Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"And They're Telling Me Lies"

My older son has swapped conventional education for the University of YouTube. As a result, he know nothing about the Wars of the Roses or the Industrial Revolution, but is becoming something of an expert on 9/11 conspiracy theories, UFOs and cats that look like Hitler. He's also good at hacking, so it's probably only a matter of time before he's extradited to the US.

I've been trying to make him think more critically about the information he finds on the internet, questioning the sources and asking what their motivation is. It's been an uphill struggle, but I'm glad that he now accepts that the moon landings were genuine.

The internet is a minefield of lies and half truths. Many of us are able to negotiate it successfully, but the more vulnerable struggle to separate truth from fiction. It doesn't help when companies that we trust lie to us.

Sometimes the lies are easy to spot. This display in Tesco, which I tweeted last week, is one of the most absurd things I've seen for a long time:

I would love to know how this nonsense got to the stage of being signed off and printed. Do we even want passionate people to prepare our food? As one person commented, "I'm not sure which sort of passion would be worse. If they're angry they'll have spat in it, if they're amorous, well...."

Aside from the fact that passion is a bit foreign, I'm also concerned that Tesco are violating Equal Opportunites legislation, discriminating against those who are unable to feel strongly about manufacturing yogurt.

The Tesco example is crude and obvious. Other lies are more subtle, such as these depictions of helpline employees:

Apparently, when we phone call centres, we will speak to attractive, slim, middle class people who can't wait to speak to us. Perhaps they're smiling because they know that the caller has just been listening to a loop of Richard Clayderman for 37 minutes.

The adverts never feature anyone who is fat, depressed, ugly or scruffy and the employees are shown sitting in rows in a light, airy office. In reality, people are treated like battery hens, squashed into tiny cubicles in a noisy room with no natural light or fresh air.

It's not quite the Lancashire mills, but it's still pretty awful that anyone should have to spend 40 hours a week working somewhere like here:

I've never quite trusted corporate websites after an experience with this company, in the pre-internet era:

In the 1990s, I constantly received catalogues from a UK stationery company called Viking.

Unlike most junk mail, I used to enjoy browsing through the contents because at various points, a man called Ian Helford would be shown using the products. In the illustration above, Ian is merely pointing, but it got more exciting inside and he could be seen in a variety of positions, carrying boxes, labelling shelves or testing a broom.

I began to develop a mild fascination for this publicity-shy businessman in his 60s and envisaged him speaking with a slight London accent and living in a vulgar new mansion in Billericay.

You can imagine my horror when I discovered that it was all a fiction.

On a trip to the US, I saw a Viking catalogue on a table. "It's good to see a British company doing well in the US" I thought, and decided to have a look. Ian was on the front page, pointing at some A4 paper, but in this catalogue he was called Irwin.

Who was this man?

Further investigation proved that Ian really was Irwin and that rather than being a British company doing well in the US, Viking was as American as apple pie. 'Ian' didn't live in Billericay, but if the portrait below is anything to go by, he did live in a vulgar mansion:

I can see why Irwin Helford was 'rebranded' for Viking's entry into the UK stationery market. Irwin is one of those very American names, like Elmer, Chuck or Hank that would have identified the business as a global corporation. Ian Helford was a local man. Someone you could pick up the phone and do business with.

It was a fib. In fairness, Viking never clained that Mr Helford was British, but by changing his name there was an element of disguise. As internet usage grew, Viking wisely changed this to 'I. Helford' .

These days, there's no excuse for ignorance. With the click of a few buttons, it's possible to find out that Innocent smoothies is now owned by Coca-Cola and that Starbucks is guilty of tax avoidance in the UK. But we have to learn how to use the internet.

I'm concerned that my son's critical faculties aren't being developed. I do what I can to discuss things with him, but teenage boys aren't naturally inclined to listen to their fathers. Ideally, he'd be able to discuss issues in a classroom environment, but my son's school have admitted that they don't know what to do with him and his days are now spent indoors.

With no qualifications, my son's job prospects will be grim. But as he has displayed an aversion to daylight and fresh air, preferring to spend his time hunched in front of a screen, maybe there's a position waiting for him at the nearest call centre. He's also quite passionate, so perhaps Tesco would be interested too.

But I'm not giving up yet. I hear that they're paying people who know how to do coding up to £18 an hour, so I think I'll put the call centre on hold. Who knows, in a few years' time, my son could be richer than I've ever been.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Change of Air

It has been a frustrating week. I'm back on painkillers and antibiotics, following a dental abscess and tooth extraction. I'm fully aware that it is a routine, relatively trivial problem, but after last month's appendectomy I feel as if I'm being slowly disassembled.

My slightly melodramatic response is probably a reaction to the recent illnesses of friends, a setback with my older son and an approaching 'special' birthday. But I need to remember that these are isolated events, not part of some divine plan to punish me for stealing paper from school when I was eight.

Assuming that no further bodily parts are removed, I intend to begin a regime of regular exercise and healthy food before I end up looking like Homer Simpson.

Ideally, I'd spend a week or two in a Swiss resort, where I could enjoy the mountain air and go hiking with a guide called Erich. Interlaken is supposed to be rather pleasant in the spring and has been a popular destination ever since it was 'discovered' in the 19th century.

There don't appear to be many photos of Victorian hikers - the cameras were rather cumbersome in those days - but one enterprising gentleman in Interlaken came up with an ingenious solution:

With the aid of fake grass, a cardboard rock and a misty background, the beauty of the Swiss mountains were flawlessly recreated by Johann Adam Gabler. Whether you were a seasoned mountaineer or an indolent aesthete, the results were the same.

This is one of Gabler's more realistic shots, carefully staged to recreate the tension and excitement of hunting. But not every portrait was this successful:

The attention to detail was sadly lacking in this photo, as Herr Gabler's fakery is clearly visible. If only he'd moved the camera a few degrees to the left.

A happy honeymoon couple, still glowing from a night of passionate lovemaking.

This costume is a cut above the average electric blue Berghaus kagool. Half 'Brown Owl', half Italian revolutionary.

I don't think it would be unfair to say that this chap, who looks a little like Debussy, is a stranger to the outdoor life. Even the rigours of the studio scenery are too much for him and he has wisely opted for a more sedate, arcadian setting.

It's so antisocial when people keep checking their Bibles for a text. The friend is clearly not impressed by her companion's behaviour.

This is a splendid outfit compared to the shapeless, synthetic hiking gear of today. The act of getting dressed must have been a pleasure in itself. However, I'm not sure how this gentleman's clothes would have fared in a downpour.

After looking at these photos, the answer is clear: I need a large sum of money, a time machine and a valet.

I'm sure that a week in the 1880s, hobnobbing with minor royals and exiled aristocrats, would restore my equilibrium, so that I could tackle the rest of the year with renewed vigour.

But until time travel is invented I have this, which is the next best thing:

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Gore Vidal vs Norman Mailer

I've just found this gem of a clip, featuring an on-screen spat between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show. The real only winner in this embarrassing encounter is the veteran journalist Janet Flanner:
I can't remember the last time I saw two writers arguing (or even agreeing) on a chat show. It's a pity.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Jonathan Franzen on Overrated Books

This interesting short clip has ruffled a few people's feathers, but Franzen has a point about a type of British writing that has become a genre in itself:

I would hesitate to describe many books as overrated. I would happily stick my neck out for Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but most of the books I dislike are for reasons that I often can't fathom myself.

I find those chunky, macho 'Great American Novel' candidates as unreadable as the effete sub-Iris Murdoch stories that are populated with characters called Rupert, Gertrude and Axel.

I also struggle to appreciate those 'lyrical' novels by Commonwealth writers that specialise in lengthy descriptions of fruit and grandparents.

On the other hand, give me a novel in translation by a Hungarian author or a recent winner of the Prix Goncourt and I'm an avid reader. I don't know why.

Perhaps it's just harder to spot the cliches when you're reading a foreign novel, but I wonder if there's something else too.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Man of the Cloth

The other evening, while my wife and I were having dinner with some friends, the conversation moved onto the subject of youthful innocence in the age of the internet. We all agreed about the present, but couldn't decide whether our generation were really so naive.

Then I remembered something that happened nearly 30 years ago.

When I was a student in Wales, the landlord of my local pub asked me if I'd be interested in doing some bar work when the National Eisteddfod was held in town during the summer.

I had some reservations. The Eisteddfod was the epicentre of Welsh nationalism. I was very English and my knowledge of Welsh was limited to talking about the weather and telling people that I liked coffee.

However, with the recklessness of youth, I said yes. It would be an experience. One that hopefully wouldn't include being beaten up by irate Welsh speakers.

I needn't have worried. On the first day I discovered that any anti-English sentiment was eclipsed by a bizarre animosity between the Welsh from the north and those from the south. As people realised I was English, they seemed keen to convince me how awful the other part of Wales was: "You see, they think they speak better Welsh than us, but when they say like, they should say hoffi, not licio..."

Once I learned that even the most ardent nationalists were friendlier than many English people, I began to relax and found the company invigorating, particularly that of one man. He was a vicar in his 50s who worked in a boys' home and although he drank a ridiculous amount of beer, it didn't affect his ability to talk with great clarity about Welsh culture and history.

At one point in the evening, he looked worried. "Oh, I don't know if I should drive back to my bed and breakfast in Llanllwni. It's 15 miles and I've had 12 pints. What do you think, eh?"

As the pub landlord had given me a guest room with twin beds, it seemed only right to offer the spare bed to the drunken vicar. He seemed surprised and delighted. I congratulated myself on doing the right thing.

An hour later we went up to the room, where we removed our shirts and trousers and got into our respective beds. The lights were turned off and apart from a purple glow of static from the nylon sheets, the room was completely black and eerily silent.

Then, after a minute, I heard a voice in the dark: "Do you mind if I masturbate?"

I had no idea how to reply and heard myself say "No, but I'm just going out for a while." I walked down the corridor, locked myself in the bathroom and stayed there until half an hour had passed. When I returned, the vicar was snoring like a sedated bull.

Annoyingly, the following morning he'd asked the landlord's permission to use my room for the rest of the week and I was too embarrassed to object. After all, nothing had happened, had it? I spent the next five days being keep awake by the most extraordinary snoring I've ever encountered.

As far as the laying on of hands was concerned, I stayed in the television room and watched 'V' until I felt confident that the good Rev. Davies had passed out.

At one point I wondered if I was simply being priggish about an alcohol-induced episode of onanism, but my unwanted roommate later made remarks to friends that were rather disturbing and confirmed my fears. This wasn't just a drunk, sexually frustrated cleric, but a man who seemed to have a penchant for the young and vulnerable.

This episode reminded me just how different our social mores were in the pre-internet era. When the man told me that he was a vicar who worked in a boys' home, I took it as a cast-iron guarantee of good character.

Today, my naivety seems absurd. But it wasn't unusual and it enabled clergymen, relatives and a number of entertainers to abuse the trust they enjoyed from the public. When I feel depressed by my older son's knowledge of some of the less pleasant aspects of life, I remind myself that he is also less likely to have awkward encounters with masturbating vicars and dodgy relatives.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Downward Spiral

My book sales have been pretty awful recently. I'm not surprised, as I've felt too tired to do much since my appendix was whipped out, other than read Trollope and watch 'Breaking Bad'.

How long does it take to fully recover from surgery? My mother-in-law confidently asserted that it was one week per hour of surgery, but I'm not convinced.

This week I made a concerted effort to put some more books on sale. Fortunately, I've now reached a point where I have valued so many different titles, I can instantly identify the books that are of no value. This saves a lot of time, but the ratio of valuable to worthless books is still depressingly low.

If I open a box of random pre-ISBN books, I'm also certain that it will contain at least one copy of the following:

Little Women,
The Ascent of Everest
Anything by Dickens
The Rose Annual
Variable Winds at Jalna, by Mazo de la Roche
Rogue Herries
The Pilgrim's Progress
A Famous Five book
A late Victorian 'penny dreadful', published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
What Katy Did
Over two dozen Companion Book Club/Readers' Union hardbacks
A 1920s title about book-keeping
The Wooden Horse
Popski's Private Army
A reference book published by Odhams
Something by or about George Bernard Shaw
Heute Abend! Book One
The Wind in the Willows

I could go on, but I'm sure you'd rather I didn't.

Any title that isn't familiar gives a little skip to the heart, particularly if it isn't published by Rupert Hart-Davis (for some reason, nearly all of their books are worthless). Perhaps this will be the book that pulls me back from the brink of penury. I type in the details and press enter. It is worth 61p.

But sometimes I am pleasantly surprised:

This signed first edition by the author of 'Goodbye Mr Chips' was a refreshing change from finding yet another novel by Storm Jameson and sold at auction for a couple of hundred quid.

Even on a bad day, I can usually rely on finding a title that will provide some harmless peurile amusement:

(I wonder if they have cottaging in the USA? I only ask because I once had a terrible time trying to explain the concept of a public toilet to a San Francisco cafe owner. He assured me that they didn't exist in America, but this seems unlikely.)

I was also amused by these covers:

I can only suppose that a 'slapper' was something different then, but I find it hard to believe that the book I found yesterday - a 1930s Encyclopaedia of Sex by someone called A. Willy - didn't raise a smirk in the publisher's office.

I also find titles that provide surprisingly pertinent information. For example, after my recent rant about house prices ruining the 'dreaming suburb' of Teddington, I came across this:

"In some London districts it is reckoned that more than one quarter of the inhabitants change their address each year."

That quote from a late Victorian book called 'The Problems of Poverty' by John Hobson reminded me that London's population has been in a constant state of flux since the Industrial Revolution and that the seemingly unchanging world of postwar Teddington was just a brief interlude.

However, although it's good to find titles that interest or amuse, I need to derive an income from my books. Every month I have to pay for stock, plus the rent, postage and commission fees. Whatever's left over is my wage. Last month it reached a new low.

Between recovering from an operation and dealing with a child with 'special needs' (I hate that phrase, but can't think of an alternative), it has been a struggle to deal with a backlog of work. This month, I hope to make up for lost time and perhaps in the process, I may find some more gems.

On the other hand, I may just find books like this:

If the bookselling doesn't work out, maybe I'll become a nylon pirate.