Friday, November 18, 2011

Travels With My Aunt

Last week, during a particularly depressing, overcast, autumnal day, I decided to clear out the loft. I say loft, but after converting most of it into a third bedroom, all we have left are some hidden eaves which look like the sorts of places where people used to hide from the Gestapo.

Getting into the eaves requires a Houdini-like dexterity, as the space is so narrow. Getting out is even harder, reminding me of the claustrophobic tunnel scenes in The Great Escape. On several occasions, when my wife has failed to hear my hysterical shouting, I've had to phone her and ask to be rescued.

Fortunately, this time I seemed to be more pliable (perhaps six weeks away from the 9 to 5 routine has relaxed my tensed muscles?) and managed to move around easily, unpacking boxes that had remained unopened since we moved here ten years ago.

Almost everything I found was of no use or value to anyone, but there was one exception: a small square box with a Super 8 cine film inside.

This is what it contained:

The woman pushing twigs into the kettle was my mother's sister, Patricia Eunice Dorothy Prior, who worked as a midwife in a small town at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco. Officially she was a missionary, sponsored by a number of churches in Britain, but as it was against the law to promote any religion other than Islam, my aunt had to limit her activities to good works.

Pat grew up in a family of six who lived in the upstairs half of a small, terraced house. She shared a bed with her two sisters and at night she would lie awake listening to the sound of mice scuttling across the floor.

My aunt, on the left

Her parents' ambitions for her were typical for their background: at 14 she could either go into service or get a job in a shop. But Pat was bright. She passed her 11 Plus and got into Richmond Grammar School, where she sat her final exams during an air raid.

If Pat had come from another background she might have gone to university, but higher education was never an option. Fortunately, her parents didn’t object when Pat announced that she wished to train as a nurse.

My aunt during her training, on the left (above) and second row, third from left (below)

By all accounts Pat was an exceptional student and the skills she learned at West Middlesex Hospital would prove invaluable a few years later, when she decided to train to become a missionary. In Pat’s words, she had a ‘calling’ and felt compelled to pursue it. A gruelling training at Bible College followed, during which Pat had to learn to become fluent at reading and writing Arabic.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for Pat when she first arrived in Morocco, where a young, single woman was a second-class citizen. However, during the next 25 years, my aunt carved out a successful life for herself, respected by everyone in the community.

It helped that almost every person under the age of 20 had been delivered by my aunt, sometimes under difficult conditions. Many local families felt that they owed Pat a debt.

When I was 16, Pat invited me to stay with her. We couldn’t afford to travel as a family, so I flew alone to Casablanca and met my aunt at the airport. It was a 300km journey to her home and, as we drove south, my preconceived notions of an arid, desert-like country were replaced by vivid memories of lush pine forests, snow-capped mountains and orange-blossom scented air.

It was a culture shock. I had grown up in a dull London suburb, where evening meals alternated between fish fingers and beef burgers. Suddenly, I was plunged into an alien world of strange food, exotic landscapes and opulent souks.

I had been terrified of eating the local food (particularly when I learned that I would have to eat everything that was put in front of me), but I needn’t have worried. After two weeks of dates, artichokes, couscous, mint tea and carrot and orange salad, I learned that eating could be a pleasure as well as a necessity.

Morocco changed my life. It awakened me to a new, sensual world of smell, taste and colour. But, more importantly, for the first time in my life I learned to see my own society more objectively, realising that happiness was not related to GDP.

I was in a privileged position in many ways. As my aunt enjoyed some prestige in the local area, we were invited into several homes and I was struck by the contrast between the public and private worlds of the local people. Outside, I only saw impoverished-looking mud-brick walls and austere, veiled women. Inside, the veils came down and I found myself in colourful, comfortable rooms, full of laughter and conversation.

Using my aunt as an interpreter, I was able to have conversations with people and, perhaps because of my age, I could get away with asking direct questions.

I had arrived at the right time too. Television aerials were starting to appear on buildings, but the town was still largely cut off from the outside world. As a European, I could have encountered some hostility, but the days of French colonialism belonged to a past generation and religious enmities belonged to a future one. I was treated as an honoured guest.

When I returned home, I felt very depressed for a while. I looked out of my bedroom window at the different shades of grey, from the slate roofs of houses to the low-lying clouds, and yearned for blue skies, prickly pears and orange blossom. I could see why my aunt didn’t want to come home.

Nine years later, my aunt was reluctantly contemplating retirement in Britain. She would have to swap social status and a large house for the genteel poverty of a state pension and a pokey flat. I think she dreaded it.

Pat came home for a short visit to sort out her affairs and work out where she was going to live. On the last day, I said goodbye to my aunt and wanted to hug her, but Pat wasn’t a physically demonstrative person and I was afraid that I might unnerve her, as if we were saying goodbye for the last time.

The next day Pat arrived at Tangiers Airport and was planning to get a lift home from a friend, but a Moroccan lawyer was waiting for her and insisted that she travelled with him instead. He was interested in buying her house and wanted to get her signature on some of the legal documents. They argued for a few minutes until Pat finally agreed.

During the journey from the airport, a lorry crashed into the side of the lawyer’s car. My aunt died a few hours later. The lawyer escaped with a few scratches.

Most of my aunt’s friends were Christians and their attempts to find some meaning in her death only increased my sense of the utter futility of it. I couldn’t accept the argument that some crude form of divine intervention had spared my aunt the horrors of retired life in England. I know that she would have made a successful new life for herself and been a doting great-aunt to my sons.

My aunt’s death was tragic and pointless, however her life certainly wasn’t, because I know that in a small town 2000 miles away, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives that wouldn’t have been lived without her.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chair Way To Devon

According to my wife I am impulsive, frequently making rash, reckless decisions that I later regret. I'm not sure how true this is. My most impulsive act - spontaneously booking a flight to Chile because the weather in February was depressing me - made perfect sense.

I would also argue that it was due to my impulsiveness that we got on the property ladder, during a brief lull in the housing market.

However, the case for the prosecution has become much stronger recently, thanks to a moment of madness on eBay a couple of weeks ago, when I made a winning bid (in fact the only bid) for four Edwardian chairs.

It seemed too good to be true: £40 for the lot. Surely I could sell them for at least £200?

It was only after I'd congratulated myself for winning the chairs that I realised that collecting them would involve a 350-mile round trip to Devon.

I don't mind driving long distances in the Nevada desert, but in Britain it's an endurance course of roundabouts, roadworks, caravans and geriatric drivers. I was very tempted to pull out and tell the seller that they could keep the money.

However, this morning I began the long drive along the coast of southern England. To make the journey bearable, I had several CDs of Radio Four podcasts: a recent Start the Week, from Sydney, with Thomas Keneally, Kate Grenville and Deborah Cheetham; the first episode of a dramatisation of 'Life and Fate'; a documentary about Elgar during the First World War and two episodes of 'Desert Island Discs', with Diana Athill and Ann Leslie.

When 'Life and Fate' was first broadcast as a BBC radio drama, two months ago, I considered listening to it as an alternative to tackling the dauntingly thick book. But in another edition of Start the Week, Linda Grant was so persuasive about Life and Fate's status as one of the great 20th century novels, I felt I had to read the book.

I'm really glad I did.The radio adaptation is perfectly fine, but it's very different from the book and barely scratches the surface of Grossman's complex, profound masterpiece.

Sadly, just as the episode really started to take off, I hit a succession of roundabouts and every other minute the Satnav lady bellowed instructions at me, which was rather distracting:

"Ludymila, we are returning to Moscow! We must TAKE THE SECOND EXIT AT THE NEXT ROUNDABOUT."

I arrived at the house just before 11.00. Luckily, I remembered the Remembrance Sunday two minutes' silence in time to avoid any faux pas.

In the window of the front door, there was a slightly intimidating notice warning that the owners possessed a ferocious, possibly illegal dog. I wondered what I was letting myself in for. Fortunately, the seller was a really nice man who seemed genuinely concerned that I had made such a ridiculously long journey (I'm not sure if it was my physical or mental health that he was worried about).

On the way back I decided to make a detour to one of my favourite places - Lyme Regis:

The Cobb hasn't changed very much since Jane Austen described it in 'Persuasion'. Today it wasn't quite as dramatic as the opening scene in 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (when Meryl Streep's stunt double was nearly washed into the sea) and people confidently ambled along the occasionally treacherous stones:

I've lost count of how many times I've been to Lyme. I used to dream of running the bookshop there and imagined walking along the seafront during winter storms, searching for fossils that had been loosened from the crumbling, slate cliffs.

During the journey home, I discovered that 300,000 Londoners used the Underground to shelter from air raids in the First World War, compared to 150,000 during the Blitz. I also learned about the enforced separation of Australian Aboriginal babies from their mothers, Diana Athill's first kiss and Ann Leslie's bizarre meeting with Indira Gandhi.

It might have been a long drive, but there are worse ways of spending a day than driving through pleasant countryside, listening to intelligent conversation.

I now have four chairs to sell (which I may end up keeping) and I'm relieved to say that my rather pathetic inventory of 42 books has now increased to 437. Only 7563 books to go.

One other piece of good news: I now also have a 'Steerforth Books' header, which has subtle echoes of the Downs and 1940s book jackets. I shall be using this on my website when it's launched next year:

I can't wait to get started.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Arcane Fire

I'm feeling a little fragile today, as I celebrated November 5th at my next door neighbours' house and whenever I go there, things always get out of hand. I don't know how much I had to drink, but at some point in the evening I became an expert on subjects as diverse as French history and Arcade Fire.

Luckily I think I got away with it.

Our party included a French woman and a Canadian girl who had never seen the famous Lewes bonfire procession before, so we tried to prepare them for some of the more bizarre aspects of the evening.

Last year my neighbour forgot to warn a visitor - a black South African - that the parade included some local people 'blacked-up' and dressed as Zulus. She said that it was a slightly uncomfortable moment, but luckily he was more bemused than horrified.

It's estimated that every November 5th, the town's population swells from 16,000 to 60,000, much to the annoyance of many locals. However, there is a quieter part of Lewes where the crowds are bearable.

Here's a short video that I took last night:

The next video, which I didn't take, gives a much better idea of the scale of the crowds and the wonderful sense of anarchy that pervades the town:

I think there was an attempt, a few years ago, to address the obvious health and safety issues, but officials gave up in despair. However, beyond the facade of chaos and pyromania, there are plenty of people on hand - from St John's Ambulance volunteers to plain-clothes police officers - to ensure that the public are safe.

According to the BBC, last night there were 15 arrests and 170 injuries, only two of which were serious (and not caused by fireworks).

Apparently it used to be a lot worse before the 1850s. I wonder why things changed?

Friday, November 04, 2011


I am now selling antiques.

I'm not quite sure how this happened, but an earlier joke about becoming the Lovejoy of bookselling has turned out to be remarkably prescient.

(I read somewhere that Lovejoy has been shown in 127 countries, however if you are from Iran and haven't seen the pirated Farsi-dubbed DVDs, I should explain that he is a fashion icon and widely-respected specialist in antiquties, whose chaste courtship with a woman called Lady Jane would surely appeal to even the most conservative clerics.)

I fully intended to stick to books - that's what I know about - but when I saw a set of Edwardian chairs on sale for £40 on eBay, I couldn't resist and made a winning bid, with only seconds to go.

I wish the chairs weren't in Devon - 320 miles seems a long way to travel in one day, but I'm convinced that I can make a decent mark-up if I ensure that the chairs are well-photographed and the auction ends on a weekend evening (when many potential buyers will have had a few drinks).

Even if I don't make any money, the chairs will have served their purpose by making me realise that there's no earthly reason why I have to stick to books. I can sell anything I like, as long as I make a profit.

Indeed, earlier in the week, I contemplated emailing the person who's designing my logo and getting them to scrap the word 'books'.

But just as I was losing any faith in getting some stock, the phone rang. It was a man who'd just seen an advert I'd placed in a local paper: would I be interested in buying some military history books?

I scribbled down the address and agreed to drive over the following morning.

The next day, as I rang the bell of a stranger's house in a town I'd never been to before, I wondered what to expect. An older man opened the door and asked me to remove my shoes and go upstairs. I quickly checked the number to make sure that I had the right house (after an embarrassing incident where I unwittingly turned up to someone else's massage appointment).

It was the right place.

I was led into a bedroom which, to my relief, had several boxes of books. My heart sank when I saw a pile of short story anthologies (they're impossible to sell), but some of the other titles were more promising.

I'd been worrying about how to agree on a price - I hate haggling - and made what I thought was a fair offer. He accepted it immediately, which made me wonder if I could have got away with less. But although I need to make a living, I don't want to rip people off. There has to be an honourable compromise.

I now have 38 books, plus a kind donation from the Poet Laura-eate, bringing the total inventory to 42 titles. That's about 0.5% of the total I need to achieve what my old boss James Heneage always used to refer to as 'critical mass'.

It's going to be a long, hard slog.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Deep End

I've just watched an extraordinary 1970 British film called 'Deep End'. It received widespread critical acclaim when it was released and was a huge success at the Venice Film Festival. But in spite of this, it became almost completely forgotten in the years that followed and until recently, nobody was sure if any prints had survived.

Fortunately, a copy was found recently and the BFI have just released a cleaned-up version on Blu-ray and DVD.

Here's a trailer:

I say 'British' film, but in fact it was financed by the USA and West Germany, written and directed by a Pole - Jerzy Skolimowski - and mostly shot in Munich, with a superb soundtrack by the 'Krautrock' band Can. However, it feels authentically home grown, capturing the depressed, 'morning after' feel of the early 70s perfectly.

The film stars Jane Asher and the 16-year-old John Moulder-Brown. I'd never heard of Moulder-Brown and for people of my age, Jane Asher was that nice middle-aged lady who made cakes and used to go out with Paul McCartney. I had no idea what a fantastic actress she was, or how devastatingly sexy she could be.

Indeed, the whole film is one of the sexiest things I've ever seen on screen, as Jane Asher's Susan teases and plays with the pubescent passions of 15-year-old Mike. If I'd met Susan when I was 15, I wouldn't have stood a chance.

Here is the opening scene. As you'll see, there's some dodgy lip-synch going on with the baths' manager. That's because many of the actors were Germans, who must have been dubbed later:

'Deep End' also contains an extraordinary cameo from 1950s screen goddess, Diana Dors, who manages to create a wonderfully grotesque scene that is both comic and deeply unsettling, with an unusual reversal of gender roles.

Dors appears here at the beginning and end of this clip, but if you don't want to see all six minutes, skip to 4:04:

Finally, before I end up posting the whole film, I particularly liked this scene. The interplay between Jane Asher's Susan and Erica Beer's cashier works very well, but the red paint almost steals the show:

I was planning to write a long post about 'Deep End'. However, I found this excellent Guardian article by Ryan Gilbey which says what I was going to say, but far more eloquently. This review by Christopher Weedman is also worth reading.

It's strange how British this film feels, given that it was conceived and filmed by a Polish director who had never filmed in Britain before. Like Emeric Pressburger before him, Jerzy Skolimowski managed to take a universal theme and make it seem both quintessentially British and utterly alien at the same time.

The result is a triumph.