated it, I’d buy it. I’d take a tenner every Sunday and buy four or five books to last me the week (yep, I read fast) and get a glossy fashion magazine with the change. This is how I discovered books that filled up my long, long tube and bus rides into work – books that yes, I probably should have read but hadn’t, books that I would hug and weep and laugh and gasp over, books that comforted me when the world was going through one of its periodic stages of being a bit fucked (that’s a technical term, ie, when you’re broke, your flatmates are mental, work is shit and you’ve just been dumped again).

There are dozens of books that shaped those years, and A Farewell To Arms, Anna Karenina, The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Portrait Of A Lady, Mariana, Brideshead Revisited, The Rules Of Attraction, Catch 22, Evelina, Tender Is The Night, A History Of The World In 10½ Chapters, Lolita, Vanity Fair, The Priory and Lucky Jim particularly stand out.

I loved them: they lit up my soul.

(By the way, that list is classics-heavy simply because that’s the kind of bookshop it is, I still borrowed or, if budget allowed, bought all the chicklit, bestsellers and other light lit that I could eat, and the only authors that I can quote at length thanks to severe rereading abuse are Helen Fielding and Jilly Cooper. Anyway, those ‘classic’ books are so easy to read, I’m not sure why they are always treated like reading them requires a Mensa-level IQ… They don’t, a good story well told is just that. But I digress. As usual.)

At one point during Tess Of The D’Urbervilles I wanted to shout at the world ‘do you KNOW how GOOD this is? How poignant and beautiful and real?’. (The answer is ‘of course the world knows it, Gemma, you dick, it’s famous for a reason’.)

Each book would lead me to read all the other books by the same author, then I’d find out who else wrote similar books or who influenced them and dive into them, too. Of course, I didn’t love all of the books I stumbled across – Dead Babies and American Psycho made me feel sick (no, really, I was honestly gagging), Heart Of Darkness and The Brother Karamazov were really tough to get into; Cranford was too menopause-lit. But on the whole, these books just made my life better. In every possible way.

I still read like that – I binge, is the best way of putting it. This year, I’ve binged on dozens and dozens of YA (Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by Emily Lockhart are the standouts – stupendous books, so smart and brilliant that I wanted to clap my hands throughout – also Della Says OMG by Keris Stainton and Paranormalcy by Keirsten White were unputdownable and hilarious). And hell yes, I think this intense reading habit has made me a better writer. I’m far more succinct in writing than I ever am in real life. In real life I just blather on, my brain foggily trying to get to the point. (Sometimes I’m like that in copy, too, let’s be honest. Particularly in this blog.)

I guess it’s obvious to say, but all that reading – and the World’s End Bookshop – is one of the reasons I eventually felt confident enough as a writer to try writing a book…

Now, I try not to offer novel-writing advice on this blog, I just say what I do in the hope that you might find it interesting or a bit useful. Why? Well, for one thing, what the hell do I know about anything, all I know is what works for me. Secondly, if you want to be a writer, you’ll figure out how to make it happen for you in your own way, and you’ll be wonderful. And thirdly, and this is really just point one regurgitated: I’m too stymied by self-doubt. I’ve read enough breathtakingly brilliant books to know my huge weaknesses as a writer, so offering advice seems kind of delusional and arrogant. Sometimes even just writing this blog seems arrogant, as though I have a clue about anything at all. Seriously, dudes. I don’t.

But the truth is that deep down, I think – no, I know - that the only way to be a good writer is to read.

Read until your eyes are bleeding and your wrists ache from holding the book. It doesn’t matter if you only want to write one genre: read all of them. I write chicklitesque stuff, after all (a term I embrace with an eyeroll and a sigh) because I like writing about what it’s like to be a woman with honesty and humour, I like confiding in the reader and writing like a conversation – but I read everything: classics, modern literary fiction, chicklit, YA, paranormal, fantasy sci-fi, everything.

Do the same, and you’ll automatically develop an instinct for how you want to express yourself: the syntax, structure, style, tone and pace that suit you. Then write something, and edit it so many times you know it by heart. Then put it away for a bit. And then reread it and edit it again.

As long as what you’re writing about – in the case of a novel, your plot and characters – are in order, you’ll be aces. I promise.

(Now, plot and characters. That’s another post altogether…)

PS: These are the books I bought at World’s End Bookshop the other day. As a bonus, the covers of old books tend to be better than many modern covers.

Gore Vidal – Myra Breckinridge

Michael Frayn – Travels with a typewriter

PG Wodehouse – The Mating Season

Joan Didion – The White Album

Kingsley Amis – Difficulties With Girls

On… Autignac and French pharmacies

I’m in Autignac, mes amies.

Yep, my folks really do have a house in the town in France where the protagonist from my second book A GIRL LIKE YOU’s parents have a house. (Uh, but the rest of it is totally fiction, dudes.) (No, I promise, it is.) (Actually, THE DATING DETOX is based much more closely on my life as far as details like job – copywriter – and things go. And my mother really does talk by cutting up. Her sentences. And she says shit like ‘Kick him to the curb, honey! Kick him. To the. Curb.’ Okay, back to the point.)

Autignac a tiny little place, the kind of village with one tabac/shop, one pharmacy, one boulangerie and one bar. It’s divine in summer, and a teeny bit bleak in winter. (One Christmas a few years ago, my sister and I had such bad cabin fever that we decided to stage a grainy B&W; photograph shoot, starring ourselves, around the town. We posed like disaffected French youths on the cracked stoops and uneven doorways, and called ourselves Les Enfants du Autignac. Okay, back to the point again.)

My folks don’t live here much (they’re in Hong Kong most of the time, which is where I grew up), but it’s a lovely escape from reality. Especially when you can take the best parts of your reality with you, ie: writing. I edited THE DATING DETOX here, wrote the middle chapters to A GIRL LIKE YOU here, and now I’m here to write some of the second book in my brand spanking new book series, UNION STREET. (The first in the series will be out next year. Yay.)

Hot damn, I like the Frenchy Frenchness of it all. I like walking through Autignac every morning to get the bread and saying Bonjour to everyone. I like the frogs that sing at night and the birds that sing in the morning. I like the hypermarkets with 800 different kinds of cheeses and two kinds of toilet paper. I like the dogshit and I like exploring nearby towns. Around here – the Languedoc region – the towns all look like they sprouted from the earth, rather than were built.

And most of all I like the pharmacies.

Fox says he could measure out our trips around the world in the pharmacies he’s waited outside, like some kind of longsuffering Prufrock type. But what can I do? In every country you’ll find something crazy and amazing, and some time ago I decided that finding said crazy/amazing things was my second calling in life. (After writing’n’shit.) So, rather than just talk to you about my vacances, which is ultimately a shitty thing to do to anyone who isn’t on holiday at that exact moment too, I’d like to offer you something useful.


Now, I won’t bore you with the usual stuff people talk about, as most of those brands are available in the UK and the US these days (La Roche Posay Anthelios IS the only SPF worth talking about but get the MILK otherwise you’ll just paint yourself chalkwhite, Embryolisse will calm and nurture skin like Mary Poppins and might even sing to it if you ask nicely, Oscillococcinum will cure the flu and sometimes hangovers and probably broken bones, etc) and written about all the time. I’ll just talk about the good stuff. The stuff that’s hard to find. Even in France. You may have to hit up two or three pharmacies to get it all, but it’s worth it.

HomeoplasmineCue: a choir of angels. If you buy one thing, buy this balm. It’s made for cuts, from what I can tell, but I use it on eyes and cuticles, and it’s the only lipbalm in the world that works on me and I’ve tried them all. Yes, all of them. Yes even that one.

This is supposed to be for scarring, but I use it as a facemask. Afterwards, my skin feels like it’s been frotted by the wings of angels.

Anything anti-aging is about to become my best friend – I’m in my 30s now, dudes, time is marching the fuck on – and Avibon is pure Vitamin A, the same thing as Retinol, but it’s like, 7 euro for a huge tube. I just bought this yesterday on the recommendation of a friend, so I’ll report back. Okay, I probably won’t report back. But I thought you should know about it anyway. It sounds great.

Alphacid AHA
I’m still not exactly sure what the hell Alpha-Hydroxy Acid is, and to be honest I don’t care. All I know is that I put this on after cleansing, it tingles lightly, and the next day I look somehow better. And really, all I want in life is things that tingle and make me look better.

BioDerma Crealine H2O
They make this in a wipe, too, but it doesn’t really flip my pancake: the liquid is far superior. Gentle, effective make-up remover. One 500ml bottle lasts forever. Has caused me significant anguish in the past when I needed to stock up and then get a flight home with just carry-on luggage ie, nothing over 100ml. GOD. My life is HARD.

La Tissanerie Drainage et Elimination
There are drinks, pills, creams, unguents, wraps, in fact there are entire rooms in French pharmacies devoted to making your ventre more plat. The reason French women don’t get fat is that they think about it all the goddamn time, my friends. This tea has green coffee, chicory and cherry stems in (yes, stems). I don’t know if it works, but it’s yummy, and it makes a nice change from fennel and dandelion.

Lipikar from La Roche Posay
You can track this down in the UK and US, but it’s worth mentioning anyway: the only body moisturiser I’ve ever known that really does soak in straight away and leave your skin supple and boingy for 24 hours. (Boingy is a technical term.)

I should mention that all of this stuff is also super cheap, like less then 10 euro, except maybe the Lipikar.

You can buy some of this stuff over at French pharmacy site but beware: it’s a pretty badly designed website with a diabolically faulty search function, so you need to click and trawl to find things. But hey. It delivers internationally, and it’s better than flying to France just to go to a pharmacy. (Having said that: if you do, no judging here.)

If you know any other must-have French finds, please let me know, I’d be forever grateful. Oh, and if you know of anything I should get in Italy, please tell me, immediatement. We’re heading there next week for a wedding. And I cannot wait to browse the pharmacies.


I can answer my own question there. Something to get in an Italian pharmacy is MARVIS Strong Mint toothpaste. You can also buy it at places like CO Bigelow Pharmacy in NYC, which I think is where I first tried a travel size and realised that no other toothpaste would ever compare again. And you can order it online to just about anywhere, but it’s three times as much. So if you’re in Italy, pick some up. The mintiest mint toothpaste, ever.

And such a stylish tube, n’est-ce pas? Makes Colgate look tres uncool.