Wednesday, July 27, 2016

To the North


By modern day standards I'm not particularly well travelled, but I have seen a little of the world and visited some unusual places. However, I've been pretty useless at exploring my own country. I wasn't fully aware of this until a couple of months ago, when I worked out that I had spent less than two weeks of my adult life on the northern side of the Watford Gap.

It came as a shock to realise that I'd spent more time in Chile, Spain or France than the upper two thirds of Great Britain, so I resolved to do something about it.

I'd wanted to explore the north for quite a few years, but my older son couldn't cope with any car journey over three hours and after a disastrous trip to Spain, we decided to give up on family holidays. 

However, my son has made so much progress during the last year, we felt that it was worth trying again, so I got out a map and worked out how far we could travel over ten days.

I checked distances on Google Maps and came up with the following intinerary: Lewes-Knaresborough-Whitby-Alnwick-Lindisfarne-Edinburgh-Inverness-Fort William-Glasgow-Lake Windemere-Yorkshire Dales-Haworth-Lewes. It would be a whistlestop tour of northern England and Scotland.

After confirming that our trip would include visits to Scottish relatives and a detour to the Lake District, my wife gave her royal ascent and I booked family rooms in a succession of hotels and b&bs. Then, two weeks ago, we got in the car and looked for a road sign that pointed to 'The North'.

For many years, I assumed that the North began somewhere slightly beyond Northampton, where people began to rhyme 'luck' with 'push' and many placenames ended in 'by' or 'thwaite'. There would be drystone walls instead of hedgerows and wild, windswept moorlands. But I was wrong. Before the North there is a place called the Midlands and everything looks quite similar for a long time.

I also noticed that even when I reached Yorkshire, it didn't look particularly northern until I'd driven right up to the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, at which point the landscape dramtically changed and became more interesting.

But rather than bore you with a blow by blow account, here is a brief summary of the highs and lows of the trip:

HIGHS
  • The landscape of the Scottish Highlands.
  • The accents, all of which were music to my ears compared to our local one.
  • Knaresborough - one of the most beautiful towns I've visited, anywhere.
  • North Yorkshire, which fulfilled my dreams of wild and windy moors.
  • Whitby - a beautiful fishing town with the best fish and chips in Britain.
  • The B&Bs we stayed at - a far cry from their grim predecessors.
  • The museums and galleries of Edinburgh - all within walking distance, unlike London.
  • Visiting my wife's Scottish relatives.
LOWS
  • The awful chain hotels we stayed at - soulless and expensive, with suprisingly bad food.
  • Glasgow - I enoyed exploring the city, but my sons hated it and refused to leave the hotel.
  • 11 days of UHT milk pods - you can't make a decent cup of tea with it.
  • The eternal struggle of finding somewhere to park.
  • Holy Island - It had always looked impressive from a distance. Up close, it has bungalows.
  • The cost of even the most basic evening meal.
  • The drive home, which went on and on and on.
Here are some photos:

Knaresborough was beautiful and civilised. I would like to go back for longer and also explore nearby Harrowgate.

I was also a big fan of Whitby, which is a very picturesque fishing port, but also a traditional working class holiday resort, which saves it from being too twee. I particularly liked the famed Yorkshire 'plain speaking' as displayed by a rather taciturn waiter who simply looked at our plates and said "All done?"

My wife took a while to adjust: "They don't seem to have a wine list. Is that a northern thing?"

I'd wanted to visited Whitby ever since I'd watched a BBC Play for Today called The Fishing Party.

 


The ruined Whitby Abbey is the town's main attraction and the connection with Dracula draws many people with dyed black hair and unfortunate tattoos. I also noticed a lot of older men with shaved heads and large, slightly menacing dogs.

I don't normally long for bad weather, but I felt that the Abbey had lost some of its mystery in the bright sunshine, so in the evening I climbed the famous 199 steps and took some more atmopsheric shots, like this one:


This is the Falling Foss - one of the many beautiful rivers and falls in North Yorkshire. My sons loved clambering over the rocks.

Edinburgh was a big hit with everyone. We booked an apartment just off the Royal Mile, which I can warmly recommend if you like non-stop bagpipe playing. Sometimes two pipers were playing different pieces at the same time, like a Charles Ives composition.

An octogenrian relative offered to drive us around the city and out of politeness we assented, but it turned out to be one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had, like a very slow but deadly James Bond car chase.

This photo above is of a very attractive Edinburgh cafe that serves haggis sausages.

What better way to start a visit to the Highlands than a cruise on Loch Ness? Sadly, we were acommpanied by several dozen Chinese tourists, all armed with selfie sticks, who seemed rather over-excited and kept shouting over the commentary on the boat. At first I thought it was a one-off, but we witnessed the same behaviour on several occasions and our b&b owner confirmed that this was a common phenomenon.

I remember a time when, along with the Japanese and the Scandinavians, the Chinese were the most well-behaved and self-effacing of travellers. What has happened?

I'd always assumed that Inverness was a small, charming Highland town and part of it still is, but it is also now one of Europe's fastest-growing cities, with Sim City-like industrial zones and suburbs. It also has a very large secondhand bookshop called Leakey's, which is well worth a visit.

After what my wife's great-uncle described as a 'dreich' day, we were rewarded with some glorious weather when we drove to the west coast. I noticed that nearly half of the cars on the road were from the Netherlands. I've no idea why, but perhaps they were seeking relief from the relentless flatness of their own country.

Plockton is one of the most beautiful places on the west coast - a small fishing village that, due to some geographical quirk, faces east. Its location in a protected bay and the Gulf Stream give it a surprisingly mild climate. Palm trees can be found by the harbour.

I had been to Plockton once before and met an interesting woman who was a very keen member of the SNP. She very kindly drove me around the Isle of Skye and gave me a map showing a route that took me on a path up into hills above Plockton. When I reached the top, the view was breathtaking. I vowed I would return as soon as I could.

That was 13 years ago.

Glencoe - a stunning place with a tragic history. I intended to go for a long walk, but when my sons found a stream and started building a dam, I didn't have the heart to stop them:

Parents can spend so much money on keeping their children entertained, but the greatest pleasures in life usually cost nothing (fuel, food and accommodation excepted). If we go back, I think I'll look for somewhere where my sons can just mess around in the water, preferably without drowning,

Later we stopped by a loch and my sons ruined two pairs of shoes, but had one of the happiest afternoons of their lives.

After the grandeur of the Scottish Highlands, Glasgow was an huge disappointment, as far as my sons were concerned. I thought it was it little like London - not beautiful, but full of interesting buildings and hidden gems, so I took a train to Partick and began exploring. I'd like to see more of Glasgow, but I suspect it will be a solo trip.

Glasgow's reputation as a tough city is neatly encapsulated in the 'No Spitting' signs in their old subway carriages, which can be seen in the excellent Riverside Museum. The sign wasn't simply an attempt to improve the manners of Glasgow's more uncouth inhabitants, but also a vital measure in the fight against TB, which claimed blighted the lives of many Glaswegians.

Although TB no longer ravages the tenements of Glasgow, the city still has many public health problems and I noticed many people who were not only morbidly obese, but also keen smokers. Glasgow is officially the sickest city in the United Kingdom and one in four men don't reach their 65th birthday.

After Glasgow, we drove down to the Lake District and hired a boat on Lake Windemere. Like Loch Ness, it was full of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks, but I managed to find a self-drive boat and we escaped from the madding crowd. Apart from a near collision with a paddle steamer, we had a very pleasant time.

On the final day, we visited the Bronte Museum in Haworth, which was well worth the additional two hours journey time. On the dining table, where the sisters wrote their novels, there is a small E carved by Emily, who died on the couch in the background. The other rooms are full of interest, containing childhood ephemera, Bramwell's paintings and Charlotte's wedding dress.

I was particularly struck by a display of locks of hair - Emily was very blonde - and wondered if it would be possible to recreate the Bronte family using Jurassic Park-style technology.

I said I wouldn't bore you with a blow by blow account, but I seem to have done exactly that. To conclude, the holiday was a success and my older son, who once refused to leave the house, seems energised by the experience. Like so many children with his issues, he loved the most remote parts of the Highlands and hated anywhere that was full of tourists.

As for me, in the same way that some middle aged men realise that they're gay after years of denial, I have discovered that I am a closet Northerner. I suppose all the signs were there - a fondness for mushy peas, an aversion to direct sunlight and a preference for plain speaking.

Perhaps I've been living in the wrong part of England all this time.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Best of Times

It's exactly ten years since the bookshop company I worked for - Ottakar's - was taken over HMV Media, who incorporated the shops into its Waterstone's chain. I was happy at Ottakar's. It was a company that valued individuality, not only tolerating the quirky and eccentric, but actively encouraging it. Ottakar's and I were a good fit.

The company culture came from its founder and managing director, James Heneage - a man who was the antithesis of the grey-suited businessman. Fiercely intelligent and disarmingly honest, he had an unusual background. Expelled from a famous public school, he went on to join the army at Sandhurst and was allegedly responsible for the only mutiny in his regiment's history, when he got his soldiers lost in a jungle.

I suspect that many of the anecdotes about James were apocryphal, but it wouldn't have surprised me if they were true. James was a larger than life character, with a clipped military voice that boomed across the room. During a visit to one shop in early December, James was dismayed to find that there were no Christmas decorations and bellowed at the manager "What are you? Some sort of Calvinist?!"

But underneath the bluff exterior, there was a great warmth and we all felt that he was on our side. I have met many politicians, actors, writers and artists, but few of them have had the charisma that James Heneage possessed. He was a natural leader.

I enjoyed the job because in addition to the mundane business of running a shop, I had the opportunity to hold events, write articles about authors and meet a variety of people at launch parties. Sometimes the encouters were quite surreal: a conversation about NCP car parks with Lee Child, meeting John Grisham in a medieval hall that looked like something out of Hogwarts, dancing with a very drunk Mrs Doyle from Father Ted, meeting a True Crime author who told me that he could kill me with his bare hands if he wasn't a Buddhist, discussing the book trade with Jacqueline Wilson whilst sitting on a merry-go-round, advising Katie Price what she and Peter Andre should read in bed together...it was all very amusing.

I also worked with some lovely people - bright, unpretentious, full of fun, mostly. Most of the staff went on to greater things, but a few would have struggled to find employment anywhere else; for example, one member of staff liked watching DVD boxed sets of Apollo landings in real time and also had a collection of music by Nazi swing bands (one dance hit was called 'Bomb England'), but they loved their books and were a real assett to the business.

When the company was taken over, the new owners said how much they valued our 'passion' and wanted to incorporate it into the wider business, but within a year my job had turned into a very dull admin role, with all of the important decisions made elsewhere. After 18 unhappy months, I decided to leave Waterstone's before they left me.

But rather than dwell on sad endings, here's a small celebration of what I loved about Ottakar's:

Partly out of devilment, but also in an attempt to boost sales, I held an event featuring dangerous and exotic animals during the school holidays. In hindsight, it could have ended badly, but luckily it passed without a hitch. This woman has a rather useless chameleon on her arm. Why hasn't it turned blue?


In this photo, I'm holding a tarantula, wondering what will happen it it jumps off and runs away.

The Science Museum decided that their existing bookshop was too dull and asked Ottakar's to come in and make it more 'visitor friendly'. Less charitable souls might say that we took a good academic bookshop and dumbed it down, but it went down very well with the Museum and I really enjoyed the challenge of setting up a shop in such a unique envionment.

I'm not sure if the Museum realised how little we knew about science - we were completely winging it - but I think we got away with it.

I was very flattered when James Heneage told me that I was the ideal man for the job, possessing the necessary tact and diplomacy to deal with the museum authorities. Later I discovered that four people had turned the position down before I was offered it.

We had to work with the existing fixtures and fittings, all of which were very drab, but managed to come up with something half decent. Unfortunately, the director of the museum didn't like the illuminated sign, as he felt that the phrase 'Adult Books' had unfortunate associations.

An Ingmar Bergman moment from a lovely weekend in Sweden, courtesy of one of my ex-booksellers from the Clapham branch, who let us use her flat in Stockholm. As much as I love books, it's the people that I valued most about the job.


In the Crawley branch, we held the longest ever Jacqueline Wilson signing event, which lasted for eight hours. This photo doesn't do justice to the length of the queue.

Even the most jaded, world weary bookseller would be hard pressed not to be moved by an event like this. Jacqueline Wilson was wonderful and made every child feel as if they had a special bond with her. It was quite terrifying when it started, as I had no idea that so many people would turn up. When some very 'assertive' mothers started to surge forward, I had to act quickly to avoid a punch-up.

In Ottakar's the ethos was that quirky, interesting shops were good for business. Staff were encouraged to think of innovative ways to display and promote books, which made the job far more interesting for them. Every shop I worked in had at least one talented artist who produced the most astonishing windows.

In 2005, I had to open a shop in Worthing at the same time that my father was dying. It was a challenging time, but in many ways it helped having something to focus on. It was the first time I'd had the opportunity to recruit a team of staff from scratch, so I decided to follow my gut instinct and pick people I'd be happy to go to the pub with. The result was one of the happiest places I've worked in.

The set-up week involved converting a bare shell of a unit into a fully stocked shop with 25,000 books within five days. Every day we worked for up to 12 hours, then went out drinking. No matter lively the evening was, everyone was back the following morning at 8.00 sharp, which was quite remarkable in some cases.

The takeover of Ottakar's wasn't a certainty. The bid had been referred to the Monopolies Commission and we spent the best part of a year wondering what our fate was going to be. But on a Monday morning at the beginning of July, I turned on my PC and saw an email that read 'Welcome to Waterstone's'.

My heart sank.

If I ever come into a small fortune, I will revive a branch of Ottakar's just for the fun of it. I suppose the name is copyrighted, so keep an eye out for a bookshop called Ottokers, O.T.Takars or Otto Kerr's.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Life After Britain

The night before the EU referendum, the clouds prophetically darkened and a terrible storm broke over Lewes. My wife, who had been helping at a book launch in London, sent a text asking me to pick her up from Haywards Heath.

As I drove through the blinding rain, trying to work out where the road was, I thought about the following day's referendum and confidently concluded that the Leave campaign had lost its momentum. At the final moment, people would step back from the edge and take comfort in the fact that at least they had made their feelings clear. But I was wrong.

It feels as if someone has lit a fuse. This isn't just the end of Great Britain in Europe, but of Great Britain itself. In a few years' time, the famous Union Jack will be redundant and if there is still a United Kingdom, it will probably just consist of England and Wales.

People around the world are rightly asking why a successful, prosperous country has pressed the self-destruct button. In Britain, many of the 48% who voted for Remain are in a state of shock and anger.

Looking at the post-referendum statistics, it is clear that the country is split down the middle and that, rather than simply being a conflict between left and right, the divide is between old and young, rural and urban, graduates and non-graduates and, most destructively, Scotland and Northern Ireland versus England and Wales. Never has the ancient Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times', been more apposite.

I rarely write about politics, but as so many people are offering their two penn'orth, here are mine. It will be nothing new to British readers, but might be of mild interest to people elsewhere.

I think that the referendum result was largely about immigration and the pace of change that has taken place during the last decade or so. There has been a steady Commonwealth immigration to the UK since the Empire Windrush first arrived in 1948, but it was largely limited to the cities and those towns that had an industrial base, like Bradford, Luton and Oldham.

As recently as the 1980s, vast swathes of Britain were barely touched by immigration. There was an unofficial apartheid between two alternate visions of Britain: one a multiracial, multicultural, metropolitan society; the other, a more traditional, homogeneous one.

Overall, society was changing, but at a pace that all but the most bigoted could cope with. High levels of emmigration counterbalanced the influx and even during the 1950s and 60s, when Britain was supposedly 'flooded' with immigrants, the net migration averaged at about 12,000 a year.

But during the last decade, two things have changed dramatically. First, the level of net migration has risen to between 200,000 to 300,000 per year - in context, this is the equivalent to adding the population of the city of Brighton and Hove every year. Second, the distribution of migrants has been over a much wider area, often in places that had been untouched by earlier waves of immigration. In Wisbech, for example, around a third of the population are now of Eastern European origin.

Many voiced their fears about the rising level of immigration, but were frequently dismissed as racists. The famous encounter between Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy perfectly summed up the divide between the metropolitan classes and those who felt left behind in a changing society.

Why did people feel so threatened? Was it simple bigotry, or a legitimate objection to the workings of global capital? I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but I think it might be pertinent.

A few years ago, I worked for a business that employed 200 people in a huge warehouse. When I started, the workforce consisted entirely of locals, then one week, a few Latvians joined. From the moment they started, it was clear that the Latvians were superior to their English counterparts: harder working, mostly better educated and nearly always far more motivated. The management took notice and recruited more.

My work often took me to other recycling companies and, time after time, I saw migrants working uncomplainingly in often awful conditions, doing dull, repetitive work in dim, unheated warehouses. The local people, who didn't find the minimum wage as alluring as their Eastern European colleagues, struggled to compete and began to resent the rising local rents and competition for work.

When the mainstream political parties failed to take the issue of immigration seriously, those who felt ignored and disenfranchised voted for UKIP in increasing numbers. David Cameron won the last election by undermining UKIP with the promise of a referendum. History may remember him as the man who unwittingly sacrificed Great Britain to win an election.

The referendum campaign has been a pretty lamentable affair, full of bigotry, hysteria, cheap sentiment and misinformation on both sides. Interestingly, although many dubious figures were bandied around, the economic arguments had far less impact than the ones based on principles.

I think the decision to vote to leave the EU was a desperate act by those who felt that this was their last chance to halt a tide of change that had already made the English an ethnic minority in London.

The fact that only half of the net annual migration came from within the EU was never really highlighted. EU migrants were also increasingly blamed for the rise in house prices when, in truth, they were only one factor in a complex picture.

Overall, I didn't witness any real anti-European sentiment, even towards the migrants from Eastern Europe. In the warehouse I worked next to, the attitude was more one of "You can't blame them for coming here, but where will it all end?". However, there was a real, visceral anger towards the middle classes, the institution of the EU and the metropolitan elite.

This has been a cultural revolution and a consensus has been shattered.

In a way, this conversation I had yesterday with my mother is indicative of the mindset of many:

"Well, we won. Now they won't be able to come over here and take our benefits."

"But most of them aren't on benefits. They often work a lot harder than we do."

"Well then, they won't be able to take our jobs."

For me, the referendum always felt like a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. The Leave campaign was dominated by jingoistic rhetoric and unreliable economics. The more sophisticated arguments by figures like Tony Benn, about democracy and accountability, were rarely heard.

On the other hand, the Remain campaign conflated the EU with Europe and frequently implied that anyone who voted to leave was a backward-looking racist. As someone pointed out, all racists will vote Leave, but not all Leave voters are racists.

The tragedy with this referendum, like the Scottish one, was that it offered only two extremes. I suspect that most Scots would have voted for the 'Devolution Max' option if they'd had the choice, and in Thursday's referendum, more people would have voted to remain in the European Union if a compromise had been on the table. But for the EU, the principle of free movement was non-negotiable.

So that's it for Great Britain, probably. Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler tried to vanquish Great Britain, but a peaceful referendum succeded where they had failed. There may now be a vacant seat on the UN Security Council and there'll be no Team GB in the 2020 Olympics.

It's not all doom and gloom. With around 90% of the UK population, the remaining rump of England and Wales will still be an economic and cultural power, but it won't be the same.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Day Release

As some people who have followed this blog will know, my older son has faced many difficulties over the years and at one point, I wondered if he would ever set foot in a school again, let alone pass any exams. For quite a long time, things looked very bleak. However, I'm pleased to say that the last year has seen a remarkable turnaround.

With funding from the local authority, my son has been able to attend a school that caters for children like him and at last, he is beginning to discover his potential. He is particularly interested in science, maths and computing and is getting glowing reports from the teachers, so there's every chance he'll end up being far more successful than me (which wouldn't be that hard).

It's a pity that children often have to go through years of hell before they get local authority funding, but better late than never. And from the state's point of view, it's money well spent if a child can be turned from an individual who faces a life on benefits into an employable person.

I am now the prime carer in our household and spend most of my time ferrying our sons around, cleaning the house, shopping and cooking. It feels as if that is all I do now (one reason why I look forward to returning to work), but Instagram keeps reminding me that I do occasionally get out.

The following photos were all taken in Sussex during the last couple of months:

Herstmonceaux Castle. I visited it for the first time recently and was delighted to find that the car park was almost empty. Nothing kills the romance of an ancient castle more than several coachloads of people in pastel leisurewear. Even when the castle is closed, the grounds are still worth seeing.

This redundant observatory has been resurrected as a wonderful science museum for children, with lots of hands-on displays that make the official Science Museum in London look rather dull by comparison.

Market Street in Lewes during a rare, traffic-free moment. I like the lack of uniformity.

The Seven Sisters cliffs at Birling Gap. My sons love to explore the rockpools here. It's not quite the Great Barrier Reef, but it can still yield the odd surprise, from a beach covered in starfish to a woman covered in tattoos of Michael Jackson.

Whenever I see a red telephone box, I want to go and and ask for Scotland Yard. I don't know why.

My older son, during a rare moment in daylight. I think he was in a good mood because he'd just had an excellent school report; an event that surprised him as much as us.

This is a small annex to the bedroom of Rudyard Kipling's son, John, who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

The black house, just next to Lewes Castle, has what are called 'mathematical tiles' - fake bricks, that were used by the Georgians to make older, timber-framed houses look more impressive.

This is Bateman's - the 17th century home of Rudyard Kipling. Whether you're interested in the author or not, it's well worth a visit.

Market day in Lewes, where the affluent middle classes abandon Waitrose for the day.

My favourite car outside one of my favourite pubs. In Lewes, even the cars are half-timbered.

Ypres Tower, Rye, where the English kept an eye out for any marauding Frenchmen.

An abandoned quarry, just outside Lewes, now largely populated by nervous rabbits and dog owners who assure you that "He's just being friendly".

The entrance to Rudyard Kipling's library. Whilst browsing through the books, an elderly man came up to me and started to talk about the unexpected death of a middle aged man he knew: "Chap was about your age." I left feeling like a condemned man.

This tiny circle of stones appeared, briefly, one afternoon. The next day it was gone. Rudolf Steiner would have probably attributed this to gnomes.

Smaller and prettier than Lewes, Rye offers a number of literary curiosities, including the homes of Henry James, Radclyffe Hall, EF Benson and John Christopher. I love Rye, but it is a victim of its own success, with more tourists than locals during the spring and summer.

The moon and Jupiter over a Tudor rooftop at twilight. Not great quality, but not bad for a phone.

Lewes in the rain. There seems to have been a lot of it recently.

This is a close-up of a pillar at Lewes Station. It's being redecorated and the workmen have stripped away decades of layers of paint, leaving a rather interesting abstract design.

Lewes Station at twilight, when the station is almost deserted.

I never tire of this scene and have photographed it in all weathers. In an ideal world, every town would have a 1000-year-old building at its centre, to give us all a sense of perspective.

This is Uckfield - a much-maligned market town near Lewes. It's not the prettiest of places, but the older part of the town is full of hidden delights for anyone who takes the time to explore.

Birling Gap, where a child can turn a distant yacht into a pirate ship.

I apologise for the mundane nature of this post. I can't promise that the next one will be any better.