Friday, August 31, 2007


I was lying in bed on a sunny Sunday morning when I heard the Sunday Times land with a thud on the doormat of my flat in southwest London. On the front page there was a small feature which had obviously been inserted at the last minute, reporting that Princess Diana had been seriously injured in a car accident. I thought about her sons and how worried they would be, then got on with reading the rest of the paper.

An hour or so later I turned on the television and heard the news. Once again I thought about her sons and, shamefully, also tried to work out how I could get hold of the Andrew Morton book before any other bookshop beat me to it. Then I got dressed and prepared for my wife's grandmother's 90th birthday party.

I distinctly remember the mood of the people at the party. They were slightly shocked by the news of Diana's death, but regarded it with a sense of detachment and the conversation swiftly moved on to other subjects. That seemed a normal response. I felt sad that her life had ended in such a pointless way but didn't feel a Diana-shaped hole in my life. Any sadness I felt was for the two young princes, who had lost a very loving mother.

When I watched the television that evening a saw the bouquets of flowers and Tony Blair's faintly nauseating 'People's Princess' speech, I felt as if I was an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario in which almost everyone else seemed to belong to some sort of movement that had passed me by. Who were these people who travelled miles (some hundreds) to weep and place a thirty quid bunch of flowers in a huge pile? What did Diana mean to them? Why did I feel relatively indifferent?

Perhaps it was because so many people empathised with Diana. Although she was a member of the aristocracy she had the 'common touch' and always seemed an outsider in the Royal Family. But that's only part of the answer - people never took Fergie to their hearts (and I'm sure it's more than a ginger hair issue). Diana had charisma, part of which was her vulnerability, that cut through the social niceties and made people feel that they had a special rapport with her. If you want to be an icon, be vulnerable. It worked for Marilyn Monroe.

Ten years on the Diana industry shows no sign of abating. Like Monroe she will always be young and beautiful, albeit with a dodgy 80s hairstyle.

Prince Harry's speech at today's memorial service was a masterpiece of diplomacy. He paid a glowing tribute to his mother but also subtly implied that the deification of Diana was quite wrong. He also loyally asserted his love for his father, who has been vilified by the Diana movement. The boy will go far.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Drunk in charge of a Space Shuttle

There have a few reports recently about allegations that some Space Shuttle astronauts weren't 100% sober when they launched. If they had been drinking, is it any wonder?

If I was sitting in a vessel that was attached to a giant firework, knowing that over a dozen of my colleagues had been killed in on-board explosions, I think I'd need a swift one before take-off.

Senator John Glenn - the first American to orbit the Earth - was once asked how he felt as he sat on the launch pad waiting for lift-off. He replied:

'I felt as good as anyone would, sitting in a capsule on top of a rocket that were both built by the lowest bidder.'

Friday, August 24, 2007

Crocs, again...

As if the wearing of Crocs isn't appalling enough in itself, I've now discovered that you can accessorize them with little plastic toys that neatly fit in the holes. Apparently they're called Jibbitz, which to my ears sounds more like a Jewish religious holiday. Here's a photo of the offending articles:

Utterly hideous. I should stress that I am not a complete killjoy and have no problem with children sporting Jibbitz on their Crocs. Indeed, I would probably have fancied some myself when I was eight. However when it comes to women in their 50s, it's hard to feel anything other than a mixture of revulsion and contempt. Grow up.

I have a cousin who is 60 and for years she has pretended to be disabled. She has a walking frame which has been accessorised with minature teddy bears and she takes it almost everywhere with her. The only exception is when a department store has a sale on and she needs to move quickly to get to the bargains before anyone else. Suddenly, 'Hallelujah!' - her legs start to work and she's halfway across the floor before anyone else has started moving.

I bet she wears Crocs.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


If you ever watched Star Trek when you were young, you'll appreciate this excellent parody that's currently on YouTube. It made me laugh out loud, but I had been drinking.

Click on the very blurred picture to see more.

Also highly recommended is this short film about an impromptu dinner party on a London Underground train...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

You can judge a book by its cover

The other day I was stock-checking the Fiction section when I noticed that we only had four novels by Anita Shreve, all of them spine-on. Three years ago she was the bestselling author of mid-market women's fiction and would have enjoyed at least a whole shelf to herself with every title face-out, but her sales have dramatically declined. Why?

One half of the answer was three bays to my left: Jodi Picoult. Her sales have risen as dramatically as Shreve's have fallen and she is an essential addition to any 3 for 2 promotion. However I think there is also another reason. Several years ago when Shreve topped the bestseller lists, the British arm of TimeWarner decided to change the covers, or as they would put it, refresh the jacket treatment.

They decided to change this:

For this:

Which looks remarkably similar to Jodi Picoult's covers...

And is if by magic, the sales started to drop off. Perhaps they would have done anyway, but I can't help wondering what would have happened if TimeWarner have done nothing. I can see the publisher's logic - they didn't want one of their best authors to have jackets that looked dated. However, those jackets were part of the successful Shreve 'brand'. The same thing happened with Freya North, whose books sold like hotcakes until some bright spark at Hodder decided to try and make their mark (if I was her I would have sued for loss of earnings). If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

It's interesting noting how publishers slavishly copy each other when one of them has a hit. In the early 90s, the success of Joanna Trollope spawned a wave of imitation aga sagas and tasteful, slightly insipid covers with watercolour paintings were de rigeur for a few years. Then Bridget Jones appeared and spawned the Chick Lit revolution with jackets that were curiously very similar to each other, but not to Bridget Jones.

At the moment most sub-genres have fairly predictable jackets, but that isn't a criticism - in a section with thousands of different titles, book covers are vital signifiers. If you want a Napoleonic Wars naval adventure or a post-Gladiator swords and togas romp, you'll be able to spot the books pretty quickly. And it's also amusing how a Da Vinci Code brand emerged so quickly for the dozens of historical-conspiracy-thriller novels that suddenly popped up in the wake of Dan Brown's success.

Here's one of my favourite examples of copycat publishing:

The lovely Martina Cole (and I'm not saying that in a sneering, ironic way - she really is lovely) has many imitators including the annoyingly-named Mandasue Heller...

And arch-miserablist Kevin Lewis...

I'm a self-confessed book jacket anorak, but in mitigation I plead over-exposure to books.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


My laptop is going for a slow, operatic death. Like the consumptive Mimi, you know its days are numbered but it can still belt out the odd aria. I've ordered a new laptop from Germany and in my crude, racial stereotyping sort of way, I expect it to arrive punctually and be in full working order.

In the meantime, here's a bit of lazy blogging. However I hope you'll forgive the cut and paste once you've read the following by Guardian TV reviewer Charlie Brooker:

In the 18th century, a revolution in thought, known as the Enlightenment, dragged us away from the superstition and brutality of the Middle Ages toward a modern age of science, reason and democracy. It changed everything. If it wasn't for the Enlightenment, you wouldn't be reading this right now. You'd be standing in a smock throwing turnips at a witch. Yes, the Enlightenment was one of the most significant developments since the wheel. Which is why we're trying to bollocks it all up.

Welcome to a dangerous new era - the Unlightenment - in which centuries of rational thought are overturned by idiots. Superstitious idiots. They're everywhere - reading horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling about "chakras" and "healing energies", praying to imaginary gods, and rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage them. We've got to respect their beliefs, apparently.

Well I don't. "Spirituality" is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you've ever described yourself as "quite spiritual", do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you're incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?

Maybe you've put your faith in spiritual claptrap because our random, narrative-free universe terrifies you. But that's no solution. If you want comforting, suck your thumb. Buy a pillow. Don't make up a load of floaty blah about energy or destiny. This is the real world, stupid. We should be solving problems, not sticking our fingers in our ears and singing about fairies. Everywhere you look, screaming gittery is taking root, with serious consequences. The NHS recently spent £10m refurbishing the London Homeopathic Hospital. The equivalent of 500 nurses' wages, blown on a handful of magic beans. That was your tax money. It was meant for saving lives.

Inevitably, the world of science and logic is slowly fighting back. Hence the recent slew of anti-God books, one of which, The God Delusion, was written by Richard Dawkins, writer-presenter of The Enemies Of Reason (Mon, 8pm, C4). Dawkins has softened his style somewhat since his previous series, The Root of All Evil, in which he toured the globe interviewing religious extremists. Trouble was, their views made him so uppity, he occasionally came off worst. They remained eerily calm, while he huffed furiously. And because he looks and sounds precisely like Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss, the end effect was often unintentional hilarity.

In The Enemies of Reason he's still angry - how couldn't he be? - but this time round Dawkins controls his temper, focusing it like a laser beam, taking on spirituality and superstition in all its forms. The overall tone is less hectoring, more persuasive, and occasionally outright playful. It's more likely to win people over.

The end result is possibly the most important broadcast of the year so far; important because it presents a passionate argument we really all ought to be having right now, if we want to prevent a great slide backwards into mud-eating barbarism. And if you think that's hyperbole, I suggest you pick up a newspaper and see how many of the world's problems are currently being caused or exacerbated by the rejection of rational thought. From fundamentalist death cults to arrogant invasions: a startling lack of logic unites them all.

Cold, clear, rational thought is the most important thing we have; the one thing that can save us. If I was made Emperor of All Media, I'd broadcast something akin to The Enemies Of Reason on every channel, every day, for 10 years. This is an urgent message that must be heard if we want to survive, as a species. Oh. And I'd also broadcast a load of Tex Avery cartoons, just to show off my lighter side. Man, I loves dat Droopy.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Not with a bang, but a whimper...

My laptop is slowly but surely failing. The tiniest movement shuts down my broadband connection, requiring a tedious reboot that seems to take longer every time. This could be the end.

Before I go, here is a sound piece of advice from Jo Brand that I read in Sunday's Independent:

If your partner has started to put on a lot of weight recently, get them to walk for three miles in the morning and three miles in the evening. By the end of the week the fat fucker will be 42 miles away.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Closing down

In the seaside town where I work I've lost count of how many shops have closed this year, the victims of poor sales and high rents. The latest is a secondhand bookshop which had a wonderfully eclectic selection of books. However, the closing down sale wasn't their finest hour...

A print of an owl for £10? But worse still was the awful 'original' oil painting of Chinese junks - yours for a mere fifty quid. Perhaps they're better at selling books than paintings.

I used to walk past the shop at closing time and wonder how they could afford to have so many staff. I now have my answer: they couldn't. It's a great shame as we need cavernous, fusty old bookshops that smell of damp and crawl with booklice, because amongst the many out of date travel guides and memoirs by people we no longer care about there are hidden gems. Browsing in any bookshop is a delight, but I particularly love the antiquarian ones.

I know the book trade well enough to have a fairly clear idea of what the average Waterstone's, Borders and WH Smith's will have in stock. But when you walk into an independently-run shop that specialises in secondhand books, there's always the possibility that you may find a book that will change your life.

One of my best serendipitous moments in bookselling was when I started unpacking a box and came across Sven Lindqvist's Desert Divers - a slim volume that I probably wouldn't have noticed in the travel writing section. I read the book and was so captivated by it that I felt compelled to explore further and three months later, found myself sitting in the Cafe Pierre Loti in Istanbul as a direct result of opening a cardboard on a dull day in February.

At the moment retail is all about consolidation and homogenisation, but there is a quiet revolution going on. People are waking up to the fact that everywhere is beginning to look the same and are trying to reassert their local identity. In the 1990s I remember travelling to Wales for a stag weekend. Our van broke down and we found ourselves in an unfamiliar town. I wandered through a shopping precinct and tried to work out where we were, but all I could see was Dixons, Woolworths, Superdrug, WH Smith, Boots etc... In the end I had to walk up to someone and ask them 'Where am I?' (The answer was Leatherhead). That can't be right (and it's nowhere near Wales).

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Post Modern

When did it stop becoming socially acceptable to make racist comments? When I was in my teens I remember cringing with shame and embarrassment at some of the remarks made by people of the older generation. A great-aunt married a particularly offensive man who liked to talk about Yids, Coons and Pakis and I remember assuming that his vitriolic views were a product of his personality. But even my dear father used to complain about the coloureds. I had several friends who weren't white, so I took it personally.

Then, suddenly, it all seemed to stop.

The racism didn't go away, but a lot of people realised that they could no longer assume that other white people would share their views. The jokes stopped.

But then the pendulum swung in the other direction. Political correctness appeared and soon, every children's programme seemed to have a quota of black faces, even when it was set in a Scottish fishing village. This could have been a good thing, but the reality was that racism hadn't disappeared. People had just stopped talking about an uncomfortable subject.

Historians in the future could be forgiven for assuming that we live in an era a racial harmony, if they watch programmes like Balamory. The reality is quite different, as anyone who lives in the poorer parts of London knows and the number of young black men who have been shot, stabbed or injured this year is a statistic that many would rather ignore. Sweep it under the carpet.

Which is why I say hats off to Doctor Who! You may wonder what's behind this tangential leap, but the fact is that Doctor Who is one of the only recent British drama series to have openly acknowledged the thorny issue of racism. In the two stories which involved travelling into the past, the Doctor's assistant Martha Jones has to put up with bigoted, racist comments. In Shakespeare's London she is called a Blackamoor, whilst her claim to be a doctor in 1913 is refuted with the comment 'I hardly think that someone of your sex and colour could be a trained physician'.

It's to their credit that the scriptwriters of Doctor Who have acknowledged that a black woman with a strong London accent is going to meet with adversity and the result has been some of the best drama I've seen for a long time. Not talking about racial problems reminds me of the people who used to say that class was no longer an issue. If a primetime family drama like Doctor Who is prepared to tackle uncomfortable issues then perhaps there's hope for all of the other television dramas that reduce people to quotas and cliches.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

For Nick Drake fans

It was a long hot summer when I was first introduced to the music of Nick Drake. In those days most people had never heard of him and although he was a voice from an earlier generation, we claimed him as one of our our. We lazed on lawns, smoking, staring at the sky, listening to the Thoughts of Mary Jane. I could never understand why such a great songwriter remained an obscure word-of-mouth artist, but fortunately Drake has been belatedly acknowledged as a genius and now has an international following that includes Brad Pitt and, more importantly, Goncalo Veiga.

I thought I'd heard everything by Nick Drake, but last month a new album was released called Family Tree. There are 28 tracks, most of which are original songs by Drake, however there are also a couple of songs written and sung by his mother and two duets with his sister Gabrielle. These recordings were all made before Nick Drake secured a recording contract and the quality is pretty poor, but that's part of the album's charm. Family Tree sounds amateurish but in the best possible way, giving us a privileged insight into an incredibly talented artist and his family.

In her sleeve notes Gabrielle Drake acknowledges that her brother probably wouldn't have wanted to let these recordings see the light of day, but unfortunately there are so many bootleg versions - the result of Drake's parents generosity towards fans who asked for copies of their tapes - that a commercial recording was inevitable. Family Tree may be scraping the bottom of the barrel but oh, what a barrel.