I usually don’t travel back to my hometown in Lancashire unless it's to visit family and friends - and that isn’t often, as I regularly catch up with them on their visits to London. In March 2020, however - after five days in my new role as marketing executive at Icon Books - I left the capital with a spare change of clothes, anticipating a week or two off from the daily grind.
I left London on a train two weeks before the official UK government imposed lockdown - then found myself stranded. I hadn’t lived in Hyndburn, in Accrington, since I was 18. After school, I’d moved to Kent to study my undergraduate course (with a year of study in Prague), followed by a stint in Beijing, before settling down to work in London. On my return to my hometown, there was a sense of familiarity, but also change.
Accrington does not have a local bookshop. We in publishing like to bang on about indie bookstores, but when I was growing up my first port of call was the Accrington Library (founded in 1907), where my library card gave me access to a world beyond the Pakistani-Muslim household I grew up in. Once back, however, I made sure to scour the indie bookshop map and ordered My Dark Vanessa and other books from Read Holmfirth, to do my bit in bringing custom to those independents struggling in lockdown.
The start of a lockdown brought some challenges for me too, but they were easily remedied thanks to a supportive team at Icon. We were all working flexibly, with some of the Icon team permanently working from home around the UK, but we saw each other (albeit through the means of a screen) every day. This helped to keep me communicating with, and feeling close to, the team I’d just joined. Icon also helped me keep my work/life balance. Every Friday, we had an official 'gathering' via an online platform to ensure we knew when the working week stopped and the weekend began. It’s something I recommend every senior leadership team consider putting in place.
Personally, lockdown has also proved fruitful - in allowing me to spend time with my ancestral recipes, hearing cross-generational tales and learning how to cook the Pakistani food my family brought me up eating. Eating as a family, with our hands and on the floor, is a common occurrence and something I enjoy. I’m now in the process of formulating a supper club once the lockdown eases. It is my dream to feed those who have a passion to discover authentic Pakistani culture and share the one thing that connects us together: food.
I recently celebrated the festival of Eid, a sacrificial festival which occurs at the end of the pilgrimage Hajj. This year, we have all had to make sacrifices, and I truly wish the best for all of us in publishing facing a difficult time. Now is the time to do what we can - to volunteer at a library, or support a local bookstore that would otherwise have to close its doors. We are all working towards a common goal: to revive the book trade, but also to amplify minority voices that have been time and again ignored.
This year has been an unpredictable one, but I truly hope we can weather the storm together and emerge stronger than before.
Hamza Jahanzeb is a marketing executive at Icon Books. He is also one of the Bookseller 2020 Rising Stars. You can find him on Twitter at @hamzajahanzeb.