Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The dog it was that died

During a brief visit to the Bluebell Railway this morning, I saw one thing that made a much bigger impression on me than the wonderfully restored steam engines: a stuffed dog.

I'm not an expert on taxidermy, but it was hard to imagine a dog being more competently stuffed. The coat still looked fairly healthy and I was particularly struck by 'London Jack's' serene, almost philosophical expression.

Later, with my appetite whetted, I searched on the internet to see if there were any museums of taxidermy and the first item I came across mentioned a museum in Brighton, only seven miles away! Kismet.

Monday, April 28, 2008

When galaxies collide

It's hard to believe, but the Hubble Space Telescope is now 18 years-old. After a rather inauspicious debut of blurred images, resulting from British and American scientists working in metric and imperial measurements respectively without telling each other, the HST has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pictures of our time. Only this month it has produced this image of galaxies colliding:

In five years' time a new space telescope will be launched, promising images of a far greater resolution. In the meantime, the Hubble continues to surprise us and it is scandalous that NASA contemplated cancelling any further maintenance missions. Fortunately they relented, but if the accountants had had their way, there would have been a hiatus of at least five years between the HST and its successor.

How can anyone contemplate giving up on the Hubble when it produces images like this:

And this astounding photo of deep space, in which every bit of light is a galaxy:

This is one of the most amazing images of our time, but if I mention it to most people they have no idea what I'm talking about. Is it me, or is this odd?

Thursday, April 24, 2008


I'm really keen on the idea of getting an allotment. Food prices are rising at an alarming rate (even boring old rice has gone up 63% since last year) and with the price of oil well past $100 per barrel, it's likely that things will only get worse.

There's a long waiting list for most of the allotments in Lewes, although as most of them are occupied by elderly men the turnover must be quite high. All I need is a very cold winter. Also, I would imagine that if the supposedly forthcoming economic recession really takes off, councils will be under more pressure to provide plots of land.

I once ran an allotment with three men I used to meet in my local pub in Twickenham. It was a disaster. One of the men was a very left-wing politics lecturer and wanted to instigate five-year plans and quotas. The second man was from a moneyed background and his only experience of gardening was watching labourers toiling away on his parents' land. The third man was obsessed with potatoes.

If we'd spent more time digging and less time planning and arguing, our allotment might have been a success. Sadly, in the case of allotments, democracy doesn't always work. I shan't make the same mistake again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Magical Mystery Tour

During the last couple of years my oldest son has become increasingly resistant to new experiences. The four-year-old boy who loved tasting the local food in Andalucia has turned into an eight-year-old who doesn't want to go abroad, thinks London's too busy and would rather visit the same place every week, as long as it doesn't involve spending more than 20 minutes in the car. His ideal day would probably involve crisps, Play Station, chocolate and a trip to a leisure centre.

On the plus side our carbon footprint is much smaller. However, I don't want my son's world shrinking to within a 10-mile radius of Lewes, so last Saturday I decided to take him and his brother on a mystery tour. I figured that if they didn't know where they were going or how far it was, then they'd have nothing to object to.

When we arrived, after over an hour in the car, I was prepared for the worst. It was raining and I expected my son to complain that we'd driven all this way just to visit a boring old castle, but the first words he uttered were wow and amazing!

I agreed. It was impressive:

Built in 1365, Bodiam Castle is tucked in a remote corner of the Sussex/Kent border and on a cold, drizzly Saturday morning, it was fortunately free of coachloads of visitors. Nothing kills the atmosphere of a historical site more than hordes of camera-wielding tourists, which is why I like visiting places out of season.

We climbed winding stone steps up to the top of the castle and pretended to pour boiling oil on the people below. Then we spotted an invading French army, fired a few arrows and prepared for battle. The boys loved it, more than I ever dared to hope.

Now that the castle visit had gone so well, I decided to really push the boat out and visit Bateman's, the home of Rudyard Kipling. We'd be passing it on the way home so it seemed a shame not to pop in. My son wasn't so keen on this idea and was unimpressed when I played the Jungle Book card. In the end, I resorted to bribery.

Whether you're a Kipling fan or not, Bateman's is worth a visit. It's a beautiful 17th century house surrounded by attractive, landscped gardens. However for me the visit was marred by the National Trust volunteers. Every time I entered a room they sprung up like meerkats and watched my every move. If my eyes rested on an object for more than three seconds, a voice behind me would start explaining its history. I soon began to find this oppressive. It seems churlish to complain, as each of the ladies was very nice and welcoming, but I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere of each room before learning the facts.

I suppose we all want different things from historical places. For me, facts are less important than the opportunity to imagine what it must have been like to live there in the past. There are exceptions: the guided tours in Charleston Farmhouse are fascinating. But on the whole, I rather read about a place before going there, then spend my time soaking up the atmosphere.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


One of the most critically acclaimed biographies of 2007 was Unimagined by Imran Ahmad. It began life as a self-published memoir with a pretty awful jacket and might easily have suffered the fate of most self-published books, but when Scott Pack was chief buyer at Waterstone's he spotted its potential and asked Ahmad permission to forward Unimagined to an agent.

A year later a hardback was published by Aurum and thanks to a combination of canny marketing by the author, glowing reviews in the press and word of mouth recommendations, the book was a great success. I really enjoyed Unimagined. In addition to giving an insight into the cultural clash between the demands of a Pakistani family and British society, Ahmad has written a warm, funny and touching memoir of growing up in the 1960s to 1980s.

However I had another reason for reading Unimagined: I knew the author's brother.

We met in our late teens at the local tertiary college, where we were both studying 'A' levels. I knew that his family were from Pakistan, but I can't remember being particularly conscious of what religion Imran's brother was. After an evening in the pub, he would stagger home, frantically sucking Polo mints to cancel out the smell of alcohol on his breath. My parents weren't keen on me drinking and I assumed that my friend's parents held similar views. I was woefully ignorant about Imran's family and their beliefs.

In Unimagined, Imran Ahmad portrays his parents as being remarkably tolerant, whilst remaining faithful to their values. This tallies strongly with the impression I got. In hindsight they must have known what my friend got up to, but they wisely decided to turn a blind eye. Imran's brother was able to borrow his mother's car to drive to parties (and we had a few hairy journeys home) and when he said that he wanted to do a drama degree, he didn't encounter any serious opposition (as far as I know). He was allowed to enjoy the same freedoms as his peers.

However once the degree was over, the traditional cultural expectations began to reassert themselves. A drama degree was fine, but now it was time to get a proper job in a bank. Then, in his mid-20s, the family began to discuss an arranged marriage. It was probably then that I first became aware of the cultural void that Imran and his brothers had to negotiate every day.

Reading Unimagined has made me feel sad that my friend was so taciturn about his Muslim cultural heritage. When he was an undergraduate he even started to shorten his name to a more English-sounding one and seemed pleased that some people thought he was Italian. Was he hiding his true identity or trying to find a new one that successfully united the two disperate elements of past and present? Either way, he seems to have reconciled the different parts of his life as well as anyone could.

Most of us have to negotiate cultural divides, whether they are between classes, generations, political viewpoints or working relationships, but it is hard to imagine what it is like to be a second generation British Asian, trying to succeed in the country that is your home without betraying your family's cultural values. That fact that Imran and his brothers have been so successful is a tribute to their strength of character and the wisdom of their parents.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Corrections

When it was published over six years ago, The Corrections received the rare accolade of universal critical acclaim. I bought the book immediately, but the more reviews I read the more reluctant I became to start reading it. Now that so many people had told me what a great novel it was, possibly the Great American Novel, I felt obliged to enjoy it. If my reactions were anything less than effusive it would be my failure, not the novel's.

Soon friends started to recommend The Corrections and I discreetly moved it to the top of my bookcase so that people wouldn't be prompted to talk about it. Years passed, dust accumulated and the book became a member of my collection of books that I will probably never read. (These include Paul Theroux's My Secret History, Wuthering Heights, Sakarov's Peace, Progress and Intellectual Freedom and The Catcher in the Rye)

Than last week, for no particular reason, I started reading it and from the first few pages I knew that I was reading a masterpiece. Most writing, indeed most art, only aspires to allude to universal truths, but Franzen actually dares to try and spell some of them out. The result is a novel that is both uncomfortable and comforting - the hallmarks of a great work of art. The Corrections makes the reader face some unpallatble truths, but offers solace in the knowledge that these experiences are part of the universal human condition.

Monday, April 14, 2008

East Anglia

I don't like East Anglia. It's very flat and there always seems to be a cold wind that penetrates even the most impermeable layers of clothing. Unfortunately my mother-in-law lives there and I usually have to go at least twice a year. She lives opposite a nuclear power station, which has recently been decommisioned but looks likely to gain a new lease of life as a processing centre for radioactive waste. I'm surprised there hasn't been any protest. Everyone in my wife's family has had cancer and a large number of their friends and neighbours have died from it. Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but it seems a lot higher than the national average of one in three people.

Last week we went to stay there for a few days and I decided to challenge my preconceptions by exploring the region. I picked a route at random and set off with low expectations. Initially my prejudices were confirmed and I felt depressed by the monotonous, treeless landscape, but about 45 minutes into the journey I turned a corner and saw this:

It looked a rather large church for a small, insignificant English village, so I decided to park the car and explore. I discovered that I was in Lavenham, which was once the 40th richest place in England, thanks to the wool trade. During the late Middle Ages, Lavenham experienced an economic boom that enabled its burghers to build a church that looked more like a scaled-down cathedral.

I entered the church and the interior was even more impressive. Everywhere I looked, there were memorials to Lavenham's most prominent citizens.

Sadly, the poorer members of the community rest in anonymity, obscured by centuries of rain, wind and lichen:

The village looks normal enough at a glance, but where most places might have a few medieval buildings, almost every house in Lavenham seems to be at least 500 years old.

Houses like these seem to defy the rules of symetry and gravity, with upper floors leaning out at strange angles and yet I suspect that these buildings will last longer than many of their contemporary counterparts.

So what's so special about Lavenham? The answer, apparently, is quite simple. The town's wool trade went into a sharp decline during the 16th century and the local people could no longer afford to replace or alter their existing buildings. The village effectively became frozen in time. Today Lavenham is on the tourist trail, but it is still a real community with over a hundred businesses. I was completely bowled over by the place and if you're ever in the area, I'd recommend a visit.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Unaccustomed as I am...

This evening I was the guest speaker at a meeting of the Society of Sussex Authors. It was slightly intimidating talking to a crowd of writers, but they were very welcoming and dutifully laughed at my anecdotes.

I spoke about bookselling, focusing mainly on Waterstone's and gave a very candid account of how bookselling has changed during the last 20 years and concluded by talking about the Amazon Kindle, which I think has the potential to revolutionise the book industry during the next few years.

I never took the E-book that seriously when it first appeared and I'm still not convinced by the Kindle, which has a depressingly grey screen. But it's only a matter of time before the technology is good enough to woo some readers away from the printed page.

If you're a commuter and read thrillers, do you really need a proper book or would it be easier to download the text onto your E-book? And what about students? I doubt whether the romance of the printed page will save the textbook from becoming electronic.

Real books won't disappear, but there may be a growing schism between the book as a work of art and the text as a disposable commodity. I think there will be room for both, but it will be interesting to see how far the E-book encroaches on the territory of traditional booksellers.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Brief encounter

Some years ago I was in the National Gallery and saw a group of people huddled around a television screen showing a clip of Laurence Olivier doing the 'band of brothers' speech from Henry V. It was stirring stuff, but I kept being distracted by a man in the crowd who stood head and shoulders above everyone else. Apart from his height there was nothing unusual about his appearence, but he radiated a presence. In the end I became so distracted by the stranger in a beige raincoat that I edged forward to see what he looked like.

It was Charlton Heston.

The clip ended and Heston turned round. An American tourist in a wheelchair said 'Great to see you sir.' Heston smiled benevolently and thanked him.

Heston has been a favourite actor of mine for years. His performance in the original Planet of the Apes film had a brooding intensity and who can forget the wonderful denouement, when Heston rages against the stupidity of mankind?

But sadly there is also Charlton Heston, the gun-toting chairman of the National Rifle Association who spent his later years appearing in Dynasty. It is hard to reconcile the Heston of the 1960s, who supported Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement with the reactionary Republican of recent years. What happened? Was it the Alzheimers?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Gems from my record collection...

Picture the scene: the offices of City Musik Produktion, a Berlin record company. It is 1968 and everyone is smoking. In walks producer Hans Bradtke.

'Well Hans, what have you got for us this time?'

'I've got a brilliant idead Helmut! How about taking some Burt Bacharach hits like Walk on By and performing them in the style of Johan Sebastian Bach?'

At this point there should have been an embarrassed silence, or at worst, derisive laughter, but this is West Germany in 1968 and Bacharach Baroque seems like a brilliant idea.

The following year, someone at Sunset Records in London hears a demo of Bacharach Baroque and loves it so much that they decided to release it in Britain. Photographer Bryce Attwell is commissioned to take an appropriate picture for the front cover, but how do you neatly encapsulate the concept of Burt Bacharach being played by an 18 century-style orchestra in one image?

Someone has a brilliant idea.

'I know. Let's have a picture of a fat bloke lying on the grass being fed grapes by a topless woman. Oh, and stick a lute next to him. That should do it.'

I found the result some years ago in a charity shop and had to buy it...