Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Man With a Van

I am a broken man, crushed by the ordeal of physical labour. I don't suppose that I've done anything out of the ordinary - thousands of people load and unload vans every day - but it has been a shock after seven months of relative indolence.

I won't bore you with the details, except to say that I have been moving some furniture for someone over the last couple of weeks, driving a large van that has 166,000 miles on the clock and a suspension that amplifies the tiniest piece of grit on the road into something that resembles artillery fire at Stalingrad.

I'd burned some CDs of Radio Four podcasts to relieve the tedium of motorway driving, but even at full volume, Andrew Marr couldn't compete with the constant squeaking and rattling of metal parts trying to separate. I hadn't heard metal make noises like that since Das Boot.

The nadir came when the wipers stopped working during a flash flood on the M23 and the view ahead turned into a pointillist landscape of greys and dark greens. I took the first exit I could find and stopped at a layby, where I texted Bob, the van's owner: "Coming back. Wipers not working."

20 seconds later, my phone buzzed with a new text message: "Is it raining?"

In fairness to Bob, he fixed the fault quite promptly, swapping the broken fuse for the windscreen wipers with the one that operated the indicators. It was a novel solution, but I would have preferred to have been warned, as the honking and v-signs were making me quite paranoid.

The next day I did my last job for Bob, who gallantly provided me with a man who could stick his arm out of the window if I wished to turn left. Fortunately, the route was only six miles long and quite direct, so neither of us were required to perform any hand signals.

It looked as if everything was going to be all right after all. Sadly, at the final destination, I miscalculated the angle I needed to reverse into someone's drive and ended up getting stuck in the middle of their lawn. It took an hour to free the van from the quagmire I'd created and as we crept forward, it revealed a scene of desolation that reminded me of the Somme. I felt awful.

I'm not quite sure how I ended up agreeing to work for Bob. I think it was something to do with the mindset that comes with being self-employed, feeling obliged to say yes to any opportunity that comes along, regardless of how suitable it is.

But perhaps I also just liked the idea of driving a very big van.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Self Abuse

Are you familiar with the words milt, grue and sesquipedalian? If they've just give you a naughty little frisson of lexicographical pleasure, then I would recommend this enjoyable article about obscure words, by Will Self.

But for me, the high point of Self's piece had nothing to do with logolepsy:

"As for visual arts, the current Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern is a perfect opportunity to see what becomes of an artificer whose impulse towards difficult subject matter was unsupported by any capacity for hard cogitation or challenging artistry. The early works - the stuffed animals and fly-bedizened carcasses - retain a certain - albeit recherché - shock value, while the subsequent ones degenerate steadily to the condition of knocked-off merchandise, making the barrier between the gift shop and the exhibition space evaporate in a puff of consumerism."

That has to be one of the most galumptious things I've read in a long time.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Publishing Question

On the off chance that somebody in the publishing industry may stumble across this blog, I have a question that I'd like to ask (don't worry, I haven't written a novel or, even worse, a collection of 'lyrical' short stories).

I have a book that was published in 1943, containing the memoirs of a pilot in Bomber Command. Unlike many autobiographies from this period, the narrative has a disarmingly contemporary feel and reminds me of Geoffrey Wellum's bestselling memoir 'First Light'. In some places the writing almost reads like a screenplay.

It's a remarkable book. I bought it a few years ago in a charity shop and forgot all about it. When I went on to get a job working with old books, I neglected reading any of my own as I wanted a break from foxed pages and cracked hinges in my spare time, preferring clean new paperbacks. But the other day I found the book in my wardrobe and was immediately struck by the author's vivid prose style.

I've tried to find out more about this title, but I can't find any copies on sale anywhere in the world. I've also found it impossible to learn anything about the author, which obviously has a bearing on copyright.

I could put the book on sale, hoping to attract a decent price for such a scarce title, but I'd rather see it gain a new generation of readers.

Does anyone in the know have any recommendations?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Under the Influence

During a failed attempt to create some space in my wardrobe this afternoon, I was confronted with some of my less judicious internet purchases - all bought under the influence of alcohol.

I don't mean to sound like a candidate for the Betty Ford Clinic. I'm not a heavy drinker, but I do enjoy a couple of glasses of wine in the evening and that, it seems, is all it takes to undo years of education and experience.

Here are some recent examples:

1. An insect in amber:

There is something wonderful about an insect in amber. It is the immediacy of it. We aren't looking at the fossilised remains of a creature; we are looking at the thing itself, trapped tens of millions of years ago in the resin of a tree. It makes my head hurt.

During one of these moments of wonder, aided by a particularly nice glass of Pouilly Fume, I ordered an insect in amber on eBay. Sadly, it turned out to be a particularly dull specimen - more of a speck really - in a piece of amber that is smaller than the nail of my little finger. A huge disappointment.

2. A boxed set of 'The West Wing':

I'm sure it's wonderful. I like political dramas and really enjoyed Borgen, which is supposed to be a Danish version of The West Wing, but unless my children are sent to boarding school or I find a job on an oil rig, I don't know when I'm going to have time to watch all 59 seasons.

Why did I order something that I can't watch?

3. A meteorite:

Like the insect in amber, there is something awe-inspiring about holding a lump of rock that has travelled through space, but once again, it's very small. Is it even a meteorite? Sometimes I wonder if it's just a bit of molten metal that's fallen on the floor in some obscure foundry in a former part of the Soviet Union. How can I tell?

4. An archery lesson:

Two years ago I visited a medieval fair and saw an archery stall. I decided to have a go and, to everyone's surprise, scored one bullseye after another. At last, a sport I was good at!

When Groupon sent an email offering a 75-minute archery lesson for under £20, it seemed like the best idea in the world. But in the cold light of day, I found myself thinking "Oh, I suppose I'd better have that archery lesson. I hope it doesn't rain".

Still, at least I'll have a defence against the marauding gangs in the post-apocalyptic world.

5. The complete works of Webern:

I like the idea of Webern. He reacted against the fin de siecle culture of the years leading up to 1914, rejecting the opulent, inflated late-romanticism of the time in favour of a new discipline. His music was uncompromisingly austere, with increasingly shorter compositions for ever-smaller ensembles of musicians (sadly, this process of compression came to a premature end when Webern was accidentally shot by a GI in 1945).

Unfortunately, I just can't listen to it.

I think I must have liked the idea of conquering the complete works of Webern when I ordered the boxed set, but in the cold light of day it wasn't such a good idea.

I like difficult music. I can quite happily listen to this, but not Webern.

6. A Queen Elizabeth I sixpence:

I'd always thought that a coin this old would be impossibly expensive. When I discovered that they were actually very affordable, I couldn't resist the temptation to own something that had passed through so many hands. But it was an impulse.

I'm not against being online under the influence of alcohol - this blog is largely a product of those second glasses of wine - but after exploring the depths of my wardrobe, I think that there's a strong case for ensuring that all transactional websites emulate the high street, closing their virtual doors at 5.30pm.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The View From My Door

I've moved to a new workplace. I think I'm going to like it:

When I was younger, standing on windswept suburban platforms, watching trains full of exhausted people make their way back to the less fashionable parts of London, I used to dream of escaping to the countryside.

But instead, I moved to a small, affluent London suburb that had been picked up and dropped in the middle of the Sussex Downs at some unspecified point in the past. The dinner parties with people from Stoke Newington continued unabated, but without the absurdly long bus rides (or the nocturnal cab journeys, driven by someone who had only just arrived in Britain) between places that were only a few miles apart.

It was the perfect solution. I could see the countryside in the distance, but wasn't obliged to engage with it in any way.

However, during the last few months I have spent a lot of time on farms and have grown to love the silence and remoteness. Ridiculously, I didn't know how much countryside there was. My journeys along arterial main roads hadn't exposed me to the vast interior of the Weald, where it is still possible to escape from light pollution and the distant roar of traffic.

I love the fact that I can be sitting in an office, connected to the internet, but all I can hear is the sound of sheep, cows and birds.

Last week I was sitting at my desk, answering some emails, when a sheep came up to my window and stared at me for three minutes. I tried waving and flapping my arms around to get a reaction, but it continued to look me calmly in the eye, with a uniquely ovine insouciance. In the end, I was rescued by the distraction of some gamboling lambs.

I'm sure that my rural idyll will seem less appealing in December, but at the moment I feel as if all of those hours spent at Clapham Junction and countless bus stops, have finally been rewarded.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


After my recent post about publishers' sales reps, it seems only fair to turn the spotlight round to the booksellers. What type of people work in a bookshop? Are they passionate, slightly unworldly bibliophiles, who live and breathe books? Or are they a bunch of slackers, who break out into a cold sweat at the prospect of having to do a proper job?

During a very dull moment in a waiting room, I tried to remember everyone I'd ever worked with. I got to 200 before my memory started to become hazy. I felt slightly guilty when I realised that I hadn't given some of my ex-colleagues a second thought since we'd last met, but I expect they'd probably say the same about me.

The weekend staff were particularly hard to remember. The boys, who all seemed to be studying 'A' level English, merged into one amorphous blend of earnestness and skin complaints, although there were a couple who amused me by telling dirty jokes (which I then passed on to the reps).

The girls were easier to recall because some of them had recently friended me on Facebook, in a barrel-scraping attempt to pass the 500/1000 friends mark (I quietly 'defriended' them after a suitable period, but I doubt that they noticed).

However, they weren't 'proper' booksellers. The weekend staff were merely taking a brief pitstop on their way to a glittering career (at least, that's what they told me). The idea of becoming a full-time bookseller horrified them almost as much as the thought of their parents having sex.

When I asked one girl what job she wanted to do, she replied: "I don't know yet, but I do know one thing: I'm not going to work here." She later became our floor manager.

As for the proper booksellers, in the early days of Waterstone's, the slackers ruled the roost. For them, bookselling was a continuation of university life, with its constant shortage of money and cramped bedsits; redeemed only by brilliant conversations with like-minded people and long periods of inertia. The hours weren't as great, but at least you didn't have to wear a suit.

Anyone who actually wanted to be a bookseller was regarded with a mixture of contempt and suspicion. Was that really the limit of their ambitions?

In hindsight we were probably awful. Our hatred for the customers - those people who dared to interrupt our conversations and ruin our displays by buying the books - was only exceeded by our contempt for a head office who lived in an ivory tower and dared to suggest that we should only stock books that seemed likely to sell. Philistines!

Oddly enough, the customers seemed to like our bolshy attitude and inappropriate clothing, so when one male member of staff decided to create a bondage outfit out of dustbin bags (complete with holes for the nipples) and serve at the till, no-one batted an eyelid.

The till-points of Waterstone's contained many frustrated writers, artists, teachers and media people, waiting for their dream job to come along. Surprisingly, their hopes weren't always in vain. After a year of displaying no discernible work ethic or talent, X would effortlessly drift into a key role at the British Council, whilst Y suddenly became a production assistant at Channel Four. How did that happen?

The Waterstone's staff uniform, circa 1993

At the end of five years of watching other people move on to better things, I felt that I ought to create an illusion of progress and left to run an independent bookshop. At the time it seemed like a sound move, but I quickly discovered that I was working for the Arthur Daley of bookselling, with van loads of dodgy stock mysteriously appearing on the shop floor overnight. I didn't want to be Terry McCann, so I started job hunting.

In 1996, a new bookselling chain - which seemed to have risen without a trace - was advertising for managers. After a rather unconventional interview with James Heneage, the managing director, I became a 'manager-in-waiting' at Ottakar's.

Ottakar's, which was a nationwide chain of smallish shops in market towns, was a revelation. I soon realised that outside London, booksellers were a very different breed. The staff I met actually seemed to take a pride in their work and would happily break-off a conversation if they saw that a customer needed help. I felt as if I had joined a group of evangelical Christians: wide-eyed, enthusiastic and committed. Some of them even wore ties.

I've no doubt that the good morale was a reflection of the leadership, but I also noticed that outside London, booksellers were generally more motivated than my former colleagues. They weren't passing through on their way to something better. This was their career.

Keeping up with such enthusiastic people was exhausting, but I did my best.

At Waterstone's most of the staff I met were in their 20s and all of them were graduates, as Tim Waterstone refused to employ anyone without a degree (by doing this, he missed out on some very good booksellers).

Ottakar's was very different, with a mixed bag of people whose ages ranged from 16 to 65. Some of them had degrees, but many had simply joined when they left school or moved across from a completely different area of retail. Sometimes the recruitment criteria were a little too lax, for me at least.

It took a while to get used to seeing a copy of the Daily Mail (or worse) in the staff room and when I spotted well-thumbed copies of novels by Patricia Cornwell and Terry Pratchett, I realised that there weren't going to be many fist fights for a proof copy of the latest Umberto Eco.

My shop in Crawley

I was at Ottakar's for ten years and, during that time, came to recognise similar types in every branch I ran or visited. Every shop had its high flyer (usually under the age of 23) who seemed more competent than the manager and was usually destined to be their boss in four years' time. Some managers felt threatened by them. I just saw an opportunity to take a long holiday without worrying about the shop.

These high flyers were usually counterbalanced by one or two no-hopers who could spend an hour discussing Robert Jordan's 'Wheel of Time' series with a customer, but still hadn't unpacked yesterday's delivery. They seemed to think that promotion was a simple award for long service and could never understand why some young upstart had been promoted over their head.

In Ottakar's, although the booksellers came from a variety of backgrounds, the one thing they all shared was a genuine love of books and a morbid fear of having to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. Bookselling provided a variety of work centred around something that actually mattered, which was not something that the local call centre could offer.

The last day of Ottakar's, Worthing, before it was converted into a Waterstone's

At my branch of Waterstone's (which was probably atypical) in the early 90s, the attitude was more cynical. The staff had no loyalty to the company and regarded their jobs as a temporary expedient. They might enthuse over certain titles, but the idea of being passionate about all books would have been viewed as absurd. Indeed, neatly hidden away at the till point was a small sticker that said "Books are crap".

However, in their own way, the arrogant slackers of the early Waterstone's years were often very good booksellers. Freed from the constraints of the career ladder, completely indifferent to the concerns of area managers, they ordered what they liked. One buyer was chastised by his manager for buying ten copies of a £100 Ansel Adams book, but they all sold within days

Fifteen years on, the new owners of Waterstone's were keen to turn their backs on an era in which the easiest way to identify a member of staff was to look for the scruffiest person in the shop. Graduates were no longer essential. The main qualification was a passion for selling. To the horror of many, a couple of managers had been recruited from Gap and Burger King!

There was a clear message: we don't think bookish people are always good at selling. In today's tough commercial climate, we need proper retailers.

(This YouTube video is a brilliant satire of Borders and the pre-Daunt Waterstone's - sadly embedding has been disabled, so follow the link and skip the advert after five seconds)

In my darker moments, I wondered if they were right. Perhaps the traditional booksellers were just unemployable misfits who'd enjoyed years of sanctuary in the book trade. However, after three years of 'retailing', with planograms, loyalty cards and a staff training scheme called 'Get Selling', Waterstone's was on its knees and almost disappeared from the high street, until a Russian oligarch came along and bought the company from HMV.

Today, things have come full circle. Unable to compete on price, booksellers are returning to their traditional role as curators of the huge, bewildering range of books in print. However good Amazon is, they will never be able to match the fiction-in-translation table at the Brighton branch of Waterstone's.

During the next decade, many bookshops will go to the wall - that much is certain - and booksellers will become an endangered, exotic species. However, the best bookshops should survive (high street landlords permitting).

But to return to the initial question: who becomes a bookseller? Looking back over 20 years of bookselling, I don't think I could say that there was a typical bookseller. There were some quiet, bookish types (who often left to train as librarians), but there were also louche bohemians, alcoholics, artists, drug dealers, ex-nuns, former policemen, future policemen, writers, rock musicians, reiki therapists, scientists and poker players.

Misfits. All very different, but all round pegs that didn't fit into square holes. With fewer bookshops on the horizon, things are going to get much harder.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

One Thing I Don't Miss About the 1970s...

The Easter story, expressed through the medium of dance:

How anyone thought it was a good idea to tell the story of the cucifixion of Jesus through dance and mime, performed by the cast of Space 1999, is beyond me. But it seems that this sort of thing wasn't unusual in the 1970s.

I found this 1975 ITV handbook recently:

Published by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, it's a wonderful snapshot of commercial broadcasting in Britain during 1974, packed full of articles and photos (with a nerdtastic section on IBA transmitter stations).

It also clearly shows that television execs in the 1970s had an unhealthy obsession with dance, including this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

And even this:

What was going on? Did they think that people really wanted to see this, or was it just cheap television?

In 1974, I was in bed by eight o'clock, so I missed the worst excesses of this obsession with dancing. However, I do have vague memories of men in trouser suits poncing around to Up, Up and Away, along with the occasional 'rock opera' (which my parents always turned off in disgust because the cast looked as if they were on drugs).

The BBC's hands weren't entirely clean either: Seaside Special, The Rolf Harris Show and just about any other live entertainment show had some awful dance group (naturally I exclude the gorgeous Pan's People from this diatribe).

At least today, dancing is restricted to a small core of programmes, for those who like that sort of thing. Also, those grim, po-faced contemporary dance groups, who did things like depict the Jarrow Crusade through the medium of movement, have now been replaced by streetdance and hip hop.

So next time you find yourself complaining that television isn't what it used to be, buy a boxed set of Homeland and look at this listing for BBC1 on April 16th, 1975.

1230 - Day and Night, including Crime Line.

1255 - News

1300 - Pebble Mill, including Family Advice with Claire Rayner.

1345 - Fingerbobs

1400 - Closedown

1558 - Regional News (Except London/SE)

1600 - Play School

1625 - Boris the Bold

1635 - Jackanory, with Judy Dench

1650 - The Monkees

1715 - If You Were Me (new series). People find out about each other's lives. Today: David from Plymouth and Julie from Puerto Rico.

1740 - Magic Roundabout

1745 - News

1800 - Nationwide

1850 - Film: The Lion and the Horse (1952). Starring Steve Cochrane and Wildfire, the wonder horse. Wholesome family film about a man and his horse.

2010 - Survivors, starring Carolyn Seymour, Lucy Fleming, Talfryn Thomas in The Fourth Horseman.

2100 - News

2125 - The Budget, with Sir Geoffrey Howe, Shadow Chancellor.

2135 - Last of the Summer Wine, starring Michael Bates, Bill Owen and Peter Sallis.

2205 - Sportsnight. European championship soccer, England v Cyprus from Wembley Stadium, highlights and action analysis; Amateur Boxing Association Championship.

2315 - Midweek, introduced by Ludovic Kennedy.

2328 - Weatherman

I rest my case.

However, there was one exception which, 37 years on, still stands up as a first-rate piece of drama:

Friday, April 06, 2012

Homage to the Sales Rep, Part Two - From Our Northern Correspondent

Many thanks to those who tweeted links to my last post. I had no idea that a rambling tribute to the humble sales rep would provoke such a response. One comment, posted by a former colleague of mine, was so long that Blogger had a brainstorm and rejected it. Fortunately, he saved the text and emailed it to me.

I have reproduced it here, without permission, because it's far too good to languish in the obscurity of my email inbox.

Born 17 years before me, Mr X experienced the golden age of the book trade, when booksellers only had their wits and a micofiche to rely on. In those days, there was no '3 for 2' nonsense (a book cost what it said on the cover, so you could like it or lump it) and sales were achieved through good bookselling alone. How things have changed.

I'm not sure if Mr X wishes me to reveal his identity, but I have provided two visual clues for those in the know:

"What a wonderful post, Steerforth – and how brilliantly you capture the dogged spirit, essential kindness and serial eccentricity of reps. Your piece set me thinking of my own start in bookselling an age ago in the ‘60s.

I had washed up in Oxford after a failure to return the foetid hug of library school in the hot Summer of Love. Well, what would you have done in Aberystwyth in 1967? Bibliography and Classification at Llanbadarn Fawr or the beach, the Beatles and boy oh boy at Borth?

Clue No.1

My brother lived in Oxford and I had run there, away from my parents’ searing disapproval of my throwing away a decent living. They had seen a good career for me among the card files and date stamps of the West Riding County Library at Wakefield. Naturally I finished up in Blackwell’s.

Time passed and I found myself running the General Books Department in what was then undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest bookshops. Almost immediately, General became regarded as a dark ravine of insistent vulgarity, overshadowed by the high mountains of fine academic provision which surrounded it. I was unbelievably crass and ignorant when I began. I knew I wanted things to change. After all, not long before, we had been told to sell the 6 subscribed copies of Portnoy’s Complaint from behind the counter.

Around the same time, a huge debate among my seniors resulted in a decision that 36 copies of the first complete paperback edition of Lord of the Rings would suffice to meet the demand from town and gown. Things could only get better.

And this is where the reps came in. Only they weren’t called that. They were never called that. They were “travellers”. The qualifying “gentleman” was invisible but implied. It was indeed exclusively a masculine world. They tended to be tall, well-made men, red faced and often with moustaches which betrayed their forces backgrounds. They almost certainly, you felt, had had a good war. They were kindly and tolerant. They weren’t in any hurry. They knew what they knew.

Clue No.2

Goodness knows, by contrast, what they made of me – but they steered me and persuaded me and educated me so subtly that I often believed I was the absolute dog’s until I thought back over how I’d got from A to B.

They all stayed in the Eastgate Hotel on the High. Soon after 9 in the morning and lugging unfeasibly huge cases of samples, they would come plodding through Turl Street and into the Broad to begin the day’s subbing among the myriad BHB departments.

Most often, they represented individual publishing houses which in today’s world are mere imprints swallowed into the maw of this conglomerate or that. So Methuen was in the charge of T. Houston Fraser, a man of huge majesty and massive dignity; almost Beach the Butler come to life. Pitman was sold by Stanley Branwhite, who, I now see, displayed unmistakeable overtones of Ray Winstone. When he was President of the BPRA and presiding over the dinners which were commonplace then, Stanley would rise at regular intervals to “take wine” with each of his many cronies scattered across the room.

Reg Fisk travelled for Collins and I never met anyone more determined to repeat every word of every AI (Advance Information) in his possession (or die trying). As I later discovered, it was a Collins trait. Pat Seyd of Harrap had been in the navy on the Arctic convoys. He unfailingly wore a pinstripe and bowler hat combination in winter and a straw boater and white suit in summer. Stanley Nebel represented Macmillan and more than once brought with him a “learner” – an improbably gangly young American called Nigel Newton.

Bob Kemp carried Weidenfeld. He’d fought the Mau Mau in Kenya, so staring down Geoffrey Boycott and shutting him up in the Saraceno in Magdalen Street was a cakewalk by comparisons. Bob was a Mancunian but nobody’s perfect. John Oliver of Hamish Hamilton once asked me if he was boring me (he was). I blush with shame to think of it. Patrick Stephens, who represented his eponymous list, wore the air of an avuncular don indulging a promising student.

Alas, alas – they all (apart of course from Nigel) lie in Mellstock Churchyard now.

I am so glad that you mentioned John, the unspeakably difficult Random House rep. God forgive me for banning him from the Ottakar’s High Wycombe store in the 1990s. He had taken to wandering the back offices at will and in an inspired period had begun unpacking designated returns and putting them back on the shop selves, replacing them with other books (sometimes not his own) which he didn’t think we should be selling. I might have remembered that he was also the man who delivered a six-foot cardboard standing figure of a star author to a central London bookshop by taking it on a bus and paying its fare.

It does seem that the old race of independent ‘ornery reps who often hated their bosses but loved their customers has gone. The last vestige I remember was the fabulous gritty Yorkshireman “Dump Bin Dave,” who came in with the Arrow side of Random House to Ottakar’s in Northallerton.

Dave made all his appointments 12 months ahead and, as his nickname suggests, was fond of bulk sales. His inevitable sign-off after a subbing session was in the form of an “Ah just can’t wait…” statement, reminding me of the sheer irresistibility of his lead title. Some of these tended to be less convincing than others. I managed to restrain complete hysterics when he inflicted “Ah just can’t wait ta gerrome and start that new Oomberto Eco bewk.” This sounds snobbish as I tell it. It isn’t at all. But it was funny.

Dave is happily working on Leeds Market now. They don’t make them like that anymore."

Many thanks to Mr X for unintentionally writing this guest post. Here's a photo he might recognise: