Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Joy of Blogging

I began blogging four years ago, during a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning caused by eating bad oysters. At the time, my wife and sons were away in Essex and after a week of lying in bed, I was so bored that I decided to create a blog page to pass the time.

The title of this blog was partly an oblique reference to the fact that HMV had just bought the bookshop chain I worked for and my future, which had once seemed promising, now looked pretty bleak.

I had no intention of keeping a proper blog, but when Ms Baroque posted a very generous response to my first post - a rather fatuous piece about the Middle East - I was hooked.

During the last few years, I have been continually impressed by the intelligence and generosity of spirit displayed by the people who have posted comments on this blog. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, I have discovered new authors, visited exhibitions I would have otherwise missed and had some really interesting email exchanges with people (plus some very enjoyable drinks in Lewes with Laura and Oliver).

So, getting to the point, I have found blogging to be a very positive, uplifting experience that has exposed me to the best of humanity, both in cyberspace and the real world.

Sadly, blogging seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Visit any number of discussion boards and social networking sites and the comments range from the depressingly banal to the downright abusive.

Take this example from YouTube, which was written in response to a negative comment about the Turkish national anthem:

"disabled grik!!!...we never did not give the griks and armenian girl, I always have carry the dna of turks, bastard griks!!!...idiot you nation turks,mongolian,arab,italian,s­lavic,makedonian,gypsy break-mix and the bastard nation...f*ck you homo!!!..."

Or this response to a comment about Germany's winning song in this year's Eurovision Song Contest:

"All the Eastern European dancing prostitute bands are just pissed they were beaten by someone singing a proper song. It's called Eurovision Song Contest not European Lap Dancing Contest you scumbags."

Even the positive comments on YouTube are pretty dispiriting. For example, here is Ivetella's response to a video of "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney and Wings:

"I love the meaning of this Song, What is wrong with that He ask? "LOVE" Nothing is wrong at all,, Bacause Love is power!!!"

It's depressing to realise that a technology that brings millions of people together from all over the world, just ends up being used to vent ancient grievances between different nations and religions. But perhaps, in the impersonal environment of a global village, people feel a greater need to assert their local identity.

Or maybe they just enjoy being able to be rude without getting beaten up.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Upstairs Downstairs

Christmas in the Steerforth household has been a subdued affair. With impeccable timing, I came down with "swine flu" on Christmas Eve and have been upstairs in bed ever since.

Two days later, my wife started to sound like Fenella Fielding and began demanding paracodol.

She is now worse than me, although that may be the result of her decision to tackle the symptoms head on by drinking a bottle of wine. I have been more cautious, taking a few tentative sips of port, like a consumptive Victorian gentleman.

In all of this, my mother has been the heroine of the hour.

Like a special agent called out of retirement for one final mission, my mother has taken charge of the children, introducing them to the delights of white bread and egg and chips, whilst managing to make our kitchen look tidier than ever. It has been good for her and great for us.

During one of my more delirious moments, I began to feel as if my entire adult life had been an illusion and I was really back home, in Teddington, listening to my parents in the room below. As if on cue, my mother cleared her throat and the theme tune to "Upstairs Downstairs" boomed through the floorboards.

Later, my wife explained that it has returned for a new series (if you can call three episodes a series):

I caught up with the first episode on the BBC iPlayer and to my amazement, it wasn't crap. Admittedly, Tom Stoppard's son Ed wasn't fantastic, playing the role of Sir Hallam Holland in the style of a regional sales manager for a chain of East Midlands car exhaust centres. But the rest of the cast were spot on (particularly the monkey) and it was particularly wonderful to see the return of Jean Marsh as Rose:

I can't wait for the next series.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Carol for Derek

I don't normally get excited by Christmas carols, but when I heard Peter Warlock's gorgeously lush arrangement of "Bethlehem Down" last year, I couldn't stop listening to it.

Here's a performance that Derek would surely approve of, by the University of Utah Singers:

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Derek at Christmas

(If you're new to this blog, click here, here, here, here, here, here and here to understand the background to this post)

My mother has now been living with us for eight weeks and the cracks are starting to appear. When she was bed-ridden things were fine. All we had to do was bring up a tray of food three times a day and stop by for the odd chat. Most of the time, she slept.

But several weeks of rest and good food has restored my mother back to health and she likes to come downstairs and sit on the sofa.

All bloody day.

It would help if we were able to talk about different subjects, but her only topic of conversation seems to be other people's illnesses. When I tried talking about my ongoing efforts to learn French, my mother replied:

"Well Janet went on a course and became fluent, but then she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, so I don't suppose she'll need it now."

If this is what it's like after eight weeks with someone whose only fault is to have a limited repertoire of topics of conversation, what must it have been like for Derek and Brenda, who spent years living with the infamous "Nanna"?

Today's extracts come from December 1984. Sadly, Nanna does not appear to have succumbed to the Christmas spirit:

A curious Saturday, with Nanna doing her incredibly lifelike impersonation of the devil in full spate. She accused Brenda and myself of being cunning; and accused Brenda of being corrupted by the evil of my family. And all because we did her the favour of clearing furniture out of her flat, so that a new tenant could move in next Monday. My thoughts are fearful concerning her and what she does to my wife.

I lay in bed awhile this morning and talked with Brenda, mentioning my concern that we seemed to have reached a plateau in our relationship with no discernible spiritual progress. She agreed with this and then mentioned that part of the problem was that she never really felt well, plus her waning energy, and more importantly, her mother's malign daily effect on her. Though we could think of few remedies, it was good to get some thoughts out into the open that we might at least draw closer by reason of speaking of hidden and frustrating things.

It is little wonder that Derek and Brenda's relationship has lost its sparkle, when most of their spare time is taken up with looking after a mentally handicapped son and an elderly mother. It is heartbreaking to read Derek's first diaries, from the 1950s, when he and Brenda were so full of hope and optimism.

Derek maintains his sanity by keeping his diary and cherishes the moments when he can sit in his "library" and gather his thoughts:

I am in my room , listening to popped-up classics, and tapping away at these so-familiar keys. I must have written many millions of words over the years. How many of them will remain? Few, I opine. And how much of a writing style do I really have? Does my personality shine through the sentences, or do they only convey dryness and boredom, that which is learned through the roteness of pedantic learning and is made up of cliche and circumlocution?

I try to be as precise and simple as I can in what I write, but rarely compose my thoughts into a pattern of rich density that will convey in interesting fullness that which I wish to convey. My fingers fly off too quickly as is evidenced by the large number of words in this journal that suffer a transposition of letters. But which is of more importance--the message or the medium?

Many of Derek's diary entries faithfully record the minutiae of his daily life:

Last night when I arrived home, I found things rather chaotic. Brenda was busy boiling the Christmas puddings, trying to make a cornbeef hash, and coping with several acres of washing. During the day, she met with men from the mini-auction rooms who strongly rejected Nana's refrigerator and gas stove; and she took delivery of our replacement bed from Owen Owen, the other that we had having sprung a spring and caused a nasty scratch on Brenda's leg.

Later we visted Alan and Dora Burchett. They were sitting quietly at home, peace palpatating from the walls.

Occasionally, there is also a little excitement:

When I got home last night, I found Brenda surrounded by mounds of drying washing, the dinner uncooked, and her mother sitting in the front room, her first venture down in quite a while. Brenda was not too happy. Her day had gone somewhat awry.

Nanna's venture down was to the purpose of making out a list of the things she wanted from the shops, and she expected Brenda to do the traipsing about that day. So Brenda ventured forth and arrived at Tesco's and lo! as she arrived, an Arab man, accompanied by a young woman, came out of the entrance. The Arab was immediately followed by another man who seized him with the words, "I am making a citizen's arrest; you stole an old lady's bag of shopping."

The Arab tried to shake him off, telling him not to be so stupid, the bag of shopping was his, he saw it just standing there. At this point, ladies came pouring out of the shop, shouting and gesticulating, all intent on grabbing the Arab. As usual on such occasions not a policeman was to be seen. The Arab shook off the erstwhile citizen and made off with the bag of shopping. At this point Brenda got stubborn, being unwilling that the man should get away just like that, so she followed the Arab along the High Street until she found a woman policeman, who promptly called for reinforcements.

But the magic of Derek's diaries is that after writing a mundane entry about his vegetables, or Brenda's headaches, he will suddenly come out with an extraodrinary paragraph like this:

I have a most powerful testimony of pre-existence. I know that I lived with Heavenly Parents, before I came here, in celestial mansions. They gave life and progress to that existence our Father organized, an intelligence that has always existed, but which was locked in the silence and vastness of dark space without the possibility of progress until His love and law gave me spiritual life. I do not know my spiritual age. I believe it to be several thousands of years and that I stood in His presence in the Grand Council of Kolob when the Plan of Salvation was presented to us.

Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, Derek celebrates his birthday:

Upon this murky, forsaken morning I became 52 years of age and hardly look a day over twenty-five! But I suppose a mirror can lie, so too much credence ought not to be placed upon what I see reflected in my mirror each morning!

But in spite of the presence of Nanna, a succession of mysterious illnesses and constant financial worries, Derek does not feel sorry for himself. Perhaps this is because he appears to have been a man who was loved; not only by his family, but also by Derek's friends, colleagues and members of the local church.

Derek's diaries contain letters from many different people and the one consistent thread running through all of them is a sense of great affection towards him. For all his absurdities - the Pooterish prose, the Hooked-on-Classics albums and the rabbits, bounding up and down the hallway - Derek's life was not a failure.

I bet Derek's funeral was packed to the rafters.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Victorian Colour Plates

"Who fed me from her gentle breast,
And hush'd me in her arms to rest,
And on my cheek sweet kisses prest?

My Mother"

So begins a mid-Victorian publication called "My Mother's Picture Book", published by George Routledge. It's a fairly unremarkable publication in many ways, but it has some extraordinary colour plates:

As I have written before, until recently I had no idea that the Victorians had the technology to produce colour plates. In a previous post I asked why it took so long for colour printing to become the "norm" and received this fascinating answer from a graphic designer:

"It's much more complex than just expense. Colour printing and tinting have been around for a long time, but were expensive, time consuming and very wasteful - so only small numbers of books or folio's would be produced, hence their consumer was wealthy, educated and had 'leisure time' - hardly anyone in Victorian England would fit into that niche - even the 'middle classes' would baulk at the extravagance of colour print. as a new technique - it was also an 'entertainment' - which is why it was generally dedicated to expensive childrens books ( and scientific folio's ).

Later on, as literacy / education / libraries etc demanded more books - the sheer volume needed made colour print less than practical - it was still time consuming and too expensive, only really becoming widely available for mass consumption after WW2 when giant continual presses could churn out well registerd 4 colour print on demand, and multinpage printing plates can deliver 16 pages in one impression, and now with the advent of digital - we can have instant single pass printing - which is even faster ( the colour supplements that come in your weekend papers are printed days before - it takes time for the print to dry, the stock to be collated and packed - and before printing even begins - the paper needs to 'rest' in the shop to acclimatise to the humidity levels )

If you have a really close look - you may find that some of the more subtle colours on your plates are hand applied - far cheaper than contemporary print."

These plates must have seemed remarkable to their Victorian audience:

This plate is both weird and wonderful. I love the vivid colours and the rather disturbing anthropomorphisation.

The canine theme continues for several other plates:

Next, we have some disturbing inter-species romance. It reminds me of a very rude joke, which I can't repeat here.

As you can see, the romantic ideal of the Victorian era looks like a mid-80s Scouser, sans shellsuit.

What always strikes me about Victorian photos and illustrations is how many layers of clothes everyone seems to be wearing. 19th century prudery aside, it's easy to forget how cold everyone must have been for a lot of the year.

"Now Frank, about those magazines we found under your bed..."

Actaully, Frank is the hero in this story, which reads:

"Frank and Robert were two little boys, about eight years old. Whenever Frank did anything wrong, he always told his father and mother of it; and when anyone asked him about anything he had done or said, he always told the truth; so everybody who knew him believed him."

Good old Frank.

"But nobody who knew his brother Robert believed a word he said, because he used to tell lies. Whenever he did anything wrong, he never told his father and mother of it; but when asked about it, he denied it, and said he had not done it."

Why is Robert so different? In a penetrating piece of psychoanalysis, we learn that:

"The reason Robert told lies was, because he was afraid of being punished for his faults if he confessed them. He was a coward, and could not bear the least pain."

This book must have cost a mint in the 1870s. What a pity that these colour illustrations were accompanied by such a plodding, banal text.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Podcasting at The Lewes Arms

After years of running various bookshops in the South East, I have developed a Pavlovian response to the phrase "local poet" and automatically go into fight or flight mode. I have good reasons for this, but my blinkered attitude almost stopped me from discovering the wonderful Oliver's Poetry evenings at The Lewes Arms.

When fellow blogger Laura told me that her friend Oliver held a monthly poetry evening at a local pub, I imagined that there would be a lot of terribly earnest people reading rather bad poetry and almost didn't go. Luckily, I had the good sense to trust Laura's judgement and had a great evening out.

Thanks to Oliver's years spent running a leading comedy club in London, the evenings feel more like a gig, with a good rapport between poet and audience. As for the poems themselves, the quality is consistently high and I often leave wishing that I could hear them again.

But if you do visit Oliver's Poetry evening, be warned: you will be expected to write a limerick in the interval!

The most recent limerick competition had a Royal Wedding theme:

Next month, on Byron's 223rd birthday, Oliver will be publishing a book called The Commuter's Tale:

Described as a "thriller in verse", The Commuter's Tale was written by Oliver during two years of commuting from Lewes to London.

I was going to write an article about the book, but I had a better idea: why not record an interview with Ollie in the convivial surroundings of The Lewes Arms? The result is the first Age of Uncertainty podcast!

The following interview was recorded in one take and if I had to do it again, I probably wouldn't have had a couple of pints first, as I sound as if I should be presenting the 1936 Royal Review of the Fleet at Spithead. However, Oliver is thoroughly entertaining.

Click on the player below to hear the interview:

During the evening, Oliver commented on the fact that a lot of women kept coming up to us. Unfortunately, we soon realised that it was because we were next to the the ladies loo.

Another illusion shattered.

Here is Oliver in full bardic mood, reading a canto from his new book.

For more information about The Commuter's Tale, visit

Friday, December 17, 2010

Glad to be Grey

There are many reasons why Grey Area is one of my favourite blogs. I particularly enjoy the fragments of conversations that the author overhears in shops and on trains.

Today's post is particularly wonderful:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New Slinkachu

One of my favourite books a couple of years ago was Little People in the City, which featured photographs of installations by the street artist Slinkachu.

If the name Slinkachu doesn't mean anything to you, his art is quite easy to describe. In a nutshell, he puts model figures - only a couple of centimetres tall - in normal urban settings. Sometimes they're accompanied by minature props like this scene with a toy car:

But usually, Slinkachu's figures interact with ordinary, everyday objects, like this piece of orange peel:

The results are not only very funny but also occasionally moving, as Slinkachu's "little people" try to negotiate their way through a hostile, urban landscape. Their vulnerability is ours. In the artist's own words, "I like my things to be melancholy, like loneliness, and people lost and alone. I don't know why."

I have posted some Slinkachu images before, but these ones appear to be new:

The reason for this post is to plug Slinkachu's new book, Big Bad City, which is already out of stock at Amazon (but their marketplace sellers still have some).

And if you think this might be you're cup of tea, I'd also recommend the blog Economy Custard, which I discovered through the excellent Bookseller Crow's site.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Middle Class Heroes

Last month I posted a comment on Sam Jordison's blog about the English middle classes, Organic Peas and Orderly Queues.

I argued that Lewes was one of the most middle class towns in Britain and cited two examples, one of which was this quote from an interview in local magazine Viva Lewes:

Question – “What did you have for breakfast?”

Answer – “I had baked millet and quinoa with steamed chicory and seaweed. And a cup of sage tea. My daughter had blueberries, yoghurt and nuts.”

That is only Exhibit A. I can produce a lot more evidence to prove that Lewes is a strong contender for the top spot, including the following signifiers:

  • A market town with a Liberal MP
  • Mainly pre-1900 buildings
  • No branch of McDonalds
  • A local currency
  • At least two classical concerts per week
  • A higher than average number of Lesbian couples
  • A lack of chain stores
  • Tasteful, subdued Christmas lights in the town centre
  • At least half a dozen "lifestyle" shops selling overpriced clothes and kitcheware
  • A high proportion of graduates
Sam has responded with this excellent post about Lewes, which certainly lends support to my campaign. But it can only be a matter of time before the citizens of Southwold or Hebden Bridge make their own claim, so I'll have to keep compiling evidence.

I tried to find a YouTube clip of one of my favourite Lewes activities, the Dance of Disobedience, during which a group of local people celebrated the life of former resident Tom Paine through the medium of dance. Sadly, I drew a blank.

However I did find this:

If you're still not convinced, check out the website of one of the most popular independent shops in Lewes (so popular, it now has three branches), Wickle. You'll find no nasty plastic children's toys in Wickle and if little Bruno wants a fire engine for Christmas, they probably have a tasteful one made from responsibly forested Norwegian spruce (actually, I love Wickle and I'm the proud owner of one of their very reasonably-priced wooden toy castles).

Wickle is the quintessential Lewes shop.

I could go on, but instead I'd urge you to join in the debate at Organic Peas and Orderly Queues, where you can become a middle class traitor! You don't have to live in Britain. I've witnessed the same phenomenon in the USA.

I know some people who have read this blog before might wonder, why do I keep banging on about class? Does it really matter?

Well, no and yes. On the one hand, this blog post is just a bit of fun, gently mocking the fact that we all too often express our individuality by slavishly imitating people who seem to share the same values. But there is also a more serious side to this debate, namely the fact that even in 2010, every newborn baby's destiny is shaped by a postcode lottery.

Visit any class of infants and you'll be struck by how bright and curious most of them are, regardless of their social background. Return six years later and the disparity between the middle class children and the poorest can be dispiriting.

As much as I make fun of certain aspects of Lewes, it comes closer to my vision of how life should be lived than most places, although I draw the line at quinoa for breakfast.

The Divine Comedy - the ultimate middle class band.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Clogs and Shawls

If someone had told me that my mother would be staying with us for six weeks this year, I would have shuddered with horror. As much as I love her, we are very different people and have little in common. However, it has been remarkably easy.

I have had to make some sacrifices, including watching Wycliffe every evening, enduring the public humiliation of buying the Daily Mail and eating a diet of bland, garlic-free meals, but I can live with these.

The one thing I am having a problem with is my mother's addiction to romantic novels.

My mother is the perfect guest in many ways and demands very little, but there is one exception: when it comes to books, she is like a crack addict. She has a ten-a-week habit and starts to become nervous if she is getting near to the end of the last new book.

I am having real problems keeping pace with my mother's addiction. How do I know which titles she hasn't read before? There's no point looking at the blurb, as most of the books seem to have the same basic plot:

When Kitty Grindstone's parents drown at sea, she is sent to an orphanage where she is beaten daily. Then, at 16, she meets the handsome squire's son, Jasper Cadman, who promises to show her the love that she so desperately craves. But when Kitty reveals that she is pregnant, Cadman cruelly disowns her. Alone in the world, without a roof over her head, Kitty climbs the snow-covered Yorkshire Dales to join her beloved parents in Heaven. Little does she know that her salvation may lie with a simple farmer's son called Jeremiah Ingleby...

Or something like that.

Luckily, there are so many books to choose from, I'm in little danger of buying the same book twice (how does my mother manage to remember what she's read, when the plots all seem to follow the same pattern?)

In the book trade, this genre is known as Clogs and Shawls. They are bought by female, working-class readers, generally over 50, and are usually written by women (or men pretending to be women, like Emma Blair). Publishers and booksellers can be very dismissive about these novels, but they are the bread and butter of the publishing industry. Without these tales of poverty and illegitimacy, there would be fewer first novels by unknown authors.

My mother likes them because they seem realistic. She has no interest in reading about middle-class people or foreigners (so that's over 90% of fiction out of the picture). She wants to read about the world she grew up in and if the plots of these novels seem melodramatic, I have to remind myself that they're tame compared to my mother's family history.

I couldn't help smiling to myself when, last week, my mother complained that she was running out of books to read, as she was sitting in front of my bookcase at the time. I looked at the shelves of books behind her and wondered if there was a single title that I could persuade her to read. What about the ultimate clogs and shawls novel, Jane Eyre?

And why was she running out of books so quickly? I decided to ask my mother and she sheepishly admitted that she only read the dialogue. She has now agreed to read the prose passages as well, so I should be able to keep pace with my mother's insatiable desire for family sagas until she goes home.

Whenever that is.