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.


Kid said...

Hope that book sales pick up for you, wouldn't like to see you have to abandon your dream. The fracking thing is a tough one, isn't it? Like you until recently, I also know nothing about the pros and cons, but I do know about cause and effect. Companies in pursuit of a buck today, aren't usually concerned about how their actions might affect tomorrow.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Kid. I agree - as long as corporations are given a free hand, none of us are safe. I found the Chevron video particularly nauseating.

Nota Bene said...

Which is your bookshop in Lewes? We've spent many an hour poking round bookshops there. I hope it isn't the one where I was with The Boy, and said to him, "Ask the man if they have that book". The lady said NO they didn't.

Debra said...

Steerforth, if my memory serves me well, you live in a country without nuclear reactors...
I live in a country with mucho nuclear reactors, the one that put nuclear reactors on the map, and...
Nuclear reactors don't reassure me any more than fracking does, despite the fact that I know a couple who live facing a reactor, and they blithely say that they are not afraid of it at all. It is no more dangerous than...
well, you take your pick, there.
We have been messing with Mother Nature for too long already, now.
When I think about it, I'm not sure whether I'd rather die in agony from tetanus, or... from the poisonous effects of nuclear radiation/fracking.
(When my son was little, he would ask us questions like "what would you rather ? drink a bucket of snot, or have 50 ducks follow you around all day ?" Strange, huh ? I still haven't figured it out, yet, but so far he remains reassuringly normal, but not too much so.)
Did you look up the Hrabal book, about the guy who pulps books ? You would really enjoy it, I think. I wrote you about it in an earlier comment.
Celebrity (auto)biographies look like deep shit...
Don't worry about looking feral after working at saving some priceless treasures for the Helen Hanff person who still loves books...
That's what I call heroic. We still need heroes.

Rog said...

Intuitively pumping water and stuff deep into the earth and expecting it to remain controlled and safe does appear rashly over-optimistic.

Nuclear reactors seem a safer bet than fracking or relying on buying gas from Russia.

I do hope somebody sorts our Nuclear Fusion soon and we can all relax about it. Wave power and linear motors... in fact the answer has just occurred to me....


Steerforth said...

Nota Bene - I can think of more than one shop where the staff are of an indeterminate gender, so you have my sympathies.

I don't run a bookshop. I used to manage shops for Ottakar's and Waterstone's, but when the latter became too corporate I walked out (literally, without any warning) and after a year in the wilderness, got a job selling secondhand books on the internet. Two years ago I decided to become self-employed and now run a bookselling internet business from a cow shed in the middle of nowhere.

I can't say I'd be in a hurry to run a shop again.

Debra - On the contrary, Britain was the first country in the world to have a commercial nuclear power station and there are still many in operation. I've always been anti-nuclear because of the waste problem, but I've come to agree with James Lovelock that in the short term, it's the best option - far less damaging to the environment than burning coal or fracking.

Obviously there are caveats. Don't build them in earthquake or tsunami zones. Don't let companies get away with pumping waste into the sea (as has been done in Normandy) and don't award the contract to the lowest bidder.

Yes, I looked up Hrabal's book Too Loud a Solitude and will be ordering it, so thanks for the recommendation.

Rog - My main reservation about Tomorrow's World was that they were continually introducing new inventions that would change our lives forever, then we never saw them again! I thought that by now I'd be living on a moonbase with women in glittery catsuits, not fixing a cupboard door and scrubbing the fireplace, as I was doing earlier this evening.

I agree that depending on Russia for our gas is madness. Apparently we had 100 years' worth of North Sea gas, but Mrs Thatcher decided to use it for electricity generation to break the miners' power.

Wind turbines are a nice idea, but they ruin the landscape and don't generate very much power. Solar technology is improving and I look forward to the time when all roof tiles are photovaltaic. But fusion is the answer. Let's hope that a breakthrough is made before too long.

I'm a little worried that several nuclear power stations are about to be decommissioned without any replacements in the pipeline.

Canadian Chickadee said...

How right you are! Boxed DVD set time indeed. We have been re-watching Simon Schama's History of Britain -- all umpteen hours of it. We did see it on TV some years ago, but with commercials, so it's nice to see it the way Schama intended it to be seen.

Fracking is a very big bone of contention in the USA. I don't know who will finally win out, but it probably won't be the lowly citizens or taxpayers. And I certainly haven't seen any decreases in the profits margins for the big oil companies!

Just another thing for us to worry about. As if there wasn't enough already! And on that gloomy note, I will close.

Take care and God bless, xoxo Carol

Steerforth said...

Carol - I have the boxed set of West Wing, which has been sitting in my cupboard for over a year - if I start that it should see me through to the spring.

I expect you're right about the oil companies.

Rechelle said...

I started to comment three different times yesterday but the subject of fracking is very present in my work and where I live and so alarming to me that I erased every attempt at commenting and tried to go back to burying my head in the sand-
I'm not sure why I interrupted my morning tea to think about it again but I know I have to watch the documentary-
if someone is brave enough to film it then we owe him the courtesy of listening-

Steerforth said...

Rechelle - It's worth watching. We all agreed that the film was half an hour too long (perhaps the seats in the town hall didn't help), but it was very persuasive. My test for any documentary is to ask myself how I'd feel if only 25% of the evidence was accurate. On that basis, I still found Gasland 2 compelling.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

If my roof faced the right way and I didn't live in a conservation area, I would love to have PV cells on it. In the 1980s, I visited a PV factory in France (my company made the polymer silver paste for screen-printing the contacts on the cells). It was fascinating and expensive back then. Of course nowadays they make them very cheaply in China - isn't everything? Enjoy the West Wing!

Steerforth said...

Annabel - I must admit, I'm fascinated by the subject of power generation. Partly because I've read too many post-apocalyptic novels, but also because I'm concerned by the lack of foresight shown by successive governments. I'd love to be in a situation where I could be largely off-grid. I really admire those people who have designed eco-homes that are so well-insulated, they end up generating more power than they consume.

Séamas Poncán said...

Don't fall for it...if you search for 'debunking anti-fracking' you'll find lots and lots of people pointing out the absurdity of the anti-fracking movies/movement. Here's one site that seems good:

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the link Séamas - I want to read a variety of opinions before I make my mind up, so this is very welcome.

Anonymous said...

Fracking alarms me, especially when you consider that the filtering by Sussex's chalk gives Sussex some of the best quality (albeit hard) water in England.

We desperately need to get away from using oil. Here in NZ there are proposals for the kind of deep sea drilling that caused the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Alarming.

I see some major advances in energy efficiency happening, though, so perhaps we are not doomed.

Nuclear waste is 'well dodgy' of course but there are nuclear alternatives such as Thorium that look promising if they can solve some big engineering problems.

Steerforth said...

Rob - I've now read several pro-fracking arguments which have debunked some of the more extreme anti-fracking claims, but I've still come out against it because they haven't fully addressed the scientific problems. Why did the water treatment plant in Lancashire end up having to dump toxic water in the canal? How can companies guarantee zero contamination, given the nature of the process? Is the percentage of cracked well casings acceptable?

Also, I don't want another inch of Sussex countryside given over to any form of development.

Nuclear has a good safety record in this country, but the issue of waste is a real worry. Thorium sounds promising.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I hope you find a new supplier very soon. Lx

Steerforth said...

Thanks. So do I.