Wednesday, October 31, 2007


A few weeks ago I was given a copy of a history book about the Napoleonic wars called The War of Wars by Robert Harvey. Both the title and cover exuded an atmosphere of pipe smoke and testosterone and I could imagine retired colonels reading it with glee, revelling in the descriptions of canon fire and hand-to-hand fighting. War! 926 pages of it, to be precise.

I put the book to one side, never really intending to read it, but something happened and one day I found myself reading the first chapter followed by the second, then the third until I realised I was hooked. I loved the author's sense of theatre. Napoleon is portrayed as a megalomaniac monster who makes Stalin seem quite moderate, whilst some of Britain's greatest military heroes come across as the vain, conceited, libidinous, flawed geniuses that they probably were. So many history books are dull - I should know, I was once a history undergraduate - so it was a great relief to come across a book by an author who knows how to entertain.

I particularly enjoyed his claim that in his final years, Napoleon suffered from a rare disease that made him gradually change sex. According to Harvey, this rumour is confirmed by the former emperor's 'hysterical behaviour'! Right on, Bob.

But beyond the theatrical narrative are some shocking statistics about the casualty rates of the many battles that took place, justifying Harvey's claim that the Napoleonic wars were a precursor for the First World War. I had no idea how many lives were lost and how the war effectively ended France's status as the major power in Europe(so it wasn't all bad). Particularly shocking was the description of the remnants of the French army struggling home after their failed invasion of Russia. In temperatures below -30, some soldiers cut their own fingers off to drink blood whilst others lay down in the snow to die, refusing any attempts to get them on their feet.

I was also appalled by the behaviour of both the English and French soldiers, who on certain occasions thought nothing of robbing a community of its entire possessions and raping anything that moved. With many eyewitness accounts of atrocities, it is grimly fascinating to read how war can brutalise ordinary men so quickly. The War of Wars may read like a gung-ho boys' book, but it doesn't gloss over any uncomfortable truths. The pointless waste of human life and energy denudes this era of its glamour and the overall impression is one of slaughter and destruction.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Oh ye of little faith...

A couple of weeks ago my wife decided to take part in the Guardian newspaper's Family section's competition to submit a photograph taken at 16:00 hours on Sunday October 14th. I knew she didn't stand a chance. She's okay at taking photos, but the camera is pretty basic and she'd be up against the SLR geeks taking perfectly composed pictures with their expensive zoom lenses. Next week the Family section was published and her picture was nowhere to be seen. If I'd had a pipe I would have smugly smoked it. My parting shot was 'Come on, did you really think they'd publish a photo like that?'

The following week the photo appeared as the centrepiece of the article. I was wrong. To her credit, my wife has been fairly magnanimous about my error of judgement. Here's the photo:

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Why Proust hasn't changed my life

One of the first lessons I learned when running the Fiction section was that the sales of the first volume of Proust's magnum opus A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu exceeded the rest of the series put together. Indeed, I'm not sure if I can remember selling any of the other volumes. Knowing that the first book had evidently bored the arse off so many people put a bit of a dampener on things and even Alain de Botton's glowing endorsement wasn't enough to change my mind. But the other day I was chatting to a colleague in the unpacking room and he told me that although there were moments that were interminably dull (he compared the last book to a Ronnie Corbett monolgue), he was glad that he'd made the effort. I was almost convinced.

As a rule of thumb, the first volumes of novel sequences always sell at least twice as many copies as the remaining titles. The one exception to this is in the fantasy genre where, for better or worse, readers will happily buy every volume in the saga, particularly if the author's first name is Terry. It's very odd.

I suppose we should be grateful that the first volume of Proust sells. There are plenty of classic novels that never leave the shop and would slowly go yellow with age if we didn't replace them with newer copies. For example, nobody buys The Scarlet Letter. It may be a classic novel but I haven't sold a copy for as long as I can remember. I always insist on stocking it because I strongly believe that our credibility as a bookseller would be undermined if we didn't, but it belongs in the subgenre of novels that nobody reads. Titles in this category would include:

Cry the Beloved Country
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist
Barnaby Rudge
Franny and Zooey
The Magic Mountain
Mr Isherwood Changes Trains
The Red and Black
The Magus
The Bone People
The Rachel Papers
Burmese Days
The Leopard
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold
Sons and Lovers
Room at the Top
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
Lucky Jim
Howards End...

The list goes on. Sometimes I try to rescue these books and promote them locally in the shop. Once I was even lucky enough to be able to spearhead a national campaign for 'Forgotten Classics' and although the results didn't quite hit the bestseller charts, I like to think that I was instrumental in introducing some people to Revolutionary Road, Life with a Star and Journey by Moonlight. However I'm under no illusions. As someone pointed out in an article a few weeks ago, the sales of a Booker-shortlisted novel are always easily exceeded by specialist publications like Anglers' Weekly. Literary fiction is, it would seem, the real minority interest.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Space Age

There are times when I wish that I lived in 1907 instead of 2007. Naturally I would be a gentleman with a private income rather than some poor sod working down a coalmine and dying of emphysema in my mid-50s. That goes without saying. But what a life it would be, existing in a world without McDonalds, Big Brother, motorways, human resources, globalisation, mobile phones, Coldplay and CCTV. I wouldn't know that a devastating global conflict was only seven years away, so I could enjoy myself in blissful ignorance.

However if I'd been born 100 years earlier I wouldn't have seen this wonderful photo, released by NASA recently:

This amazing picture of Jupiter and its moon Io was taken earlier in the year by the New Horizons probe - a craft that was launched in January 2006 and is due to rendezvous with Pluto in 2015. What is so remarkable about the image, apart from its clarity and beauty, is the fact that a volcanic eruption is clearly visible on Io.

If you ever start to feel depressed about Iraq, global warming, gun crime and dumbing down, visit NASA's superb website to see what Mankind is capable of. There are some incredible images on the site, but one of my favourites is an audio file of the sounds recorded by the Cassini-Huygens probe as it descended to the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. To hear this astounding recording, click here.

Whilst we're on the subject of space, another really exciting development is the detection of planets outside our solar system. What was once a matter of conjecture is now a reality and in less than a couple of decades we have discovered nearly 250 planets. None of them appear to be capable of supporting life as we know it, but it is only a matter of time before the first Earth-type planet is discovered.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Blogito Ergo Sum?

I started blogging during a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning. I was bedridden for a week, my wife and children were staying at my mother-in-law's and the boredom and isolation (along with broadband access next to my bed) resulted in my first blog entry.

I expected my random musings to disappear into the ether. Blogging would be a solitary, cathartic activity - the 21st century equivalent of a journal - but to my surprise people started to post comments. My vanity was flattered by the knowledge that others had read my words and considered them worth responding to, but more importantly I enjoyed finding myself in a community of witty, intelligent, incisive people whose comments augmented my half-baked ideas with real wisdom. I was hooked.

What should I write about? I was a bookseller and knew that this was the part of my life that would be of more interest to others than anything else, but Ottakar's had just been taken over by Waterstone's and I was accutely aware that my new employer had sacked someone over the coments of their blog. I was left with my personal life - dull, unless you can reinvent it with the wit of Stephen Fry - and a fairly random selection of subjects that arouse strong feelings in me. I opted for the latter.

11,550 hits later I have to confess that I have run out of things to say. I can't tell you the really juicy things about bookselling because I have a mortgage to pay. Also as far as Waterstones goes, it falls a long way short of the 'Evil Empire' status that some have attributed to it. It is a big company run by retailers and there are frustrations associated with that, but boringly for blog readers there are lots of good people in the company and overall they're trying to do the right thing.

Perhaps I should write a whimsical account of being a father in the 21st century, as that's all I do in my spare time. However when I read self-consciously witty articles by sensitive 'new men' about parenthood (written in a nauseatingly intimate style that is obviously designed to court female readers) I feel nothing but contempt.

That leaves my interests: books, music, philosophy, environmental issues etc. I've written about a few subjcets but many of the subjects I'm most passionate about would bore the arse off most people. Do you want to read my thoughts abouts Sibelius? No. Do you care what I think about Gordon Brown? Of course not. So what is there left to blog about?

I think it is time to leave the blogosphere; not in a permanent 'never again' dramatic exit, but simply as an acknowledgement that it is pointless to blog for the sake of it.

I have been accutely aware of the need to add content at least once a week and have recently found this increasingly difficult. I can't quite bring myself to abandon the pretentiously titled Age of Uncertainty but unless I suddenly have a lot to say, I shall keep my counsel.

As David Soul sang, 'Don't Give Up on Me Baby'. I will still blog, but I will try to deliver quality rather than quantity. Less is more.