Monday, 28 January 2008

Military Matters

Yesterday a customer, just back from a Flanders battlefield tour, came in to order a book on Vimy Ridge. There, he told me, 3400 men died in one day, to capture one hill. Sometimes history jolts you out of your current preoccupations. ( When historian E.P. Thompson was researching Hiroshima he sometimes had to stand up and just stare out of the window, mentally processing the eye-witness accounts).

“To attain peace, we must study war”, thought the war philosopher Clausewitz. So it is a good thing that military history is a growth area, with an increasingly broad readership. Anthony Beevor, Max Arthur, Stephen Ambrose and others, have got war onto the book review pages and gift lists.

My military section has grown from one to four bays, with sales exceeding gardening or reference. Booksellers have generally lagged behind the demand for war books. Bourgeois liberals, they have been about as keen on “Military” as ‘old- blood- and- guts’ General Patton was on crochet. A learned fellow, Patton knew how useful a military book could be, famously screaming at Rommel’s retreating panzer, “I’ve read your book you bastard!”. His belief in reincarnation made him a student of Thucydides too: no war section should miss out on the Penguin classics.

Military publishers inspire extraordinary loyalty. Osprey have 25,000 people on their mailing list: some own all 2300 books, and even have spinners in their homes. Researchers are rigorous: I fantasize that Mir Bahmanyar - Afghan Cave Complexes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda (2005) - knows where Bin Laden lives, but agreed to keep quiet if he could be allowed in with tape measure and sketchpad.

Greenhill Books flourish by visiting the wilder shores of militaria: their rep had me spluttering into my ginseng with disbelief as he showed a book on steam- powered submarines (see Wikipedia if foxed).

Imports are a rich seam. Ripcord: with the Screaming Eagles in Vietnam, looks like a cheap 2-buck thriller but reading it as vivid as watching Apocalypse Now. Ambrose called it “the best battle account I have ever read”. (If only effete cardigan-wearing UK publishers bought in such gems, instead of belabouring us with novels by Oxbridge twenty-somethings.)

Military history talks reliably attract big audiences, and old soldiers enliven proceedings. When Beevor asserted that there were no British intelligence officers inside Stalingrad during the battle, an old man stood up to disagree: he had been there. It was a gooseflesh moment, both then and now, as I write. During a 1993 Q&A a Somme veteran humbly corrected an error in Juliet Gardner’s talk on the battle.

War is “sprightly, waking, and full of truth.” (Coriolanus), truth which we have been reading about since Homer.

Dr Martin Latham Waterstones Canterbury

Maps, pleasure

It is Waterstones High Street Kensington in 1987, a late August morning tinted with autumnal melancholy. As a rookie, I am given two boxes of French maps to price and shelve. As I do this all the anxieties in my life fall away. It is such a worthwhile and soothing task that my mind actually stops wittering on about the future and the past. Years later, I discover a Zen book called Chop Wood , Carry Water which recommends “doing what you are doing” as a way to rest the mind in its sky-like nature. Twenty years later, I still love shelving the Institut Geographique National’s Series Bleu. When I called them in Paris to ask for a spinner I felt I was asking the Vatican for a bulk deal on communion wafers: IGN are the Jesuits of cartography: self-contained, super-intelligent and only willing to deal with the rest of the world on their own terms. They dislike having UK agents so much that for a while their sole outlet here was a bloke who bought the maps over in a contraband van. I presume he was quietly clubbed to death with a theodolite one night outside a bar in Calais.

Maps can heal the world, by getting us out there walking, wandering and broadening the mind. It is no coincidence that America, with its troubled foreign policy, has no ordnance survey: the nation is cartographically challenged. Maps inspire, and although they no longer carry the ancient inscription “Here Be Dragons”, they still contain those great voids which lured Graham Greene and Wilfred Thesiger to make the journeys recounted in Blank on the Map and Arabian Sands.

Bill Bryson understands the mana, or spirit-power, of maps. Sitting in a Copenhagen café as backpackers inspect their cheap pop-outs or childish jumbo-scale city centre plans he slowly unfolds his Kummerley and Frey, those superb Swiss maps with hallucinogenic clarity, relief shading and detail. “My map told the whole café: ‘this is a map, I am the traveller here’” Bryson described his 1972 purchase of the entire K&F range as “the intelligent investment of my youth”.

Commercially, maps are a classic high-margin add-on sale, undemanding of shelf-space, and neither the internet nor GPS have slowed their sales growth. My map sales eclipse cookery or biography. Map Reps are usually enthusiasts who help out by putting maps in order, removing old editions and helping customers. They understand that the map section is a portal for the imagination, a fortress against the triviality of.. …..hang on, perhaps I have caught cartographic fever .. time for a lie-down with that new Nelles map of the Amazon Basin.