Monday, October 28, 2013

Beaton and the Baroness

Yesterday, during a stormy afternoon, I came across an illustrated 1939 autobiography called 'My Royal Past', by Baroness Von Bülop:

It didn't look terribly inspiring, but then I noticed that the Baroness had collaborated with Cecil Beaton and my curiosity was aroused. Somehow I couldn't imagine him willingly writing a hagiography of a minor European royal, so what had prompted him to act as her amanuensis?

More to the point, who on earth was Baroness Von Bülop?

Born in an obscure German principality, Baroness Von Bülop seems to have been well-connected and appears in many group portraits of the leading aristocrats of fin de siècle Europe. If there was a coronation, royal wedding or christening, she was there:

But although Von Bülop was a great socialite, she was perhaps happiest when alone with her easel:

"Sir Edward Landseer was keenly interested in one of my early aquarelles and deemed it full of promise."

In 'My Royal Past', the Baroness comes across as a woman of strong passions, capable of acts of great generosity, but also quick to anger:

"Yesterday I had a particularly friendly word for the stable-boy. Later, he was emboldened enough to chase one of the housemaids. I had him dismissed on the spot."

On a less enlightened note, it has to be said that Von Bülop was no looker:

At this point, I began to smell a rat and as I flicked through the pages of photographs of duchesses and dowager princesses, my doubts grew:

The next photograph, featuring a character called 'Duckie', confirmed my suspicions:

Needless to say, the women are actually men - Beaton's friends in drag.

'My Royal Past' is a shameless parody of the self-serving autobiographies of aristocrats and minor royals that littered the bookshelves of 1930s Britain. Once I began to read the text, I saw the joke:

"I reflected, not without venom, that my aunt did not seem to trouble about me or my welfare when I was less useful to her. Our confidential intercourse was practically over, and I noticed to my annoyance that she had struck up a close friendship with the Baroness Cissi Baptist-Aggisberg, a lady whom I am told came from the Island of Lesbos."

As for Baroness Von Bülop, she was actually a Chilean playboy and opium addict called Antonio de Gandarillas, known to his friends as 'Tony':

Beaton's book appears to have been largely forgotten, which is a pity because it is a very amusing satire. I have enjoyed reading about Von Bülop's childhood in Pottersfelden Castle and her English governess, Alice Blood-ffoulkes, who taught the young Baroness the poems of Sir John Suckling.

I found myself nodding in agreement when the Baroness decried the 'dread age of jazz, which I so abominate':

"In (my day) it was considered a disgrace if the son of a prominent family took to lucrative employment. Nowadays, everybody works, even the least deep thinkers. People hobnob with parvenues and live in restaurants and hotels. So much has been lost with the passing of the carriage."

Sitting in her 'den' at Klosterhoven, the Baroness laments the passing of time:

Revolution has claimed both her loved ones and wealth, but at least the Baroness still has her fine collection of photographs and sketches:

Sadly, in a chapter entitled 'I Eat Humble Pie', the Baroness falls on hard times and endures the stigma of penury. However, a chance encounter in a 'night-club' with a young Englishman called Cecil Beaton changes her fortunes. He agrees to help Von Bülop write her memoirs and also finds a room in a convent, after hearing of her exploits in a sailors' hostel:

"The Mother Superior here is very kind and the restictions are not great. I am allowed out during the day and as long as I return by six o'clock no one asks questions. There are few things that cannot be fitted in before sundown. Paris is still its same naughty old self, and so am I."

I wonder if the young Barry Humphries ever read this book. There are more than a few shades of Dame Edna in Beaton's creation.

The appeal of Beaton's books is that he manages to combine his gifts as a photographer, writer and artist to produce something that is remarkably quirky and subversive for its time. Some of his cut and paste photographs, with people added to group portraits or superimposed on unlikely backgrounds, rival today's Photoshop efforts.

Cecil Beaton seems so inextricably linked with the age of the 'bright young things', it is easy to forget that he had a successful postwar career and was a mentor to photographers like David Bailey.

He also lived long enough to witness the Sex Pistols use his portrait of the Queen for the cover of their 'Never Mind the Bollocks' album, employing the same cut and paste technique as the young Beaton. I wonder what he thought.

One other piece of Beaton trivia is that he was bullied at school by Evelyn Waugh:

"The tears on his long lashes used to provoke the sadism of youth and my cronies and I tormented him…Our persecution went no further than sticking pins into him and we were soundly beaten for doing so."

Over 40 years later, in what must have been an odd encounter, Beaton took Waugh's portrait:

I can't say I'm surprised to read that Waugh Minor bullied the young Cecil Beaton. He was like that. But I'd like to think that if he ever encountered Baroness Von Bülop, he would have met his match.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The End Times

On Monday, my best supplier phoned to tell me that they were closing down and that this was my last chance to get some books. I was shocked. It had seemed such a well-run business, with hard-working, motivated staff.

What had gone wrong?

I didn't have time to book a van, so I decided to spend a day there sorting through the stock and bring the best books back in the car.

When I arrived, the following day, the staff seemed philosophical about the closure. Someone told me that the sales had been declining steadily for quite a while and the business had reached a point where it was no longer making any money. They'd been given the bad news last Friday, with one week's notice.

My prediction about the penny book market was right, including its effect on my business. I wonder when my turn will come?

But if the Lewes branch of W.H.Smith's is to be believed, some people are still buying books:

I wonder how many people actually read the celebrity biographies they've been given for Christmas. The paperback sales for older titles would suggest that the vast majority of these books are unread.

For example, in November and December 2000, my bookshop sold around 400 copies of this:

It was one of the bestselling books of the season. The following year it came out in paperback and everyone expected it to be a popular holiday reading title.

We sold six copies.

During my last day at the supplier, I saw thousand of celebrity biographies in a huge waste container. At some point they will be pulped and turned into something useful.

I must have sorted through 2,000 books yesterday and arrived home with just 350. I was covered in dust and the remnants of rusty water from when I tripped and fell in a waterlogged skip. I went to the loo to wash my hands and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

I looked feral, in a vaguely post-apocalyptic way.

At home I had a bath and changed into my Lewes gentleman's clothes to attend the screening of a documentary on fracking. I'm ashamed to say that I knew very little about the subject until last night and only went to support a friend who had organised the evening. I'm very glad I went.

Here's the trailer:

Our friend was nervous about the event. She'd arranged for the director, Josh Fox, to present the film and answer questions afterwards. A few days earlier he'd been doing the same thing in Los Angeles. How would he feel talking to a dozen people in Lewes?

We arrived expecting a half-empty hall. Instead, we found this:

It looks a little like a neo-Nazi rally or an over-enthusiastic question and answer session, but they were just holding their hands up for a photo-shoot, which Josh Fox later tweeted. There were around 400 people, some of whom were veterans from the recent protest at Balcombe.

The documentary was an eye-opener. Until last night, all I knew about fracking was that it involved pumping water into the ground and fracturing rocks - a process that might cause minor earthquakes. I had no idea that the water that was being pumped included carcinogenic chemicals and elements that include benzene, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, mercury, lead and uranium.

Even allowing for the director's bias, the scientific evidence seemed overwhelming. If we permit fracking in the United Kingdom, there is a very real danger that our water supplies will become contaminated as they have been in parts of the USA.

Before the film began, several people spoke passionately about fracking. I was most impressed by a very ordinary-looking man who said that he'd come all the way from Blackpool to warn us not to believe the hydraulic fracturing companies:

"They said they'd be able to pump the contaminated water back up and take it to the one treatment plant in the UK that deals with water like this. But the plant couldn't cope with such a quanity at that level of pollution. They were overwhelmed. In the end, they had to quietly dump some of it in the Manchster Ship Canal."

I thought of a BBC News clip that show children swimming in the canal, earlier in the year.

I'm not a scientist, but even my rudimentary grasp of the subject tells me that if you pump polluted water down into the earth and fracture rocks, those fractures will create fissures. Gravity will pull the water down into these cracks,at which point we no longer have any control over where it goes.

Of course, we can't prove that any future fracking activity in Balcombe will have an impact on the local water table. But as one person in the audience pointed out, the burden of proof lies with the energy companies to prove that fracking is safe, not for the protesters to prove that it's dangerous.

I will keep reading around the subject - I want to hear as many opposing arguments as possible.

In the interests of balance, here's a film from Chevron.

Has that reassured you?

I will not be buying a 'Frack Off!' t-shirt - I think that pun alienates as many people as it amuses. But unless the energy companies and pro-fracking lobby manage to put forward a convincing case, I will be joining the protest.

It has been a day a grim forebodings. A bookless future, drinking poisoned water out of methane-leaking taps. It sounds like a Kevin Kostner film.

I think it's time to watch another DVD boxed set.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Ladybird Book of Progress

These fields are on the edge of a new town. The town is growing and people want more homes to live in.

The children who play in these fields will be able to have a proper playground, with clean concrete, instead of mud and grass.

This man is called a town planner. He must design homes that are cheap to build and do not take up too much space.

The man has designed many new buildings for this town. 

He lives in an very old house in another town.

The fields are dug up and an old church from long ago is demolished.

The ground is then flattened so that there will be space for a car park and a row of coffee shops.

To make sure that the ground is hard and the grass cannot grow back, the builders use concrete.

When the concrete is dry, they can begin to make the new homes.

This man is not very good at making walls because he has never done it before. A house with walls like this might fall down.

The man told his foreman that he had built walls in the Slovak Republic, but he was not telling the truth.

Brian is about to hit his hand with a hammer. He will then say that he has had an accident at work.

People who have accidents when they are at work can go home. They can also ask for money.

This is called compensation.

This is Charles. He used to be an investment banker, but had a nervous breakdown. This happens when people are very worried and unhappy.

Charles' wife would like him to be a banker again.

This is Nigel. He has been told that he is not allowed to go near children.

British workers must follow very strict safety rules, but these men are from a country called the Ukraine.

If they have an accident, they will not ask for compensation.

This block of flats will house around one hundred families.

They will also make good homes for old people, as they will not have to worry about looking after a garden.

These flats will be clean and modern. The people who live here will have a lovely view of the town.

Would you like to live in the sky?

There are also new houses. They will be much nicer than the cold, damp homes that were built in olden times.

Instead of dull, plain bricks, the walls will be covered in pretty, tiny stones, called pebbledash.

As the town grows, it will need extra electricity.

This new power station will give people the energy they need and also make new jobs.

The town is big, but it can get even bigger, as there is a lot of countryside.

To-day, many homes are old and draughty. One day, perhaps we will all be lucky enough to live in a bright, clean new town like this one.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Back to Waterstones

Yesterday I returned to Waterstones in Piccadilly for the first time in years. The last time I was there, it was to attend a tedious and morally repugnant training course on a thing called IPI, which stood for Individual Performance Improvement. It was a euphemism for 'managing people out of the business' or, more bluntly, getting rid of people without having to pay them any redundancy money.

The word 'sacking' was a complete taboo, naturally.

I found the terminology of Waterstones rather depressing: resource for staff, learnings for lessons, handselling for talking to customers and, worst of all, product for books. In the end, I managed myself out of Waterstones before anyone had the chance to subject me to the full horrors of IPI.

Today, Waterstones is a different place. The company is now back in the hands of real booksellers and the shops look better than ever, with a vastly-improved range and presentation that recalls the good old days of Waterstone's, minus the mess.

I'd travelled to Piccadilly to meet a friend and as it was a little early for the pub, we decided to have tea in the restaurant on the 5th floor.

The view from the restaurant was impressive and the atmosphere was very relaxed compared to the  tourist-clogged streets of the West End, but I was slightly put off by an irritating tannoy that kept shouting in a shrill, insect-like voice. What was the point of it?

Then I noticed that it wasn't a tannoy. Sitting at a table by the window, a large woman in her late 50s, with long hair and a tweed poncho, was watching a video on her laptop. She must have turned up the sound to compensate for the noise of people's conversation and the clanging of plates in the kitchen.

People started to look at the woman and at one point I thought a waitress was going to speak to her. But in true London fashion, everyone pretended it wasn't happening. When I decided to take the law into my own hands, she seemed genuinely surprised.

Has it now become socially acceptable to play videos in public places?

As we left the restuarant and reached the top of the staircase, I remembered that this used to be one of the suicide hotspots of London. The winning combination of alarmingly low bannisters and an unhindered 100-foot descent to a solid marble floor exerted a fatal attraction for some and we became used to the emails that read "Waterstones Piccadilly will be closed for the rest of the day."

I was relieved to see that the new management had added perspex screens above the bannisters.

Like me, my friend used to manage bookshops for Ottakar's. She left 12 years ago and now had a successful career in academic publishing, but missed the fun and camaraderie of bookselling. I agreed, but said that we were lucky to have left when we did.

James Daunt's Waterstones seems a much better place than the bad old days of HMV, but the shops feel like the last days of the Byzantine Empire.

Managing Director James Daunt has tried to keep one step ahead of the decline in high street sales by focusing on making Waterstones more profitable. Loss-making stores have been closed, superfluous senior managers have been culled and the expensive head office in Brentford was closed (the slimmed-down management team now work in Waterstones Piccadilly).

But perhaps Daunt's most radical move took place earlier this year, when every manager and assistant manager was asked to reapply for their job. The aim was to reduce the payroll costs (I would guess by something in the region of £4,000,000) and ensure that the remaining managers were proper booksellers.

Sadly, the plan backfired somewhat, as some of the best managers in the company decided to jump ship rather than go through the consulation process. Out of 487 managers, around 200 left.

I met some ex-Waterstones managers at a party last week and the general view was that they felt that it made more sense to take the money and run (there was a relatively attractive redundancy package). I asked why, as I'm sure they would have kept their jobs. Their answer was simple: they felt that there was no future in bookselling.

Several years of declining sales, watching customers use their shops as a showroom for smartphone purchases from Amazon, had convinced these managers that the writing was on the wall. It was time to leave the sinking ship.

But was Waterstones a sinking ship?

In a recent interview, James Daunt asserted that Waterstones would be back in profit within two years. It seemed a grandiose claim, but W H Smith has surprised everyone by producing ever-improving profits in the face of declining sales, thanks to some very astute financial controls.

If Daunt can follow suit, reducing the costs of the business at a level that outpaces the decline in sales, then the chain could survive for years. But if I was a manager in my 30s, I wouldn't take that gamble.

By the time my friend and I left it was dark. We walked in the rain, avoiding the groups of shuffling tourists, until we found a reasonably enticing pub. As we sat drinking our pints of Guinness, we reminisced about the days when we'd go to launch parties, stagger home, sleep for four hours and then go to work.

We were usually indefatigable, although there was one occasion when my staff found me asleep on the office floor after a particularly generous publisher invited us to a cocktail bar.

At the time it was great fun (although my liver probably wouldn't agree) and it never occured to any of us that this world would come to an end. Every year, Ottakar's opened new branches and I assumed that this process of expansion would continue for many years to come.

When I opened my most recent shop, I had no idea that it would be one of the last new bookshops in the UK.

Of course, there are still bookshops, launch parties and author signings, but it is taking place against a backdrop of a relentless decline in year on year sales. Every year, Byzantium gets at little smaller and the Ottoman Empire gets a little larger. Soon, the enemy will be at the gates.

I wonder where it will all end. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Certainty of Chance

Suddenly, people are buying books again. I've no idea what invisible forces made my sales dramatically slump three weeks ago, only to make a spectacular recovery last week. There doesn't seem to be any pattern to it, apart from the slight boost that always occurs around paydays.

Sometimes I feel like a cork, bobbing around in a vast occean, pushed and pulled by competing currents and air masses.

The constantly changing fortunes of self-employment remind me of the introductions to each chapter in a Tobias Smollett novel:

* I journey to London, where I shall establish myself as a merchant of some import
* On a lonely road I am assailed by vagabonds
* I am left ragged and destitute
* I meet a gentleman of some distinction, who is searching for his long-lost son
* During a tempest we retreat to an inn and I relate the tale of my antecdents
* The gentleman becomes animated
* I learn that this benevolent stranger is none other than my father
* I am the heir to a vast fortune

Or something along those lines. These days, we could accuse Smollett of 'spoilers', but somehow they add to the absurd charm of his picaresque tales.

But it isn't just self-employment that has proved to be unpredictable. A few months ago, my older son suddenly announced that he wanted to go back to school. A year and a half of home education had left him feeling isolated and his social contact was largely limited to online, multi-player games.

These games were not a success. My son regularly chastised American teenagers for making homophobic remarks, which didn't win him many friends, while they wondered who the weird kid with the squeaky voice was. Why wasn't he at school?

The prospect of getting my son back into full-time education seemed too good to be true. But there was a catch. He was determined to go to a Steiner school that he'd heard about from one of his online 'friends'. If he went, I would have to find £2,100 per term and spend the next three years driving him to the school, which was eight miles away.

Naturally, I put any objections  to one side (including some reservations about how I could earn the extra £6,300 if I was spending two hours a day driving to and from the school). A few people warned me about some of the more eccentric aspects of Steiner education, but could I really deny my son this opportunity just because Rudolph Steiner believed in gnomes?

I was completely focused on getting my son out of the house again, socialising with his peers, gnomes or not.

But as the term drew nearer, I began to worry about the practicalities. How could I make a three-year-long financial committment when book sales were so unpredictable? Also, was I falling into the trap of thinking that I had found a solution to my son's problems?

In the face of growing pressure, I did what any sensible person would do and started watching boxed DVD sets of 1970s drama serials.

I began with this:

Described by the New York Times as "the best spy series in television history", 'The Sandbaggers' was made by Yorkshire Television between 1978 to 1980 and looks incredibly low-budget from a modern perspective. In an inversion of the 'Show, don't tell' rule of good fiction, most of the tension in the episodes is derived from people picking up phones in offices and describing events that are never seen:

"Cartwight's just called in. The No.2 at the Budapest station has just been seen handing flowers to a woman who's linked to Vedernikov."

When the cast do venture out of the office to either rescue a stranded agent or bump off an errant SIS employee, the location filming shows how remarkably versatile Yorkshire is at replicating grim, Warsaw Pact suburbs, Cypriot forests or Arctic wastelands.

It would be impossible to get away with a drama series that was almost entirely studio-bound unless the writing was top-notch. Fortunately, the series' creator, Ian Mackintosh, was more than equal to the task and with a first-rate cast headed by Roy Marsden, the result is a triumph.

It has been suggested that Ian Mackintosh's remarkable evocation of life inside the Secret Intellignece Service could only have been written by someone who was intimately acquainted with MI6. Indeed, one episode was hastily withdrawn after it was deemed to be too close to the truth. Mackintosh refused to be drawn either way when questioned about his sources.

There were three series of 'The Sandbaggers'. A planned fourth series never saw the light of day, as Ian Mackintosh mysteriously disappeared in a light aircraft while flying over Alaska. The plane's last position was some distance from the planned route and no wreckage was ever found.

Here's a brief clip from the end of the first episode:

I really enjoy ploughing through a boxed set, but would I be able to afford such luxuries once my son was at his new school?

Then suddenly, without any warning, my son announced that he'd changed his mind and now wanted to go to a normal state school. I questioned his decision and was given a remarkably coherent and well-argued list of reasons. The following day I asked my son again and he seemed even more certain.

I'm not quite putting out the flags, but I do feel a huge relief that I don't have to try and sell an extra £6,000 worth of books in what's proving to be a rather precarious market.

In the meantime, I have several boxes of books to work through, so I'll stop this rambling post and start earning some money.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Talk To the Organ Grinder

This is from 'An Indiscreet Guide to Soho', by Stanley Jackson:

'How typical of Soho is the story of the organ-grinder who was "playing" that piece from (Mascagni's) "Cavalleria Rusticana" in Dean Street, when he was stopped by an old man in a shiny black overcoat.

"Too fast," he said excitedly. "Much too fast!" He seized the handle and began turning it slowly with one hand while he conducted an invisible orchestra with the other. Having finished the piece he dropped sixpence on the organ lid and was about to depart when the organist stopped him.

"How do I know you are right?" he demanded. "I've been playing like that for three solid months. "

The man black drew himself up proudly. "Nobody can tell me how that should be played," he declared. "I am Mascagni."

The following day the piece was played to a slower tempo and, chalked on the side of the barrel organ, was the simple legend, "Pupil of Mascagni."'

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Now and Then

This afternoon, while filling in a form, my wife asked me what my occupation was. I thought of all of the different options before reluctantly answering "Bookseller. But I'm not really a bookseller, am I?"

Even after 25 years, I still resist being defined by my occupation. It would be different if I was a composer, writer or artist - I could say any of those with pride. But bookselling is something you do when you don't know what you want to do.

In the past, the job had its compensations. I got to read new novels months before they were published. I met novelists, actors, artists, gangsters and models, enjoying the demimonde of London without having to buy a single drink. I also worked with some lovely people.

However, today my working life is mainly one of drudgery. I buy books in bulk, knowing that most of them are worthless, hoping that the few that are of value will keep the wolves from the door for another month or two. So far I've kept going, but the sales have been rather patchy recently.

My book sales used to be fairly predictable. I knew that I would sell x number of books per thousand on sale, and that 60% of the orders would be from within the UK.

However, that's all changed. For some reason, the ratio of domestic to foreign orders has reversed and on some days, I sell more books to Amazon Germany than its UK branch. I thought I was doing something wrong, but when I spoke to a friend who sells ties on eBay, she said that she'd had an awful summer.

It looks as if people in Britain have stopped buying things they don't need. I'm in trouble.

As a result, I've neglected blogging and days out, so that I can knuckle down and increase my sales inventory to compensate for the downturn in sales. I've been taking so many boxes of books to and from home, that several neighbours have assumed that we're moving. It's been hard work, but I have come across some interesting books.

This dustjacket is somewhere between the salacious covers of 1950s Pan paperbacks and the Fleming/Deighton adaptations of the early 60s. The Lady Chatterly trial is over and suddenly, everyone appears to be sex mad.

      "I just need to measure the light by pressing this against your chest"

This is from a 1960s book on taking portraits. The 'glamour' element is creeping in, but there are also some interesting pictures that don't feature tasteful nudity:

This is a great photograph, with echoes of Yousuf Karsh. Sadly the book is worthless, so I ripped out the plates before I threw it away.

I've no idea what this man is doing. He seems very respectable, but perhaps he is distilling the LSD that will destroy the social fabric of Great Britain, paving the way for sitar music and kaftans. I've no idea.

This is Jack de Manio - a name that will probably mean nothing to most people, unless you're British and were born before the 1960s.

The name sounds vaguely like a New York boxer or gangster, but he was every inch the English gentleman:

De Manio was one of the original presenters of Radio Four's Today and when his laid-back, clubable persona didn't fit with the more earnest, news-oriented direction the programme took in 1970, he resigned. He was almost sacked in 1956 for carelessly announcing a programme called Land of the Niger as Land of the Nigger.

De Manio's autobiography, Life Begins Too Early, is a very entertaining account of his bizarre childhood, when he had to compete with a monkey for his mother's affections. There are also some amusing accounts of his wartime experiences, during which he was both awarded the Military Cross and dismissed after a Court Martial. It's only a penny on Amazon, so you have nothing to lose.

I barely remember the 1960s, but these creatures made a very strong impression on me:

I still remember the terror I felt when I saw a Dalek in Arding and Hobbs - a department store at Clapham Junction. It moved, waving its sink plunger menacingly. I had no idea that a small child had climbed inside and put a shilling in the slot for a one-minute ride.

Finally, if you were born in Britain during the 1960s, you may remember this:

This is from a BBC schools educational series called Look and Read. The programmes lasted for about 15 minutes and were divided up into three segments. The first and last segments contained a filmed drama series, but the middle contained a tedious section that introduced children to words like tug, wharf and mob.

The fourth chapter, called 'The Big Job', asks children to "Draw a crate and write on it a mark which makes another mark when it is upside down."

I never liked 'Len and the River Mob'.The social realism always depressed me. 'The Boy From Space' was more my cup of tea, and it was in colour.

I shall keep the momentum going on the book-logging front, so I hope that I'll have some more interesting titles for a future post. In the meantime, here is a wonderful author photo from an earlier period: