WORD POWER –  “A veritable flea market of books and ideas”

Allan Armstrong interviews Elaine Henry who set up the Word Power bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland’s only independent Left and radical bookshop

Why did you decide to set-up Word Power?

I’d been a volunteer in the women’s bookshop, Womanzone, and was aware of other radical bookshops in Edinburgh – the socialist bookshop, the First Of May, and the lesbian and gay bookshop, Lavender Menace. Womanzone closed for various reasons. I realised there was still a need for feminist literature and, when the First of May closed, there was still a demand for a more general radical bookshop.

It took quite a few years though to pluck up the courage to set up Word Power. I did a course in publishing, concentrating on radical bookselling. At that point there was still a Federation of Radical Booksellers, which published a newsletter. I visited Mushroom Books in Nottingham, the Independent Bookshop in Sheffield, Frontline Books in Manchester, and several in London. I was trying to find out what was involved, since I had a desire to make books available, not on a party basis, but from across the Left.

What is your own political background?

I’d been involved in the Women’s Movement – the Scottish Women’s Day, and I’d produced the first Edinburgh Women’s Directory for Edinburgh City Council. I was in contact with a lot of the women’s groups in Edinburgh, and very active in the Anti-Pornography campaign. Then, working at the Citizen Rights Office, I became more involved in the issues of low pay and social injustice. I was very active in the campaign for Trisha Jennings, who was sacked from Burtons for being pregnant. Every week, for over six months, I was outside Burtons with my placard. The case went to a tribunal and we won. There was a gradual development from more feminist issues to involvement in a broader political spectrum of activities.

I finally took the plunge and opened Word Power in 1994, cutting the red ribbon on the 22nd November.

Word Power has the backing of important radical cultural figures, e.g. James Kelman. How did you make these links?

Jim Kelman opened the shop for us in 1994, and has always been really supportive. I already knew him. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I met Jim first, but I think it was at some event on the Scottish Enlightenment involving Hamish Henderson. We were also active in the campaigns in Glasgow for an Asian worker who had been sacked, and another who had been attacked. I used to see Jim regularly in a political and campaigning, rather than a literary, context.

How has Word Power been able to survive, when most other radical bookshops have closed down?

One of the hardest lessons that I learned first of all was, when we first opened the shop, it stocked what I or my friends and supporters liked. We soon came to realise these weren’t necessarily the books that were selling. To survive, we are fortunately sited next to the university. This provides ‘bread and butter’ sales, which enable us to keep, say, Marx on the shelf. Marx is not selling everyday of the week!

I wouldn’t call this a compromise, since I think when you are next to a university it is important to stock text-books, and a lot of these do fit into the remit of the shop. These sales enable you to fund the small presses, and, as I would see it, the more interesting and specialist material, which might only sell every six months or so. Any other business would say that is terrible. Why are you doing that? It’s about trying to run a business without really being a business and Word Power is not just a business, it’s a community resource.

How important is your website? Is it used for more than advertising books and events?

The website has been a positive development. Yes, it performs a commercial function to advertise the books we sell and our events. It started out with only the books we stocked, but now we take the data feed for all the UK books in print. We also have a notice-board section and a bit for people to post articles. This is more about trying to connect with like-minded folk and have that as an information resource.

What was the thinking behind launching of the Radical Book Fair?

Tarlochan {Gata-Aura} was quite instrumental in that, because he’d been involved in the Radical, Black and Third World Book Fair in London. I’d heard of it, but it was Tarlochan who suggested that we have a similar book fair in Edinburgh. Jim Kelman had had Noam Chomsky for a one-off book fair in Glasgow, not long before I opened Word Power. I thought that was a good idea, when you are trying to do more than sell books, by making links with readers and writers. It enables you discuss the ideas in the books. It seemed like a natural progression.

The first Radical Book Fair was held in 1996. It was in the Nelson Hall of the Macdonald Road Library. It was opened by the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka. It only had six tables of books in that small space. It’s progressed a lot, over fourteen years, to its current venue in Out of the Blue in Leith.

Are there any particular events associated with the Radical Book Fair which stand out?

There have been loads, but one that I really enjoyed was when we had Linton Kwesi Johnson at the Assembly Rooms. That was really inspiring. About 350 people came to hear Caribbean poetry. At first I was a bit nervous. Quite a few people hadn’t heard of him! It turned out to be a perfect event with politics and poetry combined. There was a real buzz, with so many people there. Having the eco-feminist author, Vandana Shiva, come all the way from India to open one of the book fairs, was another.

Some of the best events happen when there are disagreements and you get real debates. This is more satisfying and it is always a challenge to get such speakers. We’ve had quite a few coming to speak about Palestine. For example, the Jewish scholar, Ilan Pappe has spoken, whilst another, Avi Shlaim, opened our last book fair. Not everybody agreed and indeed one woman walked out and complained. However, I think one of the strengths of the book fair is that it is non-party and is not aligned. That is also quite important for its survival.

You have also began to organise an alternative to the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. What made you take this decision?

Partly frustration. The Edinburgh Book Festival has its place. It is very well established but costs a lot to get in. They are going to take celebrity political writers like Naomi Klein, John Pilger or Tariq Ali. However, lots of writers and small publishers were saying to us, well, we just can’t get in there. Many of these people have interesting, sometimes more interesting things to say.

There is a different audience in Edinburgh in August during the Festival. There had already been a couple of precedents. The poet, Tessa Ransford, had set up a Writers’ Breakfast event on a weekend. The decision to organise an alternative was really just a continuation of Word Power’s philosophy. There is scope to develop this into a Book Fringe.

We don’t have the same restrictions on time as the official Book Festival. We can allow more extended discussions at our events. Many of the writers, whom we have piggybacked from the Book Festival, have said to us, that they’ve enjoyed our event better. They have got more out of it. It is less formulaic. They can engage with their audience, which is what writers want to do.

Word Power has published several books. How do you decide on which books to publish?

It is quite eclectic at the moment. We have books on Scottish writers, Indian poets, and the latest book is on the Bhopal disaster. We want to do a mixture of things. I am keen to promote more works by Scottish writers who have been overlooked, including those from the past that still have an important political message.

We have published about ten books from writers that we know. We have also rejected work from people that we know! We have looked at books for their Scottish, political and minorities (e.g. lesbians and gays) content.

Did you make a conscious decision to publish the work of Willa Muir and Valda Grieve, to counter the much wider celebration in Scotland of the work of their partners, Edwin Muir and Hugh MacDairmid?

I think that’s right. In the case of Willa Muir there is still controversy. The Muirs are known as the first people to have translated Kafka, but there is still an ongoing dispute as to who actually did the translation. Edwin Muir tends to get the credit. You will have to read the book! Many of Willa Muir’s books are out of print. She is now taught more in Scottish universities than Edwin Muir, but he is still the one, who is better known.

Likewise with Valda Grieve. I think the Letters from Valda Grieve to Christopher Grieve (Hugh MacDairmid) are very illuminating about the cultural and literary life which they were living, and the extent to which women support men so they can get on with their creative endeavours.

It was very good to give these two a profile. They were very creative in their own right. Whether they will get the kudos they deserve is another matter.

Do you have any publishing plans for the near future?

We are just about to publish a memoir by Barbara Tizard, who was a child psychologist. She was published by Routledge and wrote a book called Black, White or Mixed Race? She was very interested in race, gender and equality issues.

She lived in the same house as Eric Hobsbawm. The book is really an account of living in a socialist and working class household in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. She is in her eighties now. The book spans her life, including her getting a scholarship to Oxford. It is peppered with all these famous people from the past that we read about, but she actually knew. The book is being launched at the Institute of Education in April.

Towards the end of the year, we are publishing a collection of essays, Scottish Novels of the Second World War. Although you would think that people would know about them, there is a lack of awareness about these writers.

Word Power has also helped to organise important political support events, e.g. for Palestine and 25 years since the Bhopal Disaster. What other such events have you been involved in, and how do you decide?

We try to do things in collaboration with other groups. We think it is important to reach out and cooperate with organised campaigns. Groups come and approach us. We try to help in what ways we can. Sometimes we just provide a bookstall for an event. Other times we are more actively involved, or we host events here.

We have worked with the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. Word Power jointly organised the event last February, in the Argyle Bar, in a response to the crisis caused by the Israeli invasion of Gaza. We felt compelled to do something. We have links with artists who felt frustrated themselves and wanted to offer their services. Ron Butlin, Alan Cameron, Regi Claire, Alasdair Gray, Kathleen Jamie, Tom Leonard and Dilys Rose performed through the day, whilst music was provided by Karine Polwart and others in the evening. A £1000 was raised for Gaza, which was brilliant.

Does Word Power see itself as part of a wider radical alternative cultural and political scene in Edinburgh, alongside say, the Edinburgh Peoples Festival and the Out of the Blue centre?

I would like to develop stronger links. I have lots of contact. Word Power talks to the Peoples Festival and Out of the Blue. Sometimes, even in a small city like Edinburgh, not deliberately, we operate quite individually at times. There can be a clash over events. There is not even a basic system to ensure these clashes don’t take place. I don’t think there is a clear cultural network that we are part of. It is a bit more haphazard and can be a bit cliquey at time. We don’t readily collaborate on projects unless there is a clear specific issue that pulls everybody together. I think there could be more done on that.

I’d also like to develop more links. There is meant to be this new Writers’ Centre starting in Glasgow. People are doing things. They could be connected up a bit more. We have links with writers in Glasgow and Fife. They only seem to have Waterstones. We are seeing more folk in the shop on their day trip through from Glasgow.

How do you see Word Power developing in the future?

I see it as a tough job just to keep going! Two years ago we knocked through the wall to create a bigger space to organise our events. It has made a big difference to us. I think there is more scope to develop the website. We definitely want to publish more. If only there were two more days in the week! As with most radical projects its resources – people power and the time and energy to do it.

We will be publishing this interview in our Republic of the Imagination section. How important do you see culture in these hard times for the Left?

Looking at the wider Left, there seems to be a dearth of folk who are actively engaged in the literary cultural side, embracing the wealth of knowledge from Left writers. In the past there were writers like Harold Pinter, who could express eloquently the ideas of the Left. The cultural and literary are not separate from the political.

In an economic situation like today it is time to inspire people with new ideas. Everybody in Scotland should know who Jim Kelman is, who Janice Galloway is. I think that political progress can only be made on the Left, when it has taken culture and new ideas on board. That then ties in with the networks we have, which need to be extended.

For the Left to re-engage and captivate people, they have to have that imagination themselves. It is also about history and herstory and not forgetting what came before, and taking people with you. Otherwise, a lot of what we end up doing is just ‘reinventing the wheel’.

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