Philip Hensher: Throw the book at the wrecking crew

The week in culture

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The Independent Online

There was a lot of comment, during this week's riots, on the fact that the one shop in the Clapham Junction precinct not attacked by rioters was Waterstone's. Some people were rather inappropriately amused by this, as if it proved anything that the rioters didn't want to steal books. But not every bookshop was as lucky as Waterstone's. Although Bloomsbury did not suffer from the riots, in the early hours of Monday, a gang turned up on bicycles outside Gay's the Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. They smashed the front window of the shop, pelted the interior with eggs and cycled off.

Gay's the Word is the UK's only gay and lesbian bookshop. It has been open for over 30 years through thick and thin. When it opened, no mainstream bookshop stocked gay and lesbian books. In its early years, GTW faced malicious prosecution for stocking pornography, which it has never dealt in, as well as, sometimes, the hostility of the trade and aspects of the wider community.

Since then, chain bookstores have come to appreciate the value of gay writing, some of which has moved into the mainstream. Nevertheless, GTW is an unmatched resource, a treasure-trove of writing on gay subjects, academic, imaginative, new and antiquarian, pulp and high-minded. It keeps going, even though all bookshops are having a hard time at the moment – it had a bit of a wobble five years ago, and it was thought it might have to close. It pulled back, and with the help of some noticeably successful events, the future has started to look more rosy. (An Alan Hollinghurst reading was absolutely packed).

The bookshop is insured for damage, but will have to pay for excess and lost stock. Jim McSweeney, the longstanding manager of the shop, said that he believed the attack was opportunistic, motivated by the sight of rioting spreading, but probably motivated by long-running homophobia. He added that they had not had a violent attack since 2006, with the implication that a five-year gap between violent attacks on a bookshop was a great improvement on the previous state of affairs.

There are probably not many bookshops who have to assume that they won't be able to go very many years before calling the glaziers and the insurance company yet again. Bookshops are thermometers that measure the mental health of a community. A university campus without a bookshop instantly lowers its intellectual standing, and no ambitious student would want to study there. I would not live in a part of London without a bookshop on the high street.

Another bookshop, the Big Green Bookshop, has been blogging about the effects of the riots in Tottenham, and has shown us how a bookshop, too, can act as a moral compass within a community in disarray. When Penelope Fitzgerald writes at the end of The Bookshop that her heroine, having tried and failed to set up a bookshop in a Suffolk town, lowers her head in shame that "the town she lived in had not, it seemed, wanted a bookshop", her moral standpoint still retains its force. What we do to our bookshops measures our moral health.

The attack on Gay's the Word no doubt occurred in an atmosphere of increasing homophobic comment. But the licence some people assume to attack a whole class of human beings as engaged in a conspiracy of hatred is not, in my view, so very far from the playground insult "gay"; and that is not so very far from the sort of people who smash bookshop windows.

To almost every intelligent person, the act of throwing a brick through the window of a bookshop is quite inconceivable. Bookshops nowadays struggle anyway without the extra burden of repairs, excess, lost stock and perhaps even customers frightened away. Gay's the Word is an excellent bookshop, unique, and central to its community. It has got through worse than this in the past. All the same, it might be a very good idea if you care for a diverse, reading community in London if this weekend you went over to Marchmont Street and bought a book from them.

Sex, drugs, rock'n'roll... and a crafty fag

We are told that the X Factor finalist Cher Lloyd, now making her career as an "edgy" rock star, has got into trouble for "trashing" her hotel room. How? Well, a red-top reported that, when the horrified cleaners gained access, there were "fag butts and ash" everywhere. "Rock Star Trashes Hotel Room Suite" must rank with "Crippled Girl Determined to Dance Again" as a red-top stand-by, but I must say that I'm disappointed by the low level of destruction implied by this story. In the 1970s, rock groups famously rode motorbikes down hotel corridors, set rooms on fire, and, of course, threw televisions out of the window. (The last recorded rock band to do this were, apparently, Busted, who were inspired by someone remarking that "nobody did that any more").

Does bad behaviour on tour carry on even among classical orchestras? Certainly, back in the day, the trombones could be relied upon to liven up a dull trip round the concert halls of southern Germany. I once toured with a student orchestra where a whole sofa was thrown out of the top floor of a spa hotel by the brass. Insurance, health-and-safety and heavier work schedules have probably done for that.

Lighting up in a non-smoking hotel is, meanwhile, for the vast majority of musicians, about as unacceptable a piece of behaviour as any of them can imagine, and that only seems to happen once. Cher Lloyd, we are informed, has been told off and "won't be doing it again in a hurry."

It may be big, but it's not clever

Is this the summer of the colossal? Nothing on earth would have persuaded me to go to hear Havergal Brian's Gothic symphony at the Proms. It may be scored for a thousand musicians and last two hours, but I heard it once in 1980, and that was enough to experience its endless divagations.

And now the postman rings with a murderous expression. Somebody has sent me a debut novel by one Adam Levin. The Instructions is 1,000 pages long. It's roughly the size of a family bible. Well, I'm not one to talk, having definitely tried the patience of one or two of my readers with a 750-page novel three years ago. But it shows definite nerve to begin a writing career with so huge a project. David Foster Wallace made his name with his enormous work Infinite Jest, but it was not his first novel.

The truth is that the enormous novel requires a definite array of acquired technical skills. You can keep a 200-page novel going on charm and voice: a 600-pager, let alone a 1,000-page novel, needs bones of steel and a battle plan like El Alamein. Has Mr Levin acquired these sorts of skills at this early stage in his career? I can't say that he has. In a crowded market of young novelists, there has to be some means of standing out. But I'm not convinced that having written the fattest novel of the year is, on its own, the way to triumph.