When I told my Dutch acupuncturist, many years ago, that I was giving up on looking for funding to produce a sequel to The Real Green Revolution (after several years of trying) she said ‘Good! There’s more than enough books in the world’.
That I learnt practically this week. A few weeks ago I started working with a local association Planète Ecole, which collects second books, sells them on the beach, mostly in Hendaye, but sometimes in St Jean de Luz. It channels the profits (and any appropriate books) to several schools and apprentice ship programmes in francophone West Africa. Some of those projects have a pedagogical organic component, so it is a project very dear to my heart that I am happy to belong to. As the graph below shows, last year they generated 15,000 E to send to four African projects that they oversee and, in the twenty years that they have been operating, have also sent 65,000 books to African schools and libraries.
I remember, ten years ago, reading Doris Lessing’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature (please take the time to read it: it is one of the moving things I have ever read). I was inspired to try to take action: I had no shortage of access to books and the local NGOs that I worked with in Wageningen, such as Agromisa and ILEIA (sadly closing at the end of this week after thirty years’ of championing family farming), but I fell at the first hurdle, unable to penetrate the labyrinthine world of shipping freight overseas and of ways to finance that. So while the idea may be simple, the logistics are anything but. Those books need collecting, storing, storing, pricing and then the licences for the stalls need to be arranged, along with the transportation and setting up the stall and the books and the manning of the stall throughout sales days. And we haven’t even yet started talking about the books they freight to West Africa.
So I am more-than-impressed by the tenacity and logistical know-how of PE. In the meantime the President said he had a more important job for me than selling books: to help them sort out a stack of English books and decide which were sellable and which were junkable as no-one in the group has sufficient knowledge of English literature. So on Monday afternoon I headed up to their warehouse, located in some old stables on Hendaye’s Hauteurs that belong to the municipality to make a start.
‘Hello young man’ was the first greeting I received: something I haven’t heard for a long time, but in the context it was true. I was the youngest member of the book-sorting community by a long chalk. It was heartening to see so many older people engaged in something worthwhile and for the greater cause (especially as I watched my father just lock himself away in his own private world after he retired and continued to do so for twenty years – with the inevitable consequences).
So I set to work, at first I was lenient in my judgements but after being told that PE is hugely overstocked and needs to clear stock – both by taking books judged unsellable to the dump and halving its prices I became less forgiving. I cleared three shelves (double loaded) of English titles. Maybe a quarter went into boxes for sale: the remainder into cardboard boxes destined á la déchetterie. For a (still) aspiring author it was heart-breaking thing to do. I hope at least they will be turned in fuel briquettes and not go landfill. There was one upside: as a (fee paying) member of the association I am entitled to cherry pick any titles that take my fancy. Living abroad it is always hard to come by a good selection of second hand English books. So yesterday I seized the opportunity and went home with ten or so books (including ones by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Mario Vargas Llosa) which should keep me going for a couple of months. So I went home feeling virtuous and with tangible benefits!