The purgatory of being a writer in a town full of second-hand bookshops

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Who'd be a writer? Seduced into the breathing world last week, I dared to leave the incubating snugness of my study, my reference books, my isolated finely balanced sense of self, and caught the train to Hay-on-Wye where, in a muddy field, the world's greatest literary festival was hosting the world's greatest writers. I, gentle reader, being one. But what is it to be one among so many? Put two writers in a muddy field and there is a chance they will converse. Put more than two and like Chinese pandas they will fall into a decline.

Who'd be a writer? Seduced into the breathing world last week, I dared to leave the incubating snugness of my study, my reference books, my isolated finely balanced sense of self, and caught the train to Hay-on-Wye where, in a muddy field, the world's greatest literary festival was hosting the world's greatest writers. I, gentle reader, being one. But what is it to be one among so many? Put two writers in a muddy field and there is a chance they will converse. Put more than two and like Chinese pandas they will fall into a decline.

It should have been paradisal. In many ways it was paradisal. I am not in a nature-painting mood, so you must conceive the scene yourself. Grey balls of knitting wool in a spitting sky. The Whatever They Are Called Welsh Hills bosomy and protective. Stuff on the trees. The hedgerows full of whatsits. Oojakapivvies on the wing. Readers in the streets. Reporters in the pubs. And every writer you have ever heard of looking pensive in a muddy field. Bliss. Was it not bliss?

Reader, it is not joyous to be a writer. It is not joyous to be a writer anywhere, but in a town of new and second-hand half-timbered bookshops, and Hay-on-Wye has more of the latter than any place on the planet, it is not only not joyous, it is purgatorial.

For you venture, willy-nilly, first into one of those second-hand bookshops, then into a second, and then, if you have no care for your mental stability - and why would you be looking at all if you cared for your mental stability? - you venture into a third. And what do you see on the shelves? What bearing your name do you see on the shelves? Whisper the word with shame - nothing. No thing. Worse than no thing - not even a space where some thing might once have been.

The invariable law governing searching for your own work in a second-hand bookshop says there must be an intense crowding of dusty volumes in the vicinity of where, alphabetically, your books ought to be. Thereby establishing beyond all doubt that not only are you not there today, but that you were not there yesterday or the day before that.

How long before it dawns on you that, even in the most dog-eared paperback, even abridged or anthologised, even as a footnote to a mention in someone else's book, you were never there at all?

And then you are suddenly prey to one of those epiphanous experiences, akin to receiving an electric shock in the back of the skull, which all writers recognise as a warning that they are about to see one of their books in a shop window. In this instance, two. Halt my beating heart - two! The shop in question being an old infirmary - for in Hay-on-Wye even the hospitals are second-hand bookshops and the surgeons critics - I push open the doors marked "Emergency" and head for the shelves marked "fiction". Angels and ministers of God deliver us! - not just two of my books, but all of them, from the first to the most recent, all in hard covers, all in mint condition, all cellophaned, every title in multiple copies, and most of them signed.

If I was down before, imagine, reader, my discomfiture now. For make no mistake - if there is one thing more dispiriting than not finding your books in a second-hand bookshop, it is finding them. Cast- off. Unread. Unloved. Unwanted. Proof, as if you needed it, of the world's disdain for your efforts. Bringing us to the second law of second-hand bookshops - those you are not in are barometers of your reputation, those you are in are the graveyards of it.

Who'd be a writer? Seeking consolation in the modest thing you're there to do, the thing you love best, which is talking about your own work to a loyal band of enthusiasts and screw everyone else, you come out of your tent, pleased with the size of your audience (not vast, but goodly), and there is the queue for the writer performing immediately after you, snaking twice round the pavilion and extending as far as the eye can see all the way to Brecon.

But there is no silencing the dogs of optimism once they begin to bark. Just as I am about to shrink away from Hay in gloom, I am awarded a prize. The first ever winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic writing turns out to be me. Can anything be better than this? A prize for comic writing which, as I have always been the first to proclaim, is the only sort that matters, the only sort that's really serious. What is more, the judges are the likes of Stephen Fry in whose literary judgment I place confidence rather than the likes of Gerald Kaufman in whose literary judgment I do not.

Better still, I receive vintage Bollinger by the crateload, vintage Wodehouse by the bookload, and a pig to be called The Mighty Walzer, the lucky devil, until this time next year. Imagine how the poor winner of the Orange Prize for Lady's Fiction must feel, being on the receiving end of just a single cheque for 30,000 nicker and not so much as a piglet to canoodle?

So being a writer is OK again? Well, it ought to be. But now that I have won the comic writing prize, I start to worry for my writerly dignity. That pig...

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