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The Brightfount Diaries

posted on 27 Aug 2017

The Brightfount Diaries by Brian W. Aldiss

The recent death of Brian Aldiss triggered an affectionate outpouring of obituaries from other authors keen to nominate him as one of the great pioneering science fiction authors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But for me the name of Aldiss is actually only associated with his first published novel of sorts which had nothing to do with science fiction and everything to do with bookselling.

In the late 1940s after leaving National Service, Aldiss was an aspiring writer of science fiction short stories, scribbling away in the evening after a day spent earning his crust in an Oxford bookshop. Aldiss, in the entertaining memoir of his early years, Bury My Heart at W.H.Smiths, describes the shop he works in, Sanders & Co., in this way:

Sanders’ shop is a long narrow dark secretive overstocked gallimaufry of a bookshop, comparing unfavourably in roominess with the crew quarters of one of Nelson’s ships. Packed under its low beams is a profusion of ill-sorted stock. From folios to duodecimos, an impressive range of volumes presents itself or lurks in obscurity.

Saunders himself was clearly a bit of an old rogue:

Frank Saunders was a small vigorous man with a perky face and a quiff of white hair….He was a humorous man and in many ways a terrible crook; he kept us destitute and laughing……He also had the gift of the gab…The ladies tried to charm Frank Saunders, but Frank Saunders always charmed the ladies more.

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Aldiss eventually moved on to work at a rival bookshop, Parkers ( which used to be located where you’ll now find Blackwell’s Art Bookshop ) where he was paid a better salary and it was here that he struck on the idea of the Brightfount Diaries. Aldiss wrote to The Bookseller, the Bible of the book trade, suggesting that they should carry a regular article about the real life of a bookseller – but that it should be a fictional serialisation. They were impressed by the idea and so Brightfount was born.

While it’s obvious that the entries have a strong biographical edge to them, Aldiss was always clear that these were fiction. The storyline is simple and it is the everyday nature of what he describes that resonated with the readers and became a runaway success.

Peter lives in a small provincial city with his rather loving but long-suffering Aunt Anne and his eccentric Uncle Leo. During the day he works in a bookshop called Brightfount’s, which, echoing his time at Saunders, he describes as a ‘shabby outpost of literacy’. Peter decides the time has come to set up home on his own to help him in his efforts to find love. He moves into a bed-sit and begins composing his diaries, in which he includes amusing remarks about publishers, authors, booksellers and customers along with a revelation about his strange uncle, and his (rather sad) efforts to find a suitable girl.

The book, which brings together the individual Bookseller columns, is a warm-hearted, witty and sometimes quite meditative read – it’s episodic diary structure makes it easy to pick up and put down and if you’ve had experience working in a bookshop there’s plenty of stuff here that you’ll immediately recognise. It’s true that the Diaries describe a world that no longer exists and a retail environment that had vanished even by the time I was working in a bookshop in the early 1970s but the follies and foibles of human nature are consistent and universal.

I haven’t read any of Aldiss’s science fiction but this early work and his delightful memoir suggest that he’s a writer whose work deserves more exploration – so maybe I’ll have to go boldly where I haven’t been before.

 

Terry Potter

August 2017