Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Motherly love...

On Monday morning I arrived at work and found a copy of the News of the World in the staff room! I have just employed several new Sunday people and they all seemed intelligent and well-adjusted, but there was obviously a cuckoo in the nest.

I trawled through the employee handbook to see whether there were legal grounds for sacking someone on the basis of what newspaper they read, but it was unclear what I should do. Then I noticed that there had been a free DVD of a George A Romero film and it all made sense. Johnny. I breathed a sigh of relief, sat down and spent the next hour reading the newspaper, where I found this particularly depressing article...

Interviewed by a News of the World journalist, Kerry Katona's mother Sue gives a life-affirming account of the mother-daughter relationship. After describing how Kerry lost her virginity at 14, Sue recounts an episode that took place three years later when Kerry was sleeping with Sue's employer.

'The bloke was 25, a cheeky Scouser called Dean, and I was absolutely furious. I knew he was a bastard and I didn't want a man like that going with my daughter, never mind sleeping with her. And he was courting someone.'

Fair enough, but what was Sue's novel solution to the problem?

'One night after work...he offered me a lift home and said he has some wine for us to drink. I f***** him that night, purely so I could tell Kerry what he was really like and end the relationship. Next day I went to see her and said that I'd f***** your boyfriend last night. She asked why and I told her it was to show her what a total c*** he was.'

The next day, Sue went into work and 'beat the guy up...because he'd cheated on my daughter.'

Yes, with YOU Sue!

Sue then goes on to relate an incident when Kerry, still a schoolgirl, asked how mother about oral sex. 'I told her to get a carrot out of the fridge and I showed her. It may not be conventional , but that's the way I did it.'


'I've been out with some bad men and Kerry saw things as a kid she shouldn't have. And when I lived with a woman called Tina she got bullied at school because her mum was a lesbian. I beat up the teacher because he did nothing about it. Tina and I finally split because she beat me up - then I knifed her and she needed 17 stitches.'

Later, 'fame-hungry' Kerry sneaked off to have topless photos taken. As she was still legally underage this action prompted a call from social services. A social worker turned up at the Katona household and his gay persona prompted Sue to comment 'You wouldn't have a problem if she had a dick, would you!'

Next to this article there is a short interview with Sue's sister Josie who claims that Kerry and Sue snort coke together.

By this point I felt totally depressed by what I'd read. I'd like to think that the whole thing was a tabloid fabrication, but it's horribly plausible. There is an underclass in this country that seem to inhabit a different universe and I don't know why this is. Once we would have cited poverty as the cause, but it is more complicated than that.

My mother grew up in relative poverty: a family of six occupying the upstairs floor of a small, semi-detached house, three sisters sharing a bed and the parents sleeping in a large cupboard. However, like many people in her class, her family had a strong moral framework and would have rather starved to death than take something that didn't belong to them.

How have people like Sue Katona come to exist? Why have things changed? Is it the collapse of organised religion, the breakdown of local communities, the influence of American film and television, the benefits culture, the consumer culture, post-modernism or all of these that have created a climate in which Kerry Katona is now described as a 'role model'?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mentioning the War...

One of the best films in recent years is Downfall. Seeing the Second World War from the German perspective is always fascinating and Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Hitler has got to be one of the ten greatest performances in the history of cinema.

However Downfall has eclipsed another fine German movie, Sophie Scholl, which depicts the true story of a 21-year-old German girl who was executed for treason in 1943. I'm not quite sure why the film focused almost entirely on Sophie, as her brother and a friend were also captured and subjected to a kangaroo court before being condemned to death with her, but the result is a success. Julia Jentsch (who was also in The Edukators) delivers a mesmerising performance as Sophie Scholl and quite rightly won the Best Actress award at the European Film Academy Awards of 2005.

Sophie Scholl also beat two excellent films, Hidden and My Summer of Love to win the Best Film award which is slightly surprising, as this is in many ways the least challenging of the three films.

Perhaps what is so remarkable about this film is the insight that it gives into an aspect of Nazi Germany that so few of us are aware of. We talk of the Germans and the Nazis as if they were one and the same thing and see no dichotomy between belligerent, bellicose country that conquered most of Europe in the 40s and the peaceful democracy that gave us the soporific tones of James Last and Richard Clayderman.

During the war it was necessary to portray the enemy as universally evil, but sadly this propaganda has become embedded in the national psyche and remains with us today. How many people are aware of the fact that the Communist Party was as big as the National Socialist movement before Hitler took power and erradicated all opposition? Of course it could be argued that it is typical that a German film should focus on an isolated act of heroism rather than the more general atrocities committed by hundreds of thousands of Germans, but I think the film served a very useful purpose. The many millions of Germans who weren't Nazi didn't all disappear or convert overnight. They felt impotent in the face of a totalitarian state and remained silent.

Sophie Scholl is a tribute to the bravery of the few, but also a reminder of how dificult it was for ordinary Germans to fight Naziism. Sophie and Hans Scholl tried and paid the price.

The future of bookselling

Last Christmas was, perhaps, the most important one for the book trade since the demise of the Net Book Agreement. The tills rang as usual and thousands of books were sold, but the end results made dismal reading for most booksellers thanks to a fundamental shift in the way people buy books. Internet retailing has revolutionised bookselling, particularly since internet usage has changed from being the province of geeks to a mainstream activity and now 60% of people in Britain shop online. But in addition to internet retailing, bookshops have also faced competition from supermarkets who buy in bulk and sell cheap.

Last year, when highstreet booksellers realised that the sales weren't coming through, they began an orgy of price cutting that led to many key titles being sold at cost price. The end result of this was the the profits were slashed and one chain went to the wall.

This Christmas Waterstone's has said that it is going to keep its nerve and focus on the positives. They have doubled their marketing spend and have taken the radical step of advertising in the Sun, which would probably have Tim Waterstone turning in his grave if he wasn't still alive. They also hope that the acquisition of Ottakar's and the resumption of independent online trading will herald a stronger Christmas. But will it?

There is certainly a strong selection of titles this year and the pricing is very competitive, but what I hear on the shop floor alarms me. Customers seem very clued-up. They like our wide range of books and we're their first port of call when they want to make a buying decision, but once they've chosen a title there is no guarantee that they'll buy it from us. I overhear people saying that they'll buy it from Amazon or try the competition first. Even if we've taken £7 off a hardback novel, customers often believe that there's a better deal out there.

When I try to explain this fundamental change to people, the stock response is 'Oh but people will always want to buy books in bookshops.' Well yes, maybe, but it is not enough to keep half or even three quarters of your customers. I once ran a shop which took around £60,000 a month. The rent and rates were £15,000 per month, the wage bill was about £10,000 and this the stock cost about £35,000. Add heating, lighting, banking and other occupational costs and we were struggling for most of the year. The only thing that kept us afloat was the prospect of making £200,000 in December.

If bookshops like for like sales continue to collapse, then we will see closures. Independent booksellers may feel a certain schadenfreude if Waterstone's fails, but anyone who cares about books should support the high street, chains or otherwise. I remember the misery of having nowhere to buy books except a drab, poorly stocked independent run by a misanthropist, or WH Smith's. Waterstone's revitalised bookselling bringing city centre standards to small towns and while some independents died, many good ones continued to prosper.

My gut feeling is that book retailing has over-expanded during the last twenty years and will go through a period of contraction before it re-adjusts itself. Shops in downmarket towns and those with high rents may go to the wall, but the majority will probably survive. I am convinced that most readers want bookshops, but in a world where time is as important as money, people will also opt for the convenience of the supermarket and on-line bookstore.

There are a lot of changes taking place in Waterstone's under its new managing director and from what I can see, he's doing all the right things for a large retail chain. He's invested in on-line bookselling, tried to make Waterstone's more accessible to the non-traditional book buyer and is maintaining a sensible price strategy. But will this be enough? I certainly no longer feel that I have a secure job any more and even if I do, will I want to stay?

POSTSCRIPT - AUGUST 2013: Just over a year after writing this post, I took the 'jump before you're pushed' option and left Waterstone's. Since then, I've watched the chain go through a slow and steady decline (almost going under a couple of years ago), while Borders and many a good independent have disappeared from the high street. I saw the writing on the wall seven years ago, but underestimated the scale of the collapse and failed to foresee just how big an impact the ebook and smartphone would have on the bookselling environment. We need bookshops - browsing online is pretty frustrating - but don't seem to be prepared to pay for them.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Turn of the Screw

After the success of my first experience with opera, I decided to visit Glyndebourne to see Benjamin Britten's adaptation of Henry James' 'Turn of the Screw'. Glyndebourne is weird. It is as if someone has picked up a chunk of London's South Bank complex and dropped it into a field in the middle of the Sussex Downs. It has a decent sized concert hall and stage, a top class restaurant and a massive car park, but driving down the narrow country lanes that approach it, you could easily miss the turning. I only found Glyndebourne because I was stuck behind a Toyata Prius and one guessed that the sort of person who could afford one would probably be going to Glyndebourne. Luckily I was right.

The evening was a huge disappointment. The production was good but I realised that I didn't like the music, which lacked heart, and I also had no idea what was going on. The Shostakovich opera I saw last week was in Russian, so there were 'surtitles'. Britten's opera was in English and surtitles weren't deemed necessary, but I couldn't understand a word anyone was saying through the throaty vibratos.

After the first half hour the dim lighting had a soporific effect on me and I started to nod off. By the end of the first act I had woken up but was faced with a dilemma: should I stay or should I go? Reader, I went.

I was tempted to stay. I didn't like the idea of giving up on an important work of art and I also felt that I should get my money's worth, but I also thought that life is too short to put myself through another hour of torment so when the interval began, I walked to my car and drove home. That is the plus side of going to things on your own - if you don't like it you can just go.

The Bookseller to the Stars

Click here to visit this superb blog and read an anecdote that is, sadly, not an unusual occurrence in the heady world of bookselling.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The food chain

In today's BBC News web site there is a story about a pelican that horrified locals and tourists in a London park by suddenly picking up a pigeon in its beak. The pigeon spent a traumatic 20 minutes in the beak (or is it bill?) before the pelican decided to swallow it. What a horrible way to go.

Apparently pelicans normally only eat fish, so this pigeon was particularly unlucky. However, even in the midst of tragedy there is always something comical about pigeons.

Further up the food chain, Britain's second largest specialist chain of bookshops, Ottakar's, has been bought by the largest one, Waterstone's. The takeover happened in July and like the pigeon, Ottakar's has spent an uncomfortably long time in the jaws of its captor before being devoured. However, the last branch will be converted to Waterstone's within the next few weeks and Ottakar's will cease to exist.

Within the current economic climate, the takeover of Ottakar's seems to make sense. It is unlikely that Ottakar's would have continued to function as an independent bookseller in the face of growing competition from internet retailers and the supermarkets and in that context, this is the best possible outcome. But as someone who has spent ten very happy years working for Ottakar's, I feel a great sense of loss. In some ways, I would rather have gone down with the ship.

Ottakar's was a very unusual company. One outside observer said that it was more like a religious cult, as the morale was extraordinarily high and most of the employees were fiercely loyal to the point where, until recently, the staff turnover amongst managers was almost zero. There were many reasons for this, but the root of Ottakar's success was the ethos of its founder James Heneage.

Sadly, this photo portrays a rather severe and pensive man, rather than the eccentric, warm, humorous and occasionally outrageous person that I knew. However, the Dalek in the background gives the game away.

James Heneage created a company culture in which individualism was celebrated and every employee felt valued. He knew that the staff were his greatest asset and strived to create a structure which gave as much autonomy as possible to the hundreds of bright, overqualified staff that he employed. In most businesses I can think of, dissention is seen as a threat. In Ottakar's I always felt that any idea that I had, however bizarre, would be treated with respect if I could provide a decent argument to support my views.

Waterstone's is not quite the evil empire that some have tried to portray. With a few notable exceptions, most of the people I've have met so far seem perfectly okay, but it is a much larger company and I know that I am now a small fish in a very big stream.

(November 2008 - Two years on, over two-thirds of the Ottakar's managers have now left Waterstone's)

Monday, October 23, 2006

By George!

I have just discovered this little-known fact about George Formby ( for non-British readers, George Formby was a famous, ukelele-playing singer and film star during the 1930s and 40s, whose greatest fan was Stalin). In 1946 Formby flew to South Africa to begin a tour and was warned by Daniel Malan, the head of the National Party, that it would be unwise to perform to 'coloured' audiences.

Formby ignored the warning and outraged the founders of Apartheid by performing 20 shows to black audiences without charging a fee. To add insult to injury, he kissed a black child on stage. The next day a group of National Party members visited Formby and his wife at their hotel, only to have the door slammed in their faces. Daniel Malan phoned Beryl Formby and began to complain, but she interupted him saying 'Oh piss off, you horrible little man.'

This anecdote came as something of a surprise as I'd always associated Formby with the Mr Wu songs and the joke about 'If you've got a chink in your window, you'll have another one at your door'. However, it is clear that Formby and his wife are unsung heroes of the anti-Apartheid movement and deserve some credit for their stance, unlike 'Queen', who played Sun City 30 years later.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

And another thing...

Imagine you're outside on a starlit night with a friend. You hand them a penny and ask them to walk 20 metres away, stop and hold the coin up against the sky. The coin, if you could see it at all, would barely register as a pinprick in the total night sky, but supposing that you were able to magnify that miniscule little dot of sky. What would you see?

The Hubble telescope has done exactly that and the result is awesome:

Within that tiny little spec of darkness, there are hundreds of galaxies. Not stars but galaxies! It makes me feel very small and puts all of our human vanities into perspective. I know that it sounds ridiculous but I often feel depressed by the fact that all of our achievements will ultimately disappear in a puff of cosmic smoke. No more Beethoven, Picasso, Venice, Dickens, Leonardo Da Vinci or Plato. The universe will continue without us.

How stupid of me to worry about events that may or may not take place in a few billion years time, but I can't stop it. Is it a mild form of apeirophobia - the fear of infinity?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Banksy in Los Angeles...

Sadly, eagle-eyed Disneyland officials spotted this rogue Guantanamo Bay prisoner and removed him within seven hours.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Nerd alert!

I spotted this letter in a recent edition of London's free 'Metro' newspaper:

Further to your article on the sale of Star Trek memerobilia, it should be clarified that the picture clearly shows a model of USS Voyager NCC74656 and not the Enterprise NCC1701D, which was used in the Next Generation and refered to in the article.

Yours sincerely,
Iain Borland

I can almost hear the laughter in the newsroom from here.

The J-curve

After the success of Freakonomics and the Tipping Point, we now have a new bestselling book from America that claims to encapsulate our complex and chaotic world in a simple formula: the J-curve. Descibed as a new way to understand why nations rise and fall, the J-curve is a hypothesis that has a variety of applications. The picture below shows how the J-curve can be applied in a business environment, but in Ian Bremmer's book the factors of value and time are replaced by stability and openess.

On the extreme lefthand side of the graph are nations like North Korea that achieve a level of stability through being extremely oppressive but are ultimately undermined by the threat of eventual revolution. On the far right are countries like Sweden, which have long-established democratic institutions. The J-curve supposedly demonstrates that for a nation to go from being extremely oppressive to a successful democracy, it must first go through a period of instability. In other words, things will get worse before they get better (or to quote Lenin 'You have to take one step back to take two steps forward').

Perhaps I'm being unnecessarily critical, but isn't the J-curve stating the bloody obvious? Do we really need another fatuous 'one size fits all' formula to reduce global politics to a series of easy solutions? According to the author, the answer is yes and he cites a number of examples where American foreign policy would have benefited from observing the J-curve.

I'm not convinced. I agree with the basic tennets of the J-curve because they aren't particularly controversial, but I don't like Ian Bremmer's assumption that globalisation is a good thing and I don't agree that American-style democracy is always a great gift that should be bestowed upon the world. The last sentence of the book reads: Only the free exchange of information, values, ideas and people can build a sustainable global stability that enriches all who take part in it. At first glance these are fine words, but this a world in which everything is dominated by the free market. Behind Bremmer's desire to see a world comprised of stable democracies there is the unspoken assumption that these countries must acceptable to the United States.

Perhaps I am doing Paul Bremmer a disservice. As a bookseller I can't help groaning every time a new book arrives offering to reduce complex issues to a simple formula. However, the J-curve seems particularly simplistic. It's one saving grace is that it baldly exposes the failings of George Bush's foreign policy and anticipates the change of heart that is now taking place in the Whitehouse.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A night at the opera...

Last night I went to my first opera. It was a spur of the moment thing, prompted by a glowing review in the Sunday Times of Richard Jones' award-winning production of Shostakovich's opera 'Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District'. The review mentioned that there were only two performances left before the end of its run and I was suddenly seized by the irrational fear that I might die without ever seeing an opera, even though I am relatively young and healthy. I logged onto the Royal Opera House's web site and booked a ticket for last night.

I was not a complete stranger to Shostakovich. I first discovered his music when I was 17 and have been a keen fan ever since, but I have always had a problem with opera. In the 19th century some argued that opera was the highest art form, containing a sythesis of the musical, visual and dramatic arts, but as far as I was concerned it was a lot of fat Italians singing in wobbly voices, pretending that they were lovestruck teenagers. If I was going to see an opera, I was determined that it would be a modern one.

To give a brief background to Lady Macbeth, Shostakovich wrote it when he was 26 and it proved to be such a success that there were three productions running concurrently in Moscow. Then, one night in 1936, Stalin and his cronies attended. Stalin hated the savage satirical wit and seedy decadence of the plot and stormed out before the last act. A few days later an article appeared in Pravda entitled 'Muddle Instead of Music' and the opera was withdrawn from public performance. Shostakovich spent several months waiting for a knock on the door from the secret police, but luckily he survived.

I arrived at the Royal Opera House feeling slightly anxious about the prospect of sitting through three and a half hours of Russian opera, but I needn't have worried. From the very first moment I was gripped. Seventy years on, the music still had the power to shock and I was bowled over by the fantastic performances and beautiful stage design. I always imagined that there would be a stuffy atmosphere at an opera, but the audience often roared with laughter at the outrageous, bawdy humour in the libretto. I'm so glad that I overcame my prejudices and went to the opera. I can now see what all the fuss is about.

Monday, October 16, 2006

From the Blogosphere...

I have to keep reminding myself that only half of the USA voted for George Bush and that the outcome of the next election isn't a foregone conclusion. Web sites like this one help. It was set up by a 12-year-old American boy called Caleb Hayes who is clearly going to go far. Not content with managing one successful web site, he has also established one for young Americans who are politically aware but aren't old enough to vote.

My favourite political blog is A Tedious Existence, which describes itself as the banal meanderings of a poor green-skinned bald man who is interested in finding some semblance of meaning in this sick world.

Three other blogs that have caught my attention are The Tart of Fiction, a consistently thought-provoking read, Debi Alper, a writer's blog that is consistently witty and incisive and Gonzie's Bedroom which, despite his claim that he is boring in the morning and dull over lunch, is never anything other than a fascinating and eclectic mix that is always worth visiting.

*NB - Sadly, A Tedious Existence has now disappeared from the blogosphere (19.11.06)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

To Battle...

Yesterday I went to the town of Battle, where a group of historical re-enactment societies were planning to celebrate the 940th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings with a 2000-strong recreation of the conflict. It was a great day and the battle was spectacular, but my own personal highlight was seeing two women in medieval costume using a cashpoint machine...

I bought my eldest son with me who was bored silly and just wanted to play computer games. We spent half of the day sitting in a damp field waiting for something to happen.

Sadly, when it did happen, my son had lost all interest. The hand-to-hand fighting and cavalry charges failed to distract him from his sacred mission of exploring all of the ringtones on my mobile phone.

However he was temporarily distracted by a wonderful volley of arrows from the archers and uttered some annoying American superlative that he'd picked up from a television programme, before returning to the phone. I wondered why he was so unmoved by the spectacle of a couple of thousand people in authentic armour staging a battle and tried to remember how I felt when I was seven. But I was over-complicating things: he just wanted someone to play with and looked longingly at the gangs of young boys staging sword fights.

When I knew that I was going to be a father, I had visions of idyllic days spent exploring castles, beaches and museums together. The reality is a seven-year old boy who spends half the day asking me 'Are we nearly there yet?' and the other half wanting to know when we're going home. I know what makes him happy: computer games, ice cream, sweets and, most of all, other children. Maybe I should bring one of his friends along next time.

I had a lovely day, mainly because I did have someone to play with. I met up with two old friends from university, one of whom donned his armour and joined the battle while his wife and I watched two thousand accountants, sales managers, postmen, teachers and every other profession you could imagine charging across a field in costume. It was wonderfully English: grey skies with the constant threat of rain, sitting in a damp muddy field waiting for something to happen. I shall be back for the 950th annivesrary.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy

When I was a teenager I had an obsession with David Hockney's painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. I can't remember why I liked it so much, as it no longer has the same appeal. Perhaps the picture's realism made it more attractive to my untrained mind, but I also wonder if I felt attracted to the subjects, Celia and Ossie Clark. At the time I had no idea who they were, I just saw a successful, young couple who seemed stylish and confident. Adding a cat (whose real name was Blanche) on Ossie Clark's lap was a masterstroke. I liked the way that 'Percy' showed no interest in the artist and prefered to look out of the window.

Some years later I picked up a newspaper and read that a fashion designer called Ossie Clark had been stabbed to death by his gay lover. I almost didn't bother reading the full article until I realised that this was the Mr Clark depicted in Hockney's famous painting. I had often wondered who Mr and Mrs Clark were and discovered that they were both celebrated fashion designers in the 1960s, on a par with Mary Quant. Married in 1969, the Clarks seemed the epitome of success but their marriage only lasted four years and in 1983, Ossie Clark was bankrupt. The story of how Ossie Clark's life went off the rails was long and convoluted and I won't relate it here, but it was sobering to realise what happened to the confident young man in the painting with the insoucient expression on his face.

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy was voted one of the top ten favourite British paintings in a poll several years ago and whilst that doesn't mean it has any artistic merit, it is interesting that this picture has captured the imagination of so many people. I expect that the National Portrait Gallery's new Hockney retrospective will be be very popular.

Ossie Clark may no longer be with us, but 36 years after the portrait was painted Mrs Clark is alive and well. Last week Celia Birtwell appeared with Hockney for a photo session and even managed to wear the same dress...

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ding Dong!

A while ago I bumped into an ex-colleague from Ottakar's who now works for a theatrical agency. When she told me that one of her jobs was to look after Leslie Phillips my ears pricked up, as I'm a big fan of his. 'Is he really like that?' I asked, desperately hoping that she wouldn't tell me that he was either extremely dull or a complete bastard. She related the following anecdote...

Leslie Phillips had been invited to appear at an arts festival and my friend phoned him to see when it would be convenient for him to go. 'Well darling,' he replied 'I'm fine at lunchtimes and I'm fine in the evenings, but between one and four, I'm dangerous.'

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The latest news from Mars...

In January 2004 the Mars Exploration Rovers landed safely on the planet and began their 30-day mission. It was hoped that they would be able to travel for one kilometre, at a speed of about 40 metres a day, before packing up. Nearly three years on they are still working and the Opportunity has travelled so far that it has been able to leave the safe, flat terrain of its landing site and take this stunning photo. I still get excited about the fact that I'm looking at the surface of another planet.

Crime and Punishment

It is a mild October morning and at first glance I could be on a university campus. Set amongst carefully landscaped gardens, there are several lowrise redbrick halls, each one named after named after a species of British bird. However, I am surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire and have to be accompanied by a prison guard. Welcome to Feltham Young Offenders Institute.

If you are between the ages of 15-21, live in Greater London and are charged with committing a serious crime, the likelihood is that you'll end up here. Each year 30,000 young men pass through Feltham's gates, although there are only 600 at any one time. I am visiting because I do some voluntary work in my spare time and have to visit two penal institutions as part of my training. Like most people I have opinions about crime and punishment, but I have never set foot in a prison and I feel nervous, not sure of what I'm going to find.

The visit begins in the vocational training area. This is where offenders ('Although we don't call them that any more' I'm told) can learn skills in painting and decorating, bricklaying and motor mechanics. This is prison at its best, attempting to reform by making the young men here employable. We are allowed to talk to the inmates, sorry, young adults and I'm struck by how likeable most of them are. Where are the resentful stares and killer eyes? Later I discover that one of them is a murderer and won't leave the prison system until 2020.

The workshops are impressive, but 80% of the inmates never attend them. Sometimes this is due to behavioural difficulties, but the main problem in Feltham is that it is a remand centre and very few people stay long enough to make vocational training feasible.

Next we move on to the educational centre. We are warned that the 'lads' may be a little cheeky, as many of them resent the schooling that is compulsory for the under 16s. We enter a long corridor, with classrooms on either side. Instead of internal walls, the classrooms are separated from the corridor by safety glass so that the prison officers can see everything and guarantee the teachers' safety. There are quite a few women in the unit and I wonder how the attractive young cookery teacher handles a roomful of testosterone-fuelled males.

I feel uncomfortable looking through the glass at the inmates, as if they're exhibits in a zoo and I feel relieved when we move on to the induction area, where new offenders spend their first night. At first glance it reminds me of the entrance to a student union bar, but when I realise that the brightly-coloured doors are all cells the reality sinks in. We look at a cell that has been specially designed to prevent 'at risk' prisoners harming themselves. Each cell has its own sink, toilet and televsion, but this is not the soft option that the Daily Mail would like to have us believe. The cell is depressingly bleak. The sink and loo are both dirty and the room stinks of stale tobacco. There used to be 900 inmates in Feltham, but after the notorious incident a few years ago when a racist, psychotic white male killed his Asian roommate, it was decided not to have shared cells any more.

After a brief inspection of the sports hall we end our visit by meeting a member of the management team. Like the other staff we have spoken to she seems refreshingly candid about the problems that Feltham faces and doesn't try to evade any awkward questions. Her prognosis is pretty bleak: most of the inmates have been abused at some point in their lives, many have learning or behavioural difficulties and the grim reality is that most of them will reoffend. Her team do what they can to rescue the more promising individuls, but it an uphill struggle.

I leave Feltham with more questions than answers. Why are at least 80% of the prisoners black? Did we see the real Feltham or a sanitised version? Are the staff as respectful towards the inmates as they claim? But the biggest question of all is why our justice system is unable to do more to rescue young males from a life of crime. Perhaps Ignatius Loyola was right and even 15 is too old to save someone, but that seems a bleak prospect and one that is hard to reconcile with the often likeable young men that I met today.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Notes from the Underground...

Twenty miles east of London, in the heart of the Essex countryside, there is a fairly innocuous-looking building which is surrounded by a small wood and several dozen acres of farmland.

There is nothing remarkable about this building on the outside. It looks like a poorly-designed 1950s bungalow, but once you enter the front door it becomes a different story...

A long tunnel takes you into the heart of a bunker that would, in the event of a nuclear war, have been the seat of the British government. It was decommissioned in the early 1990s. The optimist in me says that this was due to the end of the Cold War, but the pessimist wonders if they didn't build a better bunker somewhere else.

Kelvedon Hatch Bunker is now owned by the farming family whose land was compulsorily purchased by the Government in the 1950s and they have turned it into one of the strangest tourist attractions I have ever visited.

I arrived at the lowest level, which housed a huge engine room. The machines contained everything necessary to ensure that several hundred civil servants could survive a nuclear attack, hermetically sealed from the outside world. There were generators for electricity, air filters and water pumps, plus three months' worth of diesel fuel.

The room below contained equipment named AWDREY - a cosy acronym for something utterly chilling - Atomic Weapons Distribution Recognition and Estimation of Yield.

The AWDREY room also had wooden pigeon holes for staff to store index cards. One row was headed Fatalities, another said Casualties and I tried to imagine the bunker's personnel calmly going about their business, filing the information in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. With the possible exception of the Prime Minister and a few senior staff, no-one was allowed to bring their family with them. How could anyone work in this environment, knowing that their family and friends had either been killed or were suffering from radiation sickness?

The larger rooms contained row upon row of desks. Some were divided up into ministries with one chair for each. Others were allocated to the armed forces and the police. I also noticed that there was a room for the BBC to broadcast reassuring messages to the nation and a surprisingly spartan bedroom for the Prime Minister with a large map of London on the wall.

With only three months of fuel, the bunker's inhabitants would have to venture outside at some point and there was a plentiful supply of fallout suits and geiger counters. What would they have found once they opened the protective hatch? Research suggests that London and the surrounding area would have been heavily targeted with casualties in the region of 75% plus and there would be little, if no infrastructure for the entombed ministries to govern.

Why was Kelvedon Hatch built? Was it just a strategic tool in NATO's attempt to convince the Soviet Union that it meant business, or did the British Government really think that they could successfully wage a nuclear war and restore some vestige of civil authority afterwards? Either way, it was a terrifying place. The current owners decided to enhance the ambience by playing sound effects of telex machines, four-minute warnings and, in the hospital ward, recordings of men groaning in agony. I do not normally suffer from claustrophobia, but after an hour underground listening to the sounds of bombs and the wailing of the dying, I decided to give the gift shop a miss.

Leaving the bunker was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I walked down a long, dark, corrugated metal tunnel. In the distance the daylight was a brilliant, blinding white. As I emerged from the tunnel I felt the warmth of the sun on my face and saw that I was on the edge of the woods. The world was still here. It is difficult to write this without sounding sentimental and crass, but as I looked at the grass and wild flowers I felt an immense relief and gratitude that affected me for a long time afterwards.

If you fancy a great day out with fun for all the family, visit Kelvedon Hatch's web site for more information.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Ever decreasing circles

I met someone recently who got a job in East Grinstead and decided to move there. If you don't know the place, it's roughly halfway between London and the south coast, has a population of 27,000 and is 5% charming medieval Sussex town, 95% badly designed twentieth century housing. Apparently Daphne from 'Frasier' grew up there, but as far as I know she's never returned.

East Grinstead's problem is that it is neither fish nor fowl. It lacks the excitement and cultural activity of London, but it is also too suburban for anyone to enjoy the delights of a traditional, rural community. Like many small towns in England, the place only really comes to life on a Friday night, when the local kids get drunk and beat the crap out of each other. Happy days.

I felt sorry for him, but then his story became even more tragic. To add insult to injury, he discovered that he couldn't afford to live in East Grinstead and had to move to a suburb called Felbridge. It was hard to imagine a place as small as East Grinstead having a suburb and it reminded me of an asteroid that was discovered around ten years ago. No asteroids are exciting and this one was smaller and duller than most, but it aroused the interest of scientists because it had caught a small lump of rock in its tiny gravitational field and this boulder was now the asteroid's moon, faithfully orbiting it at regular intervals. Here's a NASA photo:

Beneath its bland exterior, East Grinstead harbours a dark secret. It is home to several religious cults, including the Mormons and Scientologists (Tom Cruise and John Travolta have been spotted walking past the local Wimpy Bar). Also, there is an Al Qaeda training camp for would-be suicide bombers.

I worked in East Grinstead for a few months and I have to confess that I was quite happy there. The town was bland, but far less offensive than many places in England. It is a sad fact that most English towns and cities have been ruined by the unholy alliance of the Luftwaffe and 1960s town planners, producing town centres like this:

Fortunately, I'm lucky enough to live in a town that hasn't changed much during the last 100 years and the locals will always give you a warm welcome...