Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Day in the Life of Derek

Many thanks to the excellent Dabbler for giving a second outing to the wonderful Derek diaries. With his Pooteresque prose and disarmingly moving narrative, Derek has posthumously acquired the readership he yearned for and deserved.

I thought I'd come to the end of my Derek extracts, but during a tidy-up I found a loose page that contained this entry from Saturday, 8th March 1986. The typos are Derek's:

"An excellent day at home. At its start I decided to identify the various things I did throught the day, together with the times. It has been an interesting experiment. It runs: -

6.30 Rise; put dirty dishes in soak; dress

645--7.15 Read scriptures--Leviticus--; prayed

7.15-8.5 Clean out stove; saw and chop wood; commune with Brenda about prescriptions.

8.10 Family Prayers.

8.20-9.25 Cut Richard's finger and toenails; bath and shave him. Shave and wash self. Prepare breakfast for the two of us; cheese on toast. 

9.30-10.20 Prune hydrangeas and roses. Go over flower border in front garden.

10.30-11.5 Take Richard out shopping so he can get a card and book for Mother's Day. Stop on way back to say "Hello" to Eric the Barber; He shows Richard his new eye. Richard kisses him.

11.5-12.30 Tie up fruit bushes; dig over onion and bean plots.

12.30-1.30 Watch wrestling on television with Richard--Big Daddy wins again--; eat dinner: jacket potato, scrambled egg with cheese, baked beans, followed by stewed fruit and custard.

1.30-2.45 Check sewer system. Invent device for removing half a brick from main channel--12 feet down--; put tools away;  brush down path.

2.45-3.15 Play with Richard's computer. Still struggling to understand it.

3.15-5.0 - Fall asleep over book in library. Back ache from gardening. 

5.00-5.15 - Search DIY magazines for plan to make simple bookcase. Phone Mr Nisbet for information concerning his Modular system for building shelves. 

5.20-7.0 Watch the Muppet Show on television. Have tea: crusty bread with fish and beef paste, home-made scones with butter, and apple juice.

And here I am now, just after family prayers, typing in the events of the day. It has been good."

A good day for Derek and a positive note on which to end the year.

Best wishes for 2014.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"In Full Pursuit of the Uneatable" - Boxing Day Morning in Lewes

This morning I walked into town and saw a side of Lewes that was very different from its 'Islington-on-the-Downs' image:

The 'meet' took place outside the White Hart Hotel, where Thomas Paine once used to attend meetings of the Headstrong Club.

On the balcony, a man with a faulty megaphone made a barely audible speech that seemed to go "Maaah the msssss, here a waaahh hmmm wehhhhwer...Royal family...Ennnaahhh tolllpum mahhh our country...mahhhh in forhhhh bin ohhhhh...Rule Britannia!" The crowd applauded the final words, but there was a ripple of embarrassment.

The horn sounded and a procession of hunters, horses and hounds rode off, ostensibly in pursuit, but perhaps, also in flight from the 21st century. Olde England. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.

Once the last rider had passed, I walked past Lewes Castle and returned to my hovel.

NB - The title of this post comes from Oscar Wilde's quote about foxhunting: "The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable"; but I've been assurred that since the law was changed, the riders now merely follow a fox-scented trail.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Homing Instinct

I went back to Twickenham on Sunday and, for the first time since moving to Lewes, felt a slight pang of homesickness. I love living in Sussex, but it feels as if I'm on an extended holiday.

Twickenham and Teddington, where I spent the first three quarters of my life, is still home.

I began my visit by walking down Church Street. I wanted to see if the bookshop I used to manage was still there. It was, but only just.

In the 1960s and 70s, it was a thriving business; the largest for miles around. As a child, I always bought my Enid Blyton books in Langton's, all of which featured children with names like Peter, Janet, Colin, Anne, Dick, Susan and Ernest. The books seemed wonderful at the time, but reading them to my son, a few years ago, I quickly lost the will to live.

Later, as an awkward teenager, I purchased Pelicans with impressive-sounding titles like 'Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom' (I don't think I ever read it, but the mere act of buying the book made me feel terribly grown-up).

Sadly, in the 1980s, the owner decided to sell the business and the  shop entered a period of decline that seemed almost as long and drawn-out as the Byzantine Empire's.

Langton's was bought by a couple who wanted to run it as a retirement hobby. They both looked bookish - tweed skirts and bow ties - but the husband was a complete philistine who huffed and puffed around the shop floor, expressing his disapproval of certain books.

Holding a copy of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde in his hand, he once said "Do we have to stock books by homosexuals?"

But the Major's posturing was all hot air; his wife was very firmly in charge. She was a highly educated woman who quickly learned the rudiments of bookselling and maintained a decent stockholding. Unfortunately, she was also a very abrassive character, whose loud Lady Bracknell voice and hectoring manner alienated as many as it amused.

The second nail in Langton's coffin was the appearance of a large branch of Waterstone's in Richmond, only a mile up the road. As well as losing sales, the owners also lost two members of staff, who couldn't wait to jump ship to a workplace where they wouldn't be treated like naughty children.

In the face of growing competition and the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, the owners decided to retire for a second time. The business was put up for sale.

A week or so after Langton's new owner had taken over, I decided to visit the shop. The moment I walked in, the atmosphere was completely different. Van Morrison was playing in the background and sitting behind the till, a balding, middle-aged man, with a long, grey ponytail, was chatting to a young woman.

I bought a copy of 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'. Five minutes later, I was sitting in a pub across the road with the ponytailed owner, who offered me a job running the shop. "The thing is," he exlained in a soft Ulster accent, "I've got three other shops, so I need someone who can manage things here. How much are you being paid at Waterstone's?"

Like a fool, I told the truth. He offered an extra £500.

It all looked promising enough. I would be managing three people and have complete control of the stock. I was also given the impression that there were more shops in the pipeline and that I had joined the next Waterstone's. I could hardly believe my luck.

I spent several weeks decorating the tired-looking interior and improving the depleted range of titles. I felt that I was restoring the shop back to its former glory and was confident that the sales would begin to rise. Sadly, after only a month, it was clear that something was not quite right.

My new boss was a charming, likeable man, but he was also maddeningly mercurial and disorganised. In hindsight, I now understand that the challenges of running four separate businesses and having a son with cerebral palsy must have been extremely difficult. But at the time, all I could see was a man who undermined everything I did.

The owner specialised in secondhand books and his business mantra was "If people can't find what they want, they'll buy something else instead". I would often return to work after a day off and find that my carefully arranged bestseller bays were covered in a completely random selection of review copies, bought as a job lot from a journalist.

At the time, the bestselling title was the Alan Bennett Diaries. Finding that our only copies had been concealed behind a single copy of 'A History of the Belfast Telegraph' for a whole weekend was frustrating, to say the least.

But the thing that really got to me was the staffing. After beginning with three staff, my boss gradually whittled it down to one person: me. Each time someone left I was given the same story: "Cashflow's a bit tight at the moment...if you can just hold off for another month...things will pick up soon..."

Managing a shop alone is challenging both practically and emotionally. The essential day-to-day tasks like banking, unpacking, shelving and cleaning have to be combined with manning a till point and dealing with enquiries. At Christmas, when deliveries are four times larger than usual, it is an almost impossible challenge to sell books and replenish the shelves.

There is also the small matter of being able to buy lunch, eat it, or answer the call of nature. Eight hours is a long time to go without a break.

However the greatest challenge was the sense of isolation. I had regulars who came in for a chat, but they were usually lonely individuals who would talk at, rather than with me; often at great length. After two years, I was well acquainted with the minutiae of their lives, but I doubt if they knew a single fact about me.

As time passed, I realised that things wouldn't get any better. I now had occasional help from part-timers, but the money had stayed the same. I found a job with Ottakar's, where I went on to spend the ten most enjoyable years of my working life. My boss and I parted on good terms and to his credit, he gave me a very nice leaving present.

Before my return visit to Twickenham, I'd heard that Langtons now had a cafe and was keen to see what it looked like, but as I walked towards the shop I saw that the windows had been whitewashed and a sign announced that the shop was for sale.

I peered through a small gap in the window and saw the outline of a doorway that led to the children's section. I wasn't sure what was worse: a closed bookshop or a dying one? Perhaps the thing I'll miss most is the shop sign, with the font that has been the same for over half a century.

After Langton's, I walked with my wife and sons down to York House Gardens:

Unlike some parts of Twickenham, the riverside was reassuringly familiar, unchanged since I first went there in the 1960s:

These statues, imaginatively known as the Naked Ladies, were acquired under mysterious circumstances by the notorious Victorian fraudster, Whitaker Wright - a man who evaded justice by taking a cyanide capsule after he was convicted.

In some ways, the Naked Ladies have been a barometer of postwar Britain. When I was a small child, they were clean but the fountains hadn't worked for years, then as we entered the era of Punk and industrial strife, they were frequently vandalised, with the regular addition of blue pubic hair.

At some point in the late 1980s, the vandalism ended. Ten years later, the fountains were restored.

An arched 18th century footbridge connects the gardens to York House. I was very disappointed when I discovered that it houses offices for the local council, instead of a rakish lord. However, it had some auspicious former owners, including Sir Rajan Tata, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff and Philippe, comte de Paris.

York House isn't famous, but anyone who has seen the film Alfie may experience a flicker of recognition:

The main centre of Twickenham is grotty, but the walk along the towpath from Richmond Bridge to St Mary's church has barely changed since the 18th century and I'd forgotten how idyllic it was.

When the good weather returns, so shall I.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter Solstice

I know this won't be everyone's cup of tea, but there is a haunting song by Vaughan Williams called 'Along the Field' which always reminds me of the English countryside in winter. As today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, the song seemed particularly apposite.

I made a short video to go with the music, but it looks more like a blurry still photograph.

I think a bird flies across the sky at some point, but that's as exciting as it gets:

P.S. - If you're having trouble watching the video on a tablet device, here's an equally gorgeous alternative:

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Away in a Manger

Last night I dreamed that a girl I used to work with had been promoted to the position of area manager. I could see why. She was a fantastic bookseller who had an intuitive understanding of the trade, but I was concerned that she would be undone by certain flaws in her character.

I knew that she would be too proud to take advice, but in spite of this, I laboured over a detailed document that spelled out the need to achieve a balance between the operational demands of the role and the importance of maintaining a good morale. I felt confident that she would listen to me.

Then I woke up and remembered that she'd been sacked for 'financial irregularities' (and some sexual ones too).

Why was I still dreaming about a job I walked out of six years ago? I briefly mentioned it to my wife, but we have an unspoken agreement not to bore each other about our respective dreams, particularly the recurring ones. I keep dreaming about bookselling. My wife dreams that she is back in her grandparents' house, where she lived from the age of nine.

I have to remind myself that I still sell books, even if I now have to work on a farm, watching libidinous bulls sodomising each other - an unedifying spectacle that I wouldn't recommend.

But even worse than the bulls is having to listen to the soft rock radio station, Heart FM, which I can hear through the partition wall of my cowshed. The gaps between the songs have a jingle that boasts "More music variety!", but it's not true. Every morning I hear the same singers: Robin Thicke, Olly Murs, Michael Buble, Adele, Robbie Williams and my least favourite song of all time, the screeching, nasal horror of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun".

There are moments, particularly when I can hear Adele being accompanied by the screams of a bull being sexually assaulted, when I wonder what I'm doing with my life. Where did I go wrong?

But there is laughter in the dark, particularly when I find books like "The Bedside Lilliput". Published in 1950, it is a treasure trove of late-1940s culture, featuring Dylan Thomas,  V.S.Pritchett, Ronald Searle, Wyndham Lewis, Nancy Mitford, Bill Brandt, Walter de la Mare, Monica Dickens, Arthur C Clarke, Aleister Crowley, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Robert Doisneau and Arthur Marshall.

I will be posting several extracts from The Bedside Lilliput, but I'll begin with a photographic essay from the French photographer, Robert Doisneau (the man who took this famous picture), with the original captions:








The Bedside Lilliput appears to have been a one-off, although there were other literary magazines published in book form during the 1950s.

I wonder what today's equivalents are.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Work Ethic

On last week's edition of BBC Radio Four's 'Any Questions' Jeanette Winterson asked "Who's going to get off their arse for £6 an hour?"

There were many reponses in a follow-up programme, but my favourite came from a gentleman in Burnley.

I think the accent helped:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Today I came across a book on the Second World War that had no value, but contained some striking photographs of the Blitz. The quality isn't great, but they remind us what people had to endure and starkly depict the terrible waste of life and resources.

Before I threw the book away I scanned a few images:

Sunday, December 08, 2013


I was back in London yesterday, remembering why I left. For some reason, the tube seemed to be as crowded as a weekday rush hour, but the tourists and day-trippers lacked the steely determination of commuters and at one point I found myself in a gridlocked tunnel of suitcases and backpacks.

Has the tube always been this crowded?

Apparently, yes.

I'd travelled to London to meet two old friends. I hadn't seen them for 13 years, but within minutes we'd settled back into the same relationship we had as teenagers, albeit with better social skills. It seemed silly that we'd let so many years elapse before meeting again, but sometimes life gets in the way.

We grew up in leafy Richmond-upon-Thames (somewhere I never really appreciated until I visited the badlands of Neasden, Plumsted and Acton)  and when I was 16, I naively assumed that we would all remain in the area until our dying days, still meeting up for odd game of snooker, or perhaps to go cycling in Bushy Park.

Taken during my 'stripes' phase

The late teens are a magical time in some ways - a nebulous borderland between childhood and adulthood, when newfound freedoms aren't crushed by the burdens of responsibility.

Naturally I squandered some of this time sitting in my bedroom feeling angst-ridden, but even that was enjoyable in an odd sort of way. I was the hero of my own narrative, able to delude myself with grandiose ideas that didn't have to be sustantiated by achievements. As one girl said to me, "You're all talk and no action."

I wouldn't go back to the past, but I wouldn't change it either.

Thirty years on, none of us live in Greater London. I left 12 years ago. One held on until earlier this year, when it became possible for him to work from home. The other left in the 1980s. Another friend, who wasn't there yesterday, discovered the Kent coast before it started to appear on property programmes.

The flight of hundreds of thousands of Londoners to the shires has, until recently, almost passed without comment, but next to immigration it is one of the biggest demographic changes this country has seen since the 19th century.

In some ways, it is simply of reversal of what happened in the Victorian age, when London's population quadrupled in size and small villages and towns became swallowed up by the growing metropolis. Five generations ago, my ancestors left rural Kent in search of a better life. Today, their descendents are leaving London for the same reason.

Perhaps, like me, they don't share Boris Johnson's vision of the future and would prefer to live in a less 'dynamic' economy that isn't obsessed with unsustainable growth. I suspect they would also like to live in a town where they know their neighbours and can feel reasonably certain that in 50 years' time, the streets and houses won't have changed beyond all recognition.

But there is a price to be paid for this mass exodus. Some local people now sardonically refer to Lewes as "Islington-on-the Downs" and resent the fact that they are being priced out of the area by an influx of Londoners. Where can they go?

The other night I went to a local screening of a worthy Chilean film about the 1988 referendum that rejected General Pinochet. The hall was packed, which was great, but it also made me realise how true the Islington jibe was. The town is becoming increasingly homogenous, like a retreat for Guardian readers.

If friends hadn't moved away and property prices hadn't gone through the roof, would I have stayed in Richmond-upon-Thames?

Perhaps. It wasn't a bad place to live:

On Richmond Green, outside 'The Cricketers' pub

On balance, I'm still glad that I moved to Lewes. Which is just as well, because unless you're in possession of a large fortune, once you leave London, there's no going back.

Finally, a clip from the 'good old days'. I wonder if any of the children in this clip still live in London?

Sunday, December 01, 2013


106 years ago yesterday, a new London Underground station opened in the West End. It's purpose was to give the middle classes easy access to the heart of London's theatreland. It was initially called Strand, but was renamed Aldwych in 1915.

Sadly, the station was a failure. Built at the end of a one stop spur on the Piccadilly line, the number of passengers was lower than expected and when several leading theatres in the area shut down, Aldwych became a white elephant. Surprisingly, it wasn't closed until 1994.

Today, the London Transport Museum offers a limited number of guided tours of Aldwych station. The demand for tickets is high and the tours are usually sold out within hours. Luckily, I'd found out in time after making a brief foray into the Twitterverse and booked a ticket for yesterday afternoon.

The train from Lewes was packed. At first it looked as if it was standing room only, but then I noticed that someone had done the old coat and bag trick on the seat next to them, so I took great delight in making them move their things. One point to me.

As the train pulled out of Lewes and entered a tunnel, I got my book out. I wanted to find out what Alice Vavasor had written in a letter to her cousin Kate. Then it started: pchhh, pchhh, pfffff pfffff, pchhh pchhh, pfffff pfffff... My seat-hogging companion's earphones were just loud enough to distract me from reading, but not noisy enough to warrant a complaint. One point to them.

I got my smartphone out and decided to watch a video. After scrolling through the list, I settled on an episode of 'The World at War', which I've been watching over the last couple of months. The credits began and the episode title appeared: Japan.

I spent the next 50 minutes watching footage of Pearl Harbour, 'Zero' fighters, Japanese people performing Nazi-style acrobatics, Tokyo being bombed and the bloody capture of Iwo Jima. It was fascinating stuff, but for some reason my companion seemed to be increasingly agitated. I wondered why. It wasn't as if he could hear the explosions through my headphones.

As the train drew into Victoria, my companion frantically gathered his stuff together, as if he couldn't wait to get off the train. I was busy watching footage of Kamikaze pilots, but turned off my phone and got ready to leave. I turned round and looked at my companion's face for the first time. He was Japanese.

I wondered how interesting a station that had only been closed 20 years ago would be, but hadn't realised that the veneer of modernity had been stripped away and what remained was a series of fascinating time capsules:

 The lifts are now out of service, so visitors have to be prepared to use a 160-step staircase:

This platform has been used in many well-known movies and television series and if you pay enough money, London Transport will even arrange for a train to appear.

This is what's left of the 1907 tiles that bear the station's original name: Strand.

During the Blitz, Aldwych station was a popular destination for Londoners who wanted to escape from the bombing. As the station was at the end of a branch line, families could camp on the platform for the night without disrupting any passengers.

George Formby and other celebrities of the day used to perform concerts on this platform, some of which were relayed to the neutral USA as part of a propaganda effort.

It's a pity that these original titles haven't been looked after properly in the past, but they must have seemed so commonplace, nobody could see their value.

These early 1970s posters were very familiar to me, from the days when a trip "up to London" was the greatest of treats. My parents regarded the city as a den of vice, populated by hippies and other ne'er-do-wells.

We only lived a dozen miles from Hyde Park Corner, but it might as well have been a hundred.

The poster below was one of many that appeared before Britain joined the European Economic Community, as it used to be known.

Above and below are photos of a platform that has been protected by a Grade I listing. Apparently it has some very unusual insulators, for people who like that sort of thing.

The police regularly train sniffer dogs at Aldwych station. Our guide told us that for some unknown reason, the dogs refuse to enter this tunnel.

The tunnel complex is a little spooky, but the best parts are those that haven't been lit:

A couple of friends had joined me for the tour. They were both as impressed as I was, but one was disappointed by the absence of any maruading aliens. For British people of a certain age, the London Underground is synonymous with this:

I must admit, I was also disappointed by the absence of rats, zombies, cybermen, yeti, third generation cannibals or SIS employees.

However, the guided tour was excellent, striking the right balance between being informative and giving visitors time to look around and take photos. I'd happily go again. If I do, I'll bring a proper camera instead of relying on my phone.

Apparently, Aldwych is one of 26 disused tube stations. I hope that London Transport are able to make a few others accessible for visitors, without actually turning them into proper tourist attractions.

Indeed, one of the best aspects of the tour was the absence of tourists. I'd just spent half an hour trying to dodge my way past hordes of people aimlessly dragging suitcases on wheels. The Aldwych tour filtered out the box-ticking "10 Things You Must Do" brigade.

As you can see, quota of white, balding middle-aged men was predictably high, but there were also a couple of beanie hat-wearing 'urban explorers' and someone who was particularly interested in some of the Art Noveau features.

After the tour, we went for a drink in the Strand, followed by superb curry in the India Club. I left London agreeing with Dr. Johnson, but also felt grateful that ten minutes away from my front door, I have this: