Thursday, October 29, 2009

Port Out, Starboard Home - a Day in Orford

East Anglia is one of those places that people seem to love or hate. I thought I hated it, but that was before I visited Orford, last Thursday:

Once a bustling medieval seaport, now a sleepy coastal village at the end of an empty, 12-mile road, Orford appears to be an unspoilt relic of an England that died long ago.

There are no adverts, chain stores or grafitti and apart from the occasional car, the only noises to be heard are the cries of gulls and curlews. A good place to set a murder mystery.

Overlooking the village is the keep of the 12th century Orford Castle:

I have no idea why some castles seem to attract coachloads of visitors whilst others are virtully empty, but I'm grateful that there are places where it's still possible to be alone.

I don't believe in the supernatural, but I was intrigued by an argument that ancient buildings are like magnetic tape, resonating with echoes of previous inhabitants. It's nonsense, I'm sure, but it feels true.

The ticket office was staffed by a man who apeared to have taken his inspiration from Uriah Heep, with a manner that was superficially obsequious, but with an underlying menace. He was quietly insistent that I should take advantage of the free audio tour, but I wanted to enjoy the silence.

At the top of the castle, there is a wonderful panoramic view of Orford and the surrounding area. I felt like Roger Livesey in 'A Matter of Life and Death', looking down at the village in his camera obscura.

Free from the usual roar of traffic, I could hear almost everything, from the footsteps of someone walking through the village square to the slow scraping of a boat being dragged by hand across shingle.

Landscapes may be regarded as a symbol of permanance in an ephemeral world, but the view from the castle would have been completely different when Eleanor of Aquitaine began the voyage to ransom her son, Richard the Lionheart.

It is thought that Orford Ness, a long spit of land that separates the village from the sea, didn't exist in medieval times. Today, the only way of reaching open waters is to turn right, out of the port and sail for several miles.

A few miles north is Aldeburgh (pronounced Awlbruh), where Benjamin Britten established the famous music festival. The concert hall at Snape Maltings attracts world class artists and during the Aldeburgh Festival, it feels as if most of the cognoscenti have decamped to Suffolk.

As journalist Stephen McClarence recently wrote:

A MAN in baggy knee-length shorts and canvas shoes is scolding a small boy in sailor-striped T-shirt. “Toby, do behave,” he snaps, brandishing a baguette. “And where on earth has Bertie got to?” Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, is no place for hoi polloi or honky-tonk. Never has been. Even before it became a “Cultural Village of Europe”, even before its annual festival gave it cultural kudos, there was broad consensus about its upmarket appeal.

A half-timbered kiosk on the seafront serves cafĂ© latte. The gift shops stock designer bath caps at £15 a throw. And at weekends, metropolitan holiday-homers turn the place into Boden-on-Sea, the social embodiment of smart-casual.

This is Umbria-in-Anglia, with prawn-pink and pale-primrose holiday cottages rented out at up to £1,600 a week. Hollyhocks in the gardens, dried starfish and model lighthouses in the front windows, bicycles with wicker baskets propped up against the fences.

On dull days, when the sea is a melancholy browny-grey, it’s a place to read P. D. James and listen to Test Match Special, and watch Ayckbourn or Wilde at the Jubilee Hall summer theatre.

“They’re all lords and ladies here, all Captains and Sirs,” says a shop assistant. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely people, but they’re the only ones who can afford to live here.”

And there, as they say, is the rub. This entire stretch of coast, with its winning combination of beautiful landscapes, unspoilt, historic villages and a thriving arts scene, has made the local housing unaffordable to the average punter. I suspect that many traditional Orford families now live in the less aesthetically pleasing environs of Ipswich.

There were a few fishermen down by the quay who commented on what a "Boo'ful evenin'" it was, but they seemed like extras in a play that was populated by an almost exclusively middle class cast. If Orford seems frozen in time, that may be because the average age of its citizens is several decades older than the national average. During my visit, two days ago, almost everyone I saw was white, middle class and over 50.

The Jolly Sailor pub seemed traditional enough, but my lunch was served by a slightly scary eastern European girl who barked "Fiss? Fiss? Fiss?" until I nodded my ascent. What had happened to the locals?

I don't blame people for wanting to live in an episode of Midsomer Murders, but I'm glad that Lewes is still a working town with a broad social mix (albeit heavily weighted towards graduates). Orford was beautiful, but it felt like a gated community and given the house prices, it effectively was.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rockwell Kent and Moby Dick

Moby Dick is one of my favourite novels and for a while I became quite obsessed with it, to the point where I made a pilgrimage to New Bedford and visited the Seamen's Bethel church that appears in the first chapter of the book. I expected to find a nice, twee tourist site. Surprisingly, the church had hardly changed at all in 150 years and the entrance was blocked by a gang of menacing-looking sailors. They even had proper beards.

It is a tribute to Melville's genius that he managed to make such a boring book so compelling. In the hands of a lesser author, the seemingly endless digressions and meditations on whaling and life at sea would be intolerable. But Moby Dick is like a long, utterly mad, epic poem, in the tradition of The Wanderer and The Seafarer.

Last week I came across an edition of Moby Dick published in the 1920s, with wonderful illustrations by Rockwell Kent. I looked the book up, hoping that it worth be worthless enough to give me an excuse to keep it for myself, but it was worth £30. It sold three days later.

Here is a brief selection of Kent's brilliant illustrations:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Still More Bookmarks

I feel as if I'm in one of those James Bond films where 007 is on a treadmill and the hand of an unseen assailant suddenly turns up the speed dial. Obviously you or I would just get off, but for some reason Bond always remains in place and tries to keep up (if it's Roger Moore, a slight eyebrow movement conveys extreme distress).

I'm in the same predicament. Every day I receive an increasing number of deliveries of secondhand books and I am struggling to keep up. But on the plus side, this has resulted in the discovery of some wonderful impromptu bookmarks:

It's nice to know that some people can find these sorts of photo opportunities amusing, even when they're in their fifties.

I think it's the same man, but this time he's presenting a bouquet of flowers to a mystery woman who could be Margaret Thatcher. The costumes look flammable.

Continuing the British Prime Ministerial theme, I found this in a collection of poems by Mary Wilson (the Prime Minister's wife, not the soul singer). If Harold Wilson doesn't mean much to you, he was the Prime Minister of Britain during the Swinging Sixties and two of his most controversial decisions were awarding the MBE to the Beatles and refusing to join the Vietnam War.

This is the Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede. It's a pity that the memorial looks more like a 25th century teleportation portal, because it deserves something either grander or simpler, if that makes any sense. I like the woman's trouser suit. Without the Magna Carta, she probably wouldn't be wearing it.

This is a lovely poem about Heaven and the animals. The assertion that animals don't possess souls has been a matter of theological controversy for some time: "But when I die, I know that Tiddles will be up there waiting for me." Unfortunately, the poem's earnest message is slightly undermined by a simple typo:

On a more serious note:

I used to be the Chief Prosecutor of the Anti-Baby League. I would wince at the sound of cryinging infants and cringe at the insipid coochie coo talk of their mothers. I'd probably find this photo a bit soppy. But I've crossed the line and in addition to now being impervious to the most ear-piercing infantile screaming, I find this picture very touching.

The name Annie Besant may be familiar to some. She was a prominent campaigner for women's rights during the Victorian age and today, is perhaps best known for her role in the Matchgirls Strike of 1888. I found this signature in a book published by the Theosophical Society. I've added a link to her name, as Besant was a remarkable person.

I've no idea who this is and I'm hopeless at reading handwriting, but if anyone can decipher the name I'd love to know more.

Welcome to the discomfort zone. If you ever succumb to nostalgia for the past, just remember that this sort of thing went on. The woman looks familiar. Wasn't she Chinese a minute ago? But if the sight of people "blacking up" is beyond the pale (pun intended), it's nothing compared to this:

This comes from a 1932 edition of Hooey Magazine and next time I feel depressed about living in the 21st century, I shall look at this cartoon and remind myself of the alterative.

To continue the racism theme, here is an advert from a 1955 edition of the Daily Mail Ideal Home book:

Here's a world where white people can whizz around Africa in fast cars, occasionally condescending to stop and buy some trinkets from the locals. See? Everyone's happy. I doubt if the Daily Mail's readers were aware of the existence of the ANC or of a young man in his 30s called Nelson Mandela, who was already making a name for himself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This is what I'll be watching on Friday...

These days we refer to businesspeople, but they're still nearly all men and I've never liked the macho culture that goes with it. This sketch is a good-humoured dig at all those self-important men, sitting with their laptops in the Business Class section of the plane:

*(I've just discovered that this can't be viewed outside the UK. So much for the global village. I'll try and upload a new version after the programme is broadcast)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Appeal

My working environment is a place of great contrasts. Most of the day is spent in a quiet, civilised office, where the only sounds are the gentle whirring of computer fans and the tapping of keyboards. However, once or twice a day I have to venture into the warehouse to find some books:

This is only a small section of what I have to deal with. There are around one thousand of these blue plastic totes, with more being added every day. Although I now have four people helping me, we are barely scratching the surface.

As I look through the totes and try to identify any valuable titles, I can hear Heart FM playing a selection of "classic tracks". I had hoped that I would never again have to listen to Phil Collins singing Sussudio, but he's a regular fixture on their playlist.

Last week, we received hundreds of law books, most of which were from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I've no idea what to do with them. I have put a few on sale, but so far there haven't been any takers and I wonder how many people there are who want to read about the laws of conveyancing in the 1860s.

I don't want to throw the books away, but it would be a waste of time to spend up to a week logging them on the internet. I have tried selling them to a company that specialises in decorative books, but they weren't interested. I know a "geezer" who will take them off my hands for a few quid, but I want to explore every option first.

Does anyone have any bright ideas?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ticket to Rye

I have arranged to meet an old schoolfriend for a drink. He lives 85 miles away, in Kent, so we always meet in Rye, which is roughly halfway. Aside from the fact that Rye is a beautiful, historic town with many literary connections (Henry James, E.F. Benson, Radclyffe Hall and John Christopher, to name a few), it is also the perfect venue as our trains, which come from oppoite directions, arrive and depart within seconds of each other. It is as if the whole south coast rail network has been arranged so that we can have a drink.

I love the walk to Lewes station, even on a grey autumnal day like this. My route takes me past the Fifteenth Century Bookshop, down Keere Street (where George IV is supposed to have driven a coach and four horses down to the bottom for a wager) and across to the Elizabethan Southover Grange, the boyhood home of diarist John Evelyn.

At Southover Grange, a member of the local Stasi is on patrol, hoping to find a victim. The parking scheme was introduced to Lewes five years ago and I now how to pay £75 a year for the privilege of parking outside my own house.

Last week I received a parking ticket, placed on my windscreen at 6.35am, so it would be fair to say that I have a grudge.

A year after the parking scheme was introduced, it was decided to replace (at huge expense) the attendants' red jackets, as it was felt that this colour was "too aggressive". I would have thought that employing an army of unsympathetic, bonus-driven attendants was more likely to provoke aggression.

Before I get to the station, I pop into the beautiful Grange gardens:

Although it is now autumn, the gardens are still in colour and on a quiet morning like this, it is easy to forget that you are in the 21st century.

But something has gone wrong. The health and safety people have moved in and everywhere I look, there are warning signs, makeshift fences and stumps where potentially dangerous trees have been cut down.

What is the justification for this:


This sign can only be seen as you are leaving, by which time the warning will be superfluous. What possessed the local authorities to place such a garish notice on this mostly sixteenth century wall? They could at least have come up with a sympathetic pastiche; something like "An ille feyte betides those who take no heede of yonder waters."

I leave the gardens in a despondent mood. I'm a great believer in the small is beautiful principle and would like to see more local government, but not if the result is a lot of small-minded people with no vision issuing petty edicts and restrictions.

Railway stations aren't normally the most uplifting places, but Lewes Station cheers me up. In contrast to Southover Grange - a beautiful place made ugly by people with no imagination - the staff at Lewes Station have turned a purely functional environment into one that is full of delight.

From the station cafe that plays classical music to the carefuly-planted flowers, everything about Lewes Station is good. There is no litter or graffiti and the polite, helpful staff have an Ealing comedy cheeriness about them.

One day I was standing on the edge of the platform as a train was coming in and my rarely-used mobile phone rang. I was so surprised to receive a call that I jumped and inadvertently threw the phone up into the air. It landed on the track, narrowly missing being crushed by the arriving train.

In a London station, I would have had to miss my train, go to an office and fill out a form in front of some dour-faced apparatchik, but in Lewes I simply had a quick word with one of the staff and the phone was waiting for me later that evening.

The journey to Rye is ridiculously slow, taking an hour and ten minutes to travel 43 miles, but I don't mind. Most of the journey is through empty fields - for such a densely-populated corner of Britain, there are still plenty of open spaces - and at one point the railway line reaches the coast, passing rows of beach huts.

My carriage is remarkably quiet until a woman gets on at Bexhill. She is in the middle of a phone conversation and talks in an annoying transatlantic accent. Some transatlantic accents are pleasing to the ear (Cary Grant and Alistair Cooke spring to mind), but others are hideous. I was reading a book*, but all I can hear now is "Yah, well I think we're going to have to go back to BLT. I mean, we were quite firm with them about what it involved...yah...yah..."

At first, I thought that she was talking about a sandwich order, but it transpires that BLT is a company. The woman she is talking to sqeaks like a mouse from the receiver and she responds with further yahs, then the train briefly enters a tunnel. She redials. "Sorry, I just lost you there. We went through a tunnel. Yah. Anyway, we'll get back to BLT and...hello?"

We are in another tunnel. A long one. One minute she is connected to a global network of Serious People doing Very Important Things. Now she is alone.

I look round and see a short, rather plain woman on the cusp of middle-age, wearing a cheap-looking flanelette track suit. Not what I was expecting. She gets off at Hastings and I wonder what she is going to do there.

The journey from Hastings to Rye takes us through countryside that looks more like East Anglia, with flat empty fields and muddy drainage ditches. Even on a bright, sunny day, there is something depressing about this landscape.

In Rye, my friend's train arrives five seconds after mine. We go to The George, where we begin a conversation that becomes more opinionated and less articulate with each drink. By the third pint, I can sense a decline in my cognitive abilities and I drink more slowly, but it is always too late. My memory of the evening is hazy, but I feel a happiness that will sustain me for days to come.

I arrive at Lewes Station just after 9.00. The walk home takes me past houses that are hundreds of years old. I don't believe in the supernatural, but there is a tangible presence in these buildings, whispering "Memento mori...memento mori..." Next time I'll stick to soft drinks.

*The book was the superb "Seasonal Suicide Notes", by Roger Lewis. If the transatlantic woman hadn't boarded the train, I would have read an account of the making of a film set in South Wales starring, improbably, Faye Dunaway. One of her co-stars was Mark Benton - an actor I had never heard of, but recognised in a photo as the fat bloke from the Nationwide Building Society adverts. If I had managed to read two more pages of the book, I might have been quite freaked out, as only half an hour later, Mark Benton entered The George for a lunchtime drink.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Eighties Revival Stops Here...

I didn't like the 1980s. If the technology had existed, I would have gone into suspended animation until the reappearance of sideburns. I had spent my childhood preparing for long hair, flared trousers and loud shirts and felt cheated when someone changed the rules before I'd started to shave.

I could have quite happily lived without Margaret Thatcher, Red Wedge, Cyndi Lauper, Live Aid, Stock, Aitken and Waterman, Filofaxes, Tiffany, Huey Lewis and the News, Ronald Reagan, Back to the Future, Phil Collins, Rick Astley, Dirty Dancing, highlights, Hooked on Classics, Lionel Richie, T'Pau, Mini Metros and the Green Goddess.

But I would have missed The Smiths.

If you're suffering from Eighties nostalgia (or False Memory Syndrome, as it's more properly known), here is a reminded of what it was really like, courtesy of a 1984 My Guy annual that I found yesterday:

The 1980s was the era of the sexy jumper. The Tehran morality police would surely approve of this girl's outfit

Every young girl dreamed of looking like a dowdy, middle-aged woman. This girl's wish came true

On the plus side, transexuals were able to blend in more easily.

A strange fashion for hairstyles that looked like bad wigs became very popular

Eighties hair is coming back for men, but oddly enough today's women aren't following suit. I can't think why

Are sideburns unfashionable again? I've noticed that when I've had my haircut recently, people ask me if I'd like them removed. Naturally I recoil in horror and steadfastly refuse. If I'm not careful, today it will be the sideburns; tomorrow, highlights and hair gel.

The 1980s stop here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Given the circumstances of my acrimonious departure from Waterstone's, I think I've exercised considerable restraint on this blog. Yes, I've taken the odd pot shot, but most of the time I resisted temptation, because listening to someone droning on bitterly about their former partner or boss is very boring, not to mention counter-productive.

Earlier this year, I got out my magnetic self-help cliches kit and decided to move on, get over it and achieve closure. I had a new, better job. It was time to put the past behind me.

But I've never quite been able to get over the fact that the company I loved - Ottakar's - was taken over by one that was run by a cabal of people who didn't read (I thought that the baddies were supposed to lose?), so it was with extreme satisfaction that I read these two articles in the Bookseller.

If you can't be bothered to follow the link (and I won't hold it against you), here is a potted history of recent events:

Three years ago, Waterstone's acquired a new managing director, Gerry Johnson. With increased competition from the internet and supermarkets, Waterstone's sales were beginning to shrink, so Johnson's brief was to reverse the process. He had three big ideas:

  • Establish a proper transactional website
  • Introduce a loyalty card scheme
  • Introduce central distribution for all stock items
The first two were, to use my least favourite phrase, a no-brainer. However, the third was more controversial. Johnson's rationale was this: a centralised "Hub" would reduce distribution costs, enabling Waterstone's to ask publishers for higher discounts. It would also make the goods-in staff redundant, enabling Waterstone's to save at least £4,000,000 in staff costs.

I expect that Johnson calculated that the savings made from getting rid of staff and closing underperforming shops (which was done very quietly, with the minimum of publicity), plus the inceased revenue from the site, the loyalty card and various hideous initiatives, would put Waterstone's back into positive figures.

But it hasn't worked. The sales are still going down and the Hub, depending on who you talk to, is at best problematic, at worst a disaster.

I'm not in a position to comment on the sales figures - perhaps the odds against high street booksellers are too great. However, what interests me most about the comments threads on the Bookseller articles is the depth of feeling. Why has morale sunk so low?

As a desperate, knee-jerk reaction, Gerry Johnson has banned booksellers from accessing the Bookseller website. Since the demise of Publishing News, this is the only significant trade journal for the book industry. What is Johnson thinking? It is ironic that Waterstone's, who ran an effective promotion about banned books and censorship a few years ago, are now resorting to such desperate measures.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Health and Safety

Health and Safety has become one of the tabloids' favourite bogeymen. Every time I read my mother's copy of the Daily Mail, there seems to be a story about how killjoy bureaucrats are attacking Britain's long-cherished traditions in the name of health and safety.

If a new law is introduced banning young children from holding sparklers, the Daily Mail will somehow manage to interpret it as part of the ongoing conspiracy between Brussels, New Labour, Islamists, environmentalists, gay people and cosmopolitan metrosexual types to emasculate Britain. At no point will there ever be an intelligent debate, informed by some facts.

Two days later, a flury of letters will be published from readers, most of whom seem to be called Colin or Jean. Colin will invariably complain that we didn't spend five years fighting Naziism to end up being taken over by a load of foreigners, whilst Jean will blame poor discipline and declining church attendance. Both Colin and Jean will see health and safety regulations as an attack on good old-fashioned common sense and personal responsibilty.

However, the Colin and Jeans of this world have short memories. When they were younger, the UK government produced hundreds of public information films that alerted people to a variety of potential hazards, some of which were only marginally more probable than an alien invasion.

A quick browse through YouTube shows just how paranoid people were, with films on the following dangers:

  • Slippery floor mats
  • Escalators
  • Playing with frisbees near electricity sub-stations
  • Burst pipes
  • Polystyrene ceiling tiles
  • Caravan instability
  • Flying kites near electricity pylons
  • Paraffin heaters
  • Mixing crossply and radial tyres
  • Separate taps
  • Running to catch a bus
  • Lead in paint
  • Rabies
  • Abandoned fridges
  • Frost
  • Strangers
  • Casting a fishing line near an overhead power cable
  • Airbeds
  • Bicycle thefts
  • Smog
  • Fat fires
  • Driving in snow
  • Gas cannisters
  • Frozen ponds
To the modern viewer, most of these films seem laughable, but there is one that is still quite chilling:

So are we really more obsessed with health and safety these days?

I'm not convinced. What has changed is that businesses and organisations are far more anxious to avoid negative publicity and litigation. As a result, we have become overwhelmed by audits, checklists, compliance policies and training courses to ensure that if something does go wrong, we aren't accountable. It doesn't necessarily make things any safer. I have met people who dutifully fill-in their daily and weekly audits without ever checking the physical environment.

One health and safety success story is the decline in the number of pedestrian road deaths during the last 30 years.

These two information films feature Darth Vader actor David Prowse, playing Green Cross Man. In the first, his voice has been dubbed with an actor's dulcet RP tones, but in the second, you can enjoy the full glory of Prowse's Bristol accent.

It's a pity that it was felt necessary to dub Prowse's voice, but can you imagine the alternative, as demonstrated by Mrs Jones's comment below:

"Luke...Oi aam yourr faahthurr."