The Newsagent’s Window, by John Osborne

A book that really grabbed me as I dawdled around Amazon in search of holiday reading material was “The Newsagent’s Window” by John Osborne; the tale of one man who decided in an era of eBay and global trade to live his life through the notices in local newsagents’ windows. It struck me as a refreshingly old-school way of looking at the world, not to mention a fun mission to pursue, so I gave it a go and was incredibly glad that I did.

Freshly returned to Norwich, his old university city, having gone on from studies to some time teaching English abroad, we join John Osborne as he tries to eek out a new life for himself. But as he finds a flat and turns his mind to equipping and furnishing it, the idea occurs to him to buy things via adverts in newsagents’ windows. He then goes on to respond to other notices selling things for which he has no ostensible need – a car, massage services, a Beaver’s uniform – purely to find out what sort of people use this medium of sale and why they do it.

The admittedly amusing results of his early escapades left me thinking for a very brief moment that “The Newsagent’s Window” was going to be a simple book – just a madcap adventure, some hilarious interactions, and some outrageous and entertaining outcomes. But quickly, and really quite beautifully, the writer moves the book on to do two much more compelling things.

Firstly, he realises that through his experiences of using these adverts, he begins to discover more about himself in the post-university, pre-career void. He is moved to think about his aims in life, his connection to his local environment, and what makes him tick. While he does achieve his objective of discovering what sort of people advertise through newsagents’ windows, we – and the writer himself – end up discovering an awful lot more about him.

Secondly, by investigating the people, the streets and the events of his hometown through the medium of the adverts, Osborne paints a compelling picture of modern, small-town Britain – away from the high streets and the financial centres and in what one might call “real” communities. For instance, when a notice leads him to attend a highly-charged public hearing about a proposed new Tesco in the area, his account of the meeting paints a poignant picture of a kind of Britain that might just be about to die and in other parts of the country has actually done so.

Meanwhile another chapter describes how he as a “woolly agnostic” goes to a church service for the first time in many years, again of course as a result of a notice in a window. His description of the panic, uncertainty, confusion and (eventual) reassurance and comfort that he as a stranger experiences in the church is, in my view, highly recommended reading for any Christian.

Overall, the book is a beautiful portrait of modern Britain, and a great example about how a “silly idea” book can develop a bigger, broader and more interesting purpose. It is heartwarming, entertaining, thought-provoking and definitely one of my books of the year.

4 thoughts on “The Newsagent’s Window, by John Osborne

  1. That book sounds like it could be worth checking out, and one I could probably buy Matthew too.

    Am quite interested in the idea of community recently and where we find that now people move about more and are less likely to be linked to a religious community (recently a friend gave birth a very poorly baby, and as well as praying for her, people from her temple came round with casseroles).

    I sometimes wonder where I will find that community now, particularly somewhere like London. Do you find that in Inverness? Or do you think fact that your involvement in the church mean that you will always have a community regardless?

  2. Very interesting thoughts, Siobhan.

    Of course in the past people could move around for work, and do so not just en masse but for a long time – eg emigration to Canada or other colonies. I guess they kept their sense of community because they were with others, whereas in today’s world people are moving alone and just for the day, so spend less time in anything like a community. And of course with the internet people can count folk on the other side of the world as their friends, colleagues etc, perhaps even without meeting them.

    That ease of transport, and the pressure it creates to look further afield for work, has probably been a significant cause of the loss of community, and that’s not just felt in churches (not only do you have the choice of churches up to fifty miles away these days, but you have less time or social compulsion to be a part of one) but everything else from volunteer opportunities to social clubs and so on.

    Even the workplace, too – people no longer work en masse with their family and neighbours, and so people identify less with their workplace because it is not as all-encompassing. One consequence of this is the decline in trade unions, which provided not just political representation but a sense of identity.

    So yes, maybe those who remain – perhaps against the grain – in a church or organisation of some sort feel more of a sense of community. To answer your question, yes I find my church a huge part of the community of which I am a part: the things I do, the people I socialise with, the issues and factors that I talk about and am shaped by, etc.

    Without that, would I have such a strong sense of community here in Inverness? I don’t know. Probably not, but maybe I might have more time or inclination to join a club, take up more hobbies, find personal fulfilment in another way, and that might provide a sense of community.

    Surely in London, with such good transport and opportunities to do just about anything you like recreation-wise, there’s even more chance to find a community, is there not? Even if one that, geographically, is scattered around the city.

    I’m suppose, though, there’s no hard and fast rule: you could be in the world’s most dynamic and bustling mega-city and have or in a small, rural village, and in either of those I am sure you could find either a huge sense of community or no community at all.

    I think one of the points The Newsagent’s Window makes – even if unintentionally – is that if you look in unusual places against the grain of what your life or societal influences might suggest (eg adverts in windows) then it is possible to find that sense of community. I guess it comes down to how much you want to tease it out, and whether that makes it “forced” and therefore not a proper community.

    Interesting stuff.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts, I asked because I knew you would have interesting and intelligent things to say. I think a community of place can be hard to find in London, but working on a campus is, to a degree, giving me that as I meet lots of people from various backgrounds and have lunch with them and I think shared meals do give you a sense of community (even if the conversations are often fairly shallow – though not meaningless).

    In London I have community through Join Me, but am not sure how long it would have taken to find that were it not for that group. I’m aiming to, as well as working for a local institution, in a job with a community focus, to join a local group as a trustee to get more involved in what it happening under my nose. In London it feels more like a lot of individuals floating around sometimes trying not to integrate, but you can get that anywhere as you said.

    But local notices are good. And it sounds like this book shows this well. The notices in my local supermarket, or outside my local church, tell me that there is a thriving community on my doorstep, so now I need to go out there and say hello.

  4. Modern workplaces like campuses are, I guess, great places with potential for community, they’re just probably not communities in the same sense as in the past when people would also live and socialise together (even in universities, which in the past provided even staff with accommodation and were quite all-encompassing). I doubt many workplaces can provide the community that work – or indeed anything – used to provide in the past.

    Probably only certain churches, workplaces or organisations manage to provide it these days.

    Join Me’s a great example of a community actually – apart from the spritual dimension, it’s actually everything a church would provide in terms of being a community of friends, a sub-culture, a badge (often literally) of identity, a framework for routine and travel, and so on. Perhaps, though, it only works in the social sense because it has a place like London as an anchor. I can’t imagine something starting in Thurso or Anglesea or Svalbard having the same sort of effect as Join Me. Which did, after all, start with a notice!

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