Saturday, November 29, 2008

How the mighty have fallen...

Anyone over a certain age will remember the excitement generated by the Woolworth's Christmas commercials. Lasting for two whole minutes, they were a television event and people made of point of tuning in to see which celebrities would be appear. As a boy, I found these adverts only marginally less thrilling than the Christmas double issue of the Radio Times. Perhaps I should have sniffed glue after all.

I never thought I'd feel sad to see the demise of Woolworth's, but they had become part of the culture. Woolies, Pick n'Mix (or Pick n'Nick, as we called it) and the bright, smiling, sales assistants were as quintessentially British as dry rot. Okay, I lied about the staff. The sales assistants generally came across as lobotomised, but that was probably a legitimate reaction to what was essentially a dead end job.

My mother worked on the tills at Woolworth's for 16 years. She took her job very seriously and was always extremely cheery and competent, in spite of a management culture that regarded it's shop floor staff as scum. One Christmas she received a bonus of 50p. Even in those days it was bugger all and to add insult to injury, it was a Woolworth's voucher.

Shortly before she left, my mother was sent on a course which informed staff that they would have to wear blank badges. Sales assistants giving good customer service would be awarded 'warm fuzzies' to add to their badge, but anyone who was less than manic would be given a 'cold prickly'.

Another reason for hating Woolworth's is that they were the Tesco of their time, driving small shops out of business by providing a one-stop-store with cheaper prices. But in spite of all this, do they deserve to go bust?

The commercial below is, I think, from 1980, when Woolworth's were at the height of their powers. They were the major retailer in Britain - the only high street store with the audacity and clout to feature so many A and B-list celebrities in their two-minute commercials. There's Derek Nimmo, Tim Brooke-Taylor, 'Diddy' David Hamilton, Anita Harris (C-list, even then) Magnus Pike, Jimmy Young, Ed 'Stewpot' Stewart, Leslie Crowther and Kenny Everett, to name a few, and strangely, they had much more kudos than their equivalents in today's celebrity-obsessed age.

What do you want for Christmas? I want the Waltham STM 15 Music Centre, for £99.95...

Is that Bernard Cribbins doing the sprechstimme?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Less is more

Many thanks to Jonathan at The Bedside Crow for drawing my attention to a superb new book called Little People in the City, by the artist Slinkachu. Little People is a collection of photographs of minute, hand-painted figures of people doing everyday activities. However, instead of existing in the utopian setting of a model railway, they are adrift in the real world, trying, like insects, to negotiate their way through an environment designed for giants. Here are some examples:

Beyond the comic aspect of model railway figures in incongruous settings, there is something very moving about these small, vulnerable people going about their daily lives. In the city, we are all little people and the genius of Slinkachu lies in capturing the fragility of human existence (at this point the Pseud's Corner alarm starts ringing).

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Your life in their hands

Thanks to those who posted such kind comments about my father-in-law. He died yesterday. It's hard to believe that only two weeks ago, he was at a party.

I have removed the original posting as it has been overtaken by events.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Don't let me die in Bexhill

As I have written in another post, Bexhill-on-Sea is one of those purgatorial, coastal towns where people go to die. It is a suburb without a city, in which the only sounds you will hear are seagulls, repeats of Inspector Morse, the slurping of thin, watery soup and the high-pitched drone of a pensioner driving at 27mph in first gear. People move here for the sea air, or so they say. I suspect that the real reason is that Bexhill induces a frame of mind that makes death a welcome release from the tedium of living there.

But Bexhill (which I visited yesterday) is also home to the De La Warr Pavilion - Britain's first public Art Deco building - which houses a superb gallery and cafe. As the building faces the sea, you can turn your back on Bexhill and enjoy views like these:

It is remarkable how the presence of one decent public building can transform a town, offering some hope of redemption. In a secular age, we desperately need places which are accessible to every member of a community. In most towns, this will mean visiting a shopping mall, cinema or leisure centre. Few are lucky enough to enjoy a really well-designed civic building that isn't owned by a corporation with a commercial agenda.

Walsall is generally regarded as one of the most appalling places in Britain. It enjoys the dubious accolade of being the fattest town in the country and, I suspect, also tops the league for teenage pregnancy. A few years ago an art gallery was opened slap bang in the middle of Walsall, replacing one that the local council had closed ten years earlier. Some people questioned the wisdom of spending £21,000,000 on an art gallery in such an unreceptive environment, but this is missing the point. Even if people can't see the point of art, if you give them a decent public building they will use it.

I think it's safe to say that not many of Walsall's residents will be enticed by a current exhibition which 'takes the figure of the angel as a starting point for an exploration of Blake's ideas about the body and spirit', but they may use the gallery as a place to meet and have a coffee and who knows, curiosity might entice them to look at some of the art.

The key is to create exciting, non-commercial spaces that aren't intimidating and give everyone in the community a sense of ownership. Also, it's vital that these places are built in the heart of the town.

What I love about the De La Warr Pavilion is its accessibility. I took my children there yesterday and after parking the car, we were able to go straight down to the beach, where we explored rock pools and found seashells. A short flight of steps took us up to the Pavilion and as we entered the main foyer, there was no awkwardness about bringing slightly sandy boys into the gallery. Indeed, with its comfortable sofas and art books, it was a home from home.

I wouldn't want to live or die in Bexhill, but thanks to the vision of the people behind the De La Warr Pavillion, I will be a frequent visitor.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Novel ideas

There's an interesting article in the Bookseller, claiming that literary agents are 'struggling to sell d├ębut and literary fiction, with novels taking longer to sell to publishers and more failing to find a buyer at all'.

I can't say I'm surprised. The sales figures for new hardback literary fiction have never been great and since the demise of the Net Book Agreement, the situation has got worse: if a novel isn't price promoted then it's hardly worth taking it out of the box.

The hardback fiction table used to be the jewel in the bookseller's crown. It would always occupy the prime position on the shop floor, whilst (with a few exceptions) non-fiction titles would be tucked away in dimly-lit nooks. Sordid little publications like celebrity memoirs were usually displayed upstairs, preferably spine-on.

Then a number of things changed. First, new high-tech stock control systems taught booksellers that the latest Milan Kundera novel was no.67 in their top 500 titles, whilst a diet book by an Eastenders actor they'd never heard of was no.8. Second, the book trade was invaded by people who knew nothing about books and were only interested in what was selling. Third, Margaret Thatcher and her cohorts redrew the ideological map of Britain, replacing quality with quantity. Fourth, the end of price fixing widened the gap between the bestsellers (or 'superlead' titles as some publishers like to call them) and the less commercial books.

These factors have created a climate in which publishers and booksellers are less inclined to take risks and the end result is not fewer and better books, but a lack of innovation.

Twenty years ago, a publisher could justify printing a new literary novel by an unknown author on the grounds that they believed that X had great potential and in three or four novels' time, would achieve critical and commercial success. In the meantime, X's loss-making novels were effectively subsidised by the bestselling titles. There was also a view that even if X wasn't a commercial success, they added credibility and prestige to a publisher.

To some extent that view still prevails and publishers do take risks with new, unknown authors. However, today it is rarer to see writers indulged in the way they used to be and unsuccessful authors risk being dropped before they have really found their voice.

What can be done? One answer would be to stop publishing new fiction by unknown writers in hardback, as readers are more likely to buy a £7.99 paperback than a £20 hardback. Publishers don't like doing that because the critics generally ignore paperbacks, but if enough new writing was published in this format then hopefully the reviewing culture would change.

As a bookseller I felt like Brian Hanrahan when it came to new hardback fiction titles that were sold at full price: I counted them in and I counted them out. No sales, plus the cost of sending the titles back to the publisher, who'd either remainder them or have the books pulped. If the rest of the shop had been run on this basis, we would have gone out of business within months.

However, publishing in paperback isn't enough. Unless a new writer is lucky enough to receive fantastic reviews or the endorsement of a book club, they will still struggle to reach the reading public. If publishers and booksellers truly believe that new titles are worth stocking, the reader needs to know why. Bunging a new novel in the latest 3 for 2 promotion will just mean that X is lost in a crowd of more familiar names. I'd like to see the traditional hardback fiction table replaced by a selection of the new and unfamiliar.

I also wonder if the book trade is too busy chasing the zeitgeist, looking for the next Da Vinci Code/Bridget Jones/Harry Potter when they should be trying to find the best new writing. I don't know. I'm not a publisher and my knowledge is anecdotal, gleaned from years of listening to sales reps complaining about being asked to sell the unsellable.

It all sounds rather bleak, but I would argue that this is a fantastic time to be a reader. The culture of blogging and easy availability of out of print and cheap books on the internet has created a vibrant new reading culture in which titles are promoted soley on merit. It is the ultimate free market: democratic, unregulated and borderless, presenting many opportunities for authors to connect directly with readers. If new writers are having trouble getting published, then it isn't necessarily the end of the story. Veni Vidi Blogi!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Today in pictures

Eight hours ago - Lewes:

Seven hours ago - Ditchling Beacon:

Two hours ago - classy personalised car sticker:

One hour ago - DIY sunset:

50 minutes ago - Newhaven traffic jam:


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

And Gay used to be such a lovely word...

Reading this blog, you could be forgiven for thinking that I'm consumed by a nostalgia for the past. However, as much as I like steam engines and deerstalkers, I have no urge to return to the age of backstreet abortions, racial intolerance and discrimination against anyone who isn't 'normal'. The modern world may be crap in many ways, but it's easy to be seduced by the notion of the recent past as some sort of idyll.

Films like this remind me how far we've come. Look out for the Jack Nicholson lookalike who tries to seduce boys with 'off-color jokes' and crazy golf:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A sense of place

Earlier this year a local man called Paul Wheeler was knocked down and killed by a car as he wheeled his bike across a busy road. The death sent shockwaves around the town, as Wheeler was the 'archbishop' of the Commercial Square Bonfire Society, but to relative newcomers like me, it was just another name I'd never heard of.

I realised that whilst I lived in Lewes, I was not a Lewesian.

The centre of Lewes was packed during Paul Wheeler's funeral and although I felt conscious of being an outsider, I was glad to live in a town where individuals still mattered. The fact that Lewes could come to a standstill (with huge traffic delays) because people wanted to celebrate the life of a friend, reminded me why I moved to Lewes in the first place.

Recently, the magazine Viva Lewes published an extract from a tribute to Paul Wheeler that was written by a local artist called Peter Messer. I found it extremely moving. Messer's prose could, at times, have been written by Orwell or Betjeman and although you may find it nostalgic and sentimental, it encapsulates the spirit of Lewes: a town which still has a mind of its own and, in Sussex dialect, won't be druv by politicians or big business.

Here is an extract from Peter Messer's tribute:

We were neighbours for over ten years, good friends for many more and for seven years we shared an allotment (plot of land, for non-British readers) in Paddock Road. On the Sunday morning I'd heard he died, I was planning to meet him. The ritual never varied much; five minutes after the Archers' theme tune died away, Paul would turn up and we'd spend a quarter of an hour discussing the week's events in Ambridge. There'd be a bit of work, a bit of a chat, a bit more work, a rant, some weeding, some harvesting for Sunday dinner then a full five minutes' gloating self-satisfaction at what we'd achieved before adjourning to the Gardener's Arms.

Paul was a romantic and an escapist but a practical one. Instead of just dreaming about the atmospheres, artifacts and customs of the past, he recreated them as much as possible in his everyday life. He found much of contemporary life tawdry and alienating and he railed at its emptiness, yearning for something simpler, more essentially human, where comradeship and community meant more than social position and personal gain.

A life that revolved around good beer and food, and good friends and neighbours suited him down to the ground. Anyone lucky enough to have spent a Boxing Night with Paul and Dawn will have gained a brief insight into the things they felt to be important. No electric lights, just an intimate glow from a couple of oil lamps glinting from below his beloved old enamel signs, hung with plain holly and ivy from the allotment. Endless talk and laughter, drink and good homemade food over a background of hit songs from the forties.

If there is such a thing as heaven...I imagine Paul's as a kind of idealised cross between Lewes and Brighton in the 1930s, full of steam engines and coal smoke, advertisements for Kolynos Toothpaste, Robin Starch and Keatings Flea Powder. A heaven of thriving hot-metal printworks, manufacturers, bakers, brewers and other industries called Royal-this and Empire-that, with pie and mash shops, the Brighton Belle and Max Miller at the Hippodrome for One Night Only.

Bank Holiday cycle tripes out to rural pubs and tea-rooms, behind which stand the Downs, covered with Southdown sheep and seagulls forever following the plough. Steam-driven fairground gallopers, Harvest Homes and the singing of old songs. The pubs all full of dark wood and engraved mirrors, billycock hats, pipe smoke and pianos.

And if you heard laughter coming from inside, you'd certainly know the one Wheeler was in! Paul was an English Man with all that entails, but essentially he was a Sussex Boy. You can be a hundred years old in Sussex and still be a boy.

Monday, November 10, 2008

'I had a very interesting dream last night...'

I thought I'd heard all of the best Oscar Wilde quotes, but in Saturday's Guardian, John Lanchester mentioned one I hadn't come across. Apparently, Wilde commented that the most frightening words in the English language are 'I had a very interesting dream last night.'

I couldn't agree more.

Few things bore me more than listening to people talking about their dreams. I have had the misfortune of knowing several individuals who possess a photographic memory of their nocturnal musings and insist on relating every single detail as if it's the most interesting thing in the world.

It isn't.

With a few exceptions, dreams are boring. I'm not convinced that they provide an insight into the subconscious mind and even if they do, that doesn't necessarily mean it's worth hearing about. I blame Freud.

If I had a quid for every time someone's told me that they had a 'really weird dream last night' followed by a long, drawn out description of uninteresting, random events, I'd be a rich man. Worst of all are those New Age types who think that their dreams constitute a profound insight into the spirit world and actually have a meaning.

The only dreams I have ever found interesting are Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled and this:

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Postcards from the Front

My father's parents never had any money and when they died, a few weeks apart, they left a few bits of furniture, some jewellery, a couple of medals and a box of photograph albums. With the callousness of youth, I remember feeling quite cheated. I'd bargained on getting a few pounds to spend on my collection of Marvel comics. Instead, I inherited two boring old medals which weren't even worth enough to sell.

Later, when I learned about the First World War, I realised that the medals were priceless and understood what my grandfather had endured to earn them. At an age when he should have been learning a trade, he joined up and spent two years being shelled, shot at and gassed. When he returned to civillian life, he was only able to find work as an unskilled labourer. Working class soldiers were merely canon fodder and in 1918, there was no talk of 'a land fit for heroes'.

Among the photo albums my grandparents left are two collections of postcards from the First World War. Most of them were made in Britain, but there were also quite a few produced by enterprising Parisians, like this one:

I have several other 'Sketches of Tomm'ys' life and it's quite striking how cynical they seem compared to some of the more maudlin, sentimental British postcards:

Cards like the one above were very popular, usually sold in a set of four, featuring the lyrics from a popular song of the time. They make a stark contrast with images like this:

What's striking about the picture above is the fact that this harrowing image is an official photograph. I would have thought that this graphic depiction of modern trench warfare wouldn't provide much reassurance to the families of soldiers, but maybe people took comfort from the fact that 'our boys' were able to deal with anything the Hun threw at them.

In my ignorance, I had no idea that there were Indian Knights of the Realm in those days. I like General Joffre's uniform. Apparently, when he was made Commander-in-Chief of the French forces, he'd never commanded an army in his life, which probably explains why he was so rubbish.

I love this postcard. 'Fritz' looks fairly nonchalant, as if he's looking forward to a long break from the horrors of the Front. But just in case you thought we were being too soft on the enemy:

Thirsty German prisoners in their barbed wire cage. That'll show 'em! But what's that pile of dirt on the ground? Is Fritz trying to tunnel under the wire?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Like a circle in a spiral, Like a wheel within a wheel...

I love this song, but Noel (son of Rex) Harrison's performance in this clip isn't his finest hour. He looks vaguely distracted, as if he's trying to keep a straight face whilst someone is felating him.

Epilectics should watch out for the crazy camera work and special effects:

Monday, November 03, 2008

McCain vs Obama on Sim City

With the US election only a day away, I decided to conduct a scientific experiment using the computer game Sim City 3000. For those of you that live in blissful ignorance of these things, it's known as a God game, in that you are able to create a whole city and affect its development by tweaking your city's finances. Spend too little on public services and your citizens will leave the city to escape from escalating crime rates and poor health care. Spend too much and people will still leave, as the economy is buggered.

Yesterday I decided to test the two presidential hopefuls' policies in Sim City, establishing one city for each candidate.

Here is the John McCain city:

As you can see, the city is has been ravaged by terrorism and environmental problems. I can also see signs of a UFO attack, which would suggest that McCain isn't just content with alienating other countries. In the McCain city, there are plenty of employment opportunities for the emergency services and the military, but overall there are very few jobs available for the average citizen.

There were many theories about what the mysterious bulge was on the left side of McCain's face, including one suggestion that it was Lord Voldemort. Sim City doesn't provide an answer, but in our simulation McCain is now dead and Sarah Palin is talking about the 'end times'.

Now here is the Barack Obama city:

This city enjoys full employment, resulting in a low crime rate and a bouyant local economy. President Obama's enlightened foreign policy has guaranteed freedom from attacks by terrorists and instead a pursuing a new Cold War, the USA is working with the major powers to tackle climate change and develop a base on the moon for peaceful research.

As you can see, there is a good balance between civic spaces and commercial buildings, making this a very desirable place to live. The widening gap between rich and poor is now narrowing, thanks to Obama's prudent fiscal policies.

So there you have it: a conclusive computer simulation that will hopefully help the good people of America make the right choice tomorrow.

God Bless America.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Lost in Translation

In the Swansea district of Morriston, residents lives were being made a misery by HGV lorries taking deliveries to a local supermarket. Swansea Council obligingly agreed to do something about it and commissioned a road sign.

Council officials agreed on the wording then, as all official signs in Wales have to be bilingual, emailed a translator, who responded with commendable speed. A few weeks later, council workers installed the new road sign:

Unfortunately, the Welsh text reads 'I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.'

Thank you David Evans for drawing my attention to this. As you don't have a blog (and you really should) I have no qualms in stealing this story.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Damien Hirst for kids

I am feeling very virtuous as I have just taken my sons out for five hours, in spite of an appalling hangover and dreadful weather. We visited Herstmonceux Science Centre, which was a great hit with the boys but proved to be something of a mistake for me, as the last thing I needed was flashing lights and loud noises.

The highlight of the trip was a machine that created spin pictures, which you could then save and send to your email address:

And here is the finished result:

This is probably the most fun you can have with colours without resorting to drugs.

On the subject of drugs, last week's News Quiz reported that schoolchildren had been given pencils that bore the slogan Too Cool to Do Drugs. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but nobody realised that after the pencil was sharpened a few times, the message became Cool to Do Drugs, followed by the simple command, Do Drugs.