Tuesday, May 21, 2013


I have recently been decluttering at a rate that would give Michael Landy a run for his money. Some of it is an attempt to bring order to a life that feels increasingly chaotic, but I'm also increasingly aware that many of my possessions are neither beautiful or useful.

I have been particularly brutal with my books, but I have no regrets. I spent the first ten years of my bookselling career gratefully accepting every proof copy that came my way, but only read a handful. The remainder - a collection of novels that were described by their publisher as 'lyrical' - served as a salutory reminder of the fate that awaits most first-time authors.

(Bloomsbury used to be very good at taking a punt on a new or unknown author and I read two proofs of novels that I was certain would be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Both failed miserably and a year later, one of the authors committed suicide)

After a few days, I had boxes full of books and ephemera - ready for the charity shops of Lewes. I also had a dozen bin bags to take to the dump, several of which rattled with video tapes. However, there was one conspicuous absence: cassettes.

For me, a TDK C-90 cassette is the equivalent of Proust's madeleines. The one at the top, with its Compact Cassette logo, the enigmatic promise of Normal Bias and the boxes to tick for noise reduction, evokes a lost world of 'radio cassette recorders', 'solid state' microphones and 'Dolby'.

As an adolescent, I was obsessed with audio cassettes. Being able to tape programmes and songs was wonderful, but the real miracle was having the freedom to make my own recordings. Sadly, my parents didn't share my enthusiasm and regarded cassettes as an unnecessary luxury. As a result, I often had to tape over beloved recordings.

Occasionally my parents would relent and return from Kingston market with cassettes made by companies with names like Bentronic or Wangui - five for a pound. Sadly, they would always produce recordings that sounded as if they had been made underwater.

After a brush with the charlatans, I insisted that my cassettes had to be either TDK or BASF (whose chrome tapes were superior to the superferric, but were alleged to wear away the tape heads).

Judging by the number of Boots C-60s in my collection, I wasn't entirely successful.

My parents were baffled by my obsession with blank cassette tapes, but what they failed to see was that each one offered the potential to make the interior world more tangible. If I play one of my old C-90s now, I can hear an aural montage of the things that preoccupied me as a teenager.

Quite why I wanted to record the switchover of Radio Four from medium to long wave is beyond me. I also wonder why I taped the theme tune of David Bellamy's Australian wildlife series 'Up a Gum Tree'. But the beauty of these recordings is that they manage to evoke the past far more potently than any photograph.

In a recording of a BBC programme - made by placing a microphone in front of a television - my parents' telephone rings, our dog barks and somebody rings the doorbell. I remember being infuriated, but today, it is these extraneous noises that make the recording so evocative.

When I searched through my drawer of cassettes, I found comedy tapes that I'd recorded with friends, attempts at 'radiophonic' sound effects, embarrassing teenage conversations about the meaning of life and some music I'd written for fringe plays. I couldn't throw them away.

After deciding that I had to keep my tapes, I realised that I had nothing to play them on.

£20 later, a new Walkman arrived in the post and I started sorting through my tape collection. Revisiting the past is always a bittersweet experience, but these days I feel kinder towards my adolescent self.

At one point, when I heard an impression of Pope John Paul II that I'd spent weeks perfecting, I even laughed.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Filming the Unfilmable

I wonder what the author David Mitchell would have thought if, nine years ago, someone had told him that 'Cloud Atlas' would be turned into a commercial movie starring Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry, directed by the people who made 'The Matrix Reloaded'.

I know what I would have thought.

But I watched the film and for all its flaws, it was a triumph. I managed to forget that Tom Hanks was Tom Hanks. Hugh Grant, freed from the tyranny of having to play caricatures of himself, showed that he could really act. As for Halle Berry, she was magnificent.

I'd always assumed that Cloud Atlas was unfilmable, but apparently I was wrong:

My one bugbear was with the narrative structure, which chopped David Mitchell's six stories up into a mosaic of brief scenes that randomly jumped from the middle of the 19th century to the distant future. At first it was exhilarating, then it began to grate. In an ideal world, the DVD will contain an alternative version that re-edits the footage in a way that's more faithful to the novel.

But I'm still bowled-over by the spectacle of seeing the realisation of a book I'd regarded as being completely impossible to film. It probably helped that the cast also included Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw, Hugo Weaving and James D'Arcy. But in spite of that, it could have still been exercrably awful.

Now that my prejudices have been cast aside, I'm looking forward to Tom Hanks in Ulysses, complete with dodgy Oirish accent.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hungry Birds

The robins are now five days old. I've discovered that if I make a tapping noise, they automatically open their beaks:

I apologise to any robinophobes who have stumbled across this post.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Colour Me Bad

There isn't a theme to this post, but I promise that it will not feature any animals. All of the following illustrations have been discovered during the last few days.

I've always had a soft spot for 1970s fashions, particularly the neo-Victorian style of Jon Pertwee's Doctor Who and Peter Wyngarde's Jason King. However, these migraine-inducing designs from Sewing Illustrated show a very different sartorial zeitgeist:

The woman looks a little uncomfortable, and it's not just because the man's hand is dangerously close to her left breast. She knows that she looks utterly ridiculous.

"A colour-co-ordinated lawn rake? Thanks Dad!" 

Designs like these are enough to make anyone yearn for the age of clothing coupons and post-war austerity. These pictures, from two decades earlier, show a very different world:

"I say. Awfully well done Mr Fuller. Your merrows have surpahhhssed themselves this year..."

"Ebsolutely splindid! Congretulations!"

Did these people fight for a world of patchwork denim and yellow garden rakes? No. But somehow this period was the midwife to the age of Garry Glitter, Jimmy Savile and the Bay City Rollers.

A decade earlier, the stakes were even higher than gardening competitions:

It all has me longing for a quieter, more innocent age, before people said "Yay!" and "LOL". A time when gentlemen of commerce would have to sit in silence during train journeys. Perhaps the 1880s:

This 1886 Boy's Own illustration looks as if it's recording the very first use of a smartphone, but actually the young man is looking at a portrait of his recently-deceased sister. In my desire to escape to the past, I'd forgotten about consumption, rickets and polio. I wouldn't have made it to adulthood.

Finally, my favourite cover this week. Did you know that Japanese women used to look like Elizabeth Taylor?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

After Man

Two weeks ago, I discovered that a robin had built a nest on one of my bookshelves at work:

This morning, I checked the nest and found this:

I can only see three open beaks - I hope the other  two eggs have hatched. The mother is now back in the nest.

I apologise if this blog has veered off on an animal-related tangent recently, but so has my life. I never expected to end up selling books surrounded by cows, horses, sheep, pheasants, dogs, robins, rats and a mink (sadly now deceased). Sometimes, I secretly yearn for the days when I lived in a flat in London.

But even my lovely 1930s flat in Twickenham didn't completely protect me from the brutal forces of nature. Copulating foxes regularly kept us awake. They also prompted me to run half-naked into the street, thinking that I was rescuing a woman from being attacked (thankfully nobody caught me standing in the middle of the road in my boxer shorts).

One day our hot water stopped working. We phoned a plumber called Trevor, who took our boiler apart and found a bird's nest inside. Trevor, who was never usually lost for words, shook his head and chuckled. Later, Trevor casually remarked that he was surprised that we hadn't suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, as the nest had blocked up the flue.

Next time I find a large deposit of bird excrement on the computer, I will have to remind myself that there is no escape. Even in London, the animals are secretly watching and waiting.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Kitten Strachey

I solemnly swear that I will not make a habit of posting pictures of my new kitten in 'amusing' poses, but please indulge me for a moment. After years of thinking many unkind things about cats and their owners, I have become completely won over by the feline world. Perhaps it's true that there's nothing worse than a convert.

I just didn't 'get' cats before. They came across as unaffectionate ingrates, capable of sudden acts of unwarranted viciousness, leading a sordid double-life of violence, sexual promiscuity and defecation in the gardens and alleys of Britain.

I thought that the owners were even worse, particularly those funny little women who used to buy the 'Cats Are Better Than Men' book from me. Did they really prefer to to form a relationship with a mute animal rather than a real person?

When a friend told me that her cat had been diagnosed with diabetes and would now need a daily injection, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Why didn't she just have it put down?

But now, at last, I understand. Perhaps cats are better than men, after all.

I'll get my coat.

I'm not sure how much the kitten is helping my oldest son, but my wife and I are definitely benefiting from his presence. We almost fight over the opportunity to lie on the sofa and let the cat fall asleep on us. It's like taking valium, minus the slightly depressing sense of detachment from reality.

As much as I love dogs, I can do without the early morning walks - there's nothing good about having to pick up excrement in the rain on a cold winter morning. I'm also glad that our house won't have that cloying dog smell of overcooked peas. But most of all, I'm relieved to be free from the awful feeling of guilt that dogs inspire, with their big, reproachful eyes.

If you have a difficult child, a dog might seem like a solution, but there is a danger that it will simply add to the stresses of family life.

Someone recently told me that a friend of hers  - a very thoughtful, considerate man - bought a small tree as a birthday present for his wife. She was having a very difficult time with her children and as she loved trees, it seemed like the perfect present. However, when the plant was unveiled, she broke down and wept: "Oh God, not another fucking thing to worry about!"

The only person that remains immune to our kitten's feline charms is our seven-year-old son, who may be having a fit of pique about being usurped as the youngest and cutest. When asked how he felt, he replied that he was "like Switzerland in the War. Neutral."

The kitten remains unnamed, but the top photo has given us an idea. Not Lytton Strachey, but perhaps 'Kitten Strachey'? Strachey (which sounds a little like 'Stretchy') for short?

It's growing on me.

P.S. - Sadly, Kitten Strachey died in early July - a victim of Feline Infectious Peritonitis.