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Letters From Santorini: The Mission

I came here to write.

I came here for many other reasons as well. To escape London for a time, to become involved with Atlantis Books, to have the chance to do some serious reading, to meet attractive women and interesting men. But writing was the mission (as I’ve mentioned before). I hadn’t really written anything for about five months before I came out here, though I’d been working my current idea around in my head for most of that time.

I came here to write, and I have been writing. I passed the 30,000 word mark a few days ago on a long project, something that might eventually turn into a novel. I’m in no man’s land now – I’ve never been this far into a project, the idea (or my will to write it) invariably disintegrating at the 15,000 to 20,000 word point. The work has taken on a life of its own, which makes it easier to continue with and finish. It has weight. It is already half alive. I know how to finish it, and I know that I will finish it. All it will take is time – a few more months. Certainly before Christmas, barring some kind of disaster.

I don’t know if it is any good. Actually, at the moment I know that it is no good – the first draft of everything is shit, as Hemingway said. That is the maddening thing about writing – whether you are writing well or badly, the first draft of anything is always the same. Clumsy, flawed and repetitive, with the rare good idea or sparkling sentence simply serving to highlight the dross that surrounds it. It is only when you are redrafting or editing that you discover if what you have been writing turns from lead to gold…or remains as lead.

I now know that writing is full time. Not in terms of the hours actually spent writing; there is a limit to how much you can write in a day. But it needs to be committed to psychologically. Even here, since I am running the bookshop, my other commitments are a little too strong. You can have a job and write (indeed, in almost every case you need to have a job and write!) but you can’t have a serious career or a job, one that requires sustained mental energy, and write on the side. Or at least, I can’t.

Back in London, working full time and writing in my spare time, I felt like a fraud. When I was writing, I felt that I wasn’t committing to it fully. “You aren’t a writer,” I told myself, “This is just a hobby for you.” When I was at work, I felt like a fraud. “You aren’t committed enough to your job,” I told myself, “Your mind is on your writing.” I can’t commit to a serious job and write at the same time – there is an overexpenditure of energy that is in short supply, almost an ethical or moral contradiction.

Above all, what I’ve discovered here is that writing is a way of life rather than a profession or a hobby. I’ve met two writers out here, Cas and John. Before coming here, I probably wouldn’t have called them writers. Will they ever see their names up in lights, their books published and laden with awards? Perhaps. Probably not. Not because they aren’t good enough, but because commercial success in the artistic field is rare and depends on a vast degree of different factors, of which actual talent is a fairly minimal influence. Contacts, marketability, how well your writing chimes with the spirit of the time and the prevailing literary tradition, and dozens of other factors are all crucial. You could write a book twenty years too early or too late. In a different time it would have been a huge success. In this time it may be ignored.

But it doesn’t matter whether Cas and John achieve fortune and glory. They’ve had the courage to choose to live as writers, to try and experience the world as fully as possible and make a creative intervention in that world. Whether they share that intervention with themselves and a handful of readers or with thousands across the world is irrelevant and, by and large, out of their hands. They have earned the right to be called writers. You become a writer by choosing to live as a writer, not by winning the Booker Prize or getting reviewed in The Guardian. None of my friends back home, creative and brilliant as they are, have had that courage to fully commit to an artist path. Neither have I.

At least, not yet. My plans post Atlantis Books have changed – it would be premptive to say what they have changed to, as nothing is certain yet. But suffice it to say, the next year will be when I discover if I have to courage to commit to this course, to stick with and see it through, no matter whether it brings me success or no. Writing is a life. It is a life I want to lead, and now, more than ever before, I can begin to see how it might be done.



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Letters From Santorini: Selected Reading

Is there anything that cannot be learnt from the Greek thinkers, the Russian novelists, and the English poets and playwrights? Such is beginning to be my conclusion whilst at Atlantis Books.

But reading can be surprisingly difficult to do here. First, the selection is overwhelming. The shelves are filled with temptation, books that stare at you mournfully and accusingly and ask why you haven’t read them yet. How do you select one, when to make a selection is to reject all the others?

And there’s always something to do – customers to serve, shelves to dust, cooking, writing, wine drinking, admin and emailing, wrestling with the tangles of Greek bureaucracy and so on and so forth. Just like in the real world, it can be hard to make time for books, even when you are surrounded by them.

But I’ve still got a fair whack of reading done. It is strange to consider how important reading is to me. It is an education, religion, meditation, entertainment…and yet it is such an odd activity to devote oneself to. Turning pages, reading black scratches on white paper and converting them into a story, a personal philosophy, a way of life…

Here’s some of the books I’ve read whilst out here, in no particular order. Anyone read any of these? What did you think?

Selected Poems of Byron (Unfinished)

Fascinating character as he is, I think that the celebrity of Byron is more interesting than his poetry. Compared to his contemporaries, he seems like little more than an occasionally witty rhymester, undermined by narcissism. A hundred pages was enough for me.

Homer’s Odyssey, Armitage

Bit of a disappointment this one. Homer’s Odyssey reimagined as a radio play. Armitage is very good at rowdy crowd scenes and has a good comic touch, so the Suitors, the Gods, and Odysseus’s crew are pretty fun, but he struggles with heroism and serious sentiment. With the Odyssey, this is a problem.

The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn

Flat out brilliant. What is it about Russia that produces such brilliant novelists and chess players? Those long cold winters, perhaps. This evocation of Stalinist Russia is convincing, terrifying (especially when Stalin crops up), angry and humane. For the first time in ages I’ve felt proud with the society I live in. Western capitalism may have its faults, but damn if it isn’t better than this kind of totalitarian horror.

A Primer of Chess, Capablanca

A very fine book on chess tactics. Many parts a little too technical for me, but he talks very pragmatically about the basics.

Batsfords Modern Chess Openings

Only leafed through this, but fascinating stuff. You could get seriously lost in it. I’m now a fan of the Italian Game, the Ruy Lopez, and The Queen’s Gambit for white, and the Sicilian Defence and Berlin Defence for black.

The Defence, Nabokov

After reading this and Lolita, I think that Nabokov is a truly stunning stylist and character writer, but that his plotting and narrative are a little patchy. Some cracking descriptions of chess playing though…

Chess, Zweig

Noticing a pattern yet?

A cracking little novella about a game of chess on a ferry to Buenos Aires. Simple story, very well told.

Ways of Seeing, Berger

A very good collection of visual and written essays on perception, painting, and art. Liable to change your way of seeing. The chapter on the depiction of femininity in painting is particularly troubling.

Aristotle’s Politics (In progress)

I’m alternating each of my other books with a section of Aristotle’s Politics. Meaty stuff, but he has a brilliant mind and some very interesting ideas about capital (he inspired Marx), slavery (he views it as necessary and natural), and the organisation of society as a whole.

The Theban Plays, (Sophocles)

With the Greeks, everything was in its infancy – poetry, drama, philosophy, history, democracy. Everything was unexplored. The Greek drama that I’ve read so far is basic compared to modern day works, but the force of the debates in the plays survives unravaged by time, with Antigone the real star of the Theban plays.

Orestes, Bakkhi, Medea, Iphigenia at Aulis (Euripides)

Orestes was a bit naff, and Bakkhi pales in comparison to Ted Hughes’s version of the same story in his Tales from Ovid, but Iphigenia and Medea are damn fine. Iphigenia is a compelling look at man’s capacity to justify unjustifiable acts. Medea is just pure taboo from start to finish, and the last messenger’s speech is jaw droppingly gruesome.

Much better than the distinctly overrated film, this is a outstanding piece of journalistic writing. Makes you sick to read it. The most startling thing is that the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) are now businessmen who, by fair means and foul, are simply better than any of the competition. They are products of the economic system. They are capitalism carried to its logical and immoral extreme – business that is pure profit and zero ethics, where everything (labour, drugs, clothing, people, even chemical waste) is a commodity to be marketed and sold. Everyone benefits, from Western consumers to business leaders and politicians (and of course the Camorra) except for the urban poor and migrant workers. And who gives a shit about them? Nobody with any kind of power, anyway.

East of Eden (In progress), Steinbeck

A real cracker of a novel. Biblical Genesis reimagined as a family epic in 19th century California. Very, very well written indeed.

Journal of a Novel (In progress)
, Steinbeck

When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck wrote a letter to his publisher every day before he did his day’s quota of writing. For aspiring writers it is an inspirational, personal, and, in places, highly familiar documentary of the joys and pleasures that come when you are wrestling with a book.

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Letters From Santorini: The Customers

Atlantis Books has a strange relationship with its customers. Most people involved with the shop  will refer to it as a project rather than a business. It is a creative space and a collection of outstanding books first, a bookselling business a very distant second. The space is sustained by the business aspect, but that is all. So sometimes the customers can feel like an inconvenience, or at best a necessary evil.

Yet one of the real pleasures of staying in the shop is discovering how broad and how shared a passion for books is. When you study books (or even undertake to write your own) snobbery is inevitable. You feel like you have a monopoly on literary love. Surely it isn’t possible to have a meaningful relationship with books until you have at least a BA behind your name.

Not true, of course. People love books, and they love bookshops. Admittedly the sample I’m exposed to is somewhat self selecting. Our steep set of steps acts as a handy filter, sifting out the gawkers and moneyflashers who will wander into any shop with easy access and plenty of tat to spend your cash on. If you can’t be bothered to go down a few steps to get to a bookshop, we probably aren’t interested in selling to you. There are hundreds of people (mostly the thrice be-damned cruisers) who stroll on by without giving the shop a second glance. There are a ridiculous number that stop to pose for photos in front of the shop, or even come partway down the steps to get the better shot, then walk on down the street without entering the shop. This baffles me. Why would you think a shop was interesting enough to photograph, but not to enter?

But for those who do come in, the wonder on people’s faces is always pure delight to see. Better yet, it reminds you afresh of the amazing and inventive space we live and work in. Instantly, you have a common connection, though you have said nothing to each other and may have very little in common otherwise. You are both there because you are in love with books.

What is most humbling is how much better read than me most people who come into the shop seem to be. It is often simply a matter of age. Most of the people who come into the shop probably don’t take their reading as seriously as I do, but they have had twenty or thirty more years to get it done. They know more and have read more than I have. Being well read is about time and dedication – a lifetime’s task to get a worthy knowledge of literature.

The customers come in innumerable different guises. There are the Second Handers, drawn irresistibly to cracked spines, foxed pages, and old library stamps on the inside front cover. There are The Hordes, packs of American exchange students on break, who come in chattering and bustling in a constant stream of upturned intonations. The Shorts and Sandals crowd wouldn’t know a good piece of literary fiction if it got up and slapped them round the face, but they are suckers for cookbooks and handsome coffee table books. The English Grad self consciously seeks out a challenging and worthy title to work through and feel superior whilst reading, and lays it down on the till with all the silent smugness of a poker player revealing a winning hand.

My favourites are the Intoxicated Bibliophiles, the ones who love books as beautiful possessions. The ones who linger in front of the Faber and Faber shelf, drinking the elegant simplicity of the design, or hover by our shelf of old leather bound books and orange Penguin classics. The ones, in other words, like me, who adore books not merely for the contents inside or the kudos it will bring them to own it, but as a little object of complete aesthetic and mental pleasure.

Working in the shop has given me yet another way of interacting with books. I have approached them as a delighted child, a voracious adult, a semi-studious undergraduate, and as a wannabe writer. Now I am a merchant of books. This should perhaps be a corrupting relationship, but within the distinctly non-capitalist ethos of Atlantis, it becomes one of the purest ways of sharing the thing that you love.


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Letters From Santorini: Lessons Learned

I’ve been at Atlantis Books for a month now. A roof has been painted, shelves stocked, many books sold, and a truly ridiculous quantity of feta cheese, olive oil and local white wine has been consumed. Numerous books have been read, ranging from Batfords Modern Chess Openings to the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn. 10,000 words of fiction have been written.

The temptation is of course to stay forever. Why not, after all? I’ve nothing that ties me to England. Why return to get another job, have the same old stress, nagging dissatisfaction, ethical struggles and romantic disappointments? This temple of books offers a simple and honest life. There is an appeal in that.

But I won’t outstay my welcome – Atlantis Books isn’t a place where people should live long term. It has been tried in the past, and it hasn’t worked well. The space shouldn’t belong to anyone for more than a few weeks or months at a time. We come, we have our time, and we go again, making room for the next person to be involved. This is the way it should be.

So, staying forever is out, and in any case, life here is not perfect. There are people that I miss and opportunities that I don’t have whilst I am on the island. But many things are very right here. The way of life, the ethos of the shop, is something inspiring that is to be admired and emulated. The challenge is to see if some of the things that I have learned here can be applied elsewhere, if I can take them with me like tiny talismans for the mind and soul…

Xenia – Xenia is a very important concept out here in Greece. You could translate it as ‘hospitality’, but you’d be missing some subtleties. Kindness and openness to strangers, the giving of gifts and charity to those around you, especially to visitors and guests. The Odyssey is obsessed with the concept. Pretty much the entire plot consists of moments of true xenia (Odysseus and Nausicca, or Menelaus and Telemachus) and corrupted or denied xenia (the Suitors, the Cyclops, Circe).

English society is polite but not friendly, suspicious rather than trusting, sensible as opposed to generous.  But that way lies isolation, loneliness, and a slow death of the soul. There is much to be said for trust, generosity and hospitality.

Simplicity – Simple living, simple pleasures. An economy of resources. Own less, use less. Create a space and inhabit it, don’t accumulate useless possessions. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. Efficiency and simplicity have their own particular beauty, like the flawless motion of a dancer or a boxer. The temptation is to bloat, to become obsessed with the more expensive and more numerous pleasures and possessions. But there is no need – everything should be just so.

Love and Courage
– Too often, we do things because we feel we ought to, or because we are indifferent and take the line of least resistance. What’s the point? You should always choose your actions, and if you choose to do something, do it with love and determination. That’s what has built Atlantis Books. Not knowledge or experience or luck, just a passion for an ideal and the courage to see it realised.

That’s how to handle the stuff you want to do. For the stuff you have to do, you’ll need to rely on courage alone. Courage is after all, as the Hagakure says, just the process of gritting one’s teeth. A life must be directed through passion and determination, not by submission to cultural force.

These are some of the keys to a better life. These and books, of course, and chess, and writing and creativity and wine and nature and good company and all the rest of it as well. Life is wonderful here, but it is also fragile and fleeting. A haven rather than a home, a place to relax and enjoy and then leave without regrets, but with lessons learned.


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Letters From Santorini: The Significance of Chess

Somehow, chess has become an essential component of Atlantis Books. Many of the founders of the shop have a passion for the game; chess boards are scattered in various hidden corners, and the staff library is well stocked with chess theory. There is something in the mindset of people drawn to the shop that is also drawn to chess; a certain level of monomania, a particular kind of intellectual arrogance, a fascination with patterns, logic, and the intersection of psychology and probability, calculation and intuition.

It is a beautiful game. At its best, it is a symphony of attack and defence, where economy of motion and the combination of disparate elements are the keys to victory – and to beauty. Much like mathematics, truth and beauty are one and the same in chess. To a mathematician, numbers and patterns have an attraction that is invisible to the layman. But through mathematical mediums, like chess and music, even numerical philistines like myself can appreciate the poetry and cadences of logic and numbers. The algebraic chess notation of a match like the Immortal Game is majestic to those who know how to read it.

I now find myself in a chess rivalry with Vlad, a good friend of the shop. Having comfortably distpatched another member of the shop in my first chess game on the island, I was filled with confidence and willingly accepted Vlad’s challenge. But he is cunning, craftier even than Crafty Odysseus in our opening match, his rook proving mightier than my knight and bishop in the end game. In the evening’s candlelit rematch, after an hour an a half’s heated combat, he was forced to concede, an elegant bishop/pawn combination ensnaring his key pieces in a corner to fatal effect.

One all. I hope for our rivalry to hit triple figures by the time that I leave.

I have started down the dangerous path of reading chess theory. Dangerous, because it is an obsession that has no end. At lower levels, chess is an enriching and satisfying game that stills the mind. But at higher levels, the mind threatens to disintegrate entirely under the weight of opening variations, counter attacks, calculated gambits and precisely engineered end games.

The satisfaction of playing chess is a trap, like the piece that tempts the Queen forward too early in the Sicilian Defence, or the pawn that draws an opponent away from the crucial centre in the Queen’s Gambit. The insanity of Grandmasters perhaps belongs more to the world of fiction (where every great chess player is mad) than to reality, but there is madness to be found in those sixty four squares. At the higher levels of skill and dedication, this ultimate contest of logic and tactics pushes at the boundary of human nature. To perfect yourself in the game of chess is to become superhuman, then not a human at all – a madman, or a genius, or both.

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Letters From Santorini: A Day in the Shop

There’s no need for an alarm clock. The shop opens when we are awake enough to open it, and there’s no rush, the morning is a slow time for us. The impossibly bright Greek sun sneaks in through the windows, the crack in the door that is left open for the cat to wander in and out at night, and the Hole that connects the back room of the shop to the roof terrace. We get up when we feel like it, though we try and be up and running by 10 o’clock or so.

I unzip my sleeping bag and pull my clothes from the piles on the floor and dress. I wander into the main shop area, careful not to disturb the still sleeping members of the shop who are concealed up on beds that are found up improvised ladders, or hidden behind bookshelves.

Instantly I am ambushed by Maxi the cat. In a story that is almost too perfect to be true, Maxi was found newborn on the steps of the shop six months ago, eyes still closed and mewling for her mother. Nursed back into health, she now prowls through the shop, knocking books from the high shelves, curling up on beds and cushions, kneading and licking your belly in a vain attempt to elicit mothercat milk, trying to filch the meat from your plate on the rare occasion that we actually have meat to eat in the shop, and generally making an adorable nuisance of herself. In the mornings, as soon as she sees ankles she leaps out, claws into the sides of your feet and teeth into the hamstrings. She is playing, of course, but she likes to play rough.

I practice my boxing footwork, shifting and sliding around the shop floor as she stalks and chases my tantalising pale flesh, occasionally turning an ankle to present her with a target like a trainer flashing a punch pad to a boxer in the practice ring. She’s quick, but I usually manage to eke out a draw in the three minute round that we spar each morning. That is unless she pins me in a clinch, in which case she fights dirty and wins dirty, holding and biting her way to victory until she has driven me wincing and yelping from the front room and into the kitchen.

Coffee is the priority in the morning – the first person up needs to get on that post haste. Cafetieres are bullshit, instant coffee a crime against humanity – coffee from the hob boiled espresso maker is the only real coffee, mixed with warm full fat milk in a 60/40 split. This is how we roll.

Summoned by the smell of coffee, other members of the shop shuffle into view, pouring out cups and disappearing to the bathroom one by one to wrestle with our eccentric plumbing. The doors are opened, the sign flipped around, the trunk of second hand books popped open, the display books put out and the place is open for business.

As I said, morning is slow time for us. It is rare to see a potential customer in the streets, rarer still to see them in the shop. The only exception is when a cruise ship has stopped by in the morning, and the streets briefly fill. We despise the cruisers – loud, ridiculous people, tagged and labelled and led like fat cattle through the streets of Oia, drawn irresistibly to the crappy jewellery stores and souvenir stores. I don’t know if stupid people go on cruises or if cruises simply make people stupid, but they don’t make a good impression. In any case, they are alarmed by our steep steps and uninterested in our stock, and so they mostly leave us be.

Since the risk of customers is fairly low, we take breakfast at leisure on the roof of the shop – there is a nice set of battered wooden tables and chairs to lounge on if the weather is good (and it usually is unless the wind is up). Breakfast is muesli with chopped fruit and Greek yoghurt. After breakfast, the world’s most informal business meeting is held and a rough plan for the day is hammered out.

Midday and early afternoon are still fairly quiet and is the time to get things done. Perhaps we restock the shelves or play around with the displays, do some painting or repairing or shopping, dust the shelves and sweep the floor. Once every few weeks we have to go to Fira, the capital, and pay in some money and go talk to the accountant. Our meetings with the accountant are like that scene in the first episode of Black Books – we go to their nice clean offices looking like tramps and a dump a draw full of invoices, till printouts, used sweet wrappers and pocket lint onto their tastefully decorated desks. Adam, our long suffering accountant, looks up at us with weary affection and quietly shuffles off to sift through the crap and try and turn it into some kind of respectable business account.

Work or play is briefly interrupted by lunch – bread, olive oil, salad, freshly made tsatziki, cold meat and amazing creamy feta cheese – before resuming again. People take breaks as they wish, sloping off to take walks around the village, visits to the beach, napping on the terrace, studying, writing and reading or whatever they please. We take it in turns to keep an eye on the shop. Time passes quickly – the day is gone before you know it.

As the afternoon stretches on, the shop starts to get busy. Baffled to discover such a characterful bookshop in the middle of Oia, visitor after visitor is tempted to take a detour from their idle afternoon wander or shopping trip and venture down into Atlantis Books. Plenty of them are fascinated by the shop and in search of good reading, but most pay a regretfully hurried visit – the sunset is coming, and they are itching to make a purchase (or not) and get out for the star attraction.

As the famous sunset approaches, we have the shop to ourselves once more. All of our potential customers are jockeying for position on the roofs and terraces of Oia, waiting to break into applause as the sun to touches the sea. We watch from the terrace, sipping beer or the local wine and commenting on the relative merits of the evening’s natural light show.

The evening winds down naturally enough. Sometimes there is another rush of business after people have finished eating at the tavernas, sometimes not. In the shop a mass supper is cooked and eaten in the shop, or by a fire on the roof terrace if business is slow and the wind is down. When yawns start to dominate the conversation (usually around midnight) we close things up.  Sometimes we go for a walk beneath the stars, or finish the evening up with a film on the projector. People go to their personal corners of the shop to read and think, before finally retiring to wait for the sun to rise again for the whole thing to begin over again.

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Letters From Santorini: Painting Roofs and Pricing Books

April in Oia. Every shopkeeper  is getting ready for the high season. Shipments arrive from Fira and the mainland each day, and everyone is painting roofs, making signs, organising stock and planning sales tactics for the coming months. There are a few tourists about, and once every few days a cruise ship disgorges a hoard that fills the streets for a few hours in the morning.

But this is the time to prepare. Just like every other business on the island, Atlantis Books is kept alive by the summer – in a few months, we have to make enough money to keep the place afloat through the long slow season of the late autumn, winter and early spring. We have to get everything in order before Easter and the summer when the real business is done.

At Atlantis Books, bringing the bud of the bookshop to ripe fruition means two things – painting and stock management. My first few days were spent on the roof, painting doors, windows, and the roof terrace. Hot, sweaty work, but painting on a roof terrace in the blazing sun to the sound of melodic German techno and pop rock, with cold beer and a beautiful sunset to wind down the day is probably some of the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

We aren’t finished yet, but we’ve broken the back of it – the roof gleams a brilliant, blinding white, complimented perfectly by the deep sea blue of the doors and windows. Just don’t look at the frames or the floor of the terrace yet – they’ll be ready in time. Fingers crossed.

Painting has been put on hold because the shipment arrived a few days ago – over 2000 books from Random House, Faber and Faber, Penguin, and various other sources. This is the good shit, the best books in the shop, our premium sellers in English fiction, non-fiction, plays, poetry and Greek interest. Every new box opens up fresh treasures – excellently selected books in the very best editions. A flotilla of Faber and Faber poetry books, an armada of Penguin Modern Classics, and a battalion of beautiful Vintage Classics from Random House are amongst the highlights.

This is a shipment that has been put together by people who know and love their books, though in certain cases, the literary loves of the shop organisers has clouded their commercial judgement – we have more Raymond Carver, J.D. Salinger and John Fowles than we know what to do with. Such are the perils of a love affair with books – the desire to hoard rather than to sell.

There are a lot of boxes to get through. We were up until 4 in the morning after the shipment arrived; pricing, cataloguing, stocking, and so on and so forth. We got about a third of the way through. Ho-hum. Many days of slogging ahead before the shelves and stock are even vaguely in order (and there is an entirely new, experimental stock system to try out and perfect.)

But the shop is slowly taking shape, is becoming the beautiful temple of books that it is meant to be. It’s a lovely time to be here. The island is waking up from its winter hibernation, and is ready to burst brilliantly into light, colour and life in the coming months.


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