Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How I Would Save Waterstone's*

Last week the shareholders of HMV reached an almost unanimous decision to approve the sale of its Waterstone’s bookshop chain to the Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut. Today, the business officially changed hands and bookseller James Daunt took over as MD.

This is great news for everyone in the publishing industry, not to mention readers who value specialist booksellers with large stockholdings.

Alexander Mamut
Also, on a personal note, as it is almost five years to the day since the bookshop chain I worked for was bought by HMV, it has been hard not to to feel a certain schadenfreude at the demise of those people who thought that bookselling was no different from any other area of retail. I hope that there will be no need for the word ‘product’ in James Daunt’s Waterstone’s.
But before we put out the flags, a word of caution. HMV may have mismanaged Waterstone's for over a decade, but can a change ot ownership make that much of a difference in a market that appears to be undergoing an irreversible transformation?
However good Alexander Mamut and James Daunt are, they still might fail.
Before we look at the uphill struggle that faces James Daunt, lets focus on the positives:
  • In spite of Amazon and the supermarkets, Waterstone’s is still a profitable business
  • In 2010, its market share was just under 30% of total book sales
  • It frequently achieves high scores in customer satisfaction surveys
  • It is the only large specialist bookshop chain in Britain
  • Publishers want Waterstone's to survive
Indeed, when you a visit a branch in December and see the queues, it's hard to understand how the chain almost ended up in the hands of an asset stripper.

But the reality is that Waterstone's is dying, albeit very slowly. The sales have been slowly shrinking for over five years and many shops are now making a loss, including the 'flagship' Piccadilly store. Several years of negative growth have produced an entrenched mentality in the senior management and rather than trying to increase sales (or 'grow' sales, as they now say), the emphasis is on reducing costs: the beginning of the end.**

The main management failures of Waterstone's are as follows:
  • They failed to establish an strong internet presence in the mid-90s and after a half-hearted attempt, let Amazon fulfill its online orders until 2006 - a move that rivals Decca's decision not to sign the Beatles
  • They became obsessed with wooing the mass market at the expense of their traditional market of 'heavy book buyers'
  • They recruited too many middle managers from other areas of retail, who knew nothing about books and came from businesses that valued compliance and uniformity over creativity and passion, resulting in a chain of bland, unexciting bookshops
  • The whole business was dominated by a counter-intuitive stock control system that looked and felt like a second rate MS-DOS program from 1989
  • They reacted to changes in the book trade, rather than anticipating them
In short, there are a lot of things wrong with Waterstone's and even if James Daunt can fix some of them, will anyone notice?

One of the most salutary (I know this word has been out of fashion since the 1870s, but I like it) lessons I learned in the book trade was when Waterstone's took over Ottakar's, rebranding every shop in the chain. For me, it was a cataclysmic event. For my customers, it was just another day. Very few of them even noticed the huge new black sign over the door.

Getting the book buying public excited about Waterstone's again will be a huge challenge.

To make things worse, the high street is going into meltdown. Long established brands like Mothercare, Habitat, Thorntons and TJ Hughes are either going into administration or slashing the number of stores, as customers increasingly migrate to the internet.

It's not a good time to work in high street retailing.

In an ideal world, James Daunt would have a few months to get his head around the business before coming up with a plan to save the chain. Unfortunately, time is a luxury James Daunt doesn't have. The crucial Christmas promotions will have to be signed off almost immediately.

On the one hand I don't envy James Daunt, but on the other, this is a fantastic opportunity. The death of Waterstone's needn't be inevitable. Other chains have suprised their detractors by reversing their fortunes and it's possible that James Daunt and Alexander Mamut may go down in posterity as the men who saved Britain's last bookshop chain.

But how?

If I was sitting in James Daunt's chair next Monday, these would be my priorities:

1. Increase the stockholding.

There was a time when you could go into most branches of Waterstone's and expect to find all of the backlist of authors like Ian McEwan or William Boyd. Not any more. Without a decent range, Waterstone's is finished. Of course, keeping a large range of slow-moving backlist titles is expensive, but if publishers are really serious about supporting Waterstone's, they should provide the stock under more favourable terms. Surely it's in the publishers' interest to have their books in shops rather than in a warehouse?

If customers can once again feel confident that they can find the book they want today (at a competitive price), they'll be less likely to automatically default to Amazon.

2. End the blandness.

Whether you're looking at the homepage of or gazing at a shop window, the overall impression is one of blandness. Dull, safe posters with insipid, dumbed-down bylines and predictable 3 for 2 promotions that have the same titles in month after month - that's the modern Waterstone's. In Ottakar's, shops competed with each other to come up with the quirkiest, most eye-catching windows. In Waterstone's, compliance has been valued over creativity.

Waterstone's branches need to make their shops as exciting as the books: eccentric, unpredictable, magical places, buzzing with energy, otherwise what's the point of going there?

As for the website, it should be a bibliophile's paradise, with videos of author interviews, YouTube clips of signing sessions and a vast archive of author information. At Ottakar's I was on the editorial committee of an award-winning fiction microsite and we produced hundreds of author biographies. I presume that Waterstone's now own that data, so why isn't it being used on their website?

3. Embrace the e-book.

As with the internet, Waterstone's made a half-hearted attempt at competing with Amazon and squandered a vital opportunity to get on the digital bandwagon. The game isn't over yet. Thousands of backlist titles have yet to be digitised and if Waterstone's can come up with a genuinely competitive alternative to the Kindle, they may be able to stop their shops becoming showrooms for Amazon.

4. Put staff morale at the top of the agenda.

The working culture in Waterstone's has been awful. An obsession with compliance has produced a climate of fear, where disciplinary action is routinely used as a motivational tool. When shops are earmarked for closure, staff often find out from the trade press before they receive any communication from the senior management.

The key to Waterstone's recovery is the enthusiasm and passion of its booksellers. But it will be hard to improve staff morale if the store managers are stuck in the back office for most of the day, completing one spreadsheet and after another. The excessive bureacracy should be trimmed down so that managers can spend more time selling books.

Staff morale in James Daunt's own chain is good, by all accounts. I hope that he can persuade some of the more abrasive characters in Waterstone's middle management to change their approach.

5. Give power back to the shops.

When I worked on a few projects for Ottakar's head office, I had access to the company's sales data and used to love analysing the sales performance of particular titles in different shops. Why did book X sell 57 copies in one shop, but only 4 in another, when both stores had a similar turnover? Sometimes it was because one shop had sold out, but more often than not it was because the local market was very different.

There has been a lot of talk in Waterstone's about responding to the local market, but when I walk in the front door, all I see is a bland, one-size-fits all approach. Each shop should have a unique offering that reflects the passion and knowledge of its staff, along with a strong awareness of the local customers.

6. Ditch the new Waterstone's logo:

Alright, number six isn't essential (I know some people even prefer the new drooping breasts logo to the traditional, angular W). The main thing is shops with more books, and a range and pricing that reflects the local market.

I could go on. I haven't even touched on the thorny issue of closing unprofitable shops, fixing or scrapping the central distribution hub, introducing a half-decent EPOS system or paying people more money. But that's enough to be going on with.

You may completely disagree with me (indeed I hope some people do, as I like a good debate). Perhaps Waterstone's would be even worse off today if it hadn't been run on strict retail lines. I don't know. All I can say is that as an Amazon customer, the main thing that would get me back into Waterstone's is a quirky, exciting range. However good Amazon is, you can't beat real browsing.

I wish Alexander Mamut and James Daunt the best of luck (and God knows, they'll need it). If they can bring Waterstone's back from the brink of extinction, to the point where it is a viable business with a future, both readers and publishers will owe them a huge debt.***

* The title should really be 'How I Would Go About Saving Waterstone's' (I wouldn't be arrogant enough to assume that I have the answers), but I went for the punchier option.

** Since writing this post, it has been announced that during its year under Dominic Myers, Waterstone's increased its profit by £6.7 million. This is a great achievement, but doesn't alter the fact that unless the business reverses the decline in sales (last year's were nearly 4% down on the previous year), its days are numbered. Also, let's not forget that during Myers tenure, Waterstone's sales received a temporary boost from the demise of Borders.

*** Two years on, the chain appears to be trying to replicate the success of Daunt's by turning Waterstones into a collection of mini-chains, or 'clusters'. Unprofitable stores are being closed the moment their leases expire, while some of the more successful shops have undergone refits. There has been a cull of middle and senior managers. As for ebooks, after looking at all the alternatives, James Daunt reluctantly decided to embrace the Kindle rather than waste time and money on a white elephant.

I agree with most of Daunt's decisions, but I'm not convinced by his new buying structure. I would have given the shops complete autonomy, but perhaps James Daunt felt that after the HMV years, there weren't enough real booksellers around to take that risk.

The chain is now in a race against time to contract to a sustainable level at a rate that keeps pace with the declining year on year sales. I suspect that they are being outpaced by the migration of sales to Amazon's Kindle offer.

****Three years on, it looks as if Daunt has done it. Ebook sales have levelled out and Waterstones looks set to break even for the first time in years. The medicine has been bitter, for some at least, with many redundancies and the loss of some very talented people, but it was an ineluctable fact that the costs of the business were too high. I remained sceptical about Waterstones until I saw its new branch in Lewes, which is one of the best bookshops I've ever seen.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Enigma Variations

I found this photo at work yesterday and almost threw it away, but there was something intriguing about the scene. Who was the mysterious figure in the centre who had drawn such a large crowd?

The image was of a fairly poor quality, but I hoped that a high resolution scan might resolve the enigma.

I scanned the image at 1200 dpi, which is more than adequate for most old photographs, and let Photoshop work its magic, enlarging different sections.

Here are the results:

This is the full photo after the colour balance and contrast have been improved (apologies to all fans of sepia). There is a greater clarity, but the figure in the centre remains tantalisingly elusive.

Now everything becomes much clearer, apart from the blurred figures of the men at the front. Is that who I think it is?

A further zoom has expanded the crest above the woman's head to a resolution where some of the writing is legible.

It is, of course, the Royal Coat of Arms, with its motto Dieu Et Mon Droit. I can only assume that it is Queen Victoria who has drawn such a large crowd on a rainy day.

I have no idea where or when this picture was taken. Queen Victoria is wearing black and given that she went into a prolonged period of mourning after Prince Albert's death, this must be the late 1860s, at the very earliest.

Perhaps someone who knows about fashion will be able to determine which decade this photograph was taken in. I would certainly like to know about the significance of these hats:

Scanned at 1200 dpi, the enlarged sections look like a monochrome, pointilist crowdscape by Seurat. Most of the people have their backs turned to us and the few faces we can see are blank and expressionless.

All apart from one - the woman on Queen Victoria's right. She appears to be looking down, in deference to the Queen.

Of course I may be completely on the wrong track. Someone might recognise the enigmatic figure as 'Big Bertha' McMahon, the famous Victorian female heavyweight wrestler, or Dame Cynthia Partington-Ffoulkes, whose Temperance League speeches terrified pub landlords from Portsmouth to Perth.

It could even be an author signing session, perhaps by Mrs Henry Wood, if they did things like that in the nineteenth century.

However, I'm fairly confident that I've discovered a photograph of Queen Victoria.

If anyone has any observations or insights about the time and the place, I'd be very grateful. I would love to know more about this mysterious image.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Mouse That Roared

I have to admit that my knowledge of the British Raj in India is probably limited to a single viewing of Richard Attenborough's 'Ghandi' and the first episode of the television series 'The Jewel in the Crown' (I can't remember why I didn't watch the whole series).

Also, last year, I listened to a radio programme about the Indian Mutiny.

This seriously compromises my ability to add pithy, relevant comments to the following photographs, which come from an album featuring a group of British soldiers in India during the years 1917-19. I tried to gen-up on Wikipedia, but it had one of the longest entries I've ever come across.

So here are the photos, minus any pertinent, erudite observations. I may even have to resort to making fun of people's pith helmets and absurd moustaches:

How did a relatively small army of overgrown boy scouts, from a damp little island in northern Europe, manage to successfully govern a vast, densely populated subcontinent in Asia? Several modern commentators have suggested that when we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, we could have done with learning a few lessons in statecraft from the Raj.

He looks like a serious sort of chap, but the short trousers don't really convey the right sense of gravitas. It must have been unbearably hot and humid for the British Army to go these lengths (or lack of).

"See that beautiful bird up there? Ten bob says I can bring it down within two shots..."

"Bingo! I'll get the kitchen wallahs to serve it for dinner."

"Sir, we have run out of fuel in the kitchens. We will call the Coal Wallah..."

One of the greatest (and least controversial) legacies of British rule in India was the rail network.

Rather disturbingly, it looks as if the small boy has some sort of chain around its neck

A rare shot of 'our boys' in long trousers

These were a highly-disciplined body of men, ready to quash any insurrection at a moment's notice, even in their underwear

But beyond their proud military bearing, these soldiers had a more sensitive side

You can insert your own caption here

Sadly, although the album has details of dates and locations, there are no names, otherwise I'd try and locate a living relative of these men (hopefully not the person who threw it out a few weeks ago). Since I launched my project at work, I've only had one success story - this handwritten novel was reunited with the author's relatives, to their delight.

But this album will now join the others, gathering dust in a corner of my office. I know I'll never throw it away.

Monday, June 20, 2011

French Leave

I have just returned from a very wet week in Normandy, during which I was assaulted by goats and mocked by the French for my appalling grasp of their language. In both cases it was my own fault. I went into each situation with a lot of goodwill, but a lamentable absence of foresight.

On the plus side, it was a learning curve. I will never again make the mistake of walking into the middle of a herd of goats with an open bag of food, and as far as speaking French goes, I must try harder.

I had made the mistake of thinking that my recent Livemocha French course would be enough to get me through everday situations. Every time I completed an online exercise, an encouraging email would arrive within seconds saying "Great job!"

In hindsight, the positive feedback probably gave me a slightly inflated view of my abilities. When, on the first day, I confidently asked a supermarket cashier for a plastic bag, I was completely foxed by her reply:


As the week went on, I became increasingly adept at saying "Je ne comprends pas".

I clearly need to learn some more French, but at times I'm tempted to go back to the tried and trusted method of smiling, shouting and pointing.

But it wasn't all humiliation and goats; there were magical moments too. One day I went for a drive with my mother-in-law and we ended up in a beautiful forest, near the town of Saint-Sever-Calvados:

After several miles of driving through dense woodland along empty roads, we saw a sign pointed to 'L'Hermitage'. It sounded intriguing, so I turned off and followed a rough track until we reached a group of large, granite stone buildings. A sign announced that were at a convent, which was strictly privée, but visitors were welcome to visit the chapel.

I parked the car and we got out. It was completely silent, apart from sound of birdsong and the wind roaring through the branches of the trees. A perfect place for the contemplative life.

As we walked down a dark, wooded lane to the chapel, an elderly Frenchman seemed to appear from nowhere and started talking to us. By now I was used to saying "Je ne comprends pas" and expected a characteritic shrug of resignation, but instead we received a reply in perfect, slightly aristocratic English.

When we complimented the man on his English, he explained that he'd taught the subject in Caen for over 20 years:

"I still live in Caen, but every year I come here for a retreat for a few days, to enjoy the silence. Would you like me to show you around the chapel?"

The chapel was beautiful, with an austerity that reminded me of a 6th century church that I'd visited last year. It belonged to this order of nuns and although a sign asked vistors not to disturb the residents, I was a little confused to learn that they had a gift shop that sold greetings cards, books and CDs.

After the well-spoken stranger had finished giving a tour of the chapel, he invited us into the convent for a cup of tea. He confessed that as much as he loved the contemplative life, he was quite relieved when strangers turned up.

We were led to a simply-furnished room with bare stone walls and served tea and brioche, accompanied by some gorgeous jam that had been made by the nuns.

After exchanging a few pleasantries, we asked the man about his life. He was called Father Yves and belonged to a religious order called the Salesians, who are known for their work in educating underprivilged children. He had been associated with the order since he was a child.

Born in Paris, Yves' father died shortly before the War and his mother, unable to cope with raising four children on her own, sent him to an orphange in Normandy. It sounded like the beginning of a tragic story, but Father Yves was quick to dismiss any suggestions that he'd had a tough childhood:

"No, no! It was a very good orphanage. I had a much better life being there than I would have done otherwise."

We went on to talk about the persecution of the Catholic church after the Revolution and I mentioned how much French history I'd learned from reading novels. My mother-in-law agreed, saying how much she loved Zola. There was a slightly awkward silence (somehow I don't think that Father Yves was a Zola fan) before he asked if we'd read Stevenson's 'Travels With a Donkey'. When we shook our heads, he seemed shocked:

"It is a wonderful book and I have done the same journey myself three times. But without the donkey."

Later, as we walked back to the car, my mother-in-law and I agreed that it had been worth coming to Normandy just to meet Father Yves. Anything else was a bonus.

Sadly, the rest of the week was spent dodging showery squalls and our suntan lotions and beachwear never saw the light of day. However, in between downpours we did manage to go on a few excursions.

Here are a few of my favourite moments:

1. A trip to Dinan:

I wanted to visit Brittany and the town of Dinan, with its largely unspoilt medieval centre, is well worth a visit. However, I wish that the owners of the house below hadn't filled their hanging baskets with plastic flowers. Très vulgaire!

2. Encounters with lemurs:

During a brief spell of sunshine, we visited a superb zoo that had recreated a Madagascan forest environment - minus any logging companies - where lemurs could wander freely. Most of the time, they seemed to be content to laze on the grass and lick their genitals, but occasionally they liked to investigate the visitors and seemed happy to pose for photographs.

3. Sandstone saint

At a church in Granville, this sandstone figure of a saint has become so weathered that it now looks like an abstract contemporary sculpture. I'm not sure if this picture will appeal to anyone else, but I liked it.

4. A typically French solution to a rattling window shutter:

5. Frog Prison:

By sheer coincidence our next door neighbour was also in Normandy last week, staying at her parents' house, so we drove over to have lunch with her. Although we had a lovely time, it was a small house and my sons soon started to get restless, so our neighbour asked them if they'd like to see something unusual.

She led the boys out into the small backyard, turned a hose tap on and started firing a jet of water at a small drain, that was covered with a metal grill.

Suddenly, a frog appeared, holding onto the bars like a prisoner looking through a cell window:

Apparently the frog lives in the drain. How he got there and the question of whether he has a secret exit or not is unknown, but he clearly has enough to eat. Our neighbour said that he'd been there for years, but I didn't think frogs lived that long. Is he the same frog, trapped in solitary confinement for years, or one of a family of subterranean amphibians?

6. French supermarkets:

French supermarkets are wonderful. Anywhere where you can buy a decent bottle of wine for £3 and choose from a huge selection of cheeses can't be bad, but I was particularly interested in the books. For all their supposed cultural chauvinism, the French had a far wider selection of Anglophone authors in translation than I expected.

I was particularly intrigued to find a number of English-sounding names that I'd never heard of. Were these authors who'd found more success abroad than they had in their own countries, or were they American authors who'd never been published in Britain?

When I worked at Waterstone's in Richmond, I was often asked by German customers for novels by Noah Gordon. The first time I was asked for a copy of Gordon's novel 'The Physician', I confessed that I'd never heard of him. The German customer exploded: "But he is a bestselling English author in Germany! You MUST have his books!"

After a quick check on the microfiche, I explained to the woman that there were no Noah Gordon novels in print in Britain and asked if he was, by any chance, American? "Yes, he is American, but if he is a bestseller in America and Germany, why not Britain?"

It was a question I couldn't answer. For whatever reason, some American authors fail to take off in Britain and vice versa - I'm told that Lisa Scottoline is a perefctly good crime writer, but in spite of several marketing campaigns and jacket redesigns, her novels have never become popular on this side of the Atlantic. A similar attempt was made with Noah Gordon. Perhaps he's better in translation.

Browsing through the large selection of French novels (a far wider selection than any British supermarket would stock), I was frustrated to see so many intriguing-looking titles that would probably never be translated into English.

That, of course, is another reason for learning French. I may never become a fluent speaker and will continue to be baffled by a language that sounds like a non-stop succession of vowels and soft consonants, but if I could read books in French, that alone would make it worthwhile.

Friday, June 10, 2011

More Victorians

Yesterday another Victorian photograph album appeared on my desk at work, rescued by someone in the warehouse. Sadly, it wasn't as fascinating as this album, which I found last year, but there were a few portraits which I thought were worth sharing:

I'm not quite sure why this photograph of a Spike Milligan lookalike and his wife was taken at such a jaunty angle.

The boy's face is slightly blurred because he didn't remain still, but the dog was clearly an experienced sitter.

A wonderful, strong face

The husband in this couple from Oban looks like a formidable character

The one intriguing thing about this album is the variety of locations that these photographs were taken in: Cardiff, London, Oban, Birmingham, Aberdeen and Leamington Spa - if this is a family album, they were clearly a product of the huge migration that took place during the early Victorian age, when people left their largely rural homes in search of work.

When he retired, my father traced our family tree and got back as far as the 1740s. The death certificates showed that when they lived in the rural Kentish village that had been their home for generations, my ancestors lived to a ripe old age. Then one of them moved to London and became a cab driver.

Both he and his son died in their early 50s.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Problem of Evil

One of the strangest publications I've come across recently is a 1939 pamphlet called 'Tom, Dick and Harry', produced by the Mansfield House University Settlement - not a name I was familiar with.

A quick search a Google produced this result:

"The Mansfield House University Settlement was founded in 1889 and was intended to give students of Mansfield College Oxford first hand experience of living and working with working-class people. The Settlement wanted to bring ‘culture’ to the people of the East End, and to provide people with opportunities for leisure, recreation and self-improvement. (The idea was partly to encourage people to take up respectable pursuits, rather than spend all their time and money in the public house.)"

So far so good: a group of well-intentioned Oxford undergraduates helping the poor.

As for the pamphlet, its main purpose seemed to be to raise money for the boys clubs that the Settlement had established in the East End. Once again, a laudible cause.

But when I saw the subtitle 'A Calendar of Good and Evil', my alarm bells started to ring. For example, the young man below may be a bit of a ruffian, but is evil really the right word?

Apparently this is what he should be doing:

Quite right too. A bracing 12-mile ride to find the nearest stretch of countryside will do this young man a world of good. Away from the temptations of the city, he will discover new pleasures: medieval churches, brass rubbing, butterfly collecting and bird spotting.

The whole pamphlet consists of pairs of contrasting photographs: one showing a youth being 'good' at a boys' club; the other depicting 'evil' in the streets:

These two tearaways are behaving like savages, not subjects of His Majesty King George VI. The Marquess of Queensbury would be turning in his grave.

Luckily, the Boys' Club provides Cockney lads with a more constructive outlet for their innate cunning and pent-up aggression:

"This is good, and I say, isn't that WH Auden in the background? Apparently nobody turned up to the poetry class. Philistines!"

In addition to promoting physical health, the Mansfield House Settlement was also concerned about the mental and spiritual well-being of their boys - a young man should not be filling his head with lurid tales of murder and adultery (at least he's reading a newspaper!):

Instead, he should be in the library, brushing up his Latin and memorising Ozymandias for the Christmas concert:

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Supposing our lads become susceptible to the lure of political extremism:

"We have happily no need in this country to beat the big drum; nor to regiment youth into a hectic nationalism; the right spirit is there and only needs to be fostered to grow unconsciously and naturally."

Given that the year is 1939 and this is the East End of London, where Blackshirts and Communists had fought fierce battles in the streets, the words of this pamphlet are rather pointed.

As for the 'right spirit' that needs to be fostered, this photo is given as an illustration:

Here, our young wastrels are enjoying a four-part arrangement of 'Linden Lea', with the inspiring figure of Lord Nelson in the background. No nationalism here - that's too foreign.

But these boys cannot exist purely on a diet of Shelley, Vaughan Williams and vigorous exercise. During the interludes between world wars, they need to be gainfully employed:

The alternative, as 'Tom, Dick and Harry' subtly points out, is this:

"Not so fast now, you young good-for-nothing!"
But if one of the members of the Boys' Club does revert to his dissolute ways of old, he can be certain that his former partners in crime will hunt him down like a dog, until he is bought to justice:

I wonder what happened to the boys' clubs fundraising drive? Was it quickly eclipsed by the advent of war, or did the Mansfield House University Settlement come into its own during the Blitz? It has been difficult to find out, although this website gives a brief history of the charity up to the year 2000.

From a modern perspective, the 'Tom, Dick and Harry' pamphlet seems absurd. We shy away from using the word evil these days and I think that there are times when we shouldn't be afraid to use it, but if we apply it to feckless teenage boys, then what word do we have left for people like Ratko Mladic?

As for the idea of privileged university graduates trying to bring 'culture' to the East End, it might seem ridiculous - who would dare to do that today? But if the alternative is doing nothing, condemning people to live their whole lives without having a choice, I'd rather have some naive, well-intentioned undergraduate patronise me with high art and adult education classes.

My grandfather was a Cockney and fought in the First World War. He never had a chance to learn a trade before the War and when he returned, opprtunities were limited. He spent his entire working life in a succession of badly paid jobs as an 'unskilled labourer'.

My father seemed destined to follow the same path, leaving school at the age of 14 to work in a factory. But things had changed. A spell of National Service in the RAF at the end of the Second World War seemed to open new horizons and my father wasn't willing to meekly return to his old life. Instead, he went to night school and prepared for the Civil Service Entrance Exam which, in many ways, was an IQ test. He passed.

My father never became truly middle class, but he was a world away from his father's life, with its limited choices and low expectations.

By the time I was an 'A' Level student, in the 1980s, it felt as if class and background were completely irrelevant. But at university I learned how wrong I was.

The people at the Mansfield House University Settlement knew that lives were limited by social background and we should salute them for their efforts, even if their attempts at fundraising were a little overzealous!