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.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Homeward Bound

I went out for a drink in London with some old friends on Saturday. I don't see enough of them, but we all live in different parts of the country. In a perfect world, we'd all be in the same town and have a local pub.

The journey home began well enough. I found an empty table, kicked my shoes off and began reading the new Michael Faber novel. Then, just as the train started to edge of Victoria Station, three middle-aged women surrounded me and started chatting loudly about something they'd been to. I stopped reading.

Suddenly, one of the women noticed me. "Oh, I'm afraid we've rather invaded your space. Would you like to have some wine with us?"

It seemed rude not to say yes.

After finishing my plastic glass I tried to have forty winks, but it was impossible. The women were loudly going through lists of men's names and discussing their eligibility as suitors. If a man wasn't interested in them, he was gay, apparently.

The younger of the three boasted about the number of men she meet through Twitter and complained about the reluctance of one of them to marry her in Las Vegas, or indeed anywhere.

A few minutes later, the conductor announced that due to engineering works, the train wouldn't be going any further, so would we all please transfer to the bus replacement service. My heart sank, particularly when I saw an oxymoronically-named 'Crawley Luxury' coach, with Lewes as its destination.

We waited in the dark, dank forecourt, like refugees fleeing from a conflict. We wanted to go home, but our driver, a small, wiry, bald man, with an earring and a nylon short sleeve shirt, had other ideas.

On the edge of the crowd, a young man asked if there was time to have a smoke. The driver nodded and the young man lit a joint. A well-to-do man in his 50s said "Hmm, that's a rather nostalgic smell." A few people laughed, to advertise the fact that they also had a bit of a past.

After ambling around the coach for the tenth time, the driver suddenly decided that we might as well go and asked us to take our seats. The engine clicked into life and Heart FM blared Black Box's 'Ride On Time' through the speakers. It was going to be a long journey.

To make things worse, it soon became clear that our driver had no idea where he was going. At first, I assumed that he was following a special drivers' route, but when we passed Horsham Station - 10 miles in the wrong direction - a man in a pinstripe suit and metrosexual shirt decided that enough was enough.

To his credit, the driver didn't bother trying to pretend that he knew what he was doing and the rest of the journey involved the passengers shouting directions in unison every time we approached a turning: "LEFT...NO, LEFT!"

Our 27-mile journey took one hour and 20 minutes. Next time, I think I'll share a taxi with a few people.

But I digress. I was meant to be sharing a book jacket that I recently discovered: 'Gourds', by the aptly-named John Organ.


Thursday, October 02, 2014

"And Your Point Is..?"

I'm writing this in the relative safety of our loft, while downstairs, our new kittens are tearing the house apart. Losing their testes hasn't made any discernible difference to their urge to destroy, so I'm not quite sure what to do. Perhaps a giant wheel is the answer.

There's no theme to this post. It's just a hotchpotch of things I've noticed during the last few days.

First, another candidate for my gallery of bad art, courtesy of the Lewes branch of Pizza Express:

I remember creating doodles like this in the Paint programme of Windows 3.1, if I was feeling particularly bored.

It must have taken all of five minutes to do the curved lines, then click and fill the gaps with different colours.

It's a pity, as the Pizza Express itself is lovely. They deserve better than this:

Next, a rather uncomfortable choice of bookmarks for a title about African tribes:

UK readers will recognise the Golly branding from Robinson's marmalade. I was surprised to learn that it wasn't ditched until 2002. According to Wikipiedia, the "brand director" at Robinson's insisted that:

"We are retiring Golly because we found families with kids no longer necessarily knew about him. We are not bowing to political correctness, but like with any great brand we have to move with the times."

On the subject of moving with the times, I've noticed that in the 1960s, it was the Panther imprint that took the lead in spicing up innocuous novels with saucy covers:

When the once-popular Howard Spring's sales started to dip, someone in Pather's sister company, Fontana, decided that a little more sauce needed to be added. This cover, for a novel that was originally published in 1934, promised more than it delivered:

Next, a wonderful advert from a novel published in the 1890s:

As you can see, Queen Victoria herself described the hats as "extremely becoming", which is is almost indecently effusive by her standards.

(*NB - I have now been informed that this endorsement would have been from 'The Queen' magazine. Another dream shattered.)

Sadly, Mr Heath's business didn't survive the hatless postwar years, but you still see the beaver statues that graced the top of his premises. There is also an interesting piece about Henry Heath's hats here.

Next, one of my favourite bookmarks so far: a menu from the RMS Ascania, for Friday November 27th, 1925:

The Corn on Cob au Beurre  and Ice Cream and Wafers aren't terribly exciting. Was this for the 2nd Class passengers?

I haven't been on a cruise, as I abhor any holiday in which one is forced to socialise with other tourists, particularly when the only means of escape is overboard. I don't go abroad to make friends with someone from Leatherhead.

The one time my wife and I went on a group holiday, it was a disaster. The trip turned out to be mainly composed of Daily Mail readers (I think it was a special offer in the paper) and I spent the entire week hiding from people.

I started off with good intentions. However,  an agonising group lunch, during which a woman boasted that her husband was "big in concrete" exposed the gaping void between our worlds. I was later caught hiding from everyone in a vineyard, while my wife explained that I was "shy".

The trick is to travel with a small group of like-minded people. I once shared a villa with some people who worked at the House of Commons, via a tenuous connection with someone I knew in my teens. We met at Gatwick Airport and by the time our plane had landed, we were laughing and trading good-humoured insults like old friends. Every day was a real laugh.

At the end of the holiday we swapped names and addresses and agreed to meet up in London, but naturally none of us bothered.

It can be quite comforting to let your hair down with complete strangers without the messy business of maintaining a friendship, which leads to my final bookmark: an agenda for the British Association for Behavioural Psychology's annual conference at Exeter, in 1976.

The agenda for Saturday 24th is a punishing schedule of symposiums and lectures, including the following:
  • Group relaxation with agoraphobics
  • Marital group therap
  • Group relaxation with stammerers
  • Training the compulsive gambler
  • Imaginal exposure with dental phobics
  • Cost effectiveness of behavioural psychology
  • The aetiology and treatment of sex disorders
The list goes on, but I'm sure you'll be as pleased as I was to learn that in the evening, between 8.00 and midnight, they had a disco. The thought of a hall full of behavioural psychologists bopping away to "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" makes me wish I was there:

"Oooh-hoo, Nobody knows it. When I was down. I was your clown. Oooh-hoo..."