Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Overheard on a train...
'Ooh no, you don't want to be twirled around, do you?'
'I like Line Dancing, Foxtrot and Latin America.' She replied, in a faux genteel, but slightly 'common', London accent.
'Ooh yes. Line Dancing's not too demanding. Mind you, there's that one where they hold their hands in the air. That one's outrageously energetic!'
'I don't think Ron's taught us that one yet'
'I bet you're in demand a lot'
'I always arrive early and have a soft drink first'
'Ooh good idea. Stoke yourself up'
Their conversation was pure Alan Bennett and I frantically scribbled down as much as I could, but handwriting isn't my forte and I soon lagged behind. I wish I knew shorthand. Eavesdropping in public places is usually disappointing, particularly when it comes to listening to other people's mobile phone conversations. However, occasionally I come across a gem and love to speculate about the background to the people I'm listening to.
The mark of a really good writer is someone who can create dialogue like this without making it sound like a crude, patronising parody. The last book I read that was absolutely spot-on about the strange combination of banality, passive aggressiveness, humour and occasional profundity that makes up a large part of human conversation was Patrick Hamilton's Slaves of Solitude. He must have eavesdropped on a few people to write such convincing dialogue. I wonder how he would have coped with today's mobile conversations...
Yeah that's right babe...we're gonna relocate the whole operation...they're talking in the region of 300k...well, that's just a ballpark figure...
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Someone walked over from the other side of the bar and put some money in the jukebox, which promptly started playing the Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Woman. At this point, the solitary drinker (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Bamber Gascoigne) suddenly stood up and started dancing in a rather unusual, slightly robotic manner, without a trace of a smile on his face.
This wasn't a drunken man having a laugh in front of a few mates. He was quite sober and didn't seem to be performing to anyone, so what was going on? Judging by the complete lack of interest shown by the other drinkers, this was a regular occurrence.
The music stopped and the man promptly sat down. A few minutes later the jukebox began playing Give Me Shelter, at which point 'Bamber' calmly stood up and began dancing again.
Later, I discovered that I had met the Lewes Dancing Man.
Sadly I know nothing about this gentleman, except that he will dance to any music, any time, anywhere. In addition to dancing at pubs and gigs, he often gives little impromptu performances next to buskers.
There are now several videos on YouTube featuring the Lewes Dancing Man including this one:
The second video features a marvellous piece of street performance. Clearly the Lewes Dancing Man is a versatile individual and is as much at home with challenging, improvised contemporary jazz as he is with the Stones and Iggy Pop:
I want to know more about this man.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Naming and shaming
As Hardy said, life is basically tragic with comic overtones.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
United we stand...
Yesterday's BBC News website had an interesting piece on a buying group for independent bookshops. Here's the link, but if you don't want to read the whole article, the gist of it is that a company called Leading Edge is giving independent bookshops a chance to buy their stock on terms that are comparable to those enjoyed by the chains.
The terms that publishers give to retailers are shrouded in mystery, but like any relationship between a supplier and client, the more you buy the higher the discount. Independent booksellers usually get anything between 35 - 40% discount on the retail price, depending on the supplier. Waterstone's and Borders get around 48% on normal stock items, with an extra 10% thrown in if a title is part of a promotion.
Publishers are particularly cagey about the terms they give to Amazon, British Bookshops and Tesco, but it wouldn't be unrealistic to suggest a figure in the region around 65 - 70% discount on the cover price. In the case of a £19.99 hardback, this means that Amazon can sell the book for half price and still make a few quid, whereas the independent bookshop would make a loss of several pounds if they tried to compete.
I don't know how aware the general public are aware of the supply chain. In my experience, a lot of customers felt that we were ripping them off if we sold books at full price. A manager I used to know was told by a haughty customer that a book cost £3 less on Amazon. She replied 'Fine, buy it from Amazon, but don't complain in five years time when there are no bookshops left.' Chastened, he bought the book from her.
I found life as a bookseller tough enough working for a chain. I certainly wouldn't fancy being an independent these days unless, like many of the most successful 'indies', I was in a town full of posh people who weren't bothered about saving money.
Fortunately, independent booksellers are now able to fight back as members of a buying group which orders new titles from publishers in bulk, securing preferential trade terms. This gives an independent bookshop greater flexibility over pricing and makes the playing field a little more level (cliche no.572).
Since I left Waterstone's I have discovered how many people hate the chains (I think they were too kind to tell me before) but resist paying full price in an independent bookseller, no matter how much they like them. Let's hope that the renaissance of the independents will get a new boost from initiatives like the Leading Edge's.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
I have seen Treebeard!
I saw it on the way to Chactonbury Ring - an Iron Age hill fort that is one of the most peaceful places I've ever been too. I discovered it nine years ago, when I walked the 100-mile South Downs Way. It was late morning and I was feeling gradually enervated by the heat of the hot July sun, when I turned a corner and saw a hill with a clump of beech trees on the top. I remember lying down in the shade of the branches, listening to skylarks. It was one of those rare moments when life felt perfect, but in spite of (or because of) this, I have never been back until today.
Today I sat by a footpath that has been in use for thousands of years. I imagined medieval farmers, Roman legionnaires and Celtic tribesmen walking past me. I used to view myself as an interloper in the narrative - the descendant of Saxon invaders. But now that DNA technology has shown that most people in Britain can trace their lineage back at least 20,000 years, I feel an even greater affiliation with the landscape.
When I feel frustrated by Gordon Brown, overpopulation and the crassness of modern Britain, my instinct is to emigrate to somewhere like New Zealand. However I would miss that feeling of somehow belonging to a landscape, sentimental as that might sound. I'm torn between the urge to get out now while the going's good or moving to a more rural area in England. John Christopher would probably advise the former, as rural cottage owners didn't fare particularly well in The Death of Grass.
Today, while I was sitting on the grass next to a field of poppies, I suddenly realised how few bees there were this year. Later I saw an advert in the Guardian for a book about the recent disappearance of bees. According to the blurb, this phenomenon didn't just mean shortages of honey and candles, but was actually a sign of imminent Armageddon. I started to panic and was quite relieved to spot this outside the local corner shop:
Monday, July 21, 2008
Separated at birth?
Until a couple of weeks ago, I only knew two things about Nina Bawden:
- She is a highly regarded children's author who has also written a few novels for adults
- Her husband was killed in the 2002 Potter Bar rail crash
I was expecting a fairly lightweight, middlebrow tale of middle class, middle aged angst in Middle England and was caught off guard by Bawden's understated prose, with its mixture of compassion, quiet despair and world weary cynicism. As Virginia Woolf said of Middlemarch, this is definitely a novel novel for grown-ups and whilst it may not be a masterpiece, it is an intelligent, perceptive and moving read.
Afternoon of a Good Woman is still in print, but I wonder how many bookshops have a copy in stock? In the good old days of Waterstone's (i.e. when it was run by Tim Waterstone) we aimed to stock as wide a range of titles as possible. These days, even the larger branches of Waterstone's and Borders are extremely cautious when it comes to backlist. A few years ago I read Justin Cartwright's The Promise of Happiness and went to Waterstone's in Kingston to buy some of his other titles. They had one book in stock (even though Cartwright was part of the Richard and Judy selection). I moved on to Borders and found two titles.
The culprit is EPOS. As soon as you have a computerised stock control system you realise how few titles actually sell. As I have written before, I did some work for the Ottakar's intranet and had access to three years' worth of sales data for the whole company. It was a revelation. I learned that modern classics like Cry the Beloved Country sold fewer than a dozen copies a year across over 100 shops.
When I started in bookselling we probably stocked a lot of titles that never sold, but it was a fantastic shop! John Calder would regularly pop in to do a stock check and had carte blanche to order his entire list for us. I prided myself on stocking every novel by Trollope (nearly 50, I think) and our art section gave the Tate Gallery shop a run for its money.
Obviously things had to change after the demise of the Net Book Agreement, but it is a shame that the only place I'll now find Nina Bawden's Afternoon of a Good Woman is in a second hand bookshop.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Two months ago I discovered that a bookshop was up for sale in Lewes. It seemed like a dream come true and the only obstacle in my way was the fact that I had bugger all money. Still, I had a house that could be used as security on a loan and if the business was viable, I would hopefully be able to earn a living and repay the bank within ten years.
I met the owner and looked at the accounts. The sales had dropped during the last few years, but the business had become more profitable and I could see several ways of increasing the turnover.
I started to visualise myself running the shop. In my head I'd redesigned the interior, held several successful author events and was becoming a local luminary. Yes, running my own business would be stressful, but would it be any worse than having to kowtow to someone I had no respect for? At least I'd be in control of my own destiny.
I realised that I was talking myself into buying the shop and decided to get some objective advice from people who knew what they were talking about. They all said don't do it. I was given several good reasons which only a fool would ignore and reluctantly, I have decided to abandon my plans.
Is this the end of my time in the book trade? I suspect that it probably is, which is a shame in some ways, however it could also be an opportunity to try something new. But what? I don't have any answers yet, but if I sign up to do some courses (my wife has suggested web editing as I spend half of my time on the 'bloody computer') and voluntary work, I'll gain a wide range of experience.
At some point I will have to write a new C.V. Hopefully I will come up with something better than the majority of job applications I've received over the years, many of which were littered with appalling errors and bizarre comments like 'I always start the day with a loud "Aum"' or 'The reason I left my last job is that there was a falling out over a lady I was involved with (I am still with her).
I will ensure that my hobbies and interests do not include sun baving (sic), playing on the computer, socialising, watching television or spending time with my mates. I shall also avoid cheesy photos, weird fonts, strange paper and pictures of cute fluffy kittens at the bottom of the page.
If I'm lucky enough to get to the interview stage, I will remember that the employer is interviewing me and not vice versa. Over the years I've interviewed several people who behaved as if the job was already theirs and wanted to know more about the terms and conditions. I remember a young woman whose surname was Daggar (I desperately wanted to say 'Is this a Daggar I see before me?) asking how much discount she'd get on magazines, as she didn't really read books. When I explained that we didn't sell magazines she looked daggers at me (no pun intended - well, only a bit).
The most gruelling experience I ever had was three years ago, when I had to interview 25 people over two days (and just to make life more complicated, I had my father's funeral the following day).
One applicant told me that if she took the job she'd want to start half an hour later as the bus fares were cheaper and it wasn't worth her while travelling earlier. Another interviewee expected us to give her a pension and free parking. They didn't get the job. Neither did the Oxbridge graduate who stank of alcohol and kept using phrases like mea cupla.
Fortunately there were half a dozen strong interviewees and I was able to recruit a really good team. Indeed, over the years I have been very lucky and every batch of interviews has usually yielded at least one excellent candidate. I can't think of many workplaces where you would get people with first class degrees working their arses off for £5.50 an hour.
In the meantime I have just started receiving Income Support. If you're a British taxpayer I would like to thank you for your contribution and promise that the money will go to good causes. I had originally thought of contacting the Society for Distressed Gentlefolk, but it seems that I am not patrician enough to qualify for their support. I have no children at boarding school who risk suffering the ignominy of mingling with the lumpen proletariat.
I promise I won't spend the money on Special Brew or squander it on scratch cards. My only luxury will be second-hand books.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
The Green Light
This isn't my kitchen but rather depressingly it's completely identical to mine, apart from the window design and lack of clutter. I must be very unoriginal. As you can see, the bin doesn't take up too much room.
The Bokashi bran comes from Japan and contains a mixture of bacteria and fungi which manage to accelerate the decomposition process without producing any horrible smells. It sounds too good to be true. I shall know the truth in two weeks time, which is when the process is supposed to have finished. If it works, I'll not only have reduced the amount of waste I send to landfill sites, but also have some useful compost and plant food.
Two other really useful products I've discovered recently are eco-balls - not a term of abuse, but a really effective alternative to washing powder - and an LED light bulb that only uses 1.7 watts per hour.
I would like to say that I'm doing this for altruistic reasons, but the truth is that my main motive is to save money and become more self-sufficient. In an ideal world I'd live off the grid, but unfortunately that would require more money than I have to either build or convert a home to meet the necessary requirements.
I would also love to think that my actions helped to contribute to reducing global warming, but I am pessimistic and believe that politicians and corporations will only address the pressing environmental issues of our time when it is too late. I agree with James Lovelock. The crisis is coming and it's naive to believe that we can still stop it. The real challenge is to manage that crisis effectively and move towards a society that is sustainable in the long term. But will that happen?
Perhaps I've been reading too many John Christopher novels, but at the moment the outlook is getting increasingly grim. However, there is also a glimmer of hope in the shape of kitchen composters, hydrogen-powered cars, LED light bulbs and solar heating. New developments like these may not stop global warming, but they might make us less vulnerable to its effects.
Monday, July 14, 2008
School Sports Day
I was never big fan of school sports day - mainly because I consistently came second from last in every race. I'm not sure why I was so bad at games, but I suspect it was because I didn't care enough about winning. I enjoyed running and kicking a ball around in the street behind my house, but I hated organised sport. When I left school I naively assumed that I'd never have to endure the misery of a school sports day again. How wrong I was.
Today I attended my son's school sports day and watched him faithfully maintain the family tradition by failing to win a single race (he scored better results than me but there were fewer fat kids to outrun in the 1970s). I wasn't bothered, but some parents were near to hysteria shouting 'Go Charlie!' 'Go Sam!' and I suspect that some of the dads would have experienced temporary impotency if their sons hadn't won a race.
Today's sports day lasted for three hours! What were they thinking? I made the mistake of wearing black and after fifteen minutes of sitting in direct sunlight, I'm sure that I saw wisps of smoke start to appear. It seemed a high price to pay for the 3 minutes in which my son took part in the games.
Naively, I had no idea that if I had a child it would gain me readmission into the world of playground cliques, school sports days and the all-pervading smell of stale cabbage. When I take my son through the school gates, I feel as if I am betraying him.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Rum, Sodomy and the Lash
I have just finished Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life (also published as For the Term of His Natural Life) and am still reeling from the shock of reading a Victorian novel that includes homosexual rape, child suicide, cannibalism, alcoholism, atheism and adultery. Why isn't this book more widely known?
Clarke's life reads like a Victorian novel. Born in London in 1846, Clarke's mother died when he was four and his childhood was marked by ill health and the erratic behaviour of his father which eventually culminated in a nervous breakdown. When Clarke reached adolescence, it was discovered that the family fortune had inexplicably disappeared and his prospects seemed grim until a relative suggested that the he should seek his fortune in Australia. Clarke arrived in Melbourne a few months after his 17th birthday. His adulthood was marked by the twin blights of a writer's life - alcoholism and penury and he died at the age of 36.
His Natural Life is a great novel, but not a perfect one. It has many faults, including an excessive reliance on melodrama and that bane of classic novels, the use of highly improbable coincidences. I also felt that the last quarter of the book was quite patchy. However, none of these flaws diminish the overall experience of reading this compelling, powerful and angry novel.
Set mainly in the brutal environment of a Tasmanian penal colony, Clarke's novel was originally published in serial form which perhaps explains why His Natural Life is so compulsively readable. The author is a great storyteller and this is a 'rattling good yarn', with dastardly villains, cliffhanger endings and a wonderful sense of place. But this novel's claim to greatness lies in the author's treatment of his subject matter which, in its scope and candour, bears comparison to Zola. I cannot imagine this novel being written in Victorian England, let alone published.
I have tried to find a photo of the penal settlement of Port Arthur, but I don't think this picture really captures the horrors of convict life in the nineteenth century. In fact it looks very inviting. I think it's probably best to visit grim places in bad weather.
Friday, July 11, 2008
Personal Services Required
I normally avoid 'reality' television and its relentless exploitation of sad, dysfunctional people. However, against my better judgement, I am addicted to a programme called Personal Services Required.
I discovered it last Sunday when I was channel hopping and became instantly hooked. Each week the programme features two businesspeople and their quest to find the ideal PA/housekeeper from a selection of three candidates.
What makes this programme such compelling viewing is that the people are, almost without exception, completely awful and seem to be totally lacking in any charm or self-awareness.
This clip is one of the best things I've seen for a long time, featuring a businessman who seems to have a few 'issues'.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
The Schlock of the New
When I left bookselling I felt mild pangs of anxiety about losing touch with what was going on in the publishing world. I loved being in the privileged position of having a sneak preview of new titles before they were in the shops and also enjoyed listening to the publishers' reps bitching about certain authors.
Whenever I had an appointment with a rep we'd spend at least half of the visit gossiping about the book trade. The rep would slag off the editorial department for publishing unsellable books. I'd moan about my head office for buying unsellable books. Eventually the reps would say 'Well, I suppose we'd better do some work' and we'd go through a catalogue of new titles, haggling over how many titles I should take. It was one of my favourite parts of the job.
At the end of the visit I'd be handed a few proof copies. With a few notable exceptions, most of the proofs were unreadable and I used to wonder how so much dross managed to get published. I always left the proofs in the staff room for people to take home, but they'd sit there for months until the pile became structurally unsound, at which point I'd bin them.
I used to send damaged copies of decent books to the local hospital, but couldn't bring myself to include many proofs. It didn't seem fair to subject someone with a serious - possibly terminal - illness to such dull writing. I wish I could give you an example of what I mean, but they were so unmemorable that I cannot recall a single title.
The 3 for 2 tables weren't much better. They had a few decent novels, but most of the selection was formulaic holiday reading. I often struggled when customers asked me for personal recommendations, as I had read so few of the 3 for 2 titles. Why waste your life reading second-rate new fiction when there are so many masterpieces in the backlist?
Go into any chain bookseller and you're going to see the same selection of titles. Occasionally, you might find a branch where an imaginative buyer has been able to represent some of the quirky, small press titles (Waterstone's in Brighton has a superb table of fiction in translation), but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Since I left Waterstone's, my reading tastes have been dictated by a mixture of serendipitous discoveries in charity shops and secondhand booksellers, plus the recommendations of fellow bloggers. I have read books I'd never heard of and authors I never expected to like. It's been a wonderful journey of discovery.
At the moment I'm reading His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke - a fantastic Victorian novel about the time when people were transported to Australia for minor misdemeanors (if only they'd bring it back - I'd be first in the queue). I'd heard of the book, but wouldn't have read it unless I'd spotted a copy in the Lewes branch of the British Heart Foundation charity shop. I've only got as far as the third chapter, but it's gripping. The blurb on the back promises: murder, mutiny, flogging, child-suicide, homosexual rape and cannibalism. What more could anyone want?
However, although I could happily spend the rest of my life reading backlist titles, I don't like the idea of missing out on the next Cloud Atlas. There is nothing like reading a new novel and knowing that it will still be in print in 100 years' time.
Friday, July 04, 2008
Here's an anecdote I heard in a magistrates' training session yesterday:
A young, single mother was found guilty of shoplifting and the magistrates decided to fine her. But before they could decided on the amount, she had to fill in a means form to show her monthly income.
She promptly completed the form and it was passed up to the bench. Suddenly the chairman's face turned white and he glared at the woman, muttering 'This is outrageous!'. The clerk asked him what the matter was and the chairman showed her the form.
In the column headed Monthly Income, the woman had written 'F- All'.
The chairman was just about to lecture her on contempt of court when the clerk quickly pointed out that this stood for Family Allowance.
Thursday, July 03, 2008
Good news is no news
According to the media we are in the grip of a knife crime epidemic. This may be true, but contrary to newspapers like the Daily Mail, there is no hard statistical evidence. Official figures support the view that knife crime is on the increase but the British Crime Survey - arguably a more accurate source of data - shows a drop in violent crime.
A recent edition of a journal published by the Sussex Police Force includes an article about an operation that took place at a nightclub in Bognor Regis. Over 1000 people were searched as they entered the club and not a single knife was found. In fact the only illegal article discovered was a small amount of cannabis.
I know that Bognor isn't the Bronx, but as anyone in Sussex will tell you, it's not the sort of place you'd want to wander around on a Friday night. Bognor's the sort of town where they sell cards that say 'Happy 30th Birthday - Granny'. You'd certainly expect the local lads to be 'tooled-up'.
Sadly, stories like this will never make it to the national newspapers because it doesn't fit in with the narrative of a country descending into lawlessness.
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Finally, the “if you ruled the world” question. If you could hand out to passers-by copies of one book you consider unjustly neglected, which would it be?
Darkness Falls from the Air, by Nigel Balchin. Probably out of print. Haunting story of a pair of extremely sophisticated Londoners during the Blitz, and the most perfect ending of any story I’ve ever read. Suggest a campaign to bring it back into print, spearheaded by you in your blog.
I can now recommend another Balchin title: The Small Back Room. I mananged to pick up this copy for 75p the other day, courtesy of Help the Aged:
Ten years ago I watched the Powell and Pressburger film The Small Back Room (unaware that it started life as a novel by Nigel Balchin) and was struck by the world-weary cynicism of the main characters. It was the antithesis of the classic British war film. There were no heroes (in the Kenneth Moore sense of the word), very little action and a noticeable absence of Dunkirk Spirit. This was a film for grown-ups with real people in it.
Balchin's novel is still in print, although I wonder how many shops stock it. This is a pity, as this unusual novel gives a refreshingly different perspective on Britain in World War Two - one that tallies far more with the Mass Observation accounts I mentioned in the last post.
This Penguin paperback was published in 1939 - shortly before the War began. It makes quite surprising reading because it blows away the myth of Britain as a united country, ready to fight at any cost to preserve democracy. The Mass Observation movement portrays a country that is reluctant to go to war and isn't particularly bothered about what is happening in Europe as long as it doesn't affect the price of bread. Rather like today.
After 1939, the MO accounts record people's frustration with British military incompetence (particularly the army), cynicism about Churchill's promises of victory and a general sense of fatigue and frustration. It is this Britain that features in Nigel Balchin's novels and they are a refreshing antidote to the (probably necessary) myths that were circulated during and after the War.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
The cost of living
The other other day I decided to buy some diesel. The tank was 1/3 full, but as I was near a petrol station it seemed a good idea to top it up. Even with the recent hike in fuel prices I was only expecting to pay around £30 was appalled to see the counter whizz past the £40 mark before finally stopping at £49.89.
Later I drove to Tescos. I hate them and would love to follow Tom Hodgkinson’s advice and buy all of my food from local shops, but their prices are at least a third more and I’m completely skint. However, even Tesco is now becoming expensive. Yesterday I saw an organic chicken on sale for £9. The two other choices were a value range one for £2.82 and another that looked identicle, but had a suppposedly reassuring photograph of a farmer on the label, for nearly £5. I gritted my teeth and bought the Dave Pelzer chicken.
The obvious answer is to eat more vegetarian food which, in addition to reducing my food bill, will also lower my carbon footprint and make me less likely to develop cancer. However, even eating vegetarian isn’t quite the cheap option that it once was. Rice has more than doubled in price and the fruit and veg section is becoming more expensive by the week.
As for wine, it is no longer possible to buy anything remotely drinkable for less than £4. Every week Tesco has half price offers, but these seem to involve hiking a fairly indifferent wine up to £8 beforehand to create the impression of value. Perhaps the occasional bottle of Chablis would be better than a regular intake of something that tastes like a fermented urine sample.
To a wartime Londoner these complaints would seem ridiculous. I’ve just read a fascinating book called London Under Fire 1939-45, by Leonard Mosely (no relation to Oswald). It is a comprehensive history of the Blitz and in addition to the usual military and political overview, it includes a lot of material from the Mass Observation movement. Although I knew the basic facts about rationing, it is only when you read first hand accounts that you begin to understand what it was like to live on such meagre amounts of the basic foodstuffs.
According to Mosely’s Mass Observation accounts, most Londoners suffered from a constant, gnawing hunger. Mothers would queue for hours in an attempt to buy enough to feed their families, often with limited success. Even the boring old apple became a luxury item.
Today we are told that people ate healthily during the War, with fewer dental problems and virtually no obesity. However, the Mass Observation accounts describe a city of undernourished people who are constantly suffering from colds and flu. We have a long way to go before we reach that stage, but there is always that worrying theory that we are only four meals away from civil disorder.
These days we eat a lot of imported food. That’s because it’s usually nicer. However one of the reasons why British people didn’t starve to death during the War was because there was enough home-grown food to maintain the necessary minimum daily calorie intake. If countries are going to survive rising fuel prices and disruptions to the supply chain, then perhaps we should aim to become a little more self-sufficient once again.