Thursday, November 30, 2006

Sometimes it's better not to know...

As a child I used to be addicted to the game Master Mind and was particularly impressed by the picture on the box, which featured a very wise looking man with a beard and a Chinese woman with an enigmatic expression.

Year later I discovered that Mr Master Mind was the owner of a small chain of hairdressing salons in Leicestershire who stood in for the photo shoot after a male model failed to turn up. I must confess that I was disappointed. I probably hadn't given the matter much thought since the age of ten, but in some small corner of my brain he was a member of some elitist sect of highly intelligent people, not a hairdresser called Bill Woodward. The enigmatic Asian woman was a Computer Science student from Hong Kong called Cecilia Fung.

This photo must have affected other people too, as someone recently went to the bother of reuniting Bill and Cecilia for another photo shoot...

Life, the Universe and Everything

This morning's edition of the Today programme featured a wonderful discussion with Professor Stephen Hawking. I don't know how long this interview will be available so if you're remotely interested, click on the picture before it disappears into the ether.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The joys of bookselling...

Christmas is a very special time for booksellers when we get to meet lots of people who don't normally visit bookshops...

Customer - Have you got that book about the war?
Me - Which book?
Customer - The one in the paper
Me - Which paper?
Customer - I don't know
Me - Do you know the title?
Customer - I don't think it's got a title

Me - Sorry, we've sold out
Customer - Can you order it in time for Christmas? (asked at 3.00 on Christmas Eve)

Customer (standing in a stairwell in my shop yesterday) - It's all's all books...

Living the dream

My main ambition in life is to escape from the rat race and lead a life that is sustainable. Ideally I would live in a smallholding that could generate its own power and provide enough food to survive independently. It's partly a moral choice, but also a selfish one as I'm fairly certain that life is going to become a lot harder unless our governments make some radical policy changes. I don't want to be dependent on a fragile infrastructure.

Does that sound alarmist? Perhaps, but I remember the petrol crisis of 2000 during which a Government agency predicted that if the supply chain was halted for more than two days, civil order would break down and a state of emergency would be declared. We have gone a long way from the nation that was virtually able to feed itself during the Second World War.

Therefore when a television series was made about a family trying to switch to an ecologically sustainable life, I had to watch it. 'It's Not Easy Being Green' featured the Strawbridge family, who swapped a happy life in a Worcestershire village to renovate a derelict Cornish farmhouse.

It was a very enjoyable series, but unless I have £600,000 to invest and an entourage of specialists to assist me in my engineering and horticultural projects, I'm not sure how relevant the programme is to most people. However, what did inspire me was not the green politics but the Strawbridge family themselves. Whilst I accept that television sanitises everything, it was quite clear that the Strawbridges were a happy family. Normally reality television leaves me feeling depressed about the human condition, but every member of the Strawbridge family was so likeable that I ended up feeling very inadequate.

I tried to imagine my family emulating the Strawbridges, but all I could see was my wife complaining about the cold and my sons saying how bored they were without Game Boy. The Strawbridges seemed to have an endless supply of friends who thought nothing of giving up a couple of weeks to help them build a water wheel. I can't think of anyone I know who could spare more than a day. I want to be Dick Strawbridge.

Further disilutionment set in when I read about the Brithdir Mawr eco-village in Pembrokeshire. For years I had imagined that this was the gold standard in sustainable living and thought that it would look something like this:

But the reality is quite different. Instead of cutting-edge high-tech, low-impact design, we have something that is more Steptoe and Son...

The loo is al fresco

And here is the interior...

I don't wish to seem disparaging about Brithdir Mawr and I know that this dwelling isn't representative of the whole settlement, but if we are going to convert mainstream society to the cause of sustainable living, this isn't the way to do it. To be fair to the occupants pictured here, they never set out to publicise their activities. On the contrary, they minded their own business and as far as the authorities were concerned, didn't exist until a series of satellite photos alerted Pembrokeshire County Council to the presence of unauthorised dwellings.

We desperately need a model that ordinary people can follow. Not a £600,000 farmhouse or a £600 teepee, but a solution that will convince the ordinary person in the street that it makes sense to change.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Esso blues

This advert by Esso appeared in the Sunday Times and I would like to quote part of it:

To solve the world's energy problems will take massive investment, experience and skill...
But it is only through more efficient use of energy
now that we will gain the necessary time.

It's good to see that Esso have captured the zeitgeist. Unfortunately this advert, which I discovered at my mother's house today, was published on November 25th, 1979.

A strange day in Iceland

In Journey to the Centre of the Earth the extinct volcano of Snaefellsjokull is the gateway to the underworld, so when I visited Iceland last May I had to go there. The day started quite well. I left my hotel well-prepared and began the seven-mile drive that would take me to the edge of the glacier.

Unfortunately, two miles into the journey the road became quite steep and narrow, with a surface of lose volcanic rock and dust. My Toyota Yaris started to struggle until it finally ground to a halt, unable to get a grip on the road's surface. I tried edging forward very slowly, but the car didn't move an inch. The road was too narrow to turn round and to my right there was a sheer drop. What should I do?

I wondered if it was possible to reverse down to the main road, but the prospect of going backwards down an unfamiliar winding road for a mile didn't fill me with confidence, particularly as I could end up going off the edge. Then I had a dim recollection of seeing someone face this dilemma in a very bad film. Their wheels had spun round, digging deeper into the dust and the situation looked hopeless, but they had got out of it. How? I couldn't remember, but something was telling me to put lots of rocks under the wheels to get a grip. I grabbed several handfuls of volcanic rock of pushed them under the tyres, then got back into the car and very tentatively raised the clutch until I was in first gear. The car started to creep forward. I went into second gear, desperately hoping that I wouldn't get stuck again and drove for a few hundred yards until I reached a turning point.

I knew that I couldn't go any further and decided to have a short break before going back to the main road. It was here that I discovered this cave:

The inside was covered with dates, names and enigmatic markings. In most other countries in Europe there would have been some sort of visitor centre and gift shop attached, but the wonderful thing about Iceland is that you can have a cave all to yourself and test the acoustic by singing to your heart's content, which I did.

Back in the car I nervously crept back to the main road and headed for the northern coast of the Snaefellsness peninsula, where I came across this strange-looking building...

With a recommendation like this, I had to explore it.

In America this would probably have been the home of a serial killer, patiently waiting for chinless wonders like me to stumble through the front door before falling into a specially constructed pit. However this was Iceland and Arnaldur Indridason aside, I felt confident that I was in a safe place. I parked the car and cautiously walked towards the building, hoping that no-one was there. The doors were hanging off their hinges and inside, the place look as if it hadn't been occupied for years.

A stained mattress propped against the wall showed that someone had once lived here but thought better of it. Most of the rooms contained fishing equipment, including a yellow souwester, parts of a boat and some netting.
This room was in serious need of some feng shui. By now I had realised that there was a fishing theme to the house and expected to find lots of cod bones, but outside the ground was covered in seashells.

In another room I found a this strange combination of objects. In the unlikely event that any sea fishing experts chance upon this blog, I would be interested to know what is going on here:

It was an eerie place, made stranger by the fact that it looked as if it had been abandoned in a hurry. Most of the rooms contained equipment that could have been salvaged and put to good use somewhere else, but they had been left to decay.

Just as I was about to leave, I found another door and discovered my serial killer basement. There was a hatch in the floor and a makeshift ladder led down to a cellar where all sorts of strange equipment littered the ground. I've no doubt that ropes and chains are an essential component of a fisherman's toolkit, but I had watched too many films and my imagination started to take over. I left.

I continued to explore Snaefellsness until the evening began to draw in. On the way back I stopped by a river and for the first time in my life, bent down, cupped my hands and drank the water. It tasted better than anything I'd ever had before. It reminded me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the water in the west became so sweet that you could drink it.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The dark side of Ladybird...

In my recent homage to Ladybird books I commented that they were set in an idyllic world where the sun always shone and there were no dark thoughts. That was before I discovered this chilling illustration from the Ladybird Book of the Cub Scouts...

At first it all looks innocent enough, but further scrutiny reveals a more menacing dimension. The bearded man in the background looks as if he is contemplating some awful deed, possibly involving the boy scouts. What is this psychopath doing in the pages of Ladybird? And has the Scout Master noticed, or is he simply trying to keep a brave face on for the sake of the boys?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Oh dear...

Here is a wonderful clip from American Idol, featuring a young woman whose perception of her own talent is at odds with the judges. Click on the photo.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A book too far...

One of the best books published in 2004 was Taschen's '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die'. I'm interested in film, but there are big gaps in my knowledge and this wonderful book gave me the opportunity to try movies as diverse as The Verdict, Lantana, The Consequences of Love, Soylent Green and Antanarjuat.

Then came '1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die' which, apart from crushing my self-image as a reasonably well-read person, was an exhilirating selection of both the familiar and the obscure.

So far so good.

Unfortunately, Taschen have now made the grave error of applying this formula to paintings. At first I thought it was a great idea, but the reality is a selection of images that have been reduced to a size that renders many of them meaningless. If I haven't seen a book or film I can easily remedy that with a few clicks of a mouse, but this option doesn't apply to painting.

Let's take Holman Hunt's painting The Scapegoat. For years I never understood this painting. I'd often seen reproductions in books, but it always struck me as garish example of Victorian melodrama. Then a few years ago I saw the real thing in an exhibition at the Tate and I realised how wrong I'd been. The picture was much larger than I'd anticipated and it was impossible not to be swept away by the Holman Hunt's bold, visionary genius. But if you look at printed representations of The Scapegoat this is what you get:

Three completely different versions - a few more and I could do an Andy Warhol. The point is that the printed page cannot do justice to the majority of works of art and although there are some nice chunky monographs out there, the Taschen book isn't one of them. If I was rich and didn't have a family to consider, perhaps this book would inspire me to visit the great art galleries of the world, but as an armchair read it is a great disappointment.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Play For Today

A few years ago I saw a repeat of a wonderful 1972 BBC 'Play For Today' called The Fishing Party. It was about three miners enjoying a trip to the seaside and was not only extremely funny but also, at times, very poignant. It was defintely worth seeing again, but like many of the best programmes from the 1970s, it isn't available on DVD.

Fortunately, some enterprising souls have decided to throw caution to the wind and sell home-made DVDs on ebay. For less than a tenner I now have The Fishing Party, plus five other stories from 'Play For Today'. Admitedly the picture quality resembles a 1982 VHS tape that has been rented more than 50 times, but who cares?

Since then, I've typed in the names of lots of obscure and half-forgotten programmes (anyone remember The Changes ?) on ebay and I've been surprised by how many are available. Is it legal? No, but if television companies refuse to make their archives available to the public, then they can't complain when someone else takes the initiative.

Life With a Star

One of the many innovations that Ottakar's introduced was an intranet discussion board in which booksellers from Truro to Oban could exchange news and views. Sometimes it was a little disappointing - the notorious 'What's your favourite crisp flavour?' represented the board's nadir. However MD James Heneage was determined that the intranet should be 'anarchic' so that amongst the interminable threads about graphic novels there would also be an opportunity for innovation and intelligent discussion. One of the most heartening examples of this was a thread I initiated called 'Forgotten masterpieces.'

The thread asked booksellers to recommend titles that they felt were unjustly neglected and the response was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that Ottakar's decided to take the best suggestions and include them in a national campaign. Recommended titles included David Malouf's An Imaginary Life, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, Jose Saramago's Blindness and Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn. I recommended the wonderful Journey by Moonlight and another book which, although it is published by Penguin, seems to elicit blank looks from most people: Jiri Weil's Life With a Star.

How can I describe this book if you don't know it? Imagine L'etranger written by a Czech Jew during the Second World War. Weil and Camus are very different writers, but these two novels have one thing in common: the narrator is passive and naive to the point of being one of Dostoyevsky's 'Holy fools'. In Life With a Star the main character, a bank clerk called Roubicek, relates how his rights are gradually being eroded by the occupying Nazis:

'From now on you mustn't appear outdoors without a star, I hope I don't have to tell you what would happen to you.' 'You have to stitch down the corners of the star and wear it on the left side, directly over your heart, not any higher or lower. There are very strict regulations about this.'

He handed me a piece of rayon material. 'You mustn't get it dirty.'

I went home and stitched the tips of the star with a needle and thread. There were six tips and a word on the star, all contorted and twisted, in a foreign language that seemed to make a face at me.

I went out the next day. After all, I had to go shopping. I saw people looking at me. At first it seemed as though my shoelaces were untied or that there was something wrong with my clothes. In some way I had upset the everyday, accepted order of things. And I was alone among other people, completely alone, because people would make way for me. I was no longer one of them.

'Hello Sheriff!' a boy called to me. And everyone laughed, but I knew that they weren't laughing at me. I laughed too.'

Thanks to Ottakar's, I was able to introduce this book to hundreds of new readers, but I think that this novel deserves thousands.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Apocalypse Now

I have just finished Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' and thought it was brilliant, but I would have probably still enjoyed it even if it was rubbish as I have a slight obsession with any fiction or drama that has a post-apocalyptic setting. I've no idea why. My wife thinks that I should talk to my GP about it.

For those of you who are also interested in writing which explores the human condition reduced to its barest essentials, here is a list of my top ten post-apocalyptic novels (in no particular order):

1. Margaret Atwood - Oryx and Crake
2. Bernard Malamud - God's Grace
3. John Wyndham - The Chrysalids
4. Cormac McCarthy - The Road
5. Paul Auster - In the Country of Last Things
6. Kurt Vonnegut - Galapagos
7. Jose Saramago - Blindness
8. Philip K Dick - Dr Bloodmoney
9. David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas
10. Russell Hoban - Ridley Walker

I realise that not every novel on the list is strictly post-apocalyptic, but they all deal with the theme of social collapse and its aftermath - something that is preoccupying a growing number of writers at the moment including Jim Crace (or should that be Crachay?), whose next novel 'The Pesthouse' is published in March.

With global warming, diminishing oil reseves and the threat of terrorism looming on the horizon, it is no surprise that there are so many speculative fiction titles being published. What is most alarming is the growing belief that we are living in the 'end times'. My second son is one-year-old today and I do not want him growing up in a world being torn apart by religious mania and corporate greed.

But before I succumb to a mood of pessimism, I must remember this (rough) quote from the controversial BBC film 'The War Game' - 'It is extremely likely that a nuclear war will have taken place by 1980'. It didn't happen. In the end common sense prevailed and we did the right thing.

Any recommendations for further reading would be very welcome.

One of my favourite anecdotes...

Author Jim Crace popped into a bookshop in London to see if they stocked any of his books. He went up to the desk and asked a woman where they kept their Jim Crace. She guided him to the fiction section and said in a hushed voice 'Oh and by the way, it's pronounced Jim Cra-chay.'

He didn't have the heart to say anything.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bookshop Memories

George Orwell wrote this essay about bookselling 70 years ago, but it could have been written yesterday. Here are a couple of extracts...

When I worked in a bookshop - so easily pictured, if you don't work in one, as a kind of paradise in which charming old gentlemen browse eternally among folios - the thing that struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one.

Many of the people who came to visit us were of a kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who doesn't remember the book's name or what it was about, but does remember that it has a red cover.

Orwell's wise words provide a sort of fraternal solace, but it is also quite depressing to realise that this has always been the case and probably always will be.

When I started in bookselling I imagined that I would be meeting lots of people like myself who were interested in the arts and literature. My day would be filled with discussions with customers about the merits of particular authors and perhaps we would recommend titles to each other. Sadly, I can probably count the number of truly interesting conversations I've had with customers on one hand.

I've often thought about why this should be the case and I can only conclude that the sort of people whom I'd like to talk to, i.e intelliegent, thoughtful, empathic individuals, aren't in the habit of going up to complete strangers and starting a conversation.

When I ran an independent bookshop I had a dozen or so regular customers who would come in and talk to me. At first I liked the idea of getting to know my regulars and passing the time of day with them, but after a while I found that my heart sank the moment they walked in the door. I began to feel angry with them and couldn't wait for them to go. Why, I asked myself, was I being so hostile to people who were being friendly to me?

I realised the reason why: my regular customers weren't having a conversation with me, they were talking at me. I knew where they lived, what they read, how many children they didn't have and all of the minutiae of their lives. I had listened to all of their thoughts and smiled benignly, appearing interested in what they said. What did they know about me? When had anyone asked me about myself? None of my customers would have been able to relate a single fact about my life.

Looking back, many of these people lived alone and I may have been the only person they spoke to that day. I should feel compassion for people whose social skills weren't as developed as they should have been, but I only remember how hard it was to be a sounding board day after day.

Today things are much better. The intelligent, thoughtful, empathic people that I yearned to meet still rarely appear in my shop as customers but they make up the majority of my staff, who are a pleasure to work with. Thanks to my colleagues, I never wake up in the morning dreading the thought of going to work and ultimately, I feel very lucky to have ended up in bookselling.

Friday, November 10, 2006


Three months ago my seven-year-old son announced that he refused to fly anywhere. I humoured him and hoped that he'd forget about it, but he hasn't and keeps reiterating how much he hates the idea of being in a plane. I've tried to explain the physics, but his logicis flawless. He say that he knows that flying is safe, but he doesn't like heights.

I could just tell him that we're going to fly whether he likes it or not, but he is the sort of strong-willed child who will resist to the bitter end. We are stranded in England.

Next year's holiday is in danger of looking like this...

However, if we drive further west to Dorset, the prospect becomes more promising...

But as much as I love Dorset, I was still hoping to travel further afield. On the map of the world below, I have visited the countries in red but there are huge chunks that remain to be explored. I was hoping that my son would soon be old enough to share the adventure, but sadly he seems to be happier playing Gameboy.

Maybe I should take my cue from the members of the A Team who had a novel approach to Mr T's fear of flying...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

At the moment I'm reading...

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I've never entertained any desire to become a writer but if I did, this book would probably make me stick to the day job. McCarthy's writing is almost audaciously sparse, but achieves more in a few short sentences than two pages of Martin Amis.

McCarthy clearly knows that what you don't say is as important, if not more, as what you do and The Road's stark, primordial prose shows the writer at the height of his powers.

Try this for size:

The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didnt answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the lightswitch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the windowglass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
I don't know.
Why are you taking a bath?
I'm not.

Once in those early years he'd wakened in a barren wood and lay listening to flocks of migratory birds overhead in the bitter dark. Their half muted cranklings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl. He wished them godspeed till they were gone. He never heard them again.

For a more articulate, intelligent and authorative assessment of Mr McCarthy's latest novel, click here to read what The Guardian had to say.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


It's almost 20 years since bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin published his first Inspector Rebus mystery. After struggling to think of a suitable name for his hero he decided to invent a surname and chose Rebus, which is Latin for puzzle. The first book didn't set the bestseller charts on fire but was well-regarded enough for a sequel to follow and now, 17 books on, he is one of the world's top crime novelists. This anecdote comes from a signing he did in 1998...

One day Ian Rankin decided to see if there were any real Rebus's and flicked through the local telephone directory, not expecting to find anything. But to his surprise there was one Rebus living in Edinburgh.

His address was Rankin Avenue.

That's spooky.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Remember, Remember...

On Saturday thousands of people descended upon Lewes to watch the town's Bonfire Night procession. Shops closed early, windows were boarded up and several hundred police and emergency workers were drafted in from other parts of Sussex to cope with the crowds and prevent the town from being burnt to a cinder.

It is amazing that in this health and safety conscious age, people are permitted to parade through Lewes carrying flaming torches, wheeling barrows of burning tar and throwing fireworks, but this is a fiercely independent town that is proud of its traditions. During the English Civil War, Lewes was one of the few places in this area to support Parliament and this tradition of dissent continues to the present day.

Shortly before the US-led invasion of Iraq, the people of Lewes were some of the most vocal opponents of the war and held a public debate in the town hall to discuss the matter. A representative from the American Embassy attended the meeting and obviously thought that he was going to a quaint little town in the countryside occupied by old maids and retired colonels. He looked visibly shaken to be confronted by several hundred highly-educated, articulate and angry Lewesians and I think it's fair to say that the evening wasn't his finest hour
(to show its appreciation of American foreign policy, a giant effigy of George Bush holding a little Tony Blair in his hands was burned at one of the main bonfire sites on Saturday).

But Lewes isn't some hotbed of raving Socialism (most people vote Liberal or Green) and for all its apparent anti-Americanism, it is proud of its links with Tomas Paine. I think the key to Lewes is that it is a town in which tradition, continuity and living in harmony with the environment are valued more than in most places. This is because it was largely unaffected by the Industrial Revolution and has also, thanks to the geography of the local area, only suffered from limited development. There are a few chain stores and supermarkets, but they do not dominate the Lewes.

Most Lewesians are passionate about their town and want little more than to keep things as they are (although they would like a cinema!). This is an eccentric, quirky town with a rich heritage surrounded by beautiful countryside. Why would anyone want to change it?

I don't know if McDonald's have ever tried to open a branch in Lewes, but I don't imagine that they'd get very far. A McDonald's was opened in Glastonbury, in defiance of intense local opposition. It was burned to the ground within three days of opening and the culprits were never caught. Like Lewes, many of the inhabitants of Glastonbury are proud of their past and will do whatever is necessary to protect it against the forces of globalisation.

At the moment the world is experiencing rapid population growth and for the first time in history, city dwellers outnumber the rural population. However, although the future looked as if it was going to be an age of globalisation in which huge conurbations with multicultural populations were linked by motorways and cheap air travel, we are now beginning to realise that we are doomed if we pursue this course. If we are to survive global warming and the depletion of resources, our future probably lies in small, self-sustaining communities. Towns like Lewes may seem to be a relic of the past, but I am convinced that they are actually a model for the future.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


I've never been very good at 'crashing' at other people's houses. If I'm given a bedroom of my own and can freshen up the following morning, fine, but the thought of waking up on a sofa in an unfamiliar house fills me with dread. I also hate the prospect of having to make my way home with a crushing hangover.

However, when an evening out with some workmates turned into a major drinking session I was more than happy to accept a generous offer of a bed for the night. In the morning I woke up feeling a little the worse for wear and went to the bathroom. This is what I found...

Had I unwittingly ended up in a crack den? I was intending to have a bath, but after seeing the state of the carpet I decided not to bother.

I wish that I wasn't so suburban in my attitudes. When I'm in a busy restaurant surrounded by friends, downing flaming Sambucas, I think that I'm being terribly Bohemian. But once the alcohol has worn off, I turn into my mother and start tutting about the general level of cleanliness.

I don't suppose I'll change.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Mind games

I spotted this book today. It was ordered by a customer and after flicking through it, I am extremely glad that I don't work with her.The cover is pretty self-explanatory. The book contains a number of activities which, the back cover claims, will improve the morale of a 'team' in the workplace. One excercise requires each employee to recount an episode from their childhood that made them feel particularly proud and this is then thrown out to the rest of the team to discuss it. Whenever I see the word team used in a business context I feel a sense of dread because it is invariably a euphemism for conformity.

In my workplace I manage intelligent, interesting people who who ask very little of me except that I treat them with respect, give them a clear idea of what's expected of them, provide them with the tools to do their jobs and recognise what they achieve. The morale is good. There is no bitching behind people's backs, sick leave is almost non-existent and although we are all quite different people (with a 49-year gap between the oldest and youngest employee) we seem to get on with each other and have had some good nights out.

I'm sure that the reason for our good working environment is based on mutual respect. We are all very different, but each of us has something to add to the whole. Sadly, the trend in many workplaces seems to be towards uniformity and rather than celebrating people's individuality, it is often seen as a threat.

It's strange how so many right-wing businesspeople extol the virtues of the free market and personal choice whilst running their workplaces like Soviet Russia. Motivated by a mixture of fear and ambition, employees in many businesses are not only asked to work hard but to also adopt their employer's values. Conformity is rewarded, dissent is punished.

This is why 'The Big Book of Teambuilding Games' is so offensive. Apart from being extremely patronising, it operates from the premise that it is not enough for people to just do their jobs, they must also have their souls re-engineered. Why should grown adults have to humiliate themselves by playing with Lego bricks or struggling across a freezing cold river on an outward bound course? And God help you if you're introverted because that means you're not a team player, even if you're doing a good job.

Perhaps I'm overreacting to this silly book, but I don't like what it stands for. I've nothing against a team attitude and think that a unified sense of purpose is vital, but it must spring naturally from employees and that can only be achieved by making people feel involved, motivated and respected. If a workplace is unhappy, no amount of games or excercises will change that until the fundamental causes are dealt with.