Sunday, September 30, 2007

All tied up...

Click on the picture to see a witty, 40-second film that manages to makes its point about climate change without becoming preachy or precious.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Certainty of Chance

I lead a mundane existence which is routinely assailed by mildly bizarre events. On Sunday I was buzzed by a Messerschmidt. Yesterday a rat suddenly ran into my shop, having been chased out of Curry's by an over-zealous pest control officer. He promptly disappeared behind our till and we didn't hear a peep out of him for the rest of the day. We assumed that he must have buggered off.

Today I arrived at work and turned on the PC. It was dead. I picked up the phone to call IT but that was dead too. I started to check the cables when I spotted a small brown pellet and teeth marks. Deprived of his evening meal, Ratty had feasted on our cables.

Once I'd found a working phone and spent an hour exploring the grey area between IT support and pest control, I mused on how a single rat could create so much havoc. It reminded me of Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, when a fly managed to create a whole chain of events.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


This afternoon I was driving home from work, listening to a programme about Britain in the 1940s when I was suddenly buzzed by a Messerschmidt. I nearly crashed the car, but managed to miss the man in front of me who was also slightly distracted by the sudden appearance of a Nazi fighter plane.

It was the Shoreham Air Show, but I didn't realise that it was taking place today.

If I had crashed the car, would I have been the Luftwaffe's last victim?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Beautiful London?

Goncalo Viega, one of my favourite bloggers, has just arrived in England for a short holiday. As you will see from his blog, he has described London as one of the most beautiful cities in the modern world. Hmm...

I normally agree with everything Goncalo writes, but although I can think of many adjectives to describe London, beautiful wouldn't be one of them. London is hectic, busy, exciting, vibrant, eclectic, noisy, rude, surprising, frustrating, exhilarating, arrogant, complacent, tolerant, intelligent and exhausting, but not beautiful in the way that you might describe Venice, Stockholm, Prague or Florence.

Apparently he will also be visiting my home town of Lewes, which I think is beautiful. I'll be interested to hear what he thinks.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Great Bloomsbury bottoms...

Today I took my mother-in-law to Charleston Farmhouse, home to several members of the Bloomsbury group. It's an amazing place and is a fitting monument to the creative talents of an extraordinary group of people who, went they weren't engaging in sexual menages a trois, transformed everything they touched into something wonderful.

Unfortunately photography wasn't allowed, which is why I've included the link to the official website. However, I did engage in some minor cultural espionage whilst an attendant was busy explaining something to a couple of elderly tourists and managed to take this:

Yes, I know it's just a loo, but this one has had some very famous bottoms on it: Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster and John Maynard Keynes to name but a few. The bottom theme continues in the garden...

The gardens are almost as spectacular as the house. Even the butterflies are more colourful than normal...

And everywhere you look, there are statues, busts and beautiful ceramics.

The most remarkable thing about Charleston is that even though it's only a five-bedroom Sussex farmhouse, every square inch has been altered by its occupants, right down to the fabric design of the chairs and the bedroom rugs. Each room is a visual feast.

I would strongly urge everyone to visit Charleston, but if you can't make it, the next best thing is a wonderful book by Duncan Bell and Virginia Nicholson.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The best things in life...

Although gambling and bad investments are one of the most conspicuous ways of losing money, if you want to be seriously out of pocket you can't beat having children. Goodbye eating out and foreign holidays. Parents often complain about the cost of school clothing and equipment, but in my experience the biggest drain on finances is the day out.

It always seems like a good idea to take the family to a local castle, zoo, aquarium or science park until you get to the admission gate. Then the horrible truth sets in - we cannot afford to go in. We always do buy the tickets, but the knowledge that I have just blown over half a day's wages does tend to nag in the back of my mind, particularly when my oldest son seems bored after 30 minutes.

This year I decided to spend more time visiting places that didn't cost a penny. We are very lucky to be living in the middle of the South Downs with a beach less than 8 miles away, so it should be easy enough to keep my children happy without spending a fortune. But would today's media-savvy, product-consuming children accept the simple pleasures of nature?

The answer was a resounding yes.

Last week I took my oldest soon and his best friend to a local beach and they were perfectly happy exploring the rock pools at low tide and climbing the ledges at the bottom of the cliffs. If you look carefully, you just about see them.

The cliffs are amazing, particularly when you think that they are comprised of the remains of billions of aquatic creatures spanning several geological eras. I find it all slightly mind-blowing. But to return to the point, apart from spending three pounds on ice creams the day was completely free and the boys loved it.

I'm not surprised. My happiest childhood memories all revolved around simple pleasures: damming-up a stream, fishing in a river, building a den and exploring rock pools. Children need an environment that allows them to use their imagination and discover things for themselves without being spoon-fed information or told that they are violating rules.

People often moan that today's children are spoiled and have too much. They also complain that we have become too child-centered and children no longer respect adults in the way that previous generations did. But that is only part of the picture. I can't help feeling that in today's child-friendly society, many kids are worse off than they would have been 50 years ago.

Today most of us don't hit our children and they have more toys than we ever did, but are they any happier for it? I'm concerned that the things that really make children happy: exploring the outside world, playing in the street with other kids, climbing trees etc are being denied to the current generation in the name of safety. In some cases this is because of a legitimate fear of traffic and a paranoia about strangers. In others - inner-city London or Manchester for example - this is because the urban environment doesn't provide spaces for children to be children (is it any wonder that gang culture is rife in these areas?).

If I was a dictator, I would ensure that no child had to grow-up in a high-rise flat and also make sure that everyone was within a five-minute walk of a park. I would limit schools to a maximum of 500 pupils, bring back cottage hospitals and introduce no-car zones where kids could play in the street. In other words, improve people's environments and restore a sense of community to the poorer parts of our cities.

And if that didn't work, then I'd send them all to the Isle of Man.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Last week, Scott Pack posted this on his blog:

Look at this, it is a thing of beauty.

It is a book, obviously, but a very special book.

It is a lost classic. It is a masterpiece of modern literature. It is a telling parable of racial and sexual tolerance. It is a book that should be on every self-respecting shelf in the land.

It is also the first book I have ever published.

Yep, after nearly a year in the job a Friday Project book has come off the press that was signed and acquired by little old me. And I doubt that any book I ever publish will make me prouder (or is that more proud?, I neither know nor care).

You see, Gents was first published ten years ago by Marion Boyars. It received widespread critical acclaim, and sold OK, but has since slipped beneath the radar and you will be hard pressed to find a copy in your local bookshop or library. That isn't just a shame, it is a travesty. Gents is a remarkable piece of work and everyone I have foisted it upon has said the same thing: 'why haven't I heard of this before?'

Gents is quite possibly the best book you have never read. Unless, of course, you have, in which case I salute your good taste.

With a recommendation like this how could I resist, particularly when Scott was generously offering free copies. I emailed my request and when I returned home from work the next day, a copy was already on the doormat.

That evening I started reading Gents and within a few pages I was completely hooked. Set in a public lavatory, Gents depicts the attempts of its three attendants to control the rampant cottaging that takes place in the cubicles. That sounds like a recipe for an essay in grim, social realism, but it is a tribute to Collins' genius that he manages to create a novel that is both moving and funny.

As if that isn't a big enough achievement in itself, Collins' three main characters are Jamaican and a lot of the dialogue is in patois which, this grainy photo would suggest, isn't Collins' native tongue. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but apparently Collins did it so well that many Afro-Caribbean readers assumed that he was a black writer.

It takes enough talent to set a novel in the claustrophobic setting of a public lavatory, but to give yourself the challenge of having three main characters from a different ethnic background and attempt to write their dialogue without stereotyping or patronising is nigh-on impossible. However Collins has somehow succeeded and Gents is one of those rare novels that makes you realise what fiction can do when it's pushed to the limit.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Out of print

Several times a day I have to disappoint customers by telling them that a book they want is out of print. The seasoned book buyer knows what this means and leaves with a philosophical shrug of the shoulders, but many people seem to have problems understanding the full meaning of the term out of print.

Some seem to think that it only applies to my shop and say 'Oh, I'll try Smith's then.'

Others believe that although the book is unavailable, I am able to make an exception for them because they are special.

Then there is a third category of people, most of whom are quite old, who believe that literary merit will secure a book a permanent place on the bookshelves. When I have told them that a book by their favourite author is no longer in print (today it was a book by Dirk Bogarde) I am met by incredulity and, sometimes, anger, as if I am personally insulting their literary tastes.

Sometimes I get 'But it can't be out of print. It's quite new.' And to be fair, the customers have a point. It's not unreasonable to assume that a book published in 1998 or even 2003 will still be available, but sadly many books never survive beyond their initial print run in paperback. On the few occasions I've told customers about market forces and printing costs, I have felt like a grown-up telling a child that there's no Father Christmas.

That's my bookseller's perspective. As a reader I'm completely on the side of the customers, as I never cease to be appalled by how many wonderful books are allowed to fade into obscurity. I don't blame the publishers. They're not philanthropic societies and if they allowed too many lame ducks a second print run they'd be wasting capital that could have been spent on new titles. However it can be depressing to see market forces in action.

Today I read a review of a new biography of Bernard Malamud and remembered a wonderful novel by him called A New Life. It is the sort of book that would appeal to anyone who likes Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road and I decided to order some for our Staff Favourites bay. I looked up the ISBN only to discover that it's out of print.

If an author of Malamud's stature is allowed to drop out of circulation then it doesn't bode well for lesser authors. However the beauty of blogging is that the publishing world is becoming more democratic, as readers are now empowered to canvass in support of their favourite books. A recommendation from Dovegreyreader, John Self or Scott Pack is all it takes to get that essential word-of-mouth ball rolling and save a book from languishing in undeserved obscurity.