Thursday, Nov 15, 2018 | Last Update : 04:36 PM IST
Dulwich, original and East, boasts of three bookshops within a mile of each other and the above offer has been made by one of them.
“At the time I wrote them
I meant every word
Even the silences between them
I clearly heard
Time has a tendency
To turn truths to lies
Think of him who said ‘The rose once blown forever dies.’”
— From Kaida ka Baida by Bachchoo
A local bookshop in Dulwich offers customers free delivery to their door of any available book within 24 hours. I presume they mean any London address rather than one in, say, Papua.
Dulwich is a rich part of South London and is proud of the public schools founded by Edward Alleyn, the Shakespearean actor of the Elizabethan era, to one of which P.G. Wodehouse went. The cheaper part of Dulwich into which young professional couples moved in the last decade used to be a working-class district that now calls itself East Dulwich and has been “gentrified”, with the local pawnshop selling out to the exclusive wine merchant and the West Indian grocery shop transformed into an expensive ice-cream parlour. The house prices are 20 times of what they were a decade or two ago. It’s the sort of thing that happens when native Americans are displaced from Manahatta by European settlers.
Dulwich, original and East, boasts of three bookshops within a mile of each other and the above offer has been made by one of them. The bookshop is, you may have guessed, trying to stay in business because Amazon and other Internet suppliers are drawing a huge percentage of the book-buying clientele away from the high-street retailer.
I am sure I can find some statistic which would tell me what percentage of the entire book trade has gone on-line, but I won’t, gentle reader, bore you with it. The point is that Amazon is not merely an additional outlet for books (among everything else), it is seen as a predatory competitor. And nothing or nothing much can be done about it, as very little could have stopped the White man laying claim to New England and Manahatta. Some call it progress, though native Americans and probably Australian aborigines and New Zealand Maoris, not to mention the Adivasi populations displaced by mining and industrial progress in India, would shrug in justifiable indignation.
Technological progress does its own devastation in conflict and then often turns to forms of conflict occasioned by, but not using, the technical advance. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastating results of the invented nuclear capability. Since then there have been conflicts, diplomatic and those using conventional weapons between states armed with the capability and often as with Iran, or North Korea because of this capability.
My childhood experience of such technological progress was infinitely smaller in scale. At the walls of our school in Pune, every lunch and study break and after school, Manji, a vendor of ice-fruit, or ice-lollies as the Brits call them, would appear on his bicycle. His handle bar had two large thermos flasks hanging from it and I think there was a third tied to the pillion of his bicycle. From these he would sell us, for an anna or two, a stick with gaudily-flavoured ice. The “ice-fruits” with milk in them were more sophisticated and costly so were out of our affordable reach. Manji did what we considered a thriving trade. I don’t think he made the lollies himself. There were other vendors with bicycles and hanging flasks around the town but Manji was the only one who struggled up the slopes of Pune cantonment to our school.
Then a restaurant chain and ice-cream manufacturer called Kwality came for the first time to our town. The vendors of ice-cream for this manufacturer were equipped with three-wheelers with a frozen box attached. Some were driven by peddling and some were mechanised. Inevitably, one of these apostles of progress targeted our school and immediately began to thrive, competing with poor Manji and his handle-bar flasks. The ice-lollies of the Kwality man were more varied, more expensive and rapidly monopolised the ice-fruit business of the school. A classmate of mine, Vasant Sirur, formulated a classic comparison which, as they say now “went viral” – not on any computer which hadn’t been invented, but by the word of mouth. He declared, “Manji was under Kwality’s balls”.
The competition gave rise to bitterness and finally Manji could take it no more. He attacked the Kwality man physically and was charged with assault and taken away. Later, someone spread the rumour that the Kwality ice-lollies of the time contained blotting paper. I hasten to say they didn’t.
While the bookshop traders of the world and of Dulwich are being undermined or overtaken by Amazon, a feebler offer of competition comes from a non-technological source. Some charitable person, or just someone who wanted to clear clutter from his or her bookshelves, began free book exchanges at London’s under and overground railway stations. He/she set up trestle tables and left books there which anyone could take for free. Of course it encouraged others to donate unwanted books to the same tables.
I am tempted to unburden two of my bookshelves by donating the collected works of Lenin to this good cause. But will anyone take them or will I be charged with cluttering a public space?
I have, on two occasions, given my unwanted books as a donation to a small stall-owner who operates just outside West Dulwich station. He sells second-hand books and will perhaps now face a pinch in his business from the free book exchange 10 yards away inside the station. But maybe not. The buyers of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason are unlikely to find it donated to the free table. And perhaps the stall-owner doesn’t stock Fifty Shades of Grey.