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Five For Five

The first of a series of occasional essays by Phil Griffin

Dorelle has cut my hair for years, at first in a mad salon on Oldham Street in Manchester, then at her house near Main Road football ground. Lately it was a forty minute drive to her next house, out near Waverham in Cheshire (junction 10, M56). Mostly now I see her in a ladies’ hairdressers called Headmasters in Stretford Precinct. Which is why I go to Bargain Books, round the corner, opposite WH Smith, in Unit 13.

In January this year the first three bays of shelves to the right of the entrance were labelled “Any 5 for £5”. First, I spotted “Hav”, a hardback by Jan Morris. It tells me on the dust jacket that Hav is a novel. I knew that already. The publisher’s logic for such overt labeling may have been that most people know Jan Morris as an historian of Empire and one of the finest travel writers of the last century. Also, I know that Jan Morris has said Hav is the last book she will write. I’m having this.

I now need to find another four. “The Kaiser’s Last Kiss” is a skinny paperback by Alan Judd. He’s built a reputation as a writer of spy thrillers, which have attracted comparisons with John le Carre. Surely not? I haven’t read them. The cover is a period shot of a young brunette in heels sitting on a park bench lighting up a cigarette, and the night, with her zippo. I will give this le Carre manque a go.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spot Daisy Goodwin. I met her, and her younger brother Jason, in India. He was fair-haired and good-looking to an extent that might damage his life. He was about to read Byzantine history at Cambridge. Dark haired Daisy made me nervous. She was bright as an August moon, and quite disturbingly open. Between them there was no disguising pedigree. Daisy had done her Cambridge history degree, and was off to the New York Film School. I might even have bantered with her about the films of Milos Foreman. I hope not, but I’m afraid I probably did. That was in 1982. Daisy Goodwin recently sold her Television production company to Sony for an undisclosed sum. The company was called Silver River. So is the paperback I have in my hand.

Fourth is Robert Peston, BBC Business Editor and word mangler. The Captain Beefheart of the news studio scooped the Northern Rock wreck and has never looked back. His vitriol is very nearly visible as he yodels the misdeeds of yet another black-hearted banker to a now credulous though endlessly gullible nation of poor people who have to swallow their overdraft charges even as the anger rises to choke them. His “Who Runs Britain?” was published in hardback in February 2008, the paperback I’m holding, in September that year. If ever a financial year went from bad to worse, that was it. Peston has got to be worth the next last pound in my pocket.

“Carter Beats The Devil” has a broad spine and lurid graphics. It shouted at me like a street barker. It is the debut novel by Glen David Gold. He’s American and lives in San Francisco with his wife, the author Alice Sebold. I vaguely remembered reading a favourable review. I take down the book, and it is strangely insistent I don’t put it back. The jacket illustration is pastiche pulp fiction. Carter is seated at a green baize table. He’s in white tie and dress suit, with a carnation in his buttonhole. Clean-shaven, he looks like he might be wearing lip-gloss. He is most certainly wearing a pearled and braided turban, topped off with a tall blue plume. There are playing cards and betting chips on the green baize. The Devil is beyond, recognisable from the flying mustachios and eyebrows, and from the up-turned dainty little horns projecting from each temple. The leer of the arch-villain. The gamblers both show their hands: the Devil, four Kings and nine of hearts, Carter The Great (as I will come to know him), four aces and ten of diamonds.

My hand is complete. I’m off to the counter with my five-pound note. I have a new haircut and five new books. It was really only when I got home, sat with the books beside me and began to read the cover blurb that it began to dawn on me what a very fortunate thing had happened. When I left Dorelle I’d gone into WH Smith. I found they were selling Ben McIntyre’s “Double Cross” half-price. I had it in my hand, and turned to take it to the till. This is quite a big WH Smith, at lunchtime on a Friday. There is one woman, not in the flush of youth, manning the only till of the eight that is open. There is no other staff in sight. There are nine people in front of me in the queue. Ben McIntyre goes back on the shelf, and I cross over the mall to Bargain Books. I’ve decided to start with The Kaiser’s Last Kiss.
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