Monday, April 30, 2007

Galactica Redux

Last Saturday we visited a friend in London. She's good fun but intimidatingly intelligent. As a meat-eating, wine-drinking person who wasted their university education, I always feel slighted chastened by this teetotal, vegetarian with a PhD and wonder why she seems to enjoy our company when we're so different. But then I casually glanced at her DVD collection and saw Battlestar Galactica! She saw me looking and started extolling the merits of the series, praising the casting and the storylines. What is going on? She is the third non sci-fi person I've discovered enjoying Galactica.

I decided to lend my DVD to someone at work who is one of the worst intellectual snobs you could ever meet (although I usually think he's right and everyone else is wrong). He loved it. There must be something good about the series although I still watch it alone with a mild feeling of shame, as if I'm viewing some sort of deviant pornography. Sci-fi isn't cool. You only have to look at the people that buy SF and fantasy novels.

There is something about Battlestar Galactica that is attracting a mainstream audience who are prepared to ignore the absurd premise of the series and become fully engaged in the quest of the Twelve Colonies to find Earth. Apparently Galactica killed off the Star Trek Enterprise series and I can understand why. Battlstar Galactica isn't really a science fiction series - it's a dystopian post-9/11 drama which most people can relate to. Star Trek is good because it envisages a post-capitalist society in which racism and sexism are a thing of the past, but that also makes it quite dull at times and I can see why the politically correct world of the Enterprise has been superseded by the smoking, swearing, alcoholic crew of the Galactica.

Sunday, April 29, 2007


The Fall of Rome
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.


Power to the people

When I was 14, I remember seeing a report on the News at Ten about a village in Devon where, if you walked under a power line holding a flourescent tube, it suddenly lit up like a Star Wars light sabre. A group of around twenty locals were shown brandishing their tubes, waving them around like Jedi knights. Nobody seemed unduly alarmed. Indeed they all looked as if they were having great fun and the story was shown in the programme's light-hearted last item slot. I remember wondering what the power lines were doing to their bodies.

A few years later Channel Four showed a superb programme which made a pretty compelling argument linking high-voltage power lines to cancer and a variety of other illnesses. There was strong evidence to suggest a higher incidence of childhood and adult leukemia in homes that were close to electricity pylons. I naively assumed that the programme would generate a lot of coverage in the media and prompt the public to demand Government action. Nothing happened. A few lone voices tried to push the issue of EMF radiation to the top of the public health agenda, but they were generally treated as a lunatic fringe. Perhaps it wasn't a 'sexy' enough subject.

This week, two decades after the Channel Four programme, there has suddenly been a spate of articles about power lines and cancer clusters and it isn't just pylons that are the culprits now. Mobile phone masts have also been blamed for a variety of ills ranging from M.E to the disappearance of the sparrow and children have been advised not to have Wi-Fi laptops on their laps (presuming it's okay for me to continue irradiating my testicles).

Obviously I am not an expert on this subject and there is no scientific consensus about EMF radiation and health problems. There is, however, a growing convergence of opinion in the same way that there was a few years ago in the environmental movement.

If you don't know much about EMF radiation, there is a very general explanation here and a more detailed one here. If you're already concerned about this issue and want to protect yourself, there is an excellent (if slightly scary) book on how to make your home a safer place:

I am only a layman and perhaps I'm emulating my grandmother, who wouldn't talk on the phone because she believed that she'd get an electric shock, but compare the world today to 100 years ago. In addition to all of the normal background radiation our bodies are being exposed to countless radio waves. There was much hilarity when, 25 years ago, a man in New York picked up a music station on the metal plate of his false teeth (Apparently it was The Four Seasons' 'Oh What a Night'), but today most of us are within range of a mobile phone mast and can here the bip bip bip noise on our radios when a mobile phone is finding a signal. As that isn't enough, in our homes we now have cordless digital phones, baby alarms and wireless internet connections. What's it doing to us? Maybe nothing, but I'm not taking any chances.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The worst thing about working in a bookshop...

I keep spending money on books. Today I spent £16 on a book about Berlin in the 1920s. I have no interest in Berlin and can't say that I have any great affinity for the roaring twenties, but when I saw this wonderful book I had to have it.

Originally published in Vienna, this English translation is an eclectic mix of history, art, theatre, politics and popular culture in which the fascinating text is complemented by 400 illustrations. Every decent city deserves a book like this.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Spring is in the air

For most of us, spring is associated with hope, renewal, poetry, daffodils, longer evenings, blossom, birdsong, newborn lambs and, of course, the Eurovision Song Contest. This is my favourite time of year, but recently I have started to have mixed feelings about the warm weather.

In many ways I'm a very lucky bookseller, as I work in a seaside resort only a minute's walk from the beach, but there is a downside to this. As soon as the temperature hits the 20s, hordes of people are seized by the urge to feel the air on their skin. In Saint Tropez this wouldn't be a problem, but in Sussex the reality is rather unpalatable...

And this is accompanied by the incessant flap flap of flip flops, which I find particularly offensive when worn by men. I don't know why. I don't like looking at people's feet at the best of times, but men's feet are especially unpleasant. Apparently some people derive some erotic pleasure from feet, which must be why some women adorn their toes with rings. Yuk. But worst of all, the other day a rather dull, middle-aged man came in my shop - he had a pot belly, short trousers and flip flops, which revealed a ring on one of his toes! I can just about understand some airhead backpacker wearing a toe ring because it's a bit tribal, but a short, plump man in his 40s?

It's strange how the hot weather makes northern Europeans go a little mad. In really hot countries they do the sensible thing and cover up. You will never see Spaniards walking around town wearing thongs. Indeed, visit any southern European country and you'll learn how to look cool in the heat.

I realise that I'm beginning to sound like Calvin. Next I'll be stopping people dancing and banning laughter. Although I'm not a religious person I was raised as a Christian and I sometimes wonder whether my distaste for self-adornment - tattoos, jewellery and attention-seeking clothing - stems from from my upbringing. I'm not consciously aware of feeling like that but nevertheless, I don't feel comfortable in my body and feel an irrational anger when I see people confidently displaying their rolls of fat in public. I'm of a relatively average weight and appearance, but I could never happily walk along a beach in Speedos. Perhaps I'm the one who has the problem?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm all ears

When you work with the general public you become aware of trends that you would probably never notice. For example I noticed that during the years 1994-97, most young, male, middle-class customers ended a transaction by saying 'Bye now', as if they were presenting a television programme for young children. Then it suddenly stopped for no discernible reason. Looking back, the only two events of 1997 were Tony Blair and Princess Diana. Perhaps they'd OD'd on touchyfeelyness and felt a need to get back in touch with their inner Conservative. I don't know.

Another example is from about eight years ago, when several people I knew started saying 'Blahdiblah'. I'd never heard anyone say the phrase outside New York, but suddenly it became the default option for anyone who wanted to cut a sentence short. I waited patiently and sure enough, it suddenly disappeared without a trace after a couple of years.

I also recall when AQI (Australian Questioning Intonation) suddenly appeared out of nowhere. One day my wife came home from work and everything she said sounded like a question. It was bloody annoying, but she wasn't even aware of it. Somebody new had arrived in her office and their speech inflections passed around like a virus. I'm acutely aware of accents, probably because I grew-up in a working-class family and changed my accent in my teens, but my wife rarely notices how people speak.

I remember Orwell writing about his days as a tramp and noting his surprise at how many fellow vagrants failed to notice his Eton accent. Orwell concluded that some people aren't attuned to oral idiosyncrasies and are more likely to judge by appearance.

Several years ago I read something by Chomsky about this and it was a huge relief to find that I wasn't in some 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' scenario. Chomsky argued that language works like a virus, inveigling its way into the collective subconsciousness and I'm sure that anyone who works with the public and is attuned to accents will have noticed this phenomenon.

If you haven't, you probably think I'm completely barmy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Up on the Downs

When I lived in London I spent a whole summer walking the entire 100-mile length of the South Downs Way and used to dream of living in the countryside. Now that I've fulfilled my dream I rarely visit the Downs. I can cite a number of excuses, but I suspect that the main reason is because they're so near. I see them every day and know that if I walked out of the front door it would take me less than half an hour to join the route.

It was the same when I lived in London. I rarely bothered to visit exhibitions or museums, but since I moved to Sussex I've become a member of the Tate Gallery and visit the centre of London more then I ever did when I lived in the suburbs.

However, when the summer arrived two months early I decided to celebrate by going for a walk along the top of the Downs for a few miles, then take the path to Charlestone Farmhouse - home of the Bloomsbury Group - and take a guided tour, followed by a visit to the teashop. As the Osmonds would say, a little bit country and a little bit rock'n'roll.

Sadly, I managed to get lost on one of the most clearly signposted routes in England and never found Charleston. I wandered aimlessly for two hours before giving up and eventually managed to find a pub where I rang for a taxi home.

Ten minutes later the taxi arrived and I felt a great sense of relief until, two minutes into the journey, the driver started to have a fit. He started groaning and wrapped his right arm around his head, which rolled around as if it had been partially severed from the neck. I was terrified: 'Oh God, this is it. He's going to crash the car and I'm going to die and I never even saw Charleston.'

Then he suddenly stopped and carried on as if nothing had happened.

I should have asked him what the f*** was going on, but being English I was more concerned about seeming rude than asking him why he'd taken leave of his senses. I contemplated saying 'Er, actually this is where I live' when I saw a desolate lay-by. Anything, rather than being driven by a man in the throes of cardiac arrest. But I remained in the car and during the next few minutes, I gradually realised that the driver had something like Tourette's Syndrome.

In hindsight he was a good driver and it was amazing how well he could drive with one hand on the wheel whilst looking over his left shoulder and groaning, but I couldn't help wondering if he was in the right job. Had his employer demonstrated an exemplary commitment to equal opportunities or were they unaware? I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I had nothing but admiration and sympathy for someone who suffered from a debilitating affliction but still managed to hold down a full-time job. But on the other hand, he scared the shit out of me and I really wondered if I was going to die. It would have helped if could he have warned me first.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Richard Yates

Many thanks to John Self for recommending Richard Yates' Young Hearts Crying in his blog, which he rates even higher than Revolutionary Road. I have just finished it and although I'm not sure if it's superior to Revolutionary Road, it is certainly as good. I find it hard to believe that Yates languished in semi-obscurity for so long whilst writers like Updike and Roth were celebrated as pretenders to the Great American Novel, as he is every bit their equal.

Yates' genius lies in his ability to capture that brief period that most of us go through in our late teens and early 20s, when we think that we're really going to become something, one day. His characters all lead dull, suburban lives but because they have artistic sensibilities they believe that they are in some way special. In Revolutionary Road the main characters - Frank and April Wheeler - live a comfortable life and regularly have amicable dinner parties with another couple who live nearby, but secretly despise their friends and think that they should be living in Paris, mixing with Left Bank intellectuals. Yates' ability to depict people's pathetic (but entirely understandable) self-delusion and their gradual realisation that they are merely ordinary is done with the wisdom and compassion of a truly great writer.

That afternoon she stood at the window to watch a straggling procession of the New Tonapac Playhouse people setting out on the long walk to the train station. And from this distance they all did look like kids - boys and girls from far and wide with their cheap hand luggage and Army duffel bags, brave entertainers who might travel for years before it occurred to them, or to most of them, that they weren't going anywhere.


My fellow bookseller Mr Bedside Crow has recently posted a link on his fine blog to an author's website that is one of the best things I've ever seen on the internet. A collection of short stories by an unknown author normally makes booksellers' hearts sink, but Miranda July's promotional website for her new book is just brilliant.

Click on Ms July and I promise you won't regret it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

No fixed abode

I've been a magistrate for three months and on the whole there haven't been many surprises. Most crimes are committed by men, usually under the influence of alcohol. Very few of the offenders have jobs. Most of them have children but don't live with the mother and almost all of them have turned over a new leaf, if their solicitors are to be believed. It could make you very cynical, but in fact I generally find myself thinking 'There but for the grace of God...'

The one big shock that I've had is the disparity between people's appearances and their age. This morning our first case involved a man who was accused of being drunk and disorderly. The defendant was called and a confused-looking man staggered into the court and took his place in the dock. His rough, dirty clothes and sunburned skin suggested that he was probably a vagrant and if I had to guess his age, I would have said that he was 56. I looked at his personal details and thought that I'd made a mistake. I checked the details again and then heard the man confirm that he was 38-years-old.

Most of us are aware how diet and lifestyle can affect our health, but there is nothing like seeing the reality of of what homelessness and substance abuse does to people. A few weeks earlier I saw an elderly man with a white beard that made him look like Santa Claus. He was only 12 years older than me.

I don't know why the mentally ill are still being processed through the prison system. It's over 20 years since Margaret Thatcher introduced her 'care in the community' policy which closed down the Victorian mental asylums and placed the mentally ill back in mainstream society. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the end result is a disaster and the prison population has been swelled by the ranks of the mad. One frustrated prison officer said to me 'I joined this service to look after prisoners, not become a psychiatric nurse.'

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it goes...

It's February 1945 and you're a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. As if that isn't bad enough, your compatriots decide to launch a large-scale bombing raid on the city where you're imprisoned.

Kurt Vonnegut witnessed one of the worst bombing raids of the Second World War when 800 Allied bombers dropped 650,000 incendiaries, 8,000lb of high explosives and hundreds of 4,000lb bombs in an attack on Dresden. The city was an inferno and if someone had told the young POW Vonnegut that he would live for another 62 years, I doubt he would have believed them.

Although Vonnegut probably lived a lot longer than he expected to, I still feel sad that he's dead because I'd rather live on a planet that has Kurt Vonnegut in it. In a world that is dominated by sane mad people, it was a relief to know that there were mad sane people like Vonnegut who would ridicule the insanities of the modern age.

Every entry I've found on the internet has photos of an older Vonnegut, with moustache and bushy hair, but should we remember people by how they looked during the last few years of their life? If I was a great writer I think I'd be annoyed if people only saw a picture of me in my later years, so in tribute to Kurt here is a more youthful photo...

Monday, April 09, 2007

On The Road again

Last week's Bookseller mentioned that the UK hardback sales of Cormac McCarthy's last novel The Road were 10,400. In publishing terms this is a success, but after dividing this figure between the 60,000,000 people who live in Britain I worked out that only 0.017% of the population bought the book. Even if we allow for libraries and book sharing, the total number of readers for a universally-acclaimed novel by one of America's greatest writers amounts to less than 0.05% of everyone in Britain. Depressing.

But before I succumb to despair I should mention that The Road has been picked as one of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection and McCarthy has agreed to give a rare interview. Whatever you think of the Oprah/Richard and Judy book clubs, they do at least achieve something that mortal booksellers can only dream of: they make ordinary people read literary fiction. The Richard and Judy book club has made some daring choices. I never thought that the average R&J viewer would appreciate the literary pyrotechnics of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, but I was delighted to find myself proved wrong when the novel was chosen as the readers' favourite. It just goes to show how wrong people like Rupert Murdoch are.