Thursday, June 27, 2013

All Tomorrow's Parties

I was in Smith's earlier today, waiting for my wife to buy a present for a child's seventh birthday party. There seem to be more parties than there are children in my son's class. I don't understand it, particularly as he doesn't socialise with half of them.

My youngest son goes to a standard state primary school and I'd say that the social mix between the middle classes and what my German neighbour coyly refers to as 'people from social housing' is about 50-50. As a middle class person who grew up in a working class family, I have watched the interactions of these two groups with interest.

At first it all seems to be going very well. At the age of four, the children all happily play together and although the mothers separate into different groups from the word go, there is still a sense of community and the party invitations are blind to any social divisions.

The middle class mothers might shudder with horror when Coca Cola is served at little Jordan's 5th birthday. They might also cringe at food that has more 'e's than the Hacienda Club in 1990 and worry that Sasha's manic dancing to 'Jive Bunny' is the result of consuming too additives. But they grin nervously and remind themselves to be otherwise enaged in a year's time.

The non-middle class mother are equally non-plussed by Sasha's party, which seems a joyless occasion consisting of activities that look like schoolwork, inedible, tasteless food and music that has never been in the charts. When Jordan is handed a plate of hummus and pitta bread, he looks as if he is going to cry.

And, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes. Gradually, the unspoken apartheid between the classes becomes more entrenched and the party invitations become more selective. It's all rather depressing. I've tried crossing the invisible lines, but I always end up sounding like Prince Charles visiting an inner city community centre.

But I digress. During my long wait in WH Smith's, I took a look at the books and felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I no longer had to sell new books. Browsing through the endless celebrity biographies, sub-Twilight/50 Shades/Da Vinci genre novels and dull, midlist fiction was an incredibly depressing experience. I'd forgotten how much I hated it all.

Selling secondhand books on the internet has its own challenges, but at least the selection of titles I sell is constantly changing and completely random. It's so refreshing to be able to discover new books every day, rather than putting yet another pile of Victoria Hislop's 'The Island' on the paperback bestsellers table.

However, I wonder how much mileage my business has. The way people read is radically changing and although there will probably always be a place for the printed page, I worry that the supply will begin to exceed the demand, driving prices down to an unsustainable level. I don't know what I'll do if that happens.

If I sound slightly gloomy, it's partly because we've discovered that our new kitten - the one we bought to cheer our oldest son up - is dying. He has Feline Infectious Peritonitis and is slowly fading away, getting thinner every week. I know it's only a cat, but we've grown rather fond of him, as he's an exceptionally affectionate little creature.

I feel particularly sorry for my son, as this experience has just reinforced his already pessimistic view of the world, instead of effecting a positive change. When a suitable period of time has elapsed, we'll get a new cat and hope for better luck next time.

By the end of last week, I was beginning to feel a little battle-fatigued, so I decided to brush away the cobwebs with a visit to the Shard. I thought the London Eye was impressive, but the view from here is in a class of its own:

It's just like flying (although EasyJet is probably cheaper). Indeed, a nearby plane seemed to be at a similar altitude, which was slightly disconcerting.

Afterwards, I wandered through the streets of Southwark, where my grandfather was born in the 1890s, gatecrashing a boy scouts' church service in the cathedral. One man sang 'Oh Worship the King' so badly that several very solemn-looking dignitaries started to get the giggles. 

I finished with a visit to the Tate Modern - a gallery that never fails to disappoint. I loved the Tate when it when first opened - the 'space' was very impressive. But these days I'd like to see a little less space and a lot more exhibits.

I'm not sure what the point of this rambling blog post was, other than trying to add content after a long gap. I can't blame alcohol this time, as I've been drinking nothing but tea all afternoon.

That reminds me, I think the sun's over the yardarm...


Lucy R. Fisher said...

Scientific tests have shown that sugar doesn't make kids hyperactive. They just ARE hyperactive. And the nasty chemical E numbers that caused problems were long ago replaced with nice, natural beetroot juice. But if we all believed that there'd be nothing to distinguish us from the people in "social housing"...

Steerforth said...

Funnily enough, I was talking about this evening with someone, who said in tests, children who'd been given a pacebo were just as hyperactive as the Ribena kids.

I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post, but as someone from a 'social housing' background, I feel very frustrated by the great divide. I've spent time with four and five-year-olds and it's remarkable how similar their abilities are, regardless of social class. By the age of seven, so much has changed. I think I must have been exceptionally lucky to have been born in Richmond-upon-Thames during the 1960s, where everyone I knew had a fighting chance of getting a better job than their parents.

Rog said...

Wouldn't it be a great marketing idea if you offered every one of your customers a giant 18" long Aero?
Britain seems as dragged back by class obsession as it ever was particularly now the Grammar and Technical school ladder out of the council estate has been removed. It also helped train me as a fast cyclist in my Grammar School uniform.
Sorry about the cat.

Steerforth said...

Yes I think we have gone backwards in some ways, but whereas the working class of two generations ago had a sense of pride, the non-working underclass of today are without hope, vilified by the Daily Mail and the Government.

Martin said...

Yes, it's a shame that so many kids are poisoned by parental aspiration rather nourished with inspiration. In the end, people are people no matter how much time and effort is spent on image-building and its expensive maintenance. Still, take heart Steerforth! Hanif Kureishi, JK Rowling and William Golding were all social housing tenants at one time. You may yet cross those invisible lines and discover someone with which you share some common ground.

Steerforth said...

Martin - I'll keep trying. One of the things I like about being abroad is that you can speak to a variety of people from all walks of life, without being hampered by the usual assumptions about what 'category' you belong to. It's liberating.

Séamas Poncán said...

Imagine if stream of consciousness writers had to say 'but I digress' whenever they did it would double the length I'm struggling through a Faulkner book right now and it is affecting me or is that effecting I never

Chris Matarazzo said...

Very sorry to hear about the cat, Steerforth. I have nothing clever or "healing" to say. I can only send the sincere regrets not only of someone who is fond of animals but(moreso), of a father. Such a shame.

Steerforth said...

Séamas - I think the result would be a Tobias Smollett novel, or perhaps Sterne. Good luck with the Faulkner!

Chris - Thanks for your kind thoughts. I know that in the great scheme of things, a dying kitten isn't the end of the world, but I'm frustrated because I was beginning to see a tangible improvement in my son's OCD. The cat relaxed him and broke the pattern of rituals that dominated his waking moments. It's a great pity.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I am so, so sorry to hear about your kitty. My daughter just lost one of her two corgis to a type of cancer. The remaining little dog is inconsolable at the moment, so she will probably have to get another dog to keep him company.

Regarding the state of books: I did see one very encouraging piece in the Seattle Times the other day. Apparently, library usage and requests for books are up at the local libraries. So some young people still like books. A trend which I hope continues.


Little Nell said...

Yes, the way people read is radically changing. Today I received a copy of 'The Poet's Tongue' (Auden), the original having been 'lost in the post'. It smelled musty, the way something printed in 1935 should. I am delighted; you don"t get that with a Kindle!

We were recently at Borough Market and also visited Southwark Cathedral. We stood at the back and just marvelled at the beauty of the voices as they sang choral evensong. I found it very moving.

Tororo said...

This entry made me, on so many levels, feel… first, it made me wish I were much more proficient in English, 'cause I'm at a loss for proper words for many things I would want to say.
About the future of bookselling: for the past 5 centuries, part of the income of people in the books business came from people who purchased books as vanity objects: what part? It's uneasy to figure out, but let's say… more than half, what do you think? This part started decreasing years ago, and it could become next to nothing in a near future. There still will be people interested in reading, but their reading and book-acquiring habits will continue evolving, to what extent, it's hard to tell.

And concerning the other two main topics in this post: welcoming a cat home when I was in my teen years undoubtedly improved my ability to interact with other living beings (no matter on how many legs they walk) more than any effort my parents could have put in advising me about this subject. My parents were loving, caring parents as much concerned with my well-being as any others, but if they were still around, their lack of interest in anything "social" would be considered abysmal (the way they were themselves brought up, in a vanished era, was so different from what's considered standard in the present time I wouldn't even know where to start if I had to explain). I feel vastly indebted to this little creature.

So I deeply feel for your family, and your cat.

Steerforth said...

Carol - It must be awful for the Corgi to lose its companion. At least we can understand the reasons for our loss, but the dog must feel afraid and disoriented. I hope a companion is found.

Re: library usage - it could be a good sign, or simply an indication that people can't afford to buy books in the same quantity. I don't know.

Nell - It's frustrating just how many packages I send to customers get lost in the post. I use tracking for the more expensive ones, particularly for certain countries, but if I did it for every parcel I wouldn't have a business.

I'm glad you liked the musty smell. I had an angry email from a woman in the USA who claimed that one of my books had given her an asthma attack!

Tororo - Thank you for your kind words about the cat and don't feel frustrated by your English, which is near-perfect (with better grammar than some English people I've met). I suppose the more you know about a language, the more aware you are of how elusive the subtle nuances are in a second tongue.

Regarding books, I think the vanity objects - the big, glossy photography and art books - will continue to be printed, but fiction will continue to migrate towards the digital format.

I'm not sure about non-fiction. I rarely read non-fiction titles from cover to cover, preferring to skip, go back, cross-reference and re-read. I find this very difficult to do on a Kindle.

Who knows what will happen? If I can make a living out of books for the next ten years, I'll be very lucky.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I need to make an addition, Steerforth: the article about library usage in Seattle was in particular reference to the young people in the area, which I found very encouraging.

My daughter is already planning to get another dog. First there was Holly, then Berry, for a pair known as Holly Berry.

Then there was Berry and Cad -- Cadbury for the pair.

Next there will be Otto and Cad -- for Otto Cad, like the draughting program for computers. She returns home tomorrow and will probably start the search for Otto next week.

Take care and God bless, xoxox

Kid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kid said...

Shame about poor kitty - I hope his passing, when it comes, is a peaceful and non-painful one. People who aren't animal lovers can't understand that when a pet passes, it's losing a member of the family. (I deliberately didn't say 'like losing', because, to me, it IS losing a family member.)

Your photos of London remind me of the views I used to see from the 26th floor of King's Reach Tower in Stamford Street, when I made weekly visits there in the mid-'80s. Must revisit the place one day.

zmkc said...

Surely if your blog post made anyone laugh, that is its point? And it made me laugh several times. But I'm so so sorry about the cat. That is absolutely totally bloody unfair. I suppose your son hates hugs, otherwise I'd ask you to give him a hug from me (anyway that's probably a weird dangerous thing to even suggest these days - I completely take it back [how I hate this horrible modern world {and cat peritonitis}])

Steerforth said...

Kid - I quite agree. A pet does become a member of the family. Our kitten wants to be us (and on us) all the time. I hope he'll last for a few months. He's responded well to an antibiotic course and has perked up a bit, so who know?

Zoe - Yes, there's probably a law against cyber-hugging children. It's a great shame that a climate of paranoia has made so many adults terrified of being nice to children. I smiled at a young girl today because she was looking at me, then felt as if I'd done something wrong.

I realise that we have to be protected from the Uncle Colins of this world, but the pendulum has swung too far.

Thanks for your kind thoughts and I glad the post raised a smile. You're quite right - that's its main point.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

It's not 'just a cat' but an esteemed member of your family. Everyone is entitled to feel sad at the prospect of losing poor puss.

Never thought about party apartheid before. All children's parties had terrible food when I was little.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Laura. Today is his last day. He's too ill to go on. Poor little chap.