Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Ladybird Book of the Recession

This is a department store. It sells clothes, electrical goods, furniture, food, books, records and toys.

Hundreds of people work in the store.

The store makes thousands of pounds every day, but it also costs a lot of money to run .

People like visiting the store, but they prefer to buy things elsewhere.

The man in charge of the store is called the General Manager.

He is being told that fewer people are buying things in the store than last year.

He is worried.

This building is a warehouse belonging to a new type of shop.

This shop has no branches, but sells things to people who have computers. When a customer buys something, it is put in a box and sent to their home.

This is called internet shopping.

Internet shopping is cheaper because there are no shops to pay for.

These men are very important. They are called directors and pay themselves a lot of money.

The directors are talking about how they can stop the store from closing.

They either need to sell more things or spend less money running the store.

This is Colin. He is very polite and enjoys gift-wrapping things for customers, but he does it very slowly.

The store can save money if it gets rid of Colin.

This is a fashion show, where customers can see new clothes.

The man in the front is very interested in the pretty lady's green coat, but he knows that it will be cheaper on the internet.

The lady's green coat costs £459. That is also how much each of these women are paid in a year.

This is called a sweat shop. In a sweat shop people work very hard to make clothes that can be sold for much more money than they cost to make.

The internet shop sells the green coat for £195.

Miss Pettiman works in the Human Resources department. She is telling Pam that the store cannot afford to employ her any more.

Pam is very upset. She has just bought a house with her husband .

Stanley Meakins has worked in the store for 44 years.

He is unhappy because he is going to be replaced by a computer.

With fewer staff, the store will lose less money.

But unless it can sell things at the same price as the internet shop, the store may still have to close.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

One hour ago...

Winter on the Downs. The ice crystals are pretty, but not quite as impressive as these:

Richard at the excellent Grey Area posted this picture a couple of months ago and I assumed that it was a still from some sort of Fantastic Journey-style science fiction film. However these are real people exploring a cave full of giant calcium sulphate crystals. The cave was discovered eight years ago in Mexico and I'm surprised that this remarkable image isn't more well known.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Round Robins

I have been away for Christmas, staying in a house that overlooks the local nuclear power station. The only thing that kept me sane was reading WF Hermans' novel The Darkroom of Damocles - a Dutch masterpiece from the 1950s that has only just been translated into English.

When I returned to Lewes I found a large pile of cards on the doormat, two of which were 'round robins'. I can only assume that they were sent in error, as I haven't been on speaking terms with either of the senders for a long time. One of the round robins was insufferably smug and depressingly banal in equal measure. The other was merely unintentionally annoying.

I hate round robins. I don't particularly want to know about people's wonderful holidays abroad or read about the progress of their home decorating (one letter informed me that the author's curtains were steam cleaned in August).

Also, as the father of a dyslexic child who is about to be screened for an 'Autistic Spectrum Disorder', the last thing I need is proud parents boasting about their perfect children. I'm sure it's very nice that darling Hector is happy at school and has just passed his Grade 7 Flute, but my son has just punched a hole in the wall and spent the best part of an hour screaming with rage, so I'm not really in the mood for tales of exam successes and artistic accomplishments.

One of the round robins informed me that:

2008 has been a rather fab year. Even all the building work was fun. Zoan (yes, Zoan) loved watching the diggers, climbing up the scaffolding (+up... +up!) while me and Pandora huddled ever closer as our living became smaller and more primitive. The wonderful transformation revealed itself just in time for the summer hols.

After an account of Zoan and Pandora's progress at kindergarten, the letter concluded by expressing the wish that 2008 'bought you joy, new possibilities, an opening mind + heart'.

The author of this letter is an extremely nice woman who is intelligent, considerate and self-effacing. However, even she could not manage to write a round robin that wasn't slightly nauseating.

I'm not a complete misanthropist. I like to know what's happened to people and it's great when a Christmas card is accompanied by a small note or letter, but I want them to be personal. I appreciate that writing dozens of letters is time consuming but if you value people enough to stay in touch, surely they're worth a quarter of an hour of your time?

And if people really do have too many letters to write, why can't they type up a standard round robin and customise each one to make it look like a personal letter?

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Three hours ago...

Some people have got it; most haven't. The man in the middle definitely has.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My Christmas list

Yesterday I went to the irritatingly-named Toys "R" Us to buy some Christmas presents. I normally refuse point blank to visit shopping malls and superstores, but if I dared to allow selfishness to come between my children and the perfect Christmas, I knew that there would be consequences.

Toys "R" Us is bad enough at the best of times, but the last Thursday before Christmas promised to be hell on earth. The scene would be a Bruegellian nightmare, with crowds of people in flannellete tracksuits pushing and shoving each other. Hideous.

I walked through the door preparing myself for unarmed combat, but to my amazement the place was almost empty. At a glance, I'd say that the ratio of staff to customers was three to one.

The only shoppers I saw were a rather large couple who looked (and smelled) as if they hadn't bothered washing and dressing when they got up, a woman who was so busy texting that she lost her two-year-old son twice within five minutes, a man who looked uncannily like Max Clifford and a chav couple who stood on either side of me and shouted at each other, almost deafening me in the process.

If anyone needed tangible evidence of a recession, it was here.

Later, I visited Woolworths. They seemed to be selling an awful lot of electric fans, reduced from £5.99 to £3.49. I didn't buy anything.

I would love to think that we had seen the error of our ways and were abondoning the soulless orgy of consumerism that is Christmas for something more meaningful. However I suspect that people are buying the same old crap, but now they're doing it on the internet.

Most of our Christmas presents have been ordered from Amazon, which wouldn't have bothered me until last Sunday, when I read this article in the Sunday Times. According to an investigation by undercover reporters, workers in Amazon's UK depots are being forced to work seven days in a row and are penalised for being off sick, even if they produce a doctor's note. I love Amazon, but this has really put me off them and I will try and find a more ethical way of buying books, like this supplier.

I don't really want anything for Christmas (unless you include a flat stomach and the ability to travel through time) but if I did have a Christmas list, it would include the following:

Action Man is boring. Obsessive-Compulsive Man is far more interesting, finding danger in the most incongruous situations. I have several friends with OCD and they'd love it.

I don't think that the above picture conveys the sheer genius of the Angry Mob Playset. As you can see below, they can angrily surround the most incongruous object and wave their torches and pitchforks in a thoroughly malevolent manner:

These Communist Russian dolls are a wonderful idea. It's a shame that Andropov and the other bloke (Chernyenko?) couldn't have been included, even if they were only chosen because they were terminally ill.

The Freud Action Figure would complement the OCD figure perfectly. The Freud figure could spend hours analysisng OCD Man, only to be superceeded by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Man (this figure isn't available yet, but it's only a matter of time).

I'm not quite sure what the rational is behind the Flying Monkey:

It is launched from the wrist, like a flying disc. I imagine that the joke would wear thin after a few minutes, unless you're like my late father-in-law, who continued to find his remote- controlled farting machine hilarious after several years.

I'd rather have something that would still give me pleasure in 20 years' time. This, perhaps:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

This cheered me up...

I found this song on Graham Lineham's blog. It's funny and, I thought, strangely touching. Also, unlike a lot of music today, it actually sounds as if it was made in 2008.

The video looks as if it cost at least $30 to make, but that's part of its charm...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Whatever happened to James Barlow?

It isn't easy to find a more obscure novelist than David Karp, but I think I've just succeeded. A recent visit to Camilla's Bookshop in Eastbourne yielded this novel, published in 1961:

Yes, that is Larry Olivier on the front cover and the girl is a very young Sarah Miles. Barlow's novel was turned into a film a year after publication and also starred Simone Signoret, Thora Hird and Terence Stamp.

Amazingly, it doesn't appear to have been released on DVD or VHS which, no matter how bad the film might be, is surprising given the distinguished cast.

In 1963, someone called Bosley Crowther published a damning review in the New York Times, complaining that:

'A hero more afflicted than Lazarus and more humble and patient than Job is not likely to cut a dynamic or captivating figure in a film, no matter how finely he is acted, even by Lawrence Olivier. And that's why "Term of Trial," which came to the Paramount yesterday, is not an exciting picture, for all its skittering around a sordid theme.

The meek and shabby high school teacher that Mr. Olivier plays in this British rehash of "Blackboard Jungle," with minor "Lolita" overtones, is a wistful and well-meaning fellow for whom your heart bleeds a drop or two as you watch him stoically enduring all sorts of troubles and woes. But he's just not enough of a person to make your blood run hot or cold.'

Crowther clearly doesn't like what he describes as the 'current British "kitchen sink" style' however on this side of the Atlantic the film appears to have been more successful and Olivier received a BAFTA nomination for his performance.

I have no idea how good or bad the film is, but the novel is a corker. Set in a nameless industrial town, Term of Trial is a bleak depiction of working class life at the end of the 1950s and its descriptions of sink estates are prescient for a novel written almost half a century ago. With a little editing it wouldn't be hard to pass Term of Trial off as a contemporary novel.

To give you a flavour of Barlow's style, here is the first page to click on:

As for Barlow himself, there is next to nothing about him on the internet. Not even a small Wikipedia entry. The author blurb says that he was born in 1921, when means that he may still be alive (he's a year older than our friend Sam Youd). However, like David Karp, he appears to have stopped writing novels at the end of the 1960s. I would love to know why.

Term of Trial may be derivative in places, but it is a thoughtful, well-written novel that is both a perceptive study of human nature and a compelling social document. It doesn't deserve to be out of print.

Addendum: James Barlow died in 1973, at the age of 51.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Remember Me

A month ago my father-in-law was at a party, drinking and chatting with people he'd met during his 50 years as a theatrical lighting designer. Today he was cremated. It was a harrowing occasion, given the shock of his sudden death, but it was also the best funeral I've ever attended, with over 150 people.

My father-in-law wasn't planning to die. On the contrary, he was intending to do a parachute jump in the spring and also hoped to travel to Australia with his wife. He didn't think about death. However, he was quite adamant that if anything did happen to him, he wanted a non-religious funeral. Today's service was moderated by someone from the British Humanist Association and it was more soulful than any religious service I've attended.

My father-in-law also expressed one other wish about his funeral: he wanted Dido's Lament played, from Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas:
When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate
Written 320 years ago, this is one of the most profound and moving pieces of music ever written and as a burial anthem, it beats Robbie Williams' No Regrets any day:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Susan Hill Mystery

I thought that Susan Hill was supposed to be the champion of book bloggers. Her love-in with Scott Pack seems to have come to an end, but she has been consistently outspoken in her support of book blogs over the last few years.

Two years ago she had a famous spat with the critic and academic, John Sutherland, who had written a very dismissive article about book bloggers. Hill responded with a diatribe against literary critics:

'How dare ... these 'literary mandarins' feel they are above us and by implication, above book buyers and readers? The fact is that the tide has turned and the people have power now. One day, their editors will wake up to the fact and give over their space to curling, or dominoes.'

One literary editor felt sufficiently moved by these comments to send Susan Hill this letter:

Dear Susan Hill,

After reading your Blog about Book Review pages, I would like you to know that no book either published or written by you will in future be reviewed on our Literary Pages.

In the light of your expressed views, I am sure you will neither be surprised or distressed.

It was real handbags at dawn stuff, with heated exchanges between the two sides. Journalist Rachel Cooke joined the Sutherland camp, ridiculing popular book blogs like Dove Grey Reader and Kimbofo.

Susan Hill responded by commenting that: 'the idea that those of us who blog about books and reading might somehow be degrading literary taste is a patronizing and ridiculous one. We are writing about books we love. Why on earth should we not do that in a blog, as anywhere else, and improve literary taste, whatever ‘literary taste’ means ?'

I was therefore slightly suprised to read Ms Hill make the following comment, in response to an excellent article by Robert McCrum in Sunday's Observer:

There is no substitute for a good literary editor and good books pages. They are not only about selling books they are part of a civilised culture. They are on the whole by people who have studied their trade/profession, whose opinion is of value because they have a trained mind. Book Blogs are by amateurs, self-appointed, unedited. They occupy miles of cyber space with endless rehashes of plots and valueless personal opinion. They don`t sell books and they are not worth reading for their own sakes.

What has prompted this complete volte-face? Is it an imposter having a little joke? On the other hand, perhaps this is a different Susan Hill. I've checked on Google and there are a lot of them about:

Suspect No.1 is also a writer. This Susan Hill lives in Montana and the author of Closer Than Your Skin: Unwrapping the Mystery of Intimacy with God, which is published by Random House USA.

I've read her author biog and I think she's too full of Christian charity to have written the above quote.

Suspect No.2 is a prominent American golfer and also an author, having co-written a book called Going for Green. The second Susan Hill also spearheads a campaign called Golfers Against Cancer. Although she looks as if she could be a little fierce at times, she doesn't come across as someone who has the killer instinct of an embittered hack.
Suspect No.3 lives in Detroit and was 1st runner-up in the 2003 Miss Congeniality competition and also got to first place in the state final of Miss Hooters Michigan-2005 (I must confess that this contest had passed me by, but it evidently has some kudos).

She does not do nudes. That's saved me a few minutes on Google and and also ruled out the possibility of my wife discovering the search terms susan hill...naked on my home page.

There is no mention of books in her 'resume' so I think that we can safely eliminate her.

I can't find out any information about Suspect No.4, except that she is Canadian. That alone incriminates her in my view, given Canada's status as a great literary nation. It is quite plausible that this is the guilty Susan Hill. And she wears glasses.

Our final suspect is an Irish acupuncturist who also practices 'moxibustion' (answers on a postcard please) and something that sounds deeply unpleasant: 'bleeding therapy'. I can't see this Susan Hill bothering to post a comment on Robert McCrum's article either. When you can stick needles in real people, who needs cyberspace?

So in conclusion, I'm none the wiser. I think that we can safely rule out the real Susan Hill, but I would love to know who thinks that book blogs 'aren't worth reading' and, more to the point, why they used someone else's name. It's a mystery.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


During a recent visit to Camilla's Bookshop in Eastbourne, I found this novel by Richard Condon:

It reminded how much superfluous nudity there used to be on book covers, before feminism, AIDS and the new conservatism of the 80s changed the cultural climate.

When I was fourteen my parents booked a week at a holiday cottage in Somerset. The owners had a large bookcase of paperback fiction and to me, coming from a house without books, it was an object of great curiosity. I went through the whole collection of novels and was particularly excited by the sexy cover designs, which seemed to promise so much:

I flicked through all of the Edna O'Briens, hoping to find some naughty bits that would give me an insight into what adults were getting up to. The covers suggested that people were at it all of the time, but the contents were generally disappointing. Even the Dennis Wheatley horror novels were extremely chaste, compared to their salacious covers:

Like real life, these novels promised so much and delivered so little. Breasts occasionally heaved and manhoods throbbed, but I was still none the wiser about what would be expected of me. Men seemed to 'take' women who, after an initial attempt at resistance, succumbed with half-closed eyes. I was confused. Wasn't that called rape?

Films didn't make things any clearer. Men behaved like complete bastards, women slapped them in the face and then they had a snog. If it was a French film, these actions were accompanied by long, convoluted conversations and chain smoking. I compared these people to my parents, who liked going to garden centres and Brentford Nylons. Where did I fit into all this?

A few years later a bookshop opened at the end of my road. It was absurdly small, but had a stock that was chosen by someone who clearly knew what he was doing. I went in out of curiosity and, for reasons I can't remember, ended up buying Turgenev's Spring Torrents. I'd never read a novel before and had no idea who Turgenev was, but his descriptions of people falling in love seemed to make much more sense than the worlds of Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins.

The Richard Condon and Edna O'Brien novels look rather incongruous amongst the respectable orange Penguins in Camilla's. I wondered how long they'd been on the shelf and was almost tempted to buy them just for the covers, but I got distracted by this:

The complete original script, on sale for a mere £1.50. A superb cover too, without a nipple in sight.

Treasure in the Attic

I was searching through my mother's loft earlier this year when I found this carrier bag:

The fashions would suggest that the design comes from around 1974, but given that retailers weren't exactly chasing the zeitgeist in those days, it could have been as late as 1979. Imagine the stigma of carrying your Buzzcocks album around in this bag.

I'm quite tempted to sell this on eBay, but I can't find a suitable category for carrier bags.

Perhaps I should buy some flares and walk around town with my Woolworths bag.

I already have the sideburns.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Dumb it down

I had almost forgotten that it was nearly Christmas. That is one of the many joys of no longer working in bookselling. No more late opening, no two-day Christmas break and, best of all, no bad-tempered customers venting their anger at me.

I made the mistake of going shopping in Brighton today. Everyone was in such a bad mood, resentfully lugging several carriers bags of presents. One man even told a pigeon to 'Fuck off!' because it was in his way. The shop assistants were all surprisingly jolly, but it was the insincere mania of people who were terrified of losing their jobs.

Like most other areas of retail, Christmas is make or break time for booksellers and in recent years the atmosphere has become increasingly desperate, as the chains try to compete with the internet and supermarkets. My last Christmas was a soulless experience. All of the key buying and marketing decisions had been taken out of my hands and I was left with checklists, planograms (telling me what shelves to display particular titles on) and KPI (key performance indicators) reports.

This was a great pity. I used to really enjoy the casino atmosphere of bookselling at Christmas, gambling thousands of pounds of someone else's money. I usually got it right and overall, my empoyers made more money when they trusted me to know my local market.

Another unfortunate development in the book trade has been the dumbing down of the Christmas bestellers, something that Ian Jack commented on in an excellent article in Saturday's Guardian:

'The newer development in publishing is the ruthless determination on all sides - publisher, book chain, supermarket - to sell books at Christmas beyond the audience who usually buy them. That has called for a different kind of book.'

The result is a depressing selection of celebrity memoirs and tv tie-ins, marketed as ideal gifts because, supposedly, we all like Dawn French/Julie Walters/Jeremy Clarkson etc. Caustic Cover Critic has written this superb summary of the year's Christmas bestsellers, of which there is only one title that I would vaguely consider reading.

These books will dominate the front of every chain bookshop because although no head office would admit it, they know that many Christmas customers doesn't know how to look for a book in a bookshop.

These titles will naturally be sold at huge discounts. However, booksellers will ensure that their overall margin is protected by selling the more upmarket bestselling titles at full price, as the middle classes aren't as price conscious. I suppose the charitable view is that this is a form of progressive taxation.

In the meantime, after year of reading first-rate books bought in secondhand shops, I don't see any reason why I would want to visit a chain bookseller again.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Hard Sell...

This sign has been on display outside a gift shop in Lewes for the last two months:

'Oh please, please come into our shop...'

Monday, December 01, 2008

A map of the heart...

I've always admired the BBC News website, but it's only now that I'm studying web design that I've come to realise just how accomplished it is. One of the tragedies of good design is that it's often unnoticeable to the layman.

The strength of the BBC News website is that in addition to providing a well-designed, accessible overview of the latest news and a huge archive of content, it regularly comes up with quirky, unusual articles that don't appear anywhere else.

Today, BBC News had a fascinating item about a map of loneliness in the UK:

The loneliest place in Britain is, apparently, Edinburgh, with Stoke-on-Trent at the opposite end of the spectrum. Initially I was surprised to see that the Midlands was the epicentre of human happiness, accompanied by Essex, South-East Wales, Tyneside and Ulster. What about beautiful places like the Highlands of Scotland, Cornwall and North Yorkshire?

The answer, of course, is that the parts of Britain that are generally regarded as the most desirable places to live have seen the highest levels of migration. Cornwall, for example, has suffered because migrants and second home owners have priced local people out of the area and ended centuries of continuity. In contrast, although the Midlands had a huge influx of Asian immigrants during the 60s and 70s, the population has been fairly stable for several decades and people feel connected to the area.

I am a migrant. I left Twickenham because I was priced out of the local housing market and no longer felt any connection to an area that had so many incomers. I moved to Lewes and unwittingly contributed towards the same process here. I love Sussex, but I am very conscious of being an outsider. They say that home is where the heart is, but mine is in fragments.

Judging from this map, it would seem that it doesn't matter where you live. The key to happiness is, as Plato wrote, having a sense of place.