Friday, March 30, 2012

Homage to the Sales Rep

In an earlier post I wrote about my first year in bookselling and casually mentioned that every publisher's sales rep' used to be called Brian or Keith. Naturally, this was a slight exaggeration. There was also one called Barry.

When I joined Waterstone's, over 20 years ago, I was told that one of my jobs would involve buying new titles from publishers. Surprisingly, there was no training, but in spite of this I was given a monthly budget of £5000 to spend in any way I pleased. Unsurprisingly, when the word got out that Waterstone's had delegated its new title buying to a load of chinless wonders, it was like a feeding frenzy.

One of the first things that impressed me was how many sales reps there were. HarperCollins alone had four, just for SW London (one for fiction, another for children's, one for general non-fiction, plus a dedicated rep for maps and reference), whilst most of the other major publishers had at least two.

If you only had one sales representative per region, you weren't a proper publisher.

As a result, I probably spent around 60% of my time buying new titles from sales reps, during meetings that were called 'subbing' sessions. Until I reached the dizzy heights of management, all new title buying had to take place on the shop floor, so we usually tucked ourselves away in a quiet corner where we wouldn't be bothered by customers.

Each representative turned up with at least one large suitcase containing huge files of blad (which stands for book layout and design), showing mock-ups of dustjackets, blurbs and details of how much publicity the book was going to get. My job was to decide whether the book would sell in Richmond and, if I thought it would, guess how many copies we'd need.

Initially, I had no idea what I was talking about and the whole buying process seemed farcical. Some reps saw a golden opportunity for a stitch-up, convincing me that an obscure £35 book on dolphins warranted a minimum order of five copies. The more experienced reps took a longer view, knowing that any duds would only come back as returns, which would have to be credited back to the bookseller.

The best reps effectively taught me how to do my job, gently nudging me in the right direction if I'd overestimated how many books we needed. I had the good sense to listen to them, but not everyone did. When one young bookseller stubbornly refused to accept that he needed five rather than 40 copies of a new poetry title, the rep slammed his folder shut and said "Look, I'm going to go away now. I'll come back when I can talk to a grown-up."

The second thing that impressed me about the reps was how few of them read books. You would imagine that if a publisher employed people to sell its titles, they would try to recruit bookish, literary types. However, the majority of the 'old school' reps had no interest in books and would have been just as happy selling exhaust pipes or photocopiers.

There seemed to be very strong class divisions in the traditional publishing world. The public school, university-educated types went into the editorial departments, whilst the vulgar business of actually selling the books was left to people who had mostly left school at 16.

At first it seemed absurd that publishers had a sales force made up of people who didn't know that George Eliot was a woman, but over time I came to realise that the best sales reps were frequently the Brians and Barrys, who didn't read, whilst the worst were often the bright young things who may have had English degrees, but didn't know how to sell a book.

In the early 1990s, the typical rep was a man in his mid 50s, with a bald head, moustache and a ruddy face that indicated an approaching heart attack. I lost count of the number of times I heard the phrase "Keith won't be in for a while - he's just had a heart attack" (I suppose it was all those 'Little Chef' meals). When he arrived, panting with the effort of dragging a suitcase from the car park, I never knew whether he'd make it to the end of the session.

Keith may not have been widely read, but he knew his market. He understood that X sold well in Windsor but not in Slough, whilst Y was unknown outside the M25. Sadly, the editorial departments rarely seemed to take of notice of their reps' sales reports and a large part of our buying session would be spent moaning about our respective head offices.

"Honestly Phil, you tell me, how am I going to sell this? They haven't got a clue."

It was a working-class, male-dominated world. Hours were spent on the road, so the car was king and each rep knew every service station and shortcut. If you wanted to get rid of a rep, giving them an Austin Montego was usually enough.

Some of the reps had little scams that made them feel that they were getting the upper hand over their unsympathetic employers. For example, when one rep went to get petrol, his wife followed him in her car and filled her tank during the same sesion (when someone challenged the rep about his fuel costs, he brazened it out: "It's a thirsty car mate").

Occasionally, a bright young thing at head office would try to get the reps more engaged with the titles they were representing:

"Phil, I got this fucking memo from some tosser at Head Office telling me I had to read this new novel and write a report about it! D'you know what I did? I phoned him up and said I haven't read a fucking book in 25 years and I'm not going to start now."

But not all of the reps were 'wide boys'. One was an ex-public school man in his 60s, who lived in an expensive London flat with his belligerent, alcoholic mother. In spite of his effete manner and Brian Sewell voice, he was at pains to let us know that he was heterosexual, constantly praising the feminine charms of detox guru Leslie Kenton:

When it came to Alan Hollinghurst, he was less enthusiastic:

"This is a book by a homosexual author that will only be of interest to other homosexuals".

He wasn't terribly keen on Irvine Welsh either:

"Here is another book for young people to waste their pocket money on".

It was all said with a faint twinkle in the eye, but I felt that he was a rather bitter, disappointed man, trapped in a world he despised. When he was forced to retire, he refused to accept the gold-plated fountain pen that his colleagues had bought for him.

But by the time I became a bookseller, the traditional reps' world was changing. The Keiths were increasingly being replaced, either by Sues (much to the relief of many female booksellers) or earnest young graduates and the subbing sessions - once a mixture of dirty jokes, gossip and moaning - became more businesslike in tone.

Overall I got on very well with the sales reps and came to regard some of them as friends. They were generally bright, funny people with a healthy cynicism about the publishing industry and, most important of all, a good sense of humour. When I left high-street bookselling, one of the things I really missed was having a good gossip with a rep.

I loved exchanging scurrilous anecdotes about colleagues. I learned that one Ottakar's manager regularly had pyjama-party sleepovers in her shop, whilst another had stolen enough money to buy a sports car (he ended up in prison). But my favourite gossip was about authors. I learned that Jilly Cooper was lovely but Jeffrey Archer was deeply unpleasant, whilst Terry Pratchett could be very grumpy, only turning on the charm for his fans.

If a sales rep had ever been treated badly by an author, we all knew about it. In a few cases, an author's career was effectively killed off by the rep, as we all conspired to make sure that their books were barely visible.

The rep's job has got a lot harder in recent years. Every year, redundancies and early retirement have trimmed the sales forces of publishers and the surviving reps have been expected to cover ever larger areas for little or no extra pay. The once ubiquitous HarperCollins rep is now as elusive as the natterjack toad.

With only one major book chain left, the age of the publisher's rep is almost over. I think that there should be a memorial coat of arms, depicting a full English breakfast, some blood pressure tablets and a large black suitcase on wheels. But sadly, I think their passing will be unnoticed by all but a few.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Light and Shade

During the last few days, our oven has exploded, the fridge has broken and my car's dashboard keeps flashing an orange light, warning of imminent doom. It feels as if we're in a Stephen King movie. As far as I know, there are no Native American burial grounds under our house, but we're near the site of the Battle of Lewes, so perhaps some tormented medieval souls are making their presence felt.

This morning I took the car to be serviced and walked home, cutting through some of the many twittens that are tucked away behind the main roads. Because it was so early, the sun was still low and I was struck by the contrast between the intense, golden light of the castle walls and the gloomy, muted colours of the narrow twittens.

I don't normally walk around thinking about light and shade, but last night I went to a fascinating talk about Eric Ravilious, given by author (and blogger) James Russell. Organised by the wonderful Much Ado Books, it was so successful that the venue had to be to changed to a larger place.

I'd say that there were at least 150 people at the talk - a number that any bookseller would be very happy with. Even the largest city centre stores struggle to achieve figures like that, so it's remarkable that an independent bookshop in a small Sussex village attracted such a good turnout.

It's a great tribute to both the growing popularity of Eric Ravilious and the marketing skills of Much Ado Books and James Russell.

I seemed to be the only person there under 50. I'm not quite sure why, although I know how difficult it is to do anything in the evening if you're in the tunnel of parenthood. Perhaps Banksy would have drawn a different crowd.

As for the talk itself, I think it would have been interesting even if I'd never heard of Eric Ravilious, thanks to James Russell's passion about his subject. Using a series of slides, he showed the contrast between Ravilious's paintings and the actual scenes. To a layman like me, it was a revelation.

For example, here is a lithograph that Ravilious made of Newhaven Harbour:

And here is the actual scene, which I've pinched from James Russell's blog:

I had no idea that Ravilous had excercised his artistic licence so liberally, compressing distances and altering the perspective to suit his purposes. That is one of the things that makes him a great artist, along with his ability to capture the spiritual quality of a place:

For example, compare this watercolour by Ravilious of the South Downs in winter:

With this traditional downland scene by a contemporary artist:

Perhaps my favourite Ravilious painting is 'Dangerous Work at Low Tide', which comes from the final years of his life when he was an official war artist. I bought a 420mm x 594mm print from the Ministry of Defence for the ridiculously cheap price of £18.

If this takes your fancy, you can buy it here.

Even if you only have a very casual interest in the art of the interwar years, I'd strongly recommend getting along to one of James Russell's talks. Recent venues have included London, Oxford and Bristol, so it's worth checking his blog to see where he's off to next.

Finally, a quick plug for Much Ado Books. The owners - Kate Olsen and Nash Robbins - ran a successful bookshop in Marblehead, Massachusetts for over 20 years before moving to Alfriston in Sussex. When 'Much Ado' first opened, I confidently predicted that they'd close within two years because Alfriston was too small to sustain a bookshop.

Instead, they went on to win the Independent Bookseller of the Year award and now have a thriving business which is an object lesson in how to run a bookshop in the age of Amazon and ebooks. It just shows how much I know.

In hindsight, they followed one of the golden rules of bookselling: open a shop where there are lots of posh people. Alfriston may be small, but it has a wonderful catchment area full of literary types who think that buying books at discounted prices from Amazon is insufferably vulgar. The owners have successfully exploited the area's Bloomsbury connection and both the stock and presentation are pitch perfect. It's hard to believe that they're relative newcomers to Sussex.

On April 22nd they're holding a book swap, hosted by Scott 'Me and My Big Mouth' Pack and Robert Husdon. The idea is that you bring a book that you love along and swap it for one you haven't read.

Frankly, if I love a book, I'm buggered if I'm going to let anyone else have it. I don't even lend books, so I'm not sure whether I'll go or not. Perhaps I could bring a book I'm not that keen on and pretend to like it, but I suppose that really isn't entering into the spirit of the occasion.

On the subject of books, I almost forgot to mention why James Russell was holding an event with Much Ado Books. He's written some books - beautiful, lavishly-illustrated hardbacks - that focus on different aspects of Ravilious's art. Here's one I bought earlier:

I wouldn't be tactless enough to include an Amazon link, but they are available from all good booksellers and, no doubt, some bad ones too.

Monday, March 26, 2012

This Evening

This evening I decided to take advantage of the extra hour of daylight and go for what the Victorians used to call a perambulation. It was a lovely evening - almost t-shirt weather - and the sound of birdsong and horses hooves made me feel as if I was in an episode of Midsomer Murders, without the murders.

It almost made up for an otherwise shitty day, during which my wife and I decided to pull our oldest son out of the school system.

It has taken me a while to realise what a difficult time we've had. I've known several people with autistic children and compared to them, our life was a breeze, so I think I turned a blind eye to the fact that my son struggled to cope with normal, everyday situations and I kept looking for easy answers.

It was confusing. My son doesn't neatly fit into any category, but exhibits symptoms of several syndromes. Sometimes I think he has something that hasn't been named yet. At others I'm more inclined to agree with R D Laing's view that mental illness is a social construct (I'm not denying the existence of full-blown nutters, but there is a general consensus that neurotic and psychotic illnesses are exacerbated by modern, urban life).

Would my son's behaviour be regarded as problematic if we lived in a traditional community? Judging by his skill at computer games, he'd be an excellent hunter-gatherer.

It does feel as if we're in a big sausage machine sometimes, where people are sucked into a system that squeezes them into the right shape so that they can function in a modern, urban, post-industrial society, and if you're a square peg in a round hole, then you're diagnosed with a syndrome.

I don't know; I feel more confused than ever. If I hadn't had a second child I might have gone to my grave thinking that I was one of the most useless fathers in existence, but my younger son is completely different. Indeed, if he'd been my only child I might have been unbearably conceited.

I've met those smug parents who seem to delight in telling you how Lily or Hector love visiting the Tate Modern (when they're not busy having viola lessons) and then go on to show you the Matisse-influenced drawings they did when they got home. It always gives me a huge sense of satisfaction when they have a second child who turns out to be a complete 'mentalist': welcome to my world,.

I'm not quite sure what's going to happen next. Obviously my son's education is important, but his mental health comes first. Getting him out of the front door is the first challenge (and I think that getting a dog may be the answer), after which I hope that my son will rediscover his curiosity about the world around him.

Meanwhile, his brother is downstairs doing maths games and designing a birthday card for his former childminder. His only worries seem to center around the number of people who want to be his friend. Also, the schoolwork isn't challenging enough.

Life is such a lottery.

PS - Feb 2013. Almost one year on, I can see that the decision to remove our son from school was the right one.  The last eleven months have been a struggle, but there has been a gradual, steady improvement that fills us with hope.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Somerset Maugham Talking About Novelists

"All novels are, every now and then, a great deal of a bore. You have to accept that. No novel is interesting all the way through unless it's a very, very short one."

You wouldn't expect to find a YouTube clip of an author born in 1874 talking about a book he'd published in 1915. But Somerset Maugham had the good fortune to live a long life, whilst writers like D H Lawrence (born 11 years after Maugham) seem as remote as Thomas Hardy.

Here's an interview that Maugham did with the wonderfully effete Malcolm Muggeridge. The sound is slightly out of synch with the video:

Somerset Maugham's longevity was probably a result of good genes and living in the south of France, but there may have been another factor too. According to Clement Freud, Maugham was "obsessed with staying alive and spent most of his later years averting death, which included the consumption of a range of pills including some made from the entrails of swan".

Freud also noted that Maugham had the worst halitosis he had ever encountered.

Fortunately YouTube is still several years away from providing odourama, so we can enoy this close-up encounter with Somerset Maugham without holding our breath.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Independents' Day

I'm still getting used to the randomness of self-employment. After years of working regular hours for a set number of days per week, it feels strange to not know what you're doing from one day to the next.

On Monday I received a text from someone that read:

"Hi Phil, I'm in the process of designing a bookshop and could use some helpful input. I think you're probably the man - what do you reckon?"

24 hours later I was wandering around a huge, deserted haberdashery shop, trying to imagine how it would work as a bookshop. I wasn't sure whether I'd be much use, but I'd forgotten how much I'd learned. Years of opening shops, ordering stock and trawling through spreadsheets of sales data had given me a good overview of the priorities.

I made a few suggestions, including moving the till point closer to the entrance, putting the children's books nearer the back and reducing the opening stock order by 80%, but I couldn't bring myself to make the most obvious recommendation. Don't do it!

According to an article published in today's Bookseller, "Four in ten shops will shut and property portfolios will reduce by 30-40% in the next five years as customers increasingly turn to online shopping over bricks and mortar, according to a report released this morning".

It's not a good time to open a shop.

I'm fairly confident that the best independent bookshops will survive if they have a good catchment area, but sadly this shop wasn't in one of those towns. Indeed, when I looked at the shabbily-dressed locals, slowly hobbling past the window, it reminded me of an episode of The Walking Dead.

Luckily the rent is very low, so the shop will only have to sell a few books a day to be profitable. Also, the owner is a very talented bookseller with several successful businesses, so he knows exactly what he's doing. But I still think that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to open a shop in today's economic climate.

According to Hugo Clark from Deloitte's, "The role of stores is changing but that does not mean they will be less important. The store of the future will be less about driving product sales and more about a holistic brand experience."

I think if my name was Hugo, I'd refrain from using phrases like 'holistic brand experience' as people will think that you're a bit of a ponce. But he's right. I think that the retail chains of the future will make most of their money online and only need a small number of stores as showcases for their 'brand'.

It all sounds a bit depressing, but with fewer chain stores around we could be about to enter a new golden age of small businesses and independent shops.

I'll come clean; I want to see Britain end up like an episode of Chigley and if the recession brings us any closer to the promised land, then I welcome the retail meltdown. Let's bring back steam, tweed, cravats and tiffin:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Five Forgotten Gentlemen

I found a photograph today, nestled between pages 118 and 119 of a Victorian novel called 'The Old Helmet', by Elizabeth Wetherell. The picture was in such a dreadful state - torn, creased and discoloured - that I was tempted to throw it away.

But one hour later, after enduring the tedium of Photoshop Elements, the image suddenly came to life:

It looks like the 1890s to me. I should know - I was there only the other week.

I wonder what Creese's Oatmeal Stout tasted like?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

My First Year in Bookselling

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I spent the best part of 18 years working in bookshops. Where did all the time go? It's not as if I particularly wanted to be a bookseller. I just needed a job and my girlfriend told me that there was a vacancy in a new shop called Waterstone's. I'd never heard of them.

I got the job after an interview with a woman with shaking hands, who already seemed tired and disillusioned with her new shop. It was hard to tell whether she thought I was vaguely employable or irredeemably dreadful, but eventually she cracked a strained smile and talked about a start date. I was offered a starting salary of £7,250 p/a, rising to £7,500 if I completed my three month probationary period.

Even 20 years ago, if you earned less than £10,000 a year, your options in life were pretty limited. With such awful pay, the job could only be a useful stopgap. It certainly wasn't a sensible career choice.

Sadly, I didn't have a Plan B and my Damascene moment never came. Some booksellers passed through the shop like gap year backpackers in Goa, taking a breather before going on to enjoy successful careers in television or publishing. I stayed and became Colonel Kurtz.

I spent the early 1990s at Waterstone's in Richmond - an affluent suburb of London that was quickly changing from 'old money' into a ghetto for post-apartheid South African exiles, US business execs and semi-retired rock stars (I think my mother was the last working class person to grow up in Richmond - there should be some sort of plaque on her old house).

Starting at Waterstone's was a baptism of fire. I wasn't particularly well-read in those days and each shift was like being on Mastermind, except that the rounds lasted for three hours at a time and you weren't allowed to make a mistake or say "Pass".

Some people actually shouted at me because I hadn't heard of the book that they wanted. Others merely resorted to sarcasm, or barely-concealed contempt. At first it was deeply humiliating, but as my knowledge and confidence grew, I realised that it was quiet unreasonable for people to expect me to be omniscient.

I noticed that a lot of older people seemed to resent the young and welcomed the opportunity to bully them. Men in their 60s would regularly chastise our 18-year-old Saturday girl for her poor general knowledge of minor politicians of the 1950s, forgetting that they had lived at least four times as long. Middle-aged women expected me to be their gimp, running up and down the three flights of stairs until I'd reached the bottom of their long lists (sadly the demands stopped there).

The worst were the South African women, dripping in gold, with vulgar Gucci sunglasses and rottweiler accents: "Yeess, Ah'm wanting to know if you hev eeny books bah theess lady?" The answer was always Jackie Collins, but even if the book was staring them in the face, it seemed to go against the grain for them to do anything for themselves.

Every day was a struggle, but luckily I picked the job up quite quickly and learned to talk with great authority on subjects that I knew nothing about. I also realised that I had a knack for making sure that we didn't run out of the bestselling titles (harder than it sounds when publishers took up to three weeks to deliver and there were no computerised stock control systems).

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned was how to answer back in a way that wouldn't get me the sack. Once people could no longer smell the fear, they treated me with respect and I began to enjoy my job more.

Interestingly, the really successful people - whether they were famous authors like Anthony Burgess or celebrities like Mick Jagger - were unfailingly polite. It was the noveau riche who were a pain in the arse. They were usually quite thick as well, but felt that their wealth conferred a natural superiority.

Anthony Burgess. One of my colleagues dared me to tell him how much I enjoyed his 'Chocolate Orange', but I chickened out.

For some reason that I couldn't fathom, the most ghastly people always bought Ayn Rand or The Art of War, whilst the dippy ones couldn't get enough of A Year in Provence. I tried hard not show my contempt for people's book choices, but when one Tim-Nice-But-Dim customer held up a copy of The Bridges of Madison County and said "This is wonderful, isn't it..." I cracked and launched into a Bernard Black-style diatribe.

Apparently the poor man left the shop looking as if he'd been horribly violated. I'm amazed he didn't complain.

During my first year at Waterstone's, I quickly discovered that bookshops were magnets for eccentrics, kleptomaniacs and the mentally ill - and that was just the staff (the most audacious book thief was a man called Desmond who decided that the most efficient way of stealing stock was to become a bookseller). We also had a loyal following of lost souls who spent so much time in the shop that their stock knowledge easily equalled ours.

In many ways bookselling left a lot to be desired. The money was terrible, working with the public was exhausting and the shift system meant that many evenings and weekends were wasted.

However, the best parts of the job more than compensated for the irritations. I loved having the freedom to spend vast sums of money buying new titles from publishers' reps (all of whom seemed to be called Brian or Keith), taking a punt on an unknown author or range, only to find that I'd spotted a new trend, like the Aga saga craze. In my first year at Waterstone's, two buying decisions alone paid for my salary.

Trying to look busy, waiting for the self-timer to go off

I also loved meeting authors and publishers, deciphering the complex web of friendships and petty rivalries between people in the book world. I never read reviews in the same light once I realised how many of them were written by friends reviewing each others' books.

Sometimes I even liked working with the public - usually on a quiet evening when there was time to talk to customers, find out what they liked and make recommendations. Seeing people enjoy the shop, relaxing in an armchair with a book from a new display I'd created was very rewarding.

The first year passed quickly. 12 months on I still had no idea what I wanted to do and although I hated being poor, I realised that I loved my job. The books were interesting, my colleagues were bright, funny people and I felt that I was quite good at what I did.

Some of the staff of Waterstone's Richmond, on Brighton Pier

I stayed. The money gradually improved and by the time I was a manager in London, I was able to afford a mortgage, meals out and a decent holiday every year. It didn't last. I ruined it all by having children and leaving London. I have lived in penury ever since.

I'd probably still be managing a bookshop now, if HMV hadn't bought Ottakar's. But I'm very glad I left. I don't think that I could ever go back to working weekends, dealing with the public and putting up with head office edicts any more. Once you've tasted freedom, it's hard to go back.

However I miss the fun: the buzz of a crowded shop on the last Saturday before Christmas, meeting old friends at drunken book launches and having a good bitch with the publishers' sales reps. I don't think there's much fun in the book trade any more, so perhaps I was lucky to get out while I did.

How many other jobs give you the opportunity to play with wigs, make-up and live snakes?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Somerset Maugham and a Book Title I Daren't Mention

I've been feeling under the weather for a while - nothing specific, just aches and pains, lethargy and a general feeling of wrongness. I put it down to stress, working outdoors in the cold or, perhaps, simply middle age beginning to claim its stake.

I carried on as usual, relying on siestas in the afternoon to deal with the tiredness and a few glasses of wine in the evening to dull the pain. But last week I started to feel pretty rough and decided to visit my GP for some reassurance.

I suppose I was hoping to see an old-fashioned doctor - the sort who still occasionally work as locums, call you "old chap" and say things like "Nothing to worry about, but keep the golf clubs in the boot for a couple of weeks. If the pain starts to niggle, have a small brandy at bedtime". Instead, I had a woman who looked horrified and used phrases like "Actually, that's really bad".

After five minutes of watching her pull yikes! faces, I was convinced that I wasn't long for this world. When I discovered that it was just pneumonia, I felt a huge sense of relief.

I've now spent five days in bed and instead of wasting my time watching YouTube clips of the Jeremy Kyle Show (I never set out to watch them, but whether I begin with chimpanzees or the Hadron Collider, it always seems to lead back to Jeremy Kyle), I've been reading Of Human Bondage. After some rather unfortunate experiences, I decided not to use the novel's title for this post.

I'd never read Somerset Maugham before. I associated him with that group of early 20th century British second-rate writers - Bennett, Walpole and Galsworthy - whose novels were incredibly popular in their day but are now regarded as dated, with turgid prose and half-baked philosophies. Even Maugham himself seemed to agree with this view: "I am in the front row of second-raters".

But by chance I came across the customer reviews for Of Human Bondage on Amazon and was so impressed by the passion Maugham's novel had inspired in its readers (nearly everyone gave the book five stars) I decided to give it a go.

I'm normally a slow reader, but managed to devour all 729 pages of Maugham's bildungsroman in a weekend. Admittedly I was stuck in bed, but if I'd picked up a Joseph Conrad novel I would have soon been reaching for the remote control. Instead, I was fully immersed in the London of the 1890s, walked its streets, sat in its parks and jostled amongst the crowds at the music hall.

Of Human Bondage (Wikipedia link included because I don't intend to discuss the plot) is Maugham's masterpiece. The prose may lack the stylistic perfection of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, but it is a powerful novel of ideas that, with its musings on absurdism, anticipates existentialist works like Nausea and The Myth of Sisyphus.

Throughout the narrative, the main character regularly asks himself if there can really be any meaning to existence. Everywhere he looks, people lead lives of quiet tragedy, defeated by overwhelming odds, with any last vestiges of hope crushed by the final acceptance of their own ineluctable mediocrity (if only they'd had blogging in those days).

If that sounds all rather maudlin, don't be put off. Above all, Of Human Bondage is a compelling story and unlike that other great chronicler of late Victorian London, George Gissing, it isn't relentless gloomy.

A typical George Gissing scene

Maugham doesn't shy away from any unpalatable truths and some passages must have shocked its readers in 1915, but he avoids unnecessarry melodrama and resolves the novel with a conclusion that won't leave you banging your head against the wall.

Somerset Maugham has never been popular with the critics. Even at the height of his career, Maugham's plain, conventional prose was compared unfavourably to the work of new modernist writers like Thomas Mann and William Faulkner. But although Of Human Bondage may not be stylistically innovative, its sheer weight of ideas, the integrity of its narrative and the strength of its characters make it, in my opinion, a masterpiece.

Sadly, Somerset Maugham's greatest novel doesn't appear on any of the recent 100 best books lists that appear with an ever increasing frequency. It doesn't even pop up on readers' choices, eclipsed by masterpieces like The Da Vinci Code and Bridget Jones' Diary. That's why I'm adding my small stone to the cairn.

If you harbour any secret time travel fantasies about going back to late Victorian London, this is the nearest you'll get. Of Human Bondage is a panorama of a society in transition during the fin de siecle: outwardly stable, but driven by undercurrents that are threatening long-held views on religion, gender and class. Maugham's descriptions of the streets, cafes and railway stations are so vivid that you will feel as if you've been there.

Like most great novels, Of Human Bondage vividly conveys its time, but never seems dated because it asks questions and makes observations that are as pertinent today as they were 100 years ago. For example, one passage, in which Maugham describes a dance hall, could almost be lifted word for word to describe a modern club and the desperate hedonism of its users, anxious to forget the tedium of their daily lives.

As with many novels of this period, Somerset Maugham does occasionally get on his soapbox. There's the usual stuff about sex, money and the Church of England; but unlike H G Wells' incredibly tedious novel The New Machiavelli, he doesn't allow his pontificating to spoil the narrative.

Of Human Bondage is a great novel to read when you're ill or on a long journey. But frankly, why wait?

Sample quotes from On Human Bondage:

It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded.

When I read a book I seem to read it with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning for me, and it becomes part of me.

It is cruel to discover one's mediocrity only when it is too late.

Like all weak men he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one's mind.

It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one's dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.

It was one of the queer things of life that you saw a person every day for months and were so intimate with him that you could not imagine existence without him; then separation came, and everything went on in the same way, and the companion who had seemed essential proved unnecessary.

You will find as you grow older that the first thing needful to make the world a tolerable place to live in is to recognize the inevitable selfishness of humanity. You demand unselfishness from others, which is a preposterous claim that they should sacrifice their desires to yours. Why should they? When you are reconciled to the fact that each is for himself in the world you will ask less from your fellows. They will not disappoint you, and you will look upon them more charitably. Men seek but one thing in life -- their pleasure.

“Oh, it's always the same,' she sighed, 'if you want men to behave well to you, you must be beastly to them; if you treat them decently they make you suffer for it.”

The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Spaced Out

Aside from the prospect of nuclear armageddon, the future looked good in the early 1960s:

In some ways I'm very relieved that we aren't all living in domed cities and flying helicars - I think the novelty would wear off quite quickly - but I do miss the optimism of the Space Age. Regardless of its scientific value, there is a heroic quality about manned space flight that excites us.

When the space shuttles were decommissioned without being replaced, it was part of a subtle shift that has taken place in our attitude towards the future. I became particularly aware of this when my youngest son asked me why there were supersonic airliners and moon landings when I was a little boy, but not now.

As he was too young for a lecture on postmodernism and the cultural legacy of the end of the Cold War, I gave him the short answer: they cost too much money.

But NASA's estimate that a return to the moon would cost $104 billion seems a drop in the ocean compared to the $757.8 billion that the US Department of Defense claims that it spent in Iraq (some claim that it's much higher in reality).

Maybe it's just the chattering classes of Lewes (aka 'Islington-on-the-Downs'), but whoever I talk to there is a growing pessimism about the future. People seem to be battening down the hatches, buying wood burning stoves, preparing for an age of hardship and struggle.

Returning to the moon might seem a frivilous and irrelevant enterprise, but it would help to foster a new sense of optimism. Posterity never condemns a generation for spending too much money on a beautiful building or a miraculous piece of engineering, but it does condemn them for a lack of vision and courage.

That's my geeky fantasy, anyway. Obviously, this would be the ideal:

I know that I should be thinking about eradicating third world debt, saving public libraries and reducing our carbon emissions, rather than moonbases run by women in catsuits. I'm sorry.

I must admit I not all there at the moment. I've been bedridden with a chest infection for the last three days and I think the drugs are getting to me, hence this strange post. I hate being ill.

The one thing that's keeping me sane is Somerset Maugham's 'Of Human Bondage', which I'm reading for the first time. Who would have thought that a 1915, 700-page bildungsroman could be so compelling? (Don't tell me how it ends)

But as the author wrote:

"To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life".

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

In a Russian Mood

After reading about the return of Vladimir Putin, I've been in a distinctly Russian mood. I was going to listen to Shostakovich and eat borsch, but ended up getting waylaid by some Soviet disco hits from the late 1970s, including this gem:

I had no idea that disco fever spread beyond the Iron Curtain, but you'd never get bands this big in the West (with the possible exception of the Love Unlimited Orchestra). It's overmanning. No wonder the Soviet economy collapsed.

Beyond the wah-wah guitars and dodgy afros, it's a good old-fashioned gloomy Russian ballad. I can't see the Bee Gees covering this track.

It's strange to think that a whole generation have been born and reached adulthood since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR, with its Mayday parades, geriatric politicians and five-year plans feels recent to me, but I've read that many Russian teenagers and children are woefully ignorant about the period.

This will tell them all they need to know:

Returning to music, I found another gloomy Russian ballad - a wonderful song called Виски (Whisky) by a contemporary singer called Елена Ваенга (Elena Vaenga). I can't understand a word she's saying apart from viski and boogie woogie, but I'm completely mesmerised by her beautiful voice:

Sunday, March 04, 2012


It's been one of those weeks. It started well enough and I was going to write a blog post about a very enjoyable pub crawl along some of the historic riverside inns that lie east of the Tower Bridge, including the Mayflower in Rotherhithe and the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping.

I would have probably included these photos:

London, through a glass, darkly

I might also have mentioned the Prospect of Whitby's literary and artistic associations - Pepys, Turner, Dickens, Whistler and Daniel Farson - along with an incident there in 1996 that wasn't my finest hour.

But the week unravelled and by Wednesday, it felt as if several months had gone by. Perhaps I'll write about it one day.

In the meantime, some readers may remember this clipping from a couple of years ago, featuring the most 'mature' 13-year-old I've ever seen:

I've reposted it because I have a strong feeling that D. Greaves of Middleton is also featured on the cover of this book, which I found last week:

I'll zoom in further...

It's him, isn't it? The attire may be less formal, but he still looks 43.

I wonder what happened to D. Greaves? I tried finding him on Google, but the word 'model' yielded some results that had very little to do with the radio-controlled boat world. It didn't help that he came from a place called Middleton either.

It will probably remain a mystery.

I wish that I could be one of those people who play with radio-controlled boats at the weekend. Perhaps I'd belong to a local club and talk to fellow enthusiasts and every December we'd have our annual Christmas dinner, during which guest speakers would regale us with amusing anecdotes of exploding boats, lost signals and aggressive swans.

I'd sleep soundly at night. I wouldn't worry about my son and I wouldn't give a second thought to Iran's uranium enrichment programme, the continuing economic crisis or any of the other things that flitter through my mind at four o'clock in the morning.

But my mind has already raced ahead to the broken marriage caused by an excessive devotion to radio-controlled boats, the unsatisfactory friendship with Vic Smeed and the loneliness of the annual Christmas dinner.

Perhaps I'll buy a dog instead.