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Story of Robin Ince's journey to 100 bookshops rounds off NessBookFest's festival events for 2023

By Margaret Chrystall

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Maybe there is no more appropriate place to speak to book addict Robin Ince than at a railway station stop on his journey between two independent bookshops.

Robin Ince.
Robin Ince.

On his way to his sell-out event at Ullapool Bookshop on Thursday, Robin had recently left the Borders’ village of Willowbank and the Heron & Willow bookshop which only opened in April.

You discover during the conversation about Robin's latest book Bibliomaniac soon out in paperback, that, for Robin, discovering a new independent bookshop is the best news.

Maybe most people would know Robin as the co-host with Professor Brian Cox of popular Radio 4 show and podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage. He is also a stand up and writer of books including I’m A Joke And So Are You , The Importance Of Being Interested and in Bibliomaniac, the story of how a few years ago he challenged himself to travel to 100 independent UK bookshops in 100 days.

The book talks about that journey, taken on after a stadium tour with Professor Brian Cox fell through in the aftermath of the pandemic.

But it also offers a fascinating insight into someone whose love of books began young and sees him buying books on a vast range of topics wherever he goes.

But Bibliomaniac, as Robin explains in the preface, is also about his father who shared his taste for books. He died after Robin published it – it was his father’s favourite of his son’s books.

Robin writes: “,,, it was his passion for books that put a spell on me and led to my love of books too.”

Robin describes spending time in his childhood going with his dad to book fairs to hunt down books by Henry Williamson who wrote Tarka The Otter, a favourite author of his father’s.

And Robin shares a snapshot from these times: “On trips to central London with my dad I was usually the youngest child in the bookshops in Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court, looking intense in my NHS specs.”

So maybe it comes as no surprise when Robin admits early in Bibliomaniac: “My life is summed up by the Japanese word Tsundoku – allowing your home to become overrun by unread books (and still continuing to buy more).”

He has evolved some useful coping strategies.

“This book exists as an alibi for everyone who is told by their partner and friends that they have too many books!”

As we talk, he shares a recent example: “There was a bookshop I was in in the Lake District on Monday and I got them to post back [to his home] everything I bought at the Wigtown Festival on Sunday!”

And often using books to quote from in his shows, Robin agrees it is possible to think of them as legitimate expenses!

“I think it looks as if I have come up with a cast-iron way to make them tax deductible. And also melons – because I did punch a melon in a show I did recently at the Edinburgh Fringe. So if the tax man comes, he will see my receipts for melons and strange bibliophile antiquities!”

Talking about sorting out his dead’s books and papers after his death, Robin said: “I was actually born in a house of books because there was a snowstorm and I was born at home and some had really built up..!

“My dad’s real book-collecting mania kicked in when we all left home. Then, he had the freedom, and the financial freedom and he had the time.

“He particularly liked Henry Williamson and had a whole bookcase of his books.

“I found my little reading diary and reread a bit of it the other day and thought ‘Oh my goodness, that was really raw’. I think I must have written it about a month after he died and I was talking about all the little things that you find, that drop out of books that we open.

“I gave some of the Williamson books to my friend Stewart Lee and he said ‘I thought he was a bit of a Nazi?’ and I said ‘I think it was a phase!’

“Then when I went home to my dad’s house, I found that he had a box of letters that Henry Williamson received including an invite to tea from Oswald Mosely [who led the British Union of Fascists]. So maybe it wasn’t really a phase!”

The book suggests that Robin has an incredible memory for books, what’s in them and even where he bought them!

“Once I have made one connection, it kind of cascades, it’s very much that ADHD thing where I said at the Wigtown Book Festival event recently, ‘If any of you want to come book browsing with me tomorrow morning at 11 we can just go to a few bookshops together’.

“Then when we started, every bookshop I’d pull out one book and it would immediately lead me to the story of something else.

“I remember where I bought nearly all of my books, a pointless skill in one way but handy when you are writing.”

Does he have a dream of one way running a bookshop of his own?

“I think I always have to be dealt rather than be the dealer!!

“I love the idea and I’m sure my wife would love it because then I would be selling off an enormous number of books. But I think I love the experience of bookshops too much to become somebody that runs one – if I had a bookshop I probably wouldn’t have time to read the books!

“Sometimes when I go to bookshops and say to the owners ‘Have you read that one yet?’ they say ‘Oh I haven’t had time!’.”

But his marathon journey around 100 independent bookshops helped earn him the accolade of author of the year from the Bookseller’s Association.

“It was because I had done that big book tour and have continued to promote independent bookshops! And that is one of the things, people are so appreciative of you turning up at independent bookshops. And I really love doing it!

“Every so often I have to do something for money, and I have to remind myself of that.

“But I just enjoy the adventure of it so much. Suddenly out of nowhere they gave me author of the year and the title was a lovely thing to get.

“And I do have a lot in common with bookshop owners and the people who spend their lives with books – librarians too, so it was a really lovely thing to have that acknowledgement!”

There is one independent bookshop Robin has had on his list for a long time in the 10 or so years since he has last been in Inverness!

“It’s very exciting because of course once a week, of not more, I am sent a picture of Leakey’s Bookshop and I want to go there – then I’ve waited and waited!”

Anyone who has been along to any of Robin’s events before is unlikely to encounter a repeat!

“I was doing a festival the other day – a music festival – and the guy running it went up to him and asked ‘What are you going to be talking about?’ and he replied for both of us and said ‘I don’t know and neither does he!’.

“So very often what I do is about something I might have found that day or a story I might have come across that day. To be honest, I try to very rarely talk about the book I’ve done because the book speaks for itself, really.

“I might talk about the passion for books. Of late I have told some stories about my dad. I might talk about Ivor Cutler [the late Scottish poet, broadcaster and musician]. I might talk about my love as a child for books by Tim Dinsdale and others – and the Loch Ness Monster.

“When I’m in a bookshop or a library, I might go round beforehand and make a stack of their books and very often if I’m not in a bookshop, I’ll go round the town and build things up, so that everything means that I never do the same show twice – whether it’s my stand up or a lecture or a talk!

“I might be in a place more than once, but no-one will ever see the same show twice. They will all be different!”

Robin Ince: BIBLIOMANIAC – An Obsessive’s Tour of the Bookshops of Britain is part of the NessBookFest and the free event is held at Junction Church on Saturday, September 30 at 7.30pm. TICKETS: are free but please book! And donations – to help keep the festival free – are always welcome.

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