Tuesday, December 26, 2006

My Christmas present to myself


I have just bought an original illustration by Martin Aitchison from one of the Peter and Jane Ladybird reading scheme books. I had slight misgivings about spending £400 on an picture from a children's book, as bookselling is not the most lucrative of occupations. However when I opened the package and saw the original, my doubts immediately vanished.

If you didn't grow up with these books, you're probably wondering what is so special about these workmanlike depictions of everyday family life around 30-40 years ago? The obvious answer is nostalgia, but I think there's more to it then that. There is something poignant, even tragic, in Martin Aitchison's paintings and whilst I don't think he laboured to create a subtext, there is one.

These scenes from an idyllic childhood are so powerful because they don't just capture a lost time but also an ideal that could never be fulfilled. In Peter and Jane's world it is always summer and there are no divorces, domestic violence, paedophiles or illnesses. Most of all, there is no boredom. Peter and Jane must go to school, but we only ever see them playing, painting, eating, frolicking with their dog or helping Mummy and Daddy. It is childlike view of the world and when I look at Martin Aitchison's wonderful illustrations, they are a poignant reminder of a time that never was.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Ottakar's RIP


This time last year Ottakar's was the second largest chain of specialist booksellers in Britain. Today it no longer exists. The shops have all been absorbed into Waterstone's and the once familiar green and orange livery has been painted over with black.

Like most Ottakar's employees I have tried to be realistic about the change of ownership. High street sales have been declining for several years and there is probably only room for one bookselling chain, but why did it have to be Waterstone's? Were they better than Ottakar's? On the face of it the answer is no, but we were the first to go because smaller ships sink more quickly than large ones.

I feel very sad about the whole business. Ottakar's was a wonderful company to work for and it was run by booksellers. Waterstone's is largely run by retailers who like to talk about 'product' . It is not the evil empire that some would claim, but like most large companies it is soulless and is driven by procedure rather than passion. At Ottakar's any problem could be resolved swiftly with a one-minute phone call. At Waterstone's it's difficult to find the number.

There has been a lot of talk about the 'new Waterstone's' - combining the best of both companies - and it was initially hoped that the input of Ottakar's head office personnel would herald a new era in the company. At the moment the jury is still out. There are good people in Waterstone's and it still offers more hope for bookselling in Britain than any other chain, but at the moment the company still has a long way to go before it can inspire passion and loyalty.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Lapland

This is Lapland - home of Father Christmas and his army of little helpers, including the reindeer pictured above. If I had more money and a son who wasn't pathologically afraid of flying, I might consider going there for a short weekend break to take a sleigh ride in the snow and meet Santa Claus. Apparently these trips are de rigeur with aspirational parents who want their offspring to have the perfect childhood. Unfortunately, this year something has gone wrong.

There isn't any snow in Lapland.

The town of Rovaniemi is well within the Arctic Circle, but this year the surrounding area looks more like this:

Yes, I am climbing on my environmental hobby horse, but the fact that there is no snow in an area of the Arctic surely can't be right? This is December.

One British lawyer who took his son to meet Father Christmas commented 'Max had expectations of coming out of the hotel and building a snowman, but there's nothing to build one with. He's very disappointed. There is so much less for him to be able to do. I've had a little talk with him about global warming.'

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Today's stupid question

A customer walked towards the till waving a copy of Coast, a lavishly-illustrated hardback.

'Do you have a lighter edition?'

'Sorry, what do you mean? (we had never been asked this question before)'

'One that's less heavy. You see, my husband's only got one arm.'

Monday, December 18, 2006

Cultural Confessions and Secret Vices

Scott Pack's blog recently featured a posting called Cultural Confessions in which he owned up to not owning a Beatles record, never reading Jane Austen and not having seen a Monty Python film. Bloggers were invited to add their own, so here are mine:

I have never sat through a Shakespeare play without feeling bored
I think it's the language. It may be modern English, but it's very alien and I find it an effort to concentrate for so long. I suppose that I should read about the background to the play before I go, then it would make more sense. But I'm too lazy

I don't like Florence
I've no idea why, but it did nothing for me. Sometimes an overload of culture can be oppressive, particularly when you're jostling with crowds of tourists. On the other, Venice lived up to all of the superlatives

I have never seen The Godfather
And if you sat me down in front of it now, my heart would sink

I don't read poetry
With a few exceptions - George Herbert, R.S.Thomas, Matthew Arnold, Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda amongst others, but usually if I want poetry, I listen to classical music

I don't like the 'old masters'
However shallow some modern art is, I would rather be in a gallery of contemporary art than looking at Titian or Rubens

And now for some secret vices - the hidden pleasures that we'd rather not own up to...

I would rather listen to ELO's Out of the Blue than The Clash's London Calling
This is the worst sort of popular cultural heresy, but I never really liked Punk or New Wave. It may have been a breath of fresh air after all those Rick Wakeman albums, but I was too young to see the need for it

I love listening to Roger Whitaker singing The Last Farewell
No explanation needed - it's a great song

I like Star Trek
But I don't live with my mother and I'm not a virgin

I like watching Big Brovaz videos
Don't ask me why. It's probably a cry for help

I love the Pre-Raphaelites
They might be the Classic FM of the art world, but I'm a sucker for their sentimental, melodramatic paintings

That was easy. The next challenge is to answer Goncalo Veiga's questions, which have been floating around the blogosphere and can also be found on Mark Farley's Bookseller to the Stars

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Kim Hunter

Mention the name of actress Kim Hunter to most people and you'll be met with a blank look (I know, I've tried it). Hunter should be a household name. She played Stella in the first Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire and reprised the role five years later for the film version, winning an Oscar for her perfromance. This should have heralded the beginning of a glittering career, but she became one of the victims of Senator McCarthy and was effectively blacklisted by the main Hollywood studios. As a result, Hunter's body of work is very small but oddly enough, she appears in three of my favourite films.

In 1946, Hunter co-starred with David Niven in my favourite film of all time, A Matter of Life and Death...Then, 22 years later, she played a chimpanzee...

Kim Hunter's performance as the feisty scientist Zira was one of the highlights of Planet of the Apes. In an interview, Hunter says that it took over four hours to put on the ape make-up and she ended up taking valium to get through it, but it was worth it.

Around the same time, Hunter also had a bit part in another of my favourite films, The Swimmer.
Hunter continued to work, appearing in the wonderful Beneath the Planet of the Apes and the appalling Escape from the Planet of the Apes but the big film roles eluded her, probably thanks to Hollywood's endemic ageism. She died in 2002 at the age of 79.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Thoughtless

I've written some derogatory comments about my seasonal customers, so it's only fair that I come clean about my own moments of madness. In my time I've managed to recruit a paedophile to work in the children's section (funnily enough, he didn't mention it in the interview), heckle one of my own author events (that lethal combination of stress and alcohol) and confuse Nick Hornby with a shoplifter (he is a shifty-looking man). However, there is one incident that still haunts me.

I was once approached by a woman who had written a book about her son, who had hanged himself in a local park a few years earlier. She had decided to write a book as a tribute to him and hoped that it would be of some comfort to parents who had gone through a similar experience. Would I consider stocking the book and holding a launch party? Of course I said yes.

A sample copy of the book arrived a few weeks later. It was dreadful, but it didn't matter. The author had endured the worst thing that any parent can experience and writing a book was obviously a cathartic experience for her. We'd hold a launch party, sell a few copies to her friends and that would be it.

For the next few weeks she made my life a misery. Had we received the book? Were there enough copies? Should she invite the Mayor or would I do it? Did I think vol-au-vents were better than sausage rolls or should I have a mixture of both? Should we have paper plates? Should she sign the book before or after the main speech? At one point I was receiving three or phone calls a day for several weeks, but if this woman was anxious and obsessive she had every reason to be so.

The day before the event a new Patricia Cornwell novel arrived. I asked someone to do a window for it and they came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. They got a few dustbin bags and filled them as if a body was inside it, then after a trip to a local park, scattered a few dead leaves around the display. I was impressed. Unfortunately they ran out of time and weren't able to put up any posters.

The next evening, over 70 people arrived at my shop to attend the launch of a book about a person who died in a local park. As the approached the front window they saw a display which featured a corpse covered in dead leaves. Unsurprisingly, a couple of the dead man's friends assumed that we had created an extremely tasteless window display and seemed pretty upset. I was mortified. Stupidly, I had never made the connection which was now so obvious. I wondered whether I could get away with dismantling the window before too many people noticed, but every time I tried to edge towards the front of the shop I was stopped by someone thanking me for holding the event.

In the end I got way with it. The window lights were on a timer and switched off before everyone left. I am still haunted by the memory of that evening and the near-debacle that I only avoided by luck.

Back to the present and my delightful seasonal customers, today they became more desperate and impatient than ever. One intelligent-looking woman became quite angry because she couldn't find any James Bond novels. Had she looked in Fiction under Fleming? Of course not. Another customer asked us if we sold fishing rods whilst one insisted that we had two branches in the town. I suggested that the fact that we had a front and back entrance could be deceptive but no, I was wrong. There were definitely two branches.

Friday, December 15, 2006

It was 34 years ago today...

That men last walked on the moon. Obviously the main reason for the Apollo project was political rather than scientific, but it seems bizarre that by the time people return to the moon, it will have been unvisited for half a century.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Great British Public

Only ten shopping days left to Christmas and the average IQ of my customers is dropping to an all-time low. A few weeks ago I passed the threshold of people who don't know that fiction is arranged A-Z by author and I am now being assailed by people who have no idea about anything.

Choice enquiries include:

'If I ask you a question, will you know the answer?'

'Which of these books has a happy ending?'

'Do you sell matches?'

'I want a book with a moral dilemma in it'

'Where's your Tundra section?'

This is on top of all the people who don't know the difference between biography and autobiography, think that paperbacks come out at the same time as hardbacks and expect us to have the same range of stock as Foyles.

Am I in the wrong job? I'm beginning to think so.

More Karsh...

I have discovered some more photographs by the Armenian/Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh. Several of them are of well-known figures, but some of them are new to me. For example, has anyone heard of Dr Hans Selye?


And can anyone tell me who this man is?

Dr Robert Oppenheimer famously declared 'I am death.' This picture must have been taken after he was persecuted by Senator McCarthy into accepting a minor academic position in an American university, as the Oppenheimer of A-bomb fame had jet black hair.

This man's brand of horror was slightly more innocuous...

Peter Lore looks magnificently creepy in this moodily-lit portrait.

Devotees of the French Horn will be familiar with the name Barry Tuckwell. This stunning photo is of his sister Patricia, taken in 1947.

Finally, here is a portrait of Vivien Leigh...


I never understood why she was regarded as such a beauty until I saw this picture. At first glance it seems a very conventional pose, but notice how Karsh has manipulated the depth of field so that whilst the front of Leigh's face in in focus, the ears are blur.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Homage to Karsh

In a recent posting on Sibelius I included a fantastic photograph by Yousuf Karsh. His portraits of Churchill, Shaw, Einstein and Hemmingway are well known, but here are a few lesser-known ones:


This portrait of Pablo Casals was taken whilst he was playing a Bach cello sonata. You can almost hear the music.

How on earth did Karsh get Nikita Krushchev to dress up like this? Karsh wrote 'When I saw him, I thought his strong peasant face demanded a frame. It was Moscow's first warm spring day, but the Chairman cheerfully sent for the biggest fur coat I've ever seen.'


With Brigitte Bardot, Karsh has wisely abandoned any gimics or props and allowed her natural sexiness to speak for itself. I'm sure that Karsh would never have said 'Stick your tits out love' but there is almost a Page Three quality to it.

I have never heard of Gratien Gelinas, but I had to include this inspired portrait.

I don't recall seeing this photo of the three Apollo 11 astronauts - Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. It makes a refreshing change from the inane image of them smiling in their space suits and has a heroic, Mount Rushmore quality to it.

In the case of Martha Graham, I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to this woman's talents.

Finally, here is one of several photographs that Karsh took of Dwight Eisenhower.

This has shades of Holbein's Ambassdors.

Karsh died in 2002. There was a very good book published after Karsh retired called 'Karsh - a Fifty-Year Retrospective' but it is difficult to get hold of. We need a new book that does justice to this wonderful photographer.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Full Moon

At last, NASA have finally been given the go-ahead to build a base on the moon. Previous US administrations rejected the idea on the grounds of expense, but the money that has been spent on Iraq since 2003 could have built several bases on the moon.

America needs outer space. Historically, the country has a frontier mentality and its nationhood has been defined by the drive to open up the west. Is it any coincidence that America ended its policy of isolationism at the same time that it conquered the Wild West?

The USA is brilliant at space exploration and rubbish at managing other countries, so it makes sense for America to seize this historic opportunity and divert its energies into the harmless pursuit of colonising the moon and sending a manned mission to Mars. However, as a patriotic Englishman I insist that a British astronaut is involved. Would it be possible to send Tony Blair into space?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sibelius

If I was exiled to a desert island and was only allowed to take one thing with me, it would probably be the works of Sibelius. As a child I belonged to the great mass of people who regarded classical music as boring, but in my teens I heard part of a Sibelius symphony on the radio and I felt as if I had been swept up by a giant wave. I had no idea that music like this existed. I always thought that classical music was the 'tum-tee-tum' banality of Mozart's horn concertos, but listening to Sibelius was made me realise that at its best, music had the potential to achieve a level of profundity that made most other art forms seem crude by comparison.

When I was 17 I became obsessed by the 4th Symphony. Sibelius wrote this in his mid-40s and was suffering from a tumorous growth in his throat. Convinced that he was going to die of cancer, Sibelius went away to a remote retreat in the Karelian mountains and wrote one of the most most remarkable pieces of music ever written.

When it was completed, the symphony was greeted with boos and hisses in the concert hall and one conductor actually apologised to the audience before the performance, explaining that he didn't like the music but felt that it was his duty to allow it to be heard. Today the music is acknowledged as a masterpiece, but it will probably never make it to the Classic FM 'Top 100'.

I realise that this post is of minority interest - to everyone - but if I can convince one person to try the 4th symphony then it will have been worthwhile. Don't listen to it once or twice, but at least three times before you give up (which hopefully won't happen). I hated the music the first time, but like many great works of art it took its time to reveal its secrets.

My mother-in-law likes Sibelius but didn't warm to this symphony. It was ironic, as she had just been treated for breast cancer and was going through the same sort of crisis that inspired Sibelius. I told her the background to the music and the next time we spoke, she got it.

Amazingly, Sibelius survived the surgery for his throat cancer and lived for another half century, dying in 1957 at the age of 91. Why am I writing about this? Because today is his 141st birthday. Happy Birthday Sibelius!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Amazon reviews

When I read Professor John Sutherland's comments about Amazon reviewers I was up in arms. Why should criticism be limited to the cognoscenti? There are thousands of intelligent, well-educated people out there who have a considered view and their opinions are as valid as any professional critic's.

That's what I thought last week. However, last night I decided to look up a film and my faith in Amazon reviews took a nosedive.

I looked up The Eiger Sanction, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. I saw it the other night for the first time and was expecting something of the calibre of Dirty Harry. Instead I spent two and a half hours watching one of the oddest, most inept films I've ever seen in my life. The film was described as a thriller, with 'Clint Eastwood as a retired assassin on a moutaineering expedition who knows that one of the party has killed a friend of his. He must find out who the killer is.' It sounded good, in an enjoyably brainless sort of way.


Unfortunately the finished result seemed to be three completely separate films which had been crudely edited into a whole, with only a tenuous link between each segment. The actual Eiger bit of the film only began after over 90 minutes had passed and it ended not with a bang, but a very disappointing whimper.

I looked up the film on Amazon to see what other people had made of it, expecting some pretty scathing comments, but no, everyone loved it! One review was headed 'Much under-stated', whilst another praised the 'superb screenplay based on a fantastic book'. Were we talking about the same film?

Since then I've looked at a number of Amazon reviews and I almost agree with John Sutherland. However, when it comes to books, particularly literary fiction, the calibre of the reviews is generally very high. The sort of person who reads Elfriede Jelinek probably isn't going to write a banal, ungrammatical assessment of a novel. However the film reviews are very hit and miss. If you need a rule of thumb, crap films attract crap reviews, good films attract intelligent ones.

On the subject of film, I have no doubt that most people reading this will have seen Atanarjuat - the Fast Runner, but if you haven't, I'd strongly urge you to watch it. As far as I know, it is the first film in the Inuit language and is absolutely stunning. When I told certain people that I'd watched a three-hour film in Inuit featuring a cast of unknown actors, they looked at me as if I was mad. But it's one of those movies that makes you realise how underused the medium of film is most of the time.

And the Amazon reviews are very good too.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Photographic evidence

When Israel was bombing Lebanon, I searched on the internet to see how the conflict was being reported and I came across an image which still haunts me.

This isn't the worst photograph I have seen. There are no dead bodies of children or bombed-out homes, but there is something shocking and brutal about the way the Israeli soldier's gun seems to be pointing at the boy. If you want to understand the source of the despair that makes young men blow themselves up, it is pictures like this that can help to illustrate the tragedy of the Middle East.

Whose side am I on? I'm on the side of the unarmed, the peacemakers, the people who don't think that any idea is worth the life of a child. Sadly, their voices are rarely heard above the shouting.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Desperation

A while ago I was going through some new fiction titles with a publisher when I came across a racing thriller by a fairly well-known writer. I noticed that the title was billed as a 'superlead'.

'Sorry, but he doesn't sell as well these days.' I said, ordering a measly three copies.

The publisher's enthusiasm seemed undimmed. 'Well, yes his sales have dropped off recently, but we've changed the ghostwriter and I think that this one should be back on form.'

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Byzantium

According to the BBC News web site, Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey has been a relative success compared to the complete disaster that everyone was expecting. I almost feel sorry for the Pope. Everyone liked John Paul II because he smiled a lot and knew how to work a crowd. His reactionary views on birth control probably caused thousands of unnecessary deaths and helped the spread of AIDS, but people were content to turn a blind eye to that. However, no-one likes Benedict because he bears such a strong resemblance to the evil Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars:


If you look up religion in the official 2001 population census of Great Britain, several hundred thousand people have declared themselves Jedi Knights. Where are they now?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Bestsellers...

You can imagine the buzz at Michael Palin's publisher when he decided to let them print the diaries he'd kept during the Monty Python era. Bingo! Everyone loves Michael Palin. His travel books always end up in the Christmas top five and this insider's view of the Python years is bound to be the Alan Bennett of 2006. So why isn't it selling?
To be fair the sales aren't bad by normal standards, but by Palin's this must be a huge disappointment. Why isn't the book in the top five? Perhaps the answer lies in Palin's almost official role as the nicest man in Britain. When I read someone's memoirs I want the sort of scurillous gossip that is almost libelous. Piers Morgan's entertaining Insider is a good example of this and although much of the material seems outrageous and highly suspect, I can only assume that the lack of libel actions means that a large part of it is true. Palin's diaries are far too generous, reasonable and nice to make compelling reading. In fairness I've only read a few entries, but if the book had grabbed me more I'd have read the whole thing by now.

Michael Palin isn't alone. Bill Bryson's memoir isn't setting the bestseller charts on fire, whilst the massively-hyped Billy Piper autobiography Growing Pains is being beaten hands down by Richard Dawkins' polemic against religion. Who says that we're dumbing down?

As far as fiction is concerned, fewer than 10% of my top 50 bestsellers are hardback fiction and the names are all familiar ones: Ben Elton, Andy McNab, Dick Francis and, of course, Terry Pratchett. Publishers paid a fortune in advances for Diane Setterfield and Michael Cox's debuts, but it looks as if it's going to be a long time before they get their money back unless Saints Richard and Judy intervene.

The sports table is also full of surprises. Wayne Rooney was paid a large sum of money for his book and whilst it's ticking along, the sales are nothing compared to Stephen Gerrard's autobiography.

So what is selling? At the moment the bestselling autobiography is Peter Kay's The Sound of Laughter, which is outselling everything else by a long chalk. Other bestsellers include Victoria Beckham's guide to fashion (no it isn't a humour title), Jeremy Clarkson's selected rants vol.2, a humorous book about Latin and, to the surprise of many, Pam Ayres' Surgically Enhanced.


I saw Pam when she first appeared on Opportunity Knocks, so I'm rooting for her.

The Peter Kay biography will be bought by many and read by few. That is the nature of Christmas bestsellers. A few years ago the bestselling book at Christmas was Shane Richie's autobiography. I'd overhear customers saying 'She likes 'im, don't she' and you could sense their relief that they were one present nearer the end of their Christmas shopping(incidentally, research has recently revealed that the average housewife spends 18 hours Christmas shopping!). When the Richie book came out in paperback in time for the summer reading season, we sold fewer than half a dozen. Why? Because no-one actually wanted to read it.

Most years there is one book that takes everyone by surprise. Remember the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, Magic Eye or Eats Shoots and Leaves? This year's book would have been the saucy Janet and John stories from Terry Wogan's morning show, but sadly nobody seized the opportunity. Another contender is Where's Bin Laden? - a spoof of the Where's Wally? books, but it's still early days.

It looks like it's going to be a late Christmas in the book trade, in which case the likes of Palin, Piper and Bryson still have a chance of earning back their advances.

However, I won't be buying any of these books. I would recommend Peter Ashely's Unmitigated England, which is one of the best books I've seen for a long time. Last year there was a glut of nauseating titles inspired by the dreadful Pocket Book of Patriotism. Unmitigated England is in a class of its own, celebrating things that are uniquely English without ever sinking into sentimental jingoism.

Merry Christmas

Although Christmas in retail begins in late October, it feels like a phoney war until someone fires the starting pistol on December 1st. For the next three weeks, the public will engage in an orgy of spending which will be make or break time for the high street chains.

I feel ambivalent about the whole thing. On the one hand I feel disgusted by the way Christmas has become commodified. Seeing crowds of bad-tempered people fighting over goods that will produce a few minutes of pleasure on Christmas Day before being consigned to the attic is a depressing spectacle. On the other hand, I know that if my shop is to survive I need to sell as many unwanted presents as I can, particularly given this year's appalling sales.

With the exception of a few chains - Marks and Spencer for example - there has been a steady downturn in high street sales for the last two years. There are three main reasons for this. First, internet usage has now reached the point where 60% of people shop online. The internet is not only more convenient, but is also usually significantly cheaper. Second, there is more competition from supermarkets. Why make a special trip to a bookshop when you can pick up the latest Jordan biography during the weekly shop? Third, many people have borrowed more than they can afford and are feeling squeezed by repayment charges, rising fuel bills and a hike in interest rates.

I cannot speak for other retailers, but from a bookseller's persective I think that the next few years are going to be very hard. During the last 20 years, over 400 bookshops have opened. Most of them are over 4,000 sq ft and will have a turnover of at least £1,000,000 a year. This has been a great success story and repudiates the view that people aren't reading any more, but now that people can also buy books online or in their local Tesco, how many bookshops will we need?

If my shop's sales continue to decline I can do two things: I can reduce my payroll costs and try and improve my margin from the supplier. However if, after paying for the stock, staff and site, I am making a loss I'm in trouble. Where do I go from there, assuming that I've done everything possible to increase sales?

I'm ashamed to say that in my particular case, I do have another option: I can drive a competitor out of business. I would rather focus on positive things like selling more books, but if that isn't happening then I have to do everything I can to safeguard my staff's jobs.

I am convinced that he next few years will see a lot of closures in the book trade, but at some point the dust will settle because there will always be a need for proper bookshops where people can browse, attend signings and meet authors. The internet can't replace that. As for Tescos, I'll start worrying when they sell Sartre.