A Letter to M.
It was after I’d finished building your cot that I sat down and cried for the first time. No-one had told me I’d cry. It happens to real men during the birth, crying. But during flatpack assembly? Definitely not. In my defence, I had had an exhausting day: I’d bickered with your mother; I’d helped drag a secondhand sofa up to your bedroom; I’d put together various IKEA furniture; I had not eaten. Sitting there, looking at this newly-made cot, along with your side table, your lamp and a wardrobe stuffed with bags of your blankets, toys and tiny clothes, it all suddenly became too much. Here was the room we’d prepared for you and were filling with things which we hoped would like. The walls we’d painted blue, a shade we’d picked out in the hope that it would remind you of a summer sky. An overpriced baby-rocker and a lampshade with a picture of a fox on it were on their way; somewhere among the bundles of clothes in the wardrobe were a pair of knitted Converse trainers bought by your mother and a babygro with a drawing of a badger on it bought by me. For a moment all of this was unbearably touching. But maybe touching isn’t the right word. Touching, but also odd.
Because here's something else no-one had told me: having a baby would be uncanny. There exists an industry built around doling out advice to new or expectant parents, both practical and emotional: How do I change a nappy? What if I fuck up my kids? Do babies wear pyjamas? What if they grow up to be Hitler? What is colic? What if I don’t love them? All useful (and all things I’ve worried about) but none of it tackles that weird, initial miracle: a person is segueing into a reality. Someone who did not exist is emerging from nothingness into existence, into the flesh-and-blood world, literally muscling into their portion of the world’s space. I’d always thought the notion rather trite, that pre-birth is somehow connected with the post-death, that life is a brief sidetrack on a cosmic Grand Prix. And yet here I was, assailed by what felt a little like grief, crying in the afternoon for someone who I didn’t even know yet, someone who technically didn’t even exist.
An odd form of love. Or, rather, the last few months have made clear to me just how odd love can be. We are all of us essentially genitals which emerge from our forebears’ genitals and subsequently go on to produce new genitals of our own. Human history is essentially an endless strip of William Morris wallpaper patterned with cocks and fannies. And not just the people who you see walking round every day, nor also those who came before us and those who are yet to come, but everything we have – the buildings, the roads, the thoughts, the technology, the wars, everything – is all woven through that pattern of men and women. It feels like another fairly banal observation, but it’s actually startling, when you fully appraise it – when having a baby makes you fully appraised of it. It feels like there must have been a mistake; someone has made a galactic error.
I don’t know where it came from, this odd love. You began as an idea, a conversation; then your presence announced itself quietly as a pink line on a pissed-on stick of plastic; you grew gradually; and now here you are, a kicking, wriggling, sonogramable, undeniable person. And with this slow transmutation - which has taken place against the backdrop of the humdrum, the routine, the everyday - the corridor of a future has opened up, of your future. It has caught me off-guard, how excited I am to see which doors you will try and which routes you’ll choose and how powerful my hope is that I can follow you for a very long time.
And finally there’s books. Like a lot of parents, to begin with I secretly decided that your upbringing should consist of a recreation of those aspects of my own which I hold dearest – I have bought you, amongst a great many others, Mog, Funnybones,Paddington and a thick stack of Ladybird books – and correct those of which I am least fond (no spanking, no church). The methodology lying behind this is fairly selfish on my part, and I can already feel it beginning to fall by the wayside the realer you become. But books will remain. If anyone ever wants his or her faith in the world restoring, they should visit the picture books section of a branch of Waterstones and discover the almighty industriousness that goes into the simple task of trying to make children happy.
I could go on, but I won’t. I just wanted to get some of this down, to have some of it in front of me, to try to help myself understand what it is that is happening. But also to have something of these feelings on record. Both for myself and for you, for the future, for those moments when you encounter the strong feelings of doubt or failure or insignificance which await you, when it might be helpful or reassuring to know that even the merest rumour of your existence was enough to populate your parents’ lives with joy and meaning and a powerful, daunting love.
I’m sorry it's turned out that you've got a father who, way back when, was so syrupy and twee he did things like write a blog post to his unborn daughter. And I’m sorry for writing about genitals.
Blood Relatives by Stevan Alcock
Rick is a delivery boy for Corona soft drinks, traversing 1970’s Leeds to dispense ginger beer and dandelion and burdock to the public, a line of work which brings him into contact not only with the city’s humdrum housewives and sad senior citizens, but also with a pair of more marginalised groups, both of which shape this bustling, picaresque coming-of-age debut: prostitutes and homosexuals.
I reviewed Blood Relatives, Stevan Alcock’s debut novel, for the Guardian. You can read the full review here.
I recently wrote this brief piece on the best independent bookshops in Manchester for Time Out. One I neglected to mention is the Didsbury Village Bookshop, located at the rear of the Art of Tea café. I hadn’t been at the time of writing, but I have now. And it’s ace: a jungle of narrow walkways, tightly-packed shelves and a native in the guise of the shop's ubiquitous eccentric owner.
Manchester Book Buyers
Although located in the busy city-centre thoroughfare of Church Street, Manchester Book Buyers is still easily overlooked. The last in the row of market-stalls, its perfunctory name and unsophisticated appearance belie an excellent bookshop. The tiny space is lined with densely-packed shelves, all loaded with the quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore which are the lifeblood of secondhand bookshops. The jumbled-high table of £1 books is also always worth digging around in: the copious Mills & Boon paperbacks often those obscure 1960’s sci-fi originals and little-known crime novels you’ve been seeking out.
Church Street, city centre.
EJ Morten is a dream of a bookshop, so much so that after a visit it can be difficult to believe it’s not some idealised, bygone-era archetype but a real bricks-and-mortar place. Found on a cobbled side-street, the unassuming exterior conceals a generous and busily-stocked space. EJ Morten is much-frequented and much-beloved by locals, primarily because of their large and well-curated selection of children’s books and because of the staff’s reputation as a knowledgeable and friendly bunch.
6 Warburton Street, Didsbury.
Another charmingly old-fashioned shop, Chorlton Bookshop made preparations in 2014 to close permanently when it was learned a new bar was due to open next door to them. However, after a campaign by passionate Chorlton residents the council ensured the bar found alternative premises and the popular, family-owned bookshop was saved. And it’s not hard to see why locals are so enthusiastic: a warm, welcoming vibe prevails and the stock choices are well-considered and varied (there is, apparently, a sub-section of books about The Fall).
506 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton.
You hear Paramount before you see it. The classical music booming from outdoor speakers echoes down the Shudehill side of the Arndale Centre. For many secondhand bookshops stock can be a big problem: having a regular turnover of books which are of a consistent quality requires a lot of hard work. But somehow Paramount, quite possibly the best bookshop in Manchester and certainly the most eccentric, makes things work. One could quite easily lose a weekend browsing the place: the ceiling-high shelves cover every conceivable category, Manchester’s science fiction heritage is healthily represented, and the extensive comics collection is a geek’s pay-dirt. But it’s the eccentric ad-hoc offers – ‘You’ve spent over £7.50 – that means you get a free pineapple!’ – which make this place a local treasure.
25-27 Shudehill, city centre.
Chapter One is currently the literary talk of the town, which is impressive when you consider that it hasn’t even opened its doors yet. Anyone recently passing by Chatsworth House’s long-unoccupied ground-floor offices in recent weeks will have had a glimpse of the extensive work being done to create a brand new bookshop for the Northern Quarter. And, anyone who’s investigated these things on Twitter, will have witnessed the outpouring of excitement from Manchester’s book-lovers at this news. The shop promises impress with over 4,000 square feet of unique, carefully chosen books, a spacious café and an events space for live readings and book launches. The shop plans to be up and running for a grand open day on April 1 and all progress can be followed on Twitter.
Chatsworth House, 19 Lever St, Northern Quarter