It’s Hard to be a Bookseller

Rather like being a carpenter, except you get paper-cuts instead of cutting yourself on a sharp tool. But often as not, it can be the customers that are sharpest…


I WONDER what He charged for chairs
At Nazareth.
And did men try to beat Him down,
And boast about it in the town,
“I bought it cheap for half a crown
From that mad carpenter”?
And did they promise and not pay,
Put it off to another day,
O did they break His heart that way,
My Lord the Carpenter?
I wonder did He have bad debts,
And did He know my fears and frets?
The Gospel writer here forgets
To tell about the Carpenter.
But that’s just what I want to know.
Ah! Christ in glory, here below
Men cheat and lie to one another so
It’s hard to be a carpenter.

G A Studdert Kennedy, aka ‘Woodbine Willie’
The Unutterable Beauty, p.116

No, I haven’t just written off a bad debt, thankfully: I’ve just reached the end of Kerry Walter’s anthology of Studdert Kennedy’s work,  After War, Is Faith Possible?  (Lutterworth Press, 2008, 9780718892012, £17.50). That’s the piece it ends with, p.219, and it struck me as splendid reminder that he knows: whatever difficulties we may face in our trade and the wider world, our God is no stranger to the foibles and follies of human beings; because our God is no remote pie-in-the-sky deity who doesn’t give a fig about our lives here on earth.

Rather, he stands with us, appalled, as I’m sure you are, by the destruction recently wrought by Israel in Gaza. Equally appalled by Hamas with their missiles. But unlike the BBC, our God is no pretender to impartiality, prepared to walk on by like the religious leaders in the story of the Good Samaritan or afraid of the flak that he might attract by making a stand.

But as Studdert Kennedy tells us, p.213-4,

… the Good Samaritan in the story was lucky, he only struck one man that had been knocked out, and he had all that was necessary—a donkey, some oil and wine, and twopence. But when I go out on that tack I don’t find one man, I find processions of them, and I have not got all that is necessary. If I am to do it properly I seem to need a bottomless pocket, infinite wisdom, a fleet of motor cars and a general hospital, and even that would not be enough, because an enormous number of these poor devils that lie besides the roads to Jericho have not merely been been knocked about bodily, they have lost their characters, they have lost their power of will, they are without hope in the world and without faith in themselves or in anything else…

And there is another side to it. It was all right for the Good Samaritan in the story picking up the chap by the roadside, but he did not own the road; if he had owned the road, his duty would have been to get it cleared of thieves, and not to keep trotting along with a donkey picking up men that had been knocked out.

And that brings you up with a bump against the whole social problem, because you and I are part owners at any rate of these roads to Jericho that are infested with sharks and thieves, and it doesn’t do for us to think that our duty ends in helping to supply endless charitable funds… We cannot stop short of an earnest endeavour to clear out the thieves, and so to strengthen the travelers on the road that they may be able to defend themselves against those we cannot clear out.

This, of course, is precisely what Israel has been trying to do: to clear out the criminals on the roads, to make things safe for their people. I do not dispute Israel’s right to do that. But I do dispute their method: you don’t make your territory safe by destroying your neighbour’s homes and schools, leaving a humanitarian crisis trail of death and despair in your wake.

But the damage has been done and it’s time to pick up the pieces: to help the people of Gaza to rebuild; and this is no time to pretend impartiality, this a time when we need organisations like DEC to help us work together to tackle a problem that’s far bigger than any of us can hope to tackle alone. Thankfully, whilst our BBC prevaricates as though they were simply filming a wildlife documentary, there’s another BBC that’s there in the thick of it which isn’t afraid to launch an appeal for help: Supporting Gaza: A Letter from Bethlehem Bible College.

So  After War, Is Faith Possible?  I’d say it’s not only possible, it’s essential: without it we’re simply left banging our heads against a wall of intransigence, hatred and intolerance. But with it, working together, we can find a way through. Meanwhile I find that Studdert Kennedy’s writing is as relevant for us in today’s war-torn world as it was in his own days during and after World War I; and with all that in mind, I guess it’s not really that hard to be a bookseller after all…