Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ten Years On

I liked the nineties. After all, they began just after the Berlin Wall fell and when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, a few weeks later, it felt as if we were entering a golden age of democracy and general niceness.

It just kept getting better. The following year, the Cold War came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and in 1992, a Democrat entered the White House for the first time in 12 years.

The 1990s were also a breath of fresh air, culturally. No more "Greed is good". The age of hair gel, Lymeswold cheese, shoulder pads, pastels, Phil Collins and Stock Aitken and Waterman made way for hippie chic, organic food and guitar bands. Even if that doesn’t sound so good, at least we saved money on hair products (and those artificial fibres gave people thrush).

What is the legacy of the “Noughties”?

The answer is extremely depressing: Bush, Blair, Brown (Gordon and Dan), Big Brother, Bin Laden, Baghdad, Beckham, BNP, bankers, Babyshambles, Blackberrys and Britney (for the sake of alliteration, I’ve missed out 9/11, global warming, suicide bombers, Melanie Phillips, Jan Moir, Ann Coulter, John Bolton, Katie Price, Robert Mugabe, Dido, Ahmadinejad, reality television, Kerry Katona, Coldplay, Crocs, Jodie Marsh, Guy Ritchie, Angelina and Brad, Tom and Katie, the Mohammed cartoons, MPs’ expenses, Jeremy Kyle, pandemics, Beagle 2, Sarah Palin, Chris Moyles and obesity).

("Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle...")

But despite the two gentlemen above, it hasn’t all been bad.

Culturally, this decade has produced an embarrassment of riches.

I’m not going to attempt to list the highlights, but my own favourites would include The Corrections, Cloud Atlas, the Tate Modern’s Matisse-Picasso exhibition in 2002, the stunning Inuit-language film Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, Brian Wilson’s Smile tour in 2004, the 2006 Royal Opera House production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Shostakovich, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time series on Radio Four, Goodbye Lenin, the triumphant return of Doctor Who, Downfall and, perhaps the thing that surprised me most of all, a remake of Battlestar Galactica that was everything its predecessor wasn’t. Honest.

However, in spite of the namedropping, I've lived in a cultural wilderness . In the list of the 50 best films of the Noughties, I think I’d watched eight. I missed seven of the top ten art exhibitions, all of the best albums (albums are so last century) and most of the highly acclaimed dramas like The Wire, Sopranos, 24, Six Feet Under etc.

I blame it on having young children (Cyril Connolly was right!) and not living in London.

On the home front, the last ten years have been rather mixed. I began the decade earning more money than I do now. I was managing a London bookstore with a turnover of £2,000,000 and enjoyed rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of the literary world (actually it wasn't that brilliant, but at least the drinks were free).

However, a boy was born and everything changed.

I soon found that the "work-hard-play-hard" life of London bookselling didn’t dovetail neatly with a baby that screamed all night and a wife who was sliding into postnatal depression from sleep deprivation. In a rash moment, I decided to leave London and take on a less demanding role. Goodbye dear canapes!

I paid a high price for my decision: my salary was reduced by 25% and my career ground to a halt for several years (my new shop was the cultural equivalent of Devil's Island).

However, leaving London was still one of the most sensible things I've ever done. Moving enabled me to swap a flat in Twickenham for a Victorian house in Lewes and I reduced my daily commute by half, giving me more time to listen to my son screaming.

In London I always felt as if life was elsewhere. I no longer had that feeling.

On a graph, my career trajectory has followed the same boom and bust pattern as the property prices: gradual ascents with sudden rises, followed by dramatic crashes, tentative recovery and periods of stability. At the moment things seem to be on the up, but I'm acutely aware that they could also change quite quickly. My current bosses are very mercurial.

There is an old joke that goes something along the lines of "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." The last few years have taught me how true this is.

This is, after all, an age of uncertainty. Happy New Year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Logicomix

Much to my own surprise, one of the best things I've read recently has been a graphic novel, but that's probably because Logicomix is in a class of its own.

Like many graphic novels, the hero is an outsider who has extraordinary mental powers and is obsessed with the fight for justice. However, as heroes go, he is somewhat atypical:

You would think that Bertrand Russell's struggle to make the foundations of mathematics logically consistent doesn't lend itself to the graphic novel format. Judge Dredd, yes. Bertrand Russel, no. But Logicomix is a triumph. It takes a broad brush approach to big, complicated ideas and instead of dumbing them down, it manages to gives the reader a clear, concise overview of intellectual developments in Europe during the fin de siecle.

That may sound very dull, but what makes Logicomix so interesting is the human story behind Russell's intellectual journey. It is the story of man who, on discovering that his family have been beset by mental illness, seeks sanctuary in the study of logic.

I bought Logicomix after reading a rave review in one of the Sunday papers, but had some reservations about the graphic novel format for a book about Bertrand Russell. Fortunately, the authors anticipated their readers' concerns and on page two, they wrote:

"This isn't a typical comic book. In fact, when we started work on it, our friends thought we were crazy! And when they did take us seriously, it was, as a rule, for the wrong reasons, like thinking the book is something it's not! Like, maybe a 'Logic For Dummies' type of thing or perhaps a kind of textbook or a treatise, in the unlikely guise of a graphic novel."

Logicomix may not be a "Logic for Dummies", but it is a "Bertrand Russell for Dummies". That isn't a bad thing. In less than two hours of reading, I effortlessly gained an overview of Russell's life, the part he played in Wittgenstein's intellectual develoment and the state of mathematics in the Edwardian era.

I can't see myself turning into "Comic Book Guy" from The Simpsons, but Logicomix has been a revelation.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Humbug!

I'll be the first to admit that I'm slightly grumpy in the week before Christmas. I used to blame it on working in a shop, but I find that I'm still just as prone to feeling an undirected, indiscriminate anger at everything, particularly those houses with Christmas lights in the garden and inflatable Santas.

But Christmas has associations and I'm like an abused dog that flinches every time somebody bends down to stroke it. For me, Christmas Eve means queuing for three hours in Argos because my wife has decided that we haven't bought enough presents, followed by a 150-mile round trip to Twickenham to pick up my mother.

As much as I love my mother, she turns Christmas Day into an Alan Bennett play, with a steady stream of non sequiturs:

"Aunt Bess used to read the tea leaves. She could see all sorts of things. It's in the family. Then one day she gave up."

"Why? Did she see something bad?"


"No, she switched to teabags."


My wife's family used to know how to enjoy themselves. They would begin drinking champagne at 8.00 in the morning and, apart from a brief lull in the afternoon, the day would be one long party. The Christmas dinner wouldn't appear until 11.00 at night, as everyone was too drunk to organise the cooking any earlier. After the meal there would be indoor fireworks, which usually involved inadvertently setting fire to the Christmas decorations.

Coming from a teetotal family, it was a bit of a shock, but great fun.

Sadly, most of these people aren't around any more. Indeed, there have been so many deaths that I was beginning to fear a police investigation. With no siblings on either side, Christmases in the Steerforth household have become increasingly quiet.

On the subject of police investigations, my wife walked into a door latch last week and we had to go to the local A&E department. It was a ridiculous accident. A friend had sent a text to my wife and her phone was on the floor. As she bent down, the sharp end of a door latch cut her skin.

In the hospital, my wife told everyone that she had walked into a door. As she uttered those words, I could see people looking at me, thinking wife beater. "Can't you be more specific and say that it was the latch?" I asked, in vain.

Two days later, my son went to hospital with a suspected broken finger. It is only a matter of time before I receive a visit from Social Services.

To add to the Christmas spirit, our boiler started behaving badly. In Star Trek, they'd call it a "warp core breach", but the official plumbing term is "The pressure's up a bit." We have had two plumbers, neither of whom were competent enough to fix the problem, but that didn't stop them from invoicing us for £300! Hell will freeze over before I pay them.

Things seemed to be looking up at work, as a new person called Bill joined my team. Bill has had a remarkable life, working on engineering projects in remote jungle areas of South America, along with a six-year stint at the British Embassy in Moscow. Sadly, travel hasn't broadened his mind.

Bill is one of those people who vocalises everything that is going on in their head, rather like a woman I sat behind on a coach journey who said "Supermarket...park...post box...town hall." I have spent the last two days oscillating between hating Bill and hating myself for hating Bill, who isn't all that bad really.

But as I was thinking all of these grumpy thoughts, I learned that a friend has just experienced one of the worst things that can happen to anyone. Suddenly, my whole persective changed and the prospect of a quiet, uneventful Christmas now seems like a luxury. I won't take it for granted any more.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Writers' Names

I'm as liberal as the next person (depending on who the next person is), but I do like creative artists to put on a bit of a show. The current trend for authors to have dull, unassuming names is disappointing. They should take a lesson from their predessors.

During the last week, I've discovered the following early 20th century authors:

Pelham Groom
Basil Woon
Hogan Bogue
Phyllis Bottome
Marmaduke Pickthall
Sidney Whipple
Arthur Gossip
Gaylord Hauser
Primrose Cumming
Frank Few
Oliphant Smeaton
Cyril Falls
Alexander Smellie
Lilian Vowles

I'm sure you'll agree, they're a lot more exciting than William Boyd, Anne Tyler, Iain Banks (a slight frisson from the extra 'i', I'll admit), Sarah Hall, Richard Ford or Julian Barnes.

Perhaps these names were the norm a hundred years ago and future generations will be doubled-up with laughter when they see Martin Amis (actually, I think that's already happening in some quarters).

I have tried to put faces to the names, but most of my Google searches have drawn a blank. However, I do have this interesting photo of Gaylord Hauser:

Apparently, Hauser was a close friend of Greta Garbo.

If you're keen to know what a man called Sidney Whipple looks like, he's the taller one on the right:

They appear to be pouring over the instruction manual for an extremely complicated typewriter.

Names are so important. I've been seriously thinking of changing my first name to Lord or Earl, as I'm sure that this would improve my prospects. Prince would probably be taking it too far.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Books of the Year

Everyone seems to be having a round-ups of their books of the year, from the national press to the blogerati. As this supposed to be a book-related blog, I feel duty-bound to come up with my own recommendation:

My book of the year has nothing to do with 2009. It was published in Hungary in 1970 and an English translation didn't appear for another 37 years, but I read it this year and I'm convinced that it will eventually be recognised as one of the great works of European literature.

The plot is simple enough: Budai, a linguist, is flying to a conference in Helsinki. After the plane lands, Budai soon realises that he is not in Helsinki, but an unknown city with an unfamiliar language and script. Even worse, although Budai knows a smattering of most of the major European languages, nobody understands a single word he says.

Metropole is a masterpiece of alienation, with a dreamlike quality that reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. However, in Ishiguro's novel, the main character is lauded by the local citizens. In Metropole, Budai feels completely invisible.

The lazy option would be to use the term "Kafkaesque". Metropole certainly has reasonances of Franz Kafka, but in Ferenc Karinthy's vision there is no malign state apparatus controlling events. Metrople is the ultimate existentialist nightmare in which the individual finds themsleves completely alone in a meaningless, uncaring universe. Having worked in Slough, I'm very familiar with that feeling.

A few years ago, I read Sven Lindqvist's wonderful Desert Divers, which included a chapter on the eccentric Frenchman Pierre Loti. Inspired by Lindvist's account of Loti's exploits in Turkey, I impulsively booked a flight to Istanbul and arranged for a local hotel to pick me up from the airport.

It was a perfectly organised short trip, but from the moment I arrived, I was plunged into a situation that had echoes of Metropole. I won't recount the long story here, but I distinctly remember feeling like a ghost, passing unnoticed through crowds of people. This photo sums it up, in which I merely appear as an oddly-shaped shadow:

On the penultimate day, I got the worst bout of food poisoning I've ever experienced and collapsed in a street, too weak to even stand. People rushed past, seemingly oblivious to my presence, as if I had become some sort of non-corporeal being. I have never felt more alone.

When I read Metropole, I knew exactly how Budai felt. I was that shadow.

I haven't read that much this year. Ironically, my new job selling books leaves me very little time to read, but I would recommend two other books, one of which was actually published in 2009. First, W F Herman's Beyond Sleep is a witty, intelligent, playful novel that consistently delights and surprises. Second, M J Hyland's This is How, which should have won the Booker, but was probably too good.

Caravan of Love

This fell out of a book today:

A man sits awkwardly on a footstall in front of a hideous sofa, in a room that could be part of a large, static caravan. Is he looking at something or avoiding the eye of the camera?

On the surface, this is just a badly-taken portrait with the feet cut off, the subject in the centre and a slightly jaunty angle, but it has echoes of greatness and I'm reminded of the work of Richard Billingham.

I'm also struck by the marked contrast with another photo I found, from over a century earlier:

However, in this case, I think the main difference is social rather than temporal.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Horror of Horrors

It started so well. Rumaging through a box of children's adventures stories and encyclopaedias, I found this:

Ah yes, the good old days. Before mass-produced artificial fibres, sweatshops and corporate franchises, when people still knew how to make things. A time when quality was valued over quatity.

But then I opened the sheet and it revealed this:

On reflection, I think I'll stick to Playmobil.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Circle of Friends

Last week I came across one of my best finds yet: a Victorian photograph album from the 1870s, featuring a group of actors and their families. Beneath its tatty exterior, the album is a treasure trove of fascinating photos, many of which are surrounded by beautiful embellishments, hand-painted in watercolour:

For many of us, the word Victorian is synonymous with respectability, discipline, temperance and piety. Photographs from the period seem to ratify this view, from the portraits of dour-faced, black-clad families to the arch-miserabalist herself, Queen Victoria.

However, the unsmiling faces were often the result of the ridiculously long exposure times, which required fixed expressions. The beauty of this album is that whilst it contains many conventional portraits, there are also quite a few snapshots of people smiling and having fun.

Unlike many of the albums I've come across, there are names, places and dates. For example, the two photos below have the caption "Characters Represented in a Charade at 'The Bank'. Jan 17th 1873."

The gentleman in the Widow Twankey outfit is called Charlie Wright.

On the opposite page, there is a scene from another production called "The Proposal":

But it isn't just the theatrical productions that appeal. I also like scenes from family life, some of which are surprisingly relaxed and informal, by Victorian standards:




You might argue that whoever complied this collection had too much time on their hands, but compare this to the nadir of photo albums: the 1970s Selfix variety, with adhesive pages and Kodak Instamatic pictures. Not only were they hideously ugly, but they didn't even work. My parents' albums started to disintegrate in 1982.

Those were the days. Perhaps this genetleman would have eyed my car with envy, but I'd happily swap my boring, dependable Citro├źn Xsara Picasso for a horse (top hat included, of course).

Was he a cad and a bounder? Did he get one of the maidservants up the duff?

What I like about this photo is that we may be looking at the face of a man who was born in the 18th century. He would certainly have been alive when the Battle of Waterloo took place.

There are many people in the album, but this page apears to include the major figures in the circle of friends and family.

This young man, adopting a "So we meet again, Mr Bond" pose, is the centrepiece of the page. Who is he?

I've Googled the names - John Alfred Gotch, Rose H Marriott, Lionel L Powell, E Kate Hickson, Robert S Hawks and Charlie Wright. They have all drawn blanks apart from John Alfred Gotch, but I think it may be a false lead.

The album doesn't mention where these people lived, but most of the place names mentioned are in Cheshire and Lancashire: Rock Ferry, Whitefield, Manchester and Southport. There also seems to be a connection with Melton Mowbray.

I shall have to do some more research. There is a story to be told, although I think it's unlikely that I have a bestselling non-fiction title in the making. Kate Sumerscale can sleep safely in her bed.

What strikes me most of all is what an interesting, likeable, rather Bohemian crowd of people they must have been (a stark contrast to the rather austere folk of Grimsby in the photos I published ten days ago). They appear to have led a rich life and come across as the antithesis of the stereotypical image of the Victorians.

How sad that this beautiful album almost ended up on a landfill site.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ten Tips for Young Ladies

I found a wonderful book today called "Confidential Chats with Girls", written a century ago by a doctor called William Lee Howard.

The book is mainly preoccupied with the physical changes that take place during puberty, but Doctor Howard decided to go beyond his original remit and share the following pearls of wisdom.

Young ladies, take note:
  • Don't dress in a loud and gaudy maner unless you wish to attract men of loud and loose principles
  • Don't have any pity for flies and insects - kill them
  • Don't be a giggling girl. The practice of giggling will certainly develop those tiny skin muscles in a way to make your face show some kind of distortion
  • If you have flushed your intestines with water and fruit, you may eat all the cakes and sugar you wish
  • Avoid all thoughts, reading or association which will affect the nervous system, if you wish to have a beautiful complexion
  • The dressing of the feet is, perhaps, the first thing a refined and cultivated man looks at. The girl who displays high-heeled shoes and thin silk stockings on a winter's day, may attract attention, but not respect
  • Woolen undergarments are a most prolific source of mischief
  • Don't use arsenic in any form for your complexion or to give your face a plump appearance
  • Don't swagger around in public nor attempt to thrust yourself forward. A modest girl will not let herself become prominent in public places
  • You are safer in kissing a person with consumption than you are in wetting your finger to turn over the pages of a book
So there you have it. In short: stay in the background, eat cakes and kill flies. But don't wear woolen undies. As far as feet are concerned, I think that Dr Howard has his own agenda.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A Postcard to Airstrip One...

'Newspeak is a fictional language in George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four". In the novel, it is described as being "the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year".' - Wikipedia.

I found this today:


I wonder if Kayleigh likes listening to Big Brovaz?