November 28, 2020



Lausanne’s Independent English Bookshop

Matthew introducing Jo Ann as she is about to give a reading at BooksBooksBooks

One of Lausanne’s fascinations is its long literary history in the English language. Many visiting writers gained inspiration and renewed energy while staying there. Edward Gibbon completed The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in Lausanne and after Lord Byron visited Gibbon’s home with his friend Percy Shelley, he checked into a lakefront hotel, still in existence, and wrote his famous poem The Prisoner of Chillon. Charles Dickens stayed in Lausanne in 1846 and the countryside helped him to continue writing when he felt submerged by financial difficulties. Perhaps the loveliest description of the lake view, so often admired from Lausanne’s hills, was made by Walter Scott who wrote: “This lake seems so tenderly loved by the mountains.”

Unfortunately, Lausanne has not really exploited this legacy. Two years ago, when Matthew Wake, a young Englishman, was reflecting on a career change he felt Lausanne could support an English bookshop. He believed if the shop was in the middle of the community it could be a place to browse and buy good books as well as the nucleus of a creative and literary animation for the large number of resident foreigners as well as the local Swiss.

Matthew is a man who follows his heart. After completing a degree in East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield, he spent two years in a village on Amakusa, one of Japan’s smaller islands, where he taught English, gained fluency in Japanese and became interested in the martial art Kendo, where he holds a fourth degree black belt. After a short stint in London he moved to Switzerland to marry Sylvia, a Swiss Canadian. They have two children. After six years in marketing, with his family’s approval and a viable business plan, Matthew opened BooksBooksBooks on the top floor of Globus, a department store in the old centre of Lausanne.

Members of the Lakelines Circle relaxing at BooksBooksBooks

“I have always done my thing,” Matthew told me when I questioned him about the sheer audacity of his independent venture in a time of universal business consolidation and growing doubts about the survival of printed books. Matthew agreed the bookshop meant more responsibility and stress than he had first imagined, but then he added that any adventure demanded a personal effort.

BooksBooksBooks is now the centre of many literary offshoots. There are three book clubs, a children’s reading club, a women’s entrepreneur group and a writing group, Lakelines Circle, which meets in the shop once a month. Reading events are held regularly with authors from all over the world. Customers are encouraged to bring friends and new ideas.

“Amazon is an anonymous way to buy books. Here you can spend time perusing books and I can order any book you want if it’s not on my shelves,” Matthew said. I agreed. After being frustrated and lonely without a local bookshop, I was delighted to see familiar faces on the shelves again and run through all the new titles on display. There was no way an online bookshop could compete with such physical joy. “Support us and I’ll support you,” Matthew told me and, as a writer and a reader, I knew I’d come home to where I belonged.


the English bookshop
rue de Mercerie 12,
1003 Lausanne

tel: 021 311 25 84

Is There A Book In You?

A few days ago I was invited with two other writers, Susan Tiberghien and Daniela Norris, to give a talk to the Geneva Women in Trade (GWIT) about writing and publishing. We each first gave an introduction and shared our own personal relationship to the title of the conference – Is there a book in you? Here is my text.


Is There A Book In You?

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills….” Karen Blixen’s first sentence in her novel Out Of Africa sounds like the beginning of a tale she might have told her friends, Denys Finch Hatton and Berkeley Cole, after an evening meal together. It echoes like “Once upon a time…”

Ever since the human race has existed we have narrated or sang stories. While listening, we feel the fluid movement of time. Over centuries, stories were embellished, but usually the storyteller remained faceless. But several hundred years ago, during the fifteenth century, this all changed when a mechanical devise called the printing press was invented. Mass-produced books, self-contained and unalterable, were neatly lined up on shelves. Writers developed names and reputations. This Printing Revolution changed our minds; we were no longer listeners but readers.

Some five hundred and sixty years later we find ourselves at the beginning of another revolution – the Electronic Revolution. Once again our mindset is changing. Our attention span is shortening because we constantly deal with several things at once, switch channels or press keys for continual change. We do not know yet what will happen to printed books. Like jet lag, which is only fifty years old, we are dealing with new phenomena.

And yet we still have stories to tell. Each of us has a story. Yes, I believe we all have a book inside us. But why do we have to tell stories? Doris Lessing has a good answer to that question. She thinks we have a pattern in our minds that obliges us to conform to, so we shape a tale which needs a beginning, a middle and an ending, just as our lives have a pattern – we are born, we grow older and then we die. We need to know what will happen next.I also believe we need to name things. We need to be specific.  Language does not belong to the abstract world but is close to the ground. Its base is broad and low and it is our connection to the earth. Or as someone said; God is in the details and we need this relationship.

So why did I choose to be a writer? I am convinced there were two decisive moments in my early life. The initial one was during my first year in school when I was five years old. My family had read Beatrix Potter’s books to me until I knew many by heart, but I could not understand the symbolism of letters. Although all my classmates were deciphering the alphabet I remained an angry, frustrated little girl, quite incapable of reading. One day I was given a page with a drawing of a bed frame – there was the headboard, the mattress and the footboard shown from the side. Next to it were three letters – bed – and suddenly I saw in those letters a bed.

This was a moment of great excitement. I had discovered a new and fabulous game. Reading. Words became a love story or as I can still say – this love was an endless story.

The second event happened a year or two later when I was sent to boarding school. The first day was one of anguish. During the recreation another girl, dressed just like me in a green tunic and striped tie, asked my name. I should have replied Jo Ann, but suddenly I was seized with a need greater than I have ever known and I blurted out, “Josephine Jane Elizabeth Anne.” What delight – my imagination had galloped to my rescue and I was no longer a lonely little uniformed schoolgirl, but a princess with a magical name. I had attuned myself to the hum of my universe. I followed up with much embellishment and my new friend and I spent many hours living in this kingdom. This then was my second love –storytelling, which I turned into the solitary task of writing stories.

Much later I came to understand that the supreme irony of writing is that though it starts out for yourself it is ultimately received by someone else.

The only other remark I would like to mention is one made by the American writer Ursula K. le Guin. She wrote that in the year 2000, “for the first time ever, we have kept the perceptions, ideas and judgments of women alive in consciousness as an active creative force of society for more that a generation.” This seems to me to be at least one good reason to keep on writing, reading and telling stories to one another.

Three Writers, Three Precursors

“There’s a river of birds in migration, a nation of women with wings.”
Jan Phillips – author & speaker (


Throughout the centuries, foreign writers have lingered by the Swiss shores of Lake Geneva, often motivated by the region’s natural beauty and the tolerant politics of local inhabitants. As a writer and resident of the area I would like to share my admiration for three women, Germaine de Stael, Mary Shelley and Hilda Doolittle, who produced literary works of value while staying here.

Unfortunately, Madame Germaine de Stael, (1766-1817), of Swiss French origins and one of Europe’s modern literary and political dissidents, found little comfort in her charming family home in Coppet village near Geneva. Madame de Stael, a brilliant child of the Enlightment, who believed in reason and progress, felt only bitterness, frustration and grief at being exiled from Paris by Napoleon for her verbal and written critics about his policies, sent far away from the pivotal events, which were taking place there and throughout Europe.

In 1813, De L’Allemagne was published in England, after another skirmish with Napoleon when the emperor tried to destroy all known copies because he believed the book to be personally insulting. In reality, with this book, Madame de Stael bridged the gap between Neoclassicism and Romanticism, while explaining Germany and its people to the French. She was one of the first to espouse the European ideal.

Another book, Dix Années d’Exile, written over a period of five years and unfinished at her death in her home in Coppet, remains a riveting memoir. It tells about her first meeting with Napoleon and of her admiration for the great republican liberator and military genius, and then her growing concern for his drive to absolute power, quite contrary to her belief in more moderate political systems. There are details about the constant harassment she endured by his military police as well as anecdotes of her travels through Russia during the French invasion. Seen now, through the telescopic time lens of two hundred years, the discord between Madame de Stael and Napoleon was a classic conflict between the pen and the sword. Nevertheless, perhaps the most penetrating insight about Madame de Stael was made by Napoleon himself, before they became enemies, who remarked; “She teaches people how to think who have never thought before, or who have forgotten how to think.”


Like Germaine de Stael, The English writer Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of two liberal parents and she also received a decent education and met many of the intellectuals of her time who came to her father’s home. If Mary was recognized as the poet Shelley’s muse, she was always a person with a mind of her own.

In 1816, when Percy Shelley and Mary, then nineteen years old, decided to take a summer residence near Geneva, they had already spent two years together and had a son William born earlier in the year. Their small house near the lake lay just below Byron’s stately residence, the villa Diodati. The weather was cold and wet and most of their evenings were spent talking as they sat around a warm fire. Percy Shelley was fascinated, not only with the new rational developments in science, but also with the gothic supernatural. Quite naturally, one evening, Lord Byron suggested they each write a ghost story. Out of Mary’s imagination, from her youthful, intuitive dream-like vision and the raw material of spirited scientific conversations, Frankenstein was born. This famous work of science fiction was the fusion of two lines of thought and is considered the first important example of horror fiction, which is still popular in present-day literature.

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus is a surrealistic story with a central theme of revolt against divine oppression. Today we can read it as a clash between fixed religious beliefs and science, between doubt and certitude, but as Mary later pointed out very clearly, it was not The Monster, but the scientist, named Frankenstein, who discovered how to create life, who was the amoral product of nature without passion or responsibility. Mary’s novel is clearly a warning to all who believe that modern industrial and post-industrial research and development will establish peace and prosperity on earth.


My last writer, the American poet Hilda Doolittle or H.D. as she was usually called, (1886-1961) settled by Lake Geneva in the 1920’s with her wealthy mentor and lover Bryher, née Annie Winifred Ellerman. Around this unusual couple were a group of unconventional and talented people, among them Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington who along with H.D. had formed the original nucleus to the loosely affiliated British and American poets called Imagists. Shortly before W.W.1 they had challenged the Romantics through a radical new form of poetry, – tight, concise free verse, – which laid the foundations of modern poetry.

When H.D. moved from Britain to Switzerland she was already breaking away from the Imagist label, seeking new ways to deal with her creativity, inhibited by predominately male traditions and critics. Conflicted by her heterosexual and lesbian desires, she turned to Greek classics and myths, in hope of developing a cultural transformation.

It was by Lake Geneva that the couple entered a ménage-à-trois with the painter Kenneth Macpherson who was passionately interested in films. This trio of enthusiastic inter-war intellectuals formed the famous Pool group to encourage new forms of films and literature. Their most famous production was the silent film Borderline, written and produced in Switzerland in 1930, along with its film journal Close Up. Borderline is a classic of early experimental cinema, daring in subject with its interracial love triangle. Paul Robeson, an African American and one of the most famous international cultural figures of the first half of the 20th century, stars in it alongside his wife and H.D.

The Pool trio built a magnificent Bauhaus-style home that doubled as a film studio in La-Tour-de-Peilz, overlooking Lake Geneva. When I visited it a few years ago it seemed that the forgotten energy and excitement of these exceptionally talented people still existed within the ship-like white walls.

H.D. was always in search of a certain unity within her own life and in the world around her. Due to the complexities of her relationships and her fragile emotional state, H.D. decided, with Bryher’s financial assistance, to undergo psychoanalysis with Freud. This led to a certain mystical feminism and her last poems show a re-vision of patriarchy. In her poem Helen in Egypt she deconstructs Euripides’ play and re-interprets the Trojan War, and by extension, war itself. After her death, when rediscovered in the 1970’s, she became an important icon for the modern feminist movement and for gay rights. The Goddess in her later poems was no longer a mythical symbol, but the expression of the Divine Spirit.

When I think of the lives of these three writers, I remember their efforts to bridge the conflict between their often traumatic private roles as wives, lovers and mothers and their professional role as writers. In the early morning, when I gaze from my kitchen window at the sunlight glittering on the surface of the lake, I remember these women and see them as precursors, light bearers, for those who write by Lake Geneva’s shores today.


She carries a book but it is not

the tome of the ancient wisdom,

the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages

of the unwritten volume of the new;

all you say, is implicit,

all that and much more;

but she is not shut up in a cave

like a Sibyl; she is not

imprisoned in leaden bars

in a coloured window;

she is Psyche, the butterfly,

out of the cocoon.
( Taken from H.D. ‘s poem Tribute to the Angels)