Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Lost little castle at the crossroads

The town of Dunstable in Bedfordshire doesn’t have a huge amount to commend it, at least on the surface. That didn’t stop us living there for ten years, longer than anywhere else, because it had two less visible qualities that mattered to us: it provided me with a job on one of the numerous occasions when an unappreciative employer had made me redundant (in his defence, the company went broke soon after); at least as important it gave us a circle of excellent friends with whom we’ve remained close ever since.

But as a town it doesn’t have a lot going for it. It’s essentially little more than the crossroads of two thoroughfares of substantial historic – in one case pre-historic – interest.

The Icknield Way is one of the great arteries of Stone Age Britain, running from what is now East Anglia down to Cornwall in the South West. Along it, pottery travelled westward, while tin and the blue dye woad travelled eastward.

The historic crossroads don't look that historic.
Inset top left: the Book Castle that couldn't withstand the on-line siege
At Dunstable, it intersects one of the great Roman roads, Watling Street, linking London with Holy Island in North West Wales, where the Druids made their last stand against the Empire. More prosaically, part of that road is Dunstable’s High Street North where I had one of those experiences that stay a long time with parents. I was walking down the street with my son Michael, five or six at the time, prattling away at my side as children do. Unfortunately, he only came to my waist and there’s a great deal of traffic in High Street North which rather drowned him out, so I limited myself to smiling and nodding with the occasional encouraging grunt thrown in.
Eventually, though, Michael grew wise to my act. He gave me a look which I can only describe as ‘quizzical’ – and had you been there you’d have seen a vivid illustration of the meaning of that intriguing word – and said, ‘Daddy, you haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said, have you?’

‘No, Michael,’ I admitted, ‘but I like your voice and it’s provided a pleasant relief from the traffic noise.’

Somehow we both felt perfectly satisfied with this exchange.

Of the few attractive features of Dunstable was its possession of a glorious little bookshop, the Book Castle. I love bookshops, and one of their most strikingly attractive points is the quality of their staff. On one occasion, I mentioned to one to an assistant at the Book Castle that I’d like to find a book that I had known and loved as a child.

 ‘It’s called The Phantom Tollbooth but it may not be in print any more.’

‘Oh, by Norton Juster,’ she replied, leading me over to a particular shelf and putting the book in my hand.

Now I’m a great believer in Amazon and its rivals. It’s wonderful to be able to order a book when you want it and know that within a few days it will turn up – I’ve never been let down by Amazon and its prices are remarkable. Why, the other day they refunded me £1 when they despatched me a DVD I had pre-ordered, since the price had fallen by that amount since I’d placed the order; then three days later, they refunded me a further two pence, to my astonishment, because though the amount was trivial, there had been that further fall in price between despatch and the official release date.

So nothing but praise for Amazon. On the other hand, there’s something immensely valuable about the kind of service that establishments like the Book Castle provided. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it, you can’t have Amazon and the Book Castle. Dunstable has just lost its book shop, and is a sadder place for it.

We enjoyed our time in Dunstable, even though it had little but two great roads to commend it. Now unhappily it has one fewer of its other precious charms.


Robert Patterson said...

"Oh dear, all those words again," thought Milo as he climbed into the wagon with Tock and the cabinet members. "How are you going to make it move? It doesn't have a--"

"Be very quiet," advised the duke, "for it goes without saying."
— Norton Juster

"The Phantom Tollbooth" is one of my favorites.

David Beeson said...

An outstanding book. I often think of the tallest midget in the world who's also the shortest giant, leaping to conclusions which leaves you in the island of that name, to say nothing of the desolation of a Kingdom from which Rhyme and Reason, those delightful twins, have been banished.

A must for all children on the edge of adolescence.