#02 February 2017 – The Albion Beatnik, Oxford

This month’s professional bookworm is Dennis Harrison of The Albion Beatnik Bookstore. He may have started his career catering to the “suburban and mainstream”, but Dennis soon found his “particular part of the world” in the form a bookshop stocking twentieth century English and American literature alongside a healthy chunk of jazz. Refusing to follow any rules, Dennis has murals hanging from the ceiling, graffiti on the walls, and no obvious shop counter. Well known for its calendar of vibrant music events and poetry readings, it’s no wonder the Guardian called Harrison’s shop “the beating underground heart of Oxford Culture”. Oh, and it’s the only bookshop in the UK to produce it’s own magazine.

His three big books

‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville: Moby-Dick wrestles from the English language every nuance and meaning with such a rich repertoire of technique, and to an effect so grand and all embracing, that it makes its reader cry with overwhelming shouts of both joy and despair. It is the finest book written in the English language. After the First World War the avalanche of Modernist hybrid aesthetic ensured that Melville’s kaleidoscopic vision was recognized for what it was: sharp shards of genius. Previously his career was a study in decline: early success in the 1840s was followed by a precipitous career drop, and he was all but forgotten when he died in 1891.

‘Raise Up Off Me’ by Hampton Hawes: Hawes, who died aged 49 in 1977, was one of the greatest jazz bebop pianists. But at the summit of his career, celebrated as New Star of the Year by Down Beat magazine in 1956, he already had a drug addiction that would lead to arrest and imprisonment. A career that had blossomed early with the greatest players of his day was knocked off its rails and, even though President Kennedy was to grant an executive pardon in 1963, was never to recover. In an eloquent and humourous tone, Hawes tells of a life of suffering and redemption that reads like an improbably fast-paced and demotic novel. ‘Raise Up Off Me’, published in 1974, remains one of the most enduring, most embroidered (!) and best first-hand accounts of the jazz life ever written.

‘My Sixty Memorable Games’ by Bobby Fischer: This book is a lesson in objectivity, modesty and painstaking analysis, detailing not just wins, but losses and draws also. Poignantly, it doesn’t include the chess ‘Game of the Century’ from 1957 when, aged only 13 and playing black against International Master Donald Byrne, Bobby sacrificed a queen and knight to unleash the most devastating attack and victory. It was a stampede of brilliance that turned the game on a sixpence and Fischer into a global icon – a figure as likely to appear on the Bob Hope Show as on the cover of a chess magazine.

His two contemporary titles

‘Otmoor’ by David Attwooll & Andrew Walton: A sequence of ten poems that echo tales of the moor’s past and present, evoking its myths and buried memories. The poetry is a call and response to Andrew Walton’s mud-filled yet warm and playful paintings of this area of wetland, described forbiddingly as a “place apart.” The pamphlet is beautifully produced, its font, layout, brittle binding, all of a piece – each enrich the experience of its reading. The poetry and the cross-hatched landscape sketching dovetail to produce a remarkable collaborative achievement, and a lodestar of poetry publishing.

‘The Seasons of Cullen Church’ by Bernard O’Donoghue: This latest collection is lyrical, observant, elegiac, and so often beautiful. The redolent and concise language is riddled with memories of the poet’s childhood in Cork. He writes of ‘Connolly’s Bookshop’, noticing how the stock has shrunk until “bit by bit you’re marooned in the middle // on your high stool amongst the books that show // why books are out of date, why you must move // with the times and be careful what you stock, // defiant Crusoe at the centre of your island.”

The one on his ‘to read’ list

‘Being a Beast’ by Charles Foster: Charles takes tutorials in the shop, and takes tea here. He seems quite normal. Yet… He lived in a hole in the ground like a badger for weeks and ate earthworms; he swam rivers in Devon at night as an otter; he scavenged from the dustbins of the East End like an urban fox; and he was hunted like a red deer in the Scottish Highlands. A funky piece of nature writing and an intimate look at life in the wild. Cool.

Go on, be a good sport:
Pay Albion Beatnik a visit, follow the shop on Twitter,
and share the Half-Dozen with friends.