I was sitting at my desk in Malibu, starting to write this, when I felt my chair and desk starting to undulate strangely up and down. The penny dropped quickly, and I shouted to the family to make for the garden, along with Uncle Shakespeare, the cat. We waited outside until all seemed quiet and returned to watch the news on TV of a 5.1 earthquake down the road.
Back in London, meanwhile, we’re shaking things up in Charing Cross Road. For the first time in a hundred years, Foyles is moving, to a new home two doors down. Three years ago we bought the iconic St Martin’s School of Art building. Retaining the façade and much of the high-ceilinged and galleried interior, we obtained planning approval for four floors of retail space and four floors of apartments.
I’m looking forward to the opening party in June for authors, publishers and celebrities, followed by the formal opening by Hilary Mantel and the spectacular three-week literary festival of authors and events.
Our last foreign holiday was to Myanmar and Bhutan, both still magical places. The two weeks in Myanmar were with an entertaining group of about 70, organised by Ultimate Travel and led by its indefatigable larger-than-life MD, Nick van Gruisen, and his glamorous wife Iris. We journeyed up the Irrawaddy river on a new Orient-Express boat visiting exotic Mandalay.
Early one morning we tore off in a squadron of high-speed motorised skiffs to witness the annual religious festival on Inle lake, where enormous gilded barges, one containing the chief abbot on his throne, carried four Buddha images around the lake, escorted by boats propelled athletically by rows of beautifully dressed young men.
All the while, evocative ethereal music came from horns, drums and cymbals and incense smoke drifted about. Dazzling, magnificent pageantry.
I’ve spent the past four weeks going through the Foyle Archive. I discovered some fascinating letters to my aunt, Christina Foyle, from a raft of the great and the good from 1930 to the present day, as well as some revealing photographs. These form the basis of an exhibition in the Gallery at Foyles.
Among some of our new ventures, Foyles is planning a range of literary tours in partnership with tour operators. The initial programme will bring to life the work of Roald Dahl, Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters and Dylan Thomas. A ‘Platinum Programme’, operating worldwide, is also being planned, with the first excursion to the Jaipur Literary Festival with Marcel Theroux in January 2015.
UK to Ukraine
I’ve been reading a lot about Uncle Vlad’s shenanigans in Ukraine, because I know the area quite well. I drove all round the Soviet Union by car in 1972, from Finland to Leningrad, Moscow, Rostov, Georgia, Armenia, Kharkov, Kiev, Odessa and out through Romania. Since 1988, we’ve spent nearly twenty years doing aviation business in the Soviet Union, then Russia, and have made about five trips a year to Ukraine for eighteen years.
Last summer I joined a group of flying friends led by Prince Michael of Kent, who flew their aircraft all round Ukraine. We started in Lviv in the west, then we flew to Kiev and Sevastopol, where we landed at the Ukrainian Air Force base at Belbek that was more recently forcibly taken over by the Russians. Everywhere we were greeted magnificently by the government and the armed forces — a navy admiral hosted a party for us on his flagship in Sevastopol naval base.
A local military historical group re-enacted the Charge of the Light Brigade down the actual ‘Valley of Death’, with horses, and men in original uniforms and cannon firing, while our members flew their aircraft types, including Tiger Moths and World War II war birds down the valley, towing banners. We made many new friends, and it is sad to see what has now happened to Crimea, and indeed in eastern Ukraine and Odessa.
A long road
My grandfather, William Foyle, lived for and dreamed about books. When he and his brother Gilbert opened our current shop in the 1920s, he declared it the greatest bookshop in the world.
Christina, William’s daughter, who generally preferred animals to people, left us a bookshop of almost unbelievable idiosyncrasy.
Since then we’ve had some ups and downs, but William and Gilbert’s spirit of entrepreneurship, hard work and occasional eccentricity will live on in the new Foyles at 107 Charing Cross Road.
I can’t quite believe that after all these years of planning we’ve made it and we’re still on Charing Cross Road. William once said he considered it the most immoral place in the world — ‘but it has a wonderful fascination’. I hope he and Gilbert would be proud of, and a little fascinated by, what we’ve managed to achieve.
The Foyles Grand Opening Festival runs 11 June-5 July