Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Tale of Two Christmases

As the only child of two teetotalers, my first Christmases were not riotous affairs. We would get up at seven o'clock, eat a bowl of cereal and wait for the electric fire to warm up the 'lounge'. Like many working class people of that time, my parents had a strange habit of only using their front room on special occasions.

After our perfunctory breakfast, we would change rooms and my father would put his 'Christmas with James Last' LP on the stereo. 

The music was pure kitsch, but I still have a soft spot for it:

Every year, my presents would be stacked underneath a formica coffee table with wobbly legs. I could barely contain my excitement. In contrast, my parents treated their presents with the dogged professionalism of someone cataloguing a crime scene: "Soap on a rope from Chris and Lesley".

In spite of being very religious and patriotic, my parents didn't attend a church service or watch the Queen's Christmas Broadcast to the Commonwealth. I've no idea why.

At 11.30, my father would collect his parents from Twickenham, a mile away. It would be an understatement to say that my grandmother was not the most cheery of souls and for the duration of their visit, we felt as if a dark spell had been cast over the day. Christmas 'dinner' - always served at midday - was consumed in semi-silence.

There were no games.

But if my recollections sound rather melancholy, I should add that I always enjoyed Christmas Day. The misery of being with my grandmother was a minor distraction compared to the excitement of having a new train set, or a box of Lego.

In my naivety, I assumed that most families had similar Christmases to mine, following the same routine. However, when I spent my first Christmas away from home, with my wife's family, I had a rude awakening.

My wife's family were the polar opposite of mine in every respect and teetotalers were regarded with the same horror as child molesters and trade unionists. If you wanted to be accepted in their solidly upper middle class world, you had to show that you knew how to drink.

Christmas day began with a champagne breakfast and cold meats at my wife's grandparents' home. I'd never drunk alcohol at breakfast time before and could almost feel my body recoil in horror. How would I get through the rest of the day?

At mid-morning, a succession of visitors arrived, while the grandparents held court in the bar of their sprawling Tudor house. Everyone became increasingly drunk and my memory of the period between 11.00 and 3.00 is almost non-existent, but at some point we must have walked back to my mother-in-law's, as I remember waking up there in the afternoon.

In the evening, we returned to the grandparents' home, where more guests arrived and the drinking resumed. By nine o'clock, the grandfather walked over to a grand piano (which had weeds growing underneath it) and a singalong session began, with a medley of music hall favourites and songs from the 1930s and 40s. A rude version of 'These Foolish Things' was the highlight.

Christmas dinner - a well-hung pheasant - was finally eaten at 11.00pm (apparently it got later every year) in a large hall, warmed by a roaring inglenook fire. More bottles were opened. 

After the main course, it was apparently traditional to have indoor fireworks. By this point in the day, everyone was so drunk, they barely noticed when one of the fireworks rose from the table and set fire to the Christmas decorations. I felt as if I had entered a madhouse.

The contrast between the two family Christmases couldn't have been greater: one, a sobre, muted affair; the other, a fun but exhausting bacchanale. Since those days, my wife and I have aimed at having a Christmas that is somewhere between the two extremes.

However, as a homage to our dear departed, there will be five minutes of James Last, accompanied by the carcinogenic smoke of an indoor fireworks display.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The New Dystopians

If, like me, you're resistant to SF but enjoy well-written speculative fiction, 2014 has been a vintage year. I've read so many new titles centered around the collapse of Western civilisation, it's been very hard to resist the urge to stock up on tins, dried pasta and firewood, not to mention the illegal weaponry needed to protect your baked beans from any marauding gangs.

Here are some of the novels I've enjoyed most during the last few months, in no particular order:

1. Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel

Written by a Canadian author who now lives in New York, Station Eleven has been universally praised by critics and readers alike. Set 20 years after a devastating pandemic, the novel follows the fortunes of a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony, as they move around the post-apocalyptic settlements of the Great Lakes. The initial premise didn't immediately grab me, but I was quickly won over by the compelling plot, a clever narrative structure and some hauntingly beautiful prose. I stayed up until a ridiculously late hour because I had to know how the book ended. It was well worth the sleep deprivation.

2. The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber

A novel about a Christian missionary on an alien planet might not be everyone's cup of tea, but this is one of the most humane and poignant novels I've read for a long time. Written in the shadow of Faber's wife's terminal illness, the interstellar distance between the main character and his wife, trapped in a future Britain that is facing societal collapse, feels like a metaphor for the author's own sense of impending loss. In a recent edition of the radio programme Start the Week, Michel Faber stated that he wouldn't be writing any more novels. I hope that it was just the grief speaking.

3. The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell

If Christian missionaries on alien planets is beyond the pale, then this novel probably isn't for you, as the plot is utterly bonkers. However, David Mitchell writes with such brio that it's more than worth going along for the ride. Spanning half a century between the early 1980s and the 2030s, I found the novel's coda surprisingly moving and a very satisfying conclusion to the literary pyrotechnics of the main plot. The Bone Clocks is a confident riposte to anyone who thinks that the novel is dead. You'll either love it or hate it.

4. A Lovely Way to Burn - Louise Welsh

The first book in a trilogy (the other two parts haven't been published yet), this is a crime novel set in a London that is being ravaged by a pandemic. Welsh has been highly praised for her earlier novels and although this book reads as if it has been aimed at a more mass-market readership, with an emphasis on plot rather than character, its depiction of a city in crisis is powerful and evocative.

5. The Southern Reach Trilogy - Jeff VanderMeer

Actually three separate novels - Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance - this was a revelation. VanderMeer is classed as a science fiction writer, but with influences as disparate as Iris Murdoch and Rachel Carson, this is a beautifully-written, astoundingly imaginative series that transcends the limitations of genre fiction. It's dangerous to try and second-guess a novel's influences, but the plot reminded me of the shortlived 2005 television series Invasion, the Body Snatchers films and the recent low budget (but high concept) independent film Monsters. However, the science fiction elements almost feel incidental and the central question is always the same: what is it to be human? Imagine Lost written by Margaret Atwood and you'll have some idea what to expect.

It has been said that it is the conceit of every generation to feel as if it's at the end of the line, whether the threatened annihilation is deistic, nuclear, biological, economic or environmental. However, the number of mainstream writers tackling this theme seems to be growing by the year. Is there something in the air? Have we finally grown out of the Enlightenment belief in perpetual progress?

The answer presumably lies in the combination of a growing awareness of potential threats - global warming, the end of oil, pandemics, economic stagnation and overpopulation - with the increasing willingness of 'serious' writers to flirt with other genres. And after all, the post-apocalyptic scenario is a gift to any writer of fiction.

In the meantime, I will be busy forming the Lewes Militia, just in case. I've already designed the epaulettes for the uniform and started drafting the new laws. Anyone who begins their sentences with "So" will be in trouble.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Untitled 1

I had a slightly disconcerting experience in the gents' loo of a restaurant last night. As I walked in, several men turned round and looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and contempt. It was very unsettling.

I quickly checked myself in the mirror, but couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. The men left and I resolved not to give in to any feelings of paranoia, but in the silence that followed, I became aware of some very strange atonal piano music playing in the room.

I can safely say that I have never heard piped Webern in a public convenience before and it only served to enhance the sense of unreality. Perhaps the restaurant manager was indulging his quirky and sometimes inappropriate sense of humour.

After a brief pause, the music continued. The new movement reminded me of the soundtrack to a particularly grim Eastern Bloc animated film. Outside, I could hear some innocuous folk playing in the restuarant. It was all very odd.

Then I finally realised that the music was coming from my pocket. I must have pushed an app button on my smartphone and the strange looks from the men were a perfectly rational response to a man entering the loo with atonal music emanating from his nether regions.

It was the second of two embarrassing misunderstandings this week. The first happened at my son's ninth birthday party.

For the presentation of the cake, I dimmed the lights and put on the third side of the Beatles' White Album, which begins with the song 'Birthday'. The candles were blown out and the boys seemed to be enjoying the music and having the lights off, so I left them to it.

Unfortunately, when the parents arrived, they found their sons sitting under a table in a dark room listening to 'Revolution 9' blaring out "Number nine. Number nine. Number nine. Number nine..."

I tried to explain, but I think it only made things worse.

I shall be glad when this week is over. In addition to public embarrassment, I had to spend most of Wednesday in the A&E at Haywards Heath, after my mother had fainted at a concert. Fortunately she regained consciousness quickly, saying "Well, they weren't very good singers anyway."

The doctor wanted to keep my mother in for tests, so that they could eliminate the possibility of a blood clot. Sadly, this meant spending six hours sitting in a cubicle, listening to my mother talking non-stop about other people's ailments. At one point I suggested that she should have a sleep, but she didn't take the hint.

Perhaps I'm being churlish, but six hours of "Doris with the neck needs to be near a toilet...There are a lot of coloured people working here...Brenda didn't pay me back for that pint of milk I bought...Vera's cross because the window cleaner didn't come on Thursday..." is five hours and 45 minutes more than I can take.

The one enjoyable moment this week was visiting the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill, just as the sun was setting over the sea.

As long as there are moments like these, everything else is tolerable. Just.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Autumn Gold

I took some photos at work earlier today, as I thought the late afternoon light looked particularly appealing. For some reason, Google Plus has automatically tarted two of them up. I've no idea why and can't be bothered to find out.

My workplace isn't exactly glamorous, but even the most mundane features seem to acquire a strange beauty when the setting sun highlights the rough contours of the surfaces of buildings and objects:

I must bring a proper camera in one day and capture the post-apocalyptic splendour of my farm.

It has been an annoying week at work. A courier lost a bag of orders a few weeks ago - something I didn't discover until customers started emailing to ask where their books were. After a three week tour around the Midlands, the parcels were returned on Tuesday in a large box, along with a packet of 10,000 staples.

I think the staples were another mistake, rather than some form of recompense.

I have now switched to Royal Mail. They may have an online ordering system that makes the Enigma machine look simple, but at least I know that the books will reach their destination instead of sitting in a warehouse in Leicestershire.

I enjoy working in the countryside, but can't quite get over its oddness. On Monday a stranger asked me if I'd like to see his puppy (you could get arrested for that in London). He opened the back of a car and handed me a beautiful 13-week-old spaniel, with adoring eyes. Later, on the way home, I saw a man standing on the corner of a road with a falcon perched on his hand. I've no idea why.

On other days, I'll suddenly see a succession of people ride past in horse-drawn carriages, or spot someone casually carrying a rifle with a telescopic sight.

It's only a matter of time before I go native.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Yesterday and Today

I've started to get into the habit of taking a regular 'constitutional'. I particularly like going for a walk in the late afternoon, when the light is failing and the shadows are long. The highlight of the journey is usually a flock of sheep, but yesterday I saw a familiar-looking figure:

It was one of several effigies made by a Lewes bonfire society, ready for last night's procession. This year, they managed to alienate a sizeable number of people in both Russia and Scotland. They did  Kim Jong-un last year. I think they're gradually working their way around the globe.

I have mixed feelings about Bonfire, as it's known here. On the one hand, I enjoy the sense of anarchy and the sheer spectacle, but it also reminds me how isolated we have become as a result of my older son's difficulties. When we first moved to Lewes, I assumed that one day we would all dress up as a family and join the procession. I now realise that will never happen.

This morning, my wife and I took our younger son to the Museum of London, where he was supposed to be studying the Romans:

I don't know why, but I just can't get excited about the Romans. They came, they saw, they conquered. Then they left.

On the other hand, the prehistoric gallery was surprisingly fascinating, reminding us that elephants once grazed by the banks of the Thames, whilst people lived in straw huts in a landscape that was mainly marshland and forest. A flint tool from around 450,000 years ago was genuinely awe-inspiring.

Every gallery was really well curated and arranged in a way that created a strong sense of a narrative. My son loved it and we all resolved to make a return visit.

After the Museum of London, we walked to the Tower of London through a particularly ugly area. This picture is from Wikipedia, as I forgot to take one:

A combination of bomb damage and bad planning has largely ruined this part of London, but it's a thriving business district and we walked past countless glass office buildings, watching a succession of very earnest-looking people having meetings. In one office, the computer screensavers said "Client Focused", as if it was something special.

The thought of having to sit in a meeting, listening to humourless people talk complete bollocks on a daily basis, sent a chill through my heart. I remembered being subjected to 'brand wheels', KPIs (key performance indicators) and 'upskilling' (training). It was awful.

Fortunately, just as I becoming a little grumpy about the business world, we arrived at the Tower of London and saw this incredibly moving tribute to those who died in the First World War:

880,000 artificial poppies. One for each person who died, painstakingly placed in the ground by volunteers. 

I was also extremely moved by the huge crowd of visitors (there were several thousand when we arrived), some of whom had travelled a long way to look at the display. A few had simply come to see the spectacle, but I suspect that many were paying tribute to a lost grandfather or great-uncle, and felt that one of the poppies was theirs.

I certainly did.

N.B - Click here for some stunning photos of the full display.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Steel Works

The best book I found today almost ended up in the bin, as it was hidden away in a box of Reader's Digest titles. Fortunately, I spotted it just in time and a brief flick through confirmed that I'd found a gem. It's a collection of photos of the northern industrial town, Consett.

To quote from the book's blurb:

"For 140 years Consett in County Durham was synonymous with iron and steel. Then in 1980 the works were shut down and subsequently dismantled by the largest demolition projection in Europe. The town was left with a 650 acre hole in its centre, not to mention a legacy of unemployment and demoralisation."

I hadn't heard of the book's editor, Julian Germain, but as soon as I visited his website I recognised his photos of classrooms around the world, from a book that has been featured in several weekend supplements. I shall be adding that to my Christmas list.

Steel Works is divided into two sections. The first features photographs from Consett when it was a thriving industrial town in the 1960s. Contributors include Don McCullin and Tommy Harris.

The second part looks at post-industrial Consett, a town that seems abandoned even though its inhabitants still live there.

Here is a selection:

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Light That Failed

There are two parts to my job. One involves working in idyllic surroundings, with a view of the South Downs in the distance, listing quirky antiquarian books in a pleasant, weatherboarded office.

The other requires long periods of manual drudgery, sorting through huge deliveries of stock, trying to push rusting, back-breakingly heavy wheelie bins along muddy ground that feels like the shore of a tidal estuary.

Although they have lids, the bins still collect an extraordinary amount of rainwater and when I start to move them, they expel their brackish liquid from a small hole, like nervous sheep.

Next to the bins, there is a collection of odd machines, haphazardly mounted on planks. I have no idea what they are for:

During the last six months, I've watched the view from my workplace gradually change:

Autumn has clearly arrived and the late afternoon light is noticeably weaker. I now have to find my book orders by torchlight, as the solitary flourescent bulb barely makes an impression on the rows of shelves.

At the moment, I have a friend working with me. He has a regular role in a BBC radio soap opera, but when his character is going through a quiet period, he logs books with me.

I think he'd rather be acting, but it's good to have some company for a few days.

The temperature has been in the early 20s (or 70s, if you prefer) recently, but soon it will plummet and the books in the warehouse will feel like blocks of ice cream. I'm not looking forward to that. I can usually handle ten books before my fingers begin to seize up.

Yesterday I found a dead rat lying in a grass verge. I recoiled in horror and turned the other way, where I spotted a £1 coin lying on the ground. I lead a fairytale existence.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Locked in a Bookshop

A few days ago there was a minor Twitter frenzy, when a poor Texan tourist found himself locked in the Trafalgar branch of Waterstones, after it had closed for the day.

He tweeted: "Hi @waterstones I've been locked inside of your Trafalgar Square bookstore for 2 hours now. Please let me out."

Waterstones replied "Thanks for the tweets today! We'll be back at 9am tomorrow to answer your queries :) Happy reading!"

Fortunately, thanks to the power of social media, he was released within a few hours. If it had been 25 years ago, when I worked at Waterstone's, the poor man would have probably still been there the following morning.

It was a good story, but less unusual than people might think. I've locked people in a bookshop several times and I know that some of my former colleagues have too. It's more easily done than you might think.

On each occasion, we walked around the shop floor shouting that we were closing, then started turning the lights off, beginning at the top floor. This was usually a foolproof way of forcing people downstairs, like moths to the flame, until the only source of light would be the street lighting outside.

But sadly some people failed to take the hint.

One poor man was deaf and didn't hear the annoucement, but I still wonder why the darkness didn't make any impression on him. Another man was foreign and, perhaps, came from a country where unlit, empty shops were the norm.

(Thinking about it now, it was always men who got stuck in the shop)

Another time, some members of the criminal classes deliberately hid in the shop and went to a great deal of effort to open our safe, even making a hole in the wall behind it. They failed. If they'd succeeded, they would have found less than £1000 in cash.

Once we'd twigged that shouting and darkness weren't sufficient clues, we became more vigilant and no further incidents followed.

But to return to the locked Texan, during the Twitter storm, several people remarked how they'd love to be in an empty bookshop at night and I remembered the times when I took advantage of having the key to the shop.

Sometimes it was just enough to be able to browse without being disturbed by anyone. But I also remember dancing on the shop floor at midnight with some friends, playing my favourite tapes on the PA system at full volume and, on one occasion, walking around in my boxer shorts, just because I could.

In another branch, the manager and her staff would often go to the pub until closing time, then return to the shop for a pyjama party, during which more alcohol was consumed until everyone finally collapsed from exhaustion.

I've also heard that a few customer sofas have been the scene of some decidedly non-literary encounters between members of staff.

Of course, none of this could happen today. These days, shops have digital CCTV and sophisticated alarm systems, so dancing in the dark, noctural nudism, midnight couplings and sleepover sessions are no longer an option. Even entering the shop outside trading hours would probably count as gross misconduct. How sad.

On the plus side, if you want to get locked in a bookshop, you can now feel reasonably confident that you won't stumble on any safecrackers, copulating booksellers or midnight bacchanales, so it's probably a good time to try. Just head for an upopular section like poetry or transport and keep your head down.

Good luck.

P.S - Please check the opening hours. An absence of customers and staff is no longer an indication that the shop is actually closed.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

A few weeks ago I bought several tonnes of books, in the belief that they would yield a reasonable amount of saleable stock. Sadly, my hopes have been dashed. Most of the books look as if they have have come from a dystopian, alternate past, in which good literature never happend.

Here is a selection of some of the more striking examples:

In a scientific poll of three people, 66.6% found this cover rather creepy, while the remaining 33.3% found the reaction of the other respondents quite disturbing.

Before J. K. Rowling, there was J. K. Stunt - Joyce Kathleen Stunt to her family and bank manager. Her novel was reprinted several times, but didn't survive the cultural cull of the late 1960s.

I suppose that having a human-looking deity standing on the porch would have appeared a little odd, so the illustrator played safe and opted for a celestial light, but the end result looks as if an atomic bomb has exploded.

Imagine an alternate reality in which Hitler didn't shoot himself in the bunker, but escaped to Argentina on a small yacht, accompanied by his favourite cuddly toy, Gunther.

"Well Mrs Fotheringale, you're clearly suffering from an all-too-common case of feminine hysteria. You should spend the winter in the south of France, but until then I'm giving you some laudanum. Take thrice daily."

There's nothing amusing about this cover. I just think that it's a rather lovely example of early 60s graphic design.

Two decades on, book covers weren't so aesthetically pleasing. This title, by one of the many David Mitchells of this world, features a battle of the perms:

Next, a possible example of shameless plagiarism, published six years after the debut of Thomas the Tank Engine:

With its prophetic, Beechingesque title about rail cuts, this title is far more fast-paced and surreal than the rather pedestrian Rev. Awdry books, but for some reason Eileen Gibb's series never took off.

Perhaps it was something to do with copyright.

Finally, not a book, but a beautiful album for collectors of monograms and crests, which more than made up for the odd, unsellable books that have dominated the last week:

This splendid album, which has a very useful supplement of mottoes and classical quotations, begins with a preface:

"The collecting of Crests and Monograms is rapidly increasing in popularity, and ranks second only in point of interest with Postage Stamp collecting."

The pages all have attractive borders with spaces for collectors to paste their monograms on:

Most of the crests and monograms are no larger than an adult thumbnail, so I've enlarged them:

One for eBay, I think.

Some hobbies deserved their demise - the collecting of phone cards is one example that springs to mind. But the monogram was a glorious thing and although it may be gone, I hope is not forgotten.