Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Cold Comfort Farms

Ten years ago, I was working on a farm in the middle of a cold Sussex winter, trying to push some huge metal wheelie bins up an ice-covered slope. After falling over several times, I gripped onto the bins as firmly as possible, only to discover that my hands had stuck to the freezing metal. It was not the best of times.

There were lighter moments. Occasionally, we'd stop for a cup of tea and see how long it took for the dregs of our cups to freeze once we'd tipped them on the ground. Meanwhile, in a nearby barn, some mice had taken the used teabags from our makeshift bin and turned them into a cosy little nest. 

I barely knew the people I worked with, but the grim, Siberian labour camp conditions created a sort of camaraderie.

When friends asked me what I was doing, I told them a half truth: I was setting up an online secondhand bookselling business, with a man called Pete. If they wanted to imagine a rarefied atmosphere of antiquarian books, that was fine with me. The reality was harder to explain and I'm not sure I even understood it myself.

It had all happened by chance. A few weeks earlier, I'd been approached by someone I vaguely knew who'd heard that I'd recently left an online bookselling job to set up my own business. Pete invited me to a local pub and, over a pint of Harvey's, produced a succession of Excel spreadsheets that showed how the two of us could make our fortune. My bookselling experience combined with his business acumen would be, he argued, be a winning combination. 

I wasn't convinced, but it was flattering to be asked and, after all, what did I have to lose? Pete proposed that we ran two separate, but linked, businesses, so I would still have the independence I needed, but with a guaranteed supply of books. I mulled it over that evening and said yes the following morning. 

The farm was 10 miles away, in the middle of the Sussex countryside and was owned by a gypsy family. For reasons I never fully understood, they all seemed to be called Billy and lived in a static home which was occasionally turned 90 degrees to the right or left, perhaps as a homage to their nomadic past.

Pete had sublet a barn from the family and had established a small business selling penny paperbacks, but had no idea what to do with all of the older, non-barcoded books. My role was to go through the stock, sort out the wheat from the chaff and find a way of selling the books online. I'd already done this in my previous job, so what could possibly go wrong? 

I soon had my answer. Several weeks of sifting through books ridden with mouse droppings in subzero temperatures took its toll and I developed pneumonia. I hadn't taken it that seriously until I saw the look on my doctor's face after she'd tested my lung capacity. It was time to stop. The rest of February was a write-off, spent mostly in bed.

By the beginning of March, I felt able to go back to work and found Pete in an ebullient mood. He had just bought a large van, which meant that we could move our stock around between different premises. All I had to do now was find a suitable location for my part of the business. 

How did one go about finding suitable properties to set up an internet bookselling business? I had no idea, but like any sensible person I tried Google and eventually found this.

After my spell in the icy gulag, the new site felt like paradise. The owner was a gentleman farmer whose wife ran a B&B for visitors to Glyndebourne and his other tenants included the official glovemaker to the Queen. Every time I opened the door, I felt of rush of pleasure as I looked at the view:

I could have quite happily spent my days sitting in this empty building, just looking at the view and listening to music. If only such jobs existed. Sadly there was rent to pay, so I had to start focusing on the nuts and bolts of the business. Literally:

It took two weeks to assemble the giant Meccano sets masquerading as shelving units, one nut and bolt at a time. It was indescribably tedious and if someone had told me that I'd have to disassemble it and reassemble it somewhere else, six months later, I might have felt like giving up.

Along with the shelving, there was the other minutiae to consider: postage, computers, printers, furniture, setting up a BT account, banking and stationery. Even something as simple as a packing slip required HTML skills that were way beyond my abilities, but somehow I had to learn. Gradually, it was beginning to take shape, but there was one thing missing: staff.

Fast forward to a month later and it was impossibly idyllic. I was working in a beautiful rural setting with two postgrads and a member of the cast of The Archers, which added to the bucolic atmosphere. We spent our days sorting through old books in a cosy little office, accompanied by the soothing strains of a French classical music station. What more could anyone want?

Sadly, it was too good to last. Our business generated a lot of waste and our landlord had made it very clear that he didn't want his B&B guests disturbed by the sight of wheelie bins, or woken up by any early morning waste collections. I couldn't argue with that. If I was in the land of Nod after a night's Gotterdammerunging, I wouldn't want a dawn chorus of "ATTENTION! THIS VEHICLE IS REVERSING!"

So far, I'd managed to use Pete's van to take our unwanted books away, but that took two hours out of my day. Also, Pete's bargain van was rather erratic and, without any warning, things would suddenly stop working. On one occasion, I was driving to a warehouse in Birmingham and discovered that the windscreen wipers weren't functioning. I pulled over and texted Pete:

"Got to turn back. The wipers aren't working." 

Pete quickly replied: "Is it raining?" I replied that it wasn't, but it might start raining at some point in the journey, in which case I'd be in a bit of a pickle. I think Pete thought that I was being an old fuss-pot.

The business model was simple enough. We received bulk deliveries of old, pre-ISBN books and sorted through them, identifying any titles that might be worth selling. It doesn't take long to learn which books have no value at all in the secondhand market - things like everyday bibles, old textbooks and Victorian poetry anthologies, or titles like Little Women, Reach For the Sky and anything by Walter Scott. 

Sadly, these books are sent off to be pulped as nobody wants them, particularly the charities who have just sold them to us as a waste product. If the books have nice covers, they may have a future lining the shelves of some faux olde worlde pub, but most will end up in places as unlikely as road surfacing material. In a normal one tonne delivery, anything up to 90% of the books end up being thrown away.

I resisted leaving my rural idyll for as long as possible, but I had to face facts: the business was generating too much waste for our genteel setting. I had to find a new home for the books. After a few fruitless weeks of searching online, I found this:

It was as grim as it looks in the photo, but it was big and cheap - perfect for a growing business. We could have as many wheelie bins as we liked and receive deliveries from articulated lorries. However, expecting my staff to work in a large barn, particularly as the weather got colder, was asking too much. How could I provide them with a decent office space?

Fortunately, I had a brainwave:

I won't claim that my garden shed idea matched the splendour of our previous office, but once I'd installed decent lighting, a couple of heaters and painted the inside a bright colour, it was tolerable. Perhaps we might have been contented there, but unfortunately things took a turn for the worse.

Impressed by the size of the barn, Pete decided that he'd like to set up a little sideline there and employed the first four Polish men who responded to his Gumtree advert. They were perfectly pleasant individuals, but had a penchant for drinking vodka in the morning. Once Pawel and his chums had reached a suitable state of inebriation, they would amuse themselves by performing stunts with a forklift truck (those things can move a lot faster than you might imagine). Occasionally, the forklift would almost crash into our office, veering off seconds before impact. 

To add insult to injury, they played Heart FM and, on one occasion, I had to listen to Adele  accompanied by the cry of a bull being sodomised by one of its stablemates in an adjacent barn. It was at moments like this, I wondered where I had gone wrong.

But in spite of my reservations, the business worked. The sales slowly but steadily grew as we added books to our inventory and received orders from all over the world. Having a global marketplace meant that even the most obscure book stood a reasonable chance of finding a buyer. In a bookshop, I strongly doubt that our 1920s book about UHT milk production would have sold, but online we found someone in Uruguay who couldn't wait to read it.

After a year, I thought I'd developed a pretty good business model. The overheads were low and the turnover was growing month by month. But I hadn't foreseen that there would be a number of obstacles to our progress. Here are five of the worst:

1. Animals

Being a townie, I was under the naive impression that we were the sole occupants of our barn, but I soon learned otherwise. From a robin's point of view, our bookshelves were just a suitable place to build a nest.

When the eggs hatched, we had to tread very carefully, hoping that we wouldn't frighten the mother away from feeding her birds. This meant that if any poor soul ordered a book near the nest, I had to cancel the order. Of course, I couldn't tell them why, so I had to invent a vaguely plausible excuse and hope that our rating wouldn't suffer.

After a few weeks, the birds flew away, leaving several pecked, soiled books as a souvenir of their visit.

The poor Poles who worked in the open barn also had to contend with birds defecating on their computer monitors and keyboards, which must have added insult to injury. 

In addition to birds, we shared our barn with amphibians:

But the most bizarre moment was when we saw a mink casually walk past with a rat in its mouth. The moment it noticed us, the mink jumped and let go of the rat. Seeing an opportunity, the rat scuttled off into a narrow gap by the door and hid. When we returned after the weekend, we found the mink lying dead with its legs in the air. Next to it, was a huge pile of rat droppings.

Our uninvited guests may have thrown the occasional spanner in the works, but overall they provided many comedic moments and I grew to love the absurdity of it. I also cherished the moments when a robin would land a few feet away and patiently watch me unpack my deliveries. Perhaps he was hoping for a bookworm.

2. Couriers

I thought I'd set up a foolproof system. Rather than faffing around taking parcels to the nearest post office, I'd found a courier who would do all the hard work. All we had to do was put the UK orders in one mailsack and international orders in the other, then someone would come and collect them. It all worked very well until the day nobody turned up. 

After a number of unanswered phone calls, I discovered that the company had gone bust. They had several days' worth of our orders in their warehouse and for the next few weeks, I began each day issuing refunds and apologising to angry customers. Our rating dropped as a result and fewer orders came in, which was probably just as well, as there was nobody to collect them. 

I learned my lesson and signed up to one of the biggest couriers in the country. They went bust too.

3. Gravity

For no discernible reason, our Meccano shelving units would occasionally collapse under the strain of our growing inventory of books. The metal would buckle to the point where repairs were impossible. It was very annoying.

Gravity also nearly led to my premature demise when this teetering pile of boxes was delivered. 

It looks harmless enough here, but when this half tonne pallet was five feet above me on the back of a lorry, wobbling menacingly, I wasn't terribly happy about it. The delivery driver didn't inspire confidence when he said, "Looks as if it might fall off, mate. Can you stand underneath and try and keep it steady?" Like a fool, I complied because I wanted to show that I was also a proper man, just like him.

4. Suppliers

Like couriers, suppliers can suddenly go into receivership without any warning. Even if that doesn't happen, they may decide that my few hundred quid a month isn't enough of an incentive for them to bother separating their old books from the new, preferring to sell them to a waste paper merchant.

5. Partnership

Business partnerships are tricky at the best of times. Pete and I were like Del Boy and Rodney. Pete was a geezer and although I liked him personally, I didn't agree with the way he avoided paying people to extend his credit. Occasionally, his 'entrepreneurial' approach would land him in deep water and more than once his business teetered on the brink of disaster.

I was definitely a Rodney. I used to worry if I was a day late with my payments and liked to do everything by the book.

Eventually, Pete and I reached an amicable separation, but continued to help each other out and share premises.

Without Pete's quest for global domination, I no longer felt under pressure to expand and decided to continue as a one-man operation. The business was at a level where it ticked over nicely and I was contented sitting in my small office, listening to music, sorting through the random selection of books that passed through my hands.

The job was a strange mixture. One part of it involved sitting in a warm, cosy office, listening to Bach and looking at antiquarian books. The other involved mundane manual tasks, like trying to push heavy wheelie bins through the muddy surface of a farmyard. The physicality of the work could be particularly draining - if you've ever had to load and unload one and a half tonnes of boxed books, you'll know what I mean.

But although the chores could be repetitive, the books themselves were endlessly fascinating, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Although most of the stock was rubbish, literally, a delivery could yield all sorts of surprises, from a signed first edition by Siegfried Sassoon to a letter written by Paul Nash. 

If things had gone as planned, I'd probably still be in my cowshed now, assailed by weasels, toads and robins. However, a few years ago, my wife won funding from the local authority for our son to go to a school that specialised in teaching autistic children. As I was the only one who could take him there (and be on call to collect him if he had a wobble), my wife and I decided that we should swap roles. I tried to continue running my business on a part-time basis, but it didn't work and I very reluctantly said a final farewell to bookselling. 

Five years on, I am still at home, bored senseless and doing a terrible job at running the house, while my wife is developing a blossoming career as a freelance editor. Sometimes I fantasize about resurrecting Steerforth Books, even if it meant having to start from scratch again. But whenever nostalgia strikes, I remember the darker side of the job: the mud, the Heart FM, the near-death incidents, the rats and the back-breaking deliveries. 

And it still isn't enough to put me off. 


Sunday, August 08, 2021

Journal of a Plague Year

2020 was going to be a good year. Holidays were booked and my older son, whose crippling anxiety had made him virtually housebound, was about to begin a programme of treatment that would gradually help him overcome his fear of the outside world. There seemed to be a lot to look forward to.

Of course, there were various reports in the news about a deadly new virus in China, but hadn't we heard it all before when we were warned about mad cow disease, bird flu and Ebola? These things always fizzled out. Even when the Italians were warning us that we were two weeks away from a crisis, people said "Ah, but that's the Italians. They're very tactile. It won't spread as quickly over here."

As the number of UK cases began to rise, I was still busily planning a weekend break in Luxembourg, while Boris Johnson was busy enjoying a two-week holiday with his girlfriend. Crisis? What crisis?

In hindsight, perhaps we were dutifully following Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's model for the five stages of grief, the first of which is denial. We told ourselves that the number of people with Covid-19 was only 12...37...93...168...279..., but by early March, creeping doubts were beginning to set in. Perhaps we were heading for a scenario that was more like this:

Within just a few weeks, denial quickly became replaced by anger and fear. How did we sleepwalk into this position? Who was to blame? Should we let the virus sweep through society until herd immunity was achieved, or should we batten down the hatches and risk destroying the economy?

After some Olympic-level dithering by Boris Johnson, the hatches were battened down. All non-essential travel was banned and a silence seemed to descend on the world. The normally thriving streets of Lewes became eerily deserted.

My son's CBT sessions for his agoraphobia were cancelled. After two weeks of being reassured that the outside world was a safe place, he was now being told that actually it wasn't and that it would probably be better if he stayed indoors. He willingly complied.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The first lockdown coincided with some unseasonably warm weather and many people enjoyed this unexpected holiday. The distant roar of traffic was suddenly replaced by birdsong and, in the field behind our house, children started to build makeshift dens and swings. It seemed like a glimpse of a more benign world. 

However, things were starting to turn ugly at the supermarkets, as a mass hysteria developed over a potential shortage of toilet paper. In some city-centre stores, fights were breaking out over the right to have a clean bottom and, while I saluted the protagonists' commitment to personal hygiene, it seemed a baffling thing to come to blows over. 

The toilet-paper crisis was swiftly alleviated by the beginning of food shortages, which meant that fewer trips to the loo would be required. Gripped by a fear that society was on the brink of collapse, people started buying up all the dried pasta and rice they could find. On a trip to Tesco, the whole meat aisle was empty, apart from two packets of Heck pork sausages.

We were quickly reassured that there was no shortage of food; we were just trying to all buy it at the same time, which made it very hard for the supermarkets to replenish their shelves quickly enough. At this point, Tesco swiftly instigated their National Emergency Plan:

Unlike the UK government, Tesco had prepared for this eventuality and, thanks to socially distanced queuing and a limit on the number of customers allowed in the store, the food shortages swiftly ended. I sometimes wonder if the Government should have resigned and handed over the reins of power to Tesco, who seemed to possess a sense of direction that Boris Johnson lacked.

On the home front, I instigated what was, in hindsight, an absurd "dig for victory" campaign in our garden, turning part of the lawn into a potato patch and planting grow bags full of tomatoes. The end result is that, several months later, we had more cherry tomatoes than we knew what to do with and enough potatoes to delay death from starvation by a mere three days.

But while my attempts at self-sufficiency might have been laughable, the local area came into its own. Many local farmers and market traders set up veg-box delivery services and every week we enjoyed a selection of fresh vegetables and fruit, all of which were apparently grown locally. It was a revelation; I had no idea that we grew avocados in Sussex.

Our veg-box deliveries quickly became the highlight of the week; partly because we hadn't spoken to another human being for days (I don't count the awfulness of a Zoom session as human contact).

Another thing that impressed me about the local area was the community spirit that quickly grew. A campaign by the Royal Voluntary Service to recruit people to help the NHS received around a million responses, while, on a more local level, neighbours began to shop for each other and provide lifts for medical appointments.

Encouraged by this growing neighbourliness, my wife and I volunteered to do a weekly shop for the elderly couple next door. They were both as deaf as a post, so it seemed like a good idea when the husband suggested sending their shopping lists to my wife by email.

It all worked very well at first. Every week, my wife would received a shopping list that seemed particularly focused on prunes and bran (but never loo paper, strangely), which we would then print off and take to Tesco. But then, other emails started to appear and their tone began to acquire a more disturbing nature.

At first, it was simple innuendoes, which we put down to the attitudes of a different generation. But then the content started to become more explicit. I'm not quite sure why a man born in 1935 felt compelled to share his sexual history with my wife. He seemed to imagine that he and my wife had a special connection and would send creepy emails with lines like, "I noticed that you were up very late last night". As the saying goes, there's no fool like an old fool.

Thankfully, the rest of the people in our road were better behaved. Nobody subjected us to any impromptu live gigs or salsa-dancing sessions and the slightly Orwellian hand-clapping sessions never quite took off. There was a vague attempt to have a VE Day street party, but I felt under no compulsion to join in.

Life went on. At first, many of us were so terrified of ending up on a ventilator, we regarded a panting jogger or cyclist with the same horror as someone wearing a suicide vest, while a random cough in a supermarket saw people fleeing in all directions. Fortunately, the fear gradually subsided and as the death rate began to fall, some restrictions were lifted.

The 'new normal' was like the old normal, but with masks, handwashing and a Cromwellian ban on public fun. I welcomed the introduction of table service in pubs and the ban on social kissing and hugging was an added bonus, but overall it was a strange, melancholy time.

To complicate things further, my older son had his first epileptic fit and had to be rushed to hospital. He had been found by his younger brother and, for weeks afterwards, every strange knock or bang would send our younger son rushing upstairs to see if everything was all right.

The one highlight of that lost summer was a trip to North Yorkshire, where an old friend gave me a guided tour of the local moors. It was exhilarating to be somewhere different. Indeed, I felt the same level of excitement that I usually reserved for exotic, foreign holidays.

But on the way back, reality crept back in. Kings Lynn was a ghost town and I spent a rather lonely evening eating a very indifferent meal, alfresco, in a deserted market square. Where had all the people gone? On the other hand, perhaps this was normal for a town next to the Fens. Did they all come out at night?

I had thought that a visit to the quaint coastal village of Blakeney might provide some semblance of normality, but even here, it was impossible to escape from the bogeyman. Wandering around the deserted streets, I felt as if I was in an episode of Doctor Who.

But the worst was yet to come. Having a lockdown in the spring was one thing, but shutting the country down for three months during a relentlessly grey, wet winter was another. People who had never suffered from mental-health problems now found themselves experiencing depression for the first time in their lives. I stayed at home, watched television and put on a stone, courtesy of Mr Kipling.

Fortunately, there was light at the end of the tunnel and, after a succession of balls-ups, the British government finally got something right with its vaccine programme. My son's epilepsy diagnosis pushed him to the front of the queue and he received his first Pfizer jab.

As his carer, I was also bumped up the queue and a few weeks later, I received my first AstraZeneca vaccine. On both occasions, I was really impressed by the efficiency of the whole process and the dedication and patience shown by the staff, particularly the volunteer vaccine stewards. Indeed, I felt so grateful, I ended up becoming a vaccine steward myself. 

Being a vaccine steward was exhausting. In Brighton, I was on my feet for six hours, with just one 15-minute break. The work was monotonous but vital, as it meant that the NHS staff were able to get on with their jobs rather than wasting time directing people. According to my phone, in an area that was a mere 25ft long, I walked over 8000 steps.

After the miserable winter lockdown ended, I took a train to London and discovered that it was still closed. 

I suppose the empty train and PPE vending machine at Lewes Station should have given me a clue. But the idea of a deserted city seemed the stuff of science-fiction films, where the silence was only broken by marauding triffids or gangs of looters. In Trafalgar Square, three police vans were parked on the perimeter and I realised that I was under observation, which was a little disconcerting.

Since then, life has gradually returned to normal. Relaxing the rules resulted in a spike of new Covid cases, but that now seems to be in reverse and the number of people wearing masks in crowded places is slowly declining. Friends have started kissing again, so we're now back to the nightmare of trying to remember if so-and-so is a one- or two-cheek-kissing person.

Overall, I wouldn't say that Covid-19 has had a huge impact on my life. The people who have suffered have been the young, those who haven't been able to see loved ones and, of course, those who caught the virus. I was already leading a life of self-isolation looking after my sons, so the lockdown didn't change things much for me.  

However, I did learn one important lesson: make hay while the sun shines. Spend more time with friends and loved ones, visit the places you've always wanted to see and don't spend all your days at home eating Mr Kipling's Almond Slices. I hope that there won't be another long year like this in my lifetime, but this is, after all, an age of uncertainty.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Since Then

For part of the 1970s, London-based viewers of the TV soap 'Crossroads' were six months behind the rest of the country. I can't remember why, but I do recall that part of the excitement of going on holiday was being able to watch an up to date episode. It was like travelling into the future.

As with all good time travel stories, I was shocked by some of the things I saw. Why was Sandy in a wheelchair? What had turned Amy Turtle into a common thief? Where was Ted Hope? How could so much happen in six months?

In the end, Thames Television decided to catch up with the rest of the UK and a special update was filmed, with motel owner Meg Mortimer explaining what had taken place in King's Oak.

As it's been a long time since I've written a blog post, I thought I'd emulate Thames and provide a brief update of what's happened here.

1. I Have a New Home

When my mother died, I'd hoped that we'd finally have the opportunity to swap our terraced Victorian broom cupboard for a decent-sized house in Lewes, where I could hide from people and everyone would have the space to potter around. By decent, I mean normal; a three-bed semi with a garage and a garden longer than 20 feet.

Sadly, I soon realised that my small inheritance wouldn't even cover this modest ambition, as the prices for non-terraced houses suddenly shot up. Disheartened, I began to think the unthinkable: leave Lewes.

Long story short: we now live just outside Lewes, in a detached house with a view of the South Downs. Thanks to postcode snobbery, it was almost exactly the same price as our old house. I love it.

2. I Am No Longer Gainfully Employed

In a normal family, my older son would probably be at university by now or in full-time employment, while his younger brother would be going to the local school and hanging out with friends. None of this has happened. Instead, I have gradually become a full-time carer to both boys, home educating the younger one.

There are two types of people who home educate their children: those who want to and those who have to. I am firmly in the latter camp and would far rather be working. For all its frustrations, work brings camaraderie, a sense of purpose and, of course, money. At the moment, my time is spent almost entirely at home, as neither boy likes going out.

After six months of this, I started to go a bit stir crazy, so my wife very kindly suggested that I went off on a little jaunt somewhere. This turned out to be a very good idea and I am now making full use of EasyJet's cheap flights. Visiting a city like Berlin certainly clears away the cobwebs and stops me feeling that my life is in a complete rut.

As for the home education, although I may be a reluctant teacher, I am trying my best to ensure that my son has a thorough grounding in the basics, but is also free to follow his enthusiasms and passions. Sometimes we'll read a book together, but at others we might watch a film or YouTube clip and discuss it.

So far, my son seems to be enjoying his lessons and is much happier than he was this time last year, so I'm quietly hopeful.

3. Reading Helps

It can be hard to maintain a positive outlook when you see your loved ones struggling. I feel haunted by the ghost of the carefree childhood that my older son never had. I have been assured by professionals that we did all the right things, but it is hard not to experience a residual feeling of failure. We do not bring children into the world to suffer.

On gloomy, winter days, I wonder if this is it. Will I work again? Will my sons ever find their way in life and if not, what will happen when we are old? Will I even make it to old age if I live a life where I rarely get any exercise, because my son won't go out but doesn't like being left alone?

Of course it's ridiculous to think along these lines and when I worked, I was far too busy. But during the afternoons, when the lessons are finished and lunches eaten, my quiet time can be a mixed blessing, so thank God for the novel. What greater pleasure can there be than getting stuck into a novel like Buddenbrooks, spending hour upon hour in 19th century Lübeck?

Blogging also used to be cathartic, but without the stimulus of work and travel, I've been rather short of material. I haven't wanted to share my recent experiences because I didn't think it wouldn't be terribly entertaining, but I'm not quite ready to join the increasing number of people who have given up blogging.

I will try to ensure that my next post is more amusing.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

A Year in Books

This post originally appeared on my other, now defunct blog, in December 2016.

At the end of last year, my wife and I swapped roles. It was an easy decision, as I was the only one of us able to drive our sons to their new schools. My wife joined a publishing company and thrived, while I joined the world of stay-at-home fathers, and withered. However, although this has been a challenging year, I've been grateful for the opportunity to read more books than ever. I began the year by resolving to abandon my Kindle and enjoyed some serendipitous discoveries in charity shops. However, almost a year on, my teetering piles of books have reminded me why I bought a Kindle in the first place. Here are a few of the titles that made a particular impression on me: 


Philip Roth's novel 'The Plot Against America', published 12 years ago, takes place in an alternate timeline in which Roosevelt lost the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindbergh. At the time, a story about an experienced politician losing to a celebrity with fascist sympathies and no experience of government seemed rather far fetched. Of course, Hillary Clinton is no Roosevelt and Donald Trump is no Lindbergh, but the essential message of this book is worth heeding: democracy can become quickly debased if we allow it. 


I'd always assumed that Norman Collins' novel 'London Belongs to Me' was a dreadful old potboiler, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that for all its faults, it was a compelling and vivid evocation of London on the eve of the Second World War. Set in a boarding house that has seen better days, the novel eavesdrops on the lives of its occupants with insight and humour. 


The perfect comfort read, 'London Belongs To Me' has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with a glowing recommendation on the cover from Sarah Walters.


The name VS Prichett meant little to me apart from his occasional appearance in short story collections, so I was intrigued to find a novel by him in the Lewes branch of Oxfam. Largely set in the Amazon jungle, 'Dead Man Leading' reads like a Conradian tale as written by Evelyn Waugh, with a finely-tuned sense of the absurd. But although it is faintly reminiscent of the last part of Waugh's own 'A Handful of Dust', Pritchett has a clear, confident voice and the result is a book that is odd and unsettling, but strangely compelling.


'The Life & Times of Michael K' by JM Coetzee was published in 1983, winning the author his first Booker Prize. There is an awful lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre fiction being published at the moment and some of it is very enjoyable, but Coetzee's brilliantly stark vision has yet to be matched.


I enjoy a good thriller and with a Kindle I can read any old trash without anyone knowing, but I've no patience with books that suffer from lumpen prose, implausible characters and cliche-ridden dialogue, no matter how good the plot is. Fortunately, Sabine Durrant's 'Lie With Me' is a cut above the average thriller and a worthy successor to Patricia Highsmith, intelligently written and well plotted.

I thought it was much better than the overrated 'The Girl on the Train'. Durrant does a very convincing job of narrating the story from the perspective of a man in his early 40s and her depiction of an affluent South London family rings horribly true. I also enjoyed her evocative descriptions of a Greek island, written in a clear prose style that avoids the overwritten cliches of many genre novels.


The subject of John Preston's 'A Very English Scandal' will mean little to anyone under the age of 45 and absolutely nothing to anyone outside the UK, but it is a story that will appeal to many. Jeremy Thorpe was the charismatic leader of Britain's Liberal Party, with a lust for power that was only exceeded by his penchant for young men. When the latter threatened the former, in the guise of a troubled individual called Norman Scott, Thorpe asked a friend to have him killed.

Beyond some smutty 1970s playground jokes ("What do Jeremy Thorpe and Captain Kirk have in common?), my only memory of Thorpe was a sympathetic one - a good man defeated by the bigotry of a different age. How wrong I was. The Thorpe that emerges in these pages is a charming psychopath, callously exploiting the extraordinary loyalty of his friends and family to further his political career.


'A Very English Scandal' reads like a thriller and is utterly gripping from start to finish.


'The Serious Game' is an extraordinary 1912 novel by Hjalmar Söderberg, who in his native Sweden is regarded as the equal of Strindberg. On the face of it it's a simple enough tale of a young couple who fall in love, but end up being unhappily married to other people. What's remarkable about the book is its modernity and insight, containing a candour that no English novelist would have dared to attempt in Edwardian Britain.


'The Deadly Percheron' by John Franklin Bardin is one of those rare novels that transcends its genre. What begins as a rather eccentric mystery novel set in New York quickly changes gear, taking the reader on a strange journey into the darker recesses of the human pyche, where nothing is what it seems. Written in 1946, this novel has been largely forgotten since it was republished by Penguin during the 1960s, but has enjoyed a cult following.



'Chernobyl Prayer' by Svetlana Alexievich is a brilliant piece of reportage, collecting eye-witness accounts of people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. One of the most shocking stories relates how some robotic devices - sent in to move irradiated graphite rods - kept breaking down after a bried period of exposure to radiation. In the end, men were dispatctched to pick the rods up by hand, wearing only the flimsiest of protective suits.

Told that they couldn't have more than 40 seconds' exposure to the graphite, the men soon discovered that it was impossible to do anything in under two minutes and went ahead regardless. For me, the most harrowing part of the book was reading a wife's account of how she nursed her husband during a long, debilitating and painful illness, following his exposure to a massive dose of radiation. When he finally died, his body treated as radioactive waste, buried in a lead-lined coffin.


But if this all sounds too upsetting, I should also add that 'Chernobyl Prayer' also contains some remarkable stories of heroism, compassion and survival. It is a gripping read that reveals the best and worst of humanity.


I really enjoyed Dorothy Hughes's 1940s noir thriller 'In a Lonely Place' and was keen to explore her backlist. Sadly, 'The So Blue Marble' is one of the most ridiculous books I've ever read, with an implausible plot and a selection of unbelievable characters. Thinking that Hughes must have had an off day, I tried another novel by her and was equally nonplussed.


Adam Roberts' 'The Thing Itself' is a high concept novel that bandies ideas about Kantian philosophy, quantum physics and artificial intelliegence around with the ease of someone talking about the weather. A description of the plot would be no help at all. All I can say is that it's a playful, witty, knockabout tale that wears its cleverness lightly and is consistently funny.



I'm a big fan of Justin Cartwright and really enjoyed reading his 2002 novel 'White Lightning'. With a narrative that alternates between South Africa and England, this is a poignant tale of grief and loneliness that is redeemed by the author's wit and humanity. I was particularly amused by Cartwright's description of a 'saucy film' shoot, only to later discover that in the 1970s, he wrote the screenplay for 'Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse'.

These were the books that made a big impression on me, but I should mention that I also really enjoyed Kate Summerscale's 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher', Trollope's 'Doctor Throne', Jonathan Franzen's new novel 'Purity', Andrew Hurley's superb 'The Loney', Lionel Shriver's latest book 'The Mandibles' and Derek Raymond's grim but brilliant 'Factory' novels. I also read three books by Dutch people.

Next year I intend to not read any DH Lawrence or Commonwealth novels with lengthy descriptions of marketplaces, fruit and wise old men, but other than that, I am open to almost anything.