Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bookshop Customers No.1 (in an occasional series): The Science Fiction Reader

People are very unkind about readers of science fiction and fantasy novels, portraying them as geeky virgins who still live with their parents. As a bookseller who has dealt with thousands of sci-fi fans over the years, I must protest at this crude generalisation. I have met at least seven science fiction readers who didn't conform to this stereotype.

My main issue with the sci-fi/fantasy fans was their relentless questions about forthcoming books. Giving customers information about new titles is part of a bookseller's job, but the fantasy readers nearly always drove me to a state of desperation.

'When's the next book in the Throngard saga coming out?' (We look books up by author and title, not saga and anyway, why are you asking me? Don't tell me you haven't spent ages looking at the author's website)

'Can you phone around your branches to see if they have a signed hardback of Terry Mobble's Planet of Woodlice?' (Of course; I've got nothing else to do)

'Is this any good?' (No of course it isn't, but it's got a map with a 'Western Sea' and some people with silly names and superfluous apostrophes - what more do you want?)

I became very adept at spotting any potential sci-fi/fantasy enquiries and would quickly hide, leaving the less experienced members of staff to learn the hard way. I felt a guilty pleasure at overhearing them say 'Sorry, but how do you spell P'taneth Mhoordu? Is it one word or two?'

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Garden Leave

'In the United Kingdom, Garden leave (or gardening leave) describes the practice whereby an employee who is leaving a job (having resigned or otherwise been terminated) is instructed to stay away from work during their notice period, while still remaining on the payroll.' - Wikipedia

What Wikipedia didn't mention was that Garden leave is usually only taken by senior management. Anyone lower down in the pecking order isn't considered worthy of such treatment and the terms of their departure are far less favourable.

I officially left my last job on May 17th 2008, but actually hadn't done a day's work since December 15th 2007. I had decided to award myself Garden leave.

Two years ago my garden looked as if it belonged to someone in an advanced state of psychosis. I remember seeing a documentary about a man who slowly lost his mind and started hording things to the point where he was unable to find a way out of his house. At some point his plumbing broke and he started to defecate in his own garden. I was appalled, but little did I know that my garden would start to look quite similar:

This isn't the garden at its worst. At this point the rats hadn't appeared, but it's pretty awful. I had just had some major building work take place and the garden had been used as a temporary dump. Left unattended for months, the garden quickly deteriorated into a post-apocalyptic landscape, rather like that town next to Chernobyl. It got so bad that I didn't see how I could ever have the time or energy to change things.

Fortunately, my former employer did me a huge favour. They presented me with a wonderful opportunity to take Garden leave; literally. The moment I stopped work, I started digging and began with a Soviet-style scorched earth policy:

I then set myself a budget of no more than £500. Was it possible to transform a garden for so little? I started by going to the local dump, where I was able to requisition paving stones and wood. This was followed by seeds and plants, none of which cost more than £5. Finally, I bought an Asda patio set for £95 and a play house for £130. Here is the finished result:

It won't win any competitions, but it is a big improvement on the radioactive wasteland that preceeded it. I have gone for the 'cottage garden' look (i.e throwing handfuls of seeds on the ground and seeing what happens)

I built the fence myself. I feel like a real man now.

This is a stone I found on a beach when I was 17. It looks more like a sculpture.

It's a small garden and a rather strange one, as it backs onto the upstairs bedroom. Lewes is built on a medieval grid of streets and in the Middle Ages, people tended to have courtyards rather than gardens (he wrote, not really knowing if it was true). But if I need space for my boys to run around, there are two huge fields within five minutes' walking distance, overlooked by Lewes Castle:

It's not the perfect answer. My two sons would be happier living in the countryside, but as urban environments go, I can't think of many places that offer more than Lewes.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'll never work in an office...

For most of my working life, I have been adamant that I never wanted to work in an office. I worked in one briefly when I was a student and felt like a battery hen. I hated the pointless regulations, the lack of natural light, the obsession with air conditioning and the constant whinging and backbiting. In a moment of desperation, I set fire to a sign that said that the building was completely fireproof.

Bookselling offered an escape. It was like an extension of university and, on the whole, a bullshit-free environment. I really appreciated the fact that there were so many different facets to the job, from the cerebral to the mundane. One minute I'd be talking to John Calder - Samuel Beckett's publisher - the next I'd be boxing-up a return of unsold stock.

People wondered how I managed to survive on such an appalling wage, but I felt that it was a price worth paying for not having somebody mess with your head (man). But then Waterstone's bought Ottakar's and it felt as if the bullshitters had taken over. Books became 'product'. Manangers' meetings started to resemble Communist Party conferences in the Soviet Union, with people clapping nervously at ever banal utterance from the platform.

The same thing was happening in publishing. The days of long, liquid lunches and golf on Friday were long gone, as the accountants moved in. I'm appalled to read that, according to today's news, publishing is the booziest industry in the UK, because today's publishers are a picture of sobriety compared to their predecessors. When I started in bookselling I used to hear tales from the 1960s that made me wonder how any books ever got published.

I left bookselling feeling fairly certain that I'd never work with books again. I was also resigned to the depressing prospect of working in an office. But guess what? I was wrong.

I love working in an office. I like the fact that somebody else is responsible for the minutiae of running a building: the health and safety regulations, the fire and security alarms and the cleaning. I love not having to worry about whether the staff are happy and motivated and it's absolute bliss not having to deal with the public. I don't even have to worry about the authors, because they're all dead. Fantastic!

It's just me and the books.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Lady Policeman

Yes this is lazy blogging and yes, I should be reading a book instead of wasting my time on YouTube, but I liked this pastiche of 1970s cop dramas, particularly the title sequence:

Friday, May 22, 2009

Think First

I feel a bit of an idiot.

This morning I checked my emails at work and saw one from an AbeBooks customer which read:

Hi, I'm interested in buying this book. Could you send me some photos of it and could you hold the book?

Why did he want me to hold the book? Was it so that he could get an idea of the book's size in relation to my hand, or was he some sort of freak who derived some weird gratification from making people perform pointless acts?

Within seconds I had visualised some sort of a rubber-clad gimp kneeling in front of their monitor, sending their perverse demands out into cyberspace.

I quickly got on my high horse and emailed a fairly pompous reply telling him that whilst I would gladly send images of the book, I would not be able to include ones of me holding it. Apart from anything, it would be difficult for me to hold a book and take a photograph at the same time.

An hour later he replied: Actually, I only meant could you reserve the book...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More bookmarks...

A new consignment arrived today and I spent an hour in the warehouse looking through crates of books, accompanied by what seemed to be a loop of Eminem, but turned out to be the radio. I quickly separated the wheat from the chaff and returned to the deathly quiet of my office.

Sorting through the books I found some more bizarre and intriguing bookmarks. My favourite was this one, from a 1940s book:

It reads a little like some sort of coded message between secret service agents, or possibly lovers. I'd love to know the background to this enigmatic note.

A tiny newspaper cutting. Who decided that it was worth cutting out and why? The 1970s used to be called the decade that style forgot, but these women look great.

Times change but the message stays the same: come here and you'll get laid. My parents took me to Butlins when I was 12 and it bore an uncanny resemblance to a prisoner of war camp. If I'd been there longer than one night, I'd have started digging tunnels.

There is a wonderful book called Boring Postcards published by Phaidon and, worryingly, this image would probably be too interesting to warrant inclusion. However, it's still quite a dull scene and I wonder who decided that this view would make a good postcard.

This is from a 'Code of Conduct' leaflet for bus drivers and conducters. This would undoubtedly explain the professionalism and cheery disposition of today's bus drivers.

What was it that I was saying about the 1970s? Hmm...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Prospecting for gold

I don't want to give the impression that I spend my whole day discovering first editions of classics.

I spend a lot more time weeding out Sooty annuals, Readers' Digest publications and tons of awful, middlebrow books from the 1920 and 30s that will never come back into fashion. However, it only takes one book to make it all worthwhile.

The other day I was wading through a pretty unpromising plastic crate when a rather scruffy, thin little book caught my eye. I opened it up and saw this:

It's amazing what people throw away.

The book is up for auction in June and hopefully, it will sell for a four-figure sum.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It's a boy thing...

For the last few weeks my son and I have been reading a superb trilogy of books by Paul Dowswell. Set during the Napoleonic era, they follow the adventures of a teenage boy who has been pressganged into the Royal Navy and although they are written for older children, Dowswell doesn't pull many punches when it comes to depicting the harsh realities of a sailor's life.

There are even a few swear words, which my son naturally loves.

I've always been fascinated by accounts of naval life. I'm not particularly interested in the actual vessels, but rather in the ship as a microcosm of society. Dowswell's books have taught my son a lot about life in the early 19th century and so far, he hasn't rumbled my hidden agenda of stealth history lessons.

Paul Dowswell has now left the Napoleonic age behind and has just published a book about Jewish children in the Second World War. If it's as good as his other books, then I've no doubt that he'll start to receive the recognition he deserves.

As Dowswell's last book in the series was partly set on board the HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar, I thought I'd take my son to Portsmouth and have a look at the real thing:

The Victory is a beautiful ship and in its time, a deadly one. However the real appeal for me lay in the more mundane facets of naval life: the sick bay, galley, purser's office, grain store and sleeping quarters. I tried to imagine what life would have been like with several hundred men on board. Smelly, noisy and exhausting I should think.

I'm quite happy looking at something and letting my imagination wander - I can get the salient facts before or after the visit. However, whenever I stop and stare at something in an historic site, an attendant invariably siddles up to me and starts bombarding me with facts. I don't necessarily want to know how long something is, who built it and how it was restored. I want to know what impact it had on people's lives.

Guided tours are even worse. I remember a visit to Versailles where a woman with breath that stank of stale Gitannes spent 10 minutes in each room (and there were many rooms) regaling us with endless facts about French aristocrats I'd never heard of. My abiding memory of the visit of intense boredom. I had just visited what was, in its time, the largest, most opulent palace in the world but failed to gain any sense of its scale. I would have been happier wandering around on my own.

There are exceptions. The guided tours at Charleston - home of the Bloomsbury Group - are fascinating. I also remember an attendant at the Tate Gallery teaching me how to look at a Rothko painting, when I was a very ignorant and opiniated teenager.

After exploring the HMS Victory we went to look at the hulk of the Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII's fleet. Over four centuries at the bottom of the sea have taken their toll, so the remains have been stored in a controlled environment where the timbers are constantly spayed with wax.

Seen from the viewing gallery, the Mary Rose looks like something from Alien:

The restoration of the Mary Rose is a big deal for a lot of people and I really tried to find it exciting, but after the HMS Victory it just looked like a lot of wood, and not very interesting wood at that. Nevertheless I was impressed by the objects that have been salvaged from the wreckage: musical instruments, a backgammon board, beautiful pewter plates and a variety of surgical instruments that are remarkably advanced for their time.

After leaving the 'Historic Royal Naval Dockyard' we wandered around Portsmouth, which is a truly dreadful place.

Portsmouth was heavily bombed during the Second World War, but I wonder how much of the modern townscape is the result of the Luftwaffe? I suspect that town planners from the 1950s-70s are also culpable for the concrete nightmare of modern-day Portsmouth.

Recently, the local authority has tried to rejuvenate the town with some 'iconic' 'landmark' developments, but they just look incongruous:

What Portsmouth needs is better housing, proper cycle lanes, more green spaces and an attractive waterfront along the lines of the South Street Seaport in New York (minus some of the tackier aspects). That would be a start.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

More things found in books...

This is from the days when photos were the same size as the negatives . I wonder how many of the people in this picture are still alive.
That gives an added dimension to the phrase 'massaging your ego'. I love the four-digit telephone number, but what did she get up to in the mornings?

Is that a broken nose, or simply an unfortunate one?

I don't know anything about military badges, but this looks like the insignia of an army in a totalitarian state.

This is somewhere in Wales where very little happens. If you enlarge the image, you'll see that a woman pushing a pram has caused a group of men to stop and stare.

This drawing was quite unrelated to the school textbook book I found it in.

This photo fell out of a romantic novel. Is it the portrait of a sweetheart, son or stranger? We'll never find out and that's frustrating, as I want to know the story.

Every day I have to decide whether to consign a book to oblivion or not. I don't have a problem with that, but somehow I can't bring myself to throw away these fragments of past lives. I can happily throw away a dreary book about King George V because I know that there are plenty of others out there, but these bookmarks might be all that's left of someone's existence.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

How Mr O Wells got rich...

From The Strand Magazine, October 1906:

As recommended by Countess Seckendorff of Berlin and Mr Lewis of Pontygwaith. In another advert, an English countess says 'Your Trilene Tablets act admirably.'

How times have changed. Nobody would fall for an advert like that today, would they?

Thursday, May 07, 2009


It may be very rewarding to discover a first edition of Nicholas Nickleby, but nothing can beat the pleasure of coming across books like this one, which I found this afternoon:

Published in 1967, this book comes from an era when 'swinging' had less sordid connotations.

According to the blurb on the jacket, this book is a "go-go mini-guide to the new swinging London of today, essential to the traveller who wants to taste the delights of a world capital that has kicked off its sensible shoes and traded its tweed for vinyl. The key question is...'Where's the action and how do I get in on it?' Simply fab."

Getting in on the action seems to involves finding the 'scene' and if that sounds as elusive as Tarkovsky's 'zone', you're quite wrong. There's even a map, showing visitors the grooviest boutiques, discotheques, casinos and, rather intriguingly, auction houses:

Beyond its banal exterior, this is actually a well-written and informative guide to London and it gives a fascinating glimpse of a city that was undergoing a huge social transformation. I'm not sure about the author's credentials when it comes to Swinging London though; she looks far too sensible:

Can you see her smoking 'pot' whilst listening to Within You Without You? I can't.

My favourite part of the book is a map of Britain for foreign swingers. It is a masterpiece of economy:

I say Britain, but anywhere north of Liverpool is deemed terra incognita. London is where it's at.

It's interesting how the myth has replaced the reality and to anyone under 50, the term 60s London conjures up a groovy, Austin Powers-style montage of mini skirts and kaftans. However, whenever I watch documentary films from the period, I'm struck by the conservatism of the clothes and the depressed look of many streets, which still bore the scars of the Blitz.

If there was a scene, I'm not surprised that you needed a guidebook to find it.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


I'm now in the third week of my new job and although it's exhausting, I'm enjoying every minute. I can't believe that someone is actually paying me to sift through boxes of secondhand books.

The books arrive in plastic totes (when did the word tote appear on the scene? What's wrong with box or crate?) and each one usually has at least one book that is worth selling. In the last ten days I have found first editions of novels by Dickens, Maria Edgeworth, Hemingway and Roald Dahl, plus some really strange textbooks that have turned out to be worth hundreds of pounds. I now have to find the most effective way of selling them.

Discovering what is valuable and what isn't has been a fascinating experience. Why is a first edition of Nevil Shute's On the Beach or TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral worthless, whilst a sixth edition of a textbook on radar can fetch £60? I know that the answer is supply and demand and that technical books have small print runs, but surely there is more demand for Eliot?

Perhaps the least popular genre is poetry. I would have expected an 1868 collection of poems by Tennyson to be worth a few quid, but you can buy books like this for a fiver. Even more modern poets don't fare that well, with a first edition of Lawrence Durrell's collected poems selling for around £4.

The Victorians seem to have lovd their poetry, but there was one thing they liked even more: The Pilgrim's Progress. I have never seen so many copies in my life, all of them worthless. They will be recycled into something more useful, as will the numerous book club editions that literally aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

I had been afraid that after a year of leisure I would have trouble reacclimatising myself to the world of work. However, the simple fact is that if a job's interesting and you respect your employer, work can be a pleasure as well as a necessity.

I realise that at some point it may all change, but for the moment I'm enjoying the ride.