Friday, June 29, 2007

William Nicholson

Today I went with my wonderful children's bookseller to sell some William Nicholson books at a local school where he had been asked to talk about writing to a hundred 12-13 year-olds. We were warned in advance that the school was in an area that wasn't very 'bookish' and when we optimistically arrived with 20 copies of each of his five novels for children, but I soon realised that there was no point in unpacking most of the boxes.

The talk took place in the school gym and it had that smell - the odour of sawdust, sweat and stale polish. We set up our stall on a table at the back and watched nervously as the children filed noisily into the hall. A teacher tried to silence the din of chattering children and scraping chairs, but the noise continued until the head teacher arrived and did what must have been her scary look - a disapproving frown which implied that names would be taken and punishments allotted to the guilty parties. The noise diminished until the hall was almost silent.

'We are very lucky to have a writer...' the head teacher paused. She had no idea who she was introducing. William Nicholson smiled and told her who he was. She continued and I could tell that the words writer and author were not going to impress this audience. They shuffled in their seats, spoke in loud whispers and I began to worry, but William Nicholson knew exactly what to do.

First he explained that he was a little jet-lagged as he had just flown back from Hollywood where he was negotiating a film deal. Yes, he wrote children's books, but he also wrote screenplays for films. Had anyone seen Gladiator? From that moment there was a tangible change in the audience and apart from a small core of dysfunctional boys at the back, he had the children in the palm of his hand. They listened.

At the end of the talk we only sold 10 books and several people apologised to us. However, I'm a great believer in the little acorns...mighty oaks approach to life. 80% of the pupils were interested in what Nicholson had to say and perhaps even a few of them will remember this day for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Photo opportunity

I've just visited the Tate Britain's excellent exhibition of photography, How We Are, which is on until late September. The first picture was a photo by Fox Talbot of Trafalgar Square in the lates 1840s, when Nelson's Column was still under construction.

On the fence next to the bottom of the column a sign reads Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted, which has been completely ignored (some things never change). Out of all the adverts one in particular caught my eye: Polkamania! I'm used to seeing Dance Nation compilations of Ibiza-style techno tracks, but I had no idea that they were strutting their funky stuff as long ago as 1847.

Other gems in the exhibition include this superb photo by Martin Parr:

This intriguing one by Angus McBean:

25 years later, he took this iconic image:

Which isn't in the exhibition. However, this portrait by David Bailey is:

With so much choice the curators must have had a tough time making the final selection. Many famous images are missing, for example, Bill Brandt's Lambeth Walk, but perhaps that's the exhibition's greatest strength as it was refreshing to see so many unknown pictures. There was one glaring omission, however: Richard Billingham. He was shortlisted for the Turner Prize a few years ago and no exhibition of British photography is complete without a contribution from him:

Monday, June 25, 2007


I have just returned from Legoland with my older son. It was almost exactly what I expected: a soulless, corporate theme park in which the concept of adventure has been commodified, stripped of risk and regurgitated as a bland, postmodern succession of experiences. My son loved it and wants to go back as today's trip was cut short by torrential rain. I shall try to stall him.

I paid £47 for our two tickets, which was extortionate. However I kept telling myself that once you paid up front, everything was free and you could go on as many rides as you liked. If only. The 'free' bus from Windsor to Legoland cost £5.80, lockers could only be opened with a one pound coin which was non-refundable and a booth with hot air dryers for victims of water rides cost £2 per 30-second blast of hot air. And as for going on as many rides as you like, if a 20-minute queue was the norm for a very wet day in term time, how many rides could you conceivably go on during weekends and school holidays? I'd heard that families spent up to five hours queuing for less than 20 minutes' worth of rides. Indeed, psychologists have identified the new phenomenon of 'ride rage' caused by the stress of queuing in theme parks.

In addition to getting very wet, my son and I had to endure the humiliation of beating our way through the crowds to get away from the front of the queue, once we discovered that our ride was a big dipper. We're both thenthitive individuals and don't need that sort of adrenaline rush.

I hate theme parks. Once upon a time children could go off into the countryside and have real adventures. My father grew-up only eight miles away from the centre of London but in those days - the 1930s - he was on the edge of the urban environment and could cycle out to fields and woods within less than half an hour. Today many children live in shoddy, grey suburbs, denied a normal childhood by parents who are paranoid about cars and paedophiles. Spontaneity, adventure and fun has been denied to many of today's children. Their craving to visit places like Legoland is understandable and very, very sad.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Waterstone's scandal

Some prominent figures in the book world have expressed their dismay over the discovery that Waterstone's charges publishers up to £45,000 to secure a front-of-shop position for their titles. One of the most vocal opponents is Anthony Cheetham, who complains that Waterstone's are 'breaking the unwritten contract with the customer.' In their defence, Waterstone's argue that books are bought on merit and the deals are secured after a title has been selected.

I'm surprised at the level of naivety on the part of many people. Waterstone's is not a philanthropic society - it's a business which is largely run by retailers who have worked for companies like Marks and Spencer. Their remit is to ensure that Waterstone's makes a profit for its parent company, HMV Media and in order to achieve this they have introduced practices that were once alien to bookselling but common in other areas of retail, including asking suppliers to subsidise promotions. Borders do it and WH Smith's certainly do, charging up to £200,000!

Publishers like to moan when retailers behave like cynical opportunists, but they are being completely hypocritical. Publishers have been happy enough to undermine high street booksellers by offering preferential terms to supermarkets and internet retailers and when they mounted a spirited opposition to Waterstone's proposed takeover of Ottakar's, they failed to acknowledge their complicity.

So has the bond of trust between Waterstone's and its customers been broken? I wasn't aware that there was one. Waterstone's is a brand. The brand is that it is a quality bookseller with a large stockholding and knowledgeable staff. If they start promoting crap just because they've had a backhander from a publisher then customers will vote with their feet and they know that.

As far as I can tell, the promoted titles in Waterstone's are, first and foremost, picked by a buying team who have a background in bookselling and try to pick what will sell. No self-respecting retailer would risk alienating their customers by putting poor quality products in their front-of-shop and Waterstone's cannot afford to be the exception. If Waterstone's had remained the bookseller that some people still like to think it is it would have gone under years ago.

I'm actually surprised by how bookish Waterstone's still is, given the current market conditions, but that's largely thanks to the booksellers, not the senior management.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


I have been getting increasingly excited the last few weeks as tomorrow night, I am booked on an intercity sleeper train to the Scottish Highlands. The train leaves London at 21.15 arriving in Fort William 12 and a half hours later. I booked this trip several months ago as I thought that my increasingly anxious older son needed to overcome his fear of new experiences. I planned the journey down to the last detail and apart from the weather, I felt that I had everything covered. However, I had not bargained on the ineptitude of FirstScot Rail, who don't believe that buying a ticket two months in advance should guarantee you a seat on a train.

I discovered this detail today after phoning to enquire why my tickets said No Seat. After being kept on hold for 40 minutes I was given another phone number, which kept me on hold for another 20 minutes. I always thought that anecdotes like these were apocryphal, as I've always had good experiences with internet booking. However, FirstScot Rail are the exception. I should have taken the hint two months ago, when my call was rerouted to someone in India who thought that I lived in Lewisham.

My son hasn't stopped talking about this trip. He's told his friends about it and has been preparing his backpack, so when I discovered that there was no room on the train for us I was dreading his reaction. Would it be the sort of disappointment that he would remember for the rest of his life? I racked my brains to think of an alternative. Paris! We could go on the Channel Tunnel and be there within three hours. But there was a small matter of finding a passport.

I couldn't just tell him that the trip was off, so I decided to book a ticket in Legoland with a night at a posh hotel in Windsor.

He was remarkably stoic about the whole thing and I think that the Legoland plan was a masterstroke - rugged Scottish glens and mountains are no match for a crass, commercialised theme park in the mind of a small boy.

In the meantime we are stranded in Sussex, which isn't the worst fate in the world.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Blogito Ergo Sum

Yesterday's big news story was the announcement that Britain's prisons are full up. 81,000 prisoners are currently residing at Her Majesty's pleasure and there are no cells left. To create space some prisoners are being released early, which has prompted a hysterical outburst in the tabloids. If you believe the Daily Mail, an army of rapists, paedophiles and murderers are banging at the gates, waiting to resume their outrages. The reality is that minor offenders are leaving prison a couple of weeks earlier, but that makes a dull headline.

I don't think anyone is happy with this situation. Whilst justice has always been subject to expedience as much, if not more, than any concept of moral law, the public expect the punishment to fit the crime and early release should be subject to good behaviour, not overcrowding. However, if there are no places for new prisoners the whole justice system will grind to a halt. What is the answer?

Building new prisons should be the last resort. I would prefer to see a concerted effort to deal with the causes of crime, but that is a long-term solution and will do nothing to deal with the current problem.

In the short-term, it would make sense to deport prisoners who are foreign nationals to prisons in their own countries (except anyone whose safety might be endangered). Over 10,000 prisoners - 13% of the total prison population - are foreigners without residency in the UK and cost the tax payer approximately £400,000,000.

In the mid-term, something must be done to address the appalling scandal of the way we treat people with serious mental illnesses. In the past, people who were unable to function in society were detained in what used to be called asylums. I remember visiting someone in a mental hospital when I was in my teens (just before Margaret Thatcher decided to introduce the disastrous 'care in the community' policy which closed many residential psychiatric hospitals and saw the number of beggars on the streets rise dramatically). I was quite apprehensive about going there and when I saw a man in a dressing gown walk towards me saying 'And they spoke to me in heavenly voices' I almost turned and fled. But I stayed and discovered a peaceful sanctuary with beautiful gardens that provided a refuge from the chaos of 'real' life. An asylum in the true sense of the word.

A significant number of people in prison should be in a secure mental unit, not a prison. As one prisoner officer said to me, 'I went into this service to look after prisoners, not become a psychiatric nurse' and I remember him pointing in two directions, saying that one prison wing was for the mad, the other for the bad. You might argue that all I'm proposing is a different form of imprisonment, but I think it's important to differentiate between offenders who are responsible for their actions and those who suffer from a mental illness and need help.

As for the long-term solution - dealing with the causes of crime - I know that there are no easy answers. However there are a number of widely-accepted causal factors: a high number of teenage pregnancies, a lack of male role models, poor housing, inadequate special needs provision, drugs, endemic unemployment and poor education.

In America it has been shown that cutting social security benefits has reduced teenage pregnancies, but is that a morally acceptable course of action? Should we penalise people who are already having a pretty crappy life? Other studies have proved that the easiest way to reduce the birth rate amongst the poorest parts of society is through providing women with more educational opportunities. Not sex education, but real learning that empowers women and makes them feel that they have choices in life.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Swimmer

It is 25 years ago today since John Cheever died. When I first started in bookselling I remember that we usually stocked at least three of Cheever's novels, plus an anthology of his short stories, but the the author deemed the Chekhov of the suburbs seems to have gone out of fashion. Like Richard Yates, he will probably be rediscovered. In the meantime, Cheever fans will have to trawl the internet for second-hand editions of most of his major works.

My interest in Cheever started when I watched the film adaptation of his short story The Swimmer, filmed in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster. I watched it by chance on television and was bowled over by the cinematography and Burt Lancaster's mesmerising performance. I have never understood why this film isn't more popular. If people can enjoy films like The Ice Storm and American Beauty then I'm sure that they can relate to The Swimmer.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Word is out

Former Word presenter Terry Christian has just published his autobiography which is very sensibly entitled My Word, just in case you'd forgotten that he presented one of the most reviled (but watched) programmes in Channel Four's history.

Terry Christian knows we aren't that interested in his childhood and after a few dozen pages about growing-up in Manchester, we're given a wonderfully candid, occasionally bitchy memoir of a show that many of us loved to hate, but couldn't quite stop watching. I may like to drone on about worthy literary novels in translation, but my shameful secret is that I love reading gossipy memoirs like this.

It's all here: the feud with Mark Lamarr, the Oliver Reed incident (every chat show has at least one), 'Bruiser' DeCadenet and one of my favourite moments, the first and last appearance on British television by the band L7:

This book has the potential to be one of the top non-fiction beach reads this summer, so why have Orion decided to publish it in hardback at the beginning of June? I suppose it will come out in paperback sometime in December, by which time everyone will be buying hardbacks. I hope I'm wrong, as this entertaining, self-deprecating memoir deserves to sell.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Dumbing down

I will shortly be watching The People's Quiz, a lamentable programme that professes to find the cleverest people in Britain but is in fact a general knowledge contest with moronically easy questions like 'In what country do they eat sushi?' The worst thing is the look of pained concentration on the contestants' faces. The second worst is the exultant applause that they receive for knowing something that anyone who hasn't been abducted and kept in a cellar for twenty years should know as a matter of course. Are we becoming more stupid?

As if in answer to this question, I found a book from 1972 called the Top of the Form Quiz Book, based on a contest for schoolchildren between the ages of 14-16. Even a cursory glance confirmed that the questions were much harder than today's quiz show for adults. They wouldn't just ask which king had six wives, but expect the contestant to list them in chronological order.

So there we have it - conclusive evidence that we are more ignorant than we were in 1972. But is it true? I think that the answer is more a reflection on the programme making today, rather than the knowledge or ignorance of the general public. The People's Quiz is broadcast in the prime time pre-Doctor Who slot on Saturday evening, with the promise of top twenty ratings. I suspect that the BBC want an inclusive programme that makes the ordinary viewer feel clever. If they had a proper quiz show with genuinely tough questions, many viewers might feel demoralised and turn over. And although the BBC isn't a commercial station, its remit is justified by viewing figures.

The multi-channel age has completely changed television in Britain. Programme makers are usually too timid to experiment with challenging formats that demand concentration and the traditional 13-part serial has been replaced by attention-deficit-friendly two-parters. I'm not sure why this is the case. In America there have been a number of series that have bucked the trend and dared to present an innovative story spanning a 26-episode arc. They have a post-modern Tarantinoesque narrative structure and are packed full of obscure references that would require a Classics degree to deconstruct them.

But the ratings are nearly always good.

Perhaps it isn't the public who have dumbed down, but the programme makers, afraid of alienating viewers with anything challenging or innovative. They're wrong. The public aren't as stupid as they look.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Self-publishing - the seven-year-old's perspective

After my recent harsh (but fair!) comments about self-publishing, I decided to perform a little experiment. Recently, we'd had a self-published author sign copies of his children's novel and it was quite a successful event, with 40 copies sold. The book was well-produced and had a good, old-fashioned tale that would surely appeal to any child. I bought a copy and that evening, read the first three chapters to my seven-year-old son.

As I slammed the book shut, I asked him what he thought of it. 'Fine' he replied, 'But can we have a real story now?'

Out of the mouths of babes...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Harry Hill story

One wet and windy afternoon in Clapham, the comedian Harry Hill popped into our staff room to sign copies of his latest book. I was impressed by how swiftly he worked his way through the pile, but he did have the advantage of possessing a short name. 'Well that was quick.' I said, thanking him. 'It's a good job you're not Greek.'

Harry Hill looked completely baffled. 'Why?' he asked.

'Well...if your name was Ariana Stasinopolous...' I started to explain, wishing that I hadn't broken the golden rule, which states that you shouldn't try and be funny when you meet a professional comedian.

'Oh I see.' He replied politely, but unsmilingly. 'Yes, the long names.'

It was tumbleweed time.

Six months later I watched the Harry Hill show. As the opening credits finished, he bounded onto the stage and began his opening monologue. 'Hmmm? Hmmm? Book signings! Imagine what they must be like if you're Greek. Hmmm? I heard that Ariana Stasinopolous did a book signing. She only did 15 books but she was there all day!' The audience roared with laughter at my joke which, now I'm retelling it, isn't very funny.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Too many chiefs...

Many thanks to my good friend, the wonderfully-named Mr Tobias Whitty for this picture:

Under the influence

The internet is an exciting but occasionally scary place, which is why software has been developed to protect us from every possible threat. I say every, but there is one gap in the market that has yet to be addressed. I can protect my children from downloading pornography, stop my staff from viewing unsuitable websites and prevent pop-ups and spam. However I am unable to stop myself shopping on-line under the influence of alcohol.

It's a familiar scenario. I arrive home from work, have a couple of glasses of wine to wind down and decide to relax for an hour by surfing the internet. That's where the trouble starts. The alcohol loosens my inhibitions and suddenly it seems like a good idea to order a DVD of The Cruel Sea.

This must be what it's like to have an affair. First there's the excitement of the moment, followed by the regret and guilt the following morning. Finally, there's the moment of reckoning when your partner discovers what you've done.

During the last few months I've ordered the following:

  • A wall clock featuring the animated characters from the BBC series Life on Mars
  • A meteorite
  • A CD of Finnish accordion music
  • A boxed DVD set of the first series of Starsky and Hutch
  • A Queen Elizabeth I silver sixpence
  • An LP of Hilding Rosenberg's 8th Symphony
As the advert said 'Men just can't help acting on impulse.'

But it's not all regret and guilt. I love my meteorite and get a thrill every time I hold the sixpence in my hand and imagine all of the other people who have possessed it. I have also bought some really good things on the internet during my nocturnal shopping trips in cyberspace. Perhaps my best purchase was a pair of Doc Marten shoes that were produced for the Royal Mail and are still in perfect condition after two years' constant use.

However, there should be some software available that makes it harder to buy things over the internet after 6.00 in the evening. Every time I decide to buy something, I'd like to see a little pop-up box that says 'Do you really need it?', 'Where will you put it?' 'Will you be any happier if you buy it?' and 'Can you afford it?' The software would also refuse to process my purchases until I'd had 12 hours to think about it.

That makes sense.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


My fellow booksellers Crockatt and Powell recently published an excellent post about self-publishing, the gist of which was don't do it. I couldn't agree more. There are some instances where a book that would be of no interest to a mainstream publisher can find a successful niche market. Many local history books thrive without the support of a proper publisher and end up selling more than the Booker Prize shortlist. However, when it comes to fiction, poetry or autobiography, you can forget it.

I have lost count of the number of times that I've been told that 'there's someone downstairs who wants to see the manager' only to find myself confronted with someone waving a volume that looks as if it was printed in Albania, circa 1975.

When I first started in bookselling I used to take every self-published book I was shown because I wanted to support local authors, but when it came to weeding-out the unsold books from sections I gradually realised that self-published fiction and poetry never sold, unless the author was able to badger their friends and family into buying a copy. Sometimes this added-up to a loss of several thousand pounds a year. The books were always sold on a sale or return basis, but when it came to sending the unsold copy back to the author and getting credit, they were usually quite elusive, so gradually I became hardened by my experiences and learned to say no.

I always try to remain open-minded about self-published books. Every now and then I see one which is genuinely good and deserves to be supported, but nine times out of ten they are rubbish and I find that the author's ego is inversely proportional to their talent. Quite often I have self-published authors who march into my shop and announced that they've come to arrange a signing session.

I'm also astounded by the number of people who publish a book without doing any research into how the book trade works. They present books without barcodes, have no distributor and haven't arranged any publicity and yet they still manage to look wounded or incredulous when I am less than enthusiastic.

During the last few years I have had to tactfully deal with the following self-published books:

  • The memoirs of an airline pilot who had led an interesting life, but didn't possess the ability to make it interesting to others. Also the book looked like a pamphlet from the Soviet Embassy
  • An appallingly-written children's story about horses with a cheap and nasty psychedelic cover that looked like a parish newsletter from the Church of the Poison Mind
  • A poetry anthology written by eight members of a family, all equally talentless
  • A photographic book about the Battle of Trafalgar 200th anniversary celebrations. The author paid for several thousand copies of the book to be printed before doing any research into his potential market. When I said that £30 was too much for a paperback photographic book of this nature, he looked at me as if I had insulted his mother
  • A historical novel that was so stomach-churningly awful that I hid it for the author's sake
  • A 'thriller' about global warming that read as if it had been badly translated from Latvian
  • A children's book called Teddy's Magical Adventure which was full of grammatical howlers like should of
  • A self-help CD encouraging children to contact angels, narrated by a woman who asks the listener to start relaxin' and see the shinin' aura around their bed
I realise that I probably sound a little lacking in compassion, but it's a reaction to the arrogance and/or self-delusion of the authors. Show me a good self-published book and I'll support it all the way:

Here's the author, whose son-in-law presented me with a self-published book that had a good story that was well told. I gave it pride of place in the front of the shop.

Publishers aren't infallible and occasionally a really good book slips through the net, for example Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels. However, on the whole, if a book is really good it will eventually get the recognition it deserves. JK Rowling was a struggling author who had to cope with several rejections, but someone eventually spotted her talent. Self-publishing offers an opportunity to jump the queue, but it's an illusory one because booksellers rarely take a self-published book seriously.

Friday, June 08, 2007

More than a bookshop

When my bookshop opened, almost exactly two years ago, we decided that we wanted to be more than a retail outlet. We were situated in a town that didn't have a thriving arts scene, but did have a number of talented people who wanted to display their work and stage events.

We decided to try and make ourselves a hub for the local community by turning our shop into a mini arts centre and in additional to the usual author signings and talks, we displayed the work of local artists and set-up reading groups. But our most radical move was a foray into the world of fringe theatre.

Last night we staged our fifth theatrical event, a performance of David Mamet's Duck Variations by two drama graduates, one of whom happened to be the manager of another branch. It was almost closed down by a funny little man from the Council who saw the posters for the show and decided that we were probably violating an obscure by-law. However, we managed to obtain a licence in the nick of time.

We held the play here:

But it's amazing what you can do with a bit of black cloth and a studio light:

And here is a photo from the performance:

Hey presto! A simple bookshop becomes a theatrical venue. When I tell people about our dramatic evenings some think it's a brilliant idea and others look at me as if I'm mad. I'm convinced that in an age in which an increasing number of readers are buying their books from Amazon and Tesco, booksellers have to do more to exploit their greatest asset - the physical space of a bookshop. People still love bookshops and it is up to booksellers to provide the magic.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Carbon footprints

Suddenly everyone seems to be talking about carbon footprints. It's great. I'd spent years despairing that people would ever take environmental concerns seriously and suddenly, like a Mexican wave, global warming has become a mainstream issue. Customers have started declining bags, people in Waterstone's head office are talking about reducing wastage and my local council are going to penalise anyone who doesn't recycle.

I decided to find out what my carbon footprint was and take steps to reduce it. On the plus side I have energy-saving light bulbs, a small house and don't fly (well, very rarely). On the minus side I drive 200 miles a week, have a wife who obsessed with turning the thermostat up to 23c and only recycle my wine bottles. How bad am I?

I have looked at several carbon footprint websites and I'm still none the wiser. One carbon footprint 'calculator' has asked me very specific questions about my gas consumption whilst another is content to make assumptions based on fairly nebulous criteria. The average carbon footprint of people in Britain is around 9,500kg (19,000 in America; 1,200 in India). According to the CF calculators, my footprint could be anywhere between 5,500 and 9,500, which is quite a large margin of error.

If someone like me who is informed and sympathetic about green issues feels baffled and cynical about these calculators, then what is the ordinary person in the street going to feel? I'd like to see a calculator that is easy to use but detailed enough to account for everyone's unique circumstances, so that they can identify the areas of their life that need changing.

In the meantime I aim to do the following:

  • Only buy organic products that haven't been flown halfway across the world
  • Stop buying beef
  • Compost our food waste
  • Have showers instead of baths
  • Persuade my wife to wear a woolly jumper when it's cold
And I would love to be able to do the following

  • Ban all 4x4s (SUVs) unless the owner lives in the countryside
  • Have a VAT rate of 50% for food that has travelled more than 5,000 miles
  • Ban the sale of patio gas heaters
  • Offer tax incentives to anyone who installs energy-saving measures
  • Make biodiesel available at filling stations
And finally (and this is nothing to do with the environment), I would ban the wearing of Crocs.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Book thieves

In his memoirs, Jeffrey Bernard used to talk about the distinct social groups that frequented his regular pub, the notorious Coach and Horses in Soho. Alongside the actors, stage hands, dancers and drunks, there were the book thieves.

The book thieves were professionals who stole to order, usually selling their wares to a bookseller in Charing Cross Road. They were only paid a fraction of the retail price of the book and in order to achieve a living wage, they would have to steal at least £50,000 worth of stock per year. Of course they stole a lot more than that. Sometimes they'd get caught and were occasionally sent to prison, but once the sentence was served they'd be back in the shops doing what they knew best.

The most notorious book thief in London was a man called Roy Faith. When he died, a store detective company sent a representative to his funeral, as he'd been done so much for their business. A short, plump man with sunken eyes and a bald head that had a few strands of dyed, jet black hair across it, Roy's speciality was art books.

Roy always made two visits to a shop. During the first he would choose the books he was going to steal - nothing under £30 - and pile them up somewhere where they wouldn't be spotted. After leaving the shop empty-handed, Roy would wait for half an hour and return when the staff were too busy to spot him. It only took Roy a minute to discretely nudge the pile of books into his huge holdall and before we had a chance to spot him, he was gone.

Perhaps Roy was nice to his dog if he had one, but he didn't come across as a particularly pleasant individual. When a female member of staff asked him to leave, he called her a cunt and moved as if he was going to headbut her. I mistakenly assumed that he was the sort of person who only threatened women and the next time I saw him I unsuccessfully tried to play the hard man: 'Come on then, call me a cunt.' Roy looked at me with barely disguised contempt and replied 'Alright then, you're a cunt' then took a half-hearted swing at me. I ducked and he missed. From then on, our encounters became increasingly childish with both of us trying to do everything we could to frustrate the other. The last time I saw him, he was on the train to Brighton, probably combining a bit of thieving with a nice day at the seaside.

Another thief, known as Barry, specialised in stealing the Times Atlas. At £75 each, these atlases were very attractive to thieves and the only thing that usually stopped anyone taking them was their enormous size, which made them almost impossible to conceal. They didn't fit into carrier bags or holdalls without a considerable effort, but Barry had devised a solution that was almost worthy of genius. He had customised a raincoat with Times Atlas-sized pockets on the inside and was able to steal two at a time. The more astute members of staff usually challenged the strange man with two large book-sized lumps in his coat, but he must have succeeded enough times to make it worth his while. Unlike Roy Faith, Barry did have some personal charm and when caught, he would smile sheepishly like a little boy caught scrumping.

After a while I became quite good at spotting the biblioklepts. Sometimes they gave themselves away through their body language, other times it was their appearance. One thief was dressed as a respectable businessman but his shoes were shabby and when I scrutinised him further I could see that he was wearing a charity shop suit. Our eyes met and he realised that he'd been rumbled. Later I mentioned this incident to someone in another bookshop and they said 'Ah yes, the Businessman.' He was well-known.

The most successful thieves were the ones we never saw. Someone used to steal entire shelves of books during Thursday lunchtimes - one week it was Nabokov, another Terry Pratchett - presumably in order to furnish another bookshop. Although we became obsessive about checking everyone who entered the shop, we never caught the culprit.

Occasionally we were provided with undercover store detectives - usually ex-servicemen or African students. In patrician Richmond, their attemps at blending in with the customers rarely succeeded. We also employed a paranoid ex-policeman who seemed to believe that everyone was a potential criminal and used to stalk perfectly normal people until they felt so uncomfortable they left.

In the end the only thing that really stopped the traditional book thieves was the advent of CCTV, internet bookselling and the end of price fixing. Of course we still lose books. There are a few professional thieves still doing the rounds and there are also drug addicts and opportunists, but the golden age of book theft has passed.

It used to be even worse in medieval times and many books had to be chained to the wall. Here is a curse that was used at the time to deter would-be thieves:

This present book legible in scripture
Here in this place thus tacched with a cheyn
Purposed of entent for to endure
And here perpetuelli stylle to remeyne
Fro eyre to eyre wherfore appone peyn
Of cryst is curs of faders and of moderes
Non of hem hens atempt it to dereyne
Whille ani leef may goodeli hange with oder.

Friday, June 01, 2007

A sense of place

I am that rare creature, someone who is completely English. I used to envy friends who could boast mixed ancestry as they always seemed to have a richer life, spending their school holidays abroad visiting eccentric relatives. I have a couple of friends who have Irish mothers and thanks to the post-war diaspora of people from Ireland, they have uncles and aunts in every port. My family doesn't even come from another part of England. Both sides originate from the Home Counties and the most daring thing we ever did was to move to London in the 1840s and leave it 150 years later.

And it wasn't even as if we could say that we'd lived here for thousands of years. According to received wisdom, we were descended from Danish and German invaders who usurped the native Britons in the fifth century. It might sound a long time ago, but go to certain parts of Wales and they're still angry about it.

A few years ago I decided to walk the South Downs Way, which is almost exactly 100 miles, starting in Winchester and ending at the sea in Eastbourne. Most of the paths were routes that had been in use for thousands of years. I felt a sense of connection with all of the people who had used these paths in the past, whether they were hunters, Roman legionnaires or shepherds. But I knew that it was unlikely that I was descended from any of them and in some ways, I felt like an interloper.

However, recent DNA tests have turned conventional wisdom on its head. It now seems that most people in Britain are descended from settlers who arrived after the last ice age, 20,000 years ago and I like that. I don't have any dodgy racial agenda. I just believe that an awareness of our past protects us from the ephemeral values of capitalism and gives us a sense of perspective.

I am lucky enough to live in Lewes - a town centred around an 800-year-old castle with an eclectic mix of buildings including a medieval priory and a 15th-century shop. My house is relatively modern, built in 1890, but it's situated on a 12-century battlefield. When I walk through the town I feel that my life is a very small part of the story of Lewes. That may sound trite as it's a truism, but look at the number of towns and cities who survived the Luftwaffe only to to ruined by the greed and short-termism of post-war town planning. Lewes almost became a victim but common sense prevailed and everywhere I look, the dead live among us.

This is a very rambling post, written after several glasses of wine which I awarded myself after a hard day, but I hope you see my point: the past is a buffer, a defence against those people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. That doesn't mean going back to the past. I have no nostalgia for the age of racism, backstreet abortions and intolerance towards homosexuals. However, we need to be freed from the tyranny of the present so that we can get things into perspective.

Two more from Banksy...