Mill Road Winter Fair – 2014 Style

Seven o’clock on the morning of Saturday 6 December 2014. Daylight was still just a vague hint in the east, yet I was up and raring to go. I’d been pretty hyper for a couple of days now, and it was all about today – Cambridge’s annual Mill Road Winter Fair. My Books, Beautiful Books stall would be appearing in the fair’s Donkey Green (or is it Donkey Common?) marquee, and five local authors would be sharing the day with me. Despite having company this year (I ran a stall on my own last year) I was still nervous as my partner Andy drove me, a hefty box full of Dory’s Avengers and a substantial sack barrow into town in his (luckily) spacious taxi. I didn’t want to be bringing all that stock back home again in the evening. I really didn’t want that…

I arrived in situ with over an hour to go. It was a cracking morning: freezing cold, but bright and sunny; a classic winter’s day. Last year I walked from one end of the marquee to the other, heaving all my stock with me, only to find my stall located right by the entrance. Learn from experience? Nah, not me. I did exactly the same thing again this year.

Having found the stall and exchanged greetings with the young lady preparing to offer a gift wrapping service on the neighbouring stall, I hadn’t even had time to unload my books before I was joined by the first of my companions, Susan Grossey, complete with the first two books of her series following the career of Sam Plank, a fictional magistrate’s constable working in Regency London. Together we transformed our plain table into a magnificent stall, with a little help from the friendly gift wrapper and her plentiful supply of Sellotape, and we were able to relax and get to know each other. Obviously we had a love of books in common, but more than that we clicked right from the start and were soon chatting like old friends. That’s when I started to relax; I knew I was going to enjoy the day.

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Our beautiful stall, photobombed by a not so beautiful sack barrow

Shahida Rahman arrived next. We’d met last year at an author event in the central library, had got along famously and had kept in touch all year, so it was fabulous to see her again. While I was wandering round the fair in search of coffee, Saffra Monteiro arrived; having met Saffra earlier in the year, Sue did the introductions when I returned with a latte and a mouth full of lemon drizzle cake. Saffra was selling the first in what is to become a series of fantasy books, and both her cover and she herself were very eye-catching. Poet Michael Brown arrived a little while later, and finally Georgia Rose joined us. Georgia had the furthest to travel and wasn’t familiar with Cambridge, so I was very relieved when she arrived safely.

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The authors! Top row l-r: Georgia Rose, Michael Brown, Shahida Rahman. Bottom row l-r: Saffra Monteiro, Susan Grossey, Alison Jack

Obviously, with six authors running one stall, space was at a premium. We managed to lay claim to a narrow strip of stall each on which to display our sample copies (the idea being that customers would thumb through those books and not our pristine selling stock), and Shahida had room to mount the banner advertising her historical novel Lascar behind our stall thanks to the ever obliging gift wrappers shifting towards the door to give us more room. When Shahida had sold a book before the fair had even opened, I started to believe we might actually have a lucrative day…

Let the carnival begin! At 10.30 Mill Road Winter Fair was officially underway, and almost immediately the crowds poured in through the marquee entrance. Sue and Shahida, both far more self confident than I, went out to meet and greet potential customers. I stayed behind the stall, smiling inanely and getting to know Michael and Georgia while Saffra went in search of refreshments. Michael had brought a Cambridge News cutting about the release of The Exhibit, his collection of poetry, and coincidentally the article had been published right next to a column that Sue regularly writes for the same paper. Thanks to Sue and Shahida, visitors stopped and looked at our stall, and before long Michael had sold a copy of The Exhibit. He was even able to supply the customer with a handy gift wrapping service as she intended the book as a gift – bonus! Michael was chuffed at the idea that someone will be unwrapping a copy of his book on Christmas morning; I remember feeling the same last year when Dory’s was purchased as a gift, but it didn’t look as though I’d be getting that buzz this year (sigh)…

It was about half an hour into the fair that things went downhill. Our neighbours – not the friendly gift wrappers, the other neighbours – took umbrage at the fact that Sue and Shahida were mingling with the crowds entering the marquee. The neighbours’ request that Sue and Shahida try not to obstruct their stall was reasonable, but the aggressive way in which they put it wasn’t. Sue and Shahida did as asked, but that wasn’t good enough for the narky neighbours.

‘Can you stop approaching people as soon as they come through the door? You’re stopping them from coming to our stall.’ No, dear, we’ve every right to attract customers. I think someone got out of bed on the wrong side on Saturday morning!

Before long the narky neighbours were the least of our concerns. I’d noticed water pouring down from the side entrance to the marquee as the sun moved round and melted the frost, but hadn’t thought too much about it. I’d even watched, mildly amused, as a young man wiped down the ceiling of the marquee with a mop. Oh yeah, ha ha. Hilarious. A drop fell on to our stall, shortly followed by a second. Young man with mop to the rescue. Job done?

No chance! The drops began to fall with alarming regularity as the condensation rolled down the slope of the ceiling and gathered above our stall. My request that everyone stop breathing wasn’t met with very much enthusiasm, and it wasn’t long before the mop man had a full time job protecting our precious books from the deluge. He was heard to comment that he didn’t pray for an easy life, he prayed for the strength to endure. Personally, had I the faith to pray I’d have been asking for a dry pitch at that moment in time.

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Our soggy stall

Outside the marquee the sun continued to shine, and it was dry. Beautifully dry. Watching the crowds passing our stall by as soon as they saw the water pouring down on us, we made the executive decision to up sticks and move outside. Mop man did radio those in charge to ask if this would be alright as we weren’t supposed to move our stall from its intended position, but drastic situations call for drastic measures. By the time he came back with the thumbs up, our stall was already outside and we were collecting our bits and bobs.

In the unlikely event that Alanis Morissette reads my blog, she might be interested to know that rain on your wedding day isn’t actually ironic. Rain on a stall pitched inside a tent expressly to avoid it getting wet should the weather be inclement – now that’s ironic!


Ready to go again

It wasn’t long before the lovely gift wrappers had also moved outside – falling water would play havoc with wrapping paper as much as it would with books. Happily, the narky neighbours stayed put in the marquee. Michael was having lunch and a look round the fair with his husband John when we’d moved out, and as none of us had thought to take his phone number he was a bit baffled when he returned to the marquee and found a soggy gap where our stall had once been. The winter sun did its best to warm us, and we were able to display our books without a care in the world. We had more room to move around, plenty of visitors passing by, a great view of a group of hunky fireman pulling a fire engine along the road (mmm, that warmed us up!) and I even made up for the fact I never got a chance to see the Winter Fair parade last year.

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The parade

The day wore on, and the low winter sun gradually slipped behind the buildings. To say the fair was successful in terms of sales would be a huge exaggeration, but hey! I sold two books! One by one my stall mates gave up and went home as the temperature plummeted; soon only Sue, Georgia and I remained, chatting and laughing like the friends we had become over the course of the day. When the sun disappeared completely, we finally decided we’d had enough for this year and packed up our wares, promising to stay in touch and meet up again in the new year.

Waiting for Andy to pick me up after the fair, wondering whether I’d ever feel warm again, I looked over the darkening town and reflected on the day. Six people with a range of different ages and backgrounds had been brought together by a common interest – books. Yes, my early fears had been realised and I was bringing pretty much all my stock back home again, but I had great memories and five new friends. Can I put a price on these things? Of course I can’t, because they’re priceless.


The end of the day


Introducing – Shahida Rahman @shahidarahman

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Click image for Amazon UK purchase link

The fourth author joining me at Mill Road Winter Fair on Saturday 6 December to be a part of Books, Beautiful Books is Shahida Rahman. I had the pleasure of meeting Shahida at Cambridge Central Library last December where she was marketing copies of her excellent historical novel Lascar, and we have stayed in touch since.

It will be fabulous to see her again on Saturday. If you visit the projects and events pages on her website you’ll see how busy she is, as well as being a prolific writer and regular guest on Sue Doogan’s Radio Cambridgeshire show, so I’m delighted she’s found the time to join us.

Here’s more about Shahida in her own words:

I am Shahida Nessa Rahman.

I was born and raised in Cambridge. I am an author, publisher and freelance writer. I am also the Director and founder of Perfect Publishers Ltd, launched in 2005 which is a print-on-demand book publishing company providing a range of services for authors and other publishers.

I write historical fiction, non-fiction and short stories including the following.

ibrahim[1]‘Ibrahim-Where in the Spectrum Does he Belong?’ (Perfect Publishers 2005) is a memoir about raising a child with a learning disorder.

In 2010 my short story ‘Homecoming’ was the inspiration behind the screenplay ‘India Ink’ which I co-wrote with US screenwriter, Halle Eavelyn. ‘India Ink’ was shortlisted for the Circalit First Draft Contest (2011) and a finalist of the WriteMovies International Writing contest (2011).

‘The Integration of the Hijab into Police Uniforms,’ which was published in the ‘Behind the Hijab’ anthology, in March 2009 by Monsoon Press. Also in 2009, I was commissionedbehindhijab[1] to write a radio play ‘The Lascar’ for the Lascar Heritage Project for Silsila Productions.

‘Lascar’ (Indigo Dreams Publishing 2012) is a work of historical fiction inspired by a paternal ancestor, a lascar (seaman). My highly acclaimed novel revives the story of these unsung heroes and draws attention to their plight, educating people through the use of fictional characters.  ‘Lascar’ was shortlisted for the Muslim Writers Awards, Unpublished Novel Awards (2008) and long listed for the Brit Writers Unpublished Novel Awards (2010).

I was awarded a Channel S ‘Special Acknowledgment Award’ in 2012 for my work. I also entered the annual publication ‘British-Bangladeshi Who’s Who’ in 2013. I also won ‘Mother of the Year’ at the Maa Amar Maa Awards in 2014.

I have contributed to the following magazines: Best of British, The Great War, Children of the New Earth, Sisters (the UK’s first magazine for Muslim women). I have also contributed to BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Three Counties radio. I write  regularly for ‘Asian World’ newspaper and I am a columnist for ‘Weekly Desh’ and have blogged for the ‘Huffington Post’.

I am on the judging panel in the short story category of the Young Muslim Writers Awards 2014. I am currently writing my second historical novel about an Indian Ayah.


To find out more about Shahida and her work, please visit her website or have a look at her YouTube videos.

You can also connect with Shahida on Twitter @ShahidaRahman or on Facebook.

Alison’s Advent Calendar Days Thirteen, Fourteen and Fifteen – Cambridge Authors.

FinalCentralNewAuthors (3)The advent calendar has been a on hold for a couple of days, for two very good reasons. On Friday (day thirteen) I was delighted to host a guest post from talented author, hilarious blogger and thoroughly nice man Seumas Gallacher; then on Saturday (day fourteen) I was equally delighted to be one of the local authors invited to hold a book signing event in Cambridge Central Library.

The library event was first suggested to me by a lovely lady called Victoria Richardson a few months ago, and I leapt at the idea. What a great place for a book signing; we’d be guaranteed  to grab the attention of book lovers in a library – wouldn’t we? Victoria took time out from her busy schedule to gather together five authors, between us offering a diverse selection of books:

The prolific Karen Campbell has written lifestyle books DON’T FORGET THE KETTLE and KETTLE IN TRANSIT, chick lit treats THE PARTY GIRL’S INVITATION and PARTY GIRL AT HEART, and children’s book LUCY’S MESS MONSTERS.

I’d had a look at Shahida Rahman‘s historical novel LASCAR online before the library event, and I knew I’d be buying a copy. If you click on the impressive ‘events’ list on Shahida’s website you’ll see she’s no stranger to promotional events!

Amita Rani has an elegant book of poetry out called A LIFE OF LOVE. Some of her poems were displayed in beautiful frames on her table, which was artistically decorated with ribbons and a sparkly tablecloth.

I didn’t know much about the fourth author, Chris L Carter, prior to the event, but couldn’t resist buying a copy of his book STEPPING ON THE CRACKS. A snapshot of 1970’s Britain from the point of view of a football loving David Bowie fan, it sounds very much my kind of book. I LOVE social history.

Last but not least (oh no!), in attendance was Alison Jack, the author of DORY’S AVENGERS. You know ALL about this classic book, now don’t you!

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The authors. Left to right: Amita Rani, Shahida Rahman, Karen Campbell, Alison Jack, Chris Carter

I took advantage of my partner Andy and his eight seater taxi to transport myself, my books and the trusty sack barrow into the centre of town. Luckily, Victoria had said she would be in the library over an hour before it opened, so Andy was able to drop me off before the pre-Christmas traffic became too dense. Unluckily, I hadn’t been organised enough to store Victoria’s number in my phone, and so I had to wait outside the library until the second author, Karen, arrived. While waiting, I had my ear chewed by an elderly gentleman who was chagrined that the library didn’t open until 10 o’clock, and clearly thought that was my fault.

That wasn’t the last time library visitors took umbrage at not being allowed in before ten. As we set up the book sale, we authors quickly learned not to make eye contact with the folk massing outside, encouraging us to let them in. As a result, Chris was left waiting for a good ten minutes while we all resolutely ignored him.

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Karen’s display of the left, and my own display in the centre, all set up and ready to go.

I was in full disorganised mode on the day of the Local Author Booksale, and true to form I left it until opening time before I decided to take a photo of our display from the doorway.

‘You can stand there if you like,’ said one of the library caretakers to me, nodding towards the seething mass ready to pour through the doors, ‘but I’m about to let them in.’ I took my photo later!

All five of us authors and Victoria stood with bright smiles, welcoming the library visitors as they surged in – and walked straight past us. Victoria made a gallant effort to direct people in our direction, but their reactions ranged from ‘I’ll come back later’ (rare) to ‘No!’ (frequent). We had a couple of Duke of Edinburgh Award girls to help us out; I think they’d hoped to be directing queues and chatting to excited book buyers, but instead they spent most of their time fetching us hot drinks and taking group photos. While waiting for the hoards of customers I hoped were on the way, I socialised with my fellow authors, swapping writing experiences and laughing about various marketing mishaps. As a result I ended the day with four new friends; and friends, of course, are priceless.

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The super supportive Victoria welcoming visitors to the Local Author Booksale.

Despite the best efforts of Victoria, the library staff, the lovely Duke of Edinburgh girls and us authors ourselves, the book sale was not a success. People who visit libraries are generally keen readers, although one man did refuse Victoria’s invitation to have a look at the books on sale with the reply ‘I don’t read much’, but on the other hand people visit libraries to borrow books rather than buy them. I swapped copies of Dory’s with the other authors in return for copies of their books, and one of my friends popped in to buy one as a gift, but it was like ‘pulling teeth’ (Karen’s words) persuading people to give us a second glance. The few who did venture over scarpered as soon as we approached them.

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Karen enjoying a browse, but I’m sure she’d rather have been selling.

In retrospect, perhaps a library would have been a more suitable venue for a less sales orientated event. None of us wanted people to feel pressured into buying a book, but I think that’s how they did feel. Possibly more people would have shown an interest had the event been billed as an informal chat with local authors – or am I being over optimistic? There’s only one way to find out…

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Amita and Shahida enjoying a chat, but I’m sure they’d rather have been selling too.

All too soon our two hours were up, and we packed away our stock with promises to stay in touch and meet again. Shahida and Karen have both guested on a BBC Radio Cambridgeshire show and know the presenter well, so perhaps we can get together for a local author chat on the airwaves. I can’t thank Victoria enough for organising the event, despite the lack of sales. She was willing to invest time and effort into trying out a book sale in the library, and despite the fact that didn’t really work she’s not lost any of her enthusiasm for finding some way of making local author events a success.

Did I have a good time at the Local Author Booksale? I loved every minute, and that makes it a resounding success as far as I’m concerned.

***Advent Calendar 004Advent calendar picture day thirteen – A Christmas rose.

Day fourteen – A Christmas bell.

Day fifteen – Robins in the snow.