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.