Thursday, October 30, 2008

Who's Who?

It's the same old story. You let someone have a sabbatical and instead of coming back to work with renewed commitment, they hand in their notice. I blame the critics. If they'd panned David Tennant's stage performances, perhaps he would have decided to stick to gurning his way through another season of Doctor Who.

The selection of a new Who is a cultural event that, in Britain at least, far eclipses the election of a new Pope. The choice is nearly always surprising, but usually makes sense once the actor has settled into the role.

Who, in a million years, would have picked leather-jacketed Mancunian Christopher Ecclestone? He didn't even lose his accent. But somehow he carried it off, and as for the contemporary dress, I like to think that I was the original inspiration for this, following my little-known period as John Pertwee's assistant during the 1990s:

(This photo was the result of one of those serendipitous moments when you happen to be in the right place at the right time. In this instance I was walking through Hammersmith on a Sunday morning, feeling slightly the worse for wear, when I passed a hotel that was staging a Doctor Who convention. I sneaked in and ended up having a photo taken with the charming John Pertwee!)

I have no idea when the successor will be announced (and frankly, I can wait), but several names have been bandied around. A strong favourite is Patterson Joseph, who appears as Johnson in Peep Show. There has never been a black Doctor before and he would be an excellent choice. Another name mentioned is Julian Rhind-Tutt, who would also fit into the role nicely.

It is also traditional for completely inappropriate actors to be suggested as possible relacements. The wild card this time is James Nesbitt, who surely lacks the necessary otherwordly qualities. A few years ago there was talk of giving the role to the estuary-accented, floppy-haired biter of homeless people's ears, Alan Davies, which would have been a disaster.

But perhaps the most controversial suggestion of all is the possibility that Doctor Who could be played by a...woman!

I actively embrace equality of the sexes in all fields, but I must draw the line at Doctor Who. He might have two hearts, but in every other respect he is a bloke. He likes gadgets, is emotionally stunted, keeps getting lost because he won't ask for directions and seems to wear the same clothes for several days at a time. I would only approve of a female Doctor if the BBC promised to cast a butch lesbian in the role.

But not Pat from Eastenders.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The latest news from Waterstone's

Last week I had a drink with former colleague from Waterstone's. I had been looking forward to hearing the latest gossip, but it turned out to be a rather depressing experience and after half an hour I was desperate to change the subject.

Apparently the management have now introduced bag searches for members of staff. This comes on top of a compulsory uniform (sorry, dress code - the word uniform is apparently frowned on in Waterstone's), mystery shoppers, restricted access to proof copies and the introduction of a course called Get Selling (because those airy-fairy booksellers don't know how to sell books).

My ex-colleague added that they'd read on book on Nazi Germany a few weeks ago, and were struck by the parallels with Waterstone's. It was a slightly melodramatic comparison. As far as I know, Waterstone's haven't started exterminating Ottakar's booksellers yet, but I could see that the combination of inefficiency, obsession with efficiency and intolerance of dissent all sounded horribly familiar.

I used to want to hear what was going on in Waterstone's and bookselling in general, but this time something had changed. I no longer felt any connection to the book trade and I was reluctant to open up an old wound. I listened patiently until there was a slight lull in the conversation, then decided to change the subject:

'Have you heard of an author called David Karp?'

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I've loved fire ever since I was a child. Tank battles between toy soldiers weren't quite the same unless some lighter fuel was involved, and I particularly enjoyed turning Jiff lemons into mini flame-throwers. So what better place for a pyromaniac to live than Lewes? Every year the town stages a spectacular procession, in which hundreds of people from different bonfire societies march through the town in bizarre costumes, wielding flaming torches.

It's a wonderful evening, but the Lewes Bonfire Night procession draws too many visitors for the town to cope with and many find it a rather claustrophobic experience. However, two weeks earlier there is another parade, which is a sort of dress rehearsal for the main event. It is not on the same scale as November 5th, but in many ways it's far more enjoyable and is, as the League of Gentlemen would say, a local procession for local people:

There are so many things I enjoy about the Lewes bonfire processions: the noise of the drums, the heat of the flaming torches as they go past, the cavalier attitude towards health and safety, the feeling of anarchy the grips the town, the sound of burning wheelbarrows as they rattle down the hill, the eclectic mixture of costumes and the unpredictable choice of music.

Is it any surprise that the God of Hellfire himself - Arthur Brown - lives in Lewes? Only last year, he managed to set fire to his hair (again) at a local concert. Ideally, I would like to see every procession end with a performance of Fire:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


One of the great pleasures in life is sitting in a pub, enjoying a pint with someone you've known for years. When I lived in Twickenham, I took it for granted that I would see a particular friend at least once a week and without fail, we'd go through the same routine of drinking five pints of Guinness, followed by minor acts of vandalism towards the unsightly cluster of estate agents' signs that littered the communal garden outside my flat.

(Once I was caught by a policeman, halfway through the act of pulling up a 'For Sale' sign. He beckoned me over and said 'Now sir, we all know that estate agents are the lowest form of life, but I'd still like you to put that sign back.' What a gent)

I assumed that our weekly drink would continue until one of us died, but one day my friend decided to quit his job in the City and move to Kent. Apart from a couple of meetings in London, we saw little of each other and I wondered if we would eventually lose touch.

Then, a couple of years after moving to Lewes, I discovered that if we both left our houses at a similar time and caught trains to Rye, we'd arrive within minutes of each other. Several years on, Rye is now home to our new 'local' and we meet several times a year. I was there yesterday and, several pints later, came perilously close to buying a ukulele in a charity shop.

However, to get to the point...

If you haven't visited Rye, it's worth making a special journey. It is a beautiful, medieval town that is almost completely unspoilt and also has strong literary connections. Henry James spent the last 18 years of his life at Lamb House which, annoyingly, is only open on Thursday and Saturday afternoons. As writers' houses go, it's a little disappointing as so much of the property is off limits, but it is still worth a visit.

However, Lamb House also has other literary associations. EF Benson and his brother lived there in the 1920s and it became Mallards in the Mapp and Lucia novels. I am ashamed to say that I've never read Benson's books, but I watched the brilliant Channel Four adaptation and loved it.

Rumer Godden also lived at Lamb House for a few years, before moving to another part of Rye and set In This House of Brede in the local area. Once again, I haven't read the book, but the film's great. Any movie with the beautiful Judi Bowker and Diana Rigg dressed up as nuns can't be bad.

Rye has also been home to Joan Aiken, Dr Syn author Russel Thorndyke, Radcliffe Hall, Spike Milligan, Macolm Saville ( author of The Gay Dolphin Adventure - now sadly out of print) and Conrad Aiken, father of Joan.

Today, Rye's literary tradition is alive and well. John Ryan, author of the Captain Pugwash books lives and works in Rye. This is apt, as Rye is one of the Cinque Ports and has a strong nautical tradition, even if the town is now several miles from the sea.

However, the greatest writer living in Rye today must be Samuel Youd, aka John Christopher, the author of The Death of Grass (which is being reissued by Penguin next year). He is now 86 and I hope that he will live long enough to witness the resurgence of interest in his novels.

So that's the end of my pitch for Rye. If the local tourist board would like to send me a small token of their appreciation, I am open to offers as long as it doesn't involve those other famous residents of Rye, the Cheeky Girls.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Lord Berners

One of the most colourful and unjustly forgotten characters of the last century is Lord Berners. Born Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson in 1883, Berners went to Eton and worked as a diplomat until he inherited his title. For the remainder of his life, he devoted his energies to painting, composing and writing.

Lord Berners was arguably too much of a dilettante to achieve greatness. However his music was well received and he had several commissions for film scores, including the 1947 version of Nicholas Nickleby. He also privately published a novel called The Girls of Radcliff Hall, which featured him and his friends as schoolgirls.

Berners was openly gay. He was famous for his collection of doves, all of which had been dyed pink, and his social circle included Cecil Beaton and Frederick Ashton. He made Noel Coward look positively butch.

In spite of this, Berner's mother seemed blissfully unaware of her son's homosexuality and was horrified to hear that he'd been spotted 'stepping out' with one of the most notorious society lesbians in London. Concerned that Berners was risking both a broken heart and his reputation, his mother pleaded with him to publicly disassociate himself from this woman.

Berners agreed and place the following announcement in the Times:

Lord Berners wishes to announce that he has left Lesbos for the Isle of Man.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Salinger on eBay

I've started going to car boot sales. Most of them are disappointing but I usually manage to find a few bargains to justify the trip.

The other week I found a 1964 paperback first edition of a Salinger novel and bought it for 30p. I put it up for auction on eBay for a modest starting price of 99p, then sat back and waited for the offers to come in.

Seven days passed and nobody wanted it. Not even for a under a quid. I've sold all sorts of books on eBay - many of them far more obscure than this one - so why didn't the Salinger find any takers?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Crossing the line

I think most of us like our bookshops to have a bit of 'character', particularly if they're independent ones. However, yesterday I visited a shop that had crossed the line between eccentric charm and total chaos. There were no discernible sections and it was impossible to look at any of the books without causing an avalanche. Also, the stock was pretty awful.

It felt as if the owner had given up and was now simply going through the motions of opening and closing the shop. Needless to say, there were no customers.

I almost felt like offering my services (free of charge) for a day or two, but I don't think the owner would have taken kindly to having a stranger criticise his shop, followed by a patronising offer of help. It's a pity, because the shop has a lot of potential and enjoys a monopoly in its town.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reasons to be cheerful

My son has just completed a reading challenge at the local library. I'm very proud of him because he is dyslexic and hasn't had an easy time at school (in fact he's had an awful time) and an achievement like this will help to boast his self-esteem. I was particularly pleased to see that he'd been awarded a certificate:

'Team Read'. Right on, kids. Books are cool!

I found the illustration quite amusing. It's as if the artist was so keen to represent minorities that he forgot to include anyone from the majority. Where are the fat white kids with shoddy Primark clothes and Elizabeth Duke bling?

But although the certificate may be a little cringeworthy, it's great that so much is being done to encourage children to read. Most children I know have met at least one author at their school and there seems to be much more of an emphasis on reading and talking about books than there was when I was being beaten and flogged by sadists and perverts.

I probably have a distorted view of things. As a bookseller I only met the children who were interested in reading; not the shell-suited offspring of crack addicts and recidivists. However I was heartened by the sheer number of children who visited the shop. For example, when I worked in Crawley (a solidly working-class new town) I organised a Jacqueline Wilson signing and was amazed to see the town centre bought to a virtual standstill, with a queue that was a quarter of a mile long. I will miss that side of bookselling.

However, I am enjoying watching my son gradually gain the confidence to start reading books on his own. It was quite a struggle getting him to take the plunge, but my wife won him over with some brilliant books by Shoo Rayner which were perfect for reluctant readers. He has now moved on to Horrid Henry and I hope that the Secret Seven will follow shortly. I'm not going to bother with any worthy books for a year or two.

Who would have predicted that in 2008, books would still be central to the lives of so many children.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


As they would say on Armstrong and Miller, 'Pru, it's kicking off!'

I can't say I'm particularly surprised that Britain and the USA are on the brink of economic collapse, but it's shocking to see some of the more financially prudent nations experiencing difficulties.

Today's BBC News website reported that Germany is about to enter a recession. That's not good news (remember what they did last time). Even Switzerland is making contingency plans for nationalising its main banks. But the spotlight is on poor old Iceland.

I like Iceland. I went there two years ago and immediately felt a strong affinity with the landscape and its people. I did wonder how a country that had endured centuries of poverty could suddenly become so affluent, but I put it down to cod and Bjork. It never occurred to me that a nation that produced Magnus Magnusson could possibly be responsible for any financial irregularities.

There are many jokes about Iceland and the credit crunch - usually on the theme of freezing assets - but my favourite is this:

Q - What's the capital of Iceland?

A - About £3.50

I hope that Britain and Iceland are able to reach an equitable agreement, as I want to be able to return there without being lynched by angry fishermen and pop stars. Also, it seems quite wrong to make the Icelandic people suffer for the actions of a small minority.

On the plus side, at least the economic downturn is now out in the open. I felt more pessimistic a month ago, when food and fuel prices seemed to be on an upward trajectory. Rice - once the staple element of a cheap, student meal - doubled in price. A couple of cod fillets nudged past the £5 barrier. But the worst offender was the price of chicken:

This isn't an organic chicken. It's not even a free range one (and no, it's not an M&S chicken). It's just a normal chicken which Tesco - anxious to appease the middle classes who watch Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall on Channel Four - have decided to rebrand with a reassuring photo of a Nazi war criminal. Tim Payne obviously isn't a war criminal, so why is the photo so scary? As for the text, although it has a friendly, non-corporate font, it is quite clear that poor old Tim is living in serfdom. I doubt if he gets a square deal.

However, as much as I hate Tesco, I must give them credit for responding to the financial meltdown with some 'recession-busting' (their phrase) offers. I can now buy an abused chicken for £1.99. Tesco's 'Value' pitta bread is 26p and you also can buy unripe avocados for 50p. In short, the supermarkets have responded to the credit crisis by tiering their prices so that people on low incomes aren't completely buggered. I'd rather support my local shops and farmers' market, but I am completely skint.

Having no money is a little depressing, but on the plus side I am relatively recession-proof. I don't have any credit card debts, my mortgage is fairly modest and I don't even have a job to lose. When you've hit the bottom, the only way (I hope) is up.

I have a plan. I am busy training for a new career and if there are any jobs left next year, I hope that I shall be able to find work that is fulfilling and rewarding. I am studying web design and proof reading, in the hope that it will lead to some sort of web master/editor/designer job. I never want to work in a shop again, even if it sells books.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The moment of truth

This morning I went to Brighton, where I had an appointment to meet someone at 9.00. I arrived ridiculously early and wandered aimlessly for half an hour. It was like being in a zombie movie. The streets were deserted, but I could sense the presence of other people. Occasionally I would turn a corner and see someone in the distance staggering home from a club. There were also a few homeless people, shivering in the cold, damp, autumn air.

I crossed the road and saw that I was near Waterstone's. The shop wouldn't be open for at least two hours, so I decided to have a peek. Seeing the windows, which were full of celebrity biographies and children's annuals, I realised how glad I was to be out of bookselling, particularly Waterstone's.

This isn't Brighton Waterstone's - I just like the photo

I carried on walking, cutting through one of Brighton's many side streets. The only people I saw were a stunningly beautiful girl in a flowing, boho chic outfit and a gaunt, raddled-looking woman wearing a filthy tracksuit. The age gap between the two women was probably negligible, but the second woman looked 20 years older, thanks to a combination of substance abuse and sleeping rough.

I passed a scrunched-up piece of exercise paper, lying on the top of a low wall. I opened it and saw the words 'I HATE MY DAD' next to a crude image of a body with a bloody knife stuck in it.

A transexual cycled past wearing a short skirt and fishnet tights. He had a thick, black, bushy beard and I wondered why he'd decided to keep the facial hair. It was an odd look, but at least it was striking. It's hard to make anyone in Brighton bat an eyelid these days, but I'm sure that he managed to turn a few heads.

I passed a shop window and looked inside to see what they were selling. A really boring-looking man kept staring at me, so I decided to look away. As I turned my head, he turned his and pretended not to look at me, but as I tentatively turned my head back towards the window I could see that he was doing the same thing. Why couldn't he just piss off and mind his own business? I don't know why but I instinctively felt a deep antagonism towards him.

Then I realised the horrible truth.

I was looking at my own reflection.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

How to stop people visiting your blog...

I would have liked to have spent my 17th year snogging girls, but sadly this didn't happen. Instead, I listened to an awful lot of classical music, particularly Sibelius.

I never write about music because I know that it bores the arse off most people. I am probably making a mistake posting this video.

The woman sings in a wobbly voice and the images look like a combination of the Old Spice and Guinness commercials. However, the music itself is wonderful. Sibelius wrote 'tone poems' that that sounded as if they were crafted from the four elements and this piece, Luonnotar, is one of his finest:

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Lost and found...

This intriguing scrap of paper was discovered a few years ago and posted on an obscure web site:

I saved the jpeg and then forgot all about it until today. I have no idea who Debra D Walton is, but I just wish that she had won the election in 1999.

In the meantime, here is another reason for voting for Barack Obama:

Monday, October 06, 2008

Karping on...

As you may have gathered, I have become a big fan of the American novelist David Karp. His novels One and Leave Me Alone were a revelation, and I find it inexplicable that his books are out of print.

I used to think that you could find anything on Google, but apart from a short Wikipedia article and a couple of obituaries from nine years ago, it is as if Karp has been wiped off the face of history. To achieve that level of obscurity as a writer you normally have to be pretty crap, or piss off your publisher so much that they effectively kill off your career. One publisher allegedly did it to one of their authors - a moderately successful female crime writer - and I haven't seen a book by her in 15 years.

We know (or at least, I think) that there's no questioning Karp's ability as a writer, so was he a bit of a tosser? Not if the following extract is anything to go by. It took me a long time to find this article and I apologise for the lengthy quote, but it's a nice story:

Do you recall David Karp? Fine writer. Won a Guggenheim back in '56. Nobody remembers that. Well, Karp got into TV writing and production when the paperback market went soft. He did some stuff for Playhouse 90 and The Untouchables. Won an Emmy, I'm pretty sure, for an episode of The Defenders.

Anyway, back in 1970 he adapted his own novel, Brotherhood of the Velvet, into a TV movie for Glen Ford. It was a conspiracy flick. A little cheesy but still ahead of its time. I was 10 years old when it broadcast and, for whatever reason, it made a big impression. So I wrote Karp a fan letter and, shockingly, he wrote back. Can you imagine that? He's a big TV writer at this point and he takes the time to write to this pre-teen punk in a factory town back east. So we had a little correspondence going for a few months--I told him, I confessed, that I wanted to be a novelist. He sent me a mint copy of The Last Believers that I still have.

Well at some point I started writing him a letter and I got a little sidetracked and began rambling about an idea I had for a dramatic television series. I had gotten hold of a little pamphlet written by D.C. Fontana, I believe, that detailed, essentially, how to write a pitch. Useful little document. So in this letter to Karp, I started pitching this notion I'd been cradling for a year or so. This idea I'd been hatching on long winter walks home from school. It was just nuts, really an off-the-wall thing. But what happened was the letter ballooned into this 60-page monster. I had to mail it in a manuscript envelope, right? About two weeks go by and suddenly I'm mortified that I wrote this thing to Mr. Karp, that I embarrassed myself so profoundly to a flesh-and-blood writer. And I'm brooding over this shame one afternoon in the rocking chair of my yellow kitchen, pretending to read a Treasure Chest comic book. And my mother is at the stove, you know, making a meatloaf. And the phone rings. So Ma wipes off her hands on the dish towel and grabs the phone and talks for a second. Then she covers the receiver with her hand and looks at me suspiciously and says, "It's a Mr. Karp for you."

Can you imagine this?

I'm ten, eleven goddamn years old. I almost dropped to the floor. I started shaking my head to refuse the call. But my mother, a stickler for doing the right thing and being polite, insisted I talk to this man. I think she thought it was someone's father or something. I remember this so clearly. So I take the phone and I sit down on the floor in the hallway and, terrified, I say hello. And Karp was just wonderful. Such a gentleman and quite funny. He said he'd read my series pitch and that he loved it and that he wanted to show it to some people. I swear to you, he even asked if I had representation. I didn't even know what that meant.

So David Karp was not only a good writer, but a decent bloke too. If chaos theory is correct, then I hope that the tiny ripples of this blog will eventually grow into a proper Karp revival. In the meantime, I promise (well, almost) that I this will be the last time I rant on about David Karp.


'Dad, can you help me with my homework? We've got to pick a planet, learn something about it and then do a talk to the whole class.'

'Okay. What planet do you think you'd like to do?'


' about Saturn or Jupiter?'

'No, I definitely want to do Uranus.'


'I just want to.'

'But it's a very boring planet. Not as boring as Mercury, but there are more exciting ones you could choose.'

'No! I want to do Uranus!'

Sigh. 'Okay, we'll do it. But there's just one thing. It's pronounced Uranus.'

'No it isn't. It's Uranus and that's how I'm going to say it.'

At this point I patiently explained that since Voyager 2 visited Uranus in 1986, the pronunciation of the name has been a matter of contention because...well...

I was tempted to stop there, but the image of my son being laughed at for his unwitting double entendre was too awful.

'Anus is another word for bottom hole, so you see, if you said Uranus, it would sound like...'

'Hey! I'm going to tell everyone in the class that my dad says Uranus is Planet Butthole! Ha ha! Brilliant!'

The talk is on Friday. I'm not looking forward to the next parents' evening.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Dial 999

'Hello, Sussex Police? There's an assassin from the future walking the streets of Eastbourne...'

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My son is disgusted

My son and I went to WH Smith yesterday and saw this:

They are now called Max, Dylan, Jo and Allie. The dog is still called Timmy.

Worst of all, they are a Disney franchise.

At first I thought that the publisher had dared to change the names (and ethnicity) of the original characters in an attempt to make them more appealing to today's young readers, but I later realised that this Famous Five are, apparently, the children of the original members.

This is a remarkable achievement, given that Julian, Dick, Anne and George were born in the 1930s. Perhaps they followed the example of one of my fellow Lewesians and had fertility treatment in their 60s.

My son, who is eight, seemed more upset than I was. He loves Enid Blyton and although he is amused by the dated expressions, he accepts the stories on their own terms. He clearly felt patronised by the new, 'cool' Famous Five and I doubt that he would be impressed by the argument put forward by the books' creators that:

The new Five is a fresh, modern concept which relates to audiences in a multimedia age. They are smart, cool and hip kids but like their parents they use their resourcefulness and survival skills to bring down the bad guys.

How did this travesty come to pass?

The answer is quite depressing. Apparently, the rights to many popular children's titles including the Mr Men and the complete Enid Blyton backlist are owned by a company called Chorion, who last year took over another company called The Copyrights Group. Here's a brief quote from a Chorion press release:

The acquisition of Copyrights provides a significant expansion to Chorion’s already-robust brand portfolio, which includes properties such as Noddy, Mr. Men and the works of Agatha Christie and comes as Chorion prepares the major international launch of two new television series featuring Mr. Men and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.

'Already-robust brand portfolio'? How can anyone seriously write nonsense like that?

It is rather sad that the rights to some of our best-loved children's books, including The Snowman, Paddington Bear and Beatrix Potter are in the possession of people who, in addition to making dull, self-important statements like the one above, are able to allow a much-loved series of adventure stories to be transformed into a commodity.

How long will it be before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has product placement by Nestle?

I know that some would argue that Enid Blyton's novels aren't great literature, but that isn't the point. What I find offensive is the idea that children are unable to enjoy a work of fiction unless it is 'rebranded' in a contemporary setting. Chorion's cynical attempt to turn the Famous Five into a global franchise is particularly nauseating.

Also, nothing dates faster than youth culture. Authors who try to pander to the latest fashions are effectively giving their books a sell-by date. Does anyone remember Richmal Crompton's William and the Pop Singers?

Perhaps I'm just being a curmudgeon. However, if an eight-year old (who loves Pokemon and the Simpsons) also feels offended by this attempt to repackage a much-loved series of children's novels, then perhaps there is hope.