Saturday, March 31, 2007

The new assistant

I have just watched the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who and loved it. In this age of multi-channel television, the idea of sitting down as family and watching one programme together seems antiquated, which is why the BBC should be congratulated for producing something that appeals to such a broad cross-section of viewers without ever being bland.

My seven-year-old son thinks that the new assistant is even better than Rose, but I suspect that's because children of his age are all shameless neophytes.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

One man and a baby

There are several golden rules of parenthood, but the most important one is that only the man is allowed to be ill. If I have a mild virus I think nothing of retiring to bed for three days, during which time I'll suffer from intimations of mortality and become emotional when I hear birdsong (Goodbye dear world). If you're a mother, you could have terminal cancer and still be expected to do the school run up until the last minute.

I was tempted to remind my wife of this rule two days ago when she limped home from school after sustaining a leg injury on a tree stump. When she revealed that it took place in a school playground, I told her that she was too old to do things like that and it was probably only a bruise, so here were some Ibruprofen tablets. The following morning she limped back to school (with a pushchair) and horrified the other mothers, who insisted that she should go to the local hospital. She did and was met by a nurse who told her that she needed at least two days in bed otherwise the wound could clot and gangrene could set in. Gangrene!

My wife phoned me at work, mentioned the G word. I rushed home, naturally. Since then I have been looking after my sons whilst my wife lies upstairs like the invalid woman in Secret Army (later parodied in 'Allo 'Allo) barking orders from above.

I have tried to be a new man like the father in the Athena poster, but have failed miserably. Although I am no stranger to cooking, changing nappies, bathing and 'creative play', I am totally useless at coping with the sheer unmitigated boredom of being with a small child all day. My youngest son is 16 months old and seems determined to die. Every minute he is either climbing something, trying to touch a hot oven, eating unsuitable objects or pulling the lid of the piano down on his fingers.

If I had to do this every day I would probably become an alcoholic - I have certainly never craved alcohol as early in the day as today, when I opened a bottle of wine at teatime. Meanwhile my wife has had a wonderful time lying in bed, reading a book for the first time in ages. Good for her (but I hope she gets better soon).

I spend a lot of time with my sons, but it's always for a few hours at a time. I have been spared the relentless tedium of having to care for a child from morning until night, dressing, feeding, bathing, playing and nursing them. It's not all grim. He is a very sweet child with a great sense of fun, but I rarely feel equal to the task and struggle through the day. I am not the Athena man.

As for the Athena poster, I've read that the man who conceived it died of AIDS. The photographer made so much money that he went off the edge and became a drug addict whilst the male model claims to have slept with over 3000 women. The baby received a paltry £32 for his efforts and is now a very normal teenager in Cyprus.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Well, I thought it was funny...

28 years ago today...

On March 28th 1979, the USA narrowly avoided an accident at its Three Mile Island nuclear power station that would have made Chernobyl look tame by comparison. A combination of equipment failure and human incompetence sent the reactor into partial meltdown and for days the authorities fought to control the situation.

Weirdly, only a few days earlier a film was released that virtually predicted the Three Mile Island Incident. The China Syndrome, starring Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas is one of the most underrated films of the 1970s - a relic of the days when Hollywood wasn't afraid to make political thrillers - and beyond the flares, dodgy hair and funky soundtrack, the film is particularly relevant today.

The message of the China Syndrome is, in a nutshell, don't allow something as potentially lethal as nuclear power to be controlled by private enterprise. If you do, then corners will be cut and public health will be endangered. With a new generation of nuclear power stations on the agenda, we need a modern-day version of this film to scare the hell out of everyone.

Is this fahrenheit or celsius?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Happy Birthday, Edward Steichen

Today is the 128th birthday of the photographer Edward Steichen. Today he is hardly a household name but last month his 1904 photo The Pond-Moonlight broke all records by fetching an astounding $2,900,000 at auction.

He experimented with an early form of colour photography and produced some stunning results including this portrait of George Bernard Shaw...

And this Whistler-like view of New York's Flatiron building...

For more examples of Steichen's genius, click on the naked lady:

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Swiss role

Yesterday I told a colleague that I'd ordered a book of photographs of the Swiss police force. She looked at me as if I was mad and I could see her point. But perhaps if she'd known more about the background to the photos and seen some of the pictures she might have changed her mind.

Arnold Odermatt is an amateur photographer who served with the Swiss Police for 40 years and liked to combine his professional life with his private hobby, taking hundreds of photos, many of which are now widely acknowledged as masterpieces. Last year a retrospective was published entitled On Duty.

There are some superb pictures of Volkswagens that have met an untimely end on Switzerland's mountainous roads, but the most striking photos are the ones that capture the mundanity of daily life.

Not all of Odermatt's photos are reportage. Some, like the picture below, were staged as part of a recruitment drive when local elders expressed concern that the young had no interest in joining the police. It is these pictures in particular that have a surreal quality about them.

And here we can see Odermatt reconstructing an accident scene that from earlier in his career:

But Odermatt's photography isn't all uniforms and mangled vehicles. Here is a stunning black and white photo that he took in the 1960s.

On Duty definitely isn't available from all good bookshops. It's £45 and even with staff discount, I probably shouldn't buy it.

Self aware

I feel increasingly disinclined to write about novels as there are so many first-rate blogs with thoughtful, incisive reviews. My latest discovery is John Self's Asylum, which will be dictating my reading habits for the next few months. Top of the list will be Richard Yates' Young Hearts Crying, which Mr Self rates more highly than Revolutionary Road.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Third time unlucky

I have just finished the third book in Zola's twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart sequence, Le Ventre de Paris. God it was boring. The plot was heavily influenced by Les Miserables, which was published ten years earlier. Like Victor Hugo's great novel, the main character is an escaped prisoner who is living under an assumed name and the story's dramatic tension rests heavily on the inevitable revelation of his true identity. However, in Zola's novel this plot plays a minor part in a story which is preoccupied with describing the daily life of a fish market. I don't want to do Zola a disservice. There are also some very evocative descriptions of cheese, but they don't make very exciting reading.

As for the main character, Florent is no Jean Valjean. Sadly he is a bit of a prat who ultimately manages to be wrongfully arrested on two separate occasions. In a better novel this would be a tragedy, but in Le Ventre de Paris I found myself firmly on the side of the authorities and would have happily grassed him up.

I always wondered why some novels by an author of Zola's stature hadn't been translated for over a century and now I have my answer. They aren't very good. However, I still intend to persevere because at its best the Rougon-Macquart novel sequence is a work of genius.

So farewell then, Gareth Hunt...

He went from this...

To this:

By all accounts he was a fine actor and a generally good bloke who deserved better after his tenure as Mike Gambit in the New Avengers. Occasionally a decent job came up, but we should have seen more of him. Was it the Nescafe commercials?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Battlestar Galactica

There are many phrases that could be used to described the 1970s sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, but I can't think of any more appropriate than utter shite. To describe the characters as two-dimensional would be obsequious flattery. It was an appalling series that made Star Wars look like Samuel Becket.

When I discovered that a new version had been made (I love the way they now say reimagining rather than remake) I was incredulous. But as if that wasn't strange enough, I found perfectly sane non-geeky people recommending it to me. When two friends that I have the utmost respect for - one a lecturer at Sandhurst, the other an artist living in Helsinki - recommended Battlestar Galactica, my curiosity was aroused.

I am now two-thirds of the way through the pilot episode and I can see what all the fuss is all about. It's complete nonsense, but done with such consumate artistry that it's impossible not to feel compelled to watch the rest of the series. I feel dirty and ashamed and I will stop here so that I can order the rest of the series.

My wife doesn't know.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


I generally try to avoid taking the piss out of George Bush - it's too easy and why preach to the converted? Also, why mock Bush when a website like The White House already has it down to a fine art. Here are some samples of their merchandise:

Harsh, but fair.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Remember that rounabout in the opening sequence of The Office? I used to drive round it every day on the way to the most soul-destroying job I've ever experienced - running a bookshop in Slough. The Slough branch of Ottakar's has seen more managers than Italy has changed prime ministers and at 17 months, I think I qualified as one of the longest serving. It may not sound a long time in the great scheme of things, but that 17 months felt like a life sentence and every day it was a challenge to remain positive in the face of overwhelming odds. Particularly as I had every reason to believe that I would be in Slough for years.

What was wrong with Slough? Apart from the local population, who were less than endearing, the worst aspect of Slough was the sheer ugliness of the buildings. It felt as if some local by-law had been passed outlawing nature and I often found it hard to tell what season it was unless the weather was particularly extreme. Where I worked they had even outlawed the weather, entombing us in a cavernous, dimly-lit shopping centre whose main clientele consisted of gangs and bewildered-looking illegal immigrants who must have been regreting their decision to come to Britain. The only sign of nature was by my goods-in entrance where a tiny seed had taken root, fed by drips from the outflow pipe of our air-conditioning.

One night I had a particularly vivid dream that I was in Chile - a place I had never been to. The ground was covered in purple blossom which formed a stunning contrast with the deep orange sky of the setting sun. I don't normally pay any attention to dreams, but when I woke up I couldn't get the images out of my head. An hour later I was crawling along a very congested M25. It was a grey, drizzly, mid-February morning and the sight of concrete and traffic formed a stark contrast to my colourful dream. Something inside me snapped and I realised that I couldn't do this any more. When I got to work I picked up the phone, got my credit card out and booked a flight to Santiago.

Two weeks later I was on the other side of the world. It was late summer in Chile and although I never saw orange skies and purple blossom, I did see a lot of beautiful and strange things. Some landscapes had a dream-like quality about them, juxtaposing the familiar and the unusual. For example I remember going past a field that could have been in Devon. It had lush green grass, friesian cows and brambly hedgerows, but in the background there was a huge, snow-capped volcano.

I began my trip in Santiago, but after a couple of days took a train to the south of the country. After a long, overnight journey in a rackety old diesel I arrived at the Hotel Continental in Temuco. I knew nothing about the hotel and didn't have great expectations, but it turned out to be one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever visited, with a faded grandeur that made me feel as if I had travelled back in time to France in the 1920s. However the biggest surprise was discovering that my room used to be regularly occupied by Pablo Neruda. Here's a photo I took at the time.

Chile seemed like a polar opposite to Slough. The country was beautiful, the people were nice and every day felt like a gift. Going there was an act of financial recklessness but it restored my sanity and made Slough bearable. Rarely a day goes past without me thinking about Chile and I have no doubt that one day I will return there.

Ask me where I have been
and I'll tell you: 'Things keep on happening.'
I must talk of the rubble that darkens the stones;
of the river's duration, destroying itslef;
I know only the things that the birds have abandoned,
or the ocean behind me, or my sorrowing sister.
Why the distinctions of place? Why should day
follow day? Why must the blackness
of nightime collect in our mouths. Why the dead?

Pablo Neruda

Does anyone speak Polish?

I found this piece of paper stuck to a telephone box near my shop. Does anyone know what it says?

The storm clouds gather

However bad things are for booksellers at moment, it's nowhere near as awful as the music industry. A combination of mp3 file sharing, DVD rentals and broadband movies-on-demand has already seen established retailers like Tower Records go to the wall and it's only a matter of time before others follow. Next week HMV will announce the results of a strategy review and I have no doubt that there are going to be some redundancies and closures.

As HMV own Waterstone's, this is also going to have an impact on the book trade. Most branches of Waterstone's are profitable but there are a few white elephants, like the huge Picadilly branch and it will be hard for HMV to justify keeping these stores open in the face of a long-term downturn in sales. The big question is how far will sales decline before things botton out and how many shops will go from being profitable to loss-making?

Waterstone's MD Gerry Johnson seems to think that digital downloading will also affect the book trade and that the effects will start to be felt within six months. I'm not convinced that it will be this soon, but there is no doubt that the sales of many reference books will soon begin to bypass the high street. I also agree with Johnson when he said that there was no sense in opening large 15,000 sq ft bookstores any more as even if they paid for themselves now, they won't in a few years.

I'm surprised that Johnson's speech didn't get more publicity as it is one of the most radical statements that anyone in the book trade has ever made and the implications are enormous. Cynics might argue that Johnson's pessismism is simply paving the way for draconian measures, but I think he was just being realistic. We are buggered. At least, we're buggered if we want to carry on doing things the way we always have.

In the past retailers wouldn't bat an eyelid if a new store made a loss for the first few years. Indeed they usually accurately budgeted for that loss in the belief that after a couple of years that shop would break into profit until, by the end of a decade, it had paid for itself several times over. They were usually right. Today, if Waterstone's opened a new branch they would not only have to be certain that it would be instantly profitable, but also be able to remain profitable after a 20% drop in sales. It's a tough old world out there.

From a selfish point of view I have several worries. Number one: will I still have a job this time next year? Number two: how much harder will my work become? Number three: will Waterstone's survive or will they be swallowed-up by someone like Permira? Number four: what the hell would I do if I wasn't selling books? (actually I have several ideas)

As far as bookselling is concerned, I think that the age of big, macho, superstores is over. Small is beautiful and the thing that differentiates a bookshop from an internet retailer is the passion and knowledge of ordinary booksellers. A few years ago it looked as if the age of the traditional high street bookshop was over. In the future we would drive to out-of-town shopping centres which would pull us in like a whale swallowing plankton, extract our money and spew us out the other end. However the future may end up being more like the past, and that is no bad thing.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The weather in Iceland

One of my favourite blogs is the Iceland Weather Report which, although the title may suggest otherwise, is never dull (I would include it as a link, but I haven't worked out how to list my favourite blogs).

Written by an Icelandic woman called Alda Kalda, it is an eclectic mix of confession, criticism and observation, with a tiny little bit of weather thrown in. It also contains some stunning photos, including a new set that she has just uploaded. Whether you're interested in Iceland or not, this blog is well worth a visit.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Steerforth, J.P

I had always imagined that magistrates were like characters in an Ealing comedy film. They would either be blustery, red-faced, retired colonels or bluestockings like Margaret Rutherford. If anyone had told me that I would end up becoming a magistrate I would have laughed, as I did four years ago when my wife first suggested the idea.

She had seen an article in a local paper inviting people of all ages and backgrounds to apply to become Justices of the Peace. At the time my job was fairly undemanding and my wife thought that I’d find the work interesting and, more importantly, I’d be good at it. I wasn’t so sure. Wasn’t I too young to have the necessary air of gravitas? However, the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealled and after a week I applied for an application form.

The form was quite detailed, asking questions about health, political views, Masonic connections and whether my nearest and dearest had any previous convictions. I also had to select three local people who had known me for more than two years to write a reference supporting my application. I sent the form off expecting to receive a polite rejection. Several months later I was invited for an interview.

Think of the worst job interview you’ve ever had, times it by ten and you’ll get some idea of how I performed in front of the selection panel. With job interviews you can prepare, but I had no idea what sort of questions I was going to be asked beyond the most obvious ones. I sat down in front of a panel of four people who proceeded to pull me to pieces, challenging everything I said to the point where I felt completely stupid. My answers seemed banal and inadequate and I left the room with my self-esteem in tatters. It served me right, I thought, for even daring to think to I could be a magistrate. I had been put firmly in my place.

Several weeks later I was invited for a second interview. I reluctantly went, expecting another humilating hour of being cross-examined, but this time I was given a piece of paper with six hypothetical cases, with multiple choice answers about what sentence I thought appropriate. One of the cases involved a man who was beating his wife and had previously served four weeks in prison for the same offence. The obvious answer seemed more prison and longer, but would it change anything? The case notes said that the man and his wife had three children and apart from these isolated incidents of domestic violence, they were a reasonably happy family. The best outcome was to keep the family together, but only if the violence could stop. I remmbered that there were anger management courses and decided to give him a suspended six month prison sentence with compulsory attendence at one of these courses. I hoped this was the right answer.

The second interview was quite different to the first and once I realised that I wasn’t going to be subject to a humiliating interogation I began to relax. In hindsight I now realise that the purpose of the first interview was to see how I performed under pressure. I can imagine that some people would have lost their temper at the rudeness of some of the questions, or perhaps let slip some sort of prejudice. I had passed by keeping my cool and not saying anything dreadful and now I had been invited back to demonstrate whether I possessed good judgement.

I passed the second interview and a year later, I swore an oath to the Queen in front of a judge. I found the words, which date back to the medieval period, particularly moving and felt privilegd to be part of something that began nine hundred years ago.

I am now a sitting magistrate and so far I haven’t come across anyone who resembles Margaret Rutherford. My colleagues are generally older than me, many of them work in the public sector and quite a few of them are frighteningly intelligent. In my more paranoid moments I wonder if I was only accepted because they needed to fill a quota for younger people, but I hope that in time I will become a decent magistrate.

During the last two months I have dealt with a variety of cases: assault, drunk driving, arson, theft, harrassment and assaulting a police officer. Some of the people appearing in the dock have been fairly unpleasant, but many have clearly been unlucky in life and their crimes have been the result of desperation or stupidity. As a magistrate my job is to protect the public, but I also want to see offenders have an opportunity to change their lives for the better.

I sit with two other magistrates one morning a fortnight, which is the most I can do with my full-time job in bookselling. One of the three magistrates is a chairman and does all of the talking whilst the two ‘wingers’ observe and take notes. If a case is fairly straightforward we will whisper to each other and agree on a sentence immediately, but if it is complicated then we will retire and discuss the evidence until we have reached a decision. Our job is not to know the law – we have a legal adviser to do that – but to make a judgement and ensure that justice is served.

Someone once said that if you invented a legal system from scratch, you probably wouldn’t have magistrates and I agree. It’s ridiculous that 97% of all legal cases are dealt with by unqualified amateurs. What’s even stranger is how well the system works. Every now and then senior governement officials make noises about replacing the magistracy with paid professionals, but the costs would be astronomical. I feel fairly confident that even if we aren’t around for another 900 years, the Justices of the Peace still have a role to play in the 21st century.

*As a footnote to the photo of Margaret Rutherford, whilst searching for a picture of her I discovered that her father was mentally ill and bashed his own father to death with a chamber pot!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

World Book Day

During my time at Ottakar's we were encouraged to do events on World Book Day and there would always be a shop that managed to get a picture in The Bookseller of a member of staff dressed as Charles Dickens or someone sitting in a window reading a book (which always seemed like a way of not doing any work). A week or two later, at the Ottakar's annual managers' meeting, that shop would invariably win an award.

I could never quite see the point of doing 'in-store' activities on World Book Day as the only people around seemed to be pensioners, the mentally ill and a few harrassed-looking mothers of small children. Why didn't we have WBD on a Saturday?

Then, one year, I decided to take the mountain to Mohammed and set up a stall at a local school. It was a revelation. Seeing children, some of whom had never bought a book before, clutching their free £1 vouchers and looking genuinely excited made me realise how important World Book Day is. Yes, it is an opportunity for bookshops and publishers to increase sales and the vouchers are a useful way of driving footfall through the shop, but the most important thing that we can do - if we really do care about reading - is to get out there and make a difference. It's no good just preaching to the converted.

(So what am I doing today? Sitting on my backside at home, of course)

Sadly, not everyone gets the point of World Book Day. Some parents try to use their children's vouchers to buy books for themselves and one charming lady with Elizabeth Duke hoop earrings tried to buy an £18 cookery book with 18 WBD vouchers. I have told staff that they mustn't accept the vouchers for grown-up books (unless a particularly precocious child wants to stretch themselves with War and Peace!)