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.


lucy joy said...

It's very important not to get too clouded by the 'good old days'
One day, today will be the glory days where you didn't have arthritis or a colostomy bag (sorry, that was too much!).

I read a poem on a blog earlier:

It made me think about the people I know with that 'careful what you wish for' fate stifling them.

I guess we are all able to find things to remember with fondness, and your evening out with a former colleague will definitely be one.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

It was fun, it ended, things do. ;-)

Martin said...

The healing power of a pub lunch in the company of valued friends and former colleagues, is something I've come to appreciate more and more over the years.

Peter said...

(long-time listener, first-time caller). This, as so much of your blog, really resonated with me - just one industry over and a decade before. I used to work in record shops (Virgin) in the late 70s, early 80s. Ended up running one in London. Similar misty memories of launches and signings (every rock star was an arsehole, as far as I can remember). I, um, was kissed once by Kate Bush (who was nice) at a launch - on the cheek. Anyway I tired of worrying about how many "units" to order and what my stock-to-sales ratio was and now more or less happy living in Hastings and commuting to Lewes. Sorry, this isnt my blog...but just wanted to say how much I enjoy yours.P

Steerforth said...

Lucy - Thanks for the link to that beautiful poem - the dust of lost friends certainly does sting my face sometimes. I agree about learning to appreciate the present (although on a bad day I can't help thinking "If this is as good as it gets, then...").

I think the answer is to go for long walks, see more of old friends and take up my mother's offer to babysit more often!

Richmonde - Sadly they do. But before I become too nostalgic, I need to remember what it was like sitting on a crowded bus to Richmond on a wet winter morning, crawling through traffic.

Martin - I think you're right. I've become very anti-social during the last few years, partly as a result of problems with our son, partly because I'm a little cut-off in Lewes. I'm going to remedy that.

Peter - Thanks for taking the trouble to post a comment. I never know how many people read this blog, so I always appreciate a 'first-time caller' (that brings back long evenings listening to LBC phone-ins).

Kissed by Kate Bush? Lucky man.

I think record shops were similar to bookshops in those days - staffed by enthusiasts who knew their customers. Sadly, the men in suits took over and words like 'units' and 'product' became the norm. They regarded their shop staff with contempt, as if they weren't really proper business people and, to coin a phrase, "knew the price of everything and the value of nothing".

Interestingly, these people, with their stock-to-sales ratios, planograms and scale-outs, have managed to bring some great chains to their knees, failing to see that in the age of Amazon, high street customers would not want identikit shops manned by brow-beaten staff.

I'm glad you're largely happier in Hastings. The commute to Lewes beats travelling in London!

Séamas Poncán said...

It was fun, but it had to end. That really speaks to me. I often think back to my 'past lives' and wonder what would have happened had I not switched directions. I had a past life as a musician. Ironically, I was once in a band called 'Past Lives.'
I agree that the poem Lucy posted is terrific, too. Neat blog.
You still play with books, I still play music. We evolve. Somehow it all makes us who we are now. And that's really not so bad, is it?

Anonymous said...

Yes the book trade is different but many of my younger bookselling colleages are having their "good old days" now and it really is no different for them as it was for me 20 years ago. When I started I remember a much older colleague waxing lyrical about the "good old days" and the world he described was alien to me.
This is how the world turns. It changes - sometimes we change with it, sometimes we are left behind.

Steerforth said...

Séamus - I think you're right. We have to evolve and few things are sadder than a person who refuses to accept the reality of growing older. I wouldn't want to 25 again anyway (although I would like the flat stomach back).

Anon - I agree, up to a point. It is relative and today's new booksellers have no point of comparison - from their point of view, the job's still better than many.

However, I'd say that I did adapt and evolve during a time that saw many changes - the demise of the NBA and EPOS, for example - and after 15 years, I still loved being in the book trade.

For me, it all changed when my autonomy was taken away and I found mysef working for some very boorish people. Some of my colleagues adapted, but over 75% left.

I think we can safely say that the book trade was better 20 years ago, but you don't miss what you've never had.

Anonymous said...

This is a lovely post, and I think touches on something that all of us who worked in either record shops, or book shops can recognise. I had the pleasure of both, and can honestly say my years working in retail were incredibly formative and (mostly) wonderful fun.

However, this was when even as a lowly sales clerk / bookseller I could make choices about what we stocked. When you could discover something new, play it or display it, and have someone discover it themselves through you... Which was what made it fun. I can't remember how many times we had to take the CD we were playing out of the hi-fi so we could sell it. That just couldn't happen now. Or when you could instigate a promotion just by being enthusiastic about old books. When we had arguments over whether k d lang should be in country or pop, and there was a heavy metal section.

I could go on, which shows how your post has started me reminiscing... So thank you. But I would end with, yes, nothing lasts forever, and there is no way we would have the same experience now. And you know what, I knew I was done with book selling the day I got promoted to Assistant Manager. I turned to my boss and said 'but I don't have book in my job title anymore...'

Steerforth said...

Muteswan - Yes, I loved the job when it was all about the books. The strength of Ottakar's was perceived by some as a weakness - people often thought the branches were independents, rather than part of a chain.

For me, the writing was on the wall when an operations manager asked me to get the staff to write handwritten reviews of books they hadn't read (because the customers liked that sort of thing). I also lamented the fact that a few dodgy managers made it necessary to burden the rest of us with an ever-increasing number of spreadsheets, checklists and audits.

But, as you say, nothing lasts forever, and being forced out of a comfort zone has done me nothing but good.

Biscuit said...

I played 'Hounds of Love' constantly. I lived in Ottawa (a much colder city) at the time and easily recall walking across a bridge over the Ottawa River as Kate Bush sang about watching something moving under, under the ice, moving.

And then on a cross-country bus once, dozing off to the same song, then being startled awake by the urgently-whispered 'Wake up!' in my right ear.

(I had a fairly extensive collection of KB rarities and so on - all worthless now, of course, what with everything being available and accessible to anyone with an eBay account, but at the time I was quite proud of it all)

Anonymous said...

This post really resonated with me. As a postgraduate student, I used to work in a University Library with a lovely group of people but left to move to Aberdeen when my husband got an academic post. Now I live in beautiful countryside raising our young son and doing research in a very part-time post. I too look back with fondness and miss meeting colleagues and my life then. I think your prescription of long walks etc is just the thing I need. I'm really enjoying your blog! Sandra