"Sixpence House" is the name of an old house that was a pub once upon a time. It is some hundreds of years old and stands lopsidedly in the middle of the picturesque old village of Hay-on-Wye on the border between England and Wales . The Wye valley winds green and lush along foot of the brown hills known - with Welsh poetic license - as the Black Mountains. It sounded like an ideal place for a young writer and his artist wife and toddler son to settle down. And it almost was.
Several years ago, Paul Collins was living in San Francisco with a first book ready for publication and a certainty that he and his family needed to move somewhere cheaper and safer. Hay, which he had visited before, sounded ideal. As it famously advertises, it has 40 bookstores serving its 1500 residents, and it considers itself the world's antiquarian book centre. The Hay Festival in early summer attracts visitors from every English-speaking country.
With more modesty than accuracy, Collins claims that he was offered a job sorting out the mounds of books in the American literature section of a rambling bookstore in Wye based purely on his American accent. But Collins obviously knows his books. He has filled "Sixpence House" with snippets from obscure volumes that are by turns bizarre and hilarious. He has also developed a Theory of Dust Jackets:
"There is an implicit code that customers rely on. If a book cover has raised lettering, metallic lettering, or raised metallic lettering, then it is telling the reader: 'Hello. I am an easy-to-read work on espionage, romance, a celebrity, and/or murder.' To readers who do not care for such things, this lettering tells them: 'Hello. I am crap.' Such books can use only glossy paper for the jacket; Serious Books can use glossy finish as well, but it is only Serious Books that are allowed to use matte finish.
Diminutively sized paperbacks, like serial romances or westerns or dieting or astrology guides, are aimed at the uneducated. But diminutively sized hardcover books are aimed at the educated - except those that are very diminutive, which are religious books aimed at the uneducated - and unless they are in a highly rectangular format, in which case they are point-of-purchase books aimed at the somewhat-but-not-entirely educated....."
This book, by the way, has a "matte" cover in a "muted, tea-stained" colour. That means that it is Serious Literature. Oh, surely not that serious, Mr Collins.
The author's theory of house prices was less successful. Assuming that anywhere as far from paid employment as Hay was bound to be a cheap place to live, he went in search of a quaint old home with stone walls, massive beams and a huge garden for his son to play in. This would have been fair enough when Britain's economy really was "sad", but it has developed something of a smirk in recent years. All those affluent townies buying second homes for the weekend have sent house prices in rural England and Wales rocketing out of reach of young families in the countryside. The only houses that are "quaint", but still within the price range of an aspiring writer, come encumbered with entailed land or six inches of water in the basement. Successful writers, as Collins deserves to be based on this book, may find a wider choice.