Wednesday, February 28, 2007


I see that Bookseller to the Stars is on a quest to spend the next twelve months reading celebrity biographies. I teasingly suggested that he was it doing to get some media attention, but he assures me that it's 'just a bit of fun'. Either way, he has an excellent blog and I only hope that he won't sustain any long-term damage from exposure to the vacuosity of celebrity memoirs.

I'm on a slightly different quest. I'm attempting to read all 20 books in Zola's Rougon-Macquart sequence of novels. It's not as easy as it sounds. Fewer than half of the books exist in decent modern translations and the well-known novels only account for a third of the total. Why have the majority of the Rougon-Macquart novels languished in obscurity for so long?

Amazingly, the only translation of the first novel The Fortune of the Rougons is the original Victorian one by Ernest Vizetelly. This may not be the best novel in the series, but has a pivotal role and I can't understand why no publisher has commissioned a modern translation. Vizetelly's translation is adequate, but to the modern reader it seems very stilted and I've recently discovered that he took huge liberties with the text.

The second book was also ignored until recently then, like London buses, two came along at once. Arthur Goldhammer's translation of The Kill is superb and I was shocked at how explicit and saucy a novel published in the 1870s could be. So far so good.

I am now on the third novel The Fat and the Thin and I'm struggling. The translation is okay but Zola is taking social realism to the point where nothing happens. I am on page 232 and the main protagonist is still ambling around the local fish market. There are some splendid descriptions of carp - if you like fish in literature, Zola's your man - but when is the story going to begin?

I'm determined to not give up, as I know that the best is yet to come. But I am beginning to see why some of the Rougon-Macquart novels have taken a back seat.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dreams of a giant dog

It's 4.30am and I can't sleep because tonight I'm sharing a bed with my oldest son, who keeps fidgeting and prodding me, giving me strange dreams. Plus I drank too much. After trying unsuccessfully to get back to sleep I got up and started blog surfing until I found this.

Within seconds I was transported from a dark, wet, wintry night to an exotic, faraway place. Click on the link for blue skies and dancing fishermen (and scroll down when you get there).

Friday, February 23, 2007


I was sitting on a London bus listening to the ethereal harmonies of an Edmund Rubbra symphony when I was disturbed by a loud voice. This shouldn't have happened. I had spent serious money on a pair of 'fontopic' headphones that were supposed to seal you off from the outside world. I can only assume that the designers hadn't anticipated the two women sitting a couple of rows behind me.

I turned round and saw two fat women with long, greasy pony tails, wearing Primark leisure wear. At first glance they looked as if they were in their 30s but looking again, they were clearly in their 20s. I went to replace the headphones and whack up the volume, but once I started listening to them I couldn't stop. They were talking about food, working each other up into a frenzy. Here is a word for word transcript of their conversation:

'Name three types of sponge pudding'
'And three types of sauce?'

Thursday, February 22, 2007


I see that Prince William's girlfriend Kate Middleton has topped a poll of 'natural beauties'. I'm not surprised - she's very attractive - but why did the poll have to be qualified? Why has natural beauty now been consigned to some sort of niche market?

If you look at the middle shelf of the newsagent, i.e. all of those magazines that are almost soft porn but not quite - Nuts, Zoo, Loaded etc - all you can see is strange-looking girls with surgically-enhanced features. I think they look awful - at best chavvy, at worst more like transexuals - but we are told that this is what men want. Is this really true?

Last year I had a Jordan signing. She looked quite odd - almost as small as a child, but with huge breasts and a strange tan. I liked her. She had no pretensions and seemed very bright, with a good sense of humour. What disturbed me was her fans, several of whom refered to her as a role model. It was particularly disturbing to see that some of Jordan's fans had dressed their seven-year-old daughters in sexy, Jordanesque gear. The underlying message is: don't worry about education and achievement, use your body to get what you want.

That leads on to an item on the BBC News website today that children are being sexualised too early. Girls feel under pressure to be sexually attractive whilst boys apparently feel compelled to be interested, otherwise their peers call them 'gay'.

I agree. During the last decade it feels as if the clock has been turned back and gender stereotyping is back in fashion. At first I embraced it, after the priggish thought-police of the 1980s who condemned Carry-On films. However, when popular culture encourages a perception of women as 'bitches' and 'whores', it's clear that the pendulum has swung too far.

I often wonder if the sexualisation of the young is why the Burkha has become popular amongst young Muslims. It's easy to assume that they've all been radicalised by 9/11, but perhaps it's more a rejection of Western popular culture. I read an article yesterday that said that it was impossible to maintain a mulicultural 'inclusive' school because Muslims would want their children to opt out of activities like 'sexy dancing'. This begs the question, why would schoolchildren being doing sexy dancing in the first place?

Our society commodifies sexual stereotypes like Jodie Marsh, but is that really what men want? I always take great comfort from the fact that in a poll of men in several countries, they said that the sexiest woman in the world was Diana Rigg when she played Emma Peel - an intelligent, independent, silicone-free woman.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Forgotten treasures

I have just begun the arduous process of having my loft converted into a bedroom. I say arduous because in addition to ten weeks of noise, disruption and dust, the man doing it has never done a conversion before, but assures me that he has borrowed a couple of books from the library on the subject and feels reasonably confident.

However, all of this pales into insignificance compared to the weeks I've spent trying to empty my loft of years of free books, abandoned toys and boxes of total crap. How I used to sneer at all of those people on the Life Laundry and be appalled by their futile acquisitions, but I am as bad as the worst of them. In most of the de-clutter programmes I watch, they have a car boot sale and managed to make a bit of money. Sadly, I have yet to find anything of value.

I tried selling few books on Ebay, offering to donate 20% of the sale to charity. I didn't read the small print, which said that the minimum threshold was £5 to charity and to date I am one of the few people to have made a loss on Ebay.

In the end I donated ten boxes of books to charity shops. I can live without most of them, although I am still kicking myself for accidentally giving away a beautiful first edition of an illustrated Susan Hill children's book. I hope it raises a few quid for some worthy cause; preferably not a cats' home. The rest of my stuff is either in storage or being pecked at by disappointed seagulls at the local rubbish dump.

However, there have been a few gems. Some of them I had forgotten about whilst a few were completely new to me, including this photograph (dated 1893) which I found in a box belonging to my wife's grandmother Lilian.

As soon as I saw this picture I had to post it. I have no idea who these people are and as I was driving home in my car yesterday, I thought 'I must try and ask Lilian who they are.' Lilian is now 99 and has lost most of her marbles to the point where she genuinely believes that she plays tennis every morning, but she has lucid moments and old people are generally good at remembering the distant past. She is the only person who might know. I resolved to ask her as soon as possible, otherwise the mystery will remain unsolved.

A few minutes later I arrived home. As I shut the door behind me, my wife looked up at me and said 'Nan's died.'

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Anyone who has read Elizabeth Gaskell will know how grim life was in 19th century Manchester. Indeed the whole area that has now become the conurbation of Greater Manchester had some of the worst housing and working conditions in the world, so it was inevitable that the English socialist movement would start here rather than London.

150 years on, the heirs of the Rochdale Pioneers are in power. I remember the night of the 1997 election, almost ten years ago, when 18 years of Conservative rule finally came to an end. The following morning most people were on a high. We believed that we had ushered in a new era that, like the Labour government of 1945-51, would transform society and bring morality back into politics. How wrong we were.

Tony Blair's Labour government has failed in so many ways - the most conspicuous example being Iraq - but for me the most symbolic act has been the decision to make Manchester the site of Britain's first 'supercasino'. The men and women who fought so hard to improve the conditions of the working class must be turning in their graves to discover that the party that they founded, is trying to regenerate inner city Manchester by encouraging the building of casinos.

There has been a lot of coverage in the news about this, but the angle has mainly been about whether it should have been Liverpool or Manchester. Very few people have actually questioned the whole notion of encouraging gambling, which generally makes the poor even poorer.

Perhaps I'm being prejudiced. My family have always been very anti-gambling because three generations ago my great-grandfathers were compulsive gamblers and ensured that their children grew up in poverty. When they had a bad night they returned home drunk, beat their wives up and took the housekeeping money. Unsurprisingly, my grandparents didn't want to emulate the older generation.

However, prejudice aside, it surely can't be right that a government whose origins lie in the Socialist movement is now seeking to improve social conditions in Manchester by encouraging gambling.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The night sky without light pollution

As far as I can tell, this image hasn't been enhaced in any way. I don't know where this place is, but I want to go there.

William Powell Frith

It's the half term week - loved by teachers, hated by parents. I normally try and take a few days off to prevent my wife from entering a psychotic episode, but I wasn't able to this time and the house looks as if it has been ransacked by enemy soldiers.

However I did get today off and I decided - perhaps foolishly - that we should all go to London and see the William Powell Frith exhibition at the Guildhall. I should explain at this point that I wouldn't normally regard an art exhibition as a good day out for two small boys, but my wife is related to W.P. Frith and as this is the first time his paintings have been displayed together for 50 years, we had to go. I had no illusions about the day. I knew that my one-year-old would probably spend the entire journey screaming and that my seven-year-old would compare the paintings unfavourably to Pokemon, but not many people have a relative who was a best friend of Charles Dickens.
I planned the journey like a military operation and even found myself using the 24-hour clock. It all started very well. There was no screaming, the trains ran on time and we managed to find a station near the Guildhall. In London I had plotted a route that would give us time to visit St Paul's Cathedral as I thought it would be good for my oldest son to see a really big building. Sadly, St Paul's was a huge disappointment, as it now costs £9.50 per person! We didn't go in.

The exhibition was very good. W.P.Frith had no illusions about his status in the great scheme of things, writing that 'I am not a great artist, but I am a very successful one' and his paintings belong to the 'So good, it's almost like a photograph' school of art. In other words, art for Daily Mail readers.

Frith's success was phenomenal - when his painting of Ramsgate Sands was originally displayed, the galley's curators had to erect barriers to keep the crowds at bay - and his celebrity status during the Victorian age is probably one of the reasons why he has been neglected ever since. The famous paintings like Derby Day are displayed at the Tate, but many normlly lie in dark, unvisited vaults. This is a pity because although Frith's artistic merit may not be on a par with some of his contemporaries, anyone who wants to understand Victorian England must look at his paintings.

In its own way, Derby Day is a masterpiece because it encapsulates the different social stratas of Victorian society. It may not be great art, but it is good documentary. In the extreme left hand of the picture we can see a con artist trying to entice people to gamble. A local farmer in a rough smock starts to move forward whilst his wife pleads with him not to go. Next to the con artist, a folorn young man empties out his pockets after losing his money at the races. In the centre of the picture a man sits in a carriage serving champagne to three young women, who might be prostitues, whilst further right a bored-looking man leans against a carrige with his back to the unhappy woman who is probably his mistress. Rothko it ain't, but there should be room for W.P.Frith's work in our galleries.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Author tours

If you're a publisher, what do you do if an author you've invested a lot of money in fails to come up with the goods? At the moment there seem to be three options:
  1. Drop them
  2. Invest more money (rejacket the backlist and advertise)
  3. Make them go on a tour
During the last couple of years the third option seems to have become increasingly popular. Publishers reason that before they go to the time and expense of relaunching an author whose sales are flagging, it makes sense to see whether putting a few signed copies at the front of the shop makes any difference.

I have had several phone calls recently from slightly desperate-sounding publishers who want to bring their author to my shop: 'No, it's not a proper signing session...he'll just turn up and sign a few books for you off the shop floor. Do you have enough stock?' Of course I never do, so I end up having to order at least three copies of each backlist title.

A few weeks later the author arrives. They are always very pleasant and I like to think that there is an unspoken acknowledgement that I have probably never read their books. The author is usually accompanied by a terrifying publicity woman who makes me feel as if I'm a naughty little boy, but not in a nice way.

I hate meeting authors. If I love their books I feel like some dumbstruck teenage fan and just stand grinning at them in a slightly moronic manner. If I haven't read their books I feel guilty. In fact the only authors I like meeting are the ones whose books I can't stand and sometimes I sense that they like meeting someone who is completely indifferent to their work and won't ask them why Throngard seized the Sword of P'toth in Book Seven.

When I'm nervous I make jokes that seem mildly amusing at the time, but usually go down like a lead balloon. For example, when Peter James asked me why we had such a good turnout for his signing session I said 'Oh that's because they thought it was P.D.James.' I thought it was funny, he didn't.

However when an author event goes well I feel on a high. I love standing at the door at the end of the evening and talking to the customers as they leave. I can only listen to so many people thanking me for a lovely evening before my resistance crumbles and I feel like James Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life.


I haven't been blogging much recently as I haven't had that much to say. I don't know why. I checked my statistics the other day and the number of visitors is slowly dwindling, understandably. However, yesterday I suddenly had a huge number of hits and I have no idea why. What magic word did I write to attract so many people?

I've just visited Debi Alper's blog and she has a link to this thought-provoking posting. I responded by adding a link of my own to this this article in the Independent by Claudia Winkleman, who writes a weekly humorous, zeitgeisty, girl-about-town column. I've read plenty of articles about global poverty, but somehow this one got under my skin. It's short. Read it and you'll see what I mean.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Someone from PanMacmillan told me that their Manga list now generates more money than their fiction and crime lists put together. I'm not surprised. Last year we held a Manga evening and the shop was packed with people that my 19-year-old children's bookseller rather harshly described as 'fat losers.' They weren't all fat. Indeed, many were extremely skinny and some of the boys looked slightly comical in their Keanu Reaves-style Matrix coats.

Personally I find Manga rather strange and creepy, but as a bookseller I can't get enough of it. As a genre it seems fairly internet-proof, as part of the pleasure of buying it seems to be meeting up in the shop with other Manga readers and hanging out together. Also, with such a large range of titles, there isn't much danger of Tesco or Asda muscling-in on the act. Best of all, Manga novels don't take long to read so people often buy several at a time.

I just wish I understood more about Manga (without having to go through the actual tedium of reading about it) as I don't know how spot-on my range is. I suppose I could talk to a Manga fan next time they buy a book. 'Hello young man. I used to be a big fan of comics - loved the Beezer and Topper, but I need to gem-up on this new Manga thing...'

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Out of the mouths of babes...

A man has started teaching philosophy to childen of nursery school age. What a brilliant idea. Small children are natural philosophers and it is sad to see their enquiring minds blunted by outside influences.

When this news item was announced on Radio Four's Today programme, one listener emailed an anecdote about their son, who at the age of three asked the following question:

If I was a sprout, who would be me?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Spaced Out

This has got to be the weirdest story of the year - a Space Shuttle astronaut called Captain Lisa Nowak has been arrested for the attempted murder of a woman she perceived as a love rival.

Nowak fell in love with fellow Shuttle astronaut, Commander William Oefelein, during their training. Sadly they never experienced love in zero gravity together. Novak's mission was last July whilst Oefelein's was a few weeks ago. However, according to Nowak they developed an association that was 'more than a working relationship but less than a romantic relationship'.

Unfortunately for mother of three Nowak, she had a rival called Coleen. When Novak discovered that Coleen was flying to Florida to visit Oefelein, she jumped in her car and drove the 1000 miles from Houston to Florida so that she could intercept Coleen at the airport. When I say jumped, it wasn't actually that spontaneous. In fact Nowak found time to equip herself with a wig, dark glasses, trench coat and pepper spray. But most bizarrely of all, she wore a nappy.

Nowak was so determined to reach Florida in time to confront her nemesis that she wore a nappy to avoid loo breaks. Yuk!

At the airport Nowak found Coleen, attempted to get in her car and used a pepper spray when he requests were refused. Coleen very sensibly called the police and now someone who was a hero six months ago now finds themselves in the very real danger of being sent to prison. All very odd.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Emergency on Planet Earth

At last, there seems to be a consensus on global warming. The debate is no longer between the believers and sceptics, but between those who believe that there is still time to act and those who are convinced that we're buggered. In all of this not one person has mentioned Jamiroquai, who warned us fourteen years ago that there was an Emergency on Planet Earth.

Why didn't we listen to him? Was it the hats, the eco-unfriendly fast cars or the assaults on journalists that undermined his credentials?

On a serious note, does anyone remember the 1988 elections for the European Parliament when the environment was such a hot topic that the Greens beat the Liberals into 4th place? I remember lots of people wearing t-shirts with pseudo-ethnic drawings and insipid mottos like Save the Rainforest and when I started in bookselling, we had a separate section for environmental books. What happened?

As far as I can remember a few politicians paid lip-service to green issues whilst the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid convinced a lot of people that the bad days were over. I can't prove this, but I remember how the t-shirts became rarer and we ended up scrapping our Ecology sections due to a lack in demand.

I'm worried that this is going to happen again.

(Warning: soapbox alert!)

If we're going to survive the challenges that lie ahead we need to take radical action now. First and foremost we need to address the issue of overpopulation before nature decides to do it for us. Second, we need to create a new infrastructure for transport, power generation and public utilities that will be carbon neutral and able to withstand extreme weather conditions. Third, we need to develop a sense of shared responsibility both on a local and global level. It is not enough to expect Brazil to unilaterally halt deforestation without our help in providing the economic support for those people who will be deprived of an income as a result

There is no reason why we all have to don hair shirts and lead utterly miserble lives to achieve this. Technology has already come up with many solutions: business trips can be replaced by video-conferencing, hydrogen fuel cells can replace petrol and solar panels will soon be efficient enough to give most homes the ability to generate some of their own power. Even the thorny issue of population can be tackled painlessly, in this country at least, if we give tax incentives for small families and rely on the increasing number of childless households to encourage negative population growth.

The answers are all there. I'm just worried that our politicians will make a few token gestures that will appease the public to the point where the big issues disappear from the agenda. It happened nearly twenty years ago and there's no reason why it couldn't again. However, perhaps the environment will remain in the forefront of people's minds for one good reason: the weather has changed.

Today I went for a walk in the countryside and saw wild flowers, two bumblebees and some daffodils almost in flower. It was lovely, but very strange. Meanwhile my fireplace remains full of unburned logs, as it has never been cold enough to have to light a fire. As I wheeled my 15-months-old son in his pushchair this afternoon, I couldn't help wondering what sort of a future he is going to have.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Full moon

The wife of one of my staff has just received this letter from her son's school (motto: Working together to recognise the value and potential of each student):

Dear Mrs Broad,

Your son returned from an obviously enjoyable trip in a slightly over exhuberant mood and unfortunately chose to expose his buttocks in front of one of the school buses.

I have to point out that such actions constitute a public order offence and will be arranging for the School Liaison Officer to have a word with your son in school so he understands the gravity and consequences of such action.

I trust that I can rely on your support in this matter.

Yours sincerely,