Friday, June 27, 2014


For many, opening a bookshop in 2014 is as recklessly anachronistic as buying a typewriter or investing in a new VCR, but Waterstones (now sans apostrophe) have defied the odds and just opened a new branch in Lewes. Don't they know we're all reading on Kindles now?

However, if any new bookshop is going to succeed, it will be this one. I've written quite a few posts in the past citing what's wrong with Waterstone's (and when they were owned by HMV, it was a long list), so it came as a pleasant surprise to see a new branch that was absolutely pitch perfect.

Everything, from the Farrow and Ball paint to the quirky range of titles, was exactly right for Lewes. But does that mean they'll make any money?

On Wednesday, I had a drink with a former colleague from Waterstones who'd been overseeing the Lewes opening and asked her how things were going. She was cautiously optimistic, painting a picture that wasn't one of universal doom and gloom. I know from experience that her default setting is positive, but she didn't gloss over the many challenges that high street booksellers face. It was encouraging to hear that some bookshops still had a future.

The age of the 15,000 sq foot behemoths is clearly over, as far as new openings go, but there is a place for smaller shops and apparently, people are still buying books. Just not everywhere.

I'm not a betting man, but I'd put money on the Lewes branch being here in five years' time. It deserves to succeed.

In other news, as they say on the television, I have finished moving out of the rat-infested hovel that I haven't called home for the last 20 months. I will miss the robins:

But I won't miss the smell of several months of accumulated bovine excrement, or the sound of bulls sodomising each other.

The move was relatively straightforward, apart from one mishap today, when a piece of metal fell on my head. I feel fine, but it's left a mark that looks like the scar from a frontal lobotomy. I hope it heals, otherwise I will have to wear a hat for the rest of my life.

One other piece of good news is that we have succeded in getting a Statement of Special Educational Needs for our oldest son. I won't bore you with the details, but the gist is that if we find a school that can help our son, the local authority will now pay for it. Awards like these rarely get past the application stage, so I can only assume that my son made an impression.

On a sadder note, last week we attended the funeral of our closest friend in Lewes. She was 56 and had twin 14-year-old boys, one of whom is severely autistic.

The funeral was in two parts: a Catholic Mass in Lewes, followed by a cremation in Brighton. I'd never been to a Catholic service before and felt that both the length and use of ritual added a gravitas and dignity that is often missing from funerals. I'll have to do a deathbed conversion.

The ritualistic aspects of the Mass were rather confusing for the Protestants and heathens. About a quarter of the people at the servive were Catholics and every now and then, they would pop up from their seats like a flashmob and chant something. The rest of us sat awkwardly in our pews.

When the coffin arrived, everybody took a deep breath and tried to maintain their composure. It seemed extraordinary that our friend was in this small wooden box. A few weeks earlier she'd had lunch with my wife and on the way home, they'd popped into the church hall to vote in the European elections. She voted Green.

There was a hushed atmosphere as the coffin was slowly carried along the aisle, then the silence was suddenly broken by the autistic son, who uttered just one word in a flat, emotionless voice: "Upset."

At that point, everybody broke down.

At some funerals I've experienced grief as a sense of personal loss, but on this occasion it was just a terrible sadness for a friend whose life had been cut short.

Our friend faced death without any self-pity and remained interested in the world right up until the last week. She was obviously worried about her sons, but took comfort in the knowledge that her sister in Los Angeles has agreed to take the boys. In a few weeks' time, they will leave Lewes and begin a new life in California.

At some point I will write a tribute to our quirky, interesting friend. In the meantime, here's a trailer for a film that was written by her late father, who died only a year earlier. She would have liked this:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Miscellany

I've lost count of how many carloads of books I've transported from my old farm to the new, grandly-named 'business centre', but I've reached a point where enough is enough. The rest of my books are going in the bin. They've been on sale for nearly two years without attracting a single customer, so my conscience is clear.

As Channing says in Spearhead From Space: "Destroy. Total Destruction. "

During the last few long, dusty days of throwing unwanted books in bins, I've come across a few gems. Here are my favourites:

As the advertising slogan used to say, "You can be sure of Shell".

This is from the good old days when having your five a day probably wasn't such a good idea, unless you thoroughly washed the carcinogenic residue off. Thanks to people like Rachel Carson, DDT was eventually banned from agricultural use, although the UK doggedly persisted until the mid-80s.

The last time I saw the acronym DDT, it was on a bottle of headlice shampoo. I didn't buy it.

This is from a 1940s boys' annual and features a novel solution to the problem of not being able to wear a tie in space.

If the British Empire had endured, perhaps this is how we would have conquered space, once we'd solved the problem of how to make a decent pot of tea in zero gravity.

There isn't much to be said about this leaflet. I just rather like the early 1950s graphic style. Apparently Nordkapp is Norwegian for Northern Cape.

I have no idea who this woman is, but spookily she looks just like a friend who has just died. I'd guess that this was taken in the late 70s or early 80s.

The photo fell out of a novel, where it was marking a page.

I can't really say why I like this illustration, but I think the combination of of the twilit sky and the lamplight in the foreground reminds me of a magical 'Night and Day' display that used to be exhibited in the Science Museum, many years ago.

I don't know why they got rid of it. They kept the Shipping gallery, which was very dull and didn't have any buttons to push.

These two images are from a late-1930s guide to photography. Both pictures evoke something of Britain between the wars - an era whose dying embers lasted until the late 1960s (and in the case of my wife's grandparents, the 1990s).

The first reminds me of a parade of shops on the border between Kew and Richmond, one of which was a delicatessen that my parents conspicuously avoided, probably because it sold 'funny' foreign food.

The second photo has an appealling wintry, Sunday afternoon atmosphere, unusually relaxed compared to most family group shots of the time.

The photography book also contained this loose insert:

The general message seems to be: feel free to snap away, but not if you're an enemy alien. I'm not sure if this notice alone would be a sufficient deterent to any foreign types, keen on assisting the Third Reich.

On the subject of the Fatherland, I opened a 1912 textbook for German schoolchildren learning English and discovered this gently-amusing anecdote:

'James II., when Duke of York once paid a visit to Milton. In the course of conversation he told the blind poet that the loss of his sight might be a punishment laid on him for having written against the late King.

"If, " replied Milton, "the calamities of this world are indications of Heaven's wrath, how guilty must your late Highness's father have been! I lost only my eyes: he lost his head."'

Finally (and apologies to anyone who has already seen this on Twitter), here is a great British brand-name that we don't hear very much of these days. I wonder what happened to them?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Letter From the Ministry of Information

I found an intriguing letter this afternoon, from the slightly Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Information:


29th May, 1943.

Dear Mr. Eddington,

         Mr. Foreman reported to me that a rumour was prevalent in your area that Haw Haw had said on Thursday night, May 20th, that the Germans would come again after the district had been given time to bury its dead. We have taken up this matter with Headquarters who report that no such announcement has been made by Haw Haw. The B.B.C. Monitoring system, as you know, takes cognisance of all broadcasts from Germany.

         It may be of interest to you to know that similar rumours have occured at various times all over the country after enemy air raids. This Ministry has, from time to time, tried to run these rumours down to their ultimate origin in order to find out whether enemy agents are responsible for starting them. In each case, Haw Haw has never made such announcement, and, where it has been possible to track them down to their source, it has been found that (a) an enemy agent was not responsible and (b) the source was usually a disgruntled citizen with an inferiority complex, who wanted to feel important and had started this story in order to let his friends think that he knew something they did not.

         I think you will like to have this information to pass on to the people in your neighbourhood.

         I have taken up with the Board of Trade the matter raised by your Committee in connection with Mr. T. Galley of Seaside Lane, Easington Colliery, who has been advised that, if he sells six large kettles to an Institution, they will be deducted from his general quota of pans, kettles etc., which will be eventually allotted him. I will let you know further about this when we have their reply.

                                                                                                  Yours sincerely,

                                                                                              (SGD.) MARGARET RICHARDSON,
                                                                                                              INTELLIGENCE OFFICER.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Tales of the Riverbank

I had an interesting day in Hammersmith yesterday, collecting some art books from a man who designed this:
As I boxed the books, I enjoyed listening to anecdotes about his long career - one that included National Service in the Intelligence Corps, a spell as a paparazzo in the 60s, followed by many years in Hollywood as a production designer. As if that wasn't enough, he'd also found the time to climb the Himalayas, trek across the Kalahari and paint enough canvases to fill a gallery.

And he's just published a novel.

When he turned to me and asked one of the most feared questions in the English language - "And what do you do?" - I had nothing to say.

It was pretty obvious that Michael didn't really want to get rid of his books, but he'd been given notice to vacate the building where he rents a studio and didn't have room in the Notting Hill flat he shares with his wife.

The studios are right on the riverside and I suspect that they will be bulldozed and replaced with luxury flats, most of which will be bought by foreign investors. It's a great pity that this quirky, interesting building is going to be lost:

It's strange to see how Hammersmith has changed from being a shabby, depressed, no-man's land, sandwiched between the West End and the genteel outer suburbs, to a cosmopolitain, middle-class property hostpot.

This is how I remember Hammersmith:

Today, it feels completely different. The area seems to have undergone some form of ethnic cleansing in which anyone who is either working class, overweight or old (or all three) has been deported. As I tried to load my van with boxes, I had to dodge a constant stream of cyclists and joggers, all pursuing their lesiure activities with the same dogged determination that they devoted to the working week.

I also noticed that many of the cyclists were speaking in French.

Michael's charming wife bought us lunch at the pub next door and for a moment I thought that I had gatecrashed a supermodels' convention. Svelte young women in expensive clothes, with perfectly waxed legs, checked their smartphones as they waited to be served exotic drinks by trendy bar staff, half dancing to the deafening music. 

Where were the old-timers, like The Syrup?

(For non-UK readers The Syrup was a character in the TV series Minder: syrup of figs - wigs)

I suppose he's now in Margate, with many of the other original Londoners.

In many ways, I liked the new Hammersmith. It was a pleasant change to worry about being knocked over by a cyclist rather than being beaten up. It's a long time since I heard anyone say "Wotchoo lookin' at? Eh? Wanna smackinthamaahf?"

The new Hammersmithonians seemed bright, fit and friendly. Several people stopped to help me when my attempts to load shelving units into the van took a farcical turn. Nobody called me mate.

But there is a darker side to the process of gentrification, beside the absurd property prices. Michael's wife said that many of the flats in Notting Hill are now being converted back into houses for Russian oligarchs and there are whole streets full of properties that are only occasionally occupied. A neighbour of hers ended up feeling so lonely and isolated that she decided to sell up and leave.

I'd forgotten how much I used to enjoy weekends in London and felt invigorated by meeting interesting new people. It came as a welcome relief from a phone call on Thursday morning, when we learned that our closest friend in Lewes had died unexpectedly.

She was one of those people who hated technology and as a result, has no presence on the internet (apart from a brief entry on the IMDB for working on Halloween III). Perhaps I'll remedy that.

Friday, June 06, 2014

No Stone Unscanned

I found a book today that was in appalling condition, covered in enough mould to cure a TB epidemic. It was beyond repair, but luckily I was able to salvage the contents for scanning purposes.

Some of these illustrations by Reynolds Stone are barely larger than a postage stamp, but each one is as complete and satisfying as a full canvas.

Many of Stone's illustrations have a sense of quiet desolation about them. If people appear, they are always alone and the landscapes they inhabit seem to have come from the collective imagination of songs, poems and stories.

Here is a representative selection:

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Wind, Sand and Bars

This morning my wife and I took our younger son to the Brighton Sand Sculpture Festival. I'm not an aficionado of sand, but my wife thought it sounded intriguing. Apparently, the sculptures are made from sand and water alone, with no cheating.

I was expecting a queue. Instead, we found ourselves in what appeared to be an abandoned building site, with cranes and diggers in the background.

Fortunately, the sand sculptures more than lived up to our expectations:

It was an extraordinarily windy day and as I looked at the choppy sea, I thought of another June 5th, 70 years ago, when bad weather forced the Allies to delay the Normandy landings for 24 hours.

After the sand sculptures, we walked along the seafront and found a fish and chip bar, manned by a terrifying man with a tattooed neck. In the background, tinny pop songs were playing. It was the sort of music I normally hate, but at seasides and funfairs it always adds to the general cheer.

Three tracksuited, pot-bellied men in their 60s joined us. "Look, it's the Sopranos..." my wife whispered and for a moment, I was expecting them to ask for a cwawfee. Disappointingly, they turned out to be German: Die Sopranen.

Eating fish and chips on a windy seafront may not have been the height of glamour, but I enjoyed the brief illusion of being an ordinary family doing normal things. I was pleased that we were able to give our younger son a day out, albeit a short one. We arrived home feeling bouyed-up by the experience.

An hour later the phone rang. My wife answered it and I continued valuing books; then I heard her tone of voice change and prepared myself for bad news.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Pond Life

I'm working ridiculously hard at the moment. If no further posts follow, then you'll know that I've either keeled over or been crushed to death by books.

I've been busy moving stock from my malodorous cowshed to a nice new unit, seven miles away, next to this pond:

The new unit is free of rats and mink. Also, I no longer have to cover the books in plastic sheeting to protect them from a growing family of robins. However, judging by a discovery someone made yesterday, the building isn't quite wildlife-free:

I'm not an expert on nature, but I believe that this is a great-crested newt. Quite why it decided to leave the splendour of the pond area for my new unit, I have no idea. 

Moving the stock is a fag (trivia fact - Jane Austen used this expression in 'Northanger Abbey'). I could hire a van and do it all in three trips, but that would be exhausting, so I'm transporting the books one car-load at a time. I've worked out that it will take 37 trips.

However, I think I'll have to bin some of the stock. The books that went on sale nearly two years ago seem to have reached the end of their shelf life and rarely appear on my list of titles sold. Is it really worth moving them?

These are the books that nobody seems to want:

I have no idea why 'A Romance in Radium' didn't excite the book buyers of the world. People have bought books about condensed milk, electricity substations and concrete, so nothing is too dull to sell. I think some books just drop off the radar.

Leisure time has been rather thin on the ground recently, but I was able to have a very enjoyable afternoon tea with a reader of this blog who happened to be on holiday in the UK. Meeting Dale and her husband was a delight and reinforced my positive view of blogging as a means of connecting with like-minded people. It could have been awkward meeting a complete stranger, but everyone I've met has been as likeable and entertaining as their writing, only more so.

On the subject of other bloggers, I'd like to thank Kristin at Not Intent on Arriving for inviting me to be interviewed on her blog. I hope I wasn't too dull. I like reading about Kristin's life (although it always makes me realise how dull mine has become) and vicariously enjoy reading about her travels.

My wife has just told me that a door has fallen off. I think that's my cue to stop.