Suzi Feay: First have a drink, then go book-hunting

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The Independent Culture

Off to the famous book town Hay-on-Wye for a relaxing Easter break. Everyone I tell says: "Oh, is the festival on already?" Not it's not - I'd rather avoid the place during the festival. At other times this quiet border market town is the most relaxing place I know. Stress means the tannoy at Hay Cinema Books announcing five minutes to closing time when you've only inched through half of the antiquarian book collection. My modus operandi is simple: go to the Blue Boar or Kilvert's, drink until the hard edges of the world go all fuzzy, then go book-scavenging. Repeat as necessary. I was reading Gwendoline Riley's Sick Notes at the time, the perfect novel to sit by a pub fire with: her characters are always boozing their way into fuzziness. Though judging by the amount of empty gin and vodka bottles she describes, they have to drink more than me to get there.

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Some years I go to Hay and find nothing. Other times I get the mournful impression that a rather interesting booklover has just died. Judging by the shelves this year, an elderly occultist and a keen Shelleyan have fled this sublunar world. (Perhaps they were the same person?) Few pangs in life are sharper than the regret at not buying books - how can I have left behind the manual of high ceremonial magic, complete with lists of demons and the correct way to approach them? A more serious grail was recoverd, though. Having bought Vol II of Shelley's collected letters in Hay some years ago (for £2!) , I've been searching all over for Vol I - and at last I've found it. I'm intrigued by its former owner, who annotated it with appealingly pernickety pencilled comments. Another book I grabbed from a completely different part of the same shop - The Journals of Claire Clairmont (Shelley's friend) - bears, I'm sure, notes in the same handwriting. At times like this you really feel you belong to a vast community of readers: you, me, Gwendoline Riley - and the dead Shelleyan, whose books I'll now treasure.