The Brightfount Diaries by Brian Aldiss
British author Brian Aldiss is probably best-known for his sci-fi books – both those he’s written himself and also the many anthologies he’s put together. I confess to having read none of his works to date, despite having been aware of him for most of my reading life and despite having gone through several phases of reading sci-fi. However, I stumbled across “The Brightfount Diaries” in a charity shop a while back and was intrigued – it’s a non sci-fi work, Aldiss’ first novel which was published in 1955 and it sounded like something I would like to read – which it was!
First some words about Aldiss himself. Wikipedia has a long entry on the author, part of which says: “Brian Wilson Aldiss, OBE (born 18 August 1925) is an English writer and anthologies editor, best known for science fiction novels and short stories. His byline reads either Brian W. Aldiss or simply Brian Aldiss, except for occasional pseudonyms during the mid-1960s. Greatly influenced by science fiction pioneer H. G. Wells, Aldiss is a vice-president of the international H. G. Wells Society. He is also (with the late Harry Harrison) co-president of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. Aldiss was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2000 and inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. He has received two Hugo Awards, one Nebula Award, and one John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His influential works include the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”, the basis for the Stanley Kubrick-developed Steven Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Aldiss was associated with the British New Wave of science fiction.”
The list of titles he’s written is also impressively long, so much so that it’s a little intimidating to survey, trying to decide where to start with his work. So I guess to start with his first novel is as good a place as any!
“The Brightfount Diaries” are exactly that: the diary entries of a young man called Peter who works in a bookshop called Brightfount’s in a small provincial town. The first entry reveals that he’s moving away from the home of his Uncle Leo and Aunt Anne’s house, where he’s been lodging, and into a bedsit in the house of the wonderfully-named Mr and Mrs Yell! Peter’s uncle is obviously a little eccentric (we first encounter him standing in the fish pond surveying the house and considering adding tessellation!) and his aunt is highly strung and stressed. We gradually get to meet the other staff at Brightfount’s: Mr. B himself, the owner; the junior partner Arch Rexine; Gudgeon, the senior assistant; Mrs. Callow, who has a quip for every occasion; Dave, Peter’s fellow sales assistant; and several others.
As the diaries progress, we follow Peter’s search for female company; watch the ups and downs of sales trends in Brightfount’s; discover that Uncle Leo and Aunt Anne are not quite as straightforward as they seem; and get a real insight into the book trade of the time. There’s plenty of in-jokes and book references – one of my favourite was when Peter was discussing the various book reps that came to visit and how disappointed he was that they didn’t match the livery of the publisher they were from, and how the Gollancz salesman should turn up in a yellow jacket!
The best bookshops leave their doors open, at least in summer. If, directly I get inside, someone asks me what I want, I’m alarmed. Conducted tours should be unnecessary: each book bears its own sign. The books one really loves are those found by accident.
It seems that “The Brightfount Diaries” first came into existence as a series of columns Aldiss wrote for The Bookseller magazine while he was working in an Oxford bookshop (so they’re presumably based on his own experiences), and were then collected into this novel. And I have to say I absolutely loved it! The book is a wonderful and lively snapshot of life in 1950s provincial town, and also a glimpse of the forgotten world of old-style bookselling, pre Internet days; reps would visit with books, lists of books for sale would be typed out and send by post, and a huge wish list would be circulated amongst booksellers.
The book also captures the lost world of young people in 1950s and their struggle to meet the opposite sex; no Facebook, Twitter or dating apps; instead, you would meet potential dates at tennis clubs or amateur dramatics groups or as siblings of in-laws. Truly, this was a very different world to the modern one!
I got surprisingly absorbed in the book, even though it dealt with everyday life and not huge, dramatic events; TBD was full of a collection of funny and beautifully memorable characters, and I got very involved in their daily lives, loving to read about their ups and downs. It was quite a shock when the book ended and I realised I wasn’t going to be able to follow their adventures any more.
If TBD is any indication, I’m definitely going to enjoy reading Brian Aldiss’ work – and fortunately I have another of his books on Mount TBR…