Thursday, January 31, 2013


The snow has melted, but it has been replaced by widespread flooding and my journey to work makes me feel as if I'm driving an amphibious car:

The music just happened to be on, but it fits (although it would have been a lot more fun if I'd put on the James Bond theme).

My cowshed is damper than ever and I seem to spend an increasing amount of time wiping spores off books. It's odd how some books are completely unaffected by the damp, whilst others look as if they're the remaining artefacts of a civilisation that was wiped out centuries ago, warped and covered in mold.

But it's not all bad. Today is the first day that the farm dog hasn't tried to attack me. I feel accepted at last.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sasek's London

One of my favourite books that I've come across recently is a large, illustrated hardback called 'This is London', by the Czech artist Miroslav Sasek.

Published as part of a series that includes Paris, San Francisco, Rome and New York, Sasek's 1950s-style illustrations have gained a cult following and there is an excellent tribute website here.

I'd been meaning to keep 'This is London' for myself, but forgot to remove it from sale. This morning, my heart sank when I saw that it had been snapped up by a gentleman in Spain. My loss is his gain.

But before 'This is London' goes in the post, I thought I'd share some of the images. Sasek's book was published in 1959, so this is a London of City gents in bowler hats, chirpy Cockneys and, of course, this:

By the time I was born, the infamous smogs were a thing of the past (partly thanks to our old friend Sir Gerald Nabarro), but it took several decades for London to lose its association with thick fog.

I wonder if London will ever lose its association with most of the following images:

Half a century on, the bowler hats have disappeared and the Cockneys have mostly moved out to Essex and Kent, whilst commuters are increasingly likely to be reading the Daily Telegraph on their smartphones. London feels very different to the place I knew as a child - better in some ways, worse in others.

I shall be in London on Sunday afternoon, as I'm going to see a friend in a concert called 'Songs My Mother Taught Me' (a bit of misnomer for a collection of complex 20th century choral pieces; unless it was a very aspirational, middle class mother). But before that, I'm going to see this:

It looks slightly more promising than Martin Creed's Turner prize-winning work: the lights going on and off.

Friday, January 25, 2013

In the Bleak Midwinter

This morning I took a slight detour on the way home from work and ended up driving towards Firle Beacon where, on a clear day, you can see across the Weald to the North Downs. On the way up I passed Viscount Gage, who was on horseback, nonchalantly gesturing with his riding crop as I slowed down. The Firle estate has belonged to the Gage family for over 500 years.

Virginia Woolf used to walk along the top of the Downs to visit her sister at Charleston. On days like this, I imagine her fragile, bird-like frame trudging through the snow.

I find this time of year difficult. The lack of light, the greyness and the penetrating cold is enervating. I am counting the days until March 21st.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ice Cold in Alfriston

Outside it sounds as if there is a torrential downpour, but it is just the melting snow running off the roof of the barn. I have popped in to work to pick the orders and make sure that they are posted. It's a fag having to do a 16-mile round trip for a few packages, but my seller ratings depend on the speed of delivery.

Glancing at the orders, I notice that there are a several titles that have sold many times over the last year. The bestselling one used to go for around £5, but now fetches at least £15, so the demand must exceed the supply. I wonder why the publishers haven't reissued these books.

I have a pile of Pelicans in front of me. I love this series, particularly the ones printed during the 1960s and 70s, when they had witty, strking covers like this:

But the ones that amuse me most are those from the 1940s and 50s. The uniform cover designs aren't particularly exciting:

But I love the back covers, with their potted author biographies and wonderful photos:

There seem to have been two poses that were deemed appropriate for intellectual gentlemen like Sir Mortimer Wheeler: holding a pipe or head in hand:

Richard Wollheim

A. L. Bacharach (no relation to Burt, sadly)
 A defiantly pipeless and handless Roy Lewis, with a pensive looking Angus Maude
 William Baring Pemberton
Considering that author photos on books were relatively rare in those days, it's odd that Pelican went to such lengths to get these mugshots on such a dry old range of titles. Did they think that they reader would feel reassured by a photograph of a serious-looking chap in tweeds?

Perhaps it was to prove that Cecil Ffoulkes-Worthing was a real gentleman and not some bluestocking writing under a nom de plume, like George Eliot. Perish the thought!

On the rare occasions that Pelican threw caution to the wind and published a title by a woman, the photo nearly always seemed to depict a Margaret Rutherford clone.

Sadly, Pelican paperbacks are nearly always worthless. The huge print runs have meant that the supply will nearly always exceed the demand. My copies usually end up being recycled.

I'll be going home soon, as it's too cold to work here. At the moment the countryside looks like this:

It's nice if you're a small child, but I can't wait for the spring.

Friday, January 18, 2013


One of the advantages (or possibly pitfalls) of being self-employed is that I can slope off to Brighton Marina in the afternoon and enjoy watching films in an almost empty cinema. Yesterday, I watched this:

I knew next to nothing about the story, but dutifully went as my wife assured me that it was supposed to be good (I'm sure the fact that it starred Ewan McGregor had nothing to do with her choice) and it was. In fact it was so good, I had trouble believing that it could be a British film.

Then I discovered that it was Spanish.

The trailer's rather schmaltzy tone doesn't do justice to a film that was one of the most moving things I've seen for a long time. The child actors were excellent - a far cry from the stage school brats that make you end up rooting for the villains - and there was also a superb cameo from Geraldine Chaplin.

My mother babysat. It's really useful having her live so near, but I'm worried that she's beginning to go a bit dotty. A question she asked yesterday "What's that thing you put things in to make them hot?" (answer - a microwave) reminded me of Alan Bennett's elderly mother, who said "What's that thing you're on your own in?" when she could no longer remember the word car.

Of course, forgetting names is a natural part of getting old and I'm told that I only need to worry when my mother can't remember what things do. If I find her looking at an egg whisk with a bemused expression, then I'll start to panic.

Earlier, I'd shown her a new website that has mapped the location of every known bomb that fell on London during the Blitz. I scrolled across to Richmond - where my mother grew up - and asked her to tell me what she remembered about the bombs. Richmond seemed to get off fairly lightly compared to central London. Look at the map for the City of London and it's remarkable that there are any pre-war buildings left.

I was going to write a blog post about the collapse of the music chain HMV because it's a subject close to my heart (in 2006, HMV bought the company I worked for and merged it with Waterstone's), but it's already old news. One thing I would say is that the chain's collapse wasn't entirely inevitable. If the senior management had possessed the foresight to invest more in creating an online presence during the late 90s, it might have been a different story.

Instead, HMV Media opened 50 new stores between 1997 and 2002 and allowed a new internet seller that nobody had ever heard of to become the first port of call for music and DVD sales. I actually tried to buy something from the HMV website in 1999, as they were the top music brand in Britain, but gave up in disgust as their site was so appalling.

I think the former chairman of HMV - Alan Giles - has a lot to answer for. His lack of vision and short-termism meant that the company was always one step behind the huge changes that took place in 'entertainment retail' during the noughties. Imagine if they'd created their own version of iTunes, ready for the advent of broadband. Instead, they chased after the notoriously fickle under 25s and alienated their core market - blokes who buy a lot of CDs.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I think a lot of high-powered business people are idiots (at least, most of the ones I've met). Read the profiles of top business people in the Sunday Times and their book and film choices are nearly always depressingly moronic for people who are intelligent enough to run a multi-million pound company. I certainly wouldn't want to spend an evening with someone whose favourite album was Brothers in Arms and top book was The Bridges of Madison County.

The people I find interesting and amusing usually turn out to be artists, journalists, ex-military, doctors, diplomats, academics, entrepreneurs, farmers, writers and, of course, booksellers. They're all very different, but the one thing they usually have in common is a sense of humour and an aversion to the sort of corporate nonsense that obfuscates the truth.

It's just started snowing and I have a biography of Roald Amundsen to read. I might as well go the whole hog and put this on in the background:

Friday, January 11, 2013

Cold Comfort Farm

I have been working alone today and apart from the sound of occasional gunfire and neighing horses, it is disconcertingly quiet. The barn I work in usually creaks and groans, but now it is eerily silent, as if hibernating for the winter. I am sitting in a 20' by 10' garden shed, with two convector heaters on full power. I still feel cold.

The books are depressing me today. So many of them have clearly never been read and at times, it feels as if the whole publishing industry is founded on unwanted gifts. In the skip for new books are dozens of copies of the bestsellers of recent Christmases: Frankie Boyle's autobiography, a Top Gear annual, all of Dan Brown's ouevre and countless celebrity memoirs. Very few of them are well-thumbed.

During these silent afternoons of muted light and creeping coldness, I find it hard not to think about my own mortality. Dealing with the detritus of the recently deceased, I'm only too aware that one day it will be my books and photographs that will be turned into lampshades, packaging and road surfacing material.

I have asked people to start saving photos and albums, without telling them why and several things have arrived during the last week. The best was a collection of pictures of a Sussex family taken between 1927 and 1929.

None of the images are particularly remarkable, but what interests me is that they show a society in transition. The older generation - all born during the mid-Victorian age - don't appear to have change their style of dress at all. The photo below could have been taken any time in the late nineteenth century, except that the boy is holding a model plane:

As usual, there are no names, but the locations are all in Sussex. The people in these pictures, particularly the older ones, would probably have spoken with a strong rural burr that was quite different from today's sub-London accent. Click here and you'll hear a real Sussex accent.

The increasingly independent young women of the 1920s must have shocked their grandparents, who had seen their slowly-changing world completely torn apart by the First World War. It's not the past that's a foreign country, it's the future and if you live long enough, you'll be a stranger in a strange land.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The White Man's Burden

Today I found a 1950s children's annual called 'The Treasure Book of Comics'.

Publications from this era are usually full of relatively innocent tales of high jinks, midnight feasts and public-spirited children outwitting the criminal classes, but this annual seems to have a different agenda.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

The more time I spend in the past, wading through tonnes of old books, the less attractive it seems.