Sunday, June 29, 2008


One of my first memories of television was watching the trade test transmission films on the fledgeling BBC2. This is probably because they were shown at least once a week for several years and in the pre-video era, it was unusual to see any programme more than a couple of times.

My favourite film was Evoluon, made in 1968 and shown regularly until 1973. Evoluon was a flying saucer-shaped science centre, built in Eindhoven, Holland in 1966 and this short film is like a homage to the Space Age.

At a time when many people are feeling fairly pessimistic about the future, there is something terribly poignant about Evoluon's optimism and blind faith in science as the guarantor of health and happiness.

This was, after all, the age when we thought it was a good idea for families to live on the eighth floor of a tower block. We also looked forward to living on the moon and eating pills instead of all that miserable food business. What were we thinking?

Interestingly, Evoluon's fortunes mirrored those of the Modernist movement and by the 1980s, visitor numbers had dwindled to the point where the science centre was closed. Tragically, Evoluon was re-launched ten years later as a conference centre for businesses. From the sublime to the tedious.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Art in a Cold Climate

In the last series of Doctor Who, there was a story about aliens pulling a London hospital off the ground and dropping it down on the moon. It seemed an utterly absurd idea until today, when I visited the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill.

Bexhill is the sort of coastal retirement town that makes even sleepy Eastbourne look like a hedonistic, drug-fuelled, non-stop party by comparison. The most dangerous thing you'll encounter in Bexhill is a rogue electric wheelchair exceeding 5mph. If it wasn't for places like Bexhill, the Daily Express would have gone under years ago.

However, right on the seafront there is a stunning Art Deco arts centre that looks as if it's been transported from a fashionable suburb of London.

The De La Warr Pavillion was the first public building in the Modernist style and was commissioned in 1935 with the express purpose of providing the local people with access to art and entertainment. After an £8,000,000 refurbishment, the gallery was reopened in 2005 and it is now a hotspot on the chattering classes' map of Britain.

The interior has been re-modelled in a contemporary style that is sympathetic to the building's Art Deco origins (I think I've been watching too many editions of Property Ladder)

Rock'n'Roll! It says No Photography, but I don't play by the rules (although I made sure I'd turned the flash button off first)

I visited the De La Warr Pavillion earlier today, to see an exhibition called Unpopular Culture, curated by Grayson Perry. I have an affinity with Perry (cross-dressing excepted) as we both have similar backgrounds. In the photo above, he looks identical to my mum when she was younger. What was it with working class women and headscarves? Was it just to protect the perm?

Unpopular Culture, according to Perry...

...stems from a notion that unlike today, in Britain during this period, stories about art did not feature daily in the broadsheets or contemporary artists crop up frequently in gossip columns. A time perhaps when modern art was an even more rarefied activity, practiced and appreciated by other-worldly bohemians and intellectuals. The title also refers to a feeling that many artists then made art that could be characterised as subtle, sensitive, lyrical and quiet in contrast to today when much art can seem like shouty advertisments for concepts or personalities. As a group for me these works conjure a nostalgic picture of a post-war, pre-Thatcherite Britain, more reflective, more civic and more humane.

Unpopular Culture was a superb exhibition and as much as I dislike crowds, it was heartening to see that the gallery was packed. I doubt that there were many residents of Bexhill amongst the visitors, but I could be wrong.

I liked the De La Warr Pavillion, but it did seem very incongruous in the hospice-like setting of Bexhill. Will it regenerate the local economy and attract arty types? I'm not convinced, but even if it just lures patrician day-trippers, the local area will benefit.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Viva Dudamel!

The sight of classical musicians 'letting their hair down' is normally an embarrassing spectacle, on a par with have to watch ageing relatives dancing at a wedding reception disco. However, the Simon Bolivar Venezuelan Youth Orchestra is an exception to the rule.

Led by the charismatic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, this orchestra is the result of a bold educational programme which aims to give gifted, but poor, Venezuelan children a route out of the slums. The result is a world-class orchestra.

Here's a clip from last year's Proms. Even if you don't like classical music I'd urge you to watch this, because it's an inspiration to see people enjoying themselves so much.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Six months ago I was feeling mentally and physically exhausted by my work at Waterstone's. Every night I would lie awake in the small hours, worrying about what would happen if I lost my job. I was Mr Average, with a wife, two children and a mortgage. I was convinced that I had to keep working at any cost, otherwise everything would fall apart.

Then one day everything changed.

I had a rare moment of clarity and self-awareness and after asking myself what could be worse than losing my job, realised that the answer was keeping it. In a single moment, everything fell into place. I felt like Peter Finch in Network (minus the madness, I hope).

That's the short version, anyway. Obviously it was a little more complicated than that, but in a nutshell I stopped working in December and officially resigned a couple of months ago. Contrary to expectations, my world hasn't fallen apart, I still have a few quid in the bank and I'm so busy that I don't know how I ever found the time to do a full-time job. At the moment I feel as if I'm on a very long holiday, albeit a rather busy one.

However I'm starting to get restless. Once the novelty value of not having to go to work wears off, you are left with the question: what is my purpose? I do part-time voluntary work as magistrate and also have two young boys to keep me busy, but I feel that it is a little early in life to be semi-retired so I've started thinking about the next move.

The Guardian jobs section is particularly depressing. I've been through the adverts in last week's edition of Work and found a number of recurring words:


I used to be most of these, but not since I was under the age of ten. I had the impression that these qualities became superseded by things like empathy, wisdom, knowledge, integrity, commitment, compassion and vision, but perhaps they're not compatible with the corporate culture.

What is the answer? I'm not sure, but I don't think there's any point looking in the Guardian again. I shall have to think of something else.

In the meantime, here is Peter Finch in Network. 32 years on, this clip still strikes a chord:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Book Heaven...and Hell

My wife likes specific answers to her questions. I prefer to be as vague as possible because as soon as I tell her what I'm doing, how long it will take and how much money I'm likely to spend, I am making a rod for my own back. In the television series The Prisoner, the Village has signs which read: Questions are a burden to others and answers a prison for oneself.

I agree (although within the context of The Prisoner, it wasn't completely unreasonable to ask why one had been abducted).

Today I got away with being vague, telling my wife that I was popping into town when all along I intended to jump on a train and go to Eastbourne for a return visit to Camilla's Bookshop. I almost felt like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner and imagined my wife in a large control room, monitoring my doomed escape attempt. However, after a 20-minute train ride I was safely in Eastbourne.

At Camilla's I went straight down into the basement. I thought I was alone, but after a while I began to hear furtive snuffling noises, like a wild boar hunting for truffles. I tiptoed around each section and in a dim corner, found a man who looked as if he'd entered the shop in 1972 and had never left. He seemed unaware of my presence, so I returned to the Pelicans.

The orange Penguins didn't seem as alluring this time. I found several novels by authors I'd never heard of and a cursory glance at the first page usually confirmed why they were now out of print. However there was one Spanish novel that looked quite interesting, so I started reading the first chapter.

Almost immediately a middle-aged couple came down the stairs, talking to each other at a volume that suggested that they were on opposite sides of a busy road. I tried to return to my book, but they stopped right next to me and carried on talking.

'Hmm, Bronte, Bronte...Shirley' the woman muttered.

'Shirley you don't want to read that book!' the man joked. She roared with laughter at his abysmal pun.

There is a certain type of couple where one person labours under the misapprehension that they're witty and amusing because their partner, for some unfathomable reason, actually finds their banal humour hilarious. There is a technical term for couples like this. I think it's fuckwits, but correct me if I'm wrong.

I turned round to see who I was listening to and was appalled to find an overweight man who was wearing nothing but a pair of short trousers. I know the days of smelling salts and whalebone corsets are over, but it still can't be right to walk around like this. It's a bookshop, for God's sake!

It's not even as if he had a good physique - this photo below is actually quite flattering for the fat, pot-bellied, man-boobed lump of walking banality that he was. Yuk!

The arrival of this appalling couple heralded the end of my visit. Luckily I'd managed to photograph several book jackets and I hope that connoisseurs like Caustic Cover Critic will enjoy seeing them:

Inflation and the Compromised Church? I can't imagine that many copies were sold, but the jacket is very striking, as is this superb cover for R.D.Laing's sequel to The Divided Self:

Unequal Shares is a classic Pelican cover: a simple, effective image that aptly sums-up the book.

As for Aspects of the Novel, I think it's a masterpiece. I'd definitely hang it on my wall.

Can you guess whether the jacket above was designed by a woman or a man? No prizes I'm afraid.

With the Galbraith jacket, the visual pun manages to convey so much with such a simple image.

Finally, Inside Robert Robinson - not a place that everyone would wish to visit.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Heaven

Although it's only 13 miles away, I never go to Eastbourne. I don't really have anything against the place, but its reputation as a rather dull geriatric coastal resort full of nursing homes and dingy guest houses isn't a great draw. Eastbourne is reputed to be a place where people go to die.

However, today I woke up feeling restless and the word Eastbourne kept nagging me insistently (intimations of mortality?). I'm a great believer in following a whim so I decided to take a chance and drive there, even though I had no idea what I was was going to do once I'd arrived.

I'm glad I followed my instincts because today I discovered one of the best secondhand bookshops I've ever seen:

Only a few minutes' walk from Eastbourne Station, Camilla's Bookshop has three floors that are crammed from top to bottom with books. This area is just inside the main entrance:

And here is a photo of a small part of the labyrinthine basement:

The initial impression is one of organized chaos, but the sections are far more ordered than they look and this section of Penguin paperbacks is in strict alphabetical order:

Although these Pelican titles seem to be in a slightly more random arrangement:

The Pelican jackets are masterpieces of design and when I get the chance, I shall return and take some more pictures.

Sadly, like many local councils, Eastbourne's seems to be on a mission to deter people from visiting the town and I only had enough change to pay for an hour's parking. I resented having to cut my visit short, but perhaps it was a good thing as I could have spent a fortune. In the end, I spent a fairly modest £9.50 on eight paperbacks, including Ballard's Drowned World, Muriel Spark's Robinson and a title I'd never heard of, One by David Karp.

Camilla's Bookshop is a paradise for anyone who loves browsing and it's the antithesis of today's bestseller-driven chain stores. I can't wait to go back.

Walking back to my car, I was pleased to see this bookshop:

Two years ago, Jeff Doak ran one of the most profitable branches of Ottakar's, but when HMV Media bought the company they decided to convert Jeff's shop into a branch of HMV, as there was already a branch of Waterstone's in town. The staff were only given few weeks' notice and were expected to work up until the last minute, boxing up their stock to return to the publishers and other stores. To add insult to injury, they were asked to relinquish their Waterstone's staff discount cards.

After a period of uncertainty, Jeff Doak decided to open a bookshop of his own, using his house as security against a bank loan. At the time the general consensus was that he was taking a huge risk that could easily end in tears, so it was heartening to see that his shop was full of customers.

It's only a tiny shop, but somehow Jeff has managed to squeeze in a really good range of children's books and a coffee shop! The shop is bright, colourful and welcoming and if lived in Eastbourne, I'd be a regular customer.

I didn't see a lot of Eastbourne, but Camilla's Bookshop alone is enough to tempt me back. There are worse places to die in.

On the way back, I stopped at Beachy Head - the suicide hotspot of Southern England. The wind was so strong that I almost got blown off the cliff edge. I expect that some people would have assumed that I'd taken my own life. However, I hope that my bright pink Camilla's Bookshop carrier bag, bulging with eight novels, would provide evidence to the contrary.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Whatever happened to Timothy Mo?

Earlier this morning I was reading DJ Taylor's book A Vain Conceit, his 1989 survey of contemporary British fiction. It's a wonderfully opinionated polemic which still hits a nerve 19 years on and mentions a number of writers who have faded into obscurity. Do the names Mervyn Jones, Helen Muir or Jeremy Brooks mean anything to you?

One name that I did recognise was Timothy Mo. He used to be mentioned in the same breath as McEwan, Ishiguro and Byatt and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times with Sour Sweet, An Insular Possession and The Redundancy of Courage. Then he made what was, perhaps, the greatest mistake of his career.

Allegedly fed-up with the practices of British publishers, he decided to cut out the middle man and self-publish his next novel, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard. It was viewed by some as a brave decision, but others felt that with Mo's track record, it could be a very lucrative one.

Sadly for Mo, self-publishing turned out to be a disastrous move. Perhaps the novel wouldn't have sold anyway - the title was pretty awful. However although the reviews weren't as enthusiastic as they had been for his last three books, they were still pretty decent and the book should have sold purely on the strength of Mo's reputation.

What went wrong?

First, there was the jacket design. It was bloody awful and looked really amateurish. Second, however well-establish an author is, they don't have a marketing department that will ensure that the front cover of the new novel is plastered across dozens of tube stations. Third, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard was published just after the Net Book Agreement collapsed, making the book trade a tougher place for full-priced hardback fiction.

Mo self-published another novel in 2000, but since then he has remained silent. There is an author website, but it is a masterpiece of brevity and gives no clues about any forthcoming works to be published by the appropriately-named Paddleless Press.

Self-publishing has its success stories, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The demise of an author of Mo's stature is a sobering example of what can happen if you try to go it alone.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Going forward

Looking at Facebook today, I saw a reference to this superb article on business speak, citing going forward as one of the main offenders. In an earlier post I referred to my particular bugbears, which include robust, core values and high end. However, I wasn't able to mention the ones that were used at Waterstone's, so here's a list of some of the nonsense I had to put up with when I worked for them:

Easy wins
Big piece of work
Brand wheel
Managing expectations
Space planning
Heads up
Four quadrants

One of the reasons I went into bookselling was to get away from the world of ball park figures, team building and rebranding. When I left university I briefly worked for a market research company and used to spend my lunch hours in the local pub, listening to businessmen talking in their nasal 'Estuary' accents. I couldn't believe that these smartly dressed, well-paid people could get away with talking so much crap and resolved that I would never work anywhere where business speak was used.

I succeeded for many years and although the price was a relatively low salary, it was one worth paying. Then Waterstone's took over Ottakar's and I suddenly found myself in a world of brand wheels (think of the Buddhist Wheel of Life, but one designed by an idiot), managing expectations (saying no, in other words) and big pieces of work (i.e. overwork). Also, the managing director's weekly message always ended with the phrase 'Good trading.' Yuk. This was a retail culture rather than a bookselling one, as demonstrated by a rumoured memo that said 'When are Ottakar's managers going to realise that they are retailers, not booksellers.'

I am not against new phrases if they serve a purpose. The verb parenting might be annoying, but it was invented because there was no single word for the act of being a parent (as far as I know). However in the business world, too many people abuse the English language in order to obfuscate the truth and lend an air of importance to mundane, everyday actions.

How can we fight business speak? I have always found ridicule to be a useful weapon, but as this isn't always practical in the workplace the best alternative is to always employ plain English. This isn't always as easy as it sounds, because so many buzzwords have been invented to conceal an unpalatable truth.

Going forward, I think we should fast track a more robust agenda which tackles these issues head on because at the end of the day, it's not rocket science. Know what I mean?

STOP PRESS! The BBC website has now published a Top50 of Business Speak, submitted by their readers. It's well worth a look. It included two that I'd forgotten to mention: cascade and end of play.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Warwick Deeping

In his wonderful essay Bookshop Memories, Orwell lamented that the authors who were most popular with his customers were Ethel M Dell and Warwick Deeping. I didn't recognise the first name, but the second was familiar from my early days in bookselling when a few of Deeping's fans were still alive, albeit barely.

I remember the look of incredulity when I explained that Deeping's novels were all out of print. He was, after all, one of the bestselling novelists of the 20s and 30s and had published over 70 books by the time he died in 1950. To go from being so successful to a name that was unknown to anyone born after 1930 seemed a particularly harsh fate. Was he really that bad?

It was obvious that Deeping's novels weren't forgotten classics but perhaps, like Hugh Walpole and Delderfield, they were perfectly fine middle-brow novels that deserved a new generation of readers. I would have to try and get hold of one.

At first I didn't have any luck, but one day my wife found a Deeping novel called Laughing House in a local charity shop. The jacket is quite nice:

But even better is this beautiful book plate, which someone has pasted inside the front cover. Are those bombed-out buildings in the background? Given the novel's publication date of 1946, they could be:

On the back of the dust jacket, there is a comprehensive list of Mr Deeping's novels to date. He certainly was prolific, but was it a case of never mind the quality, feel the width?

I opened the book and started reading:

This is the story of a House, a house which was born in more spacious days, and sat placidly for many year like a white bird in a green nest, a house that suffered one war and grievous sorrow, and survived to suffer in yet another war. Its history is human history, as a house's history should be, if it has strength and breadth, beauty and dignity. Many such houses are doomed to die. Some will survive to live strange, new lives, for the new rhythm - like jazz music - is not of the age that created them.

A few sentences later, Deeping adds:

My prejudices...are those of an old man, and to the young the old can be boring. I understand that to some of the young we are known as "Bumbles." Well, this is the book of a Bumble.

At this point I felt that I had read enough. I flicked through the rest of Laughing House and saw page after page of Pooterish prose and jolly 'By jove!' dialogue. I decided that Warwick Deeping wasn't for me.

Deeping's best-known novel is Sorrell and Son, which was dramatised by the BBC in1987. I assume that the novel was reissued then, but can't find any record of it. There is a glowing review for the novel on Amazon, which reads as follows:

This is a deeply moving and uplifting story of a father's devotion to his son's future set after World War 1. Written at a time when such simple values as courtesy, consideration, hard work and simple rewards were accepted as normal. I have read the book many times and been moved to tears by developments in the closing pages.

So perhaps I shouldn't judge Warwick Deeping on the strength of Laughing House. Maybe he was having an off day when he wrote it.

I have found this splendid photo of Warwick Deeping. As you can see, he was no looker...

One of Ladybird Books' more obscure titles...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A New Life

I recently wrote about once-popular authors whose sales have declined during the last 20 years (the most conspicuous example being Fay Weldon) and compiled a list of some of the most obvious names, but there was one glaring omission: Bernard Malamud. I remember a time when he was mentioned in the same breath as Roth, Bellow and Updike, but today most of his novels are out of print.

In today's Guardian, Jonathan Raban recommends Malamud's third novel, A New Life, which is a semi-autobiographical story about New York high school teacher Sy Levin's doomed quest for redemption, exchanging his alcohol-fuelled, problem-ridden life in New York for the promise of a fresh start at a university in Oregon. It's a familiar theme, but Malamud's account is as heartbreakingly perceptive as Richard Yates at his best and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call the book a masterpiece.

However, as Raban points out, A New Life is out of print, which is scandalous. I believe that Random House currently have the rights to this novel, so let's hope that they remedy this state of affairs. In the meantime, secondhand copies are available from the usual places.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Charity shop gems

I've just bought a wonderful book from a charity shop called Tit-Bits Book of Wrinkles: A Complete Library of Invaluable Hints on Every Home Subject. The book isn't dated, but I would imagine that it was published between the wars.

The first sentence is a corker:

Every housewife should systematically keep an account of all expenditure on food and general supplies and any other items that come within the scope of the housekeeping allowance.

I can just see the husband putting his pipe down and saying 'Sorry darling, but that's not within the scope of your housekeeping allowance.'

Aside from the dated attitudes, the book is actually extremely useful and I will definitely try some of the recipes and gardening tips. I won't, however, be employing the salt water enemas that are recommended in the medical section.

But best of all is this piece of paper, which has been used as a bookmark:

How times have changed.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Great Escape

In an earlier post I referred to the number of Ottakar's managers who have left since Waterstone's bought the company. I estimated that between a third and a half of managers had jumped ship since the 'conversion' in July 2006. To anyone who knew Ottakar's this was a damning statistic, as the company had previously enjoyed a staff turnover that was in single figures.

It seems I was wrong.

The actual figure is around 60%, according to a recent head count by a former colleague. That works out at around 70 managers in less than two years (or is it fewer than two years?).

That's quite an achievement.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hell is other parents

In my head I have an idealised version of parenthood in which my children grow up as confident, happy individuals and perhaps, when they're famous, I'll be asked to contribute to the Sunday Times' Relative Values feature. My sons will say what a brilliant example I was and fondly recall anecdotes from their idyllic childhood. It will be Enid Blyton meets Peter and Jane.

The reality is sadly quite different. Most of the time, we go to Tescos, watch television, get fed-up with each other and spend too much time on the internet. Rainy days are the worst. My older son hates playing with toys or board games, so he moans incessantly until we allow him to play PS2. The youngest son's attention span is limited to five minutes, which makes him hard to entertain. I often end the day feeling a dismal failure as an example of fatherhood.

However, there are occasions where our lives briefly collide with the ideal. The weather is good, the children are happy and it almost feels as if this is the beginning of better times. I experienced this briefly last Sunday when I took my sons pond dipping in the local nature reserve.

We arrived early in the morning armed with fishing nets and jam jars and began searching for frogs, sticklebacks and tadpoles. Unlike some childhood activities, I still find playing in rivers and ponds as engrossing as I did when I was a boy. Peering into the murky depths of the water, all sense of time is lost and you become attuned to every little noise and movement in the water. This must be the attraction of fishing.

After a while, we were joined by a man and his three-year-old son. The boy looked perfectly normal, but the father was short, with black hair cut into a pudding basin shape and a beaky nose - he could have been a stunt double for Roman Polanski.

'WELL THEO, LET'S SEE WHAT WE CAN FIND TODAY!' he bawled in a high-pitched, middle-class, sing-song voice, with the exaggerated enthusiasm of a children's television presenter. This is one of my wife's bugbears - fathers who talk to their children in a loud voice so that we can all hear what a great dad they are.

'LOOK! LOOK! A FROG THEO! DID YOU SEE THE FROG THEO?' he exclaimed, almost jumping with excitement. My older son and I exchanged a glance.

'OH DEAR! HE GOT AWAY!' Suddenly, he marched over in our direction and thrust his finger at our jam jar. 'LOOK THEO, THEY'VE GOT SOME FROGS!'

I quietly fumed and ignored the man, but then I started to feel guilty. Why was I so bloody anti-social? If I go anywhere I always pick the seat or table furthest from anyone else. Why couldn't I just smile and show the frogs to the father and his son?

My wife arrived and I wondered what she would make of Captain Beaky. I was expecting a lecture on accepting that other people were equally entitled to come here, but after a couple of minutes of listening to him exclaiming and bounding around, she whispered 'Yes, he's fucking annoying.'

Eventually my oldest son saved the day by suddenly saying 'Excuse me, could you leave us alone please?'. He said it with a polite, innocent, formality that made him sound like a child from a Victorian novel, but the message couldn't have been plainer.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The petrol crisis...

Continuing the 1980 Eurovision theme, here's Turkey's entry. The song is called Petr'oil, or Petrol if you prefer.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

My Eurovision dream

I had a strange dream last night in which I was asked to represent the Netherlands in the Eurovision Song Contest. Even though I am not Dutch and have never sung professionally, it seemed a perfectly reasonable request. I wasn't so happy about the fact that I had less than 24 hours to rehearse, but was assured that I would only have to read an autocue and mime to a backing track. I said yes.

'Oh, there is just one other thing we want you to do' they said.

'What's that?' I asked.

'We want you to blacken-up.'

For the first few minutes after waking up, I was puzzling about the juxtaposition of Eurovision and dressing like a Black and White Minstrel, then I remembered reading a story on BBC News the day before in which Terry Wogan suggested that one of the reasons why Britain came last was because we were represented by black singer Andy Abraham, a finalist from the X Factor.

Were Europeans really that racist, or was the song to blame? I watched Andy Abraham's performance on YouTube, followed by the winning Russian entry. The British song wasn't a clear winner by any means, but neither was it the worst song and it should have reached the final half dozen. The winning Russian song was so bland that I'd forgotten it before it had finished. So what happened on the night?

I suspect that the poor result for Andy Abraham was partly due to racism, but also perhaps a reflection of Britain's unpopularity, particularly in eastern Europe. As for Russia's victory, I wouldn't put it past them to have employed some sort of speed-dial technology to bump-up the phone votes. Either that, or people just love Russia.

How depressing that in 2007, the Eurovision Song Contest is more nationalistic than ever. As a boy I remember being allowed to stay up to watch it and whilst we wanted Britain to win, if we thought another country had a better song we rooted for them. It was the song that mattered.

Today we know that Cyprus always gives Greece 12 points, Germany will only get a token 2 from Israel, all the Scandinavian countries will vote for each other and that the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina will give Serbia full marks. It's a farce.

Eurovision used to be one of the television highlights of my year. I'd watch it with friends and we'd laugh at the camp singers and their absurd songs, take bets on the winner and spend the next few weeks singing the Turkish entry. It's sad that this fun, festival of naff songs has turned into a grim, chauvinistic struggle. It's also ironic that as the contest has become more nationalistic, the songs have become blander and more international in flavour.

The joke isn't funny any more.

In the meantime, here is the superb 1980 entry from Belgium by a band called Telex. Their song is an amiable piss-take of the Song for Europe and they paid the price by coming last. Perhaps their electro-pop, postmodern tribute to Eurovion was a little too ahead of its time...

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Spotted at East Croydon station...

Although he looks as if he's alone, there's a very small woman behind this man and he's trying to impress her; but he's overdoing it a bit on the crotch display. Perhaps there's a medical problem. I am reminded of the Viz character Buster Gonad and his Unfeasibly Large Testicles (although his jeans are presumably too tight for an enlarged scrotum).

I've never seen anyone adopt this posture before (urinals excepted). Even John Wayne had his limits.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Dungeness is a strange place. Over thousands of years nature has reclaimed land from the sea, creating a vast, flat, desolate landscape of shingle ridges. There is no soil, but somehow plants manage to thrive and in spring the beach is covered in sea kale and wild flowers. To add to the strangeness of Dungeness, there are two nuclear reactors and the very late Derek Jarman's house:

Last week we took a friend to Dungeness. I was uncertain how it would go down with my two sons: they are both blissfully ignorant of the films of Mr Jarman and the oldest one has a phobia of radiation, which only emerged when he was due to have an x-ray in Brighton Hospital. I needn't have worried. Both boys loved the beach, with its abandoned boats, driftwood and flotsam.

There is something post-apocalyptic about this landscape and the abundance of weird plants recalls the genetic mutations of the Badlands in John Wyndham's Chrysalids. I climbed into one of the boats and although it wasn't seaworthy, it was in reasonably good condition. Why had it been abandoned?

As for the beach, where was everyone on this bank holiday weekend? We had the whole place to ourselves and it wasn't hard to let the imagination wander and believe that we were the last people left.

I had been here before, when I was four. My parents booked a week in a nearby holiday camp, but could only afford off-season. We spent a miserable time which was mainly spent cowering in bus shelters from the wind and rain, sitting in dining halls listening to several hundred of our fellow guests slurping thin, watery soup and, worst of all, the cabaret performances of artistes who hadn't made it to Butlins. I reflected on how things had changed but on the way back we passed a Pontins, so some poor buggers are still enjoying overcooked food and toupe-wearing singers.

Dungeness is a fascinating place in its own right, but the interest is compounded by the presence of two buildings that contain lethal radiocative material. I would love to visit the reactor complex. A few years ago there was a visitor centre, opened in an attempt to change the public's attitude to nuclear power. Since '9/11', security has been stepped up and guests are no longer welcome. I've tried contacting Dungeness power station through the internet, but it is very difficult to find any point of contact.

Of course, Dungeness is small fry. Serious nuclear tourists go to Chernobyl, which now has guided tours of the evacuation zone. From the comfort of a luxury, air-conditioned coach, you can see how nature has recovered from the disaster and even visit the fairground in Pripyat. However, although many claim that the area is now safe, there are still hotspots.

Click on the radiation symbol for this scary video:

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The next big thing

Apparently sales of misery memoirs have recently take a nosedive, which is something of a relief. I'm a big fan of misery, but I prefer it to be recounted with an understated, Jack Hawkins-like stoicism ('Bit of a bad show, really') and a dash of black humour, rather than the cloying, sentimental Poor Me school of writing. Self-pity is never an attractive quality, even if it is justified.

But I digress...

Reading about the demise of misery memoirs prompted me to recall some of the other publishing bandwagons I've witnessed over the last couple of decades. Here is my top ten:

  1. Environmental books. Do you remember the Green Party coming third in the UK European elections in 1988? Do you remember all of those t-shirts with 'ethnic' drawings of dolphins and rainforests, and the rather banal statement 'SAVE THE PLANET' underneath? It looked like the beginning of a quiet revolution and most branches of Waterstone's had a separate environmental section in the late 80s. Heathcote Williams' Whale Nation was a bestseller. Then suddenly, without any warning, the genre died and wasn't to be seen again until a few years ago.
  2. Aspirational travel writing. In the early 90s Peter Mayle - author of the Wicked Willy books - hit the big time with A Year in Provence. The book was so successful that Mayle's quiet little village quickly became a Mecca for middle-class, middle-aged Britons and he was forced to move. This book spawned a spate of imitations, in which middle-class, middle-aged British people wrote accounts of their quest for la bon vie, writing patronising charicatures of the locals. Some publishers were astute enough to resurrect out of print titles, notably those by Lady Fortescue.
  3. Aga Sagas. They bought The L-Shaped Room in the 60s, The Women's Room in the 70s, Virago in the 80s, but now many women of the baby-boomer generation wanted something that reflected the social mores of Middle England. Joanna Trollope seemed to appear out of nowhere and soon her entire backlist was in the Top 20. Her paperback jacket style, with muted watercolour images, became de rigeur for any tale of menopausal, market town angst and many similar authors (Kathleen Rowntree, Marika Cobbold, Angela Huth, Madeleine Wickham etc) were relaunched with sub-Trollope jackets. As a bookseller I remember creating a display bin with Joanna Trollope at the top and the others further down. I had to restock it every other day.
  4. SAS memoirs. First there was Bravo Two Zero, then The One That Got Away. After that, it seemed as if anyone who had spent more than five minutes in the Gulf War had an exciting tale of derring-do to recount. These books are popular with men who still live with their mothers.
  5. True Crime. This genre ticked along quietly until Sun columnist-turned-publisher, John Blake, released The Guv'nor. This memoir of a 'hard bastard' was a publishing phenomenon and launched a whole new sub-genre of criminal memoirs. The jacket design usually consisted of a grainy, close-up mugshot of a criminal with a tagline something along the lines of I'm completely mental and violent. If you don't like me, I'll pull your ears off, slowly. These memoirs were lucrative for publishers, but less so for booksellers as the titles were usually stolen by aspiring hard bastards. These memoirs were also inexplicably popular with women. (I remember seeing a young women with a black eye, sitting on a bus with her five-year-old daughter. In her lap she had a copy of The Guv'nor, which was open at the photo section. She pointed to various figures, saying to her daughter 'That's yer Uncle Kenny, that's Uncle Ron, that's Uncle Mick...)
  6. Diana books. Although there were a few Diana books in circulation before her death - most notably Andrew Morton's Diana and Anna Pasternak's lamentable Princess in Love - the posthumous mass hysteria amongst the normally cynical British public prompted a similar over-reaction in the book trade. For months, the Diana table was an obligatory fixture in many bookshops. Even after the Diana phenomenon waned, publishers continued to print memoirs and conspiracy theory titles, claiming that although they were aware that the craze was over, this book was different.
  7. Chic Lit. Blame Helen Fielding for the plethora of Bridget Jones imitations. Once this genre would have been called Romance, but that's too old-fashioned for today's feisty, independent, girl-about-town, so instead we have Chick Lit. Interestingly, unlike Joanna Trollope there has been no attempt to imitate the Picador Bridget Jones jackets. Authors in this category include Sophie Kinsella (aka Madeleine Wickham), Jane Green, Marian Keyes, Adele Parks and Katie Fforde. Chick Lit heroines are modern career women who still yearn for Mr D'arcy.
  8. Lad Lit. No prizes for guessing who the guilty party is in this case. Like Helen Fielding, Nick Hornby's writing is both modern and curiously old-fashioned. On the one hand we have a new man who isn't afraid to talk about his emotions. On the other, we have a writer who celebrates blokeishness and can be seen as part of the 90s backlash to the puritanical values of the 80s, when enjoying a Carry-On film was tantamount to admitting that you were a misogynistic fascist. Lad Lit can be a lucrative genre, but there is a price to be paid: Tony Parsons lost his credibility almost overnight with the publication of Man and Boy.
  9. Possessive book titles. Once there was just Flaubert's Parrot. I'm not sure what came next - either Michael Palin's Hemingway's Chair or Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but suddenly every other book seemed to have a possessive title: Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Fermat's Last Theorem, Galileo's Daughter, Churchill's Cigar etc. What is behind this trend? Is the possessive title a signifier of the sort of personal narrative that would have been frowned on once? I don't know, but it's rather annoying.
  10. Mind, Body and Spirit. 'Never give a sucker an even break', to quote WC Fields. This was a huge growth area in the book trade before and after the year 2000, but during the last few years sales have really dropped off. I wouldn't want to dismiss the genre entirely. Books like Joseph Hartmann's The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight is a laudable attempt to find spiritual meaning in a secular society, but sadly the genre is dominated by charlatans and mediocre intellects. Too many of the books place their emphasis on the you, instead of encouraging people to find a meaning through the traditional avenues - contemplation and good works.
So what's next? Recently there have been plenty of Eats, Shoots and Leaves spin-offs, Schott's Miscellany imitations and lots of nostalgia titles. The Dangerous Book for Boys is a nostalgic view of masculinity in an age of stabbings and gang culture. With the forthcoming economic downturn, we should expect more nostalgia and escapism rather than gritty memoirs. But alongside a yearning for the past, readers will also be looking to the future and the next few years should see a growing market for books about ethical living and green politics. Conversely, there will also be growth in demand for books that debunk the likelihood of global warming.

But I may be completely wrong. It's amazing how out of touch you can get in such a short space of time.