Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why I'm addicted to the X Factor...

I know it's shameful and I always feel dirty afterwards (and not in a nice way either), but I have become mildly addicted to the X Factor. I don't care who wins the competition. I watch it for moments like this, when a contestant is completely barking. If you're one of the unlucky few who hasn't seen this contestant, you're in for a treat:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Go East

I have said some very unkind things about East Anglia over the years, including a tasteless remark about melting ice caps and rising sea levels to someone who lived on the Suffolk coast. I'm not sure why I feel such strong animosity towards the area as there are far worse places in Britain, but I think that the relentlessly flat landscape, Siberian winds and uninviting shingle beaches represent the antithesis of everything I enjoy about the countryside.

However, I am unable to ignore East Anglia as my mother-in-law lives there. As I have mentioned before, she lives opposite a decommissioned nuclear power station. In her town, every other person seems to have had cancer and yet nobody ever suggests a link with the 'low-level' radioactive waste that was poured into the sea. They must be in denial.

Last week I went back to East Anglia for a few days and decided to explore Suffolk. At first the signs weren't good: Welcome to Constable Country.

Apart from the appalling idea of 'branding' a whole area, I don't like Constable's paintings and had no urge to see chocolate box scenes like The Hay Wain (which is remarkably unchanged since Constable painted the view). However, the landscape soon changed into a mixture of undulating hills, tranquil woodland and beautiful villages. I was completely unprepared for this and soon realised that I'd have to revise my opinions.

I stopped at a village called Stoke-by-Nayland. It was barely a village, with just a handful of houses, many of which looked as if they were at least 500 years old. On the one hand I was impressed by this beautiful Tudor house:

But it was impossible to disassociate this image from the idyllic scenes that feature in jigsaw puzzles, biscuit tin lids and calendars: This England. In reality, all too many English villages are largely made up of cheap, badly designed bungalows, inhabited by neckless locals who have been priced out of the decent houses by 'incomers'. That's progress.

I walked to the local church and was amazed by its size. In Sussex, the Downland churches are generally very small and intimate in proportion to the villages they serve. However in Suffolk the tiniest village or hamlet can have a huge church:

Apparently, Stoke-by-Nayland has a 'wool church' - in other words, a church that was financed by the boom in the wool trade during the fifteenth century.

I love looking around old churches. Apart from the sense of history, they are a bullshit-free environment (if you discount the ultimate bullshit of believing in a non-corporeal creator of everything) in a world that has become demeaned by advertising and branding.

However, although I'd like to claim an interest in ecclesiastic architecture, my main interest in village churches is the glimpses they give of life in the local community. This bulletin board highlights some of the local fundraising events and its star performers:

What is Roy Tricker doing? It looks as though a particularly traumatic episode of constipation has reached its resolution, but perhaps he's just speaking in tongues.

'A Talent to Amuse'? They may not be married but there is some sexual chemistry going on, isn't there?

A big fish in a small stream?

This photo looks as if it was taken in 1975.

Ah, William Fry, the stalwart of the local amateur dramatic society. Who could forget his solo performance of Henry V in 1990, which raised £47.90 for the church roof fund?

I mock, but in fact this was a stunningly beautiful area with an architectural embarrassment of riches. I had no idea that East Anglia contained these hidden gems and from now on, I resolve to be more open-minded.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cloud on Silver

I've just finished reading John Christopher's Cloud on Silver (US title Sweeney's Island) and find it hard to understand why this gripping novel is out of print. I can only hope that when Penguin republish The Death of Grass next year, there will be a renewed interest in Christopher's backlist.

Without wishing to give too much of the plot away, the novel is about a group of people who are shipwrecked on a desert island in the Pacific and are disturbed to find creatures that appear to be malformed or mutated. The island clearly holds a secret and at first, the survivors plan to explore the mysterious, cloud-covered mountain that overlooks them. However, instead of pulling together they become increasingly distracted by power struggles and sexual tensions.

If I had to describe Cloud on Silver in fewer than ten words, I say that it was like Lost meets Lord of the Flies. Indeed, the similarities to Lost are so striking at times, that I can't help wondering if any of the series' creators have read Christopher's novel. The random appearances of non-native species and the sense that the island itself is a living entity are common to both, although Cloud on Silver is ultimately more down to earth.

John Christopher's novels place ordinary people in extraordinary situations, stripping away the veneer of civilisation to reveal the darker side of human nature. At times Christopher's vision seems excessively bleak, but to know what ordinary people are capable of we only have to look at recent history, particularly Bosnia and Rwanda.

Cloud on Silver isn't literary fiction and it has many flaws, but the sum is greater than its parts and the novel is as prescient as it is dated. Christopher's views of gender, race and society are old fashioned, but we should not dismiss him for being a product of his time.

Cloud on Silver would make a fantastic movie, although I suspect many people would mistakenly assume that it was a rip-off of Lost!

Monday, August 18, 2008


What is it with businessmen? Every week I read the Sunday Times Business section in case there’s anything relevant to the book trade and invariably end up reading the profiles of top buisnesspeople. Even if I can’t be bothered to read the whole article, I always look at the inset that lists their favourite book, film and piece of music.

Without exception, the taste of our captains of industry is awful. It’s somewhat gauling to discover that someone who earns £700,000 a year thinks that Forest Gump is the greatest film ever made and likes reading Jack Higgins (when they’re not busy listening to Chris Rea). These are people at the top of their profession, so why are their intellectual horizons so limited?

Even the managing director of Waterstone’s, Gerry Johnson, seems to know very little about books. You could argue that he doesn’t have to. He is an experienced retailer and doesn't need to be well-read to identify the priorities of running a national chain of shops. But I still find it strange that Britain’s largest book chain is run by a man who reputedly confused Kerouac’s On the Road with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

What is the answer? I suspect that it lies in the personal qualities that make people succeed in the business world. Today’s top executives are largely 'Type A' personalities, not given to the sort of self-doubt or reflection that draws an individual towards philosophy and the arts. They may be highly intelligent, but somehow their critical faculties rarely compel them to question the meaning of what they’re doing.

I still find it hard to understand how anyone remotely intelligent can enjoy the latest Jeffrey Archer novel, but some people seem to compartmentalise different areas of their life. I have known people with IQs over 150 who would happily go and see the latest Jean-Claude van Damme movie and come out thinking they’d had a good evening.
What's it all about, Alfie?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Something Happened

I've just checked this blog for the first time in a couple of days and was dismayed to find that YouTube have posted every video I've watched during the last few weeks. This could have been potentially embarrassing!

I've now deleted the many videos of the Lewes Dancing Man, part of an episode of the IT Crowd and a trailer for a romantic novel featuring a werewolf.

Hopefully this won't happen again.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Alan Clark Diaries

Although it's been in print for 15 years (15 years! Where did the time go?) I've never read the Alan Clark diaries. However, yesterday I was caught in a downpour and ran to the nearest charity shop, where I saw a paperback edition of the Diaries on sale for £1.50. I need a book to dip into while I sit with my youngest son as he watches CBeebies. Clark's acerbic memoirs seemed the perfect choice.

The good thing about towns like Lewes is that you get a better class of cast-off. Most charity shops I've encountered sell an uninspiring selection of romance and thriller books, with clothes that you wouldn't even wear to paint the bathroom ceiling. In the charity shops of Lewes I can buy shirts that make me look unobtrusively patrician and browse a fiction section that is far superior to any branch of WH Smith (at the moment I'm reading a first edition hardback of Carol Shields' wonderful Larry's Party, bought for £1).

I have already read most of Alan Clark's Diaries (Volume One), which is either a tribute to the book, or the sheer tedium of being with a small child. One of my favourite anecdotes is about the legless World War Two flying ace, Douglas Bader. Apparently Bader was asked to take part in a debate at a respectable girls' school and at some point during the proceedings, recounted one of the times when he was shot down over the Channel:

'...And my engine was on fire, I had two of the fuckers on my tail, one fucker was coming up at me from the left and there were two more fuckers about a hundred feet above me waiting for...' (At this point the headmistress panicked and interrupted. 'Girls, as of course you all know, there was a type of German aeroplane called the FOKKER.') But Bader: 'I don't know about that. All I can tell you is that these chaps were flying Messerschmitts'

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Caveat Emptor

Food prices may be rising faster than inflation but don't worry, those well-known philanthropic societies - the supermarket chains - are apparently doing their bit to help us with their 'inflation-busting' offers. How nice of them.

I particularly appreciate the half price strawberries offer in Tesco and Sainsbury's. I had no idea that a punnet of strawberries normally costs £4. Nor did I realise that a fairly indifferent bottle of Pinot Grigio del Venezie normally sells for £7.99, rather than Tesco's incredibly generous half price offer of £3.99.

Good old Tesco. My Tesco. Our Tesco, according to the posters outside the store. During a recent refit I was assured something along the lines of 'We are making your Tesco a bigger, brighter store.' I had no idea they had been nationalised.

Criticising Tesco is, I realise, about as controversial as saying that the Holocaust was a bad thing and I don't want to single them out. From what I can see, several supermarkets are cashing in on the recession by expanding their long-established practice of hiking prices to make special offers seem more attractive.

I have been trying to break free from the tyranny of the supermarkets by growing some fruit and vegetables, but as soon as everything starts going well, little buggers like these turn up:

The one in the front's got a bit of an attitude, don't you think? But I can't get rid of them as there's supposed to be a shortage of butterflies, so I must let nature take its course. In the meantime, I shall reluctantly continue to patronise my Tesco.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Terms and Conditions

Last Saturday's Guardian Money supplement contained a letter from someone who was dismayed to discover that their WH Smith voucher, which they found in a drawer two years after losing it, was no longer valid. Aren't vouchers supposed to be as good as cash?

WH Smith were questioned about this. Normally retailers witter on about terms and conditions before adding 'But on this occasion, as a goodwill gesture, we will refund the money in full'. However Smith's refused to budge, possibly concerned that any comedown would create a precedent.

Smith's are dab hands at ripping off their customers with outwardly attractive offers that are, when you look at the small print, actually quite rubbish. In the lead-up to Christmas, customers were given free vouchers that promised £5 off with every £20 spent. It sounded good enough until you got out the electron microscope and read the terms and conditions:

Offer excludes all CDs DVDs and Games, ie. XBOX 360, PSP, PS2, PS3, NDS, PC, GameCube, Xbox, GBA and Wii, and stamps , tobacco, gift vouchers, phone cards, e-gift cards, book tokens, Day Out Vouchers, Charity Products, iTunes, eTop-UP & National Lottery products. Cannot be used with any other promotional voucher or with customer orders. Only one voucher per transaction.

But Smith's are no worse than their competitors. During my last few months at Waterstone's, I was under an increasing amount of pressure to sell the new electronic Waterstone's gift cards instead of National Book Tokens. I was told to remove the Book Tokens card spinner and peel off the stickers in the window that said we sold National Book Tokens. If customers asked to buy a voucher, I was told to sell them a Waterstone's gift card unless they specifically asked for a token.

In an increasingly competitive retail environment, I can understand why WH Smith and Waterstone's have taken a more aggressive stance. Both companies are now more profitable, which would suggest that in the short term their policies are working. However, if they want survive in the long term and withstand the threat of increased competition from the internet and supermarkets, they need to treat their customers with a little more respect.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Week it Rained Forever

I have just returned from a caravan holiday in Devon. I use the term caravan loosely. In fact it was more like a building site portakabin, albeit a very comfortable one with plumbing, electricity and an en suite bedroom.

On a list of desirable ways to spend a holiday, I must admit that a caravan holiday would normally be fairly near the bottom of my list, with only Pontins and East Anglia coming lower. However my efforts to find a cottage or hotel for under £500 during the peak season didn't meet with any success, so my options were limited to staying in a caravan or tent.

The prospect of a week in a tent with my family seemed like purgatory at best. Hell if it rained. On the other hand I had many happy childhood memories of a caravan site in Devon. A quick search on Google confirmed that it was still there and charged around £400 a week for a four-berth caravan. Bingo! But there was one serious obstacle: my wife.

Since I commenced my descent down the social ladder, my wife has become increasingly like Margot Leadbetter. I'm not entirely surprised. She grew up in a huge Tudor farmhouse and her family took it for granted that they had very few social equals on their island (my mother-in-law remembers locals calling her 'Miss Anne'). My wife is one of the least snobbish or materialistic people I've ever met, but everyone has their breaking point.

When I suggested a caravan holiday, my wife looked at me as if I had suggested a very indecent act. Luckily I was prepared and played my trump card: 'This holiday isn't for us, it's for the boys'. I knew then that it was only a matter of time before she gave in.

We enjoyed a traditional British holiday. It rained most of the time and our days were occupied with long car journeys to places where we would walk around, get bored and drive back to the caravan.

If I had to pick five highlights from the holiday, they would be these (in no particular order):

1. Model Railway Exhibition, Exmouth

Although I have no interest in train sets, I love model railways and their utopian vision of an Ealing Comedies Britain that is stuck in the 1950s.

This display was markedly different, containing dystopian elements that, had they been intentional, would have had Charles Saatchi racing down the M4 ready to sign up the new Jake and Dinos Chapman. I particularly liked the Ceaucesceau-era social housing in this photo:

If this display had been the work of an artist, it would have been acclaimed as a poignant work of social comment.

2. The beach, Seatown

I hate the naff tourist board signs that welcome you to 'Shakespeare country' and the whole of Lyme Bay has now been 'branded' the Jurassic Heritage Coast. If I was a kid who'd just watched Jurassic Park for the first time, I'd feel cheated. However the fact remains that this is an amazing stretch of coastline, with millions of fossils that predate the dinosaur age. In less than an hour I found the remains of an ammonite:

I've no idea what this is, but it looks impressive:

And these are Belemnites - the skeletal remains of an ancient variety of squid:

If you want to feel a sense of awe, there's nothing like cracking a rock open to reveal the remains of a creature that has been hidden for hundreds of millions of years.

3. Woodbury Castle:

This prehistoric hillfort is sandwiched between two roads and there are no signs announcing its presence. I only discovered it by chance when I got lost during a walk and although I don't believe in ghosts, it had a very strange atmosphere. Historical sites usually betray the presence of visitors with the occasional wrapper and coke can, but this place seemed completely forgotten.

4. Dartmoor

Dartmoor is the largest wilderness in southern England and even in summer, it can be a harsh environment. I climbed up this tor and felt a great sense of achievement until I saw an unsupervised three-year-old higher up...

Nestled in the middle of the moors is Widecombe, an idyllic village that has been almost ruined by tourism. Every shop seems to sell the same depressing selection of tea towels, mugs, kitsch figurines and naff postcards with an inebriated yokel on the front. However, the local church has a few gems inside:

An elderly Welsh woman kept asking me questions about the church. I answered as well as I could and she thanked me. When I failed to answer her final question about the age of the church she looked a little put out. Apparently she thought I was the vicar.

5. Lyme Regis

On the last day of our holiday the sun came out and the beach turned into WP Frith's Derby Day. I enjoyed watching people of all shapes and sizes making the most of the sunshine, wondering if this was their last chance to feel the sun on their skin until next year. Some people were reading books (I was very pleased to see a teenage girl reading Margaret Atwood), whilst others sunbathed, built sandcastles with their children or sat eating fish and chips.

There was a play area for children manned by smiling young people in red polo shirts. Posters promised activities and prizes, but there was no mention of the fact that they were evangelical Christians. It seemed a little dishonest to lure innocent heathens into their bouncy tent under false pretences.

There are two fairly decent secondhand bookshops in Lyme Regis and I managed to pick up an out of print Josef Skvorecky novel which I look forward to reading.

Overall the holiday was a success. My sons really enjoyed it and my wife, to her surprise, said that she would consider going on a caravan holiday again. The only dissenting voice was mine, but I had to keep quiet because it was my idea.

Friday, August 01, 2008


There will now be an intermission. In the meantime, here is a tribute to one of the best BBC children's programmes of all time...