Friday, May 29, 2015


A few weeks ago I went to a reunion of ex-Ottakar's booksellers and met people I hadn't seen for nine years. For a few hours, it felt as if I'd woken up from a bad dream and that we were all back together again. 

To add to the feeling of discombobulation, nobody appeared to have aged, even slightly.

It was a bittersweet evening. It was lovely to see people that I'd once felt a genuine affection for, but it also made me sad that I'd lost an enjoyable and rewarding career. Working alone in a remote barn, for a slowly diminishing income, isn't what I envisaged I'd be doing at this age.

However, I'm not alone. Most of my contemporaries have either experienced 'burn-out' or been made redundant. The world of work is becoming increasingly cut-throat and it's hard to compete with someone who is half your age, full of enthusiasm and willing to accept a lower salary.

Of course, male employees can always crack open the Just For Men, go to a gym and try and seem a little bit crazy, but they'll still come across as embarrasing dads having a midlife crisis. It's an unforgiving world out there.

A friend of mine complains that there is nobody in her office over the age of 35. Where have all the middle aged people gone? I suspect that like me, quite a few of them are eking out an existence, some more comfortably than others, trying to juggle the demands of young children and/or elderly parents.

Next September, my son will hopefully be starting at a new, specialist school, which could be the making of him. I will be taking and collecting him by car every schoolday for the best part of two years, so any work I do will have to fit around that schedule.

At the end of it, my son will hopefully be independent enough to make his own way to appointments and lessons. Legally, he will be an adult and in theory, I'll be free to find a proper job. But what will I do?

Men of my age aren't exactly hot property in the jobs market.

Self-employment can be a godsend if you have a child with 'special needs'. I've lost count of the number of meetings I've had to drive to, or the hours that have been spent coaxing my son back into the outside world. But the erratic income and social isolation can be debilitating.

After sitting alone in a shed for a whole day, I don't come home brimming with energy and my limited repertoire of work-related anecdotes usually involve birds, rodents or invertebrates. I feel bored by myself.

For my own sanity, I need to find something else, even if it's just a succession of temporary or part-time jobs. I can't imagine never working with anyone again.

But, of course, there are also positives to being self-employed. The other afternoon, when I ran out of work, I was able to come home early and go for a walk with my younger son. We stopped here and for the first time in years, I lay on the grass and watched the clouds merging into each other:

The whole afternoon cost nothing and gave us both more pleasure than a visit to any tourist attraction. My son started to tell me about all of the things that were on his mind (most of them involved Lego) and for a while, I felt like a half-decent father.

So I think that answer is to carry on as I am for two years, then look for a part-time job that doesn't involve wearing a green uniform or short trousers. But what, how and where? That is the question.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Man the Decks

It's been a disappointingly cool May, but I've grown to like the soft, pastel colours and muted shadows that grey skies produce. Even mundane objects like this Victorian flint and brick wall can seem a thing of beauty.

I'd probably feel differently if I lived in somewhere like Croydon, where overcast skies only serve to accentuate the drabness of concrete office blocks and municipal car parks. But in the South Downs, a grey sky looks like an Eric Ravilious watercolour.

My book business is going through a rather quiet period at the moment, so I've taken the opportunity to transform our garden from a toxic, post-apocalyptic wasteland into something that looks vaguely respectable, with decking, pot plants and freshly-painted walls.

The decking was done by a retired man, who proudly told us that he'd learned his carpentry skills at a borstal. According to his son, he should be dead, having been electrocuted twice, surviving a heart attack in his 50s and falling off a number of buildings.

He also has a metal plate in his leg.

"It's his own fault," the son explained. "He's never been one to worry about health and safety. He's got this daft idea that it's safer to walk on a roof barefoot."

On one occasion, the son was working with his father on a roofing job when he heard him crying out and sliding down the tiles. Suddenly, the sliding stopped.

"It's all right," the father yelled, "My foot got stopped by the top of the ladder. I'm okay now...wooaahhh..."

At this point, the ladder began to fall backwards and the father was catapulted through the air.

He escaped with barely a scratch.

Fortunately, the cavalier attitude had clearly mellowed over the years and he worked carefully and conscientiously, producing a wonderful result. It was inspiring to watch a man who was 20 years older make light work of such a demanding job. What was his secret?

I decided to be brave and ask him how he kept so young: "So what's your secret then?"

His face lit up. He slowly turned to me and said "That would be lovely. White, no sugar please."

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Flatford to Clacton (or From Hay Wain to Hey Wayne)

Why is 'The Hay Wain' so popular in Britain? There are better and more interesting paintings, but, for some reason, Constable's famous scene used to be more common in suburban homes than dry rot.

I once went to a house that had two 'Hay Wains' - a large one in the living room and a smaller one in the hall (but not a single book, sadly).

They were owned by a plumber called Frank, who lived in a grim, terraced council house on one of England's roughest estates. Whether Frank particularly liked the scene or had simply bought a job lot, I don't know, but I suspect that many people responded to the depiction of a lost rural idyll.

Until today, I'd always assumed that the scene in 'The Hay Wain' was now consigned to oblivion, replaced by a housing estate or supermarket car park, but I was wrong. The lost rural idyll still exists in a place called Flatford.

This is the house that Constable painted, almost 200 years ago:

It's probably less idyllic in the height of the tourist season, when crowds of people in garish leisurewear amble round the grounds, but yesterday I barely saw a soul:

After taking a wrong turn, I went for an unintentionally long walk and found myself in a sort of paradise, with butterflies flittering in and out of the cow parsley and nettles.

Away from the sounds of traffic and other human activities, I became aware of just how loud nature is: 

It was particularly noisy, as I had inadvertently stumbled onto a private bird sanctuary and was probably ruining things for anyone who was sitting in the 'hide' that I could see, 100 yards away. I didn't want to be angrily pursued by someone called Colin, so I decided to make a break for it.

On the way back, I found something rather disturbing - the remains of a dead rabbit, hanging from the branch of a tree. Suddenly, I could almost hear the banjos.

By the time I returned to Flatford Mill, the coach parties were arriving. One man in his 60s was dressed like a Californian surfer, with a pyschedelic t-shirt that said Venice Beach. I thought he might a Hunter S Thompson figure, but then he opened his mouth and said "I'm just popping in the gift shop, Val, to see if they do that nice fudge."

I should have driven home, but, like a moth to the flame, I couldn't resist the temptation to make a diversion to Clacton-on-Sea - the only place in Britain to elect a UKIP member of Parliament (if you live in the USA, UKIP are similar to the 'Tea Party').

But first, I began with Jaywick which, in addition to sounding like an air freshener, is the poorest place in England:

With housing that is only marginally better than the favelas of Rio de Janiero, Jaywick feels as if it has been abandoned and disowned by the rest of the UK. It began promisingly enough in the 1930s as a holiday resort for working-class Londoners, with plots of reclaimed salt marshes being sold for as little as £25.

The cheap, jerry-built houses were never designed for year-round use, but a postwar housing shortage saw many people make Jaywick their permanent home, even though the developer had failed to put in some of the most basic infrastuctures. Today, you can buy a one-bedroom bungalow in Jaywick for £25,000.

On average, 15% of the UK population receive social benefits. According to the Guardian, the figure in Jaywick is 62%.

I certainly don't think I've been anywhere in England where the residents look so visibly poor or unwell - a tragic irony, given the original conception of Jaywick as a place where people could enjoy the healthy, outdoor life.

Apparently, the local council has tied to bulldoze the worst parts of Jaywick on more than one occasion, but the residents have always resisted. Beyond the poor housing and conspicuous poverty, there is a community spirit and fierce sense of independence. Jaywick will not be moved.

Unfortunately, in addition to being the poorest place in England, it is also one of the most flood-prone, so the North Sea will probably succeed where the authorities have failed.

Two miles along the coast, Clacton-on-Sea holds the accolade of being the second most deprived seaside resort in Britain, but compared to Jaywick it is the Côte d’Azur:

Like Margate, it was a popular resort for working-class Londoners. Today, you'll probably find more Cockneys living in Clacton than within the sound of Bow Bells and the souvenirs, like the rhyming-slang tea towel below, cater for a local clientele as much as the daytrippers:

My Cockney grandfather once worked as a labourer on the London Underground and, during a careless moment, fell onto a live rail and received serious burns. Paid sick leave wasn't an option in those days, so he decided to take his two weeks' annual leave and get treatment at Clacton-on-Sea, so that his wife and children could at least have a holiday.

It seems a poor way to treat a man who was gassed in the trenches.

The resort was packed in those days, as trainloads of people from London's East End filled the beaches:

Today, Clacton has been largely usurped by sunnier climes and the holidaymakers have been replaced by the retired and unemployed. The popularity of UKIP probably reflects the feelings of those who feel that they have been left behind.

On the pier, the funfair attractions were all mothballed and the only people I saw were a woman of 70, dolled-up like Olivia Newton John in Grease, with tight leather trousers and heavy make-up, clinging on to the arm of a man with faded tattoos.

I left the funfair behind and walked towards the end of the pier. Two very elderly women hobbled past me and I heard a brief snatch of their converstion:

"She said she was becomin' a lesbian, but now she's decided not to..."

Next to the pier, a small building offered 'Tattoo's', but there was also a glass booth that offered temporary ones. I was very tempted to play a joke on my wife by coming home with something inappropriate on my arm, like Justin Bieber. But I've read too many stories of tattoos going horribly wrong, so I decided to play safe.

For some odd reason, I had to buy my parking ticket in a bookshop and the moment I opened the door, I was transformed back to the 1970s. 

What is it about the small, old-fashioned independents that give them such a distinctive aroma of sweet decay? A lack of fresh air and a surfeit of old stock, perhaps, but the smell evoked happy memories of choosing the latest Enid Blyton.

A woman slowly wrote out a chitty for me. I wanted to tell her that I used to be a bookseller too.

For those who can survive for more than a day without a contemporary art gallery or artisan bakery, Clacton has its charms. The seafront is pleasant and there is a sandy, sheltered beach where small children can bathe safely with being dragged out to sea by any riptides. If you prefer shingle beaches and campervan-driving hipsters, then head north to Suffolk.

I'll be sticking with Clacton. If it's good enough for my grandfather, it's good enough for me.