Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Far from the madding crowd

I live in one of the most densely populated parts of Europe and yet I only have to travel a few miles to completely escape from the rest of the human race. Today I took my son to Alfriston, where we followed the River Cuckmere down to the sea and during the whole walk we saw fewer than ten people. Here's the evidence:

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

It is a quarter of a century since Bergman released his last proper film, Fanny and Alexander, so his death at the age of 89 won't have deprived us of any new works. However, I just liked the fact that he was still alive, brooding on a remote Swedish island. He was a genius.

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...

Yesterday I received an email from Amazon which rather threateningly said that Evil has been dispatched. After ten years of loyal custom this seemed poor recompense, then I remembered that my Amazon DVD rental list includes a film called Evil. I can't recall why I ordered it, but I expect there was an If you like...you'll love... recommendation.

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

Soylent Green
The Edukators
Old Boy
Dirty Harry

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

A couple of months ago, Orion launched their Compact Classics range of great novels which have been stripped of all the boring bits to make them more accessible to the busy commuting, multi-tasking modern reader. You can now read Moby Dick without the endless digressions about the whaling industry, or Les Miserables without the tedious preambles. The result: more people reading the classics. Possibly.

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.

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.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Quiet

Jo, you don't need to wear Primark jeans now you're richer than the Queen

After yesterday's madness and my frantic eleventh hour drive to Eastbourne, today was disarmingly quiet. I'm not complaining. I've always wondered what a nervous breakdown would be like and another day like yesterday would have provided me with the answer. As things stand, we sold a thousand books, kept our nerve and most of the customers were perfectly happy. I need to keep telling myself that rather than obsessing about the handful of unpleasant people (none of them regular bookshop customers) who decided to make a scene because we'd run out of the children's edition for three hours.

One woman in her 40s said that she felt like crying. I reminded her that we still had the book and whilst she might not like the front cover as much, it was the same story and if she couldn't wait, we'd swap it up for a kids edition in a few days. She wasn't having any of it. Naturally I would have liked to express my complete contempt for her and point out that whilst she was winging about the jacket of a children's book, thousands of people had lost their homes in floods. But I didn't, as I have to maintain a facade of professionalism.

I read the newspaper and searched the internet for tales of Potter madness, but all I could find were unbelievably upbeat statements by bookshop managers who are clearly thinking of their next promotion. You know what I mean: 'It was a great evening and we all got really excited...' rather than 'It was the most stressful day of my life. The whole thing veered dangerously close to disaster and a gang of drunken chavs were shouting abuse at the queue...' I can't stand that cult of positivity in businesses where people feel they always have to be upbeat about everything, otherwise they're not a team player. It invalidates the genuinely positive comments.

I had a crisis of confidence. Perhaps my Potter event was the only one that was tricky. Maybe I hadn't planned it properly and everyone else breezed through the launch, but a few phone calls confirmed that I wasn't alone. One manager, who is possibly the most organised and effective person I have met, said that she felt out of control and cried when her staff weren't looking. The general consensus was that it was the most challenging experience of our careers but the important thing is, we triumphed over adversity and almost everyone got their books.

If I was rich, I'd board my private jet and fly off to my Swiss clinic, but if I had that sort of money I probably wouldn't be working in a bookshop (much as I love it!). Instead I have a choice between watching Dunkirk, with John Mills and David Attenborough, or an episode from Season One of Starsky and Hutch. Maybe I'll watch both.

In the meantime, my internet searches did reveal this amusing posting on the web site of Night Shade Books:

Ann and I went down to the local B&N to witness the Harry Potter madness. The mall parking lot was packed. The kids and adults had destroyed the magazine and children's sections. There was no way we could get a book.

So, instead, we waited outside. A kid came out, probably all of nine years old. A little girl with braces. As per our pre-arranged plan, Ann distracted her with some glitter and a pinwheel. Then I snatched the book out of the girl's hands and ran for it while Ann hightailed it back to the car. The girl was screaming her head off, but luckily, there were so many people around I lost myself in the crowd. Ann then drove round to pick me up. I was hiding where we'd planned for me to.

It all went off without a hitch. Another successful midnight Potter party for us.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

And relax...

I have discovered a cure for stress. After today's Harry Potter hullabaloo I arrived home a broken man, but two things pulled me back from the brink: a bottle of Macon Villages and a programme for toddlers called In the Night Garden.

The programme almost defies description. On the surface it is your regular children's programme about weird, benign, nocturnal creatures that resemble soft toys, but there is a subliminal element that makes you feel snug as a bug in a rug. If there was a virtual reality version of In the Night Garden, I would be first in the queue to buy it.

The nightmare continues...

Any hopes I had that today would be a relatively civilised affair after last night's Potter launch were dashed within minutes of opening. I had customers shouting at me, another phoned to tell me how stressful they found our Potter party and to top it all, we ran out of the children's edition.

This afternoon I ended up having to drive 40 miles to a warehouse to pick up more stock for tomorrow, as there won't be any more deliveries until Monday.

Who is to blame? I think the answer is quite clear: Bloomsbury. By enforcing a cap on returning unsold copies they have put booksellers in an impossible position where we have to take all of the risks. When you're selling a book at near the cost price, you can't afford to sit on too much unreturnable stock. It will be interesting to see whether the trade press come to similar conclusions.

I have had three hours sleep and I've still got another day to go. I hope we'll have enough books to get us through tomorrow.


I've just returned from our midnight launch of the final Harry Potter novel. I should go to sleep as I'm due to be back in the shop in five hours time, but my brain is buzzing after what was possibly the most stressful two hours of my bookselling career.

Our launch for the last book was great fun. Most of the customers turned up in fancy dress and there was a really good atmosphere which reached its climax when, at midnight, we plunged the shop into darkness and our brightly-lit glass lift descended, packed to the brim with Potter books. As the customers left, many thanked us for a wonderful evening.

This time we decided to repeat our successful formula. We'd added a security guard and another member of staff as we were expecting the evening to be a little busier, but we weren't unnecessarily worried. The customer reservations were all sorted and I'd double-checked all of the silly little things that can bring a shop to a standstill: bags, money, till rolls, bar codes etc. What could go wrong?

Just before 11.00 we opened the doors and people started to pour into the shop. The shop filled up quickly and I was expecting the queue to die down, but like Rorke's Drift, they kept on coming. Soon, the whole shop was a crush of bodies and the air became stiflingly hot. We started our activities but people could barely hear us, even when I used the tannoy. My role was to check that everyone was okay and deal with any problems, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to squeeze through the crowds.

At midnight we repeated the countdown and switched off the lights, but hardly anyone noticed the lift coming down and I was really worried that there would be a mad scramble for the books, with people pushing each other out of the way. Luckily, we'd circumvented that by giving tickets to people with reservations which they could swap for a pre-bagged copy of their book. If we hadn't done that, we would have had several hundred people queuing at our till point.

I suppose the important thing is that nothing did go wrong. We had planned the evening carefully down to the last detail and although nothing could have prepared us for the huge turnout - way beyond anything I've seen before - we got through it. I just wish that it had been more enjoyable. Hardly anyone dressed up and people seemed to be grumpier. I think many of the customers just wanted to get the book and get out, but because there were so many of them they had to queue.

What could we have done differently? It would have been nice to have made the midnight launch a ticketed event, limited to 150. But we couldn't have turned away customers, particularly when there are other shops selling the book.

WH Smiths were pathetic. They tried to poach people from our queue with an offer to buy the book for £2 less than us, but didn't mention that customers would only qualify if they spent £15 on stationery. As for the other shops, I never saw them because I was running around like a madman, trying to keep HMS Waterstone's afloat.

I wonder what today will be like?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Heaven in a wild flower

Sunday was a strange day. I drove up to Teddington to visit my mother and visited the local cemetery, where my grandparents and father are buried. After pulling up some weeds which may have contained atoms of my grandparents, I started walking back and suddenly found myself lying on the ground, feeling like Superman when he's exposed to Kryptonite. After a few minutes I got up and staggered home.

I assumed that I'd had a blood sugar crisis and didn't think anything of it, but my hypochondriac mother is concerned that I've had a minor heart attack. I would have dismissed the idea out of hand, as I'm neither old nor fat, but every time I've picked up the local paper recently it's had a story about a much-loved father of two young children who suddenly collapsed and died of coronary failure. Yikes! The Death Clock may be right after all.

I spent yesterday in bed and on the plus side, read a wonderful novel by Sylvie Germain called Infinite Possibilities. If I'm going to die, this a fine book to finish with. It reminded me a little of George Gissing's semi-autobiographical Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft in that it was all about someone's whose world had been reduced to a microcosm, but they had kept their sanity by imbuing every tiny detail with meaning. Ultimately the novel is a celebration of the human spirit and the infinite possibilities of the imagination. It is no surprise that the author is a philosopher.

As for my imminent mortality, I am seeing a doctor tomorrow just to put my mind at rest. I cannot die before Friday, as we're launching the new Harry Potter at midnight. There has been a lot of negative comment in the trade press about Bloomsbury and J.K.Rowling and some of it is deserved, but it is impossible to be cynical when you're surrounded by 200 people in silly costumes chanting 'We want Harry! We want Harry!' I know that some booksellers are concerned that Friday is going to be completely out of control, but I think that if we just relax and have enjoy the madness it's going to be a great evening.

I won't be reading the new Harry Potter. After the third book they became far too long and life's too short, particularly in my case. Bugger Hogwarts. From now on it's Sylvie Germain for me.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The kids are alright

Yesterday, on my way to the train station, I was nearly knocked over by a group of schoolboys who were whizzing through the town on an assortment of bicycles and scooters. I expected them to slow down when they reached the dangerously vertiginous Keere Street but like George III, they raced each other to the bottom. I envied them and regretted the fact that I was now supposed to be a sensible person.

As the boys reached the bottom of the hill I saw an old lady glaring disapprovingly at them and thought about how many older people hate and fear the young. Is it jealousy because the young have their whole lives ahead of them, or do the old simply forget what it's like to be young?

I found a wonderful quote the other day: 'Children no longer respect their elders and everyone seems to be writing a book.' It was a perfect summary of today's curmudgeonly viewpoint, but looking at the next line I noticed that the quotation came from Cicero in AD43!

I am still young enough to remember how badly some older people treated me. When I started in bookselling I was patronised, shouted at and treated as if I was a lesser species. People in their sixties would chastise me because I hadn't heard of an obscure out of print author who was briefly big in the 50s. One woman called a colleague of mine a 'silly bitch', another shouted at my wife because we didn't have Flecker's Hassan. 'You know nothing you silly girl!' My wife politely replied that she had a degree. 'In what? came the scornful reply, 'Shoelaces?'

Teenagers are a popular target in the media. We condemn their behaviour as if it has appeared out of the blue, but the reason why things are so screwed-up is more down to the self-centred behaviour of the baby-boomer Me generation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sturm und drang

At a certain point today I temporarily lost the will to live and wished that I could be transported back to the nineteenth century, preferably as a gentleman of means rather than a scabby peasant. I've always envied the man in this picture. I can imagine that he will make his way back down the mountain to enjoy and evening of good food and fine wines and there'll be no talk about house prices, double glazing or the difficulty of finding a decent builder.

And if you thought that was good, try these...

All by Caspar David Friedrich. He seems to appear as a footnote in many histories of art, but his paintings have a visionary quality that outshines most of his contemporaries. Surely he deserves to be more widely known than the man who painted this dreadful, but seemingly universally popular picture:

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Field studies

Yesterday I donned my Waterstone's Marines cap and went out in the field to sell books to reluctant readers at a local school. At least that's what I was expecting, but in fact the children were completely different from last week's selection. Nobody shuffled their chairs, everyone was well behaved and after the event, we sold quite a few books. Why were the schools so different? School no.2 wasn't particularly middle-class, but there seemed to be fewer boys with strange haircuts and earrings.

Yesterday' s author was Linda Buckley-Archer, whose tales of 21st century kids accidentally finding themselves in the 18th century not only gripped thousands of young readers but also had my children's bookseller wide-eyed with enthusiasm. Until last week I hadn't done a school event for several years and I'd forgotten how rewarding they were. It's great seeing a hundred children getting genuinely excited about a book. I wish that I could take every old person who complains that children are only interested in television and computer games and show them how wrong they are.

Linda Buckley-Archer was great and handled 120 children as if she'd been doing it for years. Later on I discovered that she had.

After the event we talked about the questions that children ask. No matter which school the author visited, they were remarkably consistent:

  • How much money have you got?
  • What car do you drive?
  • When did you decide to become an author?
  • Have you ever been on telly?
After the event, the author signed copies and we handed out free bookmarks. In today's consumer society it was amazing to see how much excitement a simple bookmark generated. What a refreshing change to the increasing number of people who, to quote Oscar Wild, know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Momento Mori

I recently discovered a website called The Death Clock. It's based on a horrible but tantalising premise: if you enter your date of birth, height, weight and personal vices, the clock will tell you when you're going to die. I dutifully entered my details, expecting some date after 2040 and clicked the calculate button.

According to the Death Clock, I will die in eight years time!

What's going on? I'm not due to retire for another 22 years, gave up smoking when I was 27 and although I eat and drink more than I should, I'm in pretty good shape. However, it's all in vain because I'm doomed. It's not fair. George Melly and John Mortimer are still tarting their way around London's literary demi monde despite their appalling physical state, so why has the Death Clock decided to cull someone who was born four decades later?

How should I spend my last eight years? Should I maintain a quiet dignity, working until the last minute, or should I become self-indulgent and totally debauched, raging against the dying of the light?

My personal preference is the Jack Hawkins approach: a slight twitch of the upper lip and the understated confession that 'It's a bit of a bad show' followed by complete stoicism. No hysteria please - that's for Johnny Foreigner. If I could replace today's male role models - gangsta rappers, David Beckham, Justin Timberlake and Pete Doherty - with Jack Hawkins, we'd all be better off.

Luckily, for me at least, it appears that the Death Clock is fallible. I have discovered a Canadian website run by doctors which has a slightly more sophisticated approach to weighing one's mortality. I have gained another 40 years which still isn't enough, but apparently if I drink less and exercise more, I get bonus points.

But perhaps the Death Clock's criteria are more sophisticated than personal health. Supposing it has also entered Anglo-American foreign policy, global warming and religious fundamentalism into the equation? I missed last week's Piccadilly bomb by a few hours.

I don't really believe that I only have eight years to live and I think that the Death Clock is just a piece of random internet fun. However it has made me think twice about certain aspects of my lifestyle. View it at your peril.