Discovering Sarah Henshaw was like digging into a knickerbocker glory. The more I’ve read her, the hungrier I’ve been for her literary drippings. I’m hoping The Bookshop That Floated Away is the start for more. In this crazily commercialised world, not too many of us dare take the risks she’s taken for the love of words. Staying afloat and floating away are hard choices to make in any milieu, and for one who can do it with such wit and unbeatable spirit, I can only doff my non-existent hat.
How skittish do you have to be to leave a paid job for an uncertain future…selling books…from a boat? How skittish to jump into that water knowing not much about the trade? I write “skittish” full of admiration here. It would take a lot of gumption to send a creative business proposal to bankers, disguised as a book, and I know not many who could muster such guts. No wonder those hapless souls who squashed her creative spirit are still pushing their calculators and spreadsheets, while Sarah Henshaw has been having a romp all over the British waterway.
In soulful, lyrical prose she narrates the struggle of her singular desperation to keep herself and her bookselling enterprise going. For every obstacle that has been thrown in the path of her outlandish venture, Sarah has emerged with her head “above water.” Maverick, scatter-brained, desperate, unwitting, some of those solutions are a fitting tribute to creativity and fierce independence. This is a spirit, unbending, free-willed. Like Joseph, her boat.
The pages of The Bookshop That Floated Away probably are the best place to learn Joseph’s views on Sarah’s witless venture, but here’s a conversation with Sarah for starters:
What would humans lose if laughter disappeared from the world one day?
I love reading biographies of adventurers — the more obscure the better — so it’d be a dream to write one of those. I’m fascinated by the early days of aviation too — probably because I’m personally so absolutely terrified of flying! Some of the daredevil women who took to the skies in those days definitely deserve more pages written about them. Actually, earlier this month a fantastic book (translated from the Russian) was published by Maclehose Press called Defending the Motherland, which weaves together the untold stories of the female Soviet fighter pilots of WWII.
Which was your least enjoyed memory from trading books on the waterway? Can you share one incident which surprised and delighted you?
Worst memory — probably all the locks! I kept a record: 707 in total in that six-month trip the book describes. They’re dirty, time-consuming, heavy things. On the plus side, though, they do offer rather useful opportunities to chat to other boaters and passers by.
Perhaps my biggest surprise was just how connected the country (UK) is by canals. I started the shop completely ignorant of the inland waterways system and never intended to move around it at all. Being able to cruise your shop into the centre of most cities and big towns in the UK is a phenomenally useful thing, I later discovered, and it doesn’t cost any more to trade from, say, the bustling centre of Birmingham than it would a sleepy village in Wales.
What kind of people hop onto a boat to buy a book?
All sorts. I have some very loyal customers in my usual mooring in Staffordshire who visit pretty regularly. Passing trade though throws up a real mixed bag. I’ve had a hen party aboard, a hip-hop group, celebs, drunks and lots of ducks!
— ELLE Decoration UK (@ELLEDecoUK) May 21, 2015
Independent booksellers are losing out to the plethora of corporate retailers. Does this mean more people are reading books these days, as against the common belief that people have stopped reading? If yes, is that a positive sign for the trade as a whole?
There’s no doubt people are reading more, even if the content is something as simple and short as a blog post or Twitter thread. I’m not sure if more people are reading books per se, though. My experience is that people’s lives are getting increasingly busy and their attention tugged in so many different directions that it’s actually rare for someone to find two to three straight hours to get engrossed in a novel.
One thing that has cheered me recently though, is the number of kids who are still engaged by books. I worked in a school library until the end of last year and, despite the glut of gadgets and games they’re growing up with, it doesn’t seem to have diminished their enthusiasm for a well-told story.
If you could exchange the waterways of England for those anywhere else in the world, where would you sail your book barge and why?
Well, France is the next stop. I’m moving the boat there next spring. Ideally I’d love to keep going all the way to the Black Sea, which has actually been done by narrowboat before by an intrepid guy called Nick Sanders.
Earlier this year I spent a month on the backwaters in Kerala. Heavenly. If there wasn’t the small obstacle of an ocean between us, I’d love to chug The Book Barge there too.
Would you like to write fiction one day, something purely imagined?
I’d love to! Some would argue my non-fiction already tiptoes dangerously close to the line, anthropomorphic narrowboats and all…
If you could sail to any time and space from history, what would be your first choice?
1940s England. Despite the horrors of war, two of my favourite writers — Emma Smith and Joan Wyndham — found the period full of opportunity and surprising optimism. They were inspired by the new avenues opening for women and their books express an amazing joie de vivre.
Do you have any writing routine?
In bed — always — and invariably in a deadline panic. Evenings are usually more creative periods for me than pre-noon.
Just finished: Hurry Up and Wait by Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler. I’m so happy collaborative, carefully curated books like this get made. It features photographs from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, sandwiched between Kalman’s own paintings and snippets of Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) charming prose.
Reading: Clothes, Music, Boys by Viv Albertine. Brutally honest, beautifully written punk memoir. Also, best intro ever: “Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.”