Thursday, June 06, 2013

Meetings With Unremarkable Men

This morning I set off on a 140-mile journey, for a meeting that I knew was probably going to be a complete waste of time.

It was my fault. I'd approached a recycling company to see if they had any books that they'd like to sell and this prompted an exchange of emails with someone who clearly wasn't terribly proficient in the English language. He seemed very keen to meet, but each new reply convinced me that he hadn't quite understood where I was, what I did  or what it was I wanted.

Perhaps I should have cancelled. But it goes against the grain to turn down any opportunity, however slim. In the end, with a heavy heart, I emailed to say that I would visit them this morning.

The journey was straightforward enough until I arrived at the town and wasted half an hour looking for an unmarked industrial estate.The recycling company occupied a building which looked like a tertiary college that had been abandoned after a nuclear accident, with long, unlit corridors and vast walls of peeling paint. It would have made a good headquarters for the warlord of a small, local militia.

The meeting was farcical. After a brief chat in an office, we walked over to a warehouse where they proudly showed me rows of paperbacks. Although I had clearly mentioned - several times - that I was interested in buying old books, they seemed to be under the impression that I wanted to run their business selling modern paperbacks. I didn't know what to say.

I tried to politely suggest that this wasn't a good idea, as I lived 140 miles away. Also, as I specialised in older books, I really wasn't the right man for the job. We looked at each other. I could sense that it wasn't going well.

We returned to the office and I was invited to sit down, but instead of talking to me, my host started filing papers and feeding invoices into a machine. Were any of these forms pertinent to our meeting, or had it simply come to an end? Perhaps it was a cultural difference. I wasn't sure.

I decided to make one last-ditch attempt to redeem myself: "If you're throwing these books into a bin and selling them as waste paper, wouldn't it be better to separate them and sell them to me for a lot more money than you're getting now?" There was a long silence, punctuated with more shuffling and filing of invoices. It was time to leave.

It could have been a rather disheartening experience, but luckily I had a contingency plan in place:

The village of Avebury, surrounded by a mysterious 6,000-year-old stone circle, was only eight miles away. My journey needn't be a wasted one.

This stone almost looks like two faces. Perhaps that's why a woman with badly-hennared hair and a floaty skirt was placing her hands on the surface. 

20 years ago, it was a lot worse. All sorts of people - mostly foreign - were hugging the stones and talking about "feeling the energy". Today, people were content to touch the stones with outstretched arms, rather like a polite handshake between strangers.

Between two large stones, an earnest-looking woman addressed a small group, talking about a 'stargate'. At the back, two middle-aged men sniggered like naughty schoolboys: "On no, not the Stargate!" We exchanged knowing smiles.

I walked around the edge of the village, avoiding the tree-huggers and seekers of ancient wisdom. It was now one o'clock in the afternoon and the sheep sought shelter from the glare of the sun:

I followed the stones until I found myself in the centre of the village. Avebury seemed almost impossibly idyllic, but when I heard the plummy accents of the local shop assistants, I wondered if it had become one of those 'heritage' areas where inflated property prices had driven out the real villagers. 

Avebury Manor was splendid and reminded me of the late-1970s children television drama 'Children of the Stones', which was filmed in the village. I watched it on DVD a few years ago and if anything, found it even more impressive as an adult. The intelligent script, which didn't make any compromises for a younger audience, has never been surpassed by anything on children's television:

Also, it had a wonderfully spooky intro sequence:

The quest to explain the stones, either in an archeological or supernatural context, seems futile. We will probably never know their purpose and while it is fine to speculate, I'm perfectly happy to accept the stones on their own terms. They are extraordinary, beautiful and mysterious.

I returned to my car and began the long, dull journey back to Lewes, but just as I thought I'd left Avebury behind me, I saw this:

Had they been there an hour earlier? I really wasn't sure.

I have more meetings lined up. Earlier in the year, I went into partnership with a man who ran several internet bookselling companies and it looked as if I would have a steady supply of stock of old books. However, he has decided to concentrate on his main business and after an amicable separation, I am back where I started.

At the moment I am working alone. If we can ever get our oldest son back to school, my wife will join me. I don't know if our bookselling venture will ever amount to a decent living, but I am quietly hopeful.

I intend to spend the summer finding new sources of stock, trawling the industrial estates of England. However, I suspect that there may also be some interesting detours as well, possibly with a few overnight stays.

Any recommendations for West Yorkshire?


Rog said...

We landed in Avebury for the first time last Summer. There was something of "The Prisoner" about it.

Steerforth said...

Landed? That sounds rather exciting. I just took the A4361 ;)

You're right about 'The Prioner'. In 'Children of the Stones', any attempt to leave was thwarted by stone-like apparitions, just like the Rover balloons.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Whenever I hear about Avebury I think of the series. I had forgotten its title but I remember the locals wishing the newcomers "Happy day!"; a sign that they were weird of course.

Steerforth said...

Yes, "Happy day!" was really sinister.

Apparently, when the actor who played the son returned to Avebury, many years later, some locals decided to have a bit of fun and stood outside his bedroom during the night, chanting the weird music from the series.

Kid said...

Look on the bright side - at least you got some nice photos out of the trip.

Annabel said...

I love those stones - must revisit some day soon. Lovely photos too, definitely makes your wasted journey worthwhile in the end.

The last time I went, it was misty and I got a wonderful photo of a Friesian cow staring at me in front of one of the larger ones.

The ones on the way out form the 'West Kennet Avenue' that connected the Henge with the Sanctuary on Overton hill nearby.

resolutereader said...

Going to West Yorkshire - you might want to visit Castle Hill

Steerforth said...

Kid - It certainly wasn't a wasted trip. Indeed, it was good to have an excuse to go there.

Annabel - I could have done with some mist. I'm sure it's far more atmospheric when the weather's not as nice. It was a little too sunny for any 'mystic' shots.

Resolute Reader - Thanks for the recommendation. I'd never heard of Castle Hill.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Fascinating. We went to Avebury many years ago. I think it's far more interesting than Stonehenge, though much less well known, at least abroad.

But darn it all, Steerforth, now there's another DVD I have to find (and probably buy!) gets rather expensive reading all these blog posts!!

xoxo Carol

sukipoet said...

Well I never....

You adventure with the book guys was "fantasmagorical."

thanks for the stones tour. Fascinating indeed. Like big lumps of clay someone stuck their thumbs into. oddly shaped.

of course being from USA I never heard of that TV program but it looked great!

Caroline said...

I go to Avebury as often as I can. Yorkshire? Find the Brimham Rocks, North West of Harrogate. Enjoy.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I'd recommend the DVD. The production values are a little creaky, with a mixture of film and VT, but the writing, casting and music is superb - a haunting series.

Suki - I'd be very surprised if the programme was ever shown in the USA. It was broadcast once and never shown again, but a lot of British people of my age, who were children in the 1970s, remember it with fondness.

Caroline - I've just Googled them and they look extraordinary. I shall have to go (also, I'd love to visit Harrowgate). Thanks.

nilly said...

Our niece's blog has a very good list of stoney places of interest in Yorkshire and elsewhere. We particularly recommend the Druid's Temple at Ilton.

Richard said...

It might have looked like an abandoned college to you, but I bet they’ve got a fully-functioning stargate behind those vast, unlit corridors. What an eerie-sounding encounter, straight out of Quatermass!

Steerforth said...

Nilly - How nice to have a child that growns up to produce a blog like that. It gives me hope.

Richard - I like that idea that the decrepitude and ineptitude is actually a cover for a serious scientific organisation. Perhaps I should have suggested sending the books via their stargate to my unit in Sussex (or would I need a stargate of my own?).

Richard said...

By strange coincidence (or was it?!), BBC Radio 4 re-broadcast this short, amusing documentary by comedian Stewart Lee about Children of The Stones this afternoon; some useful links for further reading on the programme webpage, too.

Thought I’d mention this here, for those unfamiliar and intrigued by the series.

Happy Day!

zmkc said...

I always stand in the middle of the road when I think visitors might not find us. It's the only sensible thing to do.

Anonymous said...

Dry as a biscuit, your prose. A delight.

Steerforth said...

Richrad - Thanks for the link. The documentary was a delight, particularly as it featured the girl that I had a serious crush on.

Zoe - On an industrial estate, you'd be crushed if you did that. I felt as if I was in a 1980s video game, with lorries and forklift trucks appearing from different directions.

SR Cloud - Thank you.