Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sedimentary

The other day I took my younger son to Birling Gap where, at low tide, a rather dull, pebbly beach becomes an enchanted world of rockpools populated by crabs, anemones and fragile, transparent fish that dart into cracks the moment they sense danger. My son seemed disappointingly indifferent to the wonders of marine life, but later told someone that he was so happy he wanted to cry. Children are strange creatures.

What a contrast to his older brother, who is virtually imprisoned by an OCD that won't allow him to venture beyond the front door. It has taken me a while to realise how much my son's condition has changed our lives. Unlike an accident or conventional disease, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can assimilate itself so insidiously into the sufferer's world that even their family can't always recognise the huge tectonic shift that has taken place.

Why does one child possess the capacity for happiness whilst another is wretched? In my sons' case, the glib answer would be that the world is a much happier place when you're six than it is at 12, but I don't think that's the answer. Even at six, my oldest son was a troubled soul.

On the beach, I looked up at the cliffs and marvelled at the fact that they were made up of the skeletons of countless billions of marine creatures. On the clifftop, tiny figures walked along a thin, grassy topsoil, probably unaware that the solidity of the landscape was the result of so many forgotten, insignificant, prehistoric lives.

I looked at my son. What would he remember of this day, if anything? But did it even matter? Perhaps the sum total of who we are is like sedimentary rock, largely comprised of invisible, forgotten events that have helped to silently create solid foundations.

But I'd done all of these things - the rockpools, the forest walks, the zoo and the museums - with my oldest son, and they hadn't created a bedrock of security. If I could go back, what would I change? I can't think of an answer.

In many ways life has become very challenging. I have had to give up a secure job for the uncertainty of sporadic, freelance work. My wife and I now pass like ships in the night, taking it in turns to spend time with our oldest son. We aren't the house of spontaneity.

However, I feel quietly hopeful. The OCD has been very powerful, but it is no match for a neighbour's Border Collie that appeared one day on the doorstep, demanding to be taken for a walk. After witnessing several professional strategies fail, it was a surprise to see a dog have such a huge impact, but in many ways it made perfect sense. The front door has been breached.

The next phase will involve territorial expansion: a street corner today, the postbox tomorrow and the end of the road by Friday. But the dog may have its own ideas, guided by unknown smells and hidden memories. My son will follow the dog.

I've no idea what will happen next, but I'm now resigned to a life of living in a house that smells of dog, out in all weathers so that an incontinent canine can relieve itself.

I can't wait.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Joy and the Joystrings Update

Apologies to fans of Salvation Army rockers Joy and the Joystrings. When I saw this 1967 book, I assumed that it was a work of fiction:

However, thanks to MikeP, I now know that Joy and the Joystrings were a real band:

They were even signed to EMI and released albums like this:

And, during their LSD period, ones like this:

But what about the music? Actually, it's not bad (epilectic readers may wish to look away):



The song doesn't quite live up to the opening riff, which is deceptively mean n' moody, but they give Freddie and the Dreamers a run for their money.

The Joystrings appear to have dropped off the pop radar after 1970, but enjoyed a cult following in Salvation Army circles and staged a successful reunion in 2004. This tribute website includes some clips of the band in action.

I've threatened to add some Joy and the Joystrings to our holiday car music mix, but Mrs Steerforth has vetoed the idea, so it will have to be a private pleasure.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Sacred and the Profane

I'm now on Twitter. I resisted for several years but finally gave in a week ago; partly out of curiosity, but mainly because I was beginning to feel like a Luddite. After a few days in the Tweetosphere, I now realise what has happened to those bloggers who became increasingly quiet during the last couple of years.

I can see the uses of Twitter. A journalist friend of mine loves it, as he can canvas opinions, publicise interviews and shamelessly network. By the time he arrives at his desk, he has rubbed shoulders with thousands of fellow Londoners, checked out the latest business news and caught up with the trade gossip. By the time I arrive at my desk, I have passed a dead badger and wondered why people are now saying "Back in the day".

I'm not sure if I'm suited to Twitter. Sometimes it feels as if I'm at a party and although many of my favourite people are there, it's not quite working because I have to shout to make myself heard. It feels very ephemeral - a sometimes exciting, but an all-too-brief encounter, compared to the enduring relationships of the blogosphere. Perhaps I just need to give it more time.

One thing Twitter is very good for is posting amusing book jackets:

It sounds quite exciting and the couple in the photo look very animated, but a big bucket of cold water is thrown over the whole thing with the authors' names: Leonard P Barnett and Douglass A Griffiths (just so we don't confuse them with all the other Leonard Barnetts and Douglas Griffiths's).

There's certainly no adventure, unless you include trying to cop-off with someone under the disapproving glare of Leonard Barnett.

But if you're worried about young people falling under the spell of pop music, with its lustful rhythms and licentious lyrics, here is the answer:

As a bookseller, I missed out on the subgenre of novels related to the Salvation Army rock scene. Ignore it at your peril.

After church youth groups and Salvation Army pop concerts, marriage is surely inevitable and doesn't every young woman dream of a pipe-smoking, alsatian-holding man in a v-neck pullover and sta-press trousers that glow in the dark?

Look at him. He's every woman's fantasy:

I expect he has a lint-covered Murray mint in the deepest corner of his trouser pocket and a young male lover in the youth branch of the Bible Study group, but Avril won't know this until she's tidying out his wardrobe and discovers the gymnasium photos.

Bitter and disillutioned, Avril will put her old life behind her and embark on a new voyage of discovery:

This book was published in 1969:

One of the least-offensive limericks goes as follows:

There was a young lady of Cheam
Who crept into a vestry unseen
She pulled down her knickers
Likewise the vicar's
And said: "how's about it, old bean?"

As far as I know, there was no reprint.

As I've commented before, between the Lady Chatterley trial and the advent of AIDS, the media world appeared to have been obsessed with sex. Even classics weren't exempt:

Published as part of the 'Boudoir Book Selection'. I love the way it says 'COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED', implying that some very saucy bits have been left in. I wonder how many people bought this book in hope of some titilation, only to find themselves being lectured about political corruption during the reign of Louis Napoleon?

Finally, a novel which may strike a chord with zombie fans:

"Man, she had a shape to make corpses kick open caskets - and she was dead set on giving me rigor mortis".

I can't think of anything to add to that.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Hue and Cry

When I told someone that I spent this afternoon with my mother watching Hue and Cry, I couldn't understand why they looked so perplexed. Then the penny dropped. No, I explained, not the mid-80s Scottish pop duo. I was talking about the 1947 British film that is generally recognised as the first Ealing comedy:

My mother and I watch a lot of Ealing films together. She loves them because they give her the opportunity to revisit her the world of her youth. I love them because it beats listening to her repertoire of six anecdotes about other people's illnesses, which are repeated on a never-ending loop. Instead, we sit together in a companionable silence.

Hue and Cry may be the first Ealing comedy, but it is also a children's thriller, inspired by the wonderful Emile and the Detectives. The plot is simple enough: a teenage boy discovers that a children's comic called 'The Trump' contains secret messages aimed at London's criminal underground. Ridiculed by the authorities, he decides to tackle the criminals himself, aided by a gang of local children.

The intro sequence is one of the most imaginative I've seen from this period and captures the film's fun, knockabout quality:



The star of the film is Harry Fowler (centre), who died earlier this year.

I didin't recognise the young Harry Fowler, but this face should be familiar to anyone who watched British television during the 1970s and 80s:

Although the film poster billed Jack Warner, Alistair Sim and Valerie White as the stars of Hue and Cry, Fowler outshone them all. His performance as Joe Kirby fulfilled the promise he showed five years earlier as the cheeky cockney boy, George Truscott, in Went the Day Well?

It's a pity that Harry Fowler ended up playing bit parts in series like Minder and The Bill, as he was a first-rate actor who deserved more starring roles.

The other star of the film is, arguably, London itself. Unlike many films of this era, which portrayed an undamaged, prewar city, Hue and Cry shows a war-scarred London of bombed-out houses and empty streets. It is easy to see how the War bankrupted Britain, leaving it with an economy that would take 40 years to recover:



But it's not all about bomb sites. One of the strengths of Hue and Cry is that it gives a panorama of postwar London, with just as many scenes shot in the West End, Convent Garden and Hampstead. While I was watching the film, I occasionally stole a glance at my mother and saw her delight at seeing her London. It isn't the past that's a foreign country, it's the future.

The girl in this scene was an actress called Joan Dowling, who went on to marry Harry Fowler in 1951. She made a dozen films in six years, but in spite of this success she was, allegedly, bitterly disappointed by her career and in 1953, committed suicide.

As for Alistair Sim, although he gets top billing, he only appears in Hue and Cry for under ten minutes. But what a ten minutes! I was very tempted to create a YouTube clip of Sim's performance, but this would spoil the film for anyone who hasn't seen it.

On the subject of spoilers, I should stop now.

You may be wondering why I'm reviewing such a well-known film, but the truth is that until two weeks ago, I'd never heard of Hue and Cry. Have I been living in a bubble, or is it relatively obscure compared to Ealing comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob?

As far as I'm concerned, Hue and Cry is a masterpiece. Apart from being a fun, life-enhancing comedy (much funnier than The Titfield Thunderbolt), it is also a fascinating social document with some stunning cinematography that is worthy of the best film noir. Discovering it was an unadulterated pleasure.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Slightly Spooky Bloomsbury Moment

Last week I wrote this post about a trip to Virginia Woolf's home in Rodmell and almost included this photo of Woolf with her niece, Angelica Bell:

I'd seen a copy of it in Virginia Woolf's writing room and was immediately struck by the image. Apart from being beautifully composed, Angelica is very striking, with a pretty but rather solemn, adolescent face. Apparently she found life in the Bloomsbury Group a bit of a bore when she was young, as there were no other children to play with.

During the visit, I wondered if Angelica was still alive, but after looking at the date of the photo it seemed rather unlikely. The next day, I wrote the blog post and in the end, decided not to use the photo, as there were already more than enough images. Then I forgot all about Angelica Bell.

But today, during a quiet moment this afternoon, I looked up Angelica Bell on Wikipedia and discovered that when I was looking at her photo in the garden she knew so well, she was still alive. Horray! The link with the Bloomsburys, TS Eliot, EM Forster, Lytton Strachey and Keynes wasn't comletely severed.

But then I read on and discovered that sadly, Bell died the following day at the age of 93, just as I was deciding not to include a photo of her in my post. As Dame Edna would say, that's spooky.

Angelica, left, in Charleston

It's too late in the evening for a potted biography of Angelica Bell's bizarre life, but if you don't know how she discovered that her father wasn't her father and ended up marrying his lover, becoming Mrs Anglica Garnett, click here for the Wikipedia entry or here or here for an obituary.

You won't regret it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Taxing Problem

The knives are out for Amazon. Following a recent report that revealed that they are allegedly guilty of tax avoidance*, the great and the good of the UK book industry have lined up to condemn the online retailer. My old boss James Heneage recently described Amazon as "dangerous", whilst Tim Waterstone condemned them as "rude, contemptuous, arrogant and subversive".

Strong words, but relatively mild compared to Waterstones' (the apostrophe was officially moved in January) current managing director, who branded Amazon a "ruthless, moneymaking devil". Devil? That sort of hyperbole is usually associated with some of the more outspoken members of the Iranian parliament, not retail executives.

Amazon have clearly got under a few people's skin.

James Heneage, somewhere in Wiltshire

According to James Heneage, Amazon are "damaging the high street book trade and threaten to undermine publishers' ability to nurture new talent. If you are concerned about the sort of books that get published you have to look to the future and the amount of value that businesses like Amazon can remove from the publishing business model".

Heneage goes on to argue that "great writers such as Patrick O'Brian and Joanna Trollope...did not start out as uniquely brilliant. (They) built gradually because publishers worked with them and had the money to invest, and pay for the expertise that spotted the books in the first place."

There is a lot to be said for this argument. I remember how it took around ten years for Ian Rankin to become a bestselling author, by which time he had written over a dozen books. When I worked at Waterstone's in the early 90s, the only Rankin we'd heard of was Robert, the author of humorous fantasy novels.

(On the subject of Robert Rankin, I once had an embarrassing exchange with a middle-aged woman who'd asked what I'd recommend for her 17-year-old son. When I said "Has he tried Rankin?" she misheard me, but to her credit didn't bat an eyelid and replied "Well, I suppose that would keep him quiet")

Ian Rankin could have continued to languish in the midlist, but he had a publisher that believed in him (probably encouraged by a recent Gold Dagger award) and they relaunched the Rebus novels with new jackets and a nationwide marketing campaign. It worked and the rest is history.

I wonder how Ian Rankin would fare today if he'd just written his first Inspector Rebus novel? Would he find a publisher for 'Knots and Crosses' as easily as he did in 1987 and if he had, would they publish a further six books before Rankin really hit his stride with 'Black and Blue'?

It's possible that a writer of Ian Rankin's talent could still succeed today by circumventing the normal publishing process. Several lesser writers have gained publishing deals by making their work available for nothing (or a nominal fee) to Kindle readers, allowing viral marketing to do the rest. But could Ian Rankin have afforded to do this without the financial support of a publisher?

As far as I was concerned, James Heneage had hit the nail on the head, but then I read this (and please forgive me for quoting it at length):

"I don't like it when someone like James Heneage steps forward to give the media a quote and blows it by mumbling about irrelevancies. Perhaps he is being misquoted or the paper is focussing on what were intended to be peripheral remarks, but this article makes it seem like his main objection to Amazon is that they're not really members of the club.

Firstly (sic) he seems to believe that great authors need to be nurtured by publishers: eliminating publishers imperils literature. I personally am quite sure that great authors will continue to emerge if 'publisher' goes the way of 'lamplighter' or 'footman'. He also seems to believe that publishers have an important role spotting those great writers: without publishers we wouldn't notice the diamonds in the rough. I agree that's a role publishers fill... for now. But if what replaces the current model is readers reading any old thing, including lots of self-published novels, and then blogging and tweeting about them, I think we'll see books with lasting appeal being taken up more not less quickly. I won't lament the loss of the 'kingmaker' role in publishing. And there will still be prominent figures who can champion new writing.

Heneage also thinks that Amazon is not 'investing' enough in the industry, in (implied) contrast to the way that publishers do. He doesn't elaborate, but single-handedly developing and popularising a global e-book platform sounds like investing to me. As does allowing any solvent reader with an internet connection to get any book through the mail in a day or two - including titles that 99% of bricks-and-mortar stores never carried. And it may not be the sort of investment Heneage likes, but Amazon have also made books cheaper. In fact I would say that the problem is that Amazon is investing too much rather than too little.

Heneage concludes by saying that if you have the long-term success of the industry at heart you don't undermine the competition too much. This is a terribly woolly remark. Is he suggesting that the only thing that's stopped Macmillan or Random House from grabbing 99% of the book market is a sportsmanlike restraint and a custodial mindset? The directors of publicly-traded firms would be fired if they announced they'd called a halt to growth because they were worried about the competition."

The author of this extract is Rob Jones, co-owner of the small publisher Snowbooks (you can find the full article on their blog, here) and he argues his case very persuasively. He could have added that what's happening now is the logical outcome of a process that allowed Ottakar's to expand so quickly during the ten years following the collapse of the NBA.

However, the advent of self-published ebooks is my idea of hell. Yes, there are some very good novels that have failed to gain the attentions of agents and publishers, but how can we identify them amongst the thousands that are available? It's equally woolly to suggest that the glut of self-published books can be successfully curated by a loose coalition of bloggers and tweeters.

I regularly receive emails inviting me to read and review a 'remarkable' new novel by an author I've never heard of. If I had more time on my hands and wasn't such a slow reader, perhaps I'd occasionally take some of these offers up out of curiosity. But life's too short. I'd rather spend my spare time reading unread masterpieces like 'Catch-22' or 'Mansfield Park'.

Even if I did review the new thriller that claims to "revive the genre with a splendid mixture of innovation and cutting edge timeliness" (I'm quoting from the publicist's email), what are my credentials? What's my relationship to the author? I'm not against amateur criticism and trust the integrity of bloggers like John Self far more than some of the 'You scratch my back...' reviews that appear in the broadsheets. But with the exception of John Self, Caustic Cover Critic, Gaskella and a few other notable book bloggers, I still prefer to leave it to the professionals rather than wade through the blogosphere.

As far as Amazon are concerned, I think it's naive to expect them to do anything other than avoid paying taxes. Unless they suffer a drop in sales from outraged UK customers (and let's face it, they won't), Amazon can't be expected to unilaterally sacrifice a sizeable chunk of their net profit. That's why governments need to force the issue rather than simply trust 'the market'.

What's the point of this article? I did have one an hour ago, but that was before a succession of "Daaa-aaad, Daaa-aaad"s from upstairs completely broke my concentration...Naughty Amazon, yes, but they're very good at what they do and unlike some people, I love ebooks, seeing a wonderful opportunity to bring thousands of obscure titles back into print.

As for James Heneage, I'm not sure if he's in a position to complain when, 15 years ago, he was charging across the high street bookselling landscape like Attila the Hun, driving many independent bookshops out of business (I know, because I was one of his henchmen). Admittedly Ottakar's paid its taxes and James was a wonderful man to work for, but like Amazon, we used our buying power to drive the competition out of business.

Nobody knows quite how the book industry is going to change during the next decade, but there are two certainties: bookshops will continue to close and ebook sales will probably overtake those of paperbacks. The worst case scenario is a virtual Amazon monopoly, with Kindle charts dominated by thousands of self-published titles of questionable quality. But in the same way that the best independent bookshops are thriving (think Topping's or Much Ado), I believe that imaginative publishers and booksellers will ride the storm successfully.



I'm sorry if this post has rambled. There was a cogent argument here somewhere, but it disappeared into the ether, aided by screaming children and an exploding lightbulb (or was it my Kindle?).


* Thank you to the kind person who advised me to change the original word to 'avoidance'.

Friday, May 04, 2012

An Afternoon With Virginia Woolf

Although I only live five miles away from Virginia Woolf's rural retreat of Monk's House, it has taken me ten years to get there. I tried to go on several occasions, but the house never seemed to be open, limiting its admission times to the odd afternoon. Fortunately, the National Trust have now extended the opening hours.

As yesterday was a particularly dull, dank, overcast day, with a muted light that felt as if the sun was failing, I decided that this was a good opportunity to enjoy Monk's House without being jostled by any Virginia Woolf fans - they're famed for their brutality.

It took ten minutes to reach the idyllic village of Rodmell, but the incredibly noisy birdsong made me feel as if I'd travelled to a remote, temperate rainforest. I was also slightly unnerved by the fact that although I occasionally heard voices, the village seemed to be completely deserted. Perhaps I've watched too many episodes of the Avengers.

Unlike many historic properties, the entrance fee was very reasonably priced at under a fiver, but that's probably because most of the house was off limits, with only four rooms on view. However, the gardens alone make Monk's House worth a visit:


The building in the background is the early Norman church of St Peter's. It is believed that the font predates the church and may be over a thousand years old. The view from the graveyard reminds me of an Eric Ravilious painting:


This is Woolf's writing room. It's an inauspicious-looking building, but played host to some of the most important figures of the early 20th century. For example, the man on the right is John Maynard Keynes:

Keynes is also in this photo taken in the garden, with Lytton Strachey on the left:

Here are some photos taken from inside the writing room:



Even on such a gloomy day, the garden still provided some colour:



This is the downstairs bedroom:

Compared to Charleston, it seems quite austere, but there are several nice touches by Vanessa Bell. The original books were sold after Leonard Woolf died in 1969, but they have been replaced with volumes from the same period.

Apparently, Woolf decorated the spines of these books as a displacement activity when she was feeling at a particularly low ebb.

The sitting room looks very cosy, with many appealing touches by various members of the Bloomsbury Group.



The large object to the left of the chair is a radiogram, with one of those wonderful dials that lists places around Europe: Luxembourg, Athlone, Paris, Budapest. Woolf was no stranger to the radio and made this recording for the BBC in 1937.

The photograph below is of the dining room, which is rather small for the social milieu of the Woolfs. These chairs have supported many famous bottoms, including TS Eliot's, EM Forster's, the Bells' and Roger Fry's:

The painting on the right is by Virginia Woolf. It's competently executed, but she clearly didn't possess her sister's artistic talents.

To coin Doctor Johnson's quote about the Giant's Causeway, on its own merits, Monk's House is worth seeing, but not worth going to see unless you're a Virginia Woolf fan or live within a 30-mile radius. If the whole house was open, it would be a different matter.

Fortunately, the creative powerhouse of the Bloomsbury Group - Charleston - is only a few miles away (Virginia regularly walked across the Downs to visit her sister Vanessa there), so it's possible to combine the two in half a day. Ideally, if you're fit and weather's good, you can walk from Monk's House to Charlestone via Southease and Firle Beacon.

I've been to Charleston several times and would strongly recommend it to anyone. The rooms are stunning and the guided tours are the most interesting I've been on. There's also a rather nice teashop that serves homemade cakes - a definite plus point.

For more information about opening times, this link takes you to the National Trust page for Monk's House whilst this one is for Charleston.

N.B - Since publishing this post, I've realised that I failed to mention the beautiful parish church in Berwick - only a mile east of Charleston - which was decorated by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. No visit to Monk's House and Charleston would be complete without a brief detour to Berwick.

For fans of the moving image (and middle-aged men wearing floral, metrosexual shirts), this video contains a beautifully-shot five-minute film of Monk's House, complete with marimba music.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Why I Wish I'd Been Born in 1946

When was the best time to be born?

There are many periods that I'd like to visit if I could: Britain during the late Victorian age, America in the 50s, or Andalucia before the reconquista are three that instantly spring to mind. But would I want to swap them for my comfortable world of antibiotics, hot water and edible food? I don't think so.

Sometimes I find myself yearning for a world where no-one has ever heard of Alesha Dixon or Facebook, but if I start to get dewy-eyed about the past, I remind myself that history is always written by the winners and survivors. The stories of the millions of individuals who lived Hobbes's "poor, nasty, brutish and short lives" will never be heard.

After a great deal of thought, I've chosen 1946 as the best time to be born. If I'd been born ten years earlier, I would have experienced warfare, rationing and Shirley Temple films. But in the late 1940s, I'd be entering a world in which improved healthcare and educational opportunities were transforming the lives of millions.

Also, I could enjoy growing up in the world of Ealing comedies, Uncle Mac and steam engines.

It's a world that is celebrated in a Ladybird book I found recently, which has the slightly creepy title 'In the Train with Uncle Mac':

This is a Britain that now only exists in model railway displays and episodes of Chigley. It is a world of timeless villages and market towns, where technology has unobtrusively augmented peoples lives rather than changed them beyound all recognition.

Old maids still cycle to communion, village greens echo to the sound of willow on leather and car ownership is limited to the great and the good.

"Hullo! Here are our friends Bob and Betty just off on a long journey to the seaside. Dog Trigger is with them, so they are happy".

Whatever happened to 'hullo'? Nobody uses it any more, although Lionel Richie's notorious song sounds more like hullo than hello to me. Even hallo is disappearing.

I don't know how old Bob and Betty are, but I don't think I'd send them halfway across the country, unaccompanied, on a journey that includes changing in London.

It's time to leave and this smartly-dressed guard is a stark contrast to the scruffy, slouching men in donkey jackets who shuffled around the station platforms of my youth, blowing their whistles half-heartedly and shrugging their shoulders when I told them that the Nestle machine had swallowed two 5p coins.

"It is thrilling to stand on a railway footbridge and watch the trains rush by"

In those days, even a small, provincial station would have a full complement of staff, including porters, guards, clerks and signalmen:

I have vague memories of waving to men in signal boxes when I was very young. They always waved back. Then the signal boxes became automated. I wonder what happened to the signalmen?

"Bob and Betty are by themselves, but the guard will keep an eye on them". Oh, well that's all right then.

"So at last our express train has reached London where all is bustle and hurry".

It's time to change trains and the station porter is giving Bob and Betty directions to the Underground. But hasn't anyone noticed that creepy stranger standing right behind them?

Oh dear - it's that man again. Bob and Betty are so excited by the underground train that they haven't noticed that they're being followed.

"The train is rather noisy, and it sways and rattles as it rushes along".

The stranger sits next to Bob and Betty, pretending to read a newspaper.

Betty has now noticed the strange man following them and a woman on the down escalator looks concerned. But as they reach the top of the escalator, the man is stopped by a policeman, who seems to know him. Perhaps the man is a detective.

"There is a kitchen on the train and a real chef to cook the meals. Betty and Bob are smiling at the thought of a jolly good meal"

Bob and Betty are about to enjoy a bowl of thin, tasteless oxtail soup and a shepherd's pie of indeterminate origin, washed down with two glasses of weak squash.

"Betty and Bob had a glimpse of the driver. But an equally important person is the fireman, or stoker. He MUST keep up steam for the engine to pull the train. He shoots more and more coal into the great furnace and the wheels go faster and faster. Well done, fireman!"

Sadly, the recently-qualified fireman is unaware that the line is due to be electrified in a couple of years..

"Bob and Betty know that the long run is nearly done"

"Thank you for a safe and lovely journey!"

"Glad you enjoyed it!" grins the driver, while the fireman waves a grimy hand. The engine, too, looks dirty but somehow very proud".

So there you have it: incontrovertible documentary evidence that if I'd been born in 1946, this was the world I would have grown up in. A society in which youth crime meant St Trinians and young men who wanted 'respect' wore tweed.

It might have been a stuffy, stifling world, but that wouldn't have affected me because by the time I'd reached 18, everyone would have been listening to the Rolling Stones and sleeping with each other.

Obviously I'm being silly, but there is a kernel of truth. My wife's parents were part of the theatrical world of the 1960s and whenever I hear anecdotes about them or their friends, it sounds as if they lived in an enchanted age. It's not that stories themselves that impress me, but the incidental details: being able to move around London easily by car, turning up at the BBC to see if they have a job and actually getting one (which changes from teaboy to assistant producer within months), buying a four-storey house in Islington for a few thousand and the way a casual flirtation would end up in bed.

It was an enchanted time, for some at least, because it felt as if they lived in a world of possibilities where people were no longer tied to jobs or relationships for life. This experimentation was all done against the backdrop of their secure, Uncle Mac childhoods, blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions on the next generation.

If I'd been born in 1946, I would also be retiring at a time when health care, benefits and private pensions were still sustainable.

I could spend my dotage enjoying fond memories of exciting holidays with Betty and Trigger, travelling across Britain by train, being offered sweets by kindly strangers.

NB - People born in 1946 include Stephen Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Alan Rickman, Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones, David Lynch, John Waters, Brian Cox, Charles Dance, Diane Keaton, Danny Glover, Cher, Charlotte Rampling, Dolly Parton, Liza Minelli, Freddie Mercury, Joanna Lumley, Felicity Kendal, George W Bush, Steve Biko and Philip Pullman.