Hazel McHaffie

Book Sale

Hazards aplenty

As they say, no experiences are wasted for a writer. Not even negative ones.

It’s that time again – the annual giant Christian Aid Sale held in the splendid premises of St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church in the centre of Edinburgh. Selling thousands upon thousands of books, art works, ephemera, music, their aspirations are as high as their steeple: it’s always mobbed, and I, as any writer would, rejoice each year that physical books are still so very much alive.

Each year I go at least twice – once to deliver copies of my own books (as requested) before it opens, once to buy – and every time I’m staggered at the number of helpers involved, cheerful kindly people who don’t bat an eyelid when someone asks for a specific title or six, or hands them a large note expecting lots of small change. Such calm under pressure is a joy to behold. This time my second trip was about an hour after the doors opened. First impressions were fantastic – bright sunshine, happy fresh assistants, orderly boxes of books, hundreds of avid readers milling everywhere. The gangways between the trellis tables are narrow so you don’t need to be squeamish about bodily contact, and you are expected to take responsibility for your own health and safety – unmarked steps, dips underfoot, minor obstacles aplenty. But the atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, and there’s plenty of give and take.

So black marks to the folk who parked empty wheelchairs and buggies right across pathways, who thought it expedient to gather right beside the tables to natter, who spread their possessions over the boxes while they browsed denying others access, or who left their long-suffering husbands on corners necessitating inconvenient detours down steps and onto the road. And a special penalty to the two who trundled enormous hard suitcases right through the masses with sublime disregard for ankles and shins – yep, I was one of the victims. But I escaped with no lasting damage and a modest collection of purchases, and I raise a salute to the wonderful people who give their time and energies so tirelessly to this excellent cause and come up smiling.

Rather stupidly I went with two specific authors in mind – Stephen King and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – and before you ask, no, I certainly didn’t ask any of the volunteers for them!  There was no evidence of either, but I was thinking about King as the bus trundled me home. He has a neat way of expressing what I’m thinking about. Take this thought:
I’ve always wondered who I am when I write because once I’m doing it, I’m not in the room with myself.
It takes me a while to find myself again after an intense period of writing, and it certainly did the following night when I was deep in a psychological discussion with my characters.  Only vaguely did I become aware of a rumpus outside … raised voices … smoke …  hello? DJ had managed to set the garden shed alight and the air was alive with the sound of helpful neighbours sounding warnings and thick acrid smoke! By the time I’d re-entered the real world, DJ had the garden hose on full-tilt, damping down the smouldering structure, someone had called the fire brigade, and a crisis had been narrowly averted. I was left with no role other than redundant spectator. As the reassuring operations commander said, surveying the canisters of gas, tins of paint and fuel, and sundry other inflammables, laid out on the path afterwards: it could have been a whole lot worse. So, again, not much significant damage mercifully, but a few revisions to the to-do list and some changed priorities.

I might be dealing with mounting horror in my fictional world but it’s still a safer place than the here-and-now it seems!

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‘All morning putting in a comma …’

Well, that’s the general election over for another time and what an event it was! I confess I was not one of the enthusiasts who stayed up all night watching, but I did pop in and out on Friday morning to listen to the sound of big names crashing, big egos admitting defeat, big promises being dissected, history being made.

Molly Malone

Dublin’s Molly Malone

In between I revised all the dialogue in my current novel spoken by a minor character, one Mrs Kaetlyn O’Leary who hails from Ireland. At the beginning of the week I immersed myself in a lot of stuff about just how to capture the lilt and idioms of that musical tongue; then I went through the prose meticulously introducing the telltale patterns every time she spoke: ‘he went away, so he did’, ‘sure, and you’ll be after doing it yerself’, ‘it’s meself that’ll be doing that’ and so on. Then in the middle of the week I read a whole lot more bumpf about how folk are put off by thick accents, how hard it is to get it right, and I went completely off the idea again. So out it all came on Friday. I was reminded of Oscar Wilde who famously said, ‘I’m exhausted. I spent all morning putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out again.’ Thing is, I’m not at all sure Kaetlyn O’Leary’s voice is her own even yet, but I’ve put it to one side for the time being.

I’m getting close to the end of the book now – only about 2 or 3 chapters to go – which means that any changes I make have wide ranging consequences. Very soon I’ll have to spend my working days reading … re-reading … re-re-reading … ad nauseam, checking the authenticity and consistency of each voice, weighing up the value of each sentence, losing favourite phrases and paragraphs. Kaetlyn will probably go through several more metamorphoses – she might not even remain Irish! Fortunately for me I really love the editing phase.

Christian Aid book sale - queue on first dayAlso this week I boosted my spirits by attending the first hour of the first day of the renowned annual book sale in St Andrew’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh, featuring over 100,000 books – the biggest Christian Aid fundraising event in the UK; largest charity book sale event in the world in fact. It’s such an encouraging experience for an author. I joined this queue three-deep that, by 10am when the doors opened, stretched all the way to the end of the pavement in George Street.

Christian Aid booksale -  inside churchThe boxes of books are lined up on rows of tables inside the church on two levels, sorted into every conceivable subject areas – a labour of love in itself. (Thanks to my son who provided this photo – much better colour balance than mine.)  Standing up in the balcony I couldn’t help but marvel at the energy and commitment of the folk behind the scenes masterminding this extraordinary event year after year – it has taken place annually since 1974!

Christian Aid book sale - outside stallsOutside in the courtyard all around the building are thousands more books. A crush of keen bookworms jostle for space as they determinedly scan the spines for something new and exciting, some even on their knees under tables seeking specific treasures. Yes, indeed, the book as we know it is very far from dead. Long live the book!



I came away with warmth in my heart and My bargain booksfour books I’ve been wanting to read in my bag. I limited myself this year – well, my tbr pile is already toppling over, and my shelves are threatening to sag under the sheer weight of novels lined two deep all along them. The sale finishes tomorrow so that’s it over for me – but spare a thought for the army of book-lovers who will toil away on Saturday to remove everything left behind and prepare the church for morning worship. There’s dedication and commitment for you.

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Poverty and riches

It’s Christian Aid week again, with its focus on ‘helping those in poverty out of poverty‘. For more years than I care to count I’ve been involved in door-to-door collecting in my home town as well as events in the city, but this is one of the wettest and coldest CA weeks I can remember – we even had hail and snow to vary the precipitation! But the weather notwithstanding, beetling in and out of Edinburgh (with camera secreted somewhere about the person) has reminded me of what an amazing city it is.

Spectacularly  silhouetted … quaintly romantic … quietly regal … monumentally incongruous … gloriously artistic … and much, much more. But it’s to this church that my thoughts go specially this week – St Andrew’s and St George’s West in George Street. The site of the biggest fundraising event for Christian Aid in the UK. St Andrews and St Georges This king size book sale has raised over £100,000 each year over the past five years to help the poor and underprivileged; that’s well over a million since the sale started in 1974. And on the first day alone this year it took £46,700! What a lot of books that represents.The book saleAs part of this huge effort, the convenor, Lady Mary Davidson, writes to local authors inviting them to donate signed copies of their own works which are then sold in a special section. A lovely idea. She’s fiendishly hard working but still makes a point of chatting to us when we call in, and writing to us afterwards. Makes you feel special even when you’re not.

And, of course, I simply HAVE to buy a stack of books every year, even though my shelves are groaning already.  Well, it’s a worthy cause. The least I can do.

Long live the book!

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Below the Line

Well, that’s Christian Aid week over for another year. I can’t believe how quickly it comes round.

The highlight for me at a personal level is always, of course, the massive book sale in Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s and St George’s Church.St Andrews and St Georges

I must confess I bought more books than I donated – not good news for my already groaning bookshelves! In fact the new collection is currently just lying about in piles awaiting a home. But each time I visited the sale I found myself just standing staring at this amazing spectacle – literally thousands of books and not a Kindle in sight! For any author it has to be a brilliant affirmation of the appeal of the written word. And what reassurance to know there’s a huge crowd of folk out there hungry for more.

Customers were repeatedly dodging others in order not to miss a single gem in the rows of boxes. As the novels were snapped up volunteers quickly filled the gaps, and I overheard some of them discussing the relative merits of certain authors, clearly avid readers themselves. On one occasion I even saw a couple of venerable white-haired gentlemen on their knees under tables trawling through some ancient tomes.

The buzz spurred me on through the annual door-to-door collecting – it can be daunting at times. Particularly in times of austerity. Did the dog really eat their envelope? Does ‘the wife’ (absent today) always decide where the money goes in their household and take the envelope away with her in case hubby sneakily fills it? Have the whole family actually gone out leaving the TV blaring and the windows wide open? No, no, no!  I hasten to add that most of the householders on my particular stamping ground are exemplary citizens, giving generously and with a smile.

Oh, by the way, did you hear about this year’s Live Below the Line project? An octogenarian friend of ours brought it to our attention, setting a shining example by doing it herself. It’s a challenge to the general public to live on just £1 a day for 5 days to help raise £500,000 for some of the world’s poorest people. Apparently they’ve calculated that about 1.4 billion live on less than that all the time, not just for 5 days. How could we not respond to that appeal?

Actually chez nous the challenge has proved much more enjoyable than anticipated – easy to say when we live in the luxury of UK wealth the rest of the year, I know. But to be positive – I’ve had fun experimenting with dishes that eke out the rations but still provide enough fuel to get us through busy days. And king-size pots of soup and stews mean less hours actually preparing and shopping, more hours for writing, reading, proof-checking, etc. Has to be good! In fact we’re extending this particular project beyond 5 days. I can’t imagine Christian Aid would turn down latecomers.

Because of course, poverty, oppression and hunger aren’t confined to one week in the year; even a crammed-full bright red collecting bag is a drop in a bottomless ocean. But ‘mony a mickle maks a muckle’. We can all do our little bit and I’m sure you do. I know our fellow church members come up with the most amazing initiatives to keep money coming in for worthy causes; I’m constantly impressed by their unflagging commitment. Although we haven’t tried walking on red hot coals yet as I see MND Scotland have!

OK, let’s see how far a bowl of porridge will take me today … The theory is that the brain is sharper when the body is fasting. And I could certainly do with sharper.

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Long live the book!

Christian Aid week. I’ve worked for this worthy cause for more years than I care to remember but it’s only recently I’ve become aware of the letterbox-phenomenon. My stomping ground for house-to-house collections has remained the same for years but conditions have definitely changed as owners have come and gone, and new incumbents have sought to stamp the property with their individual mark.

And of course, the passing of the years has changed me too. Bending down to put envelopes into houses where the letterbox this year is a surprising inch or two from the ground, taxes the old back far more than it used to twenty years ago.

But since when did anyone ever rise up in indignation on behalf of postmen and women everywhere? They not only run the gamut of having their heels nipped by trained man-eating terriers, and their hands trapped by vice-like sprung flaps, and their hearts stopped by the feel of fur just inside the orifice, but they are in daily danger of dislocations and other unmentionable distortions of the joints and bony structures. Far more likely damage than the occasional hanging basket falling on the head of a sauntering tourist. Or a kiddie being knocked unconscious by a conker in the playground. Hats off to these uncomplaining post-people, I say!

Christian Aid week has also brought a surge of sympathy for another largely unsupported band of workers. Every year a church in Edinburgh’s George Street plays host to a massive BOOK SALE. Thousands of books, inside, outside, under tables, in hourly danger of cloudburst and gale. Mobbed for five days. Yes, you can be forgiven for assuming my sympathy is for the volunteers trying to tot up nine times fifty pence, eleven times fifty pence and do-you-need-a-bag in all the hurly-burly of a busy city street. But on this occasion my thoughts were more for the thousands of authors whose works were selling for a song. In our writing journals we’re often urged to protest, hold out for fair prices for honest labour. But watching that surging mass of bargain hunters I confess to a disloyal reaction. How fantastic that the written page is still so much in demand. While thousands continue to risk life and limb in sales like this, authors as well as those in dire need of our help abroad will continue to benefit in the longer term. Long live the book!

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