I'll be there for you

Coming up at Backstory

  • Free live music every Thursday evening, 6pm-8pm

    No need to book, just turn up at our bar from 6pm on Thursday evenings

  • Kids signing: Katie Kirby — The Completely Chaotic Christmas of Lottie Brooks

    Thursday 12th October, 4pm

    Meet bestselling children’s author Katie Kirby at our in-store signing of her new and hilarious festive themed book

  • Backstory presents: words & music with The Listening Project

    Saturday 21st October, 7.30pm

    A ticketed music night with The Listening Project, who will be celebrating contemporary classical music with an oratory focus. Featuring the works of composers such as Hilary Kleinig, Ted Hearne, Anna Disley-Simpson, John Lely and more. Join us for a night of sounds and soliloquy at the bookshop where art, music and ideas come together.

  • Ha-Joon Chang — Edible Economics

    Wednesday 25th October, 7.30pm

    The SOAS economist discusses his new book, which challenges the economic orthodoxy, serving up new ideas with a side order of stories about food from around the globe.

  • Prisons, inside and out, with Chris Atkins and Alex South

    Wednesday 1st November, 7.30pm

    Join us to discuss life inside — and after — prison with Chris Atkins, whose book ‘Time After Time’ tracks the fortunes of a dozen repeat offenders to understand why recidivism remains stubbornly high, and Alex South, who recounts her experiences of life as a female prison officer in ‘Behind These Doors’.

  • Jonathan Coe — Bournville

    Wednesday 8th November, 7.30pm

    The Costa Prize-winning author of ‘Mr Wilder & Me’, ‘What A Carve Up!’ and ‘Middle England’ discusses his latest novel, tracing life in one Birmingham suburb – and the story of our country – over the last 75 years

  • Janice Hallett — The Christmas Appeal

    Wednesday 29th November, 7.30pm

    Meet the “Queen of Cosy Crime”. The author of The Twyford Code and The Appeal discusses her new festive mystery.

  • Coming up at the Non-Fiction Book ClubCaroline Knowles (Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London), Christina Lamb (Our Bodies, Their Battlefield)

  • Coming up at the Fiction Book ClubRebecca Wait (I’m Sorry You Feel That Way), Bobby Palmer (Isaac And The Egg)

FRIENDS ARE HAVING a bit of a literary moment. The podcasting author Elizabeth Day confessed to being a “friendaholic” in a bestselling book of the same title earlier this year. Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Best of Friends, relates the story of two schoolmates with very different upbringings in Karachi whose different outlooks on life eventually bring them into conflict decades later in London.

But it’s still rare to see platonic male friendship explored in a book (Backstory always has *plenty* of books about the non-platonic kind, of course…thanks Alan Hollinghurst), unless it’s about sport or fishing.

So for novelty alone I would have picked up two new books on this theme. The title of the first, Boy Friends by Michael Pedersen, playfully alludes to readers’ expectations of the kind of male friendships more usually given the literary treatment. Instead, the poet treats us to a gorgeous and outrageously inventive ode not only to his best friend, Scott Hutchison, who died in 2018, but also to friendship itself.

The second — Stay True by Hua Hsu — is a book so good that I’ve chosen it as Backstory’s book of the month for October despite breaking our only two rules for that category: they have to be hardbacks and they have to be published in the relevant month. This was published straight into paperback (having gone down a storm in the US, where it was first published and won a Pulitzer), in September.

Who cares? It’s so good, I want you all to read it! In less than 200 pages, Hsu writes one of the most nuanced accounts I have read of the discombobulating effects of immigration, tracing his parents’ move from Taiwan to the US and back again, and their attempts to keep in touch via fax with a son and a culture now halfway round the world. More remarkable is that this merely serves as the backdrop to the main thrust of the narrative, about Hsu’s college friendship with a classmate called Ken and what this tells us about the nature of friendship.

I challenge anyone to read it and not reminisce about their own uni days: the dazzling intensity of those relationships, friendships forged as freshers that seemed sure to last forever, conversations deep into the night that very nearly did so, intimacies shared as casually as cigarettes.

“Friendship rests on the presumption of reciprocity,” writes Hsu, “of drifting in and out of one another’s lives, with occasional moments of wild intensity. When you’re nineteen or twenty, your life is governed by debts and favours, promises to pick up the check or drive next time around. We built our lives into a set of mutual agreements, a string of small gifts lobbed back and forth. Life happened within that delay.”

Still, I was more than halfway into the book until I realised they weren’t going to fall in love. Or rather, that they had fallen for each other — but not like that. I think as readers we’re so used to being teased by eyes meeting across a room, by a conversation finally broached with someone introduced as unexpected and aloof, that we are always ready for one thing to lead to another.

Instead, at least in these two cases, they lead to wonderful, singular books that somehow manage to be beautiful, lasting testimonies to very particular relationships whilst also having something to say about the power of all such bonds.

Pick one, or both, up today — for auld lang syne.