Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Scientific Method

My train from Victoria to Lewes broke down at Haywards Heath this afternoon. After 15 minutes of failed attempts, we were warned of "special procedures" that would cause the lights and doors to stop working for a few seconds.

Reading between the lines, I realised that they were doing what the rest of us do when something doesn't work. They turned the train off, counted to five and turned it on again. It worked.

Once the train had rebooted, the doors hissed open and allowed the remaining people on the platform to get on. One of them was a rather plain, overweight woman in her late 30s. She was unremarkable in every way, apart from a fully tattooed face, a bright yellow bobble hat and a Modrianesque poncho.

Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid.

I was returning from a trip to the Science Museum with my younger son, who wanted to learn about materials and pollution. We looked at several exhibits that showed how many things come from oil, including airfix kits and bath tubs. When I answered any questions, I made sure that there were no adults within earshot who could hear my half-baked ideas.

My older son also has an occasional interest in science. Yesterday he saw a YouTube video which claimed that if you shook a cola bottle vigorously, then put it in the freezer for three hours and 15 minutes, you would have fizzy iced cola. Three hours and 30 minutes later, I heard a voice shout "Dad! Dad!"

I had no idea that an exploding bottle of Coca Cola could cover such a large area. Both the floor and ceiling were soaked in cola, plus half of the walls, a computer, three chairs, a watercolour painting, a window, several books and a printer. The ceiling still bears the stains, but they add a pleasingly antique, mottled effect to the Victorian plasterwork.

After the long clean-up operation, I asked my son why he hadn't opened the bottle in the garden. I was assured that the experiment had worked perfectly in the video. Ah yes, I thought, the infallible wisdom of YouTube.

But perhaps I can employ this blind faith to my own ends. If I can write a list of all the things that annoy me (like beginning sentences with "So...") and make videos that convince today's teenagers that these practices will result in terrible consequences, I will have made up for the Coca Cola incident.

My first video will be about tattooed faces.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Restored Organ

"And what do you do?"

"I sell antiquarian books from a farm in Sussex."

"Oh, lucky you! That sounds wonderful."

At this point, I always wonder if I should shatter their illusion and tell them my job actually involves sifting through thousands of manky, charity shop rejects in search of a small number of gems, whilst trying not to gag at the overpowering smell of manure.

I've had enough of this place, so I'm leaving.

I'll be moving to a new farm shortly. It's drier, cleaner and I won't have to contend with bulls, mud or surly, limbless people.

I went to set up some shelving in the new unit this morning. I was only there for an hour, but during that time over 20 horse-drawn carts went past. Had I stumbled across a clandestine Amish community in the heart of Sussex?

It felt particularly disconcerting, as only 12 hours earlier I was here:

I went with my wife to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, where a choral piece by Neil Hannon had been commissioned to show off its newly-restored organ.

My wife hates organ music, but likes Neil Hannon. I love organs and Neil Hannon, so I had to go.

We used to feel so at home at the South Bank, but my wife and I now feel as if we're in Bladerunner ("The adverts have moving pictures!"). Our psychogeographical map of London is 15 years out of date.Where's the Wimpy Bar?

The concert was a mixed affair. The highlight was Vaughan Williams' sublime Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and a very moving performance of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind by Neil Hannon. I'm not a big fan of hymns, but this arrangement was beautiful:

I wasn't as keen on Neil Hannon's own composition, which sounded like a pastiche of Philip Glass and John Adams. The libretto was very witty, but like most minimalist music, it relied too much on repetition rather than development.

It's a pity, as Hannon is one of the most gifted songwriters alive. When he allowed his own voice to come to the fore, in the final movement, the music was far more successful.

I enjoyed the concert, but the best part of the evening was simply being able to go out with my wife and meet a friend. During the last few years we have been held hostage by our oldest son's condition and our world has shrunk. We haven't even bothered renewing our passports, as it seems like an unnecessary expense.

I find it hard to believe that I once went off to Chile on a whim.

In Chile, on a whim and a bicycle.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

With Deepest Sympathy

I found a rather poignant letter in a book today, used as a bookmark in a D. E. Stevenson novel. In just a few lines, it tells a story that many will be familiar with:

My dear Minnie,

Thank you for your letter. I was so sorry to hear your sad news of Joanna and I send you our love and sympathy. I know what you must be going through.

I have lost quite a few of my friends lately, it is the penalty of growing old!

I have settled in quite well but I miss my animals, as I am not allowed any here.

My love to Jane. I expect she is a great comfort to you. 

I will keep in touch again.

Much love,


Almost Nothing

It has been a long winter. Laid low by a succession of illnesses, I stayed indoors for three months, existing on a diet of antibiotics, Breaking Bad and Anthony Trollope. Deprived of sunlight, my skin took on the pallid quality of a Morlock.

A few days ago I decided that it was time to go out and drove to a nearby medieval priory, where I hoped that the monkish reasonances might have a restorative effect. I think it worked.

Just to the right of this picture is Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe, selling the usual nonsense. You can visit any historic building in Britain and find the same things: tea towels, mugs, 'local' biscuits, CDs of pseudo-Celtic music, small jars of preserves, a pewter replica of something, a book that's £5 cheaper on Amazon and some pencils.

Sadly, they don't sell any of these:

I must have been corrupted by television, as I orginally read this as 'Joan Rivers'.

As we walked past a pond of copulating frogs, I realised how good it felt to be outside again. I must get some more exercise and build my stamina up, as I have quite a few challenges ahead of me.

Annoyingly, I can't write about any of them.

I will therefore finish this brief slip of a post with a piece of First World War propaganda that caught my eye:

I wonder if this was the point at which the sartorial rot began to set in?

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Curious Case of the Ejaculating Airman

I have a publishing-related question that I hope somebody may be able to answer.

In a nutshell, I'm interested in the possibility of republishing a small number of titles that are no longer in print but are still, I believe, in copyright. In the case of one, the author died in the 1950s and the publisher no longer exists, so how would I go about getting permission to print a new edition?

During the last few years, I've come across a small number of titles that are extremely popular and sell within hours of being listed, even when their condition is poor. Judging by the prices, the demand clearly exceeds the supply, so I wonder if a reissue would be justified.

If anyone reading this has a clue, I'd be grateful for any information. I know that it's easy enough to print e-book versions and paperbacks of out of copyright titles, but I'm baffled by the logistics of rights management.

I've noticed that publishers are wisely digitising their backlists, bringing many out of print titles back into circulation, although there are still big gaps (for example, why isn't J M Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K available in Kindle format?).

I wonder if this Percy F Westerman Boy's Own adventure will ever be republished?

The War of the Wireless Waves is a tale of plucky chaps doing battle with swarthy 'super-bandits', who are after Britain's Z and ZZ rays. What's so special about these rays, you may ask? Apparently, they can knock-out an aeroplane's engine in mid-flight, sending it plummeting to the ground.

I haven't actually read the book, but a cursory glance reveals a fast-paced story that makes Biggles look like an old hippie.

Percy Westerman clearly knows how to tell a story, but he does have a slightly disturbing obsession with having his characters ejaculate at regular intervals:

These are just a few examples of the many ejaculations that occur in this book. I realise that ejaculate used to be such a lovely word, but even if its usage is a little more specific these days, I still wonder why Westerman eschewed old favourites like exclaimed. Nobody ejaculates in Trollope, so I'm not convinced that Westerman is simply using the argot of late-Victorian England.

A Percy F Westerman revival probably isn't on the cards, but he's still worth reading - quickly - to give an insight into the Britain of 90 years ago, when Z rays and ejaculations threatened the very fabric of Empire.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

A Day Out in 1970s London

You are invited on a day out in the 1970s. The train will be departing at 9:57. Please bring some fish paste sandwiches and a tupperware beaker of orange squash.

No chewing gum.