Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Ladybird Book of the Recession - Part Two

This is a town, like many other towns. Perhaps you live somewhere like this. 

In this town, many people work in the local shops and factories. Some travel further, by rail or road, to a job in another town. 

The shops are very important to the town. 

When somebody buys bread at the bakery, the baker can use some of that money to buy meat from the local butcher. The butcher may then spend some of this money to have his car serviced at the nearby garage. 

This system of people passing money around is called a 'local economy'. 

Some experts think that if you spend a shilling, it will be worth ten shillings to the town, because it will have been handed around so many times.

This lady is not helping the local economy. 

She is buying her food from a supermaket that sends most of its money to another town, many miles away. But the supermarket is cheap and the lady is worried that she cannot afford to buy her food in the local shops.

The lady is not the only person in the town worrying about money. When a lot of people start to worry about money at the same time and begin buying fewer things, this is called a 'recession'.

A recession affects most people in the town. 

The fishmonger says that fewer people are buying fresh fish from his shop this year. Because of this, he will have to get rid of his assistant and may even close the shop. 

He is very worried.

Some governments will try to stop people worrying by spending more money, to protect jobs and help businesses. 

If fewer jobs are lost, more people will spend money in the shops. But this town has a government that is trying to mend the recession by spending less.

Because the Government is giving less money to people, many shops and businesses in the town are beginning to close. Some people are losing their jobs.

At this local factory, a man called Robert has been told that he is going to lose his job as a sales manager. 

He will also have to hand back his 'company car', which was given to him by the factory. 

Robert is very worried about how this will affect his family.

Robert and his family live in a nice new housing estate, but it is a long way from the centre of town. They will now have to catch a bus to go the shops. 

The buses are expensive and some of the passengers smell.

Robert likes drinking wine. 

Since he lost his job, Robert has been drinking more wine. His wife is worried that they cannot afford it, but Robert says that the wine cheers him up.

Wine can make people forgetful. 

Robert has forgotten to pay for his bottle of wine. 

As he leaves the shop, a policeman arrives. The policeman was called by the shopkeeper, who was worried that Robert has stolen the wine.

In a recession, when people cannot afford to buy the things they want, some of them steal. If they are caught, they may go to prison.

This lady may not look like a thief, but she has stolen an expensive handbag. 

She is trying to pretend that the handbag is hers. The other woman is getting cross.

The lady wanted the handbag because she had seen a lot of advertisements for it. 

When people who have no money keep being told to buy things they cannot afford, they can become sad or angry.

Some young people became so angry that they robbed this department store and set fire to it. The store will probably not open again and a lot of shopworkers will lose their jobs. 

Most people are afraid of losing their job. 

However, the Government is worried that a lot of people would prefer to stay at home and watch television instead of working and paying taxes, so they are changing the law.

These men will not be able to watch television all day, as they now live outdoors. 

They used to live in houses that belonged to the town, but they were told that these homes were too big for them. 

The Government would like these men to live in smaller homes and get a job.  

But they will have trouble finding work, as they cannot look smart for a job interview.

Nobody knows when the recession will end. 

Robert and his wife have decided to have a fresh start in Australia, where Robert will work at his brother-in-law's carpet cleaning business. 

Robert is not very interested in carpet cleaning.

They will all miss their family and friends. 

The town was their home, but they know that even if the recession ends, the old shops will not reopen and life will never quite be the same again.    

Saturday, March 23, 2013


The highlights of last week were an exploding laptop, a leaking sink, a dead mink (the rats will inherit the earth), a new crisis with my older son and the discovery that I have a lung infection. As none of these things make a particularly edifying blog post, I'm posting some photos I took of some abandoned buildings in Iceland.

If that seems a bit 'random' - as the kids like to say - I should add that I've just been reading Andrew Moore's superb 'Detroit Disassembled' and have been thinking about why ruined buildings are often so more interesting than well-maintained ones.

These crudely-built structures, with their rusted, corrugated iron roofs, were once a hive of activity for Iceland's fishing industry. Why they were abandoned is a mystery.


It looked as if the buildings had been abandoned in a hurry. Sou'westers were strewn across the floor of one room, while another had mattresses propped against the walls. But the thing that unnerved me most was a small entrance to a dark, unlit basement, which I nearly fell into. After adjusting my eyes to the gloom, I could see a chair and lengths of rope, as if someone had been held captive here.

It was like being in a Mike Nelson installation, but without the irritation of being constantly distracted by other people. Here, your imagination - and paranoia - could run wild. I've no doubt that everything there was related to the fishing industry, but the murky basement and discarded syringes were a little unsettling.

It is shocking how quickly buildings fall into decay. As the roofs of these structures rust, the late rains will seep into the walls, freeze and create fissures until, eventually, the inside is hard to distinguish from the outside.

Every ruin is a reminder that even the most solid-looking building is in a state of flux. We struggle to maintain the illusion of permanence, but the moment we abandon the fight, we find ourselves in Detroit.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
    Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
      Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
    He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
      What powerful but unrecorded race
      Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

That Touch of Mink

I thought last week was bad, but this one has been far worse, with one email after another from customers asking where their books are. It has made me realise that however hard you work, if you sell on the internet you can be completely buggered by the postal network. 

I could tell from the emails that some people were very angry. As one person wrote, "How hard is it to put a book in an envelope and post it?" Fortunately, Mark Twain's advice - "When in doubt, tell the truth" - has paid off. Almost every customer has been extremely patient and sympathetic, once they've realised what I've been up against.

In addition to writing apologetic emails to people, I also had to take a van up to Berkshire to collect some stock. It's usually a straightforward journey, but this time my SatNav had a psychotic episode and took me on a terrifying drive along some narrow, snow-bound country lanes. I think it's trying to kill me.

To make things worse, someone had changed the settings so that every traffic direction was given in a Dalek voice. The amusement value of hearing "IN 300 YARDS, TURN LEFT...HUMAN" quickly wore very thin.

Fortunately, I had some CDs of Radio Four podcasts to relieve the tedium of driving along a motorway being shouted at by a Dalek, including a fascinating Desert Island Discs with Jill Balcon - now better known as the mother of Daniel Day Lewis. She was nearly 80 when the programme was recorded, but had the voice and attitude of someone in their 50s, speaking with a great passion and self-effacing humour about her extraordinary life. What a woman.

In truth it was nice to get away from the farm. I have worked in a few unusual places, but never anywhere where it snows indoors. I suppose there must be a hole in the roof, but I can't see where.

Sometimes a robin enters the barn  and sings sweetly. Then it ruins everything by defecating on the books and computers. How many people have to wipe bird droppings off their PC monitor and keyboard  before they can start work?

The week reached a grand finale yesterday, with a fight between a mink and a rat. The mink seemed to have the upper hand, even though it was barely larger than the rat. Then we made the mistake of getting too close and for a second, the mink lost its grip. The rat quickly ran underneath a table and found a small hole near a pile of boxes. Undeterred, the mink strutted around the barn as if it owned the place, oblivious to the presence of four humans. Eventually it got bored and decided to lie in wait under some wheelie bins.

It was all very odd. At the time, we had no idea that we were looking at a mink, but Google images quickly identified the strange, dark, ferret-like creature: 
Next week I will be dealing with a rat infestation, writing some more apologies and getting to grips with a complicated new postal system. At some point I may even have time to look at some books, like this one:

 But I wouldn't bank on it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Condensed Milk, Electricty Substations and Bunty

Today began with an ominous silence, as a light dusting of snow had bought Lewes to a standstill. I'd been planning to take a van up to Berkshire, but the BBC News website showed footage of abandoned lorries in snowdrifts, with people saying that they were "disgusted" that this freak weather hadn't been anticipated.

Later, the snow had thawed enough for me to drive to work and deal with the orders. When I arrived, the cows looked at me imploringly and mooed in unison. It's becoming quite oppressive. I don't know what they think I can do.

Many people would regard the process of picking and packing the book orders as quite tedious, but I find it endlessly fascinating because of the surprises it brings. When I put the books on sale, I often have a certain idea of the type of people who might buy them, but half of the time I'm completely wrong.

For example, the 1970 Bunty annual that I expected to sell to a woman in her 50s is ordered by a man called Mohammed Al-Ahmed, whilst the pulp Wild West novel that I thought would be bought by a man called Len in his 60s, ends up being posted to a woman in Slovenia. I given up trying to guess who will buy the books (and can anyone tell me why nearly seventy percent of my Biggles sales are to Australians?).

If high street bookselling often gave me a disappointing glimpse of humanity, this is the antidote. It is hard not to feel an affection for these strangers, with their secret passions and ecclectic, eccentric interests. When I pack the books I wrap them carefully, as if they were presents for a friend.

One important lesson I've learned is that no book is too dull to put on sale. Why anyone would want a 1929 book about the industrial processes behind the manufacture of condensed milk is beyond me. I also find it hard to see the appeal of a 1957 book on electricty substations. Surely, it's horribly out of date, unless there's an electricity substation nostalgia market. But both titles were snapped up.

However, there's just one book I just can't shift, even though I've reduced the price several times:

The front cover's a little spartan, but he looks like a friendly chap. Any takers?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Post Mortem

This hasn't been the best of weeks. The postal company that handles my book orders appears to have gone bankrupt. I didn't get any warning. One day they simply stopped coming. I have also discovered that for the last three weeks, they collected my post and kept it in a corner of a warehouse.

I am now dealing with a growing number of emails that range from the politely titled 'Delivery enquiry' to the rather more direct 'Where's my bloody book?!' Luckily, my business is small enough for me to respond to each email personally and most people have been very sympathetic. However, I doubt whether I'll survive this without getting some negative feedback on Amazon.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this whole business has been having to take all of the orders to the local post office. The UK ones are easy enough, but trying to send 15 packages to the USA is the nearest I've come to be being beaten to death by an angry mob. I've walked through the notorious Tenderloin district of San Francsico at night and felt uncomfortable, but I've never known fear like the Lewes Post Office queue. I can't go back.

For some relaxation, I watched 'Gideon of Scotland Yard' with my mother. Filmed in 1958 and starring Jack Hawkins, it is a relentlessly frank expose of how brutal the British police were in the 1950s:

No wonder the crime rate was so low.

I also enjoyed this scene, in which Jack Hawkins manages to juggle two telephones and light a pipe at the same time. But watch the buses in the background - they look suspiciously like models to me:

Superficially, 'Gideon of Scotland Yard' is a standard 1950s police procedural film, but unusually it is filmed in Technicolor and directed by John Ford, who rated Jack Hawkins as "the finest dramatic actor with whom I have worked." 55 years on, the film seems very dated, but in a good way. I particularly loved the street scenes and a garish, 'thoroughly modern' 1950s flat.

Without fail, my mother always turns to me and says "D'you know these old films are good aren't they? There's no swearing or anything." By anything, I presume that she means sex.

My mother often asks me how I find these films, blissfully unaware that I spend ages scouring a website for obscure British 'B movies' made between 1940 and 1960. I know her better than she'll ever know me, so choosing the films is easy. Also, I've found that as long as the star is called Jack - either Hawkins or Warner - she'll be happy.

An email box has just popped up in the corner of the screen: "Non-delivery of By a Silver Stream".

It's going to be a long week.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Tempus Fugit

Another year nearer the nameless terrors of the grave, to quote a friend's card. My mother has spent the whole week in a state because she can't find a birthday card in Lewes that says 'Son' on the front. My wife has tried to convince her that I'm not bothered, whilst reassuring her that I nevertheless loved all of the cards that did say 'son'.

My mother buys me the cards that she thinks are 'nice'. They always have some sort of pastel image on the front and 'Son' in gold lettering, with a cloyingly sentimental verse inside. I usually end up feeling slightly depressed by the fact that if she really knew me, my mother wouldn't give me these cards. But I'm also touched by the fact the fact that the words really mean something to her.

One year, I decided to give my mother a card that I thought was beautiful and spent a long time choosing it. The following week, my father took me to one side and told me that she was very upset to receive a card that said 'Mother' instead of 'Mum' and had no verse inside. I learned my lesson and now look for the soppiest birthday card I can find. Sometimes I delegate the task to my wife.

Every year, my mother tells me how much she loved the card, particularly the "wonderful verse".

I hope that when my sons are older, I will be interested in them enough to send a card that shows some insight into the adults they have become. My mother is lovely in so many ways and I'm lucky to still have her, but her lack of interest in my life can be breathtaking. I once rang her from Death Valley and explained that the temperature was 110f. She replied "Well, there's been a heatwave in Worthing."

When asked what I wanted for my birthday, I told my wife that I really didn't mind as long as it was a CD of music by someone whose first name was Franz and surname began with Sch.

But nothing by Schubert, please.

Undeterred, she managed to find these:

For a joke, I told someone that I was working through the classical repertoire alphabetically and was now on Sch. The look on their face told me that I had picked the wrong person. In some corner of Lewes, I will now be known as the man who hasn't listened to Tchaikovsky yet.

Both CDs contain some of the best music I've heard for a long time and the beginning of Franz Schmidt's Symphony No.2 is one of the most beautiful, life-enhancing openings you could wish for:

Franz Schmidt didn't have the happiest of lives: a feud with a rather vindictive Mahler, a wife who went insane and a daughter who died in childbirth all contributed to his growing alcoholism. But his music betrays little of this and I particularly like what one critic described as its 'fulgent' orchestration.

Fellow Austrian Franz Schreker's life also ended tragically, when his career was bought to a standstill by the Nazis - he was half-Jewish. According to Wikipedia,  "In his lifetime (Schreker) went from being hailed as the future of German opera to being considered irrelevant as a composer and marginalized as an educator." He died in 1934, two days before his 56th birthday.

This is how good he was:

I have clearly struck gold with the Franz Sch- stipulation.

Next week it's Schuman and Schumann.