Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In Chains

It's now over a year since my mother moved to Lewes and she's settled down very well, but the one thing she doesn't like is the shops: "They don't have anywhere where I can buy nice blouses in my size".

By nice, my mother means the sorts of clothes that faintly resemble the staff uniforms of building society employees in the early 90s: pastel, understated floral patterns in washing machine-friendly artificial fibres.

As for size, Lewes is not fat town. Nationally, 66% of men of my age and height are heavier than me, but in Lewes I feel like a pasty-eating slob compared to the gaunt, earnest-looking men with beards who think nothing of starting the day with a 20-mile cycle ride. I should move to Walsall.

We needed to go further afield. I asked my mother if she'd like to try Eastbourne, a coastal resort with the highest number of people over 80 in the UK. Without pausing for thought, she replied "Not 'arf!"

As I parked the car at Lewes railway station, my mother remarked that this would be the first time that she'd been on a train in 30 years. I found it hard to believe, but her look of wonder as we boarded the air-conditioned carriage was genuine.

Suddenly, my mother looked worried: "But we can't sit here. This is 1st class isn't it?". I assured her that it wasn't and that the rail network had changed a lot since the days when scuffy men in donkey jackets half-heartedly ambled along the platform with a broom in one hand and a cigarette in the other. "Cor!" my mother replied, "It's posh isn't it!"

For me, it was an unremarkable train journey. For my mother, it was time travel.

Many aspects of the service industries have improved during the last three decades. This is obviously a 'good thing', but during my visit to Eastbourne's rather depressing Arndale Centre, I was reminded of the darker side of this cultural shift by a huge poster advertising 'exciting' job opportunities in a new branch of River Island.

Since when was working in a clothes shop exciting? You put clothes on display, tidy up the mess that customers have made and occasionally operate the till. It might be enjoyable if you like the work and get on with your colleagues, but surely the job's pretty low on thrills apart from the odd spat with a shoplifter.

Sadly, the River Island advert is symptomatic of a growing trend in which retailers want their employees souls as well as their bodies. You can work as hard as you like, but if you're not excited about the brand, you're not being part of the team. It's an employers' market.

When I joined the Ottakar's bookshop chain in the mid-90s, there was no nonsense about having to be excited. The senior managment used to motivate staff by giving them a lot of autonomy and rewarding success with generous bonuses. It worked. Staff were generally enthusiastic and, sometimes, even excited, but we didn't start grinning inanely at every customer who walked in the door.

However in today's economic climate, bonuses are thin on the ground and the main motivational tool is fear:

"Work hard, look as if you're really enjoying yourself and you might get to keep your job, but don't think you can fool us. If you're in a shop, leisure centre or museum, we have mystery customers. If you're in a call centre we will be listening to you. As for the drivers, we're tracking you all the way. Any unscheduled stops will be monitored. No-one is beyond our reach"


I'm very pleased that service has improved since the days when many shop assistants talked amongst themselves and treated customers like an inconvenience, but the growing trend of subjecting poorly-paid employees to an Orwellian regime of constant surveillance and 'thought police' who look for any signs of dissent disturbs me deeply.

In some cases, the result isn't even good service, but manic, rather desperate and intrusive behaviour that is deeply off-putting. When I walk in a clothes shop I want to be left alone, not befriended by an insincere assistant who is clearly terrified that I might be a mystery shopper, beaming at me every time I glance in their direction. Also, I'd like to be able to just buy something without any nonsense about bars of chocolate, loyalty cards, mobile phone top-ups and stamps.

During my last few months at Waterstone's, we were encouraged to get 'added value' from purchases by asking customers if there was anything else they wanted and, if there wasn't, would they be interested in buying "this £12 book on wine for £5? No? Well how about joining our loyalty card scheme..."

Some people responded, but most looked embarrassed or irritated and couldn't get out of the shop quickly enough. We were able to measure how many customers joined the loyalty card scheme, but not how many were put off by this approach. I hated it and knew that it was time to leave.

High street retailers are trying to save themselves by squeezing as much money as possible out of their diminishing pool of customers, but their methods are simply driving people like me towards the hassle-free environment of the internet. Sadly, they usually can't give their customers the thing they really want: value.

Back in the Arndale Centre I rejoined my mother, who was in Bon Marche, buying a coat that looked as if it would repel a chemical warfare attack. The shop assistant was desperately trying to sign my mother up to a new loyalty card scheme, but something wasn't working properly and I sensed a growing desperation. "I'm really sorry madam. I'll just try one more time..."

As we left the shop, my mother turned to me and said "That poor woman. I don't suppose I'll ever use this thing."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Welles Meets Wells

One of the best things about YouTube is the ever-growing number of archive films and recordings.

I had no idea that Orson Welles and H G Wells had ever met and this recording is rather touching:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Dog Tired

When my wife announced that we would be looking after a dog for five weeks, she tried to sweeten the news by promising that my involvement would be limited to the occasional stroll around the block. Like a fool I reluctantly agreed.

However things didn't quite turn out as I'd hoped. News travelled around the Lewes grapevine that there was a family who looked after dogs for free and before long we were joined by a second terrier - a neurotic Jack Russell that would only sleep with humans. I wasn't happy, but decided to try and put a brave face on things.

Then my wife developed pneumonia and I suddenly found myself in charge of a household of feral children and incontinent dogs. At this point something snapped.

I didn't mind the cooking and cleaning. I'd even resigned myself to the long walks and the dog poo. But after a day of being an überfather, I felt that I'd earned the right to a decent night's sleep. Sadly, Poppy the Jack Russell had other ideas, howling, barking and scratching at doors as soon as it was bedtime.

After two sleepless nights I felt a deep, primordial rage at Poppy. When, just before lunchtime, Poppy and I were alone in the dining room, I decided to vent my frustrations:

"Look, you ******* ****, we don't even want you here. You're a ******* ***** ** *** **** and I can't wait until you go. I never want to see you again, you ******* annoying, neurotic canine ****"

The rant was cathartic and Poppy was blissfully oblivious to my sentiments. It was a win-win situation.

Then the door swung open and my oldest son walked up to his laptop:

"Hi! Are you still there?"

"Yeah. I've just been crafting an obsidian sword..."


At this point, I realised my son was in the middle of a Skype conversation and that my expletive-ridden diatribe against Poppy had been relayed to her owners in Scotland. Apparently the whole family were sitting around a table, listening to my obscenities.

It wasn't my finest moment, but on the plus side I don't think we'll have to worry about looking after Poppy again.

Maisy the border terrier will be with us for another week and although I can't say I've ever got used to the constant smell of overcooked peas, I will miss her when she's gone. She has, without exaggeration, transformed our lives and my older son seems happier than he has been for a long time. For that reason alone, I'm prepared to endure the grimmer aspects of dog ownership.

I know several people who say that owning a dog is almost like having a child. I always agree with them because I don't want to shatter their illusions, but I'm afraid that owning a dog is nothing like having a child.

If only children were content to sit in a basket for hours, occasionally requesting a brief tummy tickle or a walk around the block.

A month ago, my oldest son was the only dog lover in the house. My wife was indifferent, I was hostile and our youngest son was terrified. In the space of four weeks, Maisy has won us all over. When I tried to explain to our six-year-old that he needed to wash his hands because Maisy was a magnet for bugs, he was indignant: "No she isn't! She's a magnet for love".

Before they left for their five-week holiday in France, Maisy's owners said that they were going to arrange for her to have puppies in the autumn. With any luck, a mini-Maisy will be with us by Christmas.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

101 Uses For a French Banger - Part One

As if in response to yesterday's post about children's play, my son showed me a YouTube video that his friend had made a couple of weeks ago.

Now this is what I call fun:



Obviously it wouldn't have been such fun if someone had been blinded or cut by one of the shards of flying glass, but both boys observed the time-honoured health and safety recommendation: light the fuse and run like hell!

Some of my fondest childhood memories involved doing highly dangerous things with lighter fuel, Jif lemons and string.

My mother doesn't recall the period with quite the same nostagia.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Jumpers For Goalposts

The school holidays are always a challenging time for parents, but today I discovered a book that should keep my sons unhappily occupied for at least 14 minutes on a wet afternoon.

Published in the late 1950s by the Daily Mail, 'Things To Make and Do' is packed full of activities that seem to operate on the principle that less is more:

1. HOME-MADE MUSIC

"Ever had a strong desire to make music, with no musical instruments to hand? Robert and Terry had just that desire the other day..."

2. MAKING A COLOURED WOOLLEN BALL

3. BLOW FOOTBALL

"When it's raining outside and you are just longing for a game with a ball, why not try making a blow football game"

4. A PAPER TREE


5. THE NOSEY MATCH-BOX

"Here is a good way of starting up some party fun. It is just the sort of game to get everyone laughing"


6. A GYPSY GIRL


6. THE "GUESS WHO" GAME

7. HAND PUPPETS

"You will find it great fun painting faces on the palms of your hands"

8. THE SHEIK OF ARABY

9. PAPER SCREECHER

"Most boys like to make a noise occasionally, and Robert is no exception"


10. THE BOOK RACE

"Not one of the fastest games for a party or family gathering, but certainly one of the funniest is the 'book race'"

I was born too late to enjoy most of these pleasures, although I do have a memory of my father trying to organise a game of blow football on my 8th birthday party. I was so embarrassed, I wouldn't talk to him until my friends had gone home.

Did children ever enjoy these activities? To me, they seem a poor substitute for real play, in which children spend time outdoors with their peers in an environment that is not mediated by adults.

Very little of that happens here these days and we are poorer for it. The 'soft-play centre', where children manically run around health and safety-approved cages, bouncing off padded walls (whilst parents sit in a corner sipping overpriced cappuccinos), is a soulless environment in which play has become commodified, stripped of creativity, spontaneity and risk.

The days in which children could form gangs and find dens are long gone, whilst childrens desires for these activities have been sublimated into multiplayer computer games like Club Penguin, most of which are controlled by corporations like Disney.

On the plus side, at least no child ever has to endure sheer tedium of making a paper tree these days.

Every cloud...


Friday, August 10, 2012

The New Victorians

When someone told me that they'd discovered an album of Victorian photographs, I got excited. Sadly, the actual pictures were a rather disappointing collection of faded images all smaller than the palm of my hand:

But thanks to Photoshop, even a print as unpromising as the one above can be transformed:

Admittedly, this probably isn't the most fascinating image I've come across (although I find it benignly soporific). However, some of the others are more interesting:


This picture may not immediately strike you, but zoom in and it comes alive:


In the photograph below, closer scrutiny reveals a figure in the hallway, a cat in the alley and a smiling Victorian:

I can also detect the trace of a smile in this photo:

Frustratingly, with photos as small as these (which were contact prints from the negatives), the resolution can be improved to a point where you have a tantalising glimpse of people's faces, but no more. Further magnification simply produces a blur.

This street scene and the one below were taken in France or Belgium, but I have no idea where.

Finally, my favourite photograph from the album:

This still life of a mantlepiece and its surroundings fascinates me. Its cluttered look is from an age in which most people had relatively few possessions, cherishing what they had, displaying them with pride.

My comparatively minimalist sitting room only has a couple of photos on display. The rest are on various hard drives, which will be completely redundant when civilisation collapses in 2027.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Bonkers

I feel British again. Like many people, I had come to regard Britishness as an anachronism. In a post-colonial, post-industrial era, its totems seemed irrelevent and I retreated into an identity that was one part English (more specifically, southern English), one part European and one part world citizen. However, Danny Boyle has changed all that.

When I started watching the Olympic opening ceremony, I expected to be embarrassed. Last year's unveiling of the Countdown Clock in Trafalgar Square was an awkward, uncomfortable ramshackle affair that was as British as a man making love with his socks on. I squirmed at the awfulness of it.

But the opening ceremony was a triumph. It may have baffled 99% of the world, including most people under 25 in Britain, but Danny Boyle's vision was pitch perfect in its reinvention of Britishness for the 21st century.

I've read a lot about how the ceremony appealed to people on both the right and left, but for me the real acid test was my mother. She watched it with a group of people in their 80s, most of whom read the Daily Mail and think that there are too many 'coloureds' in Britain. What would they make of what Aidan Burley described as "multicultural crap"?

They loved it.

If I could have changed anything, I would have got rid of the Arctic Monkeys and had fewer people expressing things through the medium of contemporary dance, but the rest of the evening was a box of delights. I particularly enjoyed the spectacle of Dizzee Rascal singing 'Bonkers' to the Queen. It was also a wise move on Danny Boyle's part to give David Beckham a non-speaking role.

As for the Olympics itself, I'm completely impervious to sporting triumphs and feel quite indifferent to the growing tally of gold medals. I certainly don't feel proud to be British - I've never understood national pride. However, I suppose I would say that I'm quite happy to be living here. I can't imagine being anywhere else.

So as part of my celebration of Britishness, I thought I'd share some photos that I found in books during the last few weeks.

First, we have England:

On the back, someone has written 'Shaz'z 18th, January 1987'. There may be an 80s revival at the moment, but I haven't seen anyone who has had the courage to revive this look. Why would a teenage girl willingly make herself look 35?

Next, we celebrate the musical traditions of Wales:

The man on the right seems to be suffering from a moment of existential angst, which is not a good thing when you live in a small town.

On the subject of Wales, I found this Welsh version of Ladybird's 'Peter and Jane' series today. Jane is predictably Siân, but for some reason Peter has become Gareth and the dog is Carlo:

I studied Welsh at university and managed to achieved a record result for the lowest exam score in the subject.

Third, Scotland the brave:

This proud father looks slightly pregnant himself, rather like the famous 1970s poster and the haunted expression suggests that he isn't entirely at ease.

Finally, a celebration of family life:

This cover is from 'The Family Chord Songbook'. I'm sure that if Danny Boyle had had the time, he would have included some organ action.

Perhaps there'll be a spot at the closing ceremony, in between the bare knuckle fighting and the 'best-kept village' competition.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Small World

This time two months ago I was making the final preparations for a family holiday in Spain. I'd booked it during a moment of foolhardy optimism on New Year's Day, blithely disregarding our oldest son's agoraphobia and my fear of flying.

Three months later, the whole idea seemed absurd and I was tempted to cancel the booking. But I naively clung on to the belief that if we could take our son away from his comfort zone to a beautiful place with warm seas and blue skies, he would be transformed. Some people never learn.

As for the fear of flying, I decided to undergo a course of hypnotherapy sessions with a lovely woman who came highly recommended. The hynotherapy seemed to be very successful. Within minutes of arriving, she was able to put me into a deep trance and induce a feeling of tranquility that I hadn't enjoyed since I was a foetus.

Sadly, when I sat on a plane for the first time in six years, I realised that instead of being cured of my phobia, I had merely been hypnotised into believing that I wasn't scared of flying. When the plane took off, everything changed and the three-hour flight was one long silent scream.

Since then, I've been feeling rather gloomy. My son won't travel beyond the environs of Lewes and I seem to be limited to a damp part of northwestern Europe.

As if that wasn't enough, my wife casually announced that she'd agreed to look after someone's dog for five weeks, adding a further layer of restrictions to our movements. My world, which once extended to South America, had now contracted to a tiny, dog-friendly corner of England. I wasn't happy.

But then, one afternoon, I walked in the front door and found a small border terrier looking up at me, with trusting brown eyes. "This is Maisy", my wife solemnly announced. Maisy ambled towards me and jumped up, gently resting her paws on my legs. I smiled nervously, hoping that she wouldn't damage the sofa.

In many ways, Maisy is the ideal dog. At home she is only slightly more animated than a stuffed toy, which is perfect, but outdoors she becomes far more active and performs the sorts of tricks that children expect from dogs. I can't say that I particularly relish the hairs and the smell, or having my face licked, but I'm grateful to her for getting my sons out of the house.

The South Downs are less than ten minutes' walk from our front door, but persuading the boys to go there is usually almost impossible. If they do agree to have a walk, the continual carping and moaning puts a bit of a dampener on things. But since Maisy joined us, they've been up on the Downs every day:




(Trivia fact - this is the site of the Battle of Lewes in 1264, which resulted in the birth of parliamentary democracy)

Seeing my youngest son swinging on a farm gate, describing it as "The best fun ever" made me realise that I had to put all of my reservations about the smell, the hairs, the inconvenience and, worst of all, the poo, to one side. If this is the price I have to pay for getting my sons to swap the virtual world for the real one, then so be it.

Sadly, for the boys, this is a holiday romance that will have to end. In just over a month, Maisy's real family will return from their absurdly long holiday in France and I suspect that the house will be very quiet without her.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Six of the Worst

I've no idea how many secondhand books I've sorted through during the last three years, but even a conservative estimate puts the total at over 100,000. During that time, I've come to several conclusions:
  • A tatty, obscure 1970s horror title will usually be worth far more than a beautiful old Penguin paperback
  • The period from 1954 to 1974 was a golden age for book design, but it also saw some incredibly awful, garish covers, like these reprints of popular classics:
Jane Austen is synonymous with refinment and understatement, unlike this hideous jacket design. I particularly hate the almost fluorescent font for the title.

Slightly less offensive, but once again with rubbish fonts and a girl who looks like Nellie Olsen, for those who remember 'The Little House on the Prairie'.

Cor! A saucy French novel. I'll 'ave some of that! But where's the sex? I'll flick through to the end of the chapter...no, nothing there...maybe the next chapter...no, still nothing.

Maupassant and Zola may have been 'racy' in the 1890s, but I suspect that many 1960 book buyers felt that the cover design promised more than it delivered.

But the deception wasn't limited to adults. I wonder how many children struggled to read the copy of 'Gulliver's Travels' that Auntie Doris had given them for Christmas?

"Heathcliffe, it's me, Cathy, I've come home". Perhaps I'm being geeky about fonts, but this one is only acceptable in the credit sequence of a David O. Selznick Hollywood film. Like the Gulliver, this is also a children's edition cover. Lucky kids.

Finally, here is the 31st book in the famous 'Bancroft Classics' series:

No, I haven't heard of them either, but the cover design is in a class of its own, with Jane Eyre depicted as a 10-year-old with encephalitis. The eyes follow you around the room.

If you're feeling corrupted by this horrible display, then I'd recommend visiting this wonderful collection of Penguin and Pelican covers. Here are two of my favourites:

Will book jackets go the way of album covers as the market share of ebooks continues to rise? I hope not.