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:


Tororo said...

I was so sorry to read the last part of this post. Please accept the expression of my deepest sympathy.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I am sorry for your loss Phil. So sad on so many levels.
But on a positive note your work move sounds like it's for the best. Let's hope the new Waterstones thrives also. I certainly keep my end up for real books now I can read on the bus to work there and back.

PAL said...

Your friend's father, the Scottish scriptwriter Alan Sharp, possessed the most uncanny command of American idiom. Watching Night Moves and Ulzana's Raid, another wonderful script, it's hard to believe they were written by someone born and bred on Clydeside.

I believe his 'colourful' character is portrayed by his ex- Beryl Bainbridge in her novel 'Cousing Georgie

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...


As you say, it could be a sign of bravery or foolhardiness but, whatever, we too are pleased to see Waterstones in Lewes. Indeed, we shall be in Brighton very soon and shall make our way to Lewes by bus especially to see it. And, Farow and Ball paint....very Lewes! It is so depressing that so many bookshops have disappeared and continue to disappear from towns and cities throughout the land. We are fortunate in Brighton to have several small independent booksellers and long may they remain!

Yo described the funeral of your friend so tenderly. This is so sad.One can picture in the mind the entire scene and the outburst of the son was so raw that it must have touched the hearts of everyone there.It is good that there is a family member to care for the boys but one cannot help but feel that this is a difficult start in life for them.Whatever, it is events such as this very saddening story that make one more determined than ever to live life for it is indeed for the living. It is not a dress rehearsal.

We hope that if you are interested you may well seek us out on our blog. We are but a click away.

Little Nell said...

There is so much in this post; I don’t know where to begin. I”m glad the move to new premises is over, though sorry about your head wound. I too would miss the robins.

Your description of the funeral brought a lump to my throat and it reminded me of an occasion a few years ago in my headteaching days. Mine was a C of E school but we had a couple of families who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. When the mother of one died in her thirties, leaving three young boys and three-year old daughter, we at the school were very sad. The family not so, due to their beliefs. The father told me all about the funeral, and laughed as he recalled his young daughter’s response to the leader of the church asking ‘Where is XXX?' to which the little one piped up “She’s in that box!’ at which point everyone burst out laughing. A counter balance perhaps to your story.

Lastly, I’m so pleased to hear about the Statement of SEN for your son. These are indeed rarely awarded; I have been to tribunals alongside parents where the needs were glaringly obvious (to my mind), yet still the LEA managed to avoid awarding this recognition of a child’s (and family’s needs).

Steerforth said...

Tororo - Thank you.

Laura - The new Waterstone's was packed today and the reaction from the customers was very positive. Perhaps there is hope, after all. My youngest has no time for the Kindle at all and is always lecturing me on the superiority of real books.

Peter - My friend's father was indeed the inspiration for a Beryl Bainbridge novel - Sweet William. By all accounts, he didn't behave terribly well when he was younger, but his charm and generosity were far greater than his faults. So I'm told.

You're clearly a film buff. I'm ashamed to say that I'd never heard of him and had no idea that he was so highly regarded.

Jane and Lance - I have visited your blog a number of times and have looked longingly at your photos of interesting visits to unusual places. You're both clearly living life to the full and I salute you! Hopefully, my period of house-arrest will eventually come to an end and I can follow your example.

Nell - We've applied for both the DLA and an SEN, believing that our chances of getting either were very slim. On both occasions, they've been awarded without any need for a tribunal, which is a huge relief, but it has made me realise just how serious my sons problems are.

Fortunately, he will now receive help until he is 25, which gives him a fighting chance of making up for the many years he has lost.

Canadian Chickadee said...

So sorry to hear about your friend.

Yes, Catholic funerals con be quite an ordeal, but the formality does seem appropriate. Don't feel embarrassed; sitting quietly while the Catholics do their thing is perfectly acceptable. I hope her twin boys will be okay. California can be quite a culture shock if you're not expecting it. Take care and God bless.

And I'm so glad that you've been able to get the grant application approved so for your son's education.

Take care and God bless, xoxox Carol

Steerforth said...

Thanks Carol. I think the boys should be quite at home in California, as they've spent a lot of time there over the years. It could also be a good move because there are some poineering treatments for autism in LA.

zmkc said...

Bloody death - if I ruled the world it would be abolished. Re bookshops, while Kindles are great and convenient, et cetera, don't you find yourself wanting something more substantial when you find a book you want to look at more than once? I know you can bookmark in an ebook, but I've never really got to grips with how you actually find the bookmarks later, whereas, with folded corners of pages, I can find the bits I like almost instantly and thus bore my family for hours reading out loud from things none of them are remotely interested in. It would be such a shame to remove that small pleasure (for me - reoccurring torture for them, of course) from the world

George said...

I am very sorry to hear about your friend.

By my count, there are six times the congregation stands in unison during a Roman Catholic Mass: procession, Gospel, Creed and or Intercessions, Preface Dialogue, Lord's Prayer, and final blessing. This can vary, since to stand for the procession one must arrive on time, as a fair number never do, and in many parishes the final blessings are interrupted for annoucements.

I have read that a new bookstore is opening about a mile east of us. It is an independent, though, not part of a chain.