On Saturday afternoon I walked in the dark through heavy rain to Lewes station, listening to Kate Bush's Hounds of Love album for the first time since the 1980s. I've no idea what possessed me to download that particular album, but it was a Kate Bush sort of day.
By the time I arrived at the station I was cold and wet, but the arriving train offered an hour of warmth, light and comfort while it slowly made its way to Hastings. I found a window seat, gave up on The Big Sky and skipped to the far superior Mother Stands For Comfort. Suddenly I was back in the front room of my home in Teddington, lying on the garish pink carpet of our lounge. As Noel Coward (another Teddington resident) once wrote, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is".
Sitting in the aisle next to mine was a 50-something air stewardess who was so heavily made-up that she unfortunately looked like a transexual. I wondered what it must be like to spend so many years in a job that was perceived by many as glamorous, but in reality offered little but tedium and stress, with the added pressure of having to match the energy and enthusiasm of younger colleagues.
I was now on what used to be the b-side of the Hounds of Love and lamented the demise of the vinyl album, where each side had its own distinct identity and a sense of it being a thing in itself, rather than simply a medium for listening to music. I loved the act of removing the sleeve from the album, followed by the slight, static resistance of the record as you tried to pull it out, the faint smell of vinyl, the alignment of the hole with the centre and the bump of the stylus landing on the lead-in to the first track, followed by a few seconds of click-filled silence.
Of course, at the time the clicks drove me crazy and if someone had told me that in 25 years, someone would invent a device that stored hundreds of hours of music and played with hiss and click-free sound, I would have been delighted.
I noticed a slight movement in the corner of my eye and saw that the stewardess was looking at me and smiling, as if in response to a joke that we'd shared earlier. A voice announced the next station and the stewardess raised her eyes as if to say "See what I mean?"
After Jig of Life, which I still like, I decided to abandon Kate Bush. I can happily listen to a piece of classical music that I loved 30 years ago, but revisiting an once-loved album always leaves me with mixed feelings.
At Bexhill the air hostess turned to me again and looked around the carriage in mock-exasperation. I had clearly missed something. I shrugged my shoulders in a "C'est la vie!" manner and hoped that this was the right response. It seemed to be.
At Hastings I met up with an old colleague from Ottakar's.
12 years ago we both worked in London and regularly met up for drinking sessions in a variety of louche pubs for a cathartic rant about the people who were annoying us. I always enjoyed our drinks, but sometimes they got out of hand. One morning I woke up to discover a third degree burn on my leg and to this day, I have no idea how it happened.
During a slightly more restrained drink at the First In Last Out pub, we talked about how much we missed working in the book trade where, at the time, we felt that we were part of something. We went to launch parties, read novels months before they were published and enjoyed some wonderfully surreal encounters with authors. We had fun.
The contrast between the quiet, mud-filled world of the present and the
noisy, stimulating world of the past nagged at me. Suddenly, I wished I
was leaving work in South Kensington and catching a 49 bus to Clapham
Junction, where I'd meet some friends in an absurd bar with a swimming
pool. But then I remembered that when I was sitting in those bars, drinking absinthe with someone I'd met 15 minutes earlier, I dreamed of ending up somewhere like here:
The moral of the story could be that boring old "Be careful what you wish for..." cliche that's regularly trotted out. I do find my life a little too monastic these days. However, I would hate to be one of those launch party stalwarts who never move on, still knocking back the bottles of Becks in their mid-40s, unsuccessfully trying to chat-up a publishing assistant who could be their daughter.
I turned to my ex-colleague: "I think we miss being younger and the book trade before it became a bit crap". Not a terribly eloquent summing-up, but I was on my third pint. She agreed.
It's one of life's tragedies that alcohol liberates the mind, only to enslave it in banal, half-baked assertions that don't withstand any degree of scrutiny. However, we were abstemious enough to reach several conclusions:
1. It was fun while it lasted, but it had to end (insert youth, getting away with it or any other apposite phrase).
2. Bookselling isn't what it used to be.
3. We loved the books, but never really enjoyed managing bookshops. Once we found ourselves in charge of 15 people, responsible for the tedious administration tasks that resulted from this, our enthusiasm waned.
We finished the evening with a curry and as we walked back to Hastings station, I felt a sense of gratitude that I had met so many good people through the book trade. I may spend my days working amongst consumptive calves, listening to Polish techno music and Heart FM power ballads, but a warm pub and good conversation are only an email away.