Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mother Dear

My mother will be joining us for Christmas Day, so I'm steeling myself for an afternoon of anecdotes about the illnesses of people I barely know:
  • Maureen won't be able to go to Janet and Ken's for Christmas. She's having a tube fitted.
  • Doris didn't send a card this year. I wonder if the ulcer's come back. Her cat died last year.
  • Irene wants to come for tea, but she can't swallow any more. I'll make a milk jelly.
  • He was about your age and he just dropped dead. Nobody expected it. He was coloured.
  • Vera was going to go back to Florida to die, but they don't have a Tesco there.
  • I've told Jean that I'm diabetic. She says that I can have Rich Tea biscuits.  
  • That woman in the hairdresser who has a funny friendship with Lynn - she's been very ill. 
  • Norman has a pacemaker, but it's not working. He collapsed during Strictly.
If it's a good day, I'll be able to steer my mother away from her morbid preoccupation with illness and tell me about what life was like in the 1930s and 40s. They are far more entertaining than the latest progress report about Vera's leg.

I thought I'd heard all of my mother's anecdotes about the War, but the other day she told me a new one.

It was 1940 and my mother was reaching the end of a piano lesson. Her teacher had just rapped her on the knuckles for making a mistake when suddenly, an air raid siren sounded.

"You need to leave now. I have another girl waiting in the hall."

"But my mum says I have to stay where I am when a raid's on."

"No! You must go home now. Come along."

As the front door of the piano teacher's house slammed shut, the bombs started to fall and my mother ran through the streets, weeping. Behind her, a terraced house took a direct hit, creating a sudden gap in the neat, Victorian row. My mother ran on, wondering if she would ever reach home. She never had another piano lesson after that incident.

I often ask my mother to repeat the same stories about her childhood, so that I can remember them well enough to pass them on. They are nearly always interesting, even when the subject matter is mundane, simply because they are eye witness accounts of a period that is long gone. I also enjoy the obsolete slang and the way that most of my mother's sentences begin with "Any rate..."

One of the most magical things I saw recently was a clip posted by a Facebook friend, featuring two Devonshire women of my mother's age:

This generation, made up of people whose formative years were in a world without television, won't be around for much longer. Their memories of horse-drawn carts, Sunday best and mangles will disappear into the ether unless we talk to them now. Even if I am losing the will to live tomorrow, assailed by gloomy tales of gammy legs and failing pacemakers, I will remember to be grateful that my mother is still here. I'll miss her when she's gone.

P.S. - Christmas Day was a success. The issue of Vera's leg was never raised and the only revelation from my mother concerned the entertainer, Anita Harris (link provided for those who have never heard of her):

"My brother was obsessed with Anita Harris. If she ever appeared on the telly, he'd be in a bad mood for the rest of the day."

Thursday, December 10, 2015


It's eight years since I worked in a bookshop at Christmas, but even now a split second of 'Let it Snow' makes me flinch like a dog that has been kicked too many times. It's too late to change. Nineteen Christmases in bookselling have reduced my festive spirit to a shrivelled husk. Why did I do it?

On reflection, my relationship with bookselling has mirrored Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's model for the five stages of grieving:

1. Denial: This is just a temporary expedient while I find something that is more suited to my talents.

2. Anger: It's been two years now. I'm skint and I still have no idea what to do with my life.

3. Bargaining: While I'm here, I may as well apply for that floor mananger job in Kingston.

4. Depression: I've just turned 30 and I'm still working in a bookshop. What a loser.

5. Acceptance: Actually, there are worse jobs than this. At least I'm a manager now. The pay is better, the work can be interesting and most of my colleagues are lovely people.

As time went on I began to appreciate my work far more, particularly when I worked for Ottakar's. How many other jobs would have given me the opportunity to discuss bedtime reading with Katie Price, or bemoan the state of the book trade with Jacqueline Wilson while sitting on a moving merry-go-round?

But the price for these precious moments was a heavy one: Christmas. I'm not just talking about the Phil Spector loop tapes, but also the sheer volume of books that had to be sold in November and December. It was exhausting.

Most branches of retail sensibly spread their sales across the year. However, in the book trade, 50% of the income is earned during the last ten weeks of the year and much of that money comes from a relatively small selection of bestsellers - usually hardbacks that consist of the following:

  • Two ghostwritten celebrity memoirs, one of which will be by someone in Eastenders
  • A sci-fi/fantasy novel by a man called Terry
  • The new Patricia Cornwell thriller
  • The Guinness Book of Records
  • A biography of a very dull sportsperson/yachtswoman/commentator
  • A quirky, humourous title that has taken everyone by surprise
  • A Jamie Oliver cookery book
  • A Nigella Lawson cookery book
  • A tie-in with a television series on BBC1, usually presented by a man called David
  • The Booker Prize winner, if it's by an author whose name is pronounceable
  • A misery memoir of horrific child abuse - Happy Christmas!
  • A beautiful children's pop-up book, handmade by Bolivian peasants earning 50p an hour
  • A stocking filler about bodily functions
  • The Friendship Book
These books will be given as presents and very few people will actually ever read them, but they are the bread and butter of the publishing industry, making the difference between profit and loss.

As a manager, I knew that my head was on the block. If I ran out of any bestselling titles, it was a big black mark. However, if I ordered too much stock and was still stuck with it on December 27th, I would also be in trouble.

In addition to the bestellers, there were plenty of other things that could go wrong and at some point in the early hours of the morning, I would often wake up and go through tedious lists in my head:
  • Did we have enough Book Tokens?
  • Remember to increase the change float for the weekend.
  • Find out if any of the weekend staff can cover if someone phones in sick.
  • Don't forget to check that we have enough carrier bags.
  • Get more of that bestelling pop-up book because it won't be reprinted before Christmas.
  • Mustn't forget to refresh the window display.
  • Tell X that they can't block the fire exit with boxes.
  • Check last year's sales to see how many Jamie Olivers sold in the final week.
  • Make sure the sale posters have arrived.
  • Check WH Smith to see if they're selling Y for less than us.
What sort of person lies awake at night worrying about carrier bags? But like the nail that lost the kingdom in the famous nursery rhyme, their absence would spell disaster. And if we ran out of change, then harikiri was the only viable option.

The challenge of having to take five times as much money, unpack five times as many deliveries and have enough staff to cover these tasks (and the extended opening hours) was a daunting prospect, but I learned how to avoid the pitfalls and genuinely enjoyed the challenge and camaraderie.


I miss that moment on Christmas Eve, after the doors have finally closed, when you know that the madness is over for another year and that in spite of sickness, missing deliveries and dreadful weather, you've pulled it off. After wishing the staff a Happy Christmas, you walk around the empty shop and take stock (not literally, I hasten to add), looking at the books that surprised everyone by becoming bestsellers and those that were supposed to, but didn't.

Your 16-year-old self would probably be rather disappointed that you've ended up running a shop, but there's not much call for third-rate composers these days and after all, this is a bookshop. So many people would think that having a whole bookshop to yourself is heaven and suddenly, you realise that they're right.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


It's now a month since my wife returned to full time work for the first time since the last century. I've teased her about how much things have changed, pointing out that they don't use floppy disks any more, but in fact she's made the transition with remarkable ease. After sixteen challenging years of motherhood, my wife is more than ready for a change.

But there is one new practice that has really bothered my wife: "Why are so many people now ending their emails with Kind Regards? It's nonsense."

My days follow a strict routine, beginning with a 25-mile round trip taking my sons to their respective schools. I then drive to work and deal with my book orders, which seem to be slowly diminishing. I usually have lunch at home, as the faint aroma of dead rats doesn't whet my appetite, then I clean the house, do the laundry and cook, before repeating the school run.

I'm bored silly by the whole thing, but it will only last for two years, hopefully. My main aim at the moment is to try not to go potty.

It feels as if I have spent the last month indoors, but these Instagram photos prove otherwise:

I heard yesterday that my old Greek Philosophy lecturer died a few days ago. He taught me two very important things that have served me well. First, he told me how bad my English was - I was educated during a period when good grammar and spelling were regarded as unacceptably elitist and my howlers were never corrected. Second, he taught me about the Heraclitan Doctrine of Flux: everything in the universe is constantly changing and you cannot step into the same river twice.

The Doctrine of Flux has been particularly comforting. Whenever I have moments of existential angst during the tedium of the school run, I can console myself with the knowledge that contrary to appearances, I am driving along a different road each time.

I was going to go out, but it appears to have started raining again. Perhaps there's some dusting that needs doing.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Mere Bagatelle

The other evening I arranged to meet a friend for a drink in Hastings. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the train journey was hellish: standing room only, with a very rum selection of passengers.

The experience was made even worse by the family below:

The group consisted of two women - possibly mother and daughter - and an assortment of noisy, feral children who kept running around and disappearing under tables and seats (if you look carefully, you'll see a face slightly to the left of the baby). The younger children were all barefoot and liked dashing in and out of the loo, which is not something I'd want to do without shoes on.

At first, I thought the women belonged to a certain stereotype - they had the cheap leisurewear, tied-up hair and harsh accents. But then they started talking about visits to Pevensey Castle and a workshop they'd just been to. Also, the whole family were busy feasting on fresh fruit and drinking pure juice, so my crude social classification radar was starting to overheat in the face of so much conflicting data.

After 50 minutes of hell, I concluded that they were New Age 'crusties', returning from some sort of alternative 'do' in Brighton. They all seemed very cheerful. It's a pity that they were so oblivious to everyone else's feelings.

Fortunately, the journey home was very different - a reward for my earlier trials:

I am now four days into my role reversal with my wife. She seems to be doing terribly well in her new job, while my main achievement this week has been to crash the car. I'm waiting to hear whether it can be repaired or not.

Despite having its front smashed and losing the engine coolant, the car managed to limp back to Lewes. As I drove, I could see bits falling off. A group of workmen watched me go past and laughed uproariously. The labouring classes can be very unkind sometimes.

I'm trying to balance the demands of my business with being a minor domestic god, preparing cooked meals for the evening, keeping the house clean and fitting in a few DIY tasks. I'm doing reasonably well, but I wonder how long it will last before I end up spending my days on the sofa, reading and eating Turkish Delight.

When my car was still in one piece, I managed to get around the local area and take some more Instagram photos. I'm posting them because, frankly, it's much easier than trying to think of something interesting or amusing to say.

Now that my life is increasingly dull, expect more photos.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

All Change

Suddenly, everything is different. After years of being out of the education system, my older son is happy at his new school and is expected to do well in his exams. He has just turned 16, which seems extraordinary.

My younger son is also at a new school and comes home full of enthusiasm, eager to tell us how he has spent his day. The school seems to be preparing its pupils for a forthcoming disaster, as there is a strong emphasis on crafts, woodcraft and self-sufficiency, but I've never seen a classroom with so many happy children. Other schools could learn something.

On the downside, my business is slowly dying - partly because I have to spend a sizeable chunk of the day ferrying my sons around, but also because I'm struggling to find a supplier. Two years ago, it was relatively easy to find stock, but the recycling industry is under far more pressure and separating old books is now regarded as too time consuming.

But even that isn't the end of the world, as my wife has just managed to secure a job in a publishing company. If we continue to live frugally we should survive.

As for me, I will try to juggle the demands of the school run, maintaining my business and running a house, however I realise that this is a normal day for thousands of working mothers, so I won't be expecting a special badge. As long as I have a strict routine, it should be straightforward enough.

In my darker moments, I worry about what I'll be doing in a few years' time, but that's an utterly pointless activity. The important thing is to focus on the present and make the most of it.

On the subject of making the most of the present, here's another batch of photos that I uploaded to Instagram recently. It's just a random selection of shots of East Sussex, but they all capture different aspects of the things I like about the local area at this time of year:

Monday, October 05, 2015

Music For Grown-Ups

The other morning I found myself admiring The Cruel Sea, for the umpteenth time. So many British war films of the 1950s perpetuate the myths that were created to boost morale and have a crass, triumphalist tone. However, The Cruel Sea feels like a film for grown-ups.

One of the key elements that helps to define the film's tone is one that I suspect many people overlook: Alan Rawsthorne's marvellous score.

Take this scene for example, in which HMS Compass Rose is making its maiden voyage. In the hands of a lesser composer, the music would probably be very upbeat and bombastic, but Rawsthorne has written something far more interesting:

(For some reason, the clip doesn't play on some phones)

When a handful of dockyard workers cheer from the quay, instead of adding a patriotic flourish, Rawsthorne's music emphasises the pathos of the scene, with the young, inexperienced officer shyly half-saluting in reply, as the small, vulnerable corvette leaves the safety of its harbour. The atmosphere reminds me a little of a Ravillious painting, from his time as a War Artist.

The use of music is also particularly effective in the next clip, setting the scene, but also knowing when to quietly bow out so that the most harrowing moments take place in silence. The two sailors are the brother and husband-to-be of a widow called Mrs Bell:

And in the film's key scene, there is no music at all. Jack Hawkins doesn't need any help:

Of course, the brilliance of The Cruel Sea is a team effort and with names like Eric Ambler, Charles Frend, Michael Balcon, Jack Hawkins, Denholm Eliot, Virginia McKenna and Nicholas Montsarrat, it would be hard to produce a dud. But I think Alan Rawsthorne's score is definitely the icing on the cake, imbuing the narrative with a bleak, resigned stoicism.

These days, far too much film music is usually cliché-ridden and uninspiring, with an emotional palette that rarely progresses beyond happy, sad, in love, danger, funny and mysterious. Indeed, in music, 'filmic' is now a euphemism for overblown, melodramatic and sentimental and when I hear the soundtracks for films like Lord of the Rings, I feel a sense of despair.

I'm not sure exactly why the rot set in, but I'm pretty sure that it all went wrong after Star Wars, but that's a rant for another day.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"French Suite, First Floor"

Perhaps it's the male menopause, if such a thing exists, but the other day I did something I thought I'd never do. I'd learned about it almost by accident and was told that I would find the house down a small dark alley where, if I knocked on the right door, I would be shown upstairs to a room where a woman called Marcia would entertain me.

It was my first clavichord recital.

The clandestine recital took place in a small medieval building. By day, it houses a workshop, where harpsichords and replicas of other early keyboard instruments are built.

I'd seen some of the instruments a couple of weeks earlier at an open day and was speechless with admiration at their perfection. Every detail, right down to the creation of the metal strings, reflected a painstaking process that required a rare marriage of artistic and technical acumen. When someone mentioned that they occasionally held recitals, I had to go.

The soloist was an elegant, refined woman called Marcia Hadjimarkos, who introduced the pieces she was playing and talked a little about the instrument. "I don't know how you feel about clapping, but perhaps you'd just like to wave your programmes in between pieces and clap at the end. If you feel like clapping." And we did exactly that, with a ripple of muted, embarrassed laughter.

If I'd started filming in the middle of the recital, things might have turned ugly, so here's a clip of Marcia Hadjimarcos playing the fortepiano, with an introduction in French.

It's an odd instrument, with a lid, or swell, that keeps opening and closing. At one point I expected Sooty to appear.

Unlike the fortepiano, the clavichord doesn't have any pedals and it was extraordinary to hear the soloist produce such a wide dynamic range. A vibrato effect was created by wobbling the finger on the key, while pianissimo was achieved by an extreme delicacy of touch.

In the interval, I was fortunate enough to meet the woman who built the clavichord and she kindly responded to my inane questions with patience and charm. I hope I didn't come across as a complete idiot.

As for the music, it took a little while to learn to listen properly, but once I was in the 'zone' (partly thanks to a glass of wine in the interval), I found the recital increasingly rewarding. Listening to Bach's French Suites, with their extraordinary, almost electronic timbre, was a revelation. By the time I heard the exquisite encore, I was a convert.

There's something quite magical about an intimate recital in a medieval building, listening to music as it would have been heard three centuries ago. The phrase 'early music' used to bring me out in a cold sweat, but now I can see what I've been missing. Better late than never.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Clichés of Instagram

It's good to have a hobby and as stamp collecting probably wouldn't provide the same frisson as it did when I was 13, I've become increasingly preoccupied with Instagram. Seeing a random selection of pictures from around the world is fascinating and I also enjoy uploading snapshots and receiving 'likes' from complete strangers.

It may seem a small pleasure, but it's very gratifying to know that someone has enjoyed looking at one of my photos for 1.3 seconds.

However, my love of Instagram is not unqualified and there are a few themes (or should that be memes?) that I'm thoroughly fed up with.

Here are a few of my main irritants:

1. The Cup of Coffee

Why would anyone want to see a photo of someone else's cup of coffee?

I've no idea, but there are thousands of pictures on Instagram that people have taken of their favourite beverage (very rarely tea, for some reason). I know that coffee comes in many varieties, but you wouldn't know that from looking at the endless shots of frothy hearts in white cups.

I appreciate that people are sharing something that has made them happy and yes, it's lovely that the barista has done a little squiggly design in the froth to distract customers from the exorbitant price. But are the identikit coffees of global corporations sufficiently interesting to warrant photographing?

Probably not.

2. Feet

I'll come clean here and admit that I have whatever the opposite is of a foot fetish. If I had my way, everyone over the age of 12 would be banned from wearing sandals or flip flops and socks would be compulsory. But prejudices aside, what possesses so many people to think that it's a quirky, original idea to photograph their feet?

I never ceased to be amazed at the number of 'foot selfies' on Instagram and wish that there was a shoe button I could press to filter them out.

3. The 'Inspirational' Quote.

Uploading quotes onto Instagram is just wrong It's a site for sharing photographs, not moronoic platitudes that collapse under the most casual scrutiny. "It's a good day to have a good day"?

Let's just hang that one up on the wall of an oncology ward. They'll love it.

And to "Be who you are, not what the world wants you to be" is just self-centred nonsense. In the real world, who we are is a necessary compromise between our own desires and the needs of others. It's called civilisation.

Those are my top three. I'd also rather not see so many pictures of cats, Big Ben, poppies, white balloons, tattoos and Amsterdam, but I won't even try to justify those prejudices  (and of course, it's quite likely that someone is looking at my photos and tutting at their predictability and narrow range of themes, along with the paucity of uplifting thoughts and feet).

But even clichés can be good in the right hands. Look at what this photographer has done with a hackneyed, familiar scene:

The same photographer also managed to come up with a stunning photo of Big Ben:

I'd like to see what he could do with a cup of coffee.