Saturday, January 30, 2010

More is Less

According to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, "millions of people now own Kindles". I'm baffled. It's an ugly, clumsy-looking device that reminds me of the first generation of mobile phones. The Kindle lacks the elegance of the I-Touch and I can't see it winning any design awards:
Bezos adds that "Kindle readers read a lot", but what does that mean? I listen to a lot of music on my MP3 player, but I would argue that the quailty of my listening has deteriorated, as the technology allows me to jump tracks so easily.

It feels like a long time ago (it is a time long ago) since the days when I'd carefully remove an LP from its sleeve, put it on the turntable, gently lift the stylus arm and place it down on the outer edge of the record, listening with anticipation to the crackles and clicks. Whether I was playing a Shostakovich symphony or a Stevie Wonder album, I would lie back and listen to the whole thing, experiencing the record as a whole.

I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember the last time I listened to a piece of music in its entirety. I can partly blame my children - we live in a small house and I don't have a "room of one's own". However, there is nothing to stop me lying down on the bed and listening to a piece of music on my headphones.

When I do listen to anything on my MP3 player, I find that I have the attention-span of a two-year-old. I will dutifully begin listening to Beethoven's Eroica symphony, right up to that sublime moment when Beethoven gets really angry, then my attention will wander and I'll start zipping through my tracklist: St John Passion, Andy Warhol, Siegfried Idyll, Meera Nam Chin Chin Chu, Luonnotar, The Headmaster Ritual, Concerto for Orchestra, Wichita Lineman, Trying Not to Think About the Time, Peter Grimes...

30 seconds here, 15 seconds there, I know I've only myself to blame, but it's too easy to change tracks. I need a deterent - the modern-day equivalent of the tedious, time-wasting process of rewinding a C-120 cassette back to the beginning.

If I had a Kindle with several dozen books at my fingertips, I'd probably go through a similar process, giving up on anything that wasn't utterly gripping. My Kindle would have to be restricted to one book at a time.

I'm not a Luddite, but I'm concerned about the increasing emphasis on quantity rather than the quality of experience. Our Kindles can store hundreds of books whilst our MP3 players and cameras can store thousands of tracks and photos, but what is the end result? Are we leading richer lives as a result?

I can see certain situations where the Kindle comes into its own. If you're backpacking for several months or are one of those commuters who devour airport novels, the Kindle is ideal. But, to quote the title of a novel, books do furnish a room. The book isn't just a medium, but the thing in itself. It is something that we see, touch, smell and even hear, as we flick through the pages.

Working with secondhand books, I am acutely aware of the sensorial qualities of a book: the slightly indecent softness of calf leather, the odour of stale pipe tobacco, the cracking of the binding as you open an old book, the unpleasant, chalky feeling of photographic plates, the smell of public libraries and, occasionally, damp, mildewy cellars.

These qualities proved to be too much for one of my customers who, last week, returned a 1920s book to me with a handwritten letter explaining that she felt that the book was too dirty to take to bed. There was nothing wrong with the book. Perhaps my customer would be happier with a nice, germ-free Kindle?

I shall not be buying an e-reader or I-Pad. I don't need more technology. What I do need is something that I got rid of years ago and have been quietly regretting it ever since: a wind-up gramophone.

Twelve years ago, when I lived in Twickenham, there was a power-cut late in the evening. Everyone was plunged into silence and darkness. However, my wife and I lit candles, opened a bottle of wine and listened to Noel Coward records on our gramophone. It was one of those perfect moments.

No piece of technology I own has ever bought as much pleasure. With their vast array of functions and huge storage, my gadgets promise so much, but somehow they seem to deliver so little.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Resenting the Zeros

A Facebook friend posted this clip a few weeks ago. Apparently there's a "technical problem" with embedding the clip, but if you click to he original YouTube page, it works:

I agree with everything Louis CK says in the interview, although I'm ashamed to say that I'm one of those people who complains that the internet is "slow" if it takes longer than half a second for a page to download (the 14k modem is a distant memory).

I also remember resenting telephone numbers with lots of zeros.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Last Saturday I caught the train to Victoria to meet some old university friends at the Coal Hole, which I love. It's one of the few central London pubs where you can always get a seat, thanks to a secret basement.

After a few drinks we walked along the Strand to the India Club - one of the most bizarre restaurants I've ever visited. There are no neon signs or menus in the window. The entrance is in an inconspicuous doorway, with only a small plaque to alert passers-by to the restaurant's existence.

After ascending three flights of stairs, you enter a room that looks like the refectory of an Antarctic research station or a nuclear bunker, with cheap formica tables and garish flourescent strip lights. I kept expecting people to enter through an airlock.

The waiters always seem surprised by anyone's arrival. On one visit I discovered them all fast asleep, lying on rows of chairs pulled together (I crept out and returned later). They are also flummoxed by standard restaurant practices, like putting plates on the table. Instead of moving glasses and side dishes to make room, the waiters stare impassively at the table, as if contemplating an algebraic equation.

The restaurant isn't licensed, but if you ask for beer a Polish girl will mysteriously appear five minutes later with a bottle of Eastern European beer and a request for hard cash. It is all very strange. But then the food arrives and apart from being very reasonably priced, it is gorgeous - better than anything most Indian restaurants serve.

During the evening, one friend confessed that when he was doing a postgrad course, he'd made a compilation cassette called "Seduction Tape." The idea was simple enough: he'd entice girls back to his room, turn the heating up to maximum and put the tape on.

He then revealed the track listing. This was the fourth track:

Not a great seduction song, to put it mildly. Sailor only had two hits and were generally regarded as the poor man's Roxy Music. By the time this song appeared on my friend's compilation tape, Sailor were a distant memory from another decade. Surely this seduction technique couldn't have worked?

However, my friend had the last word: "Reader, I married her."

Monday, January 25, 2010

An Appeal

In my recent post about accents, I wrote about my quest to become middle class. I think I've largely succeeded. If I was crushed under the wheels of a bus, a cursory glance through the contents of my wallet would reveal that I was a member of the Magistrates' Association and a friend of the Tate Gallery. I have no Nectar card.

However, there is still one glaring gap in my bourgeois credentials: I don't spend my holidays in France.

Indeed, my knowledge of France is de graves lacunes. Apart from two day trips to Bolougne and a couple of weekends in Paris, I know nothing about France.

This year I intend to remedy this state of affairs, but I don't know where to start. Like Mr T, I don't like flying and so my options are limited to northern France, but where? I will be accompanied by two young boys, my wife and her mother, all of whom have very different requirements.

I decided to start with Brittany, which I typed into Google Images. Unfortunately I didn't realise that Brittany is a popular porn star name in America, so I ended up with a very different sort of trip.

Filtering out the "adult" material helped, but I was still left with hundreds of websites, none of which answered my main question: where can I guarantee my children a magical holiday without being utterly miserable?

And this is where I turn to my fellow bloggers. If there is anyone reading this blog who knows somehwere in Brittany, Normandy or even further afield, that has sandy beaches, far from the madding crowd, and is also reasonably near decent resturants and old things, please let me know.

I feel overwhelmed and would appreciate some expert opinion.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Funny (Mrs) Valentine

In my last post, Victorian author Mrs Valentine issued a stern warning about the dangers of reading novels. Today, we turn to the subject of Geography which, in spite of its breadth, has been successfully condensed by Mrs Valentine down to 12 pages.

After a brief preamble about the hemispheres, tropics and poles, Madam V gets down to the far meatier subject of foreigners. Here is a short selection of her opinions, written to instruct the young ladies of the British Empire:

The people are a mixed race of many nations, very clever and ingenious, and generally gentle and kindly; but, like all heathen people, occasionally very cruel.

The people are black in complexion, rude and uncivilised.

The people are clever, lively, and cunning - inclined to brigandage, or robbing in bands - but the upper classes make good merchants.

The native Australians have nearly died out; they were a very inferior race of savages.

The Lapps are a dwarfish, Mongolian race, seldom exceeding four feet in height. They are ignorant, superstitious, uncivilised and very dirty in their habits.

The People are very brave, passionate, witty, warm-hearted and impulsive. The women are renowned for their morality.

The people are brave, but rather ferocious; proud and jealous.

The people are gentle and submissive, but untruthful and cruel.

The people are savages, with no religion, but a superstition of fetishes, or charms.

It is inhabited by a barbarous people who are always engaged in petty civil wars.

As far as northern Europe and the "colonies" are concerned, Mrs Valentine has nothing but good to say, praising the natives for their industriousness and honesty. However, she is very quiet on the subject of the United States, perhaps because they had the impudence to desert the Crown.

We can laugh now, but it's terrifying that Mrs Valentine's views were once considered quite normal.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Perils of Novel Reading

Yesterday I found a wonderful Victorian self-help guide called "The Young Woman's Book". Compiled and edited by Mrs Valentine, a well-known children's author in her day, the book contains advice and instruction on an astonishing variety of subjects, from employing domestic servants to choosing a pet bird.

Books of this kind are always amusing, but The Young Woman's Book puts its rivals into the shade, expressing opinions that make the Taliban look like a bunch of hippies. I'll be posting several extracts during the following week and will begin with one of the more moderate chapters:


"To sit over a foolish or even a wise novel when the daily duties of life demand our attention is absolutely wicked. We have seen, in our own life, the mother of a family devote herself to novel reading.

The father was at sea in the merchant service. A boy, a girl, and the house demanded the wife's attention. The children were neglected, dirty, ragged, untaught, running about the roads; the house was dirty beyound description, for there was but one servant, who naturally, followed her mistress's example.

The wife could not make her income suffice her, because no one watched against waste or dishonesty in the kitchen, and her husband, when he came home from sea, was arrested for her debts.

The son, utterly ruined, ran away from school, and finally disappeared in Australia. The daughter, trained only in the unreal folly of novels, married secretly a man much below her father's station - he was also an hereditary madman!

When the mother of the boy and girl married, she had been a lovely, clever girl. But novel reading, like intoxication, bought misery on her and on two following generations."

Wise words. I hope that you will heed the advice of Mrs Valentine, throw away your novels and attend to domestic duties, before it is too late.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Touch of Class

"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." - George Bernard Shaw

In a recent post about Waterstone's, I made a casual remark about the former managing director and his Estuary accent, unwittingly implying that he was a "bit common" to be leading Britain's largest bookshop chain.

John Self was quick to spot my woolly thinking (it's his job) and asked me exactly what I meant. I began to write what I thought was a coherent, reasonable explanation, but soon realised that I had begun to dig a hole. I deleted my reply and wrote another considered, reasonable response. The hole grew even bigger.

I knew that I was on the wrong track when my wife (who rarely reads this blog), spotted the exchange and said "I don't know what you're on about, but I agree with John Self".

At this point I started to question myself. Why did I have such a negative attitude towards a particular regional accent? I toyed with the idea of constructing an argument based on the aesthetic qualities of Estuary - but I knew that it would be avoiding the issue.

The unpalatable truth is that I harbour a prejudice - one that has its origins in early childhood.

My parents were both working class, but aspired to move up the social ladder and focused their aspirations on me. As a young child I wasn't allowed to play with the "rough boys" and whenever we walked past Teddington Social Club, my mother would point to the women inside playing Bingo and tell me how "common" they were.

At first I spoke with a Laahndun accent, but was constantly upbraided for saying "Sa-urday" and "Man Uni-ed" until I developed what my mother still refers to as a "nice speaking voice" ("Joan says you could read the news."). The accent was a mixed blessing. I didn't know any middle-class people and my peers mocked me for being posh.

It would be unfair to imply that my parents brutally crushed any signs of a working-class identity. I was a willing participant. From an early age I made it clear that I prefered Earl Grey and Camembert to PG Tips and Cheddar. Indeed, my nickname in those days was "Little Lord Fauntleroy".

By my teens, I started to mix with middle-class kids and was amazed to find houses full of books and original paintings. It was a revelation. At one friend's house, the room where we played snooker contained the complete Thames and Hudson World of Art series and, much to my friend's annoyance, I was more concerned with discovering what Fauvism and Cubism were.

Suddenly everything - the BBC accent, my interest in the arts and penchant for foreign cheeses - clicked into place. I was middle class. My parents' experiment has succeeded, almost.

So where does the Estuary accent comment come into all of this?

It's complicated, but I think that my parents' obsession with making me speak "properly" left me with a deep-rooted prejudice about the local accent. During my teens I successfully rejected my parents views on race, gender and politics and came to regard myself as a liberal (with a small "l").

Little did I realise that beneath my enlightened exterior, there lurked a bigot!

In the past, there was no such thing as received pronunciation. We know this, because before spelling was standardised, people wrote phonetically. Then, in the Victorian age, accents began to be linked to social background and that's where all the trouble began.

John Self mischievously asked where he stood with his Belfast accent. Could he be bookish? All I can say is that my irrational prejudice doesn't extend to other regions. I reserve my wrath purely for my neighbours. Indeed, I actively like accents from other regions and countries, as they all seem much pleasanter than Estuary (with the possible exception of the South African accent).

It's all very silly. Does any of this matter? No, of course it doesn't, and now that I'm aware of my prejudice I will work hard to expunge it from my psyche. I'll no longer wince when someone says "toe" for "two" or drops the "g" from the "ing" words.

Accents are changing all the time. BBC English is a relatively modern construct, rather than the heir of some apostolic succession from a golden age and even the BBC rarely employ it these days.

I am already an anachronism.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fugitive from the Fashion Police...

The top comes from Burton's short-lived Blake's Seven range, with Omo-washed white chinos and hair by David Hasselhof.

The 80s revival won't be complete until the return of the 'tache.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Raum...die Letzte Grenze...

Whilst Captain Kirk was going boldly, seducing aliens and landing on planets that were uncannily like California, the Germans were busy making their own vision of the future: Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion.

Produced in the same year as Star Trek, the rather Teutonically-titled "Space Patrol - the fantastic adventures of the spaceship Orion" also began with a voiceover:

"What may sound like a fairy tale today may be tomorrow's reality. This is a fairy tale from the day after tomorrow: There are no more nations. There is only mankind and its colonies in space. People have settled on faraway stars..." (I'll stop there, as it does go on a bit)

"Space Patrol" only lasted for seven episodes, but has acquired cult status in Germany. This superb clip, with its weird, futuristic choreography, has really whetted my appetite to see more. I think the dance could catch on:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

All Change at Waterstone's

Although it's too early to put out any flags, I was delighted to read that the managing director of Waterstone's Booksellers has left the company immediately, following a disastrous Christmas that saw sales decline by 8.5%.

This is good news, because it will hopefully deal a severe blow to those people who think that bookselling is like any other branch of retail. Their experiment has failed.

Gerry Johnson joined Waterstone's as Managing Director in 2006, shortly before the company bought the Ottakar's chain of bookshops. The business had been going through a difficult time for a number of years and morale was fairly low, so when Johnson claimed that he wanted to create a new Waterstone's that combined the passion of Ottakar's with the efficiecy of Waterstone's, many booksellers and publishers had high hopes.

I worked for Ottakar's and felt quite pessimistic about my new employer but my boss insured me that I had nothing to worry about. "They've changed. It's all hearts and minds now."

Lacking any Plan B, I decided to stay and see whether the New Waterstone's would be as bogus and disappointing as New Labour. I soon received my answer.

Gerry Johnson seemed an unlikely choice for managing director of Britain's largest bookshop chain. With his high-pitched estuary accent and solid retail background, Johnson wasn't particularly bookish. On one occasion he unwittingly revealed that he'd never heard of "On the Road". However, Johnson was clearly a very astute and intelligent man, who seemed to have some good ideas for Waterstone's. So what went wrong?

As an insider, I felt that there were too many people in senior positions who didn't understand the book trade. I sensed an inverted snobbery on the part of these retailers and their attitude towards the store managers - many of whom were brighter and better educated - was defensive. The mangement were obsessed with systems, efficiencies and procedures, rather than focussing on the nebulous, but all important qualities that make bookshops magical places for both staff and customers.

Johnson's tenure should have seen a renaissance at Waterstone's, but instead we now have a business with rock-bottom morale and shops that are as dull as ditchwater.

The management problems at Waterstone's are symptomatic of a shift in the culture of many organisations during the last two decades, a change that has seen specialists replaced by generalists. In her recent book "Socrates in the Boardroom", Amanda H Goodall convincingly argues that academics make far better leaders of universities than managers. Not a controversial opinion, you'd think, and yet so many organisations reject the expertise of their staff in favour of outsiders.

The new managing director, Dominic Myers, is an HMV insider (HMV own Waterstone's). That shouldn't bode well for the future, but having met Myers I feel quietly hopeful, as he came across as a personable, highly intelligent man who actually gets bookselling. It will certainly be good to have Waterstone's managed by an English graduate instead of someone who confuses Jack Kerouac with Cormac McCarthy.

But even if Myers has the wisdom to radically change Waterstone's, will it make a difference or is the migration from high street retailers to Amazon and the supermarkets irreversible?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Five Days Later

When I woke up on Wednesday morning, something felt wrong. I made the usual perfunctory checks to confirm that I hadn't been kidnapped or had any organs removed under sedation, then listened carefully for any signs of life. Nothing. It was like 28 Days Later meets The Day of the Triffids.

After making the long, painful journey between thinking about getting up and actually doing it, I discovered that the world outside was covered in thick snow. There were no tyre tracks and when I looked at my car, half-buried at the bottom of a hill, it was clear that I wouldn't be going to work.

I was snowbound for five days. This could have been a good thing, but unfortunately my sons' school was cancelled and I ended up with an extended "Director's cut" version of the Christmas holidays, with extra scenes of temper tantrums and complaints of being bored. Also, the heating packed up.

This satellite photograph shows that last week's snow affected almost everywhere in the United Kingdom:

It's serious stuff - the worst winter for nearly 50 years, apparently. In spite of this, when I returned to work today, I found this email - from someone in England - about a book that was ordered on the 30th December:

"This book has not yet arrived, and I'm a bit concerned that it may have been lost in the post. Could you please let me know if you're aware of any delay?"

I enjoyed writing the reply.

After spending most of my working life in bookshops, it's a huge bonus not to have to deal directly with my customers. Working with the public is like Russian Roulette - 95% of the people may be fine, but you never know when the bullet's coming. Internet bookselling is a welcome change from bricks and mortar.

The one downside of internet retail is that some people feel free to send pompous, belligerent and occasionally downright rude emails, knowing it's unlikely that I'll ever have the opportunity to give them the punch in the face that they so clearly deserve. A simple typo prompted someone to send an email beginning "You idiots..." (I replied in a "forthright" manner and received a rather shamefaced response from someone who claimed that his email account had been "hacked into").

A few days later, a duplicate order problem prompted someone in New Zealand to send a long, bitter diatribe complaining that booksellers in Britain probably couldn't be bothered to post orders to the other side of the world. A chippy, pathetic and unwarranted whinge.

What a contrast to blogging where, so far, I have seen the best of humanity. My ambition for this year is to meet at least one person from the blogosphere. Ideally, I'd like to organise some sort of viral, flashmob-style meeting, but that probably contravenes the First Law of Blogging.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Ars longa, vita brevis

I've just been looking at a 2010 year planner, trying to work out the best way to break up my four weeks' annual holiday. I never normally do things like this. Planning is generally an anathema to me, as other people keeping buggering things up by dying, becoming pregnant, falling in love with someone from another country or simply changing their mind.

The one exception to this is foreign travel. If I ever go abroad, I like to memorise maps, learn the local language and refresh my unarmed combat training. It's a jungle out there.

Planning the year ahead was a particularly depressing experience. Four weeks holiday. I saw a whole monochrome future laying ahead of me, with only brief, tantalising glimpses of colour to taunt me. Is that living?

I was reminded of this banned British Xbox commercial:

As adverts go, it's a shocking, visceral masterpiece and it's fascinating how, in an age in which nudity and swearing are no longer taboos on television, the D word is still unacceptable for many.

Death is popular on television, but only within specific genres that present it as an aberration that can be resolved once the perpetrator is detected and caught, or defeated in battle. Real death, it seems, is too unpalatable.

But death is there, behind everything, looking over my shoulder as I peruse the 2010 year planner, sitting next to me in the car as I drive to work and quietly laughing when I talk about the future.

There are so many things that I want to do with my life and I'm not sure if I can stand to devote two-thirds of my life to a full-time job, putting my dreams on hold until retirement.

At the moment, I feel like Max von Sydow in this film:

I know that ultimately, it will always end in checkmate, but I can and least try and take control of the game for a while.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Should I Be Worried?

My ten-year-old son has just painted a self-portrait, complete with a flying, flaming skateboard and a random dagger, suspended in mid-air. It reminds me of several works of Outsider Art.

Intrigued, my wife asked what the black area represented.

"That's my dark side."

He wouldn't explain further. I shall be keeping an eye on this and if you live in the Sussex area, I would avoid shopping malls in eight years' time.