It’s not often that you read a book and realise that you are holding history in your hands. And I don’t want that to sound pretentious: I can’t imagine for one moment that The Accidental Shopkeeper, by Patrick Limming, will ever appear on the Reading List of university students; indeed, if it did, its author would probably die laughing. No, what I meant, is that without intending to – which is crucially important as it rules out bias and prejudice – this book has given future historians an invaluable resource. I’m sure the late 20th and early 21st centuries will furnish scholars with vast quantities of material on the digital revolution, on political devolution, on the rise of religious fundamentalism and the collapse of established Christian churches, all of these are if you like predictable themes. The trick is somehow to side-step the predictable and produce something that throws new light on aspects of contemporary life that people in three or four generations’ time will realise were important. And one of these must surely be the decline, or the survival – it is still unclear which it will be – of smaller towns and their economic basis, the High Street. True, the media are full of Mary Portas, but hers is the very metropolitan High Street of large chains and superstores. What Patrick Limming is writing about is a very different beast. And it matters hugely to local people. In fact I’ll be visiting his shop later today to pick up some Coarse Mix for our three rams, who have been closely confined together since their four weeks of frolicking with the ewes, which came to an end a fortnight ago.
So the book is essentially a work-focussed autobiography and it tells the story of how one man and his father set-up and established a small business, based around horticultural supplies, pet-food and garden furniture, in a provincial market town, Holbeach, in the Lincolnshire Fens, just a short distance from the Wash. It’s very much a warts-and-all story and I for one was fascinated to learn what lay behind the firm’s expansion and the creation of new premises. This involved the demolition of some Georgian buildings and it was good to read for once the other side of the story. As an archaeologist and landscape historian I rarely get to see ‘the other story’ and Patrick makes it clear that they had no alternative. We tend to forget that many buildings of this age were very Gerry-built and I honestly don’t think he could have done anything else – if, that is, the business was to continue and in the process employ local people, as it does to this day. Ultimately even old building have to make way for human well-being. It’s only when ambition and greed lead to unnecessary demolition that I get really angry: there was no need, for example, to have pulled down the Euston Arch. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that some of the finest country houses, that visitors now flock to in their millions, were constructed on the remains of destroyed medieval villages.
This book is based around the experience of success and of many small failures and that’s why it’s so important. It’s the sort of book that ought to appear in all university Local History Departments and indeed, in university libraries. As I implied earlier, it’s an historical building-block. The author is very modest about his achievements, which are considerable and the book is written light-heartedly and is replete with terrible jokes – just like the author. It’s also far better written than nearly all the dreary reports and formulaic papers produced by professional archaeologists that I still have to wade through from time to time. He jokes about his spelling (which is impeccable) and his grammar which it’s fair to say is individualistic. But his words and the pattern of his writing are helping to preserve a record of how people in the northern Fens currently speak. And it makes such a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Estuary. But at the same time it’s very good reading: from the very first page, the words flow with the natural, unaffected ease of a born writer. Whatever else he chooses to do next, I do hope Patrick never goes on a Creative Writing course.
Towards the end of the book, we are given some fascinating statistics about the rise and decline of Holbeach as a mercantile town. These are accompanied by a series of ‘then and now’ views of the High Street, which, as a local resident, I found most absorbing. Patrick spells out clearly what makes being a shop-keeper difficult and quite predictably it’s almost always either bloody-minded bankers or brain-dead local bureaucratic jobsworths. I think you get my drift. But he drives his grievances home with many pointed case-studies that you wouldn’t believe if he hadn’t told you. And that’s another thing about this book: it’s 100% truthful. I honestly couldn’t detect any signs of hyperbole or exaggeration – even when he was describing high speed exploits in his much-loved Lotus cars.
So if you’re looking for an original, thought-provoking Christmas present, you’ve just found one: Patrick Limming’s The Accidental Shopkeeper. And at £9.99 it’s the same price as The Lifers’ Club – plus it’s got pictures!