Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Today in Sussex...

On a whim I stopped my car and walked into this church. Like every other medieval church I've been to recently, it was stunning. I almost wish I wasn't a heathen.
People like to complain about the declining standards of written and spoken English as if there was a golden age, but 300 years ago things were far worse. Every church I go in seems to have different spellings of everyday words.

This is Bewl Water - a reservoir on the Sussex-Kent border. It almost looks as if Excalibur should appear out of the water

I have no idea what this antiquated mobile phone (or is it a pager?) is doing in the middle of a wood. It's striking how impotent and pointless technology looks in this setting.

This is a teabag in a holly bush. I don't know why either.

Young love

Transplant this sign to certain parts of London and I suspect that it would be a little controversial...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

This afternoon in Brighton...

A new arrival, paying the traditional act of homage to the City of Brighton and Hove
His exclusive new address, only a hundred yards from the seafront

Found in a hole in a wall: 'Save the Winged Badger Shark'

A lock of hair from King Edward IV (1461-83) in Brighton Museum

He used to work in the City

A young couple, probably from London, on a day out.
They sat in silence.

FACT: Britain has more CCTV cameras per person than any other country in the world

Bestselling crime writer Peter James wanted to give something back to the boys in blue and decided to buy them a police car with a small, understated reference to its donor.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Healthy eating

The Government don't like fat people, although they would never admit it. Instead they constantly bang on about having your five a day and getting regular exercise. I can't argue with that, but I wish that their motives were altruistic rather than fiscal.

The Goverment's ultimate nightmare are people like the Chawner family, for example. Philip Chawner and his wife Audrey both weigh 24st and neither of them have worked for 11 years due to obesity-related health problems. The Chawners receive £22,500 in benefits which is the equivalent of a take-home salary of £30,000. Not a fortune, but not bad either.

However Mr Chawner complains that £22,500 'barely covers the bills and puts food on the table. It's not our fault we can't work. We deserve more.'

Mrs Chawner agrees: 'All that healthy food, like fruit and veg, is too expensive. We're fat because it's in our genes. Our whole family is overweight.'

The press haven't been very kind to the poor old Chawners, who have only just recovered from the humiliation of their daughter Emma's appearance on the X Factor:

But beyond the comical aspects of this story, there is a sinister undertone. Most people would agree that it's a little galling that a family receive state benefits because they have rendered themselves unemployable through overeating. However, there are many reasons why people are unhealthy and it is dangerous to imply that individuals are always accountable for their own illnesses.

And if you are unlucky enough to visit hospital as a result of failing to heed the Government's advice, what nutritional food and beverages can you look forward to?

I once tried to find some fruit juice in a hospital and failed miserably. Maybe they don't really want us to be healthy. After all, if we all had a healthy BMI and only ate fresh, organic fruit and vegetables, what would our doctors and nurses do with themselves?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Going Dutch

I've just finished reading The Assault by Harry Mulisch (the more dapper of the two gentlemen in the photo), an excellent novel which deserves a wider readership. Born in 1927, Mulisch has an interesting background. His father was an Austrian-born Nazi collaberator who spent three years in prison after the Second World War. Mulisch's mother, however, was Jewish.

Mulisch once joked that he was the Second World War and in many respects, The Assault is the work of a writer trying to reconcile himself with his mixed inheritance. Set between 1945 and 1981, this novel manages to say an awful lot in its 180-odd pages. I hope that this European classic doesn't disappear into the ether of obscure fiction in translation.

This is the third great novel I've read by a Dutch writer in as many months and yet Holland hasn't exactly set the literary world on fire. Why is this? There are many possible answers, but none of them are entirely satisfactory and if you apply the same criteria to other countries (weighting the results according to population and number of people speaking the relevant language) the results vary wildly.

Why has the Czech Republic produced so many world-class writers compared to Poland, Switzerland or Finland, for example? Why have France and Russia contributed more to world literature than Germany and Italy?

If you take the English-speaking world, although every relevant nation has produced a good crop of writers, for some reason Ireland and Canada are head and shoulders above everyone else. The number of great Irish writers is particularly impressive when you consider that Ireland's population is 2% of the USA total.

But I'm rambling. My point is this: is there a thriving literary tradition in Holland waiting for an enlightened Anglophone publisher to share it with an English-speaking audience, or are Harry Mulisch and W.F.Hermans big fish in a very small stream?

If Antal Szerb's wonderful Journey by Moonlight could be regarded as a classic of Hungarian literature for 60 years before anyone bothered to translate it, then that would suggest that we have a lot to look forward to.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Nice and the Good

Last Christmas my wife bought our three-year-old son one of the most ingeniously evil products of the 21st century. At first glance it looks like an innocuous DVD compilation of television programmes for toddlers. However - and this is the evil bit - it has a special feature that enables the DVD to play an endless selection of random episodes.

Who could possibly want this feature? Crack addicts? Kidnappers?

I feel bad enough when I realise that I've left my children watching television for three hours. It's so easy to do, particularly when you have so many important things to do. Like blogging.

I feel particularly guilty when my sons start to plead with me to turn the television off and as an act of atonement, I invariably end up taking them somewhere wholesome like a nature reserve or historic building. Then, for a couple of hours, we can pretend that we are a perfect family and I am giving them an idyllic childhood.

I blame the weather. The English winter is usually a miserable time of year, with short, dark, damp days that don't lend themselves to going outdoors. It's only four months long, but that's enough time to go stir crazy with two boys who, like dogs, need to taken out for exercise every day. We always aim to do that, but on cold, rainy days the temptation to put on the television is hard to resist.

My oldest son is obsessed with watching movies. That's actually a very good thing, as it's meant that I've been able to introduce him to films like A Matter of Life and Death, North by Northwest and Planet of the Apes. However, he can't watch these in front of his young brother, so they usually end up watching CBeebies.

In many ways CBeebies is very good. There are no adverts and the programmes, nearly all of which are home-grown, aim to educate as well as entertain pre-school children. However it is so nauseatingly nice and goody-goody.

I don't normally agree with A.A.Gill, but I couldn't help smiling when he wrote, in his usual provocative way that:

'As far as I can tell, which isn't very far, all children's television is policed by committees of single-parent lesbians, nursery assistants, social workers, outreach-policy face communicators and possibly Esther Rantzen. Everything is made to inculcate simple, short messages about honesty, kindness, inclusivity, cosiness and the sensible eating of organic, unprocessed food.'

I'm hard to please. I would be the first to moan if CBeebies wasn't like this, but there is something nauseating about the way it is handled. Gill continues:

'I'm all for moral television. But kids TV now isn't about good and evil. It's about constructing the image of a world where there is no evil at all, no sharp edges, nothing but cute lessons without blame, a bland conformity and lots of hugs. By chance I caught a Tom and Jerry cartoon this week and by comparison it was astonishing. It seemed so fabulously anarchic and naughty, a world made up entirely of danger and death. And it was so funny.'

Perhaps that is the problem. CBeebies is never funny. It never dares to appeal to the dark side of little children - the part of their brain that thinks it's hilarious to hit others on the head with a shoe or stamp on a small creature. CBeebies is stage one in a programme to raise a generation of balanced, empathic and unprejudiced adults, but will it have the opposite effect?

It's good to see that organizations like the BBC are trying to be forward-thinking and make programmes that aren't always dominated by white, middle-class people, but do they have to do it in such a cackhanded way?

Take Balamory, for example. For the uninitiated, this is a programme for toddlers set in a small village on a Scottish island. I don't know that much about Hebridean fishing villages, but I would imagine that they don't have huge ethnic minorities. However, Balmory is a multi-cultural community informed by mutual respect and inclusivity:

That's a good thing isn't it? So why do I feel so nauseated by Balamory's anodyne vision?

I think it's because I can sense people ticking boxes. The programmes may no longer feature an almost entirely white, middle-class cast (with a token loveable/criminal working class character), but the people making these programmes are mainly graduates from nice backgrounds and they seem to have rather crude approach to casting that smacks of tokenism.

My younger son hates Balamory. He say's it's boring, but can't tell me why. I suspect that it's not silly or funny enough to engage him. His favourite series is the Wiggles - an Australian programme featuring four men who like they've been made redundant from Star Trek:

After listening to 'Wiggly Party' for the 53rd time (and I'm not exagerating for dramatic effect), the music tends to grow on you and I have become a bit of a Wiggles fan myself.

I like the Wiggles because it's very good at what it does - entertaining small children - and doesn't try to educate or preach. The songs are catchy and, most of all, it's nice to see men of my age (who have been ethnically cleansed from British children's television) jumping up and down without doing their backs in:

People you didn't know were still alive (No.1, of an occasional series)

Karl Malden is 97 today. I had no idea that he was still alive and was even more surprised to discover that last year, he celebrated his 70th wedding anniversary.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

This clip is famous but I still meet people who've never heard of it, so I had to post this gem.

This is a BBC archive recording of a live radio broadcast from the 1937 Royal Navy Review at Spithead. In those days the British navy was the largest in the world and the review at Spithead was a great spectacle.

The BBC decided that they needed an expert to convey the full splendour of this event to a radio audience and decided to give the job to Lt Commander Tommy Woodroffe.

Unfortunately, as you will hear, he was pissed out of his head:

Lt Commander Woodroffe's broadcast certainly created a stir, but fortunately the BBC had a sense of humour and he was only suspended for a week. A year later he was commentating on football matches and during one game, which was 29 minutes into extra time, he commented 'If there's a goal scored now, I'll eat my hat.' A few seconds later, someone scored.

To Tommy Woodroffe's credit, he did eat his hat.

Monday, March 16, 2009

It is better to travel...

Doctor Johnson famously quipped that the Giant's Causeway was 'worth seeing, but not worth going to see.' I was reminded of this quote last week as I spent around five hours in my car for a one hour guided tour of Dover Castle's secret war tunnels.

Perhaps it was my fault. I had decided to drive along a road signposted as the Tourist Coastal Route. This involved crawling at 30mph behind a variety of slow vehicles. Some of the bigger ones had flashing lights and warning signs to let me know that they wouldn't be breaking the sound barrier, but the old age pensioners had adopted a more stealthy approach, shooting out of side roads at a breakneck speed before settling down to a steady 27mph.

As for the 'Tourist Coastal Route', although I wasn't expecting the Pacific Highway, I had hoped for a little more than a concrete sea wall, badly-built bungalows and half-empty retail parks. It was hard to believe that my parents had once gone for a week's holiday in such a desolate place.

Dover is the sort of place you pass through rather than visit. However it does have two tourist attactions. The first is a 3,600 year-old boat from the Bronze age which, unfortunately, just looks like a large bit of driftwood. The second is Dover Castle which, in addition to a collection of buildings from different periods, boasts a four-mile complex of secret tunnels built right into the famous white cliffs.

The tunnels were started during the Napoleonic wars, but the bulk of them were built before and during the Second World War and were used as both a hospital and an operational headquarters. As France is only 21 miles away across a narrow, shallow channel of water, they had a vital strategic importance.

They say that on a clear day you can see France. All I saw was a plain white sky with the hazy outlines of distant tankers:

The Germans continually shelled Dover and this part of the coast was known as 'Hellfire corner'. Fortunately the tunnels were completely protected and in rooms like this, Vice-Admiral Ramsay's team plotted the successful evacuation of 380,000 British soldiers from Dunkirk:

Apparently, women were allowed to wear trousers in this room because they had to do a lot of bending over (all in the line of duty, of course).

I enjoyed seeing the war tunnels, but were they worth spending most of the day driving to? Perhaps they would have been if I had discovered them by accident, but impressive as they were, the tunnels were exactly what I expected. The real joy of travel lies in serendipity.

Perhaps this is why the real highlight of the day was a 12th century church that I knew nothing about and visited on impulse. On the outside it was a fairly average medieval church, surrounded by fields of indifferent sheep and lichen-covered gravestones. However, inside it was unlike any church I've ever seen:

Apparently the pews were painted pink by the Disney Corporation, who used the church as a location for their film Dr Syn. You would imagine that the parishioners took a dim view of having their church painted pink, but they loved it and the colour scheme has remained.

In St Clement's there is a small annex, hidden behind a thick velvet curtain. A sign warns that it is dangerous to try and climb the stairs and my first reaction was to decry it as yet another example of our obsession with health and safety. However, in this case I agree:

Centuries of woodworm have rendered these beams almost unusable and the bell tower is now silent.

I was in St Clement's for at least half an hour and wasn't disturbed once. I would rather be alone in an obscure rural church than join a guided tour in a 'heritage' sight, where visitors are processed and have little or no time for reflection.

I was quite awestruck to have an 800-year-old building all to myself. However, Dover Castle can easily put St Clement's into the shade:

This is the Pharos - a Roman lighthouse that is 2000 years old. I had no idea that a building like this existed in Britain and I find it utterly bizarre that it is a relatively minor part of Dover Castle's collection. I naively thought that historical sites were all about going 'Ooh' and 'Ahh' at how old things were. Apparently not. Perhaps the Pharos just isn't sexy enough.

Next week I think I'll cut out the destination part of the journey and just drive. It really is better to travel than arrive (unless you're flying Ryanair).

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reservoir Mr Men...

I found this photo the other day, from when I ran a bookshop in Slough.

1 children's event + 2 Mr Men costumes + 0 children =

In Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino was clearly heavily influenced by Roger Hargreaves, naming his characters Mr Orange, Mr Pink, Mr Brown etc.

We decided to return the compliment.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Where have all the customers gone?

I saw this shop earlier today:

I have a horrible feeling that the gentleman in the doorway is the owner.

I revisited Hastings today, on the way back from a magistrates' training session. I decided to reassess my earlier remarks about the physical attributes of Hastings' citizens, as my wife said that they were rather unkind. I'm afraid to say that today's visit only confirmed my views. I don't think I've ever visited a town with so many malformed people and when I walked along the street, I felt like a freakish giant.

I think Hastings desperately needs a university and a decent rail link to London, if only to improve the gene pool.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The best of times, the worst of times...

The spring of 2005 was one of the best and worst times of my life. On the one hand I was opening a new branch of Ottakar's - only two minutes' walk from the beach - and had recruited a wonderful team of staff. On the other, my father was slowly dying in hospital and several times a week, I had to drive 150 miles to visit him.

The combination of a dying parent and a heavy workload was a recipe for disaster and when, in the middle of it all, my wife discovered she was pregnant and started to feel really ill, I could have felt overwhelmed by events. However, it was work that saved me. By keeping busy and focusing on opening my new bookshop, I managed to stay sane.

It might seem counter-intuitive to repress grief, but it worked for me. In the short-term, at least.

There was something special about the shop in Worthing. There was an incredibly good morale and even though the age gap between the oldest and youngest member of staff was 48 years, it didn't stop us all having a good time at the pub.

When we opened, we had less than a month to prepare for the launch of the sixth Harry Potter novel. We were busy enough just trying to get the shop running smoothly, but a new Harry Potter book was too good an opportunity to miss, as a successful launch would really put our shop on the map.

I say 'our shop' because I think everyone felt a sense of ownership. I certainly did everything I could to encourage that view and it paid dividends. In the four weeks between opening the shop and the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, everyone worked at a feverish pace to prepare for the launch. As a result, the evening was a triumph.

If you wonder why I'm writing about something that happened four years ago, it's because I've just discovered how to convert the video I made of the launch into a format that can be uploaded to YouTube.

I hope this film captures something of the fun we had at Ottakar's. One of the booksellers used to be a drama teacher and was in his element as the master of ceremonies. I'm not a Harry Potter fan, but it would take a heart of stone not to enjoy an evening like this.

If you can't face the full five minutes, jump to 2'30". I came up with a fairly novel solution to the problem of suddenly producing the books at midnight:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Post-apocalypse Now

It's interesting to see how many mainstream, literary authors are writing post-apocalyptic novels at the moment. It's no mystery why. With global warming, terrorism, the end of oil and, now, the recession hitting the headlines every other day, people no longer enjoy the same sense of security that they had ten years ago. Every age has its neuroses, whether they are about God, sex, death or class. Ours is about the future.

Are we living at the end of this particular civilisation? If so, what are the causes? Can we avoid that same fate that has befallen every other empire in history? If not, what will become of humanity?

Published last week, Far North is the latest addition to the growing number of dystopian novels and has been compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I'm not sure how valid that comparison is. Yes, civilisation has collapsed. Yes, the main character is on a quest to find a place of safety and yes, there are gangs of marauding bandits, but the similarity ends there. McCarthy barely hinted at the nature of the disaster and his novel was ultimately about the love between a father and son.

Marcel Theroux is more ambitious, daring to answer the big questions.

I've just finished reading a proof copy and the result is less satisfying than Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece, but Far North is still a cracking read which should appeal to a wide cross-section of readers. Theroux is a natural storyteller and doesn't allow his narrative to become hostage to the novel's central message.

Set in Siberia in the near future, Far North begins in the ruins of a city established by people who thought that they could flee the coming global crisis. The sole survivor, Makepeace, ekes out on existence by scavenging and growing plants from seeds found in an abandoned hardware store. Makepeace could probably survive this way until death, but somethings happens which changes the course of Makepeace's life and the story that follows is utterly compelling.

The origins of Far North lie in Marcel Theroux's own life. In 2004, he was asked to present a television programme about climate change and claims that he was asked because he knew very little about the subject and had few preconceived ideas, other than a vague belief that environmentalist were spoilsports.

The experience had a huge effect on Theroux and he became firmly convinced by the environmentalists' arguments.

Two years later, Theroux made Death of a Nation - a documentary about
Russia's problems since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Theroux travelled extensively in Russia, visiting places that closely resembled the post-apocalyptic landscapes of the imagination. Theroux's descriptions of the bleak, Siberian taiga and its sparse settlements are one of Far North's greatest strengths.

Once known as the 'third Theroux', Marcel Theroux says that he has learned to live with the fact that he was first Paul's son, then Louis' brother. However, on the strength of his latest novel, I wouldn't be surprised if he eclipses both of them in the future.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


When I was 10, I was sent away to a children's home by the sea. Run by a charity, it was a rather strange place and wouldn't have been out of place in a Charles Dickens novel. My parents were only allowed to visit me once a month and when they arrived, I always begged them to take me to Hastings.

We even went there for a holiday. That's how good Hastings was.

Then, in the 1980s, things changed. Most people could afford to holiday abroad and the traditional British coastal resorts slowly died. In the case of Hastings, the local authorities entered into a Faustian pact in which unemployed people from different parts of Britain could leave their home towns and live in the local hotels and guest houses.

It seemed like a win-win situation.

The hotels had a guaranteed income and the unemployed were swapping an industrial town for a holiday resort. Unfortunately, although there may have been an injection of cash into the local economy, the end result was named by the tabloids as the Costa del Dole - a haven for petty thieves, drug addicts and teenage mothers.

I've no idea how much of this is true, but this image of Hastings, combined with the appalling transport connections, meant that it was one of the least desirable areas in Sussex. Silly people like me spent a fortune on tiny houses in Lewes, whilst the really clever ones bought beautiful, huge Victorian houses in the Old Town of Hastings.

I went to Hastings today for the first time in years. Parts of it are undeniably hideous and many of the locals look like the remnants of some failed experiment to cross-breed humans with apes, but I still really like it. If you want character, Hastings has it. If Hastings was a person, it would be a mad, alcoholic uncle who used to be a sailor. Never dull, slightly threatening and full of surprises.

The first surprise today was the West Hill Lift, a strange, Victorian funicular railway, tucked away in a back street:

For a mere £2, you can buy a return ticket that takes you up to Hastings Castle and a tourist attraction called Smugglers' Adventure. As a rule, I find that anything with the word adventure in it usually falls a long way short of anything approaching mild excitement, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Situated in a network of dimly-lit, man-made caves, Smugglers' Adventure managed to be both entertaining and informative, with an atmosphere that was spooky enough to excite children without completely traumatising them.

My son loved this bloodthirsty scene:

However I was more interested in this strange figure carved in the rock:

Its origins are unknown and whilst many believe it is a medieval saint, it is also possible that this is a much older pagan image that predates Christianity.

The more I looked at it, the more I was reminded of this character from Star Trek:

After the caves, we walked around the Old Town and explored some of the quirky, interesting shops. In one bookshop I found this beautiful edition of a novel by R.M.Ballantyne:

I was tempted to buy it just for the illustrations:

Not to mention this book plate:

I wonder who Bertie Mason was. Did he survive the Great War? When did he die? He may have descendants out there who would love to have this book.

I would have loved to have spent longer browsing through the shelves, but when you have a nine-year-old boy with you it's not possible. I shall have to return. This bookshop in particular appealed; the opposite of today's dull, sterile chain bookshops:

The Old Town is lovely and I started to wish that I'd been one of those forward-thinking Londoners who decided to forgo the dubious pleasures of a two-bedroom flat in Brighton for a four-bedroom Victorian house in Hastings. I'd be in excellent company, with at least two fellow bloggers as neighbours.

There's no denying that much of Hastings is rough, but even the less desirable parts of the town have some beautiful buildings that have a seedy opulence about them and perhaps Hastings' decline and poor transport links to London have saved it from the sort of gentrification that has turned parts of Sussex into extensions of Islington.

Before we left, we passed a boating lake that was closed for the winter:

Can you see a strange object in the foreground? On closer inspection it turned out to be a tiny bald, tutu-wearing doll, planted in the murky bed of the pond:

It was too big to be one of Slinkachu's Little People, but it wasn't there by accident.

Today's visit reminded me why I loved Hastings so much as a boy. Why had it taken me so long to go back?