Friday, May 30, 2008

The future isn't Orange

There can't be many jobs that are more depressing than working in a call centre. Huddled together like battery hens in an artificially lit room, your job consists of receiving abuse from angry customers, explaining complicated procedures to stupid people and trying to make yourself understood to foreigners. I did something similar once for a market research company and it was hell.

To me, the call centre is the 21st century equivalent of the cotton mill. You may not lose an arm or work to the point of physical exhaustion - we don't allow that any more in our advanced, caring society. Instead, the toll on your health is psychological. You are just a cog in a wheel. Your individuality is irrelevant; you are merely required to be the mouthpiece for an organisation. If you start to joke around with your colleagues, there is always a supervisor on hand to reprimand you.

This is why I found the following anecdote heartening:

A friend of mine received a call from Orange asking her if she was interested in upgrading her mobile phone. The caller dutifully read the script telling her all of the wonderful ways in which Orange could enhance her life and she made a flippant remark about his apparent enthusiasm.

His reply went something like this:

Oh yes madam, I live and breathe Orange, day and night madam. Even my fucking blood runs orange, madam. My car's orange, my bedroom's orange and I'm even wearing orange underpants, madam.

And now I can see my supervisor looking at me madam, but I don't give a fuck because this is my last day, madam.

A moment of triumph for the human spirit. My friend particularly enjoyed the use of the word madam.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Life after work

Although I have only recently quit my job, I actually stopped working several months ago.

Like most people I used to dread the thought of losing my job and had many sleepless nights mulling over the prospect of condemning my family to a life of penury. I was becoming mentally and physically exhausted, but felt that I had to keep going. Then one day everything changed and I suddenly realised that I didn't have to tolerate any more crap. We always have a choice, although it may not always feel that way.

Money is in short supply and I know that at some point in the near future we will drain our bank account dry, but I'm amazed that we've lasted this long. I didn't realise how much money I'd save by not working. Not only have I saved a fortune in fuel and lunch costs, but I've also had the time to do jobs that I would have had to pay other people for (my garden has been completely landscaped for under £500, which is considerably lower than the £3000 I was quoted). It's been a revelation.

I have also learned the art of shopping around - something I never had time for when I was working 40 or more hours a week. I know that a box of tissues will cost 35p in Asda, as opposed to over £1 anywhere else. I have also discovered that my children are much happier playing with driftwood on a beach than going to a theme park. Holidays abroad are out, but thanks to global warming England is becoming positively Mediterranean. Food is becoming a problem - prices have suddenly shot up during the last couple of months, but there are always cheap options.

I don't intend to live like this on a permanent basis. I want to work and would find it very frustrating if I didn't have my duties as a Justice of the Peace to keep me busy. But even if I do earn a decent salary, I will never forget the lessons I have learned during the last few months. Time is more important than money.

If you're stuck in a rut, I'd strongly recommend Tom Hodgkinson's book How to be Free. You'll probably find it in the humour section of a bookshop, but although Hodgkinson is a very amusing writer the core of the book is an extremely well-argued polemic against our post-industrial consumer society. Hodgkinson has no problem with work; it's jobs that he has reservations about and the degree to which they dominate our lives.

A few years ago I read a shocking statistic that said if Americans wanted to maintain the standard of living they had in 1949 (and it was pretty good then), they'd only have to work two days a week. Instead they're working their arses off to buy a lot of things they don't really need and only enjoy two weeks' holiday a year. Madness!

I shall be following Tom Hodgkinson's manifesto, with the possible exception of playing the ukulele. As he wisely says: Life is absurd. We are free. Be merry.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Age of Certainty

I have resigned from my job as a Waterstone's manager. I have no idea what I'm going to do next, but in spite of this I know that I've made the right decision. I'll miss my friends and I will also miss working with books, but I felt that I had no choice but to leave.

I used to be a manager for Ottakar's Bookstores and loved my job. Under the charismatic leadership of James Heneage, Ottakar's was a wonderful company to work for that valued individuality and creativity over compliance and procedure. As a manager I felt that my remit was to ensure that staff morale was one of the top priorities and I found it really rewarding to see booksellers develop and become managers themselves.

Sadly, in 2006 HMV Media bought Ottakar's and incorporated it into its Waterstone's chain. Within a matter of months every branch of Ottakar's was rebranded and new systems were introduced. I tried to be open-minded about my new employer, but like many of my colleagues, I felt increasingly disillusioned by certain aspects of the business.

It is tempting to write a long, damning diatribe against Waterstone's, but although it might be cathartic to vent my spleen, I would be doing a disservice to the many people who work there who are passionate about books and often do an excellent job against the odds. There are many good things about Waterstone's, but the sum isn't equal to its parts. My own impression is that the company is over-regulated and that there are too many people in middle-management who don't understand the book trade and treat it like any other area of retail, referring to books as product. Bookselling is different.

Perhaps the most succinct and articulate summary of the differences between Ottakar's and Waterstone's was made recently by a former colleague, who wrote:

There seems to be a different definition of what makes a good manager in W - a competent administrator who can follow and implement instructions. O managers were encouraged to focus on running and developing a business. Two different aspects of the same role, but I think many of those who, like you, excel at the latter find nothing satisfying about spending eight hours a day doing the former.

Apparently there is a sea change at Waterstone's. A staff opinion survey revealed that morale was even lower than the senior management feared and this year there will supposedly be a concerted effort to bring back the passion and individuality that made Waterstone's so special in the distant past. The managers I've spoken to certainly seem more optimistic than they have been for a long time. I hope that the senior management have the vision to make real changes rather than cosmetic ones.

If I ran Waterstone's I would scrap at least half of the checklists and reports that are released every week, ensure that a manager's accountability was proportionate to the control they had over their shop and finally, I would make it a sackable offence for anyone to use the acronym JFDI (Just Fucking Do It)!

Between a third and half of Ottakar's managers have left Waterstone's in the last couple of years. Some left straight away, but many decided to see what life was like under Waterstone's before deciding it wasn't for them. Interestingly, in some areas of the country the number of resignations has been lower than a quarter whilst in others it has been well over 50%, which would suggest that the local regional manager has exercised some influence in people's decisions. I have heard some very disturbing allegations, which I won't repeat here.

Financially, Waterstone's is in a stronger position than it has been for years. The latest managing director has introduced many important commercial improvements, including a transactional website and a loyalty card, but it is relatively easy to improve a company that has been poorly managed in the past. The real challenge is to restore that indefinable but vital element that made Ottakar's such a wonderful company to work for: the magic.

I am now unemployed and should be feeling despondent, but in fact I'm happier than I have been for years. I no longer have to lie awake at night worrying about deadlines and targets. I don't have much money but I am free and that feels great. I have also discovered that it's possible to live on very little if you really put your mind to it.

Strangely enough, although I am not working I'm actually busier than ever. In addition to working as a part-time magistrate I have two children to look after, a home to decorate and lots of forms to fill in to prove that I'm not trying to defraud the state. It's a full life.

At some point in the near future I will work again. It may be in the book trade, but I'm also tempted to try something completely different - possibly in the environmental or charity sector. Whatever I end up doing, it will have to be something I feel committed to. Life is too short to spend 40 hours a week doing something you don't enjoy.

In the meantime I have lots of books to read, starting with Tom Hodgkinson's How to be Idle.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Five weeks later...

Ah, the joys of a maritime climate! Only five weeks ago, my oldest son was throwing snowballs and rolling down hills whilst his younger brother seemed completely traumatized by his first experience of snow:

Five weeks later, we were suffering from heatstroke after spending too long in the sun:

I wondered if the hot weather had anything to do with the strange appearance of hundreds of starfish on the beach, but apparently this is an increasingly common phenomenon partly caused by dredging, which depletes the seabed of the starfishes' beloved mussells.

According to one website, these days you have to find at least 10,000 starfish before it becomes newsworthy.

I won't be submitting this photo to the BBC News website.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Whatever happened to...

Now that my bookselling career is drawing to a close, I have been reflecting on some of the writers who were either really successful or were tipped as the next big thing during my first few years in the trade. I have forgotten many names, but a few stick out. For example, I remember selling lots of Fay Weldon novels and having to restock the entire backlist every few weeks. Today you'd be hard pressed to find a single title in the average Waterstone's. And whatever happened to the once-popular Tama Janowitz? Here is my list of yesterday's heroes:

Poppy Z Brite
Helen Zahavi
Nigel Watts
Stepehn Amidon
Peter Benson
Paul Watkins
Terry McMillan
Jeremy Reed
Brian Moore
Campbell Armstrong
Angela Huth
Caryl Phillips
Mario Vargas Llosa
Scott Turow
Christopher Hope
E L Doctorow
Anita Mason
Alison Lurie
Marguerite Yourcenar
Amos Oz
Lesley Grant-Adamson
Keith Waterhouse
Josephine Hart
Kathleen Rowntree
Lisa St Aubin de Teran...

The list could go on if I had a better memory. You may disagree with some of the names chosen and it's possible that moving from London to provincial bookselling in the mid-90s has disorted my view of things. But the fact remains that many of these authors (most of whom are still alive) have dropped of the radar, replaced by new names. Why?

The glib answer is that fashions change, but there are many other factors at work. I can think of at least one writer who annoyed their publisher so much that their backlist quietly went out of print. Others were eclipsed by authors writing in a similar genre (Scott Turow's demise can be directly traced to the ascent of John Grisham).

From my perspective, there isn't one writer on the list that really excites me, with the possible exception of Peter Benson and there are enough newer writers around who are much better. You may feel differently.

To return to Fay Weldon, she once came to a shop I worked in for a signing and was charm itself. All of the customers were delighted, with the exception of one man who looked confused and disappointed. Later I discovered that he was a metalwork enthusiast who had misheard someone talking about the signing and thought that we were having a welding evening.

Monday, May 05, 2008


I hate having my hair cut. It's not the cut itself that bothers me, but the prospect of having either an agonizingly stilted conversation with somebody or a long, awkward silence.

I tried going to a few barbers, but after some haircuts that left me looking like a Serbian war criminal, I decided to patronise Toni and Guy. Their haircuts are very good, but in order to justify their exhorbitant prices they extend the process from a barber's ten minutes to a half hour ordeal of hair washing, head massages, coffee and small talk.

The staff at Toni and Guy all seem young and beautiful and when I walk through the door, I always feel as if they're thinking 'What are you doing here?'.

To compound the sense of alienation, they play music at a volume that rearranges your internal organs and makes you feel old and boring. To call it background music would be a mistake. It's foreground music and says that Toni and Guy is part of a wider culture of hedonistic, sexy young people who spend a large part of their disposable income on looking good. What am I doing here?

With Ibiza Club Anthems at full throttle, I try to guess what would be an acceptable volume for speaking without seeming as if I'm some shouting loon. I always get it wrong and the conversation usually goes like this:

'Hi (not hello, that's too stuffy for a 'happening' place like this). I'd like a cut and blow dry please.'



(Oh God, did I say cut and blow job by mistake?) 'I'D LIKE A CUT AND BLOW DRY'


I'll mumble something about seeing different people each time, as I can never remember who cut my hair when I last had it cut, four months earlier. Then I'll sit down and wait for what seems like a geological era until someone appears with a black shroud that looks like something out of The Seventh Seal.

We begin with the ritual of annointment. They always wash my hair three times, as if I'm some filthy old tramp that needs to be decontaminated and I try to see if the person next to me is also receiving the same treatment. Then comes the head massage. I know some men would pay good money to have a teenage girl's breasts rubbing against them as she caresses their head, butI find this level of intimacy with a stranger rather uncomfortable.

By the time I'm at the stage where I have the consultation with my stylist, I'm a broken man. I want to say 'Do what you like, just make it quick.' However, I feel obliged to take my hair as seriously as they seem to. Then the cut begins and with it, the dreaded small talk.

Sometimes, when I say I work in a bookshop that's enough to kill the conversation dead, but more often than not I will be asked what I think of the latest development in Eastenders, where I'm going on holiday and whether I will be going clubbing that evening. Clubbing? I want to say 'Do I look like the sort of person that will be going clubbing?'

One day, I discovered an Arab barber. He spoke virtually no English and the only thing he said was 'Wha'numma'youwan?' I had no idea what he was talking about, but picked three as it was my lucky number and ten minutes later I left with a reasonably good haircut.

Sadly I left the town of my Arabian barber and have spent the last six months growing my hair to the point where I have become feral. I quite liked it, but my wife said that people would think I was letting myself go, so last Friday I trawled the streets of Lewes in search of a cheap, decent haircut.

Success! I not only got a decent haircut for £10, but also found a barber with a sense of humour and we spent 20 minutes having a laugh about celebrities. I told him about my encounters with Jordan and Petre Andre and also why very few people in the book trade have any time for Jeffery Archer. Then he told me about Ronnie Corbett.

I've always liked Ronnie Corbett and was dismayed to hear that my barber's mate, who works at Gatwick Airport, rates little Ronnie as one of the most difficult people he's ever had to deal with. When the Corbster flies in, the staff apparently draw lots to decide who will serve him. I wished I hadn't been told this. I liked Ronnie Corbett, the armchair raconteur and tireless fundraiser for charity.

But back to the subject of hair, you really can't beat a good barber. They are the taxi drivers of the scalp. After ten minutes or so of putting the world to rights I feel at one with my fellow man and far more relaxed than I ever had after an Indian head masage.