Thursday, August 27, 2009

Further Bookmarks

If you're not a regular visitor to this blog, you should know that I sell secondhand books on the internet (on behalf of cheridee) and spend my working day sifting through hundreds of titles. Most of the books are worthless, but there are enough titles of value to make the whole thing worthwhile.

If I decide to sell a book, I have to check it thoroughly to assess its condition and occasionally, as I flick through the pages, something falls out. These ad hoc bookmarks are usually just scraps of paper, but sometimes I find photos or letters that give tantalising glimpes into the lives of strangers.

Here are some recent favourites:

My name is sarah i live at twenty one enest road kot i live with my pearonts and my to ugly brothers...

This probably took a long time to type - I can visualise a little girl trying to fathom out the mysteries of the QWERTY keyboard. Today she'd just use spellcheck.

This photo manages to be poignant, touching and a little depressing too, bringing Hardy's quote about life being 'tragic with comic overtones' to mind. On the face of it, an overweight woman in late middle age is standing in front of a hideous pair of curtains in what must be the room of a bed and breakfast, or a cheap hotel. Is she coming or going? Why did anyone take a photograph of such a mundane scene?

The temperature control panel of the Dimplex convector heater has been left open, suggesting grey skies, wet pavements and dark evenings spent in an empty dining room.

But this photo could mark the beginning or end of what felt like a great adventure. If we look beyond the clashing patterns and cheap furniture, this photo might have been taken because someone wanted to bottle the happiness of the moment.

This fell out of a 1929 American book called Plotto, which claims to enable would-be writers to produce a virually unique plot. The book reads like a slightly more sophisticated version of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's Fighting Fantasy books from the 1980s, where the reader can choose their destiny from a set number of options.

On this piece of paper, someone has written: 'A, a fugitive from justice, prevents B from committing suicide. B is a classy prostitute.'

Oh, that old chestnut.

I wonder if it ever became a finished novel?

This extract from a 1969 letter needs no explanation or comment. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the grandfather's expression of love.

Finally, a notice from Christina Foyle, apologising for sending the wrong title to a book club member. She refers to some 'difficulties', which is a slight understatement, given that the year was 1943.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


A few months ago I wrote a post in praise of BBC Radio Four's podcasts, but I'm afraid that I have now discovered something even better: the ABC Book Show.

BBC radio broadcasts some great podcasts, but they represent a small part of the total output and programmes are only available for a measly seven days. I'm sure they have their reasons, but the BBC probably has the greatest audio archive in the world and they should make it more accessible.

In contrast, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has made every episode of their wonderful book review programme available for downloading. Presented by Ramona Koval, the Book Show is as good as anything I've heard, with intelligent interviewers, fascinating guests and a very cosmopolitan selection of writers.

Ramona Koval is an exceptionally good presenter and when she interviewed M J Hyland recently about This is How, it was clear that she had really read the book and had a number of thoughtful, pertinent questions to ask.

From now on, my drive to work will be accompanied by the archives of The Book Show.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Swift Rebuttal (Or 'Robert's Resolve')

I found a children's book today called Timothy's Resolve, by Winifred Wilson. It was good, wholesome stuff. Just the sort of book you'd award as a school prize, to reward 'good conduct' and 'diligence'.

This copy of Timothy's Resolve was awarded to a boy called Robert Swift:

Unfortunately, Robert Swift didn't receive his prize with good grace and the back endpaper looks like this:

I wonder where Robert Swift is today. If he's alive, he'll be in his sixties and I wonder how he'd regard his juvenile scribblings.

I have a lot of sympathy with Master Swift. As a boy, I was forever being given books that I didn't want to read. Even at eight, it was clear that their agenda was to improve me, rather than provide the fun and escapism that Enid Blyton gave me. My aunt, who was a missionary in Africa, gave me Christian adventure stories. Another person handed me a copy of The Incredible Journey and kept quizzing about it every time I saw them. The only people who didn't burden me with unwanted gifts were my parents.

As a result, I have a horror of presents, particularly books and films. The moment somebody gives me a DVD or novel, I know that at some point in the future, I will be expected to tell them what I think of it.

When I worked in a bookshop, customers would often ask me for a recommendation for a child who was starting to read. My reply was always the same: 'Give them a book token, then they can make their own choice.' Even if the child buys complete crap, it doesn't matter. They have bought their first book and they are now a reader. The rest will follow.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I've just watched a film called Sapphire, directed by Basil Dearden in 1959. On the one hand, it's a typical police procedural 'B' movie, with square-jawed, two-dimensional detectives, negotiating their way through a gallery of stereotypes. On the other, this is a remarkable film that explores a side of British society that was generally ignored.

The film opens with the body of a young woman being thrown on the ground. A jazzy soundtrack (played by the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra) establishes that this is going to be a gritty, hard-edged thriller. No poison pen letters or old ladies here.

Unusually for a film of this type, it's shot in colour and gives a vivid portrait of London in the 1950s: a shabby, grey, depressed-looking city that still hasn't recovered from the Blitz. What a contrast with America in the 1950s.

The Second World War effectively bankrupted Britain and it is striking how drab everything looks, from the clothing to the dull interiors. No wonder the Sixties happened.

Sapphire begins conventionally enough, but after only ten minutes the film suddenly - and without any warning - changes gear and what begins as a typical murder mystery turns into a story about racial bigotry, with the shock revelation that Sapphire Robbins was 'coloured'!

Filmed less than a year after the Notting Hill race riots, Sapphire is a brave attempt to depict the endemic racism in Britain towards the burgeoning West Indian community. Unfortunately, it is done in such a heavy-handed way that the film's agenda isn't always clear.

Fifty years on, scenes like this can make uncomfortable viewing:

'No matter how fair the skin, they can't hide that swing.'

The implication that anyone with black ancestry, however distant, has an irresistable compulsion to tap their feet to the rhythm may be one of the many reasons why this film isn't on DVD.

It's a shame, because I think that Dearden's heart is in the right place and he became well known for tackling controversial subjects.

Two years later he filmed Victim, with Dirk Bogarde risking his career as a mantinée idol to play a homosexual lawyer. Unfortunately Janet Green's screenplay for Sapphire is populated by stereotypes, not real people.

Take this hilarious scene involving a female police sergeant:

So there we have it. If you do a man's job, you must be a lesbian.
We can laugh now, but if I was a woman in the 1950s I'd feel like throwing a brick at the screen, particularly when the detective says 'There's a good girl'.

The sum of Sapphire is greater than its parts, thanks to the controversial subject matter and Basil Dearden's direction. Dearden's 1951 film Pool of London, which is the first post-Windrush film to feature an inter-racial romance, is now available on DVD. I hope that Sapphire will also be released in the near future.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Iran Before the Revolution...

I found this by chance. It's a lovely song and the singer - Googoosh - was the most successful Iranian singer of her time. In 1979, the new revolutionary government banned her from performing for 21 years. In 2000, she resumed her career with a series of sell-out concerts in America and Europe.

I've no idea what the song's about, but she keeps saying 'Kushti' - a word that will be familiar to viewers of Only Fools and Horses.

During the long orchestral introduction, Googoosh obviously feels a bit of a lemon and does that 'I'm not dancing but I'm not standing still either' swaying that singers often do while they're waiting for their cue.

It's a great pity that the ayatollahs silenced her for so long.

Bad Faith...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Blistering Barnacles...

I've read some damning reviews in my time, but few have been bitchier than Hugo Barnacle's review of Adam Thirwell's new novel, The Escape, in the last issue of the Sunday Times.
If I was Thirwell, I'd be pretty mortified.

Perhaps he'll send Mr Barnacle an abusive email, a la Alain de Botton, who didn't take kindly to a bad review. De Botton was on last week's edition of Saturday Live on BBC Radio Four and was being gently teased for his outburst. To his credit, he admitted that he'd been very silly.

One person who hasn't had to worry about bad reviews is MJ Hyland. I've just read her new novel This is How and was impressed by her stark, understated prose - a welcome relief from the dense, overwritten, peacock style of writers like Martin Amis. To call This is How accessible sounds a little too much like being damned by faint praise. However, Hyland's novel can be read either as a literary novel that betrays the influence of Camus and Dostoyevsky, or as a straightforward thriller.

I think I'm going to be a big MJ Hyland fan.

Unfortunately, that's the nearest I've come to any literary activity this week. My wife and children are away for two weeks, which should be a golden opportunity to catch up on all of the books and films I've been meaning to see, but instead I've spent most evenings in the garden, drinking beer and looking at the sky. Is that a bad thing?

I watched a very enjoyable film yesterday called 36. It's just a cops and robbers movie with a reasonable amount of gratuitous violence, but because it's in French and stars Gérard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil, my sins are all forgiven.

Vive la France!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Home Alone

This is as near as I get to live blogging - this photo was taken five minutes ago. I've cropped the rotary dryer, as that would slightly ruin my pretensions to be a bon viveur. I wish I could add sound and odourama, but you'll have to imagine the cries of seagulls and smell of barbecues.

I have the house to myself for two whole weeks. My wife has taken my sons to stay at their grandmother's house, where they will have a large garden to play in and a beach that is only three minutes' walk away.

I will miss them, but I will also enjoy the opportunity to lead a completely self-indulgent life for a couple of weeks. I have a stack of DVDs to watch - this year's theme is British 'B' movies of the 1960s - and a copy of Barnaby Rudge, which vies with The Mystery of Edwin Drood as the least poular Dickens novel.

I shall also be following the BBC Proms. Last night's live performance by the National Youth Orchestra of Lutoslwaski's Concerto for Orchestra - a notoriously difficult work - was exhilarating.

But tonight, I shall be enjoying things like this:

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Situations Vacant

When I ran a bookshop I never had any problem recruiting people. Even a post-it note stuck in the bottom corner of a window would yield a deluge of applications, nearly all from students. I have ruined many a young graduate's life by luring them into a life of penury in the book trade.

However, I'm now in a warehouse on a remote industrial estate. Any stray visitors are hunted down like dogs, so I've had to rethink my note in the window strategy.

This time I've used Job Centre Plus. I'm not sure what the 'plus' bit means, but they were very helpful and placed my advertisement for a 'Book Specialist'. The job description specified that I was looking for a book lover with a good general knowledge and keyboard skills.

Today I received this letter - a masterpiece of brevity:

Dear Mr -,

I am witting (sic) this job application for the book specialist job. I have local knowledge of the area as I have lived here all my life. I am good with people and have done FOOD MANUFACTURING. I used to work in a butchers shop and do home delivering.

Yours sincerely -

He starts on Monday.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Heads or Tails?

Should I try and write something witty, incisive and interesting, or just cut and paste a few YouTube clips?

Tails, you win:

Monday, August 03, 2009

New Towns

In June I wrote this post about a fairly hideous place called Mostecko. It is, or at least was, a new town development built in communist Czechoslovakia around 30 years ago. Unless you're a big fan of concrete, it's a pretty unappealling place. However, the authorities obviously regarded it as the apotheosis of their ideology and published a lavish photographic book, celebrating the creation of their socialist utopia.

The post prompted several comments and the general consensus was that planned towns don't work. For a community to succeed, it has to grow organically over many generations, in response to the needs of its inhabitants, rather than the blinkered vision of social engineers and the greed of corporations.

But is this really true? Edinburgh's 'New Town', built between 1765 and 1850 is a masterpiece of urban planning, as is Baron Haussmann's redevelopment of Paris during the reign of Louis Napoleon. Will Mostecko achieved belated acclaim in the 23rd century? I somehow doubt it.

Last week, during a holiday in Dorset, I made a detour to visit Poundbury, a controversial new 'urban extension' of Dorchester. It is controversial because the driving force behind Poundbury is Prince Charles, the bette noire of modern architects. This is what I found:

The idea behind Poundbury is to create a 'market town' environment with an ecclectic mix of architectural styles, but beneath its traditional trappings, this development has been heavily influenced by America's 'New Urbanism' movement, which promotes walkable, unzoned areas.

It would be so easy to criticise Poundbury. Where are the people? I felt as if I was in an episode of The Prisoner. Also, it really goes against the grain to see any new building that has been designed by someone who has tried to pretend that the 20th century never existed.

However, the fact remains that if I had to choose between living in Mostecko, Crawley, Milton Keynes, Basildon, Stevenage or Poundbury, I'd choose the latter without hesitation. Poundbury may be a pastiche (and if I lived there, I'd probably feel as if I was in The Truman Show), but the uncomfortable truth is that Prince Charles's vision of a people-centered urban space, built using traditional methods and designs, is far superior to any of Britain's postwar new towns.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Holiday Snaps

I have just returned from a week's caravan holiday in Dorset. I don't think there's any need to go into further detail - it's one of those statements like 'I've just spent the last three months being held hostage in Iraq' or 'I'm going to have my left leg amputated' which requires no further comment.

Here are some holiday snaps:

This is the beach at Lyme Regis. The parents in this photo managed to sunbathe and spend ages chatting on their phones without any interuption from their children. The boy seemed content to either stare into space or watch his sister build a sandcastle. What's their secret?

My sons are feral and the oldest one had to be rescued by the coastguard within an hour of arriving at the beach.

Ever since I was a boy, I've looked forward to the days when I can play Crown Green bowls and sit in deck chairs at holiday resorts.

This couple sat on the table behind us in a beachside restaurant. I love observing couples in restaurants, particularly unusual ones like these two. They sat largely in silence, but whether it was companionable or awkward I couldn't tell. The long tress of hair suggests that a day of wholesome hiking will be followed by an evening of violent lovemaking.

In the great tattoo debate, I'm firmly on the non side and I'm afraid that I saw nothing to change my views. What might look sexy on a young woman in her early twenties, looks increasingly unapealling with age and weight.

On Lyme Regis beach I found myself yearning for an impromptu raid from the Tehran Morality Police. There are only so many beer guts and varicose veins that a person can look at.

The fossil-rich Dorset coastline is now a UN World Heritage site. Unfortunately, my son's idea of fossilling consists of hitting the cliff face as violently as possible with a large hammer.

The origins of the 'Rude Man of Cerne Abbas' are uncertain. Is he a prehistoric fertility figure? Is his bellicose stance a warning to other tribes? There is no written reference to him before 1647 and it is possible that he is a 17th century joke.

I found this 12th century effigy in the beautiful Lady St Mary's church in Wareham. He looks surprisingly cheerful for a dead medieval knight. The church is full of interesting features, including an 8th century Celtic inscription (see below) and a salmon-shaped weather vane.

This replica of Thomas Hardy's study is a permanent exhibition at the excellent Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. With the possible exception of the Santa Barbera Museum of Art, this is the best small museum I've ever visited.

The Museum concentrates on the county's archeological, geological and literary heritage, the latter of which includes features on Thomas Hardy, John Cowper Powys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Meade Falkner and the local dialect poet, William Barnes:

The girt woak tree that's in the dell !
There's noo tree I do love so well;
Vor times an' times when I wer young
I there've a-climb'd, an' there've a-zwung,
An' pick'd the eacorns green, a-shed
In wrestlen storms from his broad head,
An' down below's the cloty brook
Where I did vish with line an' hook,
An' beat, in playsome dips and zwims,
The foamy stream, wi' white-skinn'd lim's.

The Dorset dialect is virtually dead, but I once heard a teenage girl say 'Oi bain't' (I be not) to a baffled French exchange student. There may still be pockets of Dorset dialect in some of the remoter 'Squeak like a piggy' parts of the county, but it's unlikely. Even the lovely rural burr is dying out (for non-British readers, the traditional Dorset accent sounds a little like pirates - 'Ha-harr, me hearrties', etc).

However, when the gentleman below was alive, the English language didn't even exist.

This 4th century skull is one of many skeletons excavated from Dorset's hill forts. One is displayed lying as he was found, with his sword by his side, possibly after a skirmish with the Romans. I'm not sure how I'd feel ending up as a display in a 37th century museum.

This is part of an 8th century fresco and serves as a reminder of how wonderful English churches must have been before the Reformation saw these craven images smashed up and painted over.

This carving comes from four centuries later. I like the rouged cheeks.

Like many small museums, although there were themed displays, there were also some quirky artifacts that the curactors had inherited from an earlier, more ecclectic age. I really enjoyed the displays of stuffed red squirrels and Victorian washing devices, but couldn't quite muster up the same enthusiasm for the farming implements.

Museums like the British Museum or the Louvre are all well and good, but they are so vast that the visitor ends up feeling exhusted and drained within an hour. I prefer a good small museum any day.

I didn't think my visit could get any better, but then I found this exhibition:

A Ladybird exhibition, complete with original art work, jacket designs and activities to keep my children quiet. Bliss!

I like Dorset. I probably liked it even more when I lived in London and the sight of rolling hills and blue seas was a rare treat, but I still feel excited when I see the Cobb at Lyme Regis. However, I will not be going there again for a few years.

Whilst we were cowering behind a wind break on Charmouth beach last Tuesday, my wife and I concluded that unhappy parents are not good parents. My ideal holiday involves good weather, decent accommodation, nice food and a mixture of stimulation and relaxation. Our caravan holiday provided bad weather, plastic accommodation, a constipation-inducing diet of microwaveable ready meals and a mixture of anxiety and exhaustion.

Britain may be back in favour as a holiday destination, but next year we shall be heading for sunnier climes.