Wednesday, May 30, 2007


In a recent poll to find the most memorable moment in cinema, the winner was John Hurt's stomach bursting open in Alien. I can understand why. Seeing the film for the second, third and fourth time, I am still shocked by appalling, visceral horror of the scene. Apparently the other members of the cast weren't told what was going to happen and their looks of disgust when the alien bursts out are entirely genuine.

Alien is a masterpiece, tapping into our deepest fears about violation. It's a great pity that this film ended up becoming a franchise, culminating in the appalling Aliens vs Predator. But is this the greatest moment in cinema? I can think of several others, but the one that stands head and shoulders above everything else is the denoument of Planet of the Apes.

I remember watching this film for the first time when I was 12. I was too young to have seen any of the films at the cinema and knew nothing about the plot. When, at the end of the film, the camera pans away and Charlton Heston realises that he has been on Earth all the time, it is genuinely shocking.

As soon as I start to think of memorable moments in film my mind runs away...


Global warming?

I try to avoid attributing every spell of good weather to global warming. As far back as I can remember, the weather in England has been consistently erratic. I have been sunbathing in March and October and thrown snowballs in May. However until recently, nature seemed to be unbothered by these fluctuations and maintained a consistent timetable through the seasons.

This year things have completely changed. I've seen crocuses in December, bees in February and, a few weeks ago, fields full of poppies. I took this picture a few years ago in late July, but I'm seeing the same thing now in mid-May.

This completely buggers-up my plan to introduce my oldest son to the cycle of life, via the wonderful Ladybird books title What to Look For in Spring, as most of the events covered happened in late winter. I'm always wary of anecdotal evidence, but this feels quite wrong.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hug a Hoodie

On Thursday afternoon my wife phoned me at work: 'Sorry to bother you but someone's just phoned from the court and you're down to do an ASBO tomorrow. They're sending over some documents by courier and you've got to study them tonight.' I could barely contain my glee. At last, something really juicy. Last week I was signing warrants and dealing with unpaid council tax, trying to appear interested but failing miserably. An Anti-Social Behaviour Order would at least give me the opportunity to use my brain.

I studied the documents as soon as I got home. The offender was 17 and his first recorded offence occurred four years earlier, when he was caught in possession of cannabis. Since then he had built up a depressingly long list of crimes including theft, burglary, assault and vandalism. I tried to keep an open mind, but after I'd read the witness statements I couldn't help thinking that he must be a nasty piece of work. He seemed to have no respect for authority and was completely out of control. An ASBO wouldn't stop him, but it would at least make it easier to give a custodial sentence next time he committed a crime.

The next morning I went to court with a very clear mental picture of what sort of person I'd be dealing with, but when the door to the courtroom opened I was taken aback. He looked no older than 13 and announced his name in a boy soprano voice. I had imagined a tough-looking character with an expression of contempt, but this boy simply looked bemused. His face showed no fear, anger or contempt and apart from an occasional nervous tic, it was hard to tell what was going on in his mind.

Before the terms of the ASBO were discussed we were given the boy's life history, which turned out to be one of the saddest things I'd ever heard. He had several siblings, all of whom were in care. He had been kicked out of his family home when he was fifteen and by all accounts, his parents (who didn't live together) were completely feckless. Since then he had lived either in hostels or with friends. He had stopped going to school several years earlier and he had the reading age of a five-year-old. He got into frequent trouble because he was part of a gang who, like him, were completely unemployable and had nothing to do except hang around and make a nuisance of themselves.

It was clear that this boy wasn't 'evil' or even just bad. He was a lost soul who had been appallingly neglected by both his family and society and in the absence of any love or discipline, he had drifted through life until he found a new family as part of his gang. As I listened to his tragic life history I wished that there was something I could do. What good would an ASBO do?

I retired with my colleagues and we were shortly joined by the legal advisor. We all felt the same - if only there was something we could do. This boy should be taught how to read properly and then be given the opportunity to learn a trade - something that would boost his self-esteem and give him opportunities. He also desperately needed an adult mentor who cared about him. How had he been allowed to slip through the net?

We decided that he needed the ASBO as his behaviour was out of control and he needed boundaries. We had reservations, but were assured that this was a preventive action rather than a punitive one. We were also reassured to discover that if he violates the conditions of the order he will, at last, find himself in 'the system'. If only he could have benefited from intervention at an earlier stage.

Getting help for children with special needs is extremely difficult. My wife fought tooth and nail to get support for our dyslexic son and when she finally succeeded the result was a dramatic improvement. If a middle-class graduate struggles to get assistance for her child, what hope does a poorly-educated person have, particularly one who has a low intelligence and/or a substance abuse problem? The authorities always cite funding as an issue, but compare the cost of helping a problem child to keeping an adult in prison. The current set-up is not only a false economy but also morally bankrupt.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Meaning of the 21st Century

There are lots of books around that speculate how life will change during the next 100 years, but very few that have the authority of someone whose predictions have been vindicated by the passage of time. James Lovelock is the most obvious example, but equally deserving of attention is James Martin. In the mid-70s he wrote a book called The Wired Society which has proved to be remarkably prescient, anticipating inventions like the internet and mobile phones. Last year he published a book called The Meaning of the 21st Century, which sets out to analyse the challenges that mankind faces and suggest solutions.

According to Martin we are on the verge of either a golden age or a collapse. The outcome depends entirely on what choices we make during the next decade. He lists 16 possible threats to our existence:

1. Global warming
2. Excessive population growth
3. Water shortages
4. Destruction of ocean life
5. Mass famine in poorly-run countries
6. The spread of deserts
7. Pandemics
8. Extreme poverty
9. Growth of shanty-cities
10. Unstoppable global migrations
11. Terrorists with WMDs
12. Religious extremism
13. Runaway computer intelligence
14. Nuclear war
15. A new Dark Age
16. Scientific experimentation

It's a terrifying list. Some events are unlikely but nevertheless pretty scary (for example I had no idea that when scientists built an atom-smashing machine there was a very remote possibility that it could have started a chain reaction that would destroy the universe!) whilst others seem a certainty. But Martin's book is not designed to overwhelm the reader with a sense of helplessness. On the contrary, this is a very positive book that clearly demonstrates that most problems can be easily remedied. All that is required is the political will.

If I was a dictator I would make everyone read this book (although I suppose I wouldn't have to, as I would be able to implement all of James Martin's recommendations without any opposition).
If you want an overview of what the next 50 years is probably going to look like, this is the book to buy.

Tim Waterstone

Every time I go to my annual managers' meeting - previously at Ottakar's, now at Waterstone's - vowing to go to bed early and not drink too much. Every year I fail. However I can at least take comfort in the fact that this year I wasn't sick on the train and haven't had to spend a whole day in bed afterwards. I must be getting older and wiser. Or maybe it was a text message that my wife sent me at midnight which read Remember yr less witty when yr drunk.

It is now 25 years since the first branch of Waterstone's opened and the mood of the gala dinner was generally celebratory, with guest authors paying tribute to their favourite bookshop chain. However, amidst the anecdotes about favourite branches and the thrill authors felt at seeing their books on the shelves, there was one conspicuous absence. No-one mentioned the man who made it all possible: Tim Waterstone.

It would probably be something of an understatement to say that Tim Waterstone is not very popular with the current owners of the chain that bears his name. He regularly criticises them and occasionally launches abortive attempts to buy the company back. However, for all his faults we owe him a debt of gratitude. Thanks to Tim Waterstone's vision and entrepreneurial flair, most towns in Britain now have a bookshop with a decent stockholding and the benefits to readers and publishers have been enormous. I drank to his health.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

All the names

I've just finished reading Yuri Buida's weird and wonderful Zero Train, published by the excellent Dedalus Books. It was a typically Russian novel, with larger than life characters whose dialogue alternated between philosophical musings and impassioned outbursts. All very Dostoevsky. The novel was also typically Russian in a way I found less appealing: everyone seemed to have at least three names. This made for a very confusing read at times and although a glossary was helpfully provided, it was less helpfully placed at the end of the book. Reading the list of names, patronyms and nicknames for each character, I realised that I had made two very silly mistakes about who was who which completely altered the novel's meaning. How annoying.

It's for this reason that I haven't read War and Peace. I'm not bothered about the length. I read Les Miserables and really enjoyed it, but if Victor Hugo had been a Russian I'm not sure if I could have contended with the fact that Jean Valjean was also called Jean Pierreovitch or Tinker. When you have an epic novel with nearly 500 characters, the last thing you need is any confusion about who's who. What I need isn't an abridged version of War and Peace, but an amended one in which everyone has one name and sticks to it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Eric Ravilious

In the art world, £327 pounds is loose change. As a bookseller it's a sizeable chunk of my salary, but when I discovered that a limited edition print of Eric Ravilious' painting Chalk Paths was on sale, I had to buy it. This is a rare picture that succeeds in capturing both the spiritual and visual qualities of the South Downs and anyone who knows the area will recognise the dark greens and greys of the Sussex winter. Compare this picture with another depiction of the Downs:

Or this:

And it is the difference between art and illustration. Ravilious was arguably one of the greatest British artists of the inter-war years and if his life hadn't ended prematurely, I'm sure that he would be a household name (in Hampstead, at least).

I first discovered Eric Ravilious in the Towner Gallery at Eastbourne, where I went to see an exhibition of original Ladybird illustrations. As soon as I saw his paintings, I knew that I had found a kindred spirit and spent the next few years searching for anything I could find about Ravilious.

Today there is a growing Ravilious cult. He is one of those word-of-mouth figures (like Nick Drake 20 years ago) who has a devoted following and it is only a matter of time before he becomes as well-known as Paul Nash and Henry Moore.

To return to Chalk Paths, there is a piece of music that complements Ravilious' watercolour: the Pastoral Symphony by Alan Rawsthorne. If you play the last movement of the symphony and look at the painting, there is a striking sympatico between the two.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Centre Parcs

It's just like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Suddenly, friends and acquaintances - all intelligent people with impeccable taste - keep telling me that they've been to Centre Parcs for a break. Their explanations are so similar that it's quite sinister: 'Well I know it has a bit of a naff reputation, but actually it's very nice and great for families. You have your own chalet, no cars are allowed and you can hire bikes.' All said with a wide-eyed smile that makes me feel very nervous. Next it will be the bloody Alpha Course.

Worst of all my wife started to think that it might not be such a bad idea after all. There were, she was told, lots of people that my father-in-law irritatingly refers to as PLUs (People Like Us). I mentioned this to my mother-in-law, as I thought that she'd shudder in horror at the prospect but no, she'd heard good things about Centre Parcs too.

In a rare moment of humility, I conceded that I might be wrong. After all, I'd been wrong about Battlestar Galactica. How could I selfishly maintain my stand in the light of overwhelming support for Centre Parcs from just about everyone I knew? 'Go on then' I said one evening, 'Order the brochure and if it doesn't look too awful, I'll do it.'

Three days later a package landed on the doormat and we were delighted to see that it contained a DVD of the Centre Parcs experience. I poured a glass of wine and focused on keeping a positive frame of mind, but within seconds an inner voice screamed 'NO! DON'T MAKE ME GO THERE. IT'S AWFUL!'. The whole place looked like something out of Logan's Run - a manufactured utopia for the middle managers of middle England. Nice men called Steve who worked in Human Resources and their 2.4 children. I wish I could be happy like Steve and cycle through pleasant woodlands with my family before enjoying the vast fayre of international cuisine. Unlike Logan's Run, people aren't killed at the age of 30, but it is a form of death.

There was an awkward silence for a few minutes. Normally my wife and I love and hate the same things, but given the current Body Snatchers scenario, supposing she'd gone over to the other side? 'Oh no.' She suddenly said with conviction. 'We couldn't go there.' I felt a huge wave of relief and gratitude. I had begun to doubt my sanity. Perhaps I was just a lone misanthrope, bent on stopping my family having fun and subjecting them to my jaundiced views, rather than a sane rational individual who objected to the commoditisation of leisure. But no, my wife's instant revulsion (and she's a much nicer person than me) convinced me that all was not lost.

As for the friends, I'm still in a quandary. In every other respect they are beyond reproach. I can only conclude that something happened to them at Centre Parcs and if we go there it will happen to us to. Stay away, if you know what's good for you.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Voices of History

I have just bought a wonderful CD produced by the National Sound Archive called Voices of History. It contains 40 recordings of historical figures including Christabel Pankhurst, Lenin, Gladstone, William Booth and Gandhi. But perhaps the most striking recording is one of Florence Nightingale (who by coincidence is 187 years old today).

Recorded in 1890, the sound quality is naturally very poor, but most of the words are clearly discernible and it is amazing to think that you're listening to the voice of someone who was born in Regency England.

Click on the picture for a link to the recording.


A couple of days ago, with the help of Sara from A Salted, I managed to add some links to my favourites blogs including Goncalo, Dovegreyreader, Ms Baroque, Fiction Bitch and Bookseller to the Stars. Unfortunately once the links were added, my statistics counter disappeared from the bottom of the page.

I can't live without my stats and had to restore the counter. I know it's sad, but I get a little frisson when they tell me that I've had visitors to the blog. Are there any techies out there who know how to add links without destroying the original template?

Friday, May 11, 2007


When booksellers get together what do we talk about? Books? Yes, sometimes - I remember waking up on a floor after a party and discovering that everyone in the room had read Gitta Sereny's book about Albert Speer - but our favourite topic of conversation is probably the weird people that frequent our shops. I'm not talking about the customers. They usually come in, browse for a while and buy a book, which doesn't make a great anecdote. However in addition to customers, all bookshops have loyal clientele of regular browsers who managed to visit the shop every day without ever buying a book.

We have nicknames for all of our browsers. In one shop I worked in our regulars included 'Crying Man' who always looked as if he was on the verge of bursting into tears, 'Reading Man' who ran everywhere and kept wiping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and 'Chess Man' who read our chess books and stubbornly refused to leave when the shop closed. In another we had a woman who came in every morning to check her horoscope and managed to break the spines of the books to the point where we couldn't sell them.

In my current shop we have 'Shuffling Man', who displays an unhealthy interest in the Children's section and a man who I identified yesterday as 'Weird Arm Man'. His right arm is very strange indeed. The veins are all thick and look like someone has stuck long sausages to his skin. Also, when he reads he holds the book about an inch away from his nose. Yesterday at 5.30 I walked through the shop and checked that it was empty. 'No customers left.' I announced in a loud voice 'Even Weird Arm Man' has gone. But he hadn't. He was crouching down next to the Erotica section reading Schoolgirl Lust. I think he heard me.

I thought that it was an unwritten rule that if you wanted to use your local bookshop as a library, you would do them the courtesy of occasionally buying a book (even if it's only once a year), but our browsers seem ignorant of this convention. Therefore, I have decided to write a simple constitution for browsers. If you're a browser, obey these rules and we'll stop hating you:

  1. Buy a book, however cheap, at least once a year
  2. Never bend the spine of a book
  3. Always put books back where you found them
  4. Be as unobtrusive as possible - don't stop a bookseller from doing their job
  5. Leave at least ten minutes before the shop closes
  6. Never stay longer than an hour
  7. Don't stand too near the till area - we don't like feeling as if we're being observed
  8. Don't smell
  9. Never ask any questions unless you seriously intend to buy a book
  10. Never hinder a genuine customer from browsing
Those are the ten golden rules in Steerforth Books. I understand that the dispossessed are naturally drawn to bookshops and who knows, one day I may join their ranks. But if you're going to frequent a bookshop without intending to buy anything, please observe the basic etiquette.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Celebrity memoirs

According to a report in Saturday's Guardian, Dawn French has been paid a £2,000,000 advance for her autobiography in the hope that it will become this year's Peter Kay. I haven't heard Century's justification for this ridiculous sum, but I suspect that the phrase much-loved comedienne appeared somewhere and a reminder that The Vicar of Dibley is the most successful comedy show ever. Apparently.

I'm not a betting man, but I'm pretty sure that Random House have made a huge mistake. Who buys celebrity memoirs? Let's not beat about the bush - it's largely working-class people who are buying them as Christmas presents. And if you look at the best-selling celebrity memoirs of the last few years: Peter Kay, Shane Richie, Martine McCutcheon, Victoria Beckham and Jordan they all have one thing in common - they're written (or at least ghost-written) by working-class celebrities. In other words, chavs want to read about chavs.

I would have thought that Dawn French is too middle-class to be a bestseller at Asda. I can't see readers warming to accounts of her exploits at the Central School of Speech and Drama. But on the other hand she is married to Britain's much-loved comedian Lenny Henry and if she give an honest warts and all account of their marriage (including the Australian blonde in the hotel), then tabloid serialisation is guaranteed.

I could be wrong. If she writes a witty Alan Bennett-style memoir with chav-appeal then Random will have both the chattering and grunting classes covered, but it is a huge gamble and even if the book is a bestseller, how much money will they actually make? Poor old Ricky Tomlinson was virtually frog-marched around the country to sign the paperback version of his memoirs after the underwhelming performance of the hardback. This was sad enough, but as any bookseller will tell you, the paperback editions never sell In one shop I worked in the sales for Martine McCutcheon's autobigraphy were 450 in hardback. The following summer it came out in paperback and we sold six. Therefore we can safely conclude that whilst celebrity memoirs make great Christmas presents, nobody actually reads them (apart from the Bookseller to the Stars)

January 2009 - Dawn French's autobiography went on to become one of the bestselling autobiographies of Christmas 2008, in spite of poor reviews. I stand corrected.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Is it me, or has British fiction lost the plot?

Looking at my bookshelves, I'm struck by the fact that most of the novels I read are by European or American authors. I don't set out to ignore British writing, but there is something about it that turns me off. Out of the six novels I've read this year (yes, only six, but I'm reading more non-fiction this year), three of them were written by authors born in Barcelona, two were written by Americans and one was by a Frenchman.

There are several reasons why this might be the case. First, I may have some innate prejudice against a lot of British writers because they write about a middle-class world that is alien to me. That statement would seem laughable to anyone who knew me as I seem the epitome of bourgeois values, but I grew up in a working class environment and still feel detached from people like Julian Barnes and William Boyd. Second, I think that there is a reluctance in British fiction to tackle big ideas and with the exception of David Mitchell, most attempts usually fall flat on their face. Third, it may simply be a case of feeling empathy with the 'otherness' of non-British writers.

Of course it could be argued that there is no such thing as British writing (and I'm sure that many in Scotland would assert this view) but all I can say is that as a bookseller, when I look at the piles of novels by British authors, very few of them excite me. British fiction seems to aspire to capture the zeitgeist, but I want a novel that questions it and makes me look at the world in a different way, giving a voice to something I've felt but have been unable to articulate. And most of all, I want to finish the novel thinking 'Wow'. The last time an English writer did that to me was when I read Cloud Atlas.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chichester Cathedral

Every month I go to a regional managers' meeting in Chichester and although they can sometimes be heavy-going, this is compensated by the fact that we meet in a beautiful old coaching inn opposite the cathedral. As we sit and discuss the pressing issues of retail, the bells of the cathedral peel hourly, reminding us how ephemeral our concerns are.

During last week's meeting I decided to have a look at the cathedral and was amazed to find it almost empty. There were no jostling tourists with cameras beeping and flashing and the only sound I could hear was some ethereal organ music.

During the 1960s and 70s, the Dean of Chichester commissioned many works of contemporary art for the cathedral including sculptures by Henry Moore and music by Leonard Bernstein. He encountered some resistance from people who thought that contemporary art was incongruous in a 900-year-old cathedral and would detract from its atmosphere, but the Dean argued that every other piece of art in the cathedral was a product of its time. Four decades on, the modernist tapestries and stained-glass windows sit perfectly well with their older companions.

The most striking thing I saw was the 12th-century tomb of a medieval knight and his wife. What is particularly moving about the tomb is the fact that they defied the convention of the time and insisted that instead of lying flat on their backs with one arm at each side, they would be shown holding hands.

The wife is also leaning slightly towards her husband. A simple gesture, but an incredibly powerful one. Later I remembered that Philip Larkin had seen this tomb, known as the Arundel Tomb and was inspired to write this poem:

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Today is the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland. Like many marriages it has had its ups and downs and one half of it fantasises about being single again, but it has endured. However, that could all change on May 3rd when the Scots vote for their devolved parliament. If, as some expect, the SNP become the majority party, this could be the first stage in the dissolution of the United Kingdom.

If I was a Scot I would vote for independence, not for reasons of nationalism or anti-English sentiment, but simply because there is no reason why the Scots should not administer their own affairs. Great Britain was created for military and economic reasons, but now that we are part of the European Union there is no need for Britannia.