Monday, September 26, 2011

Caption Competition

My favourite finds from this afternoon:

Most of my captions are too rude to repeat.

Any suggestions?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Horror

This afternoon, my oldest son and I caught a taxi to Ditchling Beacon and walked home along the South Downs Way. My son didn't want to go, but he is still young enough to be manipulated by false promises and cheap incentives. Once he was up on the Downs, the grunting and shoulder shrugging were replaced with animated conversations about serial killers and horror films.

It was a beautiful day, but halfway between the summer and winter solstices, the light had a muted quality, as if the sun itself was failing.

Frustratingly, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, my mind played through a tracklist of annoying music: the theme tune of Lazy Town, a Sousa march, something by the Black-Eyed Peas, If You're Happy and You Know Clap Your Hands (my one gesture of defiance at primary school was to hold my hands wide apart during this song).

Then I started wondering if I hadn't made a terrible mistake when I handed my notice in. Every other news story last week seemed to be about the imminent collapse of the Western economy. Was this a good time to be leaving paid employment and setting up a business? Was I even setting up a business, or was I just quitting my job and pretending that I wasn't unemployed?

A man on a hang-glider hovered 50 feet above us, gently rising with the thermals. It was so quiet and the air so still that he must have heard my son's voice:

"Dad, ask me about any serial killer and I bet I'll have heard of them. Do you know about Leatherface? Do know what he did?"

Three weeks ago he knew nothing about Leatherface, but now that my son has started at secondary school he's suddenly a man of the world, determined to earn respect from his peers with his encyclopaedic knowledge of horror films that he has never actually seen. I hope.

The walk from Ditchling Beacon is perfect: only six miles and downhill all the way, with glorious views of the Weald on one side and the coast on the other. It is mostly open countryside, following ancient paths that enabled people to avoid the dense forests of the lowlands. Sadly, wooded areas like 'Black Cap' are a rarity now:

Further on, Lewes appeared in the distance, so far away that like an astronaut on the moon, I could blot it out with one hand. I liked the fact that it was so finite. I had grown up in suburban London, where one town simply merged into another, sometimes worse than the previous mile, sometimes better.

A young girl galloped past on a colt and I felt a vicarious rush of pleasure. My son turned to me:

"Dad, can we watch The Ring? Not the original version - that's an 18, but the American one, because that's only 15. Don't ask Mum, she'll say no. Can we? Several of my friends at school have seen it."

He reeled off a list of names that sounded like characters from Blake's Seven. Why aren't children just called John and Mary any more? I blame Dynasty and Home and Away.

As we reached the outskirts of Lewes, I realised how many things had changed in the last year. We'd had an awful time, but it hadn't lasted. Seeing my mother, blissfully happy in her new home and my son, confidently ambling home with his new friends at a school I never thought we'd get him to, I felt relief more than joy; like someone who has survived a storm at sea.

We turned the corner into our road and I told my son that he'd just walked six miles, rather than the three I'd led him to believe. "You didn't get even slightly tired. You should be proud of yourself."

He turned to me. "Dad, when we get home, will you watch Creep with me?"

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Birds, Cars and Wood

Do you like vintage motor cars and wildfowl? Then Bentley Wildfowl and Motor Museum is the place for you.

I can't say I've ever regarded birds and cars as natural bedfellows for a musuem (and the squashed pheasants on the driveway would seem to vindicate this view), but Bentley does have a strange, indefinable charm. If you're in the area and fancy a walk in beautiful surroundings, I'd recommend it.

I took my wife and sons there today to visit a 'wood fair', which was as worthy and middle class as it sounds, but not quite as dull. My youngest son, who began the visit by sitting on the grass and shouting "I HATE WOOD!" gradually perked up once he realised that it could be deployed as a weapon:

There was a slightly menacing, pre-apocalyptic atmosphere at the wood fair, as if people were preparing themselves for an imminent disaster. In addition to the usual selection of fairly hideous garden ornaments and obscure country crafts, I noticed a lot more knives and survival tools.

I can see the temptation to become self-sufficient in an increasingly uncertain world. But if the oil ran out and things kicked off, what would happen? I once asked a man who was a bit of an old hippy and ran a smallholding what he would do. Without hesitating, he replied: "Find the nearest gun shop and get tooled-up".

It wasn't quiet the answer I was expecting.

To add to the surreal atmosphere, at one point I found myself sitting in the carriage of a miniature railway, travelling at 5mph, discussing The Wire with two 11-year-olds.

At the wood fair we met a couple whose son was in the same class as ours. They had recently moved down from Stoke Newington and I found myself wondering if I would ever meet anyone in Lewes who didn't come from north London. I'm convinced that there is some sort of Stargate-style portal in Hackney that sucks middle-class people in once they have children and sends them off to Lewes, Southwold, North Norfolk and Brighton.

Where do all the real Lewes people go?

Actually, I did recently learn that a friend of my wife's came from St Margarets, only a mile or so from where I grew up in SW London. As children we'd been to the same parks, shops and cinemas, travelled on the same buses and, later, drank in the same pubs, but it had taken her years to bother mentioning where she came from.

There was also something else that she took ages to reveal. Occasionally the friend would mention various members of her family, including a step-mother called Beryl. One day last year, she said that she was worried about her half-sister, as Beryl was dying of cancer and the funeral would probably be quite a big 'do' because Beryl had published a few novels and knew lots of people. My wife nodded sympathetically, then suddenly the penny dropped:

"Hang on, do you mean that Beryl?"

It's strange how we can sometimes talk so much about ourselves without revealling things that others would regard as fundamental.

We had a good chat with the couple from Stoke Newington (at least as good as you can have within the context of constantly of being constantly interrupted by children) and at one point the husband asked me how long we'd lived in Lewes. I realised that it was ten years next month.

"Do you feel local?"

I hesitated and surprised myself with the answer: "No. Not quite. It hasn't happened yet."

My wife disagreed. Ten years of standing in playgrounds twice a day has given her a good network of friends and acquaintances. But my days have tended to involve getting in a car and driving somehere 25 miles away. Whenever I had a drink with someone, it usually took place in London.

Perhaps I need to join something, but I'm not quite sure what.

As we drove back to Lewes, I looked at the clouds over the South Downs and couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I may not be a local yet, but it does feel like home.

That must count for something.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Turning the Key

A beautiful day - a tantalising glimpse of the summer we never had. I don't know if it's anything to do with global warming, but the English summer now seems to take place in April and May, with a monsoon season in July and August. It's very odd.

I had to drive to a farm to drop off a cheque for the deposit and first month's rent for Steerforth Books. I had no idea where I was going, but had been given a postcode for the satnav and blindly followed directions which took me onto increasingly narrower and emptier roads. I'd forgotten how sinister the English countryside can be (I blame this on watching reruns of the Avengers).

I ended up driving for miles along a deserted lane, wondering if I was going to end up in a ditch with the satnav lady announcing "You have now reached your destination", whilst some grinning toothless locals began untying the string around their trousers. Fortunately this is Sussex, not the Appalachians.

The farm turned out to be a beautiful, large Georgian house, with breathtaking views of the South Downs. I handed the cheque over and felt a pang of remorse for the fact that I will probably never be able to afford to live somewhere like this.

Driving to the next destination, I listened to a podcast of 'Broadcasting House'. Francesca 'Horrid Henry' Simon, Tori Amos and a bloke whose name I never caught were talking about being in New York on 9/11. More recent events like the invasion of Iraq have faded into the recesses of my memory, but I remember September 11th as if it was yesterday.

I arrived at Steerforth Books. Peter, the gentleman farmer, was out on his tractor doing agricultural things, but another man handed me the key and at last I was able to take possession of the new unit:

It's not big, but if I'm clever about it I think I can get around 8,000 books in this room, which should be enough to generate a reasonable income. I won't get rich - most of the books won't sell - but hopefully the children will have shoes on their feet. The main challenge will be to find enough stock to reach this magic figure. I have a few potential sources.

So Steerforth Books is almost a reality. I have a business account, domain name (com and, office unit and even a little bit of stock. I can't say that I'm looking forward to the sheer, unmitigated tedium of building 46 feet of shelving (and given my track record in DIY, it will probably collapse at some point), but without it there will be no Steerforth Books.

In the meantime I'm still going into work, three days a week, getting things ready for my successor. It feels strange going through the motions of the working day, making decisions about a future that I won't be part of. I will be glad to leave the world of '9 to 5', but I'll also miss several people more than they probably realise.

In some ways it feels like a very early retirement, leaving the 'real' world of work for a John Bull Printing Set fantasy. But work can simply be work. We don't have to be part of an organisation: commuting, attending meetings and working in open plan offices. Paunches and stomach ulcers are optional, not compulsory.

But whilst a part of me relishes the idea of leaving office life behind, another part feels a deep sense of loss.

No more talking about last night's telly. No more "Did you see the quiz night Phil?", followed by detailed postmortems of 'University Challenge' and 'Only Connect'. I have met some good people through work.

I apologise if this blog has lost its 'mojo' at the moment. The amusing covers and photographs have been thin on the ground recently. I had hoped to publish one final installment of the Derek diaries, but - and you'll have to take my word for this - they are mostly very dull and I have struggled to find any more material that is worth publishing. I haven't completely given up.

So until Steerforth Books is fully established, this blog will limp along like a consumptive war veteran, looking back to better days, hoping (perhaps unrealistically), for better times ahead.

Finally, as far as a Steerforth Books logo is concerned, I have been particularly dim. When I first visited my new farm unit last week, I need only have turned my head 45 degrees to have seen one of the most striking 'logos' of all time:
Nobody knows how old the possibly prehistoric Long Man of Wilmington is, or indeed why it's there, but in theory you can't miss it. I did.

But then one September in 1995, I managed to spend a whole day travelling around Manhattan without noticing the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The next morning I caught an American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles, blissfully ignorant of what the future held.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Listening Without Prejudice

You may want to just completely skip this post. It's about opera. I won't be offended if you do.

I was looking forward to meeting some old friends in London yesterday, but sadly my stomach had other ideas. Instead, I have spent the weekend in a horizontal position, looking at YouTube clips and catching up with people's blogs.

I found quite a few gems, including this post about Roddy McDowell's home movies, this beautifully-written anecdote and this photograph, which appeals in so many ways.

However, the thing that gave me the most pleasure was finding this (best viewed in full screen mode):

I went to see this performance of Shostakovich's 'Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District' almost exactly five years ago and wasn't sure what to expect. I had never been to an opera before and had some deeply-held prejudices about overweight singers and overpaid audiences.

I wasn't overjoyed when I discovered that the whole thing lasted for over three hours.

However, it was a truly magical evening and at last, I understood why some people were so fanatical about opera. Aside from Shostakovich's wonderful music, which incensed Stalin so much he banned the opera immediately, I was bowled over by the set design, the costumes and the wonderful singing.

Shostakovich wrote the opera in his 20s and the music buzzes with youthful energy and bawdy humour. I had imagined that the Royal Opera House would attract a rather stuffy crowd, but people were rocking with laughter at the saucy jokes and satirical digs.

I don't like flying, but I'd travel halfway around the world to see this production again. Sadly, the airfare would probably still be cheaper than a seat in the balcony.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

All at Sea

This morning I found a home for 'Steerforth Books': a small unit within a converted agricultural outbuilding, owned by a gentleman farmer called Peter*.

I had wanted somewhere in Lewes, but this option makes much more financial sense for the time being. The rent is very reasonable and if my business turns out to be an unmitigated disaster, I only have to give a month's notice.

I suppose that I should have visited lots of properties and carefully weighed up the options, but what's the point? I liked the office and I liked Peter. Also, with only three weeks left before I leave the comfortable world of paid employment, I need to get cracking.

I'll hopefully take possession of the unit next week and my first priority will be to install shelving for up to 10,000 books. I had thought of doing the shelves myself, but I've no desire to suffer the same fate as the French composer Alkan, who was killed by a falling bookcase. I think I'll ask an expert.

After the shelving, I need to sort out internet access, buy some desks and chairs and set up seller accounts on marketplaces like Amazon. Once that's done, I can start ordering the stock. None of this will feel real until I actually have some books.

At some point during the next few months, I'll also launch a website. I've been think of a logo and have scoured the internet for images of the original Steerforth from David Copperfield, but this was all I can find:

Steerforth all at sea? I'm not sure if it sends out the right signals.

Does anyone have any bright ideas for a logo or accompanying font? Most of my stock will be general titles from the 20th and late 19th centuries, with a few rare and antiquarian books thrown in. I certainly won't be 'high end', but I don't want to look like the bargain basement either.

What sort of things would you find reassuring or attractive as a buyer if you stumbled across Steerforth Books on the internet?

I'm resigned to opening a Twitter account, wading through the tedium of Google analytics and possibly beginning a new Facebook page (although I think that Facebook has 'jumped the shark').

Failing that, I could go viral with a book-related video on YouTube. 'Happy slapping' is so last decade, so perhaps a flashmob in the reading room of the British Library, or my five-year-old son and his friends dressing up in their Fireman Sam outfits and recreating 'Fahrenheit 451' would grab some attention? I'm not convinced.

Maybe I should just stick to selling good books at a slightly cheaper price than everyone else, wrap them in decent packaging and make sure that they're posted promptly?

Anyway, any suggestions would be much appreciated.

* NB - By 'gentleman farmer', I mean a farmer who is a gentleman, not a man of leisure who dabbles in farming.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Language Problem

During the last year I've been trying to learn French. It has been a struggle, as I'm not very good at learning languages (I achieved the lowest mark for Welsh in the history of the University of Wales). The only time I have been able to pick up a language is when I've been immersed in another culture, cut off from English speakers.

I like to tell myself that this is because I am a musical person who learns aurally rather than visually. But it could just be that I'm bone idle and only pick things up when deprived of any alternative. Either way, in an ideal world I would spend a few months working behind the bar at Chez Jacques, interacting with the locals to the point where, months later, Parisians would be appalled by my strong Toulouse accent.

Sadly, work and family committments have meant that it was unlikely that I would ever be pouring a glass of Ricard for Monsieur Bertillon, so I had to find a compromise.

At one point I joined an evening class, but soon discovered that it was actually a dating agency for middle-aged divorcees, masquerading as an educational course. As an alternative, I tried the traditional book and CD route, but it was really hard to assess how well I'd done. What was the answer?

After a long search, I found an internet course that combined traditional teaching methods (books - remember them?) with videos and exercises, where I could record myself and be assessed by native speakers. I could also join a social networking site and make friends with people in Francophone countries. Parfait!

Unfortunately the reality was a little disappointing. The feedback on my exercises amounted to little more than 'tres bien'! One or two brave souls remarked that my accent wasn't all it could be, but practical tips were thin on the ground.

The social networking didn't quite live up to expectations either:

This young woman is from the Ukraine and, as far as I can tell, doesn't speak French. However, she does have a fine collection of commemorative plates celebrating military helicopters. I'm not sure why she's wearing angel wings.

The French course taught me enough to ask a wide range of questions, but sadly left me completely unprepared for the answers. In some ways, knowing a bit of a language is worse than knowing nothing. It was humiliating.

I have decided to take a break from French for a while and try German, which seems to be easier in many ways, as it's more closely related to English. But there are two possible problems. First, I'm a little concerned that my pronunciation strays too easily into war film German: "Achtung! F√ľnf, vier, drei, zwei, eins...". Second, they have those terrifyingly long words, like bet√§ubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung. There's no excuse for that.

Perhaps I should just stick to French. But I'd rather speak three foreign languages badly than one reasonably well.

When I was 26 I went to Lanzarote. I didn't speak a word of Spanish and had an unfortunate incident which ended with me being dumped in a lava field at 2.00 in the morning, surrounded by hostile dogs. It was horrible and I know that if I'd been able to speak some Spanish, however badly, things would have been different.

(Fortunately, after wandering across the lava field for an hour, I was rescued by some local lads in a jeep who helped me find my house, driving at ridiculous speeds in the dark, along dirt tracks with terrifying vertiginous slopes. Once we found where I was staying, I invited them in for a drink and as they left, one of them suddenly handed me a huge lump of dope and said, with a grin, "See you in Hell")

After that experience, I learned some Spanish and reached a point where, a few years later in Chile, I was able to book hotel rooms and train tickets in Spanish over the phone. It was exhilirating.

But unless you have a particular affinity with one nation or linguistic group, does it make sense to limit your options? Wouldn't it be better to learn the essential 1000 words in several languages, unless you're one of those nauseating people who are naturally fluent in six languages? In the early part of the 20th century, some people would have had a simple answer: Esperanto.

Sadly, Esperanto is largely forgotten and I wouldn't be surprised if the most popular artificial language of today is Klingon. What a waste of time.

If anyone has any tips for learning a language that don't involve working in a bar for a year, I'd be interested to hear them.