Monday, December 31, 2012

Annus Discendi

According to Microsoft, it's my "special day, so enjoy it. And don't forget to share what you're doing today with the friends in your life". At some point in the past, I must have lied to them about my date of birth - I was born in March. But like birthdays, today is a time of reflection and looking forward.

I can't say that I have particularly enjoyed 2012. Some years leave you with a store of fond memories - a montage of days out, meetings with friends and personal achievements - but  this one was largely defined by illness and uncertainty. The most positive thing I could say about 2012 is that it has been a year of learning.

However, the year wasn't without its positive moments. On the plus side, I worked here during the summer:

I also enjoyed a magical evening in Seville:

Wandering around an almost-deserted Alcázar Palace in the early evening, more than made up for the terrifying drive through the back streets of the city centre.

But apart from a few very enjoyable drinks with old friends, I did very little this year. I intend to make up for lost time in 2013.

One plan for next year that has been shelved is our decision to get a dog. The border terrier that stayed with us during the summer has come for Christmas, but after an emotional reunion, my oldest son has shown little interest in taking it out for walks - having a dog in winter is clearly less appealing. When, on Christmas Day, he solemnly annouced that he'd changed his mind about getting a dog, I felt a huge sense of relief - 2013 already looks good.

I'll finish this very brief post by saying a sincere thank you to anyone who has taken the time to read this blog. Whoever you are, wherever you are, I wish you health and happiness in 2013.

Friday, December 28, 2012

"Do you have that cookery book with the red cover?"

After six months on Twitter, I have realised that it probably isn't for me, or I'm not for it. But I love reading other people's tweets (especially when they're not telling you about their cat or the great review their latest novel has just had).

I particularly enjoyed this tweet from a few days ago, by bookseller @lucyfishwife:

A customer asked me where we kept kids' books for 20-yr-olds. I pointed at the Fiction section.

How I miss dealing with the general public.

It's now over five years since I last dealt with a customer face to face. Although I still sell books, I don't dare to call myself a bookseller any more because I think that unless you're prepared to meet your public, you're merely a supplier. Internet bookselling is like cybersex, stripped of the agonies and ecstacies of real human contact. I love it.

Real bookselling was a little like Russian Roulette - you never knew whether the person approaching your desk was going to ask a normal question like "Do you have a copy of X by Z?" or a completely daft one like "I live in Surrey but have a holiday home in Staffordshire. Do you have a book of walks that just covers Surrey and Staffordshire?" (a genuine question, by the way).

Reading @lucyfishewife's anecdote reminded me of some of the gems I've been asked over the years:

"Could you recommend a book for someone who only has three weeks to live?" (I suggested short stories)

"It says Biography and Memoirs. Why don't you have an autobiography section?"

"I want that new gardening book. The title? No, I can't remember. Author? Oh, it's a lady and it's green. Do you have it?"

"Where's your non-fiction section?" Asked by a middle-aged man with a fruity voice and dyed hair. I replied that it was the whole shop, apart for the fiction and children's sections, and that it was divided up into separate subjects. Minutes later, he came downstairs shouting "Your non-fiction section is impenetrable!"

"I want a novel with a moral dilemma." (Which is like saying "I'd like a motor car with an engine")

"Do you read?" I often replied, very politely, "Yes, I do. *Long pause* Do you?"

"Why have you moved your fiction section downstairs? Last year it was upstairs." When I replied that it had always been downstairs since we'd opened, two months ago, suggesting that they were confusing us with another shop, the customer shook their head, "No, it was definitely here and it was upstairs."

"Will I like this?" Asked by a heavily made-up woman in her late 60s, waving a copy of Foucault's Pendulum. I wanted to say "How the **** should I know?", but smiled sweetly and said "You'll love it", which turned out to be the right answer.

"Where's your section of coffee table books about Paraguay?" Try Paraguay.

"Do you have any books about sex with animals?" The same man asked this question on a weekly basis.

"Have you got that book about cholera?" I asked if he meant Marquez. He nodded, but then leaned forward and said, rather patronisingly, "Actually, it's pronounced Marqeth." His smug, punchable face was a picture when I patiently explained the difference between Castillian and Latin American Spanish.

"That book you recommended to me last week? It was crap." No, you were just too dim to appreciate it.

"If I ordered the book now, could you get it in time for Christmas Day?" Asked at 3.15pm on Christmas Eve.

As time went on, my answers became more confident. When the customer who wanted coffee table books on Paraguay huffed and puffed about our glaring omission, I could confidently point out that this was the first time in ten years that anyone had asked me for a book about Paraguay. I also knew how cheeky I could be without provoking a complaint, perfecting a subtle insoucience that Jeeves would have been proud of.

But in the end, you get battle fatigue. A man I worked with who was 17 years older than me had become an embittered Basil Fawlty figure, picking unnecessary fights with perfectly harmless customers because he was at the end of his tether. When I saw how he treated a poor woman who'd innocently asked for a self-help book by Betty Shine, I made a mental note to get out of bookselling before I became like him.

We lost touch, but two years ago I bumped into my ex-colleague at a historic building, where he was a voluntary guide. He seemed happier than he'd ever been in the bookshop. I knew how he felt.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Don We Now Our Gay Apparel (Fa la la la la, la la la la)

Yesterday evening, my wife and I set off for a Christmas party in Lewes, with a hastily-bought bottle of Pinotage that promised "smoky, bramble flavours with a hint of tropical fruit". Thankfully it didn't have a comedy label like 'Mad Goat', but I still wished that I'd gone to Waitrose.

After walking for five minutes along a succession of dark, damp, slug-infested alleys, I asked my wife how much further the house was. She looked confused: "I don't know. You're the one with the address." At that point, I realised that neither of us knew where we were going.

A man walked past and looked at the bottle of wine. I felt embarrassed, as if he could tell that we were lost. My wife looked ahead and started walking purposefully: "I'm pretty sure it's just up here. It's either 50 or 15. We'll know by the noise."

Sady, there was no noise. We walked past a succession of eerily quite homes, occasionally catching glimpses of flickering television screens or people sitting around tables, but unless it was a very sedate party, we were in the wrong street. We turned round and started to walk home, when my wife suddenly said "Ah!"

Walking in the opposite direction were a couple that she recognised, also clutching a bottle of wine. "Is this it?" she asked. They nodded. The door opened and we entered a silent house.

It turned out that the party was a victim of the norovirus, with eleven couples cancelling, leaving a small rump of guests. At first, this seemed like a great misfortune, but I ended up having a much better evening than usual.

Parties can often be rather painful affairs unless you know most of the people there. You walk into a room full of unfamiliar faces, where everyone else seems to know each other. They don't, but that's always how it looks. Terrified of being the person who isn't talking to anyone, you spin out the process of hanging up your coat and handing over the bottle of wine, quickly scanning for any possible openings.

I always manage to find someone to talk to and they often seem as relieved as I am when I introduce myself. Then, for the next half hour, we go through the motions of asking each other what we do, which part of London we're from and why we're glad we moved to Lewes. So far so good.

Unfortunately, after getting off to a flying start, the conversation enters the danger zone, where paranoid thoughts start to flash through your head: "Am I monopolising this person? Are they getting bored. Am I getting bored? Would it be rude to go off to get a drink..." This is the aspect of parties that I always hate. Sometimes I wish that someone would just ring a bell and we'd all have to shuffle round, a bit like speed dating.

But on the other hand, it can be good to be stuck with someone for long enough to exhaust the polite platitudes and start to get a glimpse of the real person. Last week, I met an odd-looking man who was dressed like an overgrown boy scout, with a face that resembled a Spitting Image puppet and a voice like a 1970s station announcer at Clapham Junction. He didn't seem to have any sense of humour and I thought "Oh God, this is going to be hard work."

Then, during the next half hour, he managed to destroy all of my first impressions by turning out to be one of the most interesting people I've met, with an extraordinary past. He had a sense of humour too. As if I needed any further evidence of how wrong I'd been, after half an hour, a beautiful woman at the other end of the room came up and told him that it was time to go.

In fairness, most of the women seemed quite beautiful that evening, whereas the poor men were represented by a sea of bespectacled, balding heads. I wish that we could 'scrub up' like the ladies, but the combination of a hot, humid room and 'Just for Men' would have made it look more like Death in Venice.

Last night's party was more of a gathering, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Without the noise and crush of a crowded room, the conversation seemed to flow more freely. I met some lovely people and lost track of the time, which is always a good sign.

We left at 10.30 - earlier than I would have liked - but when we turned into our road, I could see my mother anxiously twitching the curtains, as if I was still her teenage son. Some things never change.

Christmas Day will be a fairly sedate affair. My wife and I are both only children and don't have many living relatives. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped my wife from behaving as if she's preparing for a royal wedding.

 I'm keeping my head down. In two days it will all be over.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Les Rosbifs

Ah, the south of France...

The sophistication. The culture. The cuisine...

Imagine that it's the early 1980s and you are a bona fide member of the chattering classes. In the days before you had children, you wouldn't have thought twice about blowing a month's wages on a few nights at the Hotel de Ville, but times have changed. Jane is no longer working and the mortgage on your five-bedroom house in an 'up and coming' part of Balham has made a dent on your disposable income, so sacrifices have to be made.

Once, camping would have been an anathema to both of you, but now that Christopher and Emily are at kindergarten, you wonder if it wouldn't be rather fun to have an al fresco holiday. Not camping of course, but Le Camping.

One day in late July, you load up the Volvo (making sure that there's enough room to to bring back a few bottles of plonk for Tim and Amanda) and begin the long trek to the spiritual home of the cognoscenti: Provence.

The journey ends 36 hours later, just as the light is failing, in an idyllic rural setting where the air smells of pine needles and olive groves. It has been a long drive, but you are now certain that it was worth it. Exhausted but happy, you unload the basics and enjoy the sleep of the just.

The next morning you wake up and realise that you have neighbours. Like you, they are English, but...

In their Hillman Hunter, your neighbours have followed a similar trajectory, stopping en route to enjoy the delights of Paris:

But you sense that their tastes are different to yours and after hearing the same Kagagoogoo song for the seventh time, you decide to ask Yves about moving to a quieter part of the site. He'll understand - "Ah, oui, les rosbifs. Mon dieu!"

In the meantime, Dot, Ray, Kevin and Gary are having the time of their lives, although the boys have an unfortunate habit of clutching their genitals whenever a photo is taken:

Dot didn't want to come here. She would have rather gone to the usual place in Sandy Bay, but Ray had some funny ideas about the south of France and now that she's here, Dot reluctantly concedes that she's having 'a bit of a laugh'.

Although holidaying with three males is no picnic. The mess in the morning...

I'd love to know the real narrative behind these photos. They appeared at work last week and my first impression was one of disappointment - just a collection of blurry, Kodak Instamatic snaps. But then curiosity took over. Where did these people come from and what were their real names? What made them choose the south of France? Are they all still alive now?

Before long I was making up my own narrative, imagining them leaving somewhere a bit grim, like Luton, vicariously enjoying their excitement at seeing the blue skies of Provence for the first time. But that's probably all nonsense.

In the digital age, albums will no longer fall into the hands of strangers. Photos will either disappear into the ether or exist in the purgatory of cyberspace, forgotten and unvisited.

I think it's time to have a proper album again.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thursday Matinée

I woke up in the middle of the night with crippling stomach cramps, so today has been a bit of a write-off. But on the plus side, I've been able to lie in bed and watch this:

The film isn't quite as absurd as the trailer suggests and gives a fascinating glimpse of a rarely-seen side of Britain during the 1950s. But the main attraction is a cast that includes Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, Stanley Baker, Sid James, David McCallum and the unbiquitous Alfie Bass.

If you like seeing goods vehicle drivers flagrantly disregarding the Highway Code, I can thoroughly recommend Hell Drivers.

I also watched a film that I loved as a child. Sadly, on second viewing, it turned out to be even more ridiculous than I'd anticipated:

If you haven't seen it, I'll save you the effort. The film begins with the revelation that the world is going to end. In spite of this rather depressing news, everyone continues going to work and behaving quite normally, apart from a small group of people who decide to build a 'rocketship' that will act as a modern Noah's Ark, taking a selection of animals (probably not wasps) and 40 young white people (probably WASPS) to an approaching planet that might be able to support life.

The world blows up, consumed by a star. Fortunately, the spaceship has escaped in the nick of time and managed to make a successful landing on the new planet. When the hatch is opened for the first time, the crew are greeted by a well-manicured lawn and a poorly-executed watercolour landscape. In the distance, there is a strange alien monolith, but nobody sees remotely surprised or interested. The end.

However, I don't waste all of my time watching films like When Worlds Collide. This 2011 film, which I have also seen recently, is excellent:

Beautifully filmed and acted, with a surprisingly effective score by Philip Glass, Elena deservedly won the Special Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a new film as much.

I hope that my stomach behaves itself in time for Saturday, as we're going to what my wife ominously described as a 'killing party'. I was very relieved when I realised that she meant a 'Killing' party, where all of the guests had to bugger off before BBC 4 screens the final two episodes of the Danish thriller series.

How very Lewes.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Last Noel

I took this just over an hour ago, as I was leaving work. It looks quite idyllic, but that's because you can't see the mud or experience the smell of rotting hay. I've never been anywhere so filthy. Spring seems a long way away.

But whenever I start to feel demoralised by the biting cold winds and short days, I remind myself that at least I'm no longer working in a bookshop at Christmas.

All retailers experience seasonal fluctuations, but few are more dependent on the Christmas period than the book trade, with 50% of the annual turnover packed into the last two months of the year. The frenetic pace is a far cry from the quiet, civilised image of bookselling.

When I worked at Ottakar's, a good Christmas meant pay rises, new shops and a managers' meeting abroad. A bad one resulted in a pay freeze, no shops and a meeting in Birmingham.

At Ottakar's, Christmas always began in March, when the lead titles for the autumn were revealed at the annual managers' conference, in a migraine-inducing Powerpoint presentation of book covers and loud music. Sometimes it felt as if we were watching a repeat of the previous year: Jamie Oliver, Nigella, Terry Pratchett, token sportsperson, token rock star, Wilbur Smith, quirky humour title, lavish history hardback, beautiful pop-up children's title, reckless attempt at in-house publishing, celebrity memoir, 'lyrical' literary novel and the obligatory amusing travelogue.

At some point in the presentation, the managing director would address the 120-odd managers and try to persuade them that this was the most crucial Christmas ever. Even more crucial than last year's most crucial Christmas ever. How much of this actually registered with the managers was debatable, as many of them were busy concentrating on trying not to be sick or fall over, after enjoying the previous evening's free bar.

After March, we would forget about Christmas for two months. Then, one day in June, the publishers' reps would begin arriving with larger folders containing the 'blad' for the autumn titles. The festive season had begun.

Once, managers were responsible for ordering everything for their shop, but after the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, chain bookstores began buying the lead titles centrally. Commercially it made sense. Instead of 100 shops ordering small quantities of titles, a buyer at head office level would place one huge order for the whole chain, gaining an extra 9 to 10% discount from the publisher, which could then be used to provide a 'money off' offer to the customer.


Once the stock had arrived, it was the manager's job to ensure that they identified the bestselling titles and reordered enough stock to last them until Christmas eve.

This wasn't always as easy as it sounded. A book that had sold 11 copies a week in October might conceivably sell 200 a week in December, but if it didn't, you would be left with boxes of unsold stock and incur the wrath of your superiors.

The obvious answer was to only order enough stock to get you through the next two weeks. Unfortunately, this was a risky strategy, as some books regularly went into reprint (particularly if the author had just appeared on Jonathan Ross) and being out of stock of a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller was even worse having too many copies of a dud celebrity memoir (the most notorious of which was Anthea Turner's autobiography, which reached No.457 in the bestseller charts).

But even if you managed to get your stock levels exactly right, the shop could still grind to a halt if you'd forgotten to order enough bags or failed to increase your change float. As for staffing, I've lost count of the number of times my perfect rota would be sabotaged by someone phoning in to say that they had "a bit of a cold".

Getting the staff levels right was always a challenge. Instead of opening from 9.00am to 5.30pm, the working day increased each week until, a few days before Christmas, it lasted for 13 hours. As a manager, I had to plan two or three staggered shifts, ensure that the tills were covered during lunch breaks and also provide enough muscle to deal with the deliveries, which were at least four times their normal volume. As for the customers, sometimes the shop felt like the Storming of the Bastille:


During the final week before Christmas, I would invariably end up working for 13-hour days, dividing my time between placing last-minute hotline orders, unpacking deliveries, replenishing the tables and helping on the tills. By Christmas Eve, I had reached a point of exhaustion where I felt as if I had flu and, sadly, was rarely in the mood for a family celebration the following day.

Indeed, two months of grumpy customers, long opening hours, semi-hysterical emails from Head Office and a loop tape of carols did tend to kill off any latent Christmas spirit and when the 25th finally arrived, I had to pretend to be full of festive cheer. But at least I now had a break.

15 years ago, we used to enjoy a three-day holiday (returning on the 28th for a delightful day of people returning unwanted presents). This gave booksellers whose families lived hundreds of miles away enough time to travel home for Christmas (particularly as I would always close the shop early on the 24th).

But gradually this changed. As high street sales began to be affected by internet and supermarket competition, the pressure to open longer and close for fewer days increased each year. When I left bookselling, Christmas Eve was no longer a comparatively relaxed half day, but a frantic operation in which the shop was prepared for the sales. Also, the three-day break had now contracted to just the 25th.

In spite of everything, I used to get a buzz from bookselling at Christmas. Ottakar's was a good company to work for. But by the time HMV had bought the chain, it was no longer any fun. I did not appreciate receiving the 'planograms' that told me where to put my books, or the boorish senior manager whose sole mission seemed to be to find fault with everything he saw (a stark contrast to the Ottakar's managing director, who could have restored morale on the sinking Titanic).

One day, almost exactly five years ago, I drove to work on a frosty Saturday morning and parked my car a few hundred yards away from the shop I managed. As I walked through the deserted town centre, I asked myself what could worse than losing my job and the answer suddenly became very clear: keeping it. I left that evening and never returned.

Five years on, for the first time since the 1980s, I have managed to listen to 'Carols From Kings' without breaking out into a cold sweat (although I still feel like punching someone when I hear 'Let It Snow'). Perhaps some vestige of the Christmas spirit remains!

I'm sure that there are some bookshops out there where the Christmases are still enjoyable, but even if you're an independent or work for an enlightened employer, it must be very demoralising to have to compete with Amazon and the supermarkets. I think I'm better off with the mud and cows.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Jolly Crew

Yesterday I found some more children's illustrations from the 1930s - an age when schoolgirls called Shirley and Susan would be praised for having plenty of pluck and spunk.

The relentless cheerfulness is slightly less menacing than contemporary paintings of the Komsomol and Hitler-Jugend youth movements, but it still looks as if it wouldn't have been a good time to be a Smiths fan.

On the other hand, it's good to see girls portrayed as self-reliant, athlectic and resourceful - a refreshing contrast to the fragile, consumptive angels of Victorian children's annuals.

This girl certainly knows how to handle herself:

In fact, all of the characters appear to very sporty. There isn't even the token plump girl with glasses called Brenda, who likes reading books - in her spare time!

"Well Played!"


 "Take that!"

"A good run in mid-field"

 "Ready to start"
"I say! Is it true that Beryl's been taking flying lessons at the aerodrome? She really is a caution. I wonder what Miss Fothergill would say if she found out."

 "Well matched!"

There's no room for Jacqueline Wilson-style social issues in these upbeat tales of fair play, team spirit and moral courage. The only single-parent families you'll find are the ones in which Daddy was killed in the line of duty at Passchendaele.

It must have been hard to relate to stories like these if you were working class, unsporty and lacking in sufficient 'jolliness'.

Boys annuals weren't much better, but did at least occasionally dwell on the darker side of human nature:

 "A daring feat, performed by a police inspector in Buckingham Palace Road, when he jumped from his car at high speed and prevented bandits from escaping."

I particularly admire the way the inspector's hat remains firmly in place, even at speeds exceeding 37mph.

But it wasn't just children who were bombarded with role-models:

I'm assuming that this is Daddy returning home from work, rather than a sinister stranger staring through the window at an unsuspecting mother and child. It all looks terribly idyllic, but for many it was an uttainable ideal. In spite of this, perhaps these role models are still better than many of today's.

As for me, my roles models as a child were, in no particular order: Jack Hawkins, Mr Spock, Sid James, Virgil Tracy, Leslie Phillips, Mr Blunden, Aslan, Doctor Who, Brian Cant, Admiral Nelson (the Richard Basehart version), Roger Moore, Gambit from The New Avengers, Basil Brush, Gary Glitter (yes, I know), 'Robot' from Lost in Space, Professor Pat Pending and the Milk Tray man.

This probably explains a lot.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Off the Rails

On Saturday afternoon I walked in the dark through heavy rain to Lewes station, listening to Kate Bush's Hounds of Love album for the first time since the 1980s. I've no idea what possessed me to download that particular album, but it was a Kate Bush sort of day.

By the time I arrived at the station I was cold and wet, but the arriving train offered an hour of warmth, light and comfort while it slowly made its way to Hastings. I found a window seat, gave up on The Big Sky and skipped to the far superior Mother Stands For Comfort. Suddenly I was back in the front room of my home in Teddington, lying on the garish pink carpet of our lounge. As Noel Coward (another Teddington resident) once wrote, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is".

Sitting in the aisle next to mine was a 50-something air stewardess who was so heavily made-up that she unfortunately looked like a transexual. I wondered what it must be like to spend so many years in a job that was perceived by many as glamorous, but in reality offered little but tedium and stress, with the added pressure of having to match the energy and enthusiasm of younger colleagues.

I was now on what used to be the b-side of the Hounds of Love and lamented the demise of the vinyl album, where each side had its own distinct identity and a sense of it being a thing in itself, rather than simply a medium for listening to music. I loved the act of removing the sleeve from the album, followed by the slight, static resistance of the record as you tried to pull it out, the faint smell of vinyl, the alignment of the hole with the centre and the bump of the stylus landing on the lead-in to the first track, followed by a few seconds of click-filled silence.


Of course, at the time the clicks drove me crazy and if someone had told me that in 25 years, someone would invent a device that stored hundreds of hours of music  and  played with hiss and click-free sound, I would have been delighted.

I noticed a slight movement in the corner of my eye and saw that the stewardess was looking at me and smiling, as if in response to a joke that we'd shared earlier. A voice announced the next station and the stewardess raised her eyes as if to say "See what I mean?"

After Jig of Life, which I still like, I decided to abandon Kate Bush. I can happily listen to a piece of classical music that I loved 30 years ago, but revisiting an once-loved album always leaves me with mixed feelings.

At Bexhill the air hostess turned to me again and looked around the carriage in mock-exasperation. I had clearly missed something. I shrugged my shoulders in a "C'est la vie!" manner and hoped that this was the right response. It seemed to be.

At Hastings I met up with an old colleague from Ottakar's.

12 years ago we both worked in London and regularly met up for drinking sessions in a variety of louche pubs for a cathartic rant about the people who were annoying us. I always enjoyed our drinks, but sometimes they got out of hand. One morning I woke up to discover a third degree burn on my leg and to this day, I have no idea how it happened.

During a slightly more restrained drink at the First In Last Out pub, we talked about how much we missed working in the book trade where, at the time, we felt that we were part of something. We went to launch parties, read novels months before they were published and enjoyed some wonderfully surreal encounters with authors. We had fun.

The contrast between the quiet, mud-filled world of the present and the noisy, stimulating world of the past nagged at me. Suddenly, I wished I was leaving work in South Kensington and catching a 49 bus to Clapham Junction, where I'd meet some friends in an absurd bar with a swimming pool. But then I remembered that when I was sitting in those bars, drinking absinthe with someone I'd met 15 minutes earlier, I dreamed of ending up somewhere like here:

The moral of the story could be that boring old "Be careful what you wish for..." cliche that's regularly trotted out. I do find my life a little too monastic these days. However, I would hate to be one of those launch party stalwarts who never move on, still knocking back the bottles of Becks in their mid-40s, unsuccessfully trying to chat-up a publishing assistant who could be their daughter.

I turned to my ex-colleague: "I think we miss being younger and the book trade before it became a bit crap". Not a terribly eloquent summing-up, but I was on my third pint. She agreed.

It's one of life's tragedies that alcohol liberates the mind, only to enslave it in banal, half-baked assertions that don't withstand any degree of scrutiny. However, we were abstemious enough to reach several conclusions:

1. It was fun while it lasted, but it had to end (insert youth, getting away with it or any other apposite phrase).

2. Bookselling isn't what it used to be.

3. We loved the books, but never really enjoyed managing bookshops. Once we found ourselves in charge of 15 people, responsible for the tedious administration tasks that resulted from this, our enthusiasm waned.

We finished the evening with a curry and as we walked back to Hastings station, I felt a sense of gratitude that I had met so many good people through the book trade. I may spend my days working amongst consumptive calves, listening to Polish techno music and Heart FM power ballads, but a warm pub and good conversation are only an email away.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Art of Seeing

I've been feeling a little stale recently, so yesterday morning I set off on a walk through Lewes, trying to regain the sense of novelty and wonder I felt when I first moved here, 11 years ago. I had no idea where I was going or how long it would take, but knew that my journey should include some unfamiliar roads.

In a town the size of Lewes, it could be a challenge to find a different route. But like the human circulatory system, if you unravelled the streets and twittens of Lewes, they would probably extend for hundreds of miles. Everywhere you go in the town, there are narrow passageways that have defied the best attempts of Google to comprehensively map the local area. It is a medieval town that was built for people, not cars.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that caught my eye:

I've always loved Hugh Rae, the gentlemen's outfitters, with its elegant art deco font:

However, the frontage belies the fact that the actual building is more 1330s than 1930s:

In 20 years' time, I shall be coming to Hugh Rae for my Harris tweed suits, if they're still around. Sadly, with the sartorial standards of the older generation in rapid decline (only yesterday I saw a man in his 70s wearing a fleece and trainers) I sometimes wonder if the Hugh Raes of this world will survive. 

Perhaps the Government should offer additional pension credits for the wearing of cravats and ties.

During the walk, I kept reminding myself to look up as well as ahead and was rewarded with the sight of an urn placed on a 15-foot-high tree stump. Maybe it's someone's ashes.

This unusual view, taken at the end of Castle Ditch Lane, shows the town's oldest building (circa 1069), next to one of its newest.

I must have walked past Gideon Mantell's house hundreds of times without noticing this curious keystone.

Another view of the 1330 building, as seen from St Martin's Lane. This lane takes you down a steep hill to an area called Southover:

This is Southover Grange, which was built in the 16th century out of the stones from the recently-dissolved Lewes Priory of St Pancras. The diarist John Evelyn spent most of his childhood here. Today it's owned by the local council, who maintain one of the most beautiful public gardens I've come across.

In the spring, a small cafe opens and the gardens suddenly fill with young families and teenagers on their way home from school. I made this short film about Southover Grange a couple of years ago.

The gardens used to have a tree that was on the verge of collapsing and an area with a sheer drop into a fast-flowing watercourse. These were both a huge hit with the local children, but the local health and safety spoilsports have erected some ugly, cheap wooden fencing. It's a great pity.

My son won't go there any more, now that the threat of being swept away into an subterranean network of rivers has been removed.

This wall betrays Southover Grange's origins.Like Gideon Mantell's house, I'd never noticed this feature before. I need to make a habit of looking up more often.

This rusted pump sits on top of a well. I've always liked 'street furniture' of this kind.

A Tudor window, where people probably film clips of fake ghosts to entertain the gullible on YouTube.

On the subject of fake ghosts, I once held a book signing session with Derek Acorah and before he arrived, I spoke to his publisher's sales rep:

"There's just one thing you need to know about Derek. He never, ever drinks anything except sparkling spring water, so just get several bottles of that and he'll be perefectly happy."

I dutifully went out and bought three bottles of Tŷ Nant, which I placed in a tasteful arrangement on the signing table. Two hours later, he arrived: "Hello Derek. Nice to meet you. Before you begin, can I get you anything to drink?"

"Oh yeah, thanks very much Phil. I've have a coffee. White with one sugar."

We didn't have any milk. Perhaps he was psychic after all.

At Southover Grange, even the chimneys are interesting.

This is in Keere Street, which connects Southover Grange with the High Street, via a steep climb that finishes at the famous 15th Century Bookshop. It's one of Lewes's most attractive streets and if you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Lord Briggs working in his study.

At this point, I was almost home and could have switched off, but my walk had taught me to look again at buildings that I hadn't noticed for years. The doorway below is surrounded by 'mathematical tiles':

Many of us travel thousands of miles in search of novelty, but perhaps the real challenge lies in finding it on your doorstep.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Lorsque les Billes Chuté (or Life Begins at 14)

Walking home from school yesterday, I watched my two sons skipping ahead, earnestly discussing a computer game called Minecraft whilst jumping onto low garden walls and racing each other to the next lamp post. They could have been friends in the same class - one slightly taller than the other. When I tell people that the age gap between them is six years, they are always shocked.

My oldest son increasingly reminds me of Oskar Mazerath in The Tin Drum - a boy who consciously decides to stop growing as a rejection of the adult world that awaits him. I've no idea why my son isn't growing, but I can only hope that when puberty eventually arrives, it will empower him.

As today is my younger son's seventh birthday. I've been thinking about the Jesuit motto "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" and wondering how true it is. My life up until the age of 14 seems like a nebulous, badly-written play in which I had a largely non-speaking part. However, the moment my voice broke, I felt as if I had become a clearly-defined person.

I've no idea why a surge in testosterone should result in a new passion for Beethoven, Radio 4 and Ingmar Bergman films, but almost overnight, things that had once baffled and bored me were now utterly fascinating. I became interested in current affairs, bombarding the London embassies of various nations with requests for information about their countries. I also started avidly watching Newsnight.

Since then, my tastes have changed remarkably little. There are some things that I can no longer stomach - Mahler symphonies, Radio 4 comedies and Constable - but I still enjoy many of the things that appealed to me 30 years ago. It's odd how a one-year growth spurt can seal a person's destiny.

I hope that my older son's testicles are limbering up for a similar transformation. Some people look back on their childhood with fondness, but for me, life began at 14.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Found and Lost

I never find it easy revisiting old workplaces. Even when I've left under amicable circumstances, there is always an underlying awkwardness; almost like a meeting between former lovers. Behind the broad smiles, there is a subtle game of one-upmanship, with each party trying to demonstrate how much they've thrived since the split.

A few weeks ago I returned to my last workplace to collect some stock. The department I'd created had now moved to a separate building and apart from one familiar face, the staff were all new. I felt as if I'd been erased from history.

I wondered why the managing director had offered me my old job back a few months ago. The new building appeared to be well-organised and the staff seemed more industrious than ever. I felt slightly disappointed to see how well they were doing without me.

People looked up with expressions that said "Who on earth is he?" and I couldn't wait to leave, but decided to make some polite conversation first.

Before leaving the job, I'd told my successor about some unique items that we'd found: a 1591 Bible, a box of 17th century books and a collection of Victorian photo albums. I'd been tempted to take one of the albums with me, but it wasn't my property. I'd often wondered how much money the Bible had sold for.

"How did you get on with the Elizabethan Bible?" I asked.

There was an awkward silence for a few moments. "Er...we lost quite a lot of stuff during the move."

It now seems that the 1591 Bible, the Derek diaries and the Victorian photo albums weren't saved from oblivion after all. They merely enjoyed a brief reprieve.

I'm sure you can imagine how I felt.

I'm relieved that I made some high quality scans of the best of the photos. Many of the images have been shared on a number of websites, so the album survives, in a way. You can see the original blog post here and the full album is on this Flickr page.

Sadly, poor old Derek hasn't been so lucky. His countless foolscap binders of carefully typed A4 diaries have been largely consigned to oblivion.

I say largely, because I do have a little of Derek in my attic. I felt able to keep some of his diaries because they had no financial value, so there is probably one more Derek post in the pipeline. I owe him that.

I feel haunted by the loss of the Bible and although I'm glad that I scanned the Victorian photographs, they feel anchorless without their original album. As for Derek, I'm sure that his complete diaries could have been turned into a good book by an experienced editor (however, I should add that finding the extracts I published was rather like panning for gold).

Ironically, I now have enough storage space for thousands of Dereks, but hardly ever come across gems like these any more. Perhaps that will change when I find new suppliers.

There are dozens of recycling companies all over Britain, largely staffed by people on minimum wage, working at great speed. They don't have the luxury of stopping to look properly at the tonnes of sacks and crates that arrive daily. If it's a book, save it. If it isn't, chuck it.

I try not to think about the things that are thrown away. One day, when my business is on a more secure footing, I hope that I can devote more time to saving some of this ephemera, making the best of it available online.

People's lives shouldn't be casually thrown into a skip.