Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Wonderful Mr Wilson

When I was a lowly bookseller in the early 1990s, I noticed a rather aristocratic-looking woman in her 60s, striding around the shop as if she owned it. She stopped, took a book from the shelf and shouted "Antonio! Antonio!" A few seconds later, a slightly disheveled man in a tweed jacket shuffled across the carpet, saying "What? Oh yes...Er...Hmphh..."

It was Anthony Burgess. I recognised him immediately, from his many appearances on chat shows.

Burgess was the polar opposite of Sallinger*; maddeningly prolific and seemingly incapable of turning down an opportunity to appear on television or write a newspaper article. But, as this appearance on the Dick Cavett Show demonstrates, you can see why the offers kept coming in:

* I've been corrected on my spelling of Salinger. My apologies. My wife is always telling me off for not proof-reading what I've written.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Mother of Invention - A Guide to Genteel Poverty

There was a time when my wife and I were able to enjoy meals out and foreign holidays without having to watch every penny we spent. I think it was 1998. Then we ruined it all by having children, one of whom made it impossible for my wife to return to work.

Since then, our household income has been pitifully small. However, in some ways our years of genteel poverty have been a very positive experience and I've learned some useful lessons that have made me realise how much money I used to waste.

Whether you're poor or just simply mean, I'll think you'll find some of my top tips useful:

1. The Mighty Teaspoon

During a brief period of solvency - I think somebody must have died - I had window blinds installed throughout the house. I wanted curtains, but my wife said that they were 'common'. Within a few months, one of the fittings for a blind came out of the wall, taking a huge chunk of plaster with it, leaving a hole.

I needed a way of keeping the blind up until I had time to replaster the wall, but the hole was too large for screws or nails. Then, in a flash of inspiration, I realised that a teaspoon was the answer to all my problems. The long end would fit tightly into the hole and the upward curve of the spoon end would stop the pole of the blind sliding off.

It worked so well, I didn't bother to repair the wall for two years.

2. The Eco Ball

If you already use these, you'll know how wonderful they are.  Instead of using washing powder and selecting a one-hour cycle, you can wash your clothes by using two of these in a short rinse cycle. They save a fortune in washing powder and also use far less water and electricity.

I won't bore you with the science, but cheesy socks will smell like a meadow after a mere 15 minutes of washing. I will never buy Bold again.

3. The Powerline Adapter

This wonderful little device uses your home's electrical wiring system to send internet data from your router to devices in other rooms. I wanted to watch BBC iPlayer programmes on my ordinary television without having to spend a fortune on a home cinema system or a contract with Sky (Boo! Murdoch!) or Virgin (Tony Blair with a beard), so I bought a couple of these and now enjoy a good quality picture and connection without any additional expense.

4. The Broken Blind

My lovely new blinds, all installed by Hillarys, broke rather too quickly. It seemed ridiculous to have to buy a whole new blind just because the cord was broken, but what could I do?

Then I had an idea:

The cords of these blinds are nearly always synthetic, so I set fire to each end, quickly blew the flames out before the smoke alarm went off and pressed the two molten ends together. As they cooled down, they formed a solid bond which hasn't broken in several years.

I would also recommend Lego for blinds, which comes in many shapes and sizes and, when used with superglue, can effectively repair broken plastic fittings.

5. The Tester Pot

If you have a small bathroom and want to paint a wall the same colour, don't waste money on a £20 pot of paint. Just buy two or three tester pots and that should be all you need. I painted our bathroom for the grand sum of £3.

6. The Carpet Offcut

Unless you live in a huge house, you can usually find a tasteful offcut that will fit the dimensions of your room. I had a new pure wool carpet professionally installed in our sitting room for under £100.

7. The Double-Ended Jack

Assuming that you have some cheap audio software, if you plug one end of the lead into your headphone socket and the other into the one for the microphone, you can record anything on the internet and turn it into an MP3 file. It's like taping something - remember that?

These are just a few of the many money-saving ideas I've discovered and whenever anything breaks, I ask myself one basic question:

"Does it really need to be replaced? Does it even need to be repaired, or will a teaspoon do until around 2017?"

You'd be amazed at the number of times the answer is a teaspoon.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Minty Biscuit

What starts off as a fairly dull radio phone-in about disabled car stickers suddenly changes gear, thanks to a gentleman called Barry:

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Away With the White Horses

It has been an odd couple of days. Yesterday, a man turned up at work on a white horse, as if he was inviting me to join him on a quest. I would have said yes, but I was busy trying to move ten thousand books to a new building, one car load at a time.

I never found out what he wanted.

In the evening, a friend casually told us that he had done the voiceover for an advert that was voted the greatest UK television commercial of all time. Why hadn't he mentioned it before? I'm still telling people that I was on BBC Radio Five 14 years ago.

This morning I woke up to the sound of horses hooves and as I stood on one leg to place our broken blind in the small gap between the roller and ceiling, I saw some men in chainmail walk past. Then I remembered that it was the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes.

The actual anniversary was a few days ago. At least, that's what everyone seems to think, but didn't we change our calendar in 1752 and lose eleven days?

Today, the town ground to a halt and a group of volunters recreated the Battle of Lewes, following the original route of 1264:

It was all good fun, unlike the original battle.

I always mixed feelings at events like these. On the one hand, I enjoy living in a town that cherishes its past (I imagine that in a hundred years' time, Lewes will look almost the same as it does today). But I also feel conscious of being, as the song goes, on the outside looking in. Perhaps I'll never be a Lewesian.
But enough of Lewes. This is supposed to be a book blog, so I'll move on to some of my favourite discoveries from last week, beginning with this striking frontispiece:

It comes from a 1920s book on aircraft, which was surprisingly worthless. I threw away the book but kept the frontispiece.

The next illustration has a very odd caption underneath:
"A quick desperate wriggle and his legs were over the board and the rest of him followed anyhow." Well, yes.

This illustration is from a rather disturbing 1920s book about the mind:

It comes from a chapter called "Cretins and Dunces", in which the author expresses view that weren't out of step with the times. The widespread enthusiasm for eugenics shocks us today, but of course it enjoyed a wide range of supporters that included Churchill, H G Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg and Marie Stopes.

Finally, two completely bonkers 1960s sci-fi novels:

Androids with whips? For some reason, that reminds me of this atrocious song.

As for this, perhaps it was a thoughtful novel about eugenics that was given a less than enlightened cover treatment to boost sales. I don't know. I can safely say that I will never read this book to find out.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Palliser Novels

"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel."

I have just finished the last of Trollope's six Palliser novels - something I wasn't expecting to achieve until I was at least 80. But a recent period of illness required some comfort reading and after enjoying Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger trilogy last year, I was on the lookout for another sequence of novels.

The Pallisers fitted the bill perfectly.

Compared to Dickens, whose novels seem to inhabit a hyperrreal world of caricatures, Trollope's stories are disarmingly familiar. His characters complain about an unpopular coalition government, bemoan the fact that there are no longer any politicians with charisma and think that the young generation aren't a patch on theirs.

Each novel seems to feature the following stock characters:
  • A penniless young man on the make
  • A young woman who can't decide whether to marry for love or money
  • A rich widower who is exasperated by his children's behaviour
  • Someone called Frank
  • A feisty, outspoken elderly duchess
  • A middle-aged bachelor who's a bit of a chump
  • A penniless spinster who exists as a 'companion' to an aristocrat
  • A man of doubtful social origins who believes that he is a gentleman
  • A wealthy widow who delights in toying with her suitors

The Palliser novels are all about money and power. If you have neither, then your only hope is to acquire them through marriage or inheritance. The third option available to young gentlemen - hard work - appears to be too absurd to warrant mentioning.

I liked Trollope's ability to create a broad canvas of well-defined characters, whose interactions are portrayed with wit and perception. Trollope writes particularly well for women, showing how they used wit and guile to overcome the restrictions placed on their gender.

I didn't like Trollope's anti-semitism, which hit a particularly sour note in the penultimate novel and went far beyond the normal prejudices of mid-Victorian Britain. I also felt that by the fourth book, Trollope was beginning to repeat himself and kept forgetting which novel I was reading.

Some might argue that the Palliser novels are a literary Downton Abbey, lacking the breadth of vision that made Dickens such a great writer. But although they may have something of the soap opera about them, Trollope's rich panorama of the upper echelons of mid-Victorian Britain also asks some fundamental questions about the pursuit of happiness.

In Trollope's world, love conquers all, but only if it's accompanied by money: "Love is like any other luxury. You have no right to it unless you can afford it." and whilst we, the reader, may feel a warm glow when the wedding bells ring, there is usually at least one character who is left destitute and alone.

Monday, May 05, 2014

A Night Out in 1975

"Hello, is Julie there please? It's Kevin. Thank you...

Hello Julie. Fancy a night out in Westcliff? Great! I know this amazing new cinema where there are two different screens! Yes, two..."

It all changed in the mid-70s. Cinema chains dropped the B films and added more screens, but retained old favourites like the asthma-inducing Kio-Ora orange squash and the obligatory Herb Alpert records that preceded the adverts for carpet shops and Indian Restaurants.

This 1975 programme for the Classic 1 and 2 in Westcliff-on-Sea was being used as a bookmark:

Roger Moore fans were particularly well served, with Gold showing one week and Live and Let Die the next. But the double bills must have been a bit of an endurance course.

Diary of a Nymphomaniac probably didn't live up to the promise of its title and I can imagine an afternoon matinee in an almost empty cinema, with a smattering of disappointed middle-aged men in gannex raincoats.

But if you prefer films for adults to adult films, I can thoroughly recommend Sunday Bloody Sunday.

A Ken Russell double bill seems an optimistic choice for Southend, but perhaps audiences were more receptive to serious drama (and gratuitous nudity) in the age before multi-channel television.

If you could go back to 1975 and sit in the third row, with the smoke drifting across from the right hand side of the auditorium, which of these films would you pick?

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Imperfect Family

Yesterday, my wife and I took our oldest son to Harley Street in search of a definitive answer to a question that has remained unresolved for nearly a decade. After two hours of gruelling questions, the diagnosis was uneqivocal: Asperger's syndrome. Suddenly, everything fell into place.

In many ways I feel relieved. My son will now hopefully get the help he needs and my wife and I will no longer be blamed for his problems. However, I feel sad that so many years have been wasted. I wish that I'd been more assertive with the succession of professionals who implied that my wife and I were neurotic parents, making a fuss over nothing.

Perhaps my son could have been spared a lot of unnecessary suffering.

This morning we walked to Landport Bottom, where the town is celebrating the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes. It may not look terribly exciting, but the events that took place here changed the course of history:

My older son stayed at home. His younger brother staged a silent protest, refusing to take his hood down and I wondered what we must look like. Occasionally, people would greet us with a breathy "Hi! How are you? What have you been up to?" We smiled back and said "Oh, nothing much..."

I watched some children dancing around a Maypole and tried to imagine either of my sons taking part in a group activity:

The field was surrounded by stalls. Children were laughing at a Punch and Judy show, whilst mothers in medieval costume were preparing some craft activities. Everyone seemed to be inhabiting a different, happier world to us and I felt as if I was passing through like a ghost.

But of course this was nonsense. I looked around me again and saw a woman with a life-threatening illness, a friend whose mother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and a neighbour whose husband had recently left her for another woman. Beneath the surface, most of us are struggling in one way or another, smiling for the camera.

The happy world of perfect families only exists in Ladybird books. And sometimes even Ladybird lets us down.