Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A remarkable life

I have read many biographies and unless the subject's life is particularly tragic, I am impressed by what a rich life they've led compared to my own humdrum existence. However, only one person has inspired me to the point where I would swap places with them: the lesbian speedboat champion Marion 'Joe' Carstairs.

During her youth Carstairs was famous as the fastest female speedboat racer in the world but by the time she died in 1993, at the age of 93, she was almost forgotten. Luckily, the Daily Telegraph newspaper decided to include a small obituary and asked one of its writers - Kate Summerscale - to prepare one. When Summerscale began her research she soon realised that she was dealing with a remarkable individual and had a book in the making.

Carstairs led an extraordinary life. After becoming the fastest woman on water she went on to buy an island in the Bahamas and ruled it as a benevolent despot, entertaining the great and the good of Hollywood and Europe whilst enjoying a string of lovers that included Marlene Dietrich.

One of the most appealling things about Carstairs was her penchant for practical jokes. Her sister was a professional golfer and Carstairs once travelled halfway across the world so that she could hide in a bush by the last hole and jump out shouting 'Boo!' just as her sister was taking the crucial final shot.

However, her finest joke was when she persuaded some islanders to shine up their faces, strip down to their shorts and drum menancingly outside her house as she entertained guests one evening. 'The Blacks are going to kill us all. Pansies first, women last' she warned her guests and watched with delight as they fled upstairs and cowered in the bedrooms. With a great theatrical flourish she marched outside with a shotgun and let off a few shots. The drumming subsided and Carstairs told her guests 'I think it's going to be alright now.'

As Kate Summerscale found out, Joe Carstairs' rich and varied life cannot be summed-up in a few paragraphs and I am not going to try and do that here, particularly when you can follow this link to an excellent article written by Summerscale herself. Even better, you could read Summerscale's excellent short biography of Carstairs, The Queen of Whale Cay, which is a fitting tribute to a genuine eccentric with an exhilarating zest for living.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


I have to admit from the word go that I don't know what I'm talking about (althought that's never stopped me in the past). I have never read a Fantasy novel, unless you include The Hobbit. I once listened to a BBC radio dramatisation of Lord of the Rings that was so good I felt that it absolved me from having to read the book. But apart from that, nothing.

I have vaguely tried, on a couple of occasions, to see what it was about these novels that inspired so much passion in their readers. However several things put me off, not least the people who buy them. Fantasy fans have always been the bain of my life as a bookseller as they have an uncanny ability to appear at the most inconvenient time of the day with an enquiry about when the next book in the Wheel of Time/Shannara/Otherworld/Pern/Mallorean series was coming out. This was always annoying, but today it's unforgiveable. I know these people spend at least four hours a day on the internet and have access to dozens of author websites and online fanzines, so why are they still coming in at 5.27 pm and asking for a list of all the books featuring orcs?

I've been trying to discover the secret of the Fantasy genre, but I've failed. All I can deduce is the following:
  • If you're a male writer, you should call yourself Terry
  • Always have a map at the front of the book, usually featuring a 'Western Sea' and some mountains in the east

  • Use as many superfluous apostrophes as possible when naming people. I'm not sure why P'lomia and D'garian should be considered attractive names. I blame T'pau
  • Write in a portentous, over-written style that echoes Tolkein and lends a certain gravitas to your tale of a humble blacksmith who finds himself being sent on an vital mission to destroy a dark lord
  • Always have a quest. No quest, no story
  • Never mind the quality, feel the width
  • Never write a single novel. All self-respecting fantasy writers have at least five in their series
  • The front cover should, if possible, feature a white horse
I read a very interesting article (which I've sadly lost) which deconstructed Fantasy fiction and its appeal to a largely male readership. The gist of it was that it tapped into a cultural subconsciousness about the myth of Lyoness/Atlantis (hence the prevelence of a western sea in the maps) and appealed to men who felt psychologically castrated by the post-industrial consumer society.

Shall I mention this to the next person who buys a David Eddings novel?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Second thoughts...

It seemed like a good idea at the time - instead of getting a local author to sign copies of his memoirs of being a pilot during World War Two, ask him to come and do a talk. However it now transpires that he is a right-wing, Christian fundamentalist who will probably use the evening as a platform for his views. Looking back on my meeting with him, he did say something along the lines of 'My friends didn't sacrifice their lives for all this filth and depravity.'

I should have taken the hint.

If he sticks to talking about firing rockets at Nazis then all well and good. What I don't want is a roomful of people who have turned up to listen to a war hero recount his exploits, only to be told that they live in the last days of Sodom.

(NB - Since writing the above, I have met Steve Stevens several times and he is never less than charming, so I should take hearsay with a pinch of salt)

Several years ago I booked an author who wrote books about self-defence and was notorious as the sort of man who could (and would) break someone's neck with his little finger. The shop filled up with shaven-headed, neckless men in their twenties and thirties who all seemed quite excited by the prospect of comparing notes about the best way to beat someone senseless.

The author arrived and after greeting the audience with a convivial 'Alright lads?' began his talk with the following sentence:

'I know that a lot of you have come here because you want to hear me talk about fighting, but I've become a Buddhist and turned my back on violence. Self-defence is not about fighting, but avoiding confrontation...'

You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. The crowd were turning ugly and it was only when the author started listing some of the 'terrible' things he did before he converted to Buddhism that the mood improved. The talk finished with something along the lines of 'I don't fight any more, but I could still 'ave you if I wanted to.'

Monday, January 22, 2007

Beware of the headhunter!

A few weeks ago I was talking to someone from one of the big five publishers and we got onto the subject of central scale-outs, where deals are made in smoke-filled rooms between publishers and bookselling chains. It's a simple enough process. We, the booksellers, agree to buy 2000 copies of a book in return for a better discount of 57% instead of the usual 48%. We use this extra margin to discount the selling price resulting in higher sales. Everyone's happy, except those authors whose books haven't been promoted.

It should be a fairly amicable process, but a few years ago the publisher had to deal with a buyer who was extremely difficult to work with. The buyer was generally disliked by most of the people she dealt with, but because she was a 'figure' in the book trade she was regarded as untouchable.

The publisher came up with a novel solution: they decide to poach her. The buyer was given an offer she couldn't refuse and happily jumped ship. Six months later they made her redundant. She couldn't go back into book retailing and no publisher would employ someone with her reputation, so that was the end of that.

This tactic was so successful that it was almost employed on at least one other occasion.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Are you local?

I was in my office today doing something incredibly boring with an Excel spreadsheet when the phone rang. It was someone on the shop floor. 'There's a local author who wants to see you.'

My heart sank.

I prepared myself for the usual routine in which I try to politely explain that self-published poetry doesn't sell and no, a signing session wouldn't be a good idea unless they like sitting at a table for an hour being ignored by customers.

The other problem I have with local authors is that many of them have stretched the dictionary defintion of 'local' to include the following categories:
  • They live 27 miles away but occasionally shop here
  • They live in Scotland, but their daughter-in-law attended a local school in 1974
  • They have a friend who used to live here
  • They are local, but to somewhere else
And why do they always turn up on the busiest day of the week, expecting me to drop whatever I'm doing and listen to them ramble on for half an hour about their anthology of poems about Tenerife? By now I was getting annoyed, threw my spreadsheet down and marched onto the shop floor ready for battle.

At the counter stood a man who was so old that his spine had contracted to a height that made him resemble a hobbit. His frail, purple-skinned hands were slowly shuffling some papers that he had produced from a bag and although I was standing right next to him, he seemed unaware of my presence. I introduced myself and shook his hand, trying to give him the sort of firm handshake that men of his generation like, without inflicting any damage.

He had written a book called Beaufighter Over the Balkans recounting his experiences as a fighter pilot during World War Two. I knew nothing about the Bristol Beaufighter and was fascinated to hear how he was sent on missions to destroy strategic buildings and ships, most of which required him to fly at a dangerously low altitude so that he could fire his rockets with a reasonable degree of accuracy. In addition to flying fast and low, he had to take photos to prove that he'd hit his targets and he showed me examples of his work. One picture showed a Nazi headquarters before and after he'd fired rockets at it. Another showed an attack on German shipping.

Unlike most of his colleagues he survived the war and went on to play a crucial role in the Berlin airlift of 1948. He slammed the book shut and asked if I'd be interested in doing a signing. I had a better idea - how about a talk? If anyone had a story to tell he did. He seemed pleased to be asked and next month, if he's still alive, Steve Stevens DFC will be speaking at my shop.

I have tried to find a photo of Steve Stevens, but it wasn't easy. First I found this...

For all his strutting, male posture, if this Steve Stevens was involved in any action he'd probably start crying

This Steve Stevens does look like he's seen a bit of action, but unless he's done a Michael Jackson, I think that my Steve Stevens was always white...

Steve Stevens: The Rotary Club Years. No, I can't imagine him firing rockets at Nazis either. There are many other Steve Stevens on Google images, but only one of them has been awarded the Dinstinguished Flying Cross...

And here he is: Steve Stevens DFC, standing in front of one of the best-known photographs from the Second World War.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Two novels

I've just read two novels in rapid succession (by my standards, if not Dovegreyreader's). The first was a proof copy that I found under a pile of boxes in my loft. The second was discovered at the Brighton branch of Waterstone's, which has the best fiction table I've ever seen, full of authors I've never heard of.

By sheer co-incidence, both novels are by Barcelonan authors who were born in 1965 and they are both published by Canongate.

The first novel is The Best Thing That Can Happen to a Croissant by Pablo Tusset. I'm normally quite a slow reader, averaging around 40 pages a day, however I found this novel so compelling that I managed the last 140 pages in under two hours. It's a weird book that starts like a mixture of Murakami and John Kennedy Toole and ends up like a more intelligent version of the Da Vinci Code (it was written before Dan Brown's book) with Robert Langdon played by Pete Doherty. But ultimately this is a book with a very strong voice of its own and I liked the author's dry, witty narrative style.

As you can see, the author is obviously keen on croissants and it's intriguing that his main character is an overweight man in his thirties called Pablo, who likes drinking, smoking dope and visiting prostitutes. Is this novel semi-autobiographical or is Pablo an alter-ego? The only biographical information I can find out about Tusset is that he abandoned a successful career as a literary critic to become a writer. He made the right decision and this, his first novel, received rave reviews when it was published in Spain. Here is an extract:

An inordinately loud clap of thunder roused me from my nap: brrrrrrrrrrrrm, just as I was dreaming about a bunch of treacherous creatures that possesed the singular ability to sink their little legs into the earth, take root there and survive indefinitely in vegeatble form. They even had a name: borzogs, they were called, a strange hybrid between nettle and elf. You could walk among them and not suspect a thing and then suddenly - bam! - they would come alive...and take hungry bites out of your legs.

I enjoyed Tusset's novel so much that I felt that anything similar would pale by comparison, so for my next book I chose something completely different: a story set in 1916 on a tiny sub-Antarctic island. I knew nothing about book or its author, but when I spotted it on a table in Waterstone's I was intrigued by the blurb. I had no idea that its author was born in the same year and lived in the same city as Tusset.

Cold Skin begins conventionally enough with a prose style that could have easily have been written 100 years ago. In 1916 a young man arrives by ship at a remote island in the South Atlantic to replace the incumbent weather inspector, but on reaching the small building that will be his home for a year the ship's crew find it abandoned, with half-broken furniture strewn across the floor. The man and the ship's captain cross the small, one-mile-long island to the only other building - a lighthouse - where they find a man hiding under the bedclothes. The captain questions the stranger, but is unable to get any sense out of him and tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade the young man to return to the ship.

One of the most powerful scenes in the book features the young man standing on the beach, watching the ship disappear beyond the horizon, knowing that his decision is irrevocable. He returns to his new home and prepares to spend his first night reading one of his vast collection of books, but as he settles done he hears a blood-curdling noise...

I started to speculate about the author's influences: definitely H.G.Wells, possibly Poe, M.R.James and Conrad. However my seven-year-old son was nearer the mark when he said that the plot sounded like a computer game he plays called Alien Shooter. He was right. I'd played the game too and although there were no aliens in Cold Skin, the basic premise was exactly the same. I wonder if the author - Albert Sanchez Pinol - is an Alien Shooter fan?

And to complete the coincidences, Cold Skin features creatures who are remarkably like Tusset's borzogs.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

This one is for Jon Isaacs

Is Jon the greatest Peter Glaze fan? He decided to choose Peter Glaze lives as his email address, but someone had already beaten him to it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Trouble in Disneyland

In a world cursed with war, famine and pestilence, the wonderful world of Disney was viewed by millions as a safe haven of wholesome family entertainment. But sadly this is no longer the case. The'Tigger Punches Kid' story has sent shockwaves around the world and if you click on the picture, you can witness this appalling act in its full, naked aggression.

The boy survived, but who knows what mental scars he will have to bear for the rest of his life?

Two more portraits of poets

In response to popular demand (well, one request from Ms Baroque) here are two more entries from Portraits of Poets. First, here is Vernon Scannell's view of the later years:

(Click on the poem to enlarge)
The other poem is a short, pithy litle number from Christopher Logue, pictured below...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Two views of old age

I've been clearing out my loft today and came across a book called Portraits of Poets, published by Carcanet in 1986. It's a superb book, featuring a collection of stunning black and white photos of famous and lesser-known poets, accompanied by a single poem from each person. Flicking through it, two particular contributions caught my eye. The first is a consoling view of the ageing process by Elma Mitchell, pictured below:

Click on the poem to enlarge
In contrast, there is the tragic figure of Paul Potts...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Today I found a newspaper cutting entitled 13 fascinating phobias. Some of them were perfectly understandable, like Peniaphobia, the fear of poverty and Ergophobia, the fear of work. However there were a few that were completely bizarre. For example, Linonophobia, the fear of string, Chromophobia, the fear of colour and my favourite, Phobophbia, the fear of fear.

Another one of the list is also probably bizarre, but it is one that I suffer from - Apeirophobia, the fear of infinity. It's not a major problem. I don't wake up in cold sweats thinking about infinity, but it does bother me and very few days go past when I don't dwell on the subject.

But my main phobia is one that, as far as I know, doesn't even have a name - the fear of chalk (calciphobia?). Like many people I hate the sound of a chalk squeaking on a blackboard, but my phobia is based on the absorbency of chalk and its dryness. When I go to the local beach I feel distinctly uncomfortable being so close to the towering chalk cliffs. Ugh! I don't even like writing about it. Luckily there are very few occasions these days when I come across a piece of chalk.

I have no idea how this bizarre phobia originated. Do you have any secret fears that you want to share?

Sunday, January 07, 2007

How many angels can dance on a pinhead?

It looks as if this question, famously debated by the Catholic Church at the sixteenth century Council of Trent, is close to having an answer. I've just discovered a page of photos devoted to 'microscopic art' . Click on the picture to see more.

This is just part of a much larger site run by a woman in the Faroe Islands which features hundreds, perhaps thousands of images. Obscure categories like foreign police cars, bears expressions in winter and World War II German toy soldiers are interspersed with more conventional photos of people and places and the result is a strange mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous.

Some of the photos are quite funny too...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Technology and personal identity

Like many children born since the mid-80s, my sons lives have been captured on video camera and I have a collection of tapes that is so large, I would need to take a week's holiday to watch them. As much as I love my boys the tapes are, frankly, extremely boring. I can't bear to watch them and my oldest son starts yawning and fidgeting within five minutes. Only my wife seems immune from the tedium of rewatching the school nativity play or a five-minute sequence of my son eating a bowl of pasta.

Last year I decided to do something about it, took that week off work and edited 20 hours' worth of video tape down to a handful of short DVDs. As a result, we all enjoy reliving some of the happier moments from the past and my eldest son seems fascinated by them. However, as I watch him watching the video footage, I wonder what effect this will have on his memory.

In the natural order of things, we are supposed to forget the first five or six years of our lives, apart from a few flashes of memory. That sense of one's life as a narrative only develops in response to an accumulation of memories, which is why children possess the enviable ability to live in the present. However, many of today's children never go through the natural process of forgeting their past because they are continually reviewing it. I wonder what effect this on an individual's psyche?

I have tried Googling this question as I'm sure that there must have been some research done on the subject, but I haven't had any success.

If we go back further, beyond cine films, photographs and tape recordings, it was normal for people to forget most of their own history. Only the literate could keep a journal and portraits were limited to the priviliged few. Was this a bad thing? It is natural to want to preserve the past because it gives perspective and meaning to our lives, and the comforts of the past can counterbalance the uncertainties of the future, but would it be better if we just lived for the moment?

This theme has been explored by artists and many people will remember Michael Landy's 'Break Down' installation in which he occupied the ground floor of the former C&A in Oxford Street and systematically destroyed all of his 7000 possessions as a protest against the consumer society. Nothing was spared. By the end of the 14-day exhibition, Landy owned nothing except the boiler suit he stood in.

I'd be interested to know how he lives now. Did he pop down to Argos, pick up a catalogue and replenish his worldly goods or has he maintained his stance against materialism?

But that's a digession from a train of thought that began with home videos. If you're still reading, thank you for not drifting off. If you have any thoughts on this matter I'd be interested to hear them.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

It was 40 years ago today, that Sergeant Pepper told the band to play...

Actually it wasn't 40 years ago today since the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The real date is June 1st, but I just couldn't wait. It is hard to believe that this album was released such a long time ago, particularly when it sounds so fresh and innovative compared to many of today's bands. But this post isn't a homage to Sergeant Pepper, as I have to confess that I think it doesn't deserve its status as the greatest rock album of all time.

Sergeant Pepper has some fantastic songs: A Day in the Life, She's Leaving Home, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Little Help From My Friends, but let's not forget Good Morning Good Morning, Lovely Rita or indeed the title track, which have B-side written all over them. I'd sooner have the White Album which, with the exception of the appalling Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, is a masterpiece. And what about Revolver?

Come June, middle-aged music journalists will be in clover writing about Sergeant Pepper in 1967 and the Sex Pistols in 1977. (What happened in 1987? Oh yes, Rick Astley) Indeed, if I look into my crystal ball, the fog is lifting and I can see a bookshop table with a selection of retrospectives by some of our finest rock journalists (at this point I must confess to having an irrational prejudice against rock journalists). If I look further into the future I can see a stock room with a lot of books waiting to go back to the publisher.

So if Sergeant Pepper isn't the greatest album of all time, what is? I love the Beatles, but my choice would be Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. Oddly enough, quite a lot of rock journalists agree with me.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

It's always the same each year - the evening begins with a determination not to drink too much, but something always goes wrong and I spend the first few hours of every January 1st with a terrible headache. In the world before children it didn't matter, but hangovers aren't compatible with looking after a manic seven-year-old and a screaming infant.

The rest of the day followed the usual pattern: painkillers in the morning, a large late breakfast and a wholesome walk in the countryside as an act of attonement for the previous evening's excesses.

It was a beautiful day, but something felt wrong. The Independent newspaper had a headline screaming about climate change and the evidence seemed to be in front of our eyes - a field full of daisies. Apparently crocus bulbs have flowered, lambs have been born and plants that should have died in early November are still in bloom. It's all very strange. Also, the ground, which should have been 'deep and crisp and even' was so wet and muddy that my friend Kathryn and I slipped while climbing up a slope.

I read very little last year. I don't know why. Perhaps the addition of a screaming insomniac baby didn't help or maybe I wasted too much time blogging, but this year I will devote more time to reading and less to drinking wine and surfing the internet. I will never achieve Dovegreyreader's ability to read nine Dickens novels in one day whilst quilting and healing the sick at the same time, neither will I manage Scott Pack's 137 books in one year. I am a slow reader. But if I can manage a book every week or so, it will be an improvement on the pitiful handful that I read in 2006.

In the meantime, have a very happy, healthy and prosperous new year.