Saturday, October 29, 2011

October is the Cruelest Month

It's ironic that now I have all the time in the world to write, my blogging has almost ground to a halt. This wasn't supposed to happen. I'd imagined writing posts about the progress of 'Steerforth Books' and my first steps in the precarious world of self-employment.

Sadly, the last four weeks have been a bit of a disaster. Within 24 hours of leaving my job, everyone in the Steerforth household succumbed to the horrible Norovirus, which had the one redeeming feature of rapid weight loss.

At times I felt as if I'd made a terrible mistake. Lying in bed, surrounded by people making zombie-like groaning noises, I couldn't help looking back fondly to the ordered world of my last job. Perhaps I had just made one of the most stupid decisions of my life.

In the end I wrote a list of the positives and negatives of my last job. There were two positives: the books and some of the people. The negatives were everything else. Suddenly everything seemed much clearer.

It's just as well that I felt reasonably sure about my move, as the month didn't get any better. Bits of the house collapsed, someone died and both of my sons succumbed to further illnesses.

As for Steerforth Books, it was just a name. I had no stock to sell, thanks to my former managing director's last minute intervention.

It would be easy to become despondent, but I'm fairly sanguine. There are times when it pays to be a pessimist and before I handed my notice in, I made sure that my business plan could survive a number of setbacks (including a mean-spirited former employer). I knew that it could take months to get Steerforth Books off the ground and planned accordingly, so it's not over yet.

I will be glad to see the back of October, but it hasn't been completely dreadful. I've been enjoying Vasily Grossman's epic masterpiece 'Life and Fate', watching some long-forgotten British films of the 1960s and trying to become a domestic god, with mixed results. I also had a very pleasant evening out at the Lewes Arms with two fellow bloggers.

In some ways it's not a bad life, but even if I could afford to never work again, I don't think I'd change my plans. I really miss working with books.

I particularly love being surrounded by old books and sometimes feel as if I am in the literary equivalent of a telephone exchange, connected by invisible skeins to the lives of strangers. However great or absurd the titles are, they have furnished both rooms and minds. My passion, I suppose, is to try and find them new owners.

So the plan for the rest of the year is simple: fix the ceiling and get some books. Now that I've come clean about my lack of progress, perhaps I'll also write some more blog posts - there are recent discoveries that I want to share.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Early This Morning

I've always been very dismissive of camera phones and could never understand why they became so popular. The picture quality was consistently awful and transfering the images to a computer was tedious, but in spite of this many people still chose to record some of the most important moments of their life with photos that made the Kodak Instamatic look like the Hubble Telescope. Why?

However, I have now discovered a phone that has a half-decent camera:

This morning I was driving back from a particularly awful car boot sale that would have made a street market in Burkina Faso look luxuriantly decadent. I don't what I hated most: the piles of used shoes that looked like something out of 'Schindler's List', or the dew-soaked DVDs of low budget horror films like 'Satan's Little Helper'.

After such a depressing experience, I decided to lift the spirits with a visit to the Long Man of Wilmington. It was a beautiful morning and as I got out of the car, I regreted not bring a camera with me.

Then I remembered my new phone:

It's not a great photo. The saturation's not right and the zoom has affected the sharpness, but compared to the old VGA images that I was used to, this was a revelation. It's almost good.

This image was taken without the zoom function:

Not great, but not bad either.

This lacks sharpness, but the colours are far richer than the washed-out, grainy sub-CCTV images on my old phone.

A decent camera would have been able to cope more effectively with the contrasts of light and dark, but it's still perfectly acceptable.

As I fiddled with the phone's touch screen, The Long Man looked on impassively. He'd seen it all: Roman centurions, Saxon thanes, medieval pilgrims, Victorian farmers and, today, people in garish fleeces walking their oversexed dogs along public footpaths.

I shall be seeing a lot more of the Long Man in the future. I think we're going to get along very well.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Vita Nimis Brevis

I left my job on Friday. I had been dreading my last day there for a number of reasons and it proved to be a far more emotional experience than I had anticipated, thanks to some very strange behaviour on the part of my managing director, who overruled his colleagues’ earlier offer to sell me some stock.

When asked why, he explained that I was now a competitor. I suppose I should be flattered, but it seemed unnecessarily petty and mean-spirited.

For a few minutes I felt like walking out. It would have been so easy to get in the car and drive away, but I decided to hang around just in case there was a surprise presentation with a succession of heartfelt eulogies. It’s just as well, as there was.

Also, I would have missed this:

It's a cake with my face on it (printed with edible ink). I was really touched that someone had gone to such lengths, but slightly disappointed to see that nobody wanted my tongue in their mouth. Nothing changes. In the end, I had to eat my own mouth.

By the end of the day my mood had lifted. Several directors thanked me for everything I'd done for the business and, for the first time in my working life, I really felt as if I had accomplished something. Managing a bookshop was always a work in progress, unresolved and incomplete, in which leaving felt more like absconding. Here, I could go with my head held high. Sort of.

My official reason for resigning was the errant politician's favourite: to spend more time with my family. But, of course, that was only half of the story.

The simple fact is that I'd had enough of it all: commuting, working nine to five, managing people, going to meetings, filling in spreadsheets, worrying about sales targets and having to pretend to be a certain type of person. I think that the recent stresses of family life had simply reduced my ability to tolerate the intolerable. As much I liked some of the people I worked with (and for), I felt like a round peg in a square hole.

I value time more than money. I also value intellectual curiosity, a sense of the absurd, integrity and kindness. These enduring values are far more important than the ephemeral trappings of worldly success (not that I had many ephemeral trappings to worry about).

Several years ago, when I was unemployed for a while, I read Tom Hodgkinson's exhilarating manifesto 'How To Be Free' and recognised a kindred spirit. It strengthened my resolve to avoid being a wage slave, so it was apposite that in today's Independent, he wrote this:

'Can you do something you enjoy and make money doing it? Can you do it without exploiting people and draining resources? Can you do it with your friends? This was the punk spirit as translated into entrepreneurialism.

The point is that if you yearn to escape the stifling restrictions of the nine-to-five in the corporate or state bureaucracy, your only alternative is small business. Every artist is an entrepreneur because you have to do your own tax and invoicing. In my talk I quoted GK Chesterton's famous quip, "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." Most of us are working for the megamachine when we should be creating our own mini-machines. This is why, in order to escape slavery and embrace liberty, we need to face up to taking responsibility for our own lives as traders.'

I couldn't agree more. Steerforth Books may end up being a complete disaster, but I have to try.

Farm Fresh

It was nearly 30 degrees yesterday, so we sought refuge in the shade of Wilderness Wood. Like the ferns in this picture, I don't thrive in direct sunlight.

On the way back, I stopped in a farm shop (as the food in Waitrose just isn't expensive enough) and was surprised to find it completely deserted. I walked around the wooden floor with heavy, giant steps, but nobody came. Then I tried slamming down the freezer lids more vigorously than usual, but still nothing.

Minutes later, a ruddy-faced man came stumbling out of a door at the back of the shop and greeted me:

"Haven't been waiting long, have you sir? Found what you want? Or perhaps what your wife wants. Mind you, the wives don't know what we get up to when we're on our own, do they?"

He gave a half wink that reminded me of a rather unpleasant uncle I once had.

I smiled and nodded knowingly , thinking "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about". Did he mean that, that or that?

Sometimes ignorance is bliss.