Friday, November 30, 2012

A Jolly Crew

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

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

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

This girl certainly knows how to handle herself:

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

"Well Played!"


 "Take that!"

"A good run in mid-field"

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

 "Well matched!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This probably explains a lot.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Off the Rails

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Art of Seeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Southover Grange, even the chimneys are interesting.

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

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Lorsque les Billes Chuté (or Life Begins at 14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Found and Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm sure you can imagine how I felt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Upstairs Downstairs

The last few months have been a little challenging. In addition to the usual stresses of dealing with our oldest son, my wife developed pneumonia and during her treatment, blood tests seemed to reveal a condition that used to be fatal, but can now be treated with chemotherapy and steroids. We weren't told this straight away, but I had a feeling that something was wrong when my wife's GP started phoning us in the evening to ask how she was feeling.

I was pretty upset at the prospect of seeing my wife undergo chemotherapy, but she was more concerned about the steroids: "I can cope with the treatment, but I can't bear the idea of becoming fat."

At one point it was all looking pretty grim and, selfishly, I wondered how I was going to cope with caring for four people, including an 83-year-old woman and a boy with special needs. At least I now had a working life with flexible hours, but was I really up to the challenge? I found myself becoming increasingly grumpy and anti-social towards the world at large.

During this period, one of the things that helped to keep me sane was a boxed set of the original 'Upstairs Downstairs'. I am now halfway through the fourth series and when I reach the end, I'll probably feel compelled to write a blog post about the programme. In the meantime, here's something else that has been a source of huge delight.

This is from the BBC Radio 4 website:

'Upshares, Downshares', the PM programme's daily business and economics slot with Nils Blythe, charted the economic crisis daily from November 2008. Once the listeners (David Cartwright in fact) had named the slot, we began to play the original theme fromUpstairs Downstairs but then, unbidden, listeners began sending in their own renditions and interpretations of the tune.

Here's the original:

And here are some of the different versions created by Radio 4 listeners:

First, "in the style of George Shearing":

Next, Spaghetti Western:

Third, Bossa Nova:

And crumhorn trio:


Organ fugue:

One of my favourites - 'acid house':

Ancient handbells version:

The Elvis version:

Morris Dancing:

Junior school recorder club version:

And finally, the splendid 'Retro arcade game' version:

This is only a small sample of the wonderful selection that bears witness to the ingenuity of BBC Radio 4 listeners. If more people devoted themselves to harmless pursuits like growing roses, collecting stamps and creating different versions of theme tunes, the world would be a better place.

My wife and I are rapidly working our way through the 68 episodes of Upstairs Downstairs and when we reach the end, I feel that the it will also mark the conclusion of something else. Further blood tests have now shown that my wife doesn't have the condition that was initially diagnosed. There is something, but it's not life-threatening and won't require a gruelling regime of medicines (we hope).

My wife is delighted that she won't have to put on weight. Sadly, I have, as a result of several months of comfort eating - those Waitrose macaroons are like crack cocaine - and I shall have to resume the tedious business of dieting. I'll make sure that the next drama series I watch isn't mainly set in a kitchen.

However, it will have to have lines like these:

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Wishin' and Hopin'

One thing I've noticed about Mitt Romney and Barrack Obama during the last two months has been their desperate attempts to seem like 'regular guys'. Both have been dropping their 'gs' and talkin' about folks and bucks, rather than people and dollars.

Obama has been thinkin' and hopin', whilst Romney has complained about folks bein'  tired of payin' nearly four bucks for a gallon of gas.

What is it that makes a multi-millionaire and an aloof academic start adopting the speech patterns of a truck driver? Is it a cultural meme in the American psyche that associates a patrician accent with ancient forces of oppression? It didn't seem to do FDR any harm:

But could any American politician get away with an accent like Roosevelt's today? I doubt it. One of the last politicians to speak with a distinct New England accent - Edward Kennedy - has been mercilessly lampooned through the figure of Mayor Quimby in the Simpsons.

In England, perhaps the most powerful linguistic meme goes back to 1066, when the William of Normandy defeated King Harold and French became the language of the ruling class for nearly three centuries, whilst English went underground.

600 years on, people still employ French phrases like "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" if they wanted to convey erudition and authority. Conversely, plain English stands for honesty and directness. Winston Churchill's famous "Blood, sweat and tears" speech was almost entirely Anglo-Saxon in origin.

I suspect that similar forces have been at work in the Presidential election, with both candidates trying to out-normal each other by adopting the speech patterns of a mid-western everyman.

I was particularly impressed by Mitt Romney, who was a genuinely charismatic figure. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who died his hair black, Romney used the 'Just For Men' approach, carefully allowing a little grey at the sideburns to give the illusion of a natural colour. It was a useful metaphor for Romney's policies which seemed to change hue a little too often.

I'd like to think that Romney was rumbled for having no coherent policies, but I think the result was ultimately more about the changing demographic make-up of America. Romney was a 1984 candidate. The USA has changed and cheesy, handsome WASPs can no longer rely on empty rhetoric and a bottomless pit of corporate donors to guarantee victory.

I can only assume that the Republicans will now do a lot of soul-searching and, if they have any sense, find a Hispanic candidate to upset the apple cart in 2016. Instead of folks and talkin', the meme will look further south.

In the meantime, I was relieved to see that in Barack Obama's victory speech, he was once again hoping. So am I. Good luck, Mr President.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Ayn Rand - the Objectionable Objectivist

This blog is currently in 'economy mode' as I'm in the middle of moving 7,000 books, along with the accompanying shelving, bolt by bolt. It's gruelling work. But on the plus side, if I had a latent heart problem, it would have probably manifested itself during the last seven days.

In the meantime, here is a clip about Ayn Rand. I have to confess that when I first became a bookseller, I'd never heard of her. However, I quickly became intrigued by Rand because the only people who asked for her books were, without exception, utter and complete tossers.

Who was this mysterious wanker-magnet?

Several things are clear from watching this video. First, Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal wears a wig. Second, Ayn Rand's body language is deeply disturbing, particularly the shifty eyes. Third, Paul Ryan is even more ghastly than I thought.

I had thought of reading an Ayn Rand novel, in spite (or because) of Christopher Hitchens' description of them as "transcendentally awful", but unless I'm detained in an institution with a choice that is limited to either Atlas Shrugged or The Bridges of Madison County, it's not going to happen.

In the meantime, let's ponder this pearl of wisdom from Ayn Rand:

"The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity" 

That's so profound, it almost seems banal and fatuous. I wonder if it's on an 'inspirational' poster?

Ayn Rand rings my alarm bells quicker than a Love and Hate tattoo. So far, I haven't seen any of her novels on friends' bookshelves, but my local taxi firm is on speed dial just in case.

You can never be too careful.