Saturday, December 29, 2007
There is nothing like a Dame...Jacqueline Wilson
The honours system may be moribund, but I couldn't help feeling a rush of pleasure when I read that Jacqueline Wilson has been made a dame. I can't think of a more deserving author. There are few writers who have done so much to get children reading, particularly children from deprived backgrounds. Also, she has worked tirelessly to promote reading and although she probably became a millionaire several years ago, she hasn't retreated to an ivory tower. Every fan letter receives a personal reply and when she does one of her famous signing sessions, Jacqueline Wilson won't leave until she's talked to the last child in the queue.
At this point I have to declare an interest -I've done two events with her (the first of which was the biggest signing session of her career to date) and she was the nicest author I've ever met.
At the first session, neither Jacqui or I had any idea how big the signing was going to be, but I think we'd both estimated that three to four hours would be enough. In the event I think I'd slightly overdone things on the publicity front and we had a queue that was a quarter of a mile long. Many authors would have insisted on capping the queue after an hour, but Jacqueline Wilson was just delighted that so many people had turned up and the signing lasted for almost eight hours! It was the highlight of my bookselling career.
During the whole session, Jacqueline Wilson didn't take a single break. Afterwards I asked her what her secret was and she replied 'A strong wrist and a cast-iron bladder.'
What impressed me most of all was the way Jacqueline Wilson dealt with her readers. She must have talked to hundreds of people that day, but she made every child feel special and the welcoming smile never wavered. She spent at least a minute chatting to each person and agreed to every request for photographs. It would be easy to assume that this was an example of a writer trying to ingratiate themselves with their reading public, but Jacqui had made her money and didn't need to do these marathon signing sessions to raise her profile.
Some people are very dismissive about the literary merits of Jacqueline Wilson's novels, but when you see a queue of hundreds of excited children it is impossible to be cynical. Wilson has not earned her popularity by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Her popularity rests on her ability to discuss serious issues in a way that entertains, comforts and never, ever patronizes the reader.
Two years after the first signing I held another and had the rather surreal experience of riding on a carousel with Jacqui (it's a long story). After the ride I took this picture:
See the name on the horse?
The British honours system is a strange, imperfect anachronism but on this occasion, the decision to make Jacqueline Wilson a dame was a wise one.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
After his death, Hamilton was compared unfavourably to contemporaries like Orwell and Greene, but this novel is a remarkable achievement and I'm amazed that a man who drank three bottles of whisky a day was able to write such a profound and sober assessment of human nature.
On the surface very little happens. The main character is a 39-year-old woman who has fled the Blitz for a boarding house in a thinly disguised Henley-on-Thames and the novel chronicles her relationships with the other boarders and the threats to her purgatorial equilibrium posed by an American GI and a German friend. However the genius of this novel lies in Hamilton's ability to conjure up the claustrophobic atmosphere of the English boarding house with its petty resentments and unspoken feuds. I stress English boarding house because I cannot imagine this novel taking place in a country like Italy, where people would be less inclined to silently seethe with anger.
The Slaves of Solitude takes supposedly typically English qualities like good manners, self-control and decorum and shows how underneath the facade of civility, people are consumed by hatred, resentment, jealousy and lust. Hamilton's portrayal of the inner life of Miss Enid Roach is a masterly microcosm of English society in the mid-20th century.
The War is ever present, but rather than heightening the novel's sense of drama it merely acts as a dull backdrop - an enervating fog of rations, blackouts and uncertainty. The distant drone of enemy planes occasionally punctuates the silence of the night, but life is elsewhere and the aircraft never bother dropping their bombs on this drab, provincial town. This is an England that I never knew, but one that I caught glimpses of as a child. I can taste the flavourless, watery soup served to the guests of the Rosamund Tea Rooms and imagine the sterile atmopshere of the dining room, with its whispered conversations and clinking cutlery.
As for Patrick Hamilton, he was one of the most prominent writers of his day. In addition to his novels, he wrote the screenplays for two of the most successful Hollywoood films of the 40s - Rope and Gaslight. His early years were marked by poverty but he became that rare creature, a financially secure writer and like many successful novelists, he was the victim of a posthumous backlash. Hopefully the pendulum has swung back because the Slaves of Solitude is, without a doubt, one of the great English novels of the 20th century.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
If you need cheering up...
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Set around fifty years ago in an exclusive Swedish boarding school, Ondskan is a savage indictment of the type of institutionalised bullying that is bizarrely regarded as character building. The lead actor - Andreas Wilson - is incredibly charismatic and with the 50s setting the result looks like a cross between Tom Brown's Schooldays and Rebel Without a Cause. Sort of.
But Ondskan isn't some public school romp with Nordic Flashmans. This is a highly intelligent and compelling film about morality and the lead character's refusal to submit to the injustices of others will have you hooked. I promise.
Friday, December 07, 2007
Seven, They Are Seven
Tonight, however, I was completely foxed. I was channel hopping and stumbled across a concert at the Barbican on BBC4 featuring the LSO accompanied by a huge choir. The music was amazing, with a visceral, primeval quality, as if it was cast from the raw materials of the earth. Brass chords surged and swelled, whilst the percussion section issued menacing rumbles and roars. And all the time, the choir sang of death and destruction, wreaked by an enigmatic group of gods called the Seven:
Seven are they, In the Ocean Deep seven are they, Evil are they, evil are they, Seven are they,Twice seven are they! By Heaven be ye exorcised! By Earth be ye exorcised.
The words were sang in Russian and the repetitive chanting of sem, sem, sem gave the music a hypnotic, ritualistic quality. I wondered which contemporary composer had written this powerful music. I thought it might be Sofia Gubaidulina, whose St John's Passion had transfixed me during a car journey to B&Q, but there was something very male about the music. I racked my brains for other likely contenders, but had to give up.
The music finished, the audience applauded and an announcer who looked about 12-years-old said that the music was by Prokofiev. I was amazed, particulary when I discovered that Seven, They Are Seven was an early work, first performed 90 years ago. The words are apparently from a Mesopotamian cuneiform from the 3rd century BC
I realise that this is probably of no interest to you (and thank you for reading this far), but this was a remarkable piece of music, quite unlike anything I've heard and I think it would also appeal to people who don't like classical music. Sadly, despite Prokofiev's stature as a composer, recordings of Seven seem to be thin on the ground.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Last week I went to take part in an aptitude test session at Tolworth Tower - a grim, 1960s office block surrounded by roads in a desolate place on the border between the London suburbs and Surrey. When I booked the tests I was asked if I knew where the tower was. I said I had been there before, but didn't mention that it was when I was 17 and on my first date. I wanted to ask a girl out but didn't quite know how to go about it, then hit on what seemed like the brilliant idea of going tenpin bowling. We met at the bus stop and travelled the eight miles to Tolworth Tower's bowling alley.
I thought the day had gone well but she obviously didn't share my views and I never saw her again. I resolved to abandon tenpin bowling as part of my wooing technique.
After the aptitude test I decided to catch the train to Twickenham and revisit the places I had known since childhood. There were a few changes. Every other building seemed to be a restaurant and what had once been a very English area had been augmented by Slavic faces with beautiful cheekbones, Africans and Asians. I had grown up here but searched in vain for a familiar face.
I walked down to the River Thames - this part of Twickenham hadn't changed much in 250 years - and visited the church where my parents married and I was Christened. It was empty and after lighting a candle for my father, I studied a noticeboard to see if I recognised any of the photos of the members of the parish council. They were all strangers. How can you grow up somewhere, attend school with nearly a thousand other local children and, within a short space of time, feel like a stranger? Where had everyone gone? I began to feel slightly depressed.
Suddenly the church door swung open and a woman asked me if would be much longer. I explained that I was about to leave. 'Okay that's fine.' she replied 'When you go can you make sure that you shut the door very firmly - you really have to slam it.' I nodded and just as she was leaving I realised who she was. I wanted to rush after her and say how strange it was that after visiting Tolworth Tower for the first time since our one and only date, I should bump into her like this, but by the time I had obediently slammed the church door shut, she had vanished.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
The joys of Christmas
One of the most frustrating aspects of running a bookshop is the number of unsolicited phone calls I receive at Christmas from self-published authors and small publishers. The last ten weeks of the year is make or break time in bookselling and if I'm going to spend time on the phone, I'd rather be selling a book to a customer than listening to someone waffle on about their definitive history of telephone boxes of the 1930s.
Last week a self-published author phoned during a particularly busy time and I asked her to send me an email, which she promptly did. Later, during a quiet moment at the till I, read the author's description of her book. On the basis that she wasn't a local author, hadn't arranged any publicity for the book and was writing about a fairly esoteric subject, I decided not to stock it. That should have been the end of it.
A few days later she rang back and was very abrupt with one of my staff. I was busy dealing with a long enquiry and couldn't talk to her. The next day she managed to track me down and asked if I was going to stock her book. At first I wasn't sure which title she was talking about as I've had so many calls like this recently. The conversation went like this:
'I really think you should stock this title'
'Are you a local author'
'No, I live in **** *******'
'And why do you think that I should stock this book'
The author told me how interesting and well-written their book was, which led me to the next question:
'What sort of publicity have you arranged?
'I've had some local newspaper articles, but nothing in your area. I'm hoping that it will be picked up by a national paper'
'I've no doubt it's a very good book, but I have trouble selling titles by Penguin that have been backed by a marketing spend of thousands of pounds, so unless you can guarantee some sort of publicity I don't think I'll be able to sell it.'
We agreed to differ.
I gave the author some advice on how to publicise her book and encouraged her to try local radio, promising to stock the title if she did this. She probably thought I was being a bit of a bastard but in the past, if you visited the stock room of any bookshop you'd find hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds worth of unsold books from small publishers and self-published authors. These titles were bought on a sale or return basis, but it's interesting how the person that hassled you every day before Christmas could be so elusive when you tried to send the books back. And if you did track them down, returning the books was a lengthy, time consuming process. Instead of picking 400 books and sending them back to HarperCollins, you had to do dozens of small consignments with separate forms for each one.
There's nothing I like more than seeing a small publisher or self-published author succeed and, contrary to the tone of this post, I always try to be open minded when an author approaches me. But it is frustrating how many people publish books without doing any research into the book trade, make no effort to get publicity and then phone bookshop managers at the busiest time of the year.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
I discovered this Arabic television clip today featuring Wafa Sultan, an outspoken secularist. I don't agree with everything she says and she makes Melanie Phillips seem relatively tolerant, but in a week where a Saudi Arabian victim of a gang-rape has been sent to prison, it's good to hear a Muslim woman challenging the forces of bigotry. I just wish she'd done it in a slightly less bigoted way.
Click on the picture to watch the clip.
Then click on the picture below to hear the other side of the argument:
Thursday, November 15, 2007
I don't read thrillers. I can't see the point in reading something that offers nothing more than a routine television drama. The best novels not only entertain the reader but also provide an insight into the human condition, whether they merely ratify your own view of the world or open you up to new possibilities. However, last week I decided to break the habit of a lifetime and read a proper thriller called The Death List by Paul Johnston.
It was almost exactly what I expected and confirmed all my prejudices about the genre, but there was one surprise: I couldn't put it down. The plot was implausible and the characters were superficial, but the author had placed his hero in such an appalling situation that I had to find out what happened next. I read the book in a day, refusing all offers of human contact until I had reached the end. Afterwards I felt dirty, as if had just eaten a bag of jam doughnuts.
What was particularly interesting about The Death List was the fact that the main character was an author who'd been dropped by his publisher. There were lots of bitchy comments about the publishing world and I wondered if this was connected to the fact the Paul Johnston is now with Mira - an imprint of Mills and Boon - rather than his old publisher Hodder and Stoughton.
I checked the reviews on Amazon. Some readers loved it but others thought the novel was 'implausible' and that the characters were 'two-dimensional', which is like complaining that there's too much fighting in a Bruce Lee film.
That should have been the end of it, but a few days later I found myself reading another thriller - this time by Simon Kernick. Like Paul Johnston's book it was impossible to put down and although I found the main character extremely annoying, I had to find out what happened next. By now I could see a clearly discernible pattern emerging in both thrillers, resembling a symphony in four movements:
- The hero is suddenly plunged into a nightmare scenario by an unexpected threat from an unknown individual
- The hero tries to discover the source of the threat, but ends up being pursued by both the police and his enemy
- The hero is at his lowest ebb and decides to fight back with the help of a trusted friend
- The hero finally meets his adversary and they fight to the death. The hero wins.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
I put the book to one side, never really intending to read it, but something happened and one day I found myself reading the first chapter followed by the second, then the third until I realised I was hooked. I loved the author's sense of theatre. Napoleon is portrayed as a megalomaniac monster who makes Stalin seem quite moderate, whilst some of Britain's greatest military heroes come across as the vain, conceited, libidinous, flawed geniuses that they probably were. So many history books are dull - I should know, I was once a history undergraduate - so it was a great relief to come across a book by an author who knows how to entertain.
I particularly enjoyed his claim that in his final years, Napoleon suffered from a rare disease that made him gradually change sex. According to Harvey, this rumour is confirmed by the former emperor's 'hysterical behaviour'! Right on, Bob.
But beyond the theatrical narrative are some shocking statistics about the casualty rates of the many battles that took place, justifying Harvey's claim that the Napoleonic wars were a precursor for the First World War. I had no idea how many lives were lost and how the war effectively ended France's status as the major power in Europe(so it wasn't all bad). Particularly shocking was the description of the remnants of the French army struggling home after their failed invasion of Russia. In temperatures below -30, some soldiers cut their own fingers off to drink blood whilst others lay down in the snow to die, refusing any attempts to get them on their feet.
I was also appalled by the behaviour of both the English and French soldiers, who on certain occasions thought nothing of robbing a community of its entire possessions and raping anything that moved. With many eyewitness accounts of atrocities, it is grimly fascinating to read how war can brutalise ordinary men so quickly. The War of Wars may read like a gung-ho boys' book, but it doesn't gloss over any uncomfortable truths. The pointless waste of human life and energy denudes this era of its glamour and the overall impression is one of slaughter and destruction.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Oh ye of little faith...
The following week the photo appeared as the centrepiece of the article. I was wrong. To her credit, my wife has been fairly magnanimous about my error of judgement. Here's the photo:
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Why Proust hasn't changed my life
One of the first lessons I learned when running the Fiction section was that the sales of the first volume of Proust's magnum opus A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu exceeded the rest of the series put together. Indeed, I'm not sure if I can remember selling any of the other volumes. Knowing that the first book had evidently bored the arse off so many people put a bit of a dampener on things and even Alain de Botton's glowing endorsement wasn't enough to change my mind. But the other day I was chatting to a colleague in the unpacking room and he told me that although there were moments that were interminably dull (he compared the last book to a Ronnie Corbett monolgue), he was glad that he'd made the effort. I was almost convinced.
As a rule of thumb, the first volumes of novel sequences always sell at least twice as many copies as the remaining titles. The one exception to this is in the fantasy genre where, for better or worse, readers will happily buy every volume in the saga, particularly if the author's first name is Terry. It's very odd.
I suppose we should be grateful that the first volume of Proust sells. There are plenty of classic novels that never leave the shop and would slowly go yellow with age if we didn't replace them with newer copies. For example, nobody buys The Scarlet Letter. It may be a classic novel but I haven't sold a copy for as long as I can remember. I always insist on stocking it because I strongly believe that our credibility as a bookseller would be undermined if we didn't, but it belongs in the subgenre of novels that nobody reads. Titles in this category would include:
Cry the Beloved Country
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist
Franny and Zooey
The Magic Mountain
Mr Isherwood Changes Trains
The Red and Black
The Bone People
The Rachel Papers
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold
Sons and Lovers
Room at the Top
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
The list goes on. Sometimes I try to rescue these books and promote them locally in the shop. Once I was even lucky enough to be able to spearhead a national campaign for 'Forgotten Classics' and although the results didn't quite hit the bestseller charts, I like to think that I was instrumental in introducing some people to Revolutionary Road, Life with a Star and Journey by Moonlight. However I'm under no illusions. As someone pointed out in an article a few weeks ago, the sales of a Booker-shortlisted novel are always easily exceeded by specialist publications like Anglers' Weekly. Literary fiction is, it would seem, the real minority interest.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
The Space Age
However if I'd been born 100 years earlier I wouldn't have seen this wonderful photo, released by NASA recently:
This amazing picture of Jupiter and its moon Io was taken earlier in the year by the New Horizons probe - a craft that was launched in January 2006 and is due to rendezvous with Pluto in 2015. What is so remarkable about the image, apart from its clarity and beauty, is the fact that a volcanic eruption is clearly visible on Io.
If you ever start to feel depressed about Iraq, global warming, gun crime and dumbing down, visit NASA's superb website to see what Mankind is capable of. There are some incredible images on the site, but one of my favourites is an audio file of the sounds recorded by the Cassini-Huygens probe as it descended to the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. To hear this astounding recording, click here.
Whilst we're on the subject of space, another really exciting development is the detection of planets outside our solar system. What was once a matter of conjecture is now a reality and in less than a couple of decades we have discovered nearly 250 planets. None of them appear to be capable of supporting life as we know it, but it is only a matter of time before the first Earth-type planet is discovered.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Blogito Ergo Sum?
I expected my random musings to disappear into the ether. Blogging would be a solitary, cathartic activity - the 21st century equivalent of a journal - but to my surprise people started to post comments. My vanity was flattered by the knowledge that others had read my words and considered them worth responding to, but more importantly I enjoyed finding myself in a community of witty, intelligent, incisive people whose comments augmented my half-baked ideas with real wisdom. I was hooked.
What should I write about? I was a bookseller and knew that this was the part of my life that would be of more interest to others than anything else, but Ottakar's had just been taken over by Waterstone's and I was accutely aware that my new employer had sacked someone over the coments of their blog. I was left with my personal life - dull, unless you can reinvent it with the wit of Stephen Fry - and a fairly random selection of subjects that arouse strong feelings in me. I opted for the latter.
11,550 hits later I have to confess that I have run out of things to say. I can't tell you the really juicy things about bookselling because I have a mortgage to pay. Also as far as Waterstones goes, it falls a long way short of the 'Evil Empire' status that some have attributed to it. It is a big company run by retailers and there are frustrations associated with that, but boringly for blog readers there are lots of good people in the company and overall they're trying to do the right thing.
Perhaps I should write a whimsical account of being a father in the 21st century, as that's all I do in my spare time. However when I read self-consciously witty articles by sensitive 'new men' about parenthood (written in a nauseatingly intimate style that is obviously designed to court female readers) I feel nothing but contempt.
That leaves my interests: books, music, philosophy, environmental issues etc. I've written about a few subjcets but many of the subjects I'm most passionate about would bore the arse off most people. Do you want to read my thoughts abouts Sibelius? No. Do you care what I think about Gordon Brown? Of course not. So what is there left to blog about?
I think it is time to leave the blogosphere; not in a permanent 'never again' dramatic exit, but simply as an acknowledgement that it is pointless to blog for the sake of it.
I have been accutely aware of the need to add content at least once a week and have recently found this increasingly difficult. I can't quite bring myself to abandon the pretentiously titled Age of Uncertainty but unless I suddenly have a lot to say, I shall keep my counsel.
As David Soul sang, 'Don't Give Up on Me Baby'. I will still blog, but I will try to deliver quality rather than quantity. Less is more.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
All tied up...
Click on the picture to see a witty, 40-second film that manages to makes its point about climate change without becoming preachy or precious.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The Certainty of Chance
Today I arrived at work and turned on the PC. It was dead. I picked up the phone to call IT but that was dead too. I started to check the cables when I spotted a small brown pellet and teeth marks. Deprived of his evening meal, Ratty had feasted on our cables.
Once I'd found a working phone and spent an hour exploring the grey area between IT support and pest control, I mused on how a single rat could create so much havoc. It reminded me of Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, when a fly managed to create a whole chain of events.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
It was the Shoreham Air Show, but I didn't realise that it was taking place today.
If I had crashed the car, would I have been the Luftwaffe's last victim?
Friday, September 14, 2007
Goncalo Viega, one of my favourite bloggers, has just arrived in England for a short holiday. As you will see from his blog, he has described London as one of the most beautiful cities in the modern world. Hmm...
I normally agree with everything Goncalo writes, but although I can think of many adjectives to describe London, beautiful wouldn't be one of them. London is hectic, busy, exciting, vibrant, eclectic, noisy, rude, surprising, frustrating, exhilarating, arrogant, complacent, tolerant, intelligent and exhausting, but not beautiful in the way that you might describe Venice, Stockholm, Prague or Florence.
Apparently he will also be visiting my home town of Lewes, which I think is beautiful. I'll be interested to hear what he thinks.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Great Bloomsbury bottoms...
Unfortunately photography wasn't allowed, which is why I've included the link to the official website. However, I did engage in some minor cultural espionage whilst an attendant was busy explaining something to a couple of elderly tourists and managed to take this:
Yes, I know it's just a loo, but this one has had some very famous bottoms on it: Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster and John Maynard Keynes to name but a few. The bottom theme continues in the garden...
The gardens are almost as spectacular as the house. Even the butterflies are more colourful than normal...
And everywhere you look, there are statues, busts and beautiful ceramics.
The most remarkable thing about Charleston is that even though it's only a five-bedroom Sussex farmhouse, every square inch has been altered by its occupants, right down to the fabric design of the chairs and the bedroom rugs. Each room is a visual feast.
I would strongly urge everyone to visit Charleston, but if you can't make it, the next best thing is a wonderful book by Duncan Bell and Virginia Nicholson.
Friday, September 07, 2007
The best things in life...
It always seems like a good idea to take the family to a local castle, zoo, aquarium or science park until you get to the admission gate. Then the horrible truth sets in - we cannot afford to go in. We always do buy the tickets, but the knowledge that I have just blown over half a day's wages does tend to nag in the back of my mind, particularly when my oldest son seems bored after 30 minutes.
This year I decided to spend more time visiting places that didn't cost a penny. We are very lucky to be living in the middle of the South Downs with a beach less than 8 miles away, so it should be easy enough to keep my children happy without spending a fortune. But would today's media-savvy, product-consuming children accept the simple pleasures of nature?
The answer was a resounding yes.
Last week I took my oldest soon and his best friend to a local beach and they were perfectly happy exploring the rock pools at low tide and climbing the ledges at the bottom of the cliffs. If you look carefully, you just about see them.
The cliffs are amazing, particularly when you think that they are comprised of the remains of billions of aquatic creatures spanning several geological eras. I find it all slightly mind-blowing. But to return to the point, apart from spending three pounds on ice creams the day was completely free and the boys loved it.
I'm not surprised. My happiest childhood memories all revolved around simple pleasures: damming-up a stream, fishing in a river, building a den and exploring rock pools. Children need an environment that allows them to use their imagination and discover things for themselves without being spoon-fed information or told that they are violating rules.
People often moan that today's children are spoiled and have too much. They also complain that we have become too child-centered and children no longer respect adults in the way that previous generations did. But that is only part of the picture. I can't help feeling that in today's child-friendly society, many kids are worse off than they would have been 50 years ago.
Today most of us don't hit our children and they have more toys than we ever did, but are they any happier for it? I'm concerned that the things that really make children happy: exploring the outside world, playing in the street with other kids, climbing trees etc are being denied to the current generation in the name of safety. In some cases this is because of a legitimate fear of traffic and a paranoia about strangers. In others - inner-city London or Manchester for example - this is because the urban environment doesn't provide spaces for children to be children (is it any wonder that gang culture is rife in these areas?).
If I was a dictator, I would ensure that no child had to grow-up in a high-rise flat and also make sure that everyone was within a five-minute walk of a park. I would limit schools to a maximum of 500 pupils, bring back cottage hospitals and introduce no-car zones where kids could play in the street. In other words, improve people's environments and restore a sense of community to the poorer parts of our cities.
And if that didn't work, then I'd send them all to the Isle of Man.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Look at this, it is a thing of beauty.
It is a book, obviously, but a very special book.
It is a lost classic. It is a masterpiece of modern literature. It is a telling parable of racial and sexual tolerance. It is a book that should be on every self-respecting shelf in the land.
It is also the first book I have ever published.
Yep, after nearly a year in the job a Friday Project book has come off the press that was signed and acquired by little old me. And I doubt that any book I ever publish will make me prouder (or is that more proud?, I neither know nor care).
You see, Gents was first published ten years ago by Marion Boyars. It received widespread critical acclaim, and sold OK, but has since slipped beneath the radar and you will be hard pressed to find a copy in your local bookshop or library. That isn't just a shame, it is a travesty. Gents is a remarkable piece of work and everyone I have foisted it upon has said the same thing: 'why haven't I heard of this before?'
Gents is quite possibly the best book you have never read. Unless, of course, you have, in which case I salute your good taste.With a recommendation like this how could I resist, particularly when Scott was generously offering free copies. I emailed my request and when I returned home from work the next day, a copy was already on the doormat.
That evening I started reading Gents and within a few pages I was completely hooked. Set in a public lavatory, Gents depicts the attempts of its three attendants to control the rampant cottaging that takes place in the cubicles. That sounds like a recipe for an essay in grim, social realism, but it is a tribute to Collins' genius that he manages to create a novel that is both moving and funny.
As if that isn't a big enough achievement in itself, Collins' three main characters are Jamaican and a lot of the dialogue is in patois which, this grainy photo would suggest, isn't Collins' native tongue. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but apparently Collins did it so well that many Afro-Caribbean readers assumed that he was a black writer.
It takes enough talent to set a novel in the claustrophobic setting of a public lavatory, but to give yourself the challenge of having three main characters from a different ethnic background and attempt to write their dialogue without stereotyping or patronising is nigh-on impossible. However Collins has somehow succeeded and Gents is one of those rare novels that makes you realise what fiction can do when it's pushed to the limit.
Saturday, September 01, 2007
Out of print
Some seem to think that it only applies to my shop and say 'Oh, I'll try Smith's then.'
Others believe that although the book is unavailable, I am able to make an exception for them because they are special.
Then there is a third category of people, most of whom are quite old, who believe that literary merit will secure a book a permanent place on the bookshelves. When I have told them that a book by their favourite author is no longer in print (today it was a book by Dirk Bogarde) I am met by incredulity and, sometimes, anger, as if I am personally insulting their literary tastes.
Sometimes I get 'But it can't be out of print. It's quite new.' And to be fair, the customers have a point. It's not unreasonable to assume that a book published in 1998 or even 2003 will still be available, but sadly many books never survive beyond their initial print run in paperback. On the few occasions I've told customers about market forces and printing costs, I have felt like a grown-up telling a child that there's no Father Christmas.
That's my bookseller's perspective. As a reader I'm completely on the side of the customers, as I never cease to be appalled by how many wonderful books are allowed to fade into obscurity. I don't blame the publishers. They're not philanthropic societies and if they allowed too many lame ducks a second print run they'd be wasting capital that could have been spent on new titles. However it can be depressing to see market forces in action.
Today I read a review of a new biography of Bernard Malamud and remembered a wonderful novel by him called A New Life. It is the sort of book that would appeal to anyone who likes Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road and I decided to order some for our Staff Favourites bay. I looked up the ISBN only to discover that it's out of print.
If an author of Malamud's stature is allowed to drop out of circulation then it doesn't bode well for lesser authors. However the beauty of blogging is that the publishing world is becoming more democratic, as readers are now empowered to canvass in support of their favourite books. A recommendation from Dovegreyreader, John Self or Scott Pack is all it takes to get that essential word-of-mouth ball rolling and save a book from languishing in undeserved obscurity.
Friday, August 31, 2007
I was lying in bed on a sunny Sunday morning when I heard the Sunday Times land with a thud on the doormat of my flat in southwest London. On the front page there was a small feature which had obviously been inserted at the last minute, reporting that Princess Diana had been seriously injured in a car accident. I thought about her sons and how worried they would be, then got on with reading the rest of the paper.
An hour or so later I turned on the television and heard the news. Once again I thought about her sons and, shamefully, also tried to work out how I could get hold of the Andrew Morton book before any other bookshop beat me to it. Then I got dressed and prepared for my wife's grandmother's 90th birthday party.
I distinctly remember the mood of the people at the party. They were slightly shocked by the news of Diana's death, but regarded it with a sense of detachment and the conversation swiftly moved on to other subjects. That seemed a normal response. I felt sad that her life had ended in such a pointless way but didn't feel a Diana-shaped hole in my life. Any sadness I felt was for the two young princes, who had lost a very loving mother.
When I watched the television that evening a saw the bouquets of flowers and Tony Blair's faintly nauseating 'People's Princess' speech, I felt as if I was an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario in which almost everyone else seemed to belong to some sort of movement that had passed me by. Who were these people who travelled miles (some hundreds) to weep and place a thirty quid bunch of flowers in a huge pile? What did Diana mean to them? Why did I feel relatively indifferent?
Perhaps it was because so many people empathised with Diana. Although she was a member of the aristocracy she had the 'common touch' and always seemed an outsider in the Royal Family. But that's only part of the answer - people never took Fergie to their hearts (and I'm sure it's more than a ginger hair issue). Diana had charisma, part of which was her vulnerability, that cut through the social niceties and made people feel that they had a special rapport with her. If you want to be an icon, be vulnerable. It worked for Marilyn Monroe.
Ten years on the Diana industry shows no sign of abating. Like Monroe she will always be young and beautiful, albeit with a dodgy 80s hairstyle.
Prince Harry's speech at today's memorial service was a masterpiece of diplomacy. He paid a glowing tribute to his mother but also subtly implied that the deification of Diana was quite wrong. He also loyally asserted his love for his father, who has been vilified by the Diana movement. The boy will go far.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Drunk in charge of a Space Shuttle
If I was sitting in a vessel that was attached to a giant firework, knowing that over a dozen of my colleagues had been killed in on-board explosions, I think I'd need a swift one before take-off.
Senator John Glenn - the first American to orbit the Earth - was once asked how he felt as he sat on the launch pad waiting for lift-off. He replied:
'I felt as good as anyone would, sitting in a capsule on top of a rocket that were both built by the lowest bidder.'
Friday, August 24, 2007
Utterly hideous. I should stress that I am not a complete killjoy and have no problem with children sporting Jibbitz on their Crocs. Indeed, I would probably have fancied some myself when I was eight. However when it comes to women in their 50s, it's hard to feel anything other than a mixture of revulsion and contempt. Grow up.
I bet she wears Crocs.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Click on the very blurred picture to see more.
Also highly recommended is this short film about an impromptu dinner party on a London Underground train...
Sunday, August 19, 2007
You can judge a book by its cover
One half of the answer was three bays to my left: Jodi Picoult. Her sales have risen as dramatically as Shreve's have fallen and she is an essential addition to any 3 for 2 promotion. However I think there is also another reason. Several years ago when Shreve topped the bestseller lists, the British arm of TimeWarner decided to change the covers, or as they would put it, refresh the jacket treatment.
They decided to change this:
Which looks remarkably similar to Jodi Picoult's covers...
And is if by magic, the sales started to drop off. Perhaps they would have done anyway, but I can't help wondering what would have happened if TimeWarner have done nothing. I can see the publisher's logic - they didn't want one of their best authors to have jackets that looked dated. However, those jackets were part of the successful Shreve 'brand'. The same thing happened with Freya North, whose books sold like hotcakes until some bright spark at Hodder decided to try and make their mark (if I was her I would have sued for loss of earnings). If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
It's interesting noting how publishers slavishly copy each other when one of them has a hit. In the early 90s, the success of Joanna Trollope spawned a wave of imitation aga sagas and tasteful, slightly insipid covers with watercolour paintings were de rigeur for a few years. Then Bridget Jones appeared and spawned the Chick Lit revolution with jackets that were curiously very similar to each other, but not to Bridget Jones.
At the moment most sub-genres have fairly predictable jackets, but that isn't a criticism - in a section with thousands of different titles, book covers are vital signifiers. If you want a Napoleonic Wars naval adventure or a post-Gladiator swords and togas romp, you'll be able to spot the books pretty quickly. And it's also amusing how a Da Vinci Code brand emerged so quickly for the dozens of historical-conspiracy-thriller novels that suddenly popped up in the wake of Dan Brown's success.
Here's one of my favourite examples of copycat publishing:
The lovely Martina Cole (and I'm not saying that in a sneering, ironic way - she really is lovely) has many imitators including the annoyingly-named Mandasue Heller...
And arch-miserablist Kevin Lewis...
I'm a self-confessed book jacket anorak, but in mitigation I plead over-exposure to books.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
In the meantime, here's a bit of lazy blogging. However I hope you'll forgive the cut and paste once you've read the following by Guardian TV reviewer Charlie Brooker:
In the 18th century, a revolution in thought, known as the Enlightenment, dragged us away from the superstition and brutality of the Middle Ages toward a modern age of science, reason and democracy. It changed everything. If it wasn't for the Enlightenment, you wouldn't be reading this right now. You'd be standing in a smock throwing turnips at a witch. Yes, the Enlightenment was one of the most significant developments since the wheel. Which is why we're trying to bollocks it all up.
Welcome to a dangerous new era - the Unlightenment - in which centuries of rational thought are overturned by idiots. Superstitious idiots. They're everywhere - reading horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling about "chakras" and "healing energies", praying to imaginary gods, and rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage them. We've got to respect their beliefs, apparently.
Well I don't. "Spirituality" is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you've ever described yourself as "quite spiritual", do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you're incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?
Maybe you've put your faith in spiritual claptrap because our random, narrative-free universe terrifies you. But that's no solution. If you want comforting, suck your thumb. Buy a pillow. Don't make up a load of floaty blah about energy or destiny. This is the real world, stupid. We should be solving problems, not sticking our fingers in our ears and singing about fairies. Everywhere you look, screaming gittery is taking root, with serious consequences. The NHS recently spent £10m refurbishing the London Homeopathic Hospital. The equivalent of 500 nurses' wages, blown on a handful of magic beans. That was your tax money. It was meant for saving lives.
Inevitably, the world of science and logic is slowly fighting back. Hence the recent slew of anti-God books, one of which, The God Delusion, was written by Richard Dawkins, writer-presenter of The Enemies Of Reason (Mon, 8pm, C4). Dawkins has softened his style somewhat since his previous series, The Root of All Evil, in which he toured the globe interviewing religious extremists. Trouble was, their views made him so uppity, he occasionally came off worst. They remained eerily calm, while he huffed furiously. And because he looks and sounds precisely like Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss, the end effect was often unintentional hilarity.
In The Enemies of Reason he's still angry - how couldn't he be? - but this time round Dawkins controls his temper, focusing it like a laser beam, taking on spirituality and superstition in all its forms. The overall tone is less hectoring, more persuasive, and occasionally outright playful. It's more likely to win people over.
The end result is possibly the most important broadcast of the year so far; important because it presents a passionate argument we really all ought to be having right now, if we want to prevent a great slide backwards into mud-eating barbarism. And if you think that's hyperbole, I suggest you pick up a newspaper and see how many of the world's problems are currently being caused or exacerbated by the rejection of rational thought. From fundamentalist death cults to arrogant invasions: a startling lack of logic unites them all.
Cold, clear, rational thought is the most important thing we have; the one thing that can save us. If I was made Emperor of All Media, I'd broadcast something akin to The Enemies Of Reason on every channel, every day, for 10 years. This is an urgent message that must be heard if we want to survive, as a species. Oh. And I'd also broadcast a load of Tex Avery cartoons, just to show off my lighter side. Man, I loves dat Droopy.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Not with a bang, but a whimper...
Before I go, here is a sound piece of advice from Jo Brand that I read in Sunday's Independent:
If your partner has started to put on a lot of weight recently, get them to walk for three miles in the morning and three miles in the evening. By the end of the week the fat fucker will be 42 miles away.
Monday, August 06, 2007
A print of an owl for £10? But worse still was the awful 'original' oil painting of Chinese junks - yours for a mere fifty quid. Perhaps they're better at selling books than paintings.
I used to walk past the shop at closing time and wonder how they could afford to have so many staff. I now have my answer: they couldn't. It's a great shame as we need cavernous, fusty old bookshops that smell of damp and crawl with booklice, because amongst the many out of date travel guides and memoirs by people we no longer care about there are hidden gems. Browsing in any bookshop is a delight, but I particularly love the antiquarian ones.
I know the book trade well enough to have a fairly clear idea of what the average Waterstone's, Borders and WH Smith's will have in stock. But when you walk into an independently-run shop that specialises in secondhand books, there's always the possibility that you may find a book that will change your life.
One of my best serendipitous moments in bookselling was when I started unpacking a box and came across Sven Lindqvist's Desert Divers - a slim volume that I probably wouldn't have noticed in the travel writing section. I read the book and was so captivated by it that I felt compelled to explore further and three months later, found myself sitting in the Cafe Pierre Loti in Istanbul as a direct result of opening a cardboard on a dull day in February.
At the moment retail is all about consolidation and homogenisation, but there is a quiet revolution going on. People are waking up to the fact that everywhere is beginning to look the same and are trying to reassert their local identity. In the 1990s I remember travelling to Wales for a stag weekend. Our van broke down and we found ourselves in an unfamiliar town. I wandered through a shopping precinct and tried to work out where we were, but all I could see was Dixons, Woolworths, Superdrug, WH Smith, Boots etc... In the end I had to walk up to someone and ask them 'Where am I?' (The answer was Leatherhead). That can't be right (and it's nowhere near Wales).
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Then, suddenly, it all seemed to stop.
The racism didn't go away, but a lot of people realised that they could no longer assume that other white people would share their views. The jokes stopped.
But then the pendulum swung in the other direction. Political correctness appeared and soon, every children's programme seemed to have a quota of black faces, even when it was set in a Scottish fishing village. This could have been a good thing, but the reality was that racism hadn't disappeared. People had just stopped talking about an uncomfortable subject.
Historians in the future could be forgiven for assuming that we live in an era a racial harmony, if they watch programmes like Balamory. The reality is quite different, as anyone who lives in the poorer parts of London knows and the number of young black men who have been shot, stabbed or injured this year is a statistic that many would rather ignore. Sweep it under the carpet.
Which is why I say hats off to Doctor Who! You may wonder what's behind this tangential leap, but the fact is that Doctor Who is one of the only recent British drama series to have openly acknowledged the thorny issue of racism. In the two stories which involved travelling into the past, the Doctor's assistant Martha Jones has to put up with bigoted, racist comments. In Shakespeare's London she is called a Blackamoor, whilst her claim to be a doctor in 1913 is refuted with the comment 'I hardly think that someone of your sex and colour could be a trained physician'.
It's to their credit that the scriptwriters of Doctor Who have acknowledged that a black woman with a strong London accent is going to meet with adversity and the result has been some of the best drama I've seen for a long time. Not talking about racial problems reminds me of the people who used to say that class was no longer an issue. If a primetime family drama like Doctor Who is prepared to tackle uncomfortable issues then perhaps there's hope for all of the other television dramas that reduce people to quotas and cliches.
Thursday, August 02, 2007
For Nick Drake fans
It was a long hot summer when I was first introduced to the music of Nick Drake. In those days most people had never heard of him and although he was a voice from an earlier generation, we claimed him as one of our our. We lazed on lawns, smoking, staring at the sky, listening to the Thoughts of Mary Jane. I could never understand why such a great songwriter remained an obscure word-of-mouth artist, but fortunately Drake has been belatedly acknowledged as a genius and now has an international following that includes Brad Pitt and, more importantly, Goncalo Veiga.
I thought I'd heard everything by Nick Drake, but last month a new album was released called Family Tree. There are 28 tracks, most of which are original songs by Drake, however there are also a couple of songs written and sung by his mother and two duets with his sister Gabrielle. These recordings were all made before Nick Drake secured a recording contract and the quality is pretty poor, but that's part of the album's charm. Family Tree sounds amateurish but in the best possible way, giving us a privileged insight into an incredibly talented artist and his family.
In her sleeve notes Gabrielle Drake acknowledges that her brother probably wouldn't have wanted to let these recordings see the light of day, but unfortunately there are so many bootleg versions - the result of Drake's parents generosity towards fans who asked for copies of their tapes - that a commercial recording was inevitable. Family Tree may be scraping the bottom of the barrel but oh, what a barrel.
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Far from the madding crowd
Why aren't other people enjoying this beautiful landscape? I find it completely baffling, but I'm not complaining because the absence of humans means that you get to see more creatures. Today's highlight was a heron, slowly flapping its wings and gliding like a pterodactyl, oblivious to our presence. I'm not particularly interested in birds and Bill Oddie's Naturewatch bores the arse off me, but there's nothing like seeing something for yourself.
And it's not just about seeing but also hearing: grasshoppers, dragonflies, skylarks and the wonderful woosh of the wind in the reeds. God I sound like a boring old fart. I might as well start sewing on the leather elbow patches. However today was a reminder that for me at least, that elusive thing called happiness needn't cost a penny.
We finished where we began, in Alfriston. It is one of those picture postcard villages that seems perfect to the point of being slightly sinister. As we walked through the churchyard we saw children playing cricket on the village green, whilst in the distance an old man was pruning the roses around his cottage. I suspect that these people are actually Eastern Europeans, paid to put on a show for the coachloads of elderly tourists who want to be assured that ye olde England still exists. In the evening they probably catch the bus back to their sink estates and crack dens. On the other hand, maybe Alfriston is as good as it seems:
The only downside is the traffic that thunders through it most of the time. Admittedly there aren't many cars in this photo, but that is because I would have been run over if there were. If you visit Alfriston, make sure you visit the award-winning independent bookshop Much Ado Books. They opened relatively recently and show that there's still room for new independent booksellers if they are imaginative and passionate about what they do (I also suspect that they weren't short of a few quid). You can visit their website here.
Monday, July 30, 2007
Ingmar Bergman is dead
I vividly remember watching Wild Strawberries for the first time. I was at university and didn't have anything to do between the bar closing at 11.00pm and going to sleep at around 3.00am, so I ended up watching an old black and white film I'd never heard of. Perhaps I wouldn't have bothered, but the film was introduced by a film critic was baldly stated that the film was a masterpiece.
I recently wrote that I only owned a few DVDs and hadn't watched any more than twice, but I have seen this film at least five times and love it more each time I see it.
Friday, July 27, 2007
Yours to own...
Ten years ago I walked past the window of someone's house and saw a bookcase that had no books, but lots of videos. The video library. Like a thief I sneaked closer to take a peak at the titles that they had on their shelf. If it had been Bergman and Tarkovsky I would have assumed that their books must have been somewhere else, but the selection I saw convinced me that the owner's cultural experiences were probably limited to Hollywood blockbusters. I wondered how many times anyone would want to watch Terminator 2, enjoyable as it was. I could never understand the Yours to own adverts, which tried to entice buyers with special features. In the case of Star Trek VIII: First Contact, the special feature was an interview with Alice Krige who plays the Borg queen. Sorry. Alice who?
There are very few films that I'd want to own and I've probably only watched the few that I have once or twice at the most. On the other hand, there are hundreds of movies that I want to watch, so Amazon's DVD rental service is a Godsend. During the last couple of years I've been able to catch up with all of the cheesy blockbusters I've never seen, like Airport, explore the burgeoning world of Korean cinema, see some of the best of contemporary European cinema, veg out in front of trashy horror flicks like The Devil's Rejects and revisit classics like the wonderful The Killing of Sister George.
Just to give you an example, here are ten films I really enjoyed but wouldn't have bought:
The Czech Dream
My Summer of Love
Capturing the Friedmans
and one of the most remarkable movies I've ever seen...
I've read that it's the only film in the Inuit language and it's unlike anything I've ever seen. When you watch Atanarjuat you realise that at its best, cinema is as valid an art form as literature, painting or music. It's sad how so few films even vaguely realise the potential of the medium.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Less isn't always more
Personally I love Moby Dick and even the lengthy dissertations on sailing and whaling have a mesmerising poetry about them. As for Victor Hugo, he does go on a bit, but I wouldn't have missed a single word. However I didn't get hot under the collar about the Compact Classics until I saw an abridged edition of Vanity Fair.
There are no boring bits in Vanity Fair. It is one of the funniest, wittiest and most enjoyable books in the English language and to remove any text from the original would be like pouring half of a bottle of champagne down the sink. It is bad enough that many editions do not include Thackeray's original illustrations.
The drawings are not a superfluous addition to the text but are an integral part of the novel, often augmenting the narrative. For example when we read that a so-and-so was hard at work, it is essential that this line is accompanied by an illustration showing a man lounging in a chair with his feet up on the table.
Compact Classics are the fast forward button of literature. I don't think that they are the answer to getting more people reading classics. Surely the trick lies in persuading people that once they read the first few chapters, they will become so engrossed in the plot that they'll stop being aware of the florid prose style.
So far we haven't sold any of our Compact Classics and with any luck, they'll die a death. In the meantime I shall be displaying the full version of the wonderful Vanity Fair at the front of the shop.