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North East book shops to open at midnight for publishing event of the year

Shops are to open at midnight to satisfy customer demand for the follow-up to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee
Harper Lee

It is being hailed as the “publishing event of the decade” and bookshops and readers across the region are getting prepared.

Midnight openings, film screenings and speed reading sessions are in the offing as Go Set a Watchman gets the sort of razzmatazz not seen since Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince concluded JK Rowling’s epic series in July 2005.

It all seems a little ironic since Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant classic, is famously shy and retiring.

“Please note that Harper Lee will not be in attendance at this event,” states the Waterstone’s, Newcastle, website. But the staff will be there at midnight next Monday in fancy dress, ready to serve customers who want to get their hands on the book the minute it becomes available on Tuesday, July 14.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published on July 11, 1960. It became an immediate bestseller and the following year won a Pulitzer Prize. More than 30 million copies have been sold and in 1999 it was voted Best Novel of the Century in a poll organised by trade publication Library Journal.

The main character in the story, set in a fictional town called Maycomb in 1930s Alabama, is a girl called Scout (actually Jean Louise) whose father, Atticus Finch, is a respected attorney.

Scout, who has a brother called Jem, is a tomboy and a keen observer of local life. When her father gets the job of defending a black man who is accused of raping and beating a white woman, tough adult issues impinge on her childhood innocence.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those books that seem to have been around forever. It also seems to be one of those books a lot of people have had to read at school but not minded.

At Forum Books in Corbridge, excitement has been mounting.

On Sunday there was a screening in the parish hall of the 1962 film (Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, won one of its three Oscars) and on Tuesday, July 7 (7pm) world champion speed reader Anne Jones will be at nearby cafe Tea and Tipple to offer tips on devouring books in double quick time, focusing on To Kill a Mockingbird.

Anne, who lives in Riding Mill, has previously been featured on national television when significant new books have been published. While others are still on chapter one, she is in a position to say what happens in the end – not that she would unless asked.

Helen Stanton, owner of Forum Books, says: “The launch of Go Set a Watchman is the publishing event of the year... of the decade perhaps.

“Only a handful of people have read the book as it’s heavily embargoed. Anne is a big Harper Lee fan and can’t wait to find the answers to these questions:

“Is Scout the voice of the book, as in To Kill a Mockingbird? Has Maycomb changed much as a result of World War Two?

“Do some of the memorable characters from To Kill a Mockingbird feature in Go Set a Watchman – specifically Atticus, Jem, Cal, Dill, Miss Maudie, Aunt Alexandra and, of course, Boo Radley?

“Is there a court drama? Is there a love interest for Scout or Jem? Do social issues feature strongly again in Go Set a Watchman? Stylistically, is there a similar mix of humour, pathos and tragedy to that which we enjoyed in To Kill a Mockingbird?”

Forum Books plans to open early next Tuesday, at 7am, in the hope that Anne, poised and raring to go, will be the first to complete the eagerly awaited new book.

Speed reading world champion Anne Jones
Speed reading world champion Anne Jones

Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely. The Waterstone’s branches in Newcastle (Blackett Street) and Durham (Saddler Street) will have been open since midnight, allowing their customers to steal a seven-hour march on Anne.

In Durham they plan to screen To Kill a Mockingbird in-store at 9.45pm on July 13. “It should last a couple of hours, taking people through to Midnight,” says manager Ray Menear.

“We’ll move some tables and we should be able to get about 50 in. We’ll then be opening at 8pm on the 14th and we’ll have suitable refreshments. The staff will be going for a Deep South look. I think check shirts will be the order of the day.”

No-one is looking forward to the big day more than Kristine Elliott, events manager at Waterstone’s, Newcastle.

“We’ll be open from 10pm (on the 13th) and we can sell the book at one minute past midnight. The last midnight opening was for the last Harry Potter. This is very, very special.

“The staff who will be working are all really excited because we’re all massive fans. It’s not as if it’s a hardship – it’s something we’re really keen to do.

“We’re all going to dress up for the official launch on July 14 and we’ll have apple pie, root beer and other traditional American food in the cafe.”

Given the tough storyline in To Kill a Mockingbird, is the razzmatazz appropriate?

Kristine thinks so. “The first book deals with some very difficult issues but it’s not just a straight up and down tale. It’s quite complex, showing the world through Scout’s eyes.

“I absolutely adore it. I read it, like a lot of people, for my GCSE when I was 14 and I’ve read it pretty much every year since then. That and The Outsiders by SE Hinton – I always seem to find time to squeeze them in.”

As with the Harry Potter books, lots of copies have been pre-ordered in every store. “I haven’t seen anything like this since Harry Potter,” says Kristine.

The story goes that this is the novel Harper Lee intended to get published in the first place. Shown the manuscript, her first publisher said she enjoyed the flashback sequences of a grown-up Scout’s girlhood. Reworked, those passages became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee, now aged 89 and with failing eyesight and hearing, reckoned that the original novel, Go Set a Watchman, completed in the mid-1950s, was “a pretty decent effort”. On July 14 we’ll be able to judge for ourselves.

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