Book Review

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The Face Pressed Against a Window, by Tim Waterstone

I have to confess I am rather ambivalent about this book: it is subtitled A Memoir, so it is, by definition, selective, which means that I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have done a ‘proper’ autobiography. Tim Waterstone’s childhood is described in some detail at the beginning of the book (in which there is also a reference to “genteel Bournemouth”); so far, so good, but after his time at university (and here he shamelessly name-drops, including one of his intake who achieved great fame, Ian McKellen), he seems quite happy, after one fairly short chapter about his time working in India, to almost jump straight to when he achieves his dream of opening first one, and then before very long, a whole chain of independent bookshops (another confession: I didn’t make the connection when I first read his name as the author, and didn’t look closely enough at the cover cartoon which shows a Waterstone’s bookshop!), and the bulk of the rest of the book is occupied, understandably of course and, to be fair, forgivably, by a detailed exposition of the trials & tribulations, as well as the laudable successes, of his bookselling empire. He is also rather tight-lipped about the first two of his marriages, the former during his time in India. His third marriage appears to have lasted, and he has produced, in all, eight children.

His childhood was not the happiest, and it is possible to ascribe the competitive aspect of his nature that enabled him to realise the dream that made itself known to him as a young man to that, but I think that would be simplistic: of course we are all, to a great extent, a product of our childhood & upbringing, but we are also all unique, so there must have been other factors along the way as well. He was the youngest of three children, and his father never loved him like he did Tim’s siblings, a brother and a sister. His father is described as a weak man, who depended upon his wife to a large extent while trying to give the impression that he was the man of the house; it is most likely that, as far as his father was concerned, Tim’s conception was an accident, and therefore unwanted; whereas his mother was always loving & supportive after a fashion, but that didn’t deter her from accompanying her husband to India for work, which meant that the three children were packed off to boarding schools; at Tonbridge, later, he was a contemporary of Frederick Forsyth. The boarding school episode was by no means unusual, of course, but Tim was unlucky enough to be sent to a school run by a married paedophile clergyman; although that, too, was sadly not unique. Tim laments that he made an unforgivable mistake of describing in an interview for The Times Educational Supplement his treatment at this school in a “painfully jocular and trivial and false” way, which prompted letters from previous students or, in one traumatic case, the widow of a former student who had killed himself, because “he had been destroyed by the sexual abasement he had been through at Warden House at the hands of the headmaster.” Lesson learned, albeit at a relatively late stage of his life.

In the final analysis, I am also somewhat ambivalent about how I regard Tim Waterstone as a person, not that that has a bearing upon my review of his book: he is evidently a thoughtful and considerate person, as evidenced by his supportive & caring attitude toward his staff, preferring to think of them as colleagues & friends, rather than merely members of staff; and he makes no secret of the fact that he is a Labour voter, although he doesn’t specify if he was a Blairite, given the latter’s quasi-Tory support for ‘business’; but he also is clearly and unequivocally driven & competitive, without which qualities it is very probable that he would not have succeeded, and this is the aspect of his personality which I can’t personally identify with. That doesn’t make him a better or worse man than I, of course, and it is impossible to go any further than that without the benefit of a personal acquaintance, which is extremely unlikely. What is unquestionable is that he changed the face of British bookselling in the 1980s, before the advent of the behemoth Amazon, and beyond, irrevocably. The book, published in hardback by Atlantic Books Ltd., London, in 2019, has the ISBN 978-1-78649-630-0; it is also available in paperback and an Ebook.

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