Friday, June 29, 2012

Something Old

Before I bluffed my way into the world of secondhand bookselling, I naively assumed that the older a book was, the more valuable it might be.

How wrong I was. With a few notable exceptions, it's the 20th-century books that make any real money.

I suppose it's all to do with memory. Long-forgotten titles, that have slipped out of our collective cultural consciousness, can be very hard to sell and I've even had to throw some 18th-century books away.

Admittedly the books were very dull and in terrible condition. They couldn't even have graced the shelves of a provincial faux Ye Olde hotel, but it still really went against the grain to bin them as they'd been built to last.

As I tossed the books to their doom I thought of their long histories, from their auspicious debuts in the libraries of gentlemen like the one above, to their sad demise - 250 years later - in a skip on a drab industrial estate in Sussex, with Heart FM playing in the background.

From Haydn to Rihanna. It was just too awful to contemplate.

I'd kept the books for as long as possible, until my desk was surrounded by teetering piles. After a fruitless search for new owners, I realised that I was in danger of looking like one of those people who bottle their own urine because they won't throw anything away. In the end, the books had to go.

Yesterday I found another 18th-century book that will probably also be impossible to sell:

Perhaps it's even the book in Gainsborough's portrait, although I think it's highly unlikely that David Garrick would have owned a copy of this:

It sounds terribly dull, but in fact it's a box of delights, giving the reader a fascinating glimpse of late 18th-century society:

Over 6lb of opium? Nancy Reagan would be spinning in her grave (but apparently she's still alive).

In the same chapter, the author makes a few little jokes to allieviate the tedium of the subject matter, creating characters like Roger Retail, Thomas Teapot, Lady Strawberry and Ben Bibant. But my favourite part of the book is a section called 'Rules of Practice', which lists the sorts of things a gentleperson might buy:

15 pistols, 16 cwt. of cheese, 22 tons of hay, 81 firkins of soap, 33 yards of flannel, 120 doz. candles, 54 acr. land, 56 pipes of wine, 63 gall. of oil, 99 bushels of malt, 70 barrels of ale, 144 reams of paper, 100 stones of wool, 110 sheep, 18 cwt. of tobacco, 66 gall of rum and 48 acr. of pasture ground.

Oh for the days when a gentleman could casually buy 54 acres of land! But I'm not sure about selling 15 pistols to an alcoholic drug addict. It would never happen today.

Other chapters concern vulgar fractions, promiscuous questions and evolution - maths was never this exciting when I was at school, but at least it was less complicated. I know that the media keep telling us that young people are getting progessively cleverer, but I'd like to see today's generation of hugging, halter-top-wearing GCSE students tackle this:

In fact, whenever I find a very old textbook, I feel humbled by its complexity. If I was transported back to a 1788 classroom, I'd be the one in the corner wearing a dunce's hat.

Were people cleverer then? No, of course not. Was the standard higher because the most stupid people were excluded from the education system? As the descendant of generations of barely literate Kentish peasants I'd naturally disagree, but I suspect that Messrs Cameron and Osborne might nod their heads in approbation.

I can't say that I have any great yearning to go back to the 18th century, but the prospect of wearing a wig and tricorn hat would appeal greatly. I would also enjoy throwing my silk gloves onto a shop counter and saying "Sir, I demand satisfaction!"

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

After London

Twelve years ago I was a London commuter, highly skilled at the art of slipping quickly through slow-moving crowds without spilling a single drop of the latte I'd just bought on the station platform. I needed the coffee. After a journey that involved a long walk, a painfully slow bus journey and 20 minutes on a crowded train, I felt exhausted before the day had barely begun.

In the evenings I would stand on the platform at Clapham Junction and look longingly at the destinations of the trains that rushed past: Winchester, Exeter St David's, Arundel, Dorchester West. But although I loved the countryside, I never seriously thought about leaving London.

In the world before children, I didn't mind commuting. I liked the possibilities of being in a city. Impromptu after-work drinks, publishers' launch parties and gallery exhibitions were easy to get to and although the last trains were never quite late enough, there were always taxis.

Today, things are very different. This is how my day at work began yesterday:

The sheep in the front is particularly ridiculous, but all of them are fairly absurd. I've noticed that they succumb to fits of mass hysteria twice a day, bleating as if something awful is about to happen. I've checked and it's always a false alarm.

When I look at the sheep and the outline of the South Downs in the background, I always feel slightly frustrated that I don't enjoy it more. It's an idyllic place, with no noise apart from the sound of birdsong and the bleating of sheep. In the days of dark winter afternoons on Clapham Junction, this would have seemed too good to be true.

But the sad thing is that we are remarkably adaptable. In the same way that my mother became used to having bombs rain down on her between the ages of 10 and 15, I have become quite indifferent to the beauty and tranquility of my new surroundings. Indeed, the main feeling I have when I look at the Downs is guilt over the inadequacy of my response.

I feel nothing but sympathy for the very rich. It must be awful to keep having what you thought you wanted, only to be confronted with the terrifying emptiness of your existence. I can quite understand why so many very wealthy people crave novelty and find it hard to settle in one place. The wisest of them realise that philanthropy helps.

The one thing that does make my heart lift is that I no longer have to pretend to care about things that aren't important, like 'brand values' and initiatives that I know will fizzle out in a few months. Today, my working life has been stripped down to a hut full of books and a field of sheep, but for the first time in years, I look forward to going to work.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


What makes someone a Londoner?

The Canadian writer Craig Taylor examines this question in his excellent book 'Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now—As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It' and finds a bewildering variety of answers from the hundreds of people he interviewed.

For some, being a Londoner is simply a matter of having been born within a clearly defined geographical area, but nobody seems to be able to agree what on is and isn't London, with definitions ranging from anywhere within the M25, to a few miles either side of Trafalgar Square.

For others, being a Londoner is a state of mind, or a badge of honour that can be earned by anyone who learns to survive in the city.

Technically I suppose that I'm a Londoner. I grew up in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames and spent the first three quarters of my life living within ten miles of Hyde Park Corner. But as a child, I always regarded London as a remote, exotic place, full of odd-looking people, where everyone seemed to be in a hurry.

The impression of remoteness was compounded by the tortuously slow journey into London by bus and tube, which usually took at least an hour. On the one occasion I cycled into London, I was amazed at how quickly I got there.

We rarely went up to London. I was never given a reason, but I overheard depressingly bigoted mutterings about the expense, the coloureds and the people on drugs. My parents were much happier driving out to the Surrey countryside or, if the weather was good, down to the coast, where we would huddle behind a windbreak on pebbly beaches and pretend that it was still 1935.

My father always told people that we came from Middlesex and rued the day when the county was absorbed into Greater London, as if a wall had been breached. London was elsewhere. It began somewhere after Putney; on the other side of Hammersmith Bridge; just before Clapham Junction. It wasn't Wimbledon, but it was Acton.

For Craig Taylor, Londoners are simply "the people you see around you. The ones who stock the tube trains and fill the pavements and queue in Tesco with armfuls of plastic-wrapped veg. Whatever their reason or origin, they are laughing, rushing, coniving, snatching free evening newspapers, speaking into phones, complaining, sweeping floors, tending to hedge funds, pushing empty pint glasses, marching, arguing, drinking, kneeling, swaying, huffing at those who stand on the left-hand side of the escalator, moving, moving, always moving. It's a city of verbs."

But my favourite defintion of a Londoner comes from a stranger that Taylor met in a Cricklewood pub:

"The only thing I know is that a real Londoner would never, ever, ever eat at one of those bloody Angus bloody steak houses in the West End. That's how you tell."

A 448-page book consisting of 200 interviews with people who live and work in London could be a rather dry read, but Londoners is one of the most moving and compelling books I've come across, with some stories that are more extraordinary than any work of fiction. Anyone who has ever travelled on public transport and wondered about the hidden lives and secret thoughts of their fellow passengers will enjoy this book.

Reading Londoners, I felt an increasing admiration for the interviewees' passionate, brave, difficult and sometimes rewarding struggles with an unforgiving city, particularly those who had migrated from abroad, with no family or friends to support them. I also felt a growing conviction that being a Londoner was not a birthright, but something that had to be earned.

I have never eaten in an Angus Steak House, but I would never dare to call myself a Londoner.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Don't Try This At Home

If you've ever associated the term 'Swedish massage' with a state of heightened relaxation and sensual pleasure, prepare to be disabused. These sinister photos from a 1927 book called The Technique, Effects and Uses of Swedish Medical Gynastics and Massage, by Dr J Arvedson, tell a very different story:

It's probably very good for you, but when I have backache, I prefer to rely on the anti-inflammatory properties of a good glass of wine.

Monday, June 11, 2012


The entrance to Gibraltar

On a list of places I'd like to vist, Gibraltar ranks slightly lower than Burkina Faso and Wisbech, but when I realised that I'd booked a holiday in Andalucia during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the idea of visiting a British colony was too tempting to resist.

Before I begin, let's get the 'c word' out of the way. Too many people conflate the word 'colony' with 'colonial', which is why territories like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are seen as the dying embers of a defunct imperial power. If that was true, they would have been jettisoned with the rest of the British Empire in the late 1950s, but their relationship with the 'mother country' is quite different.

Gibraltar was captured from the Spanish in 1704 and ceded to Britain in perpetuity nine years later, as part of the Treaty of Utrecht. During the next three centuries, the 'Rock' attracted successives waves of immigrants and the Gibraltarians are made up of many different ethnic groups, including British, Spanish, Genoese, Portuguese, Italian, Moroccan, Jewish and Maltese. Today, Gibraltar has a unique identity that is quite different from Spain's, with a history that is almost a century longer than Australia's.

Naturally, Spain isn't terribly happy about having a British colony on their soil and it is viewed as a national humiliation by some. I'd have some sympathy for this viewpoint, but the Spanish objections are rather undermined by the fact that they have a very similar colony on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Morocco.

I also think that regardless of the historical rights and wrongs of colonialism, territorial disputes must defer to the wishes of the current inhabitants and on several occasions, the people of Gibraltar have made it clear that they do not wish to be part of Spain (in 2002, 98.4% of Gibraltarians voted to remain part of Britian).

Perhaps one answer would be to cede part of Britain to Spain - maybe the Isle of Sheppey. I'd welcome the opportunity to enjoy Spanish culture without having to endure the ordeal of EasyJet and I think that the citizens of Sheppey would benefit immensely from the introduction of tapas bars and flamenco dancing.

It was going to be a family trip, but everyone pulled out except our friend Kathryn. "How long do you think you'll be?" my wife asked. I checked the map. Gibraltar was 60 miles away, so it would be a bit like London to Brighton, plus two or three hours to have a look around. "About five hours" I confidently replied.

An hour later, when Kathryn and I found ourselves on a mountain pass with terrifying hairpin bends, courtesy of my SatNav lady, we realised that they journey was going to take a little longer. Kathryn kept apologising for telling me that I was going too near the edge, while I tried to reassure her that I'd rather know.

What were we doing here? At one point, we both wondered if the SatNav had been possessed by an evil spirit.

After an hour of what seemed like aimless wandering, we reached a motoway and started to make up for lost time. Kathryn checked her Rough Guide and saw that it warned against driving into Gibraltar, recommending parking in the Spanish border town of La Linea and crossing on foot. We revised our plans and ignored the increasingly frantic pleas of the SatNav lady.

If you ever get a chance to visit La Linea, don't. It reminded me of all the worst aspects of a Mexican border town - the petty criminals, prostitutes and all-pervading stench of stale urine - without any of the redeeming features. Worst of all, because the Spanish don't like to officially acknowledge the existence of Gibraltar, they won't tell you where it is. We spent a miserable half hour in La Linea before we finally stumbled across the border.

By the time we passed through customs (during which a bored official pretended he hadn't seen us), a thick mist had descended. Kathryn looked around her and said "God, even the weather's British."

Arriving was a huge culture shock. On the one hand it was all terribly familiar, from the red telephone boxes to the London Transport font on the local buses, but the setting - a blend of 1960s Malta, Ceausescu's Bucharest and Littlehampton - was deeply unsettling. I felt as if I was in an episode of 'The Prisoner'.

We boarded a bus and began a ridiculously long and convulted journey that belied Gibraltar's three-mile length, passing a succession of bland concrete apartment blocks, whose windows were festooned with Union Jacks. It made the muted displays in Lewes look positively Calvinst.

Two buses and nearly an hour later, we reached the bottom of the Rock of Gibraltar, where a cable car shuttled visitors to the 1,400ft high summit. I'd never been in a cable car before and kept thinking of 'Moonraker'.

Travelling in a small metal box suspended on a piece of string is not for the faint-hearted and I carefully scrutinised the cable for signs of metal fatigue, whilst Kathryn sat on the floor. However, as the car climbed above the clouds, we were rewarded with a stunning view, with the coastline of Africa in the distance:

But for me, the real attraction of the Rock was the colony of Barbary Macaques - Europe's only native apes:

The macaques seemed completely indifferent to the humans who visit their territory, although they apparently like snatching cameras and throwing them into the sea. Wise creatures.

You can sit right next to an ape and they won't move. Some visitors have mistaken indifference with tameness and been rewarded with a nasty bite.

According to popular myth, Gibraltar will only remain British as long as the apes live there. Winston Churchill was susperstitious enough to augment their population with some Moroccan cousins during the Second World War.

Meanwhile, back in the town, the Jubilee fever was hotting up:

We decided that walking back to La Linea would be quicker than travelling by bus and as we aproached the centre of Gibraltar, I looked forward to seeing the colony's thriving commercial quarter:

Gibraltar is an internationally-renowned tax haven, but this hadn't saved it from the long reach of the global recession. I saw a number of empty stores - most of them clothes shops. Only Marks and Spencer appeared to be thriving, which explains why so many women were wearing Per Una.

The heart of Gibraltar is a pleasant mixture of 18th and 19th century stone buildings - Lyme Regis with a Mediterranean twist - and if we'd had more time, I would have liked to explore the narrow alleys. But it was getting late and my wife's texts sounded increasingly desperate.

We walked back to the border, where a single British bobby looked out for international drug gangs and illegal imigrants, in between posing for photographs with German tourists. The Spanish customs official didn't even look up from his computer screen.

On the Spanish side of the border

At the underground car par in La Linea, I programmed a new, direct route on the SatNav. It had been an exhausting day and I couldn't face any more mountain passes. Within minutes we were on a motorway, speeding back to my distraught family. Kathryn texted my wife to say that we'd be home within the hour.

Then it happened again: "After 500 yards, take the next turning on the right" and before we knew it, we were back on a road that was barely wider than the car, negotiating bends that made Grand Theft Auto look like Genevieve. My heart sank.

By the time we reached another main road we were already three hours late and the sun was beginning to set. But just as Kathryn and I were beginning to lose heart, our road met the coastline and I caught a glimpse of Africa on the other side of the water, so close that you could see houses and boats.

I thought it was wonderful, but Kathryn had had enough: "Oh, fuck Africa".

It was almost dark when we arrived at our house in Los Caños de Meca. My wife's irritation at being left alone for so long had turned into a relief that we had finally made it back. "How was Gibraltar?" she asked.

I quoted Dr Johnson's verdict on Fingal's Cave: "Worth seeing, but not worth going to see".

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Trouble in Paradise

I have just returned from a week in Andalucia with my family and a friend of ours.

How and why we ended up taking a child who doesn't even like to go beyond our front door is a long story and I won't bore you with the details, except to say that our decision was a triumph of hope over experience (also, the deposit was non-refundable).

I booked the holiday months ago, in the naive belief that a week in a quiet, beautiful place might transform our son, restoring his faith in trying new experiences.

In a way, I was right. My son did undergo a transformation, but unfortunately it was from bad to worse. The one crumb of comfort is that it is much easier to restrain a 12-year-old than a teenager, so things could have been far grimmer.

During our stay we caught brief glimpses of the holiday we could have had - family trips to the beach, meals out and visits to historical towns - but sadly we were caught in a momentum that we couldn't control and ended up operating a shift system around our son.

In spite of everything, the holiday wasn't a complete disaster. The first night, spent on the rooftop of a Seville hotel, was a magical experience in which the spires of the largest cathedral in the world were complimented by a full moon, darting swallows, a rather nice Spanish beer and a naked woman hanging her washing out on the building opposite. Life doesn't get any better than that.

I also enjoyed my terrifying drive into the centre of Seville, during which an old man on a bicycle led me around a labyrinth of back streets that were barely wider than our car. Quite how I managed to reach our hotel without scratching the vehicle or crushing anyone's foot will remain a mystery.

Seville is apparently the hottest city in Europe and even at the beginning of June, the temperature reminded me of Death Valley. Kerbside tapas bars tried to alleviate the stifling heat with nebulising water spays, but they were no match for the thick stone walls of Seville Cathedral:

Mrs Steerforth and friend

The cathedral was awe-inspiring, but my favourite place was the stunning Royal Alcázar palace, with its Islamic-influenced architecture and breathtakingly beautiful gardens. We went in the evening, outside the normal tourist site opening hours and were able to experience the ethereal tranquility without having to jostle with coach parties of visitors:

After a day in Seville, we drove down to Los Caños de Meca - a very pleasant seaside resort that is slightly spoiled by an excess of dog excrement and hippies (not the nice, eco-warrior ones, but the old, leather-skinned variety whose brains have been addled by four decades of marijuana), where we stayed in a German-owned modernist house.

With the exception of a bizarre trip to Gibraltar (which warrants a separate blog post), we didn't do an awful lot. My wife occasionally went running with the friend who'd bravely agreed to come on holiday with us, whilst my sons pottered around in the grounds of the house. I read a book about London and drank Cruzcampo.

In many ways, it was idyllic. The weather was perfect and the only sounds we could hear were of birds and the distant roar of the surf, but in spite of this (or because of this) both boys kept asking when they could go back to England. For them, paradise consisted of bad food, computer games and mild weather.

I have learned my lesson.