Friday, December 30, 2011

A Different Tune

I've just returned from Rye, where I met an old friend for a drink.

Twelve years ago he was living around the corner from my flat in Twickenham, earning a fortune in business publishing, but hating every minute of his working day. Then one day he decided he'd had enough, sold his flat for £120,000 and bought another on the Kent coast for £60,000, using the balance to pay off his mortgage.

He's never had a 'proper' job since, and seems much happier for it.

Last year he was invited to audition for a French punk-folk band (he is a violinist) and phoned to book a seat as a foot passenger on a cross-channel ferry. "I'm sorry," he was told, "but we don't accept foot passengers any more, only people with vehicles. You'll have to pay the car rate, which is £60".

My friend slammed the phone down in disgust, lit a cigarette and fumed. Then he had an idea and redialled the number:

"You said I had to pay for a vehicle. If I came by bicycle, how much would that cost?"

"£10".

Two weeks later, my friend was the sole cyclist in a slowly moving queue of cars and lorries at Dover's docks, congratulating himself for his moral victory over mindless bureaucracy. The band were apparently waiting for him in Calais, so he decided to spend the hour-long crossing relaxing in the bar.

With five minutes left until the ferry docked, my friend made his way down to the vehicle hold and unchained his bicycle. Soon, he could hear the sound of chains moving and ramps descending, followed by the hissing of hydraulic brakes as the lorries began to edge forward. He quickly phoned one of the band members to find out where he needed to go.

"'Allo Graham. You muss follow le traffique and take ze second exit on the left. Yes? We are 500 metres away".

Graham followed their directions faithfully, making sure that he took the correct exit and found himself cycling up a rather steep ramp, which left him feeling a little breathless. To his relief, the ramp became flatter and seemed to be joining a proper road, then suddenly: WOOSSSHHHHH!

A powerful gust of wind almost knocked him off his bike and to Graham's horror, he found himself on a motorway being buffeted by a succession of fast-moving lorries. There didn't seem any way to get off the motorway. Terrified, he stood on the edge of the slow lane, wondering what to do next.

Suddenly, Graham's phone rang: "'Allo Graham. Eet is me again. Do NOT take ze second exit! Comprenez-vous? It is the WRONG exit!"

After a farcical (and very dangerous) half hour spent trying to leave the motorway, Graham eventually found the band and began what turned out to be a very alcoholic weekend. He now plays gigs with them on both sides of the channel.

It's strange how people's lives can change so much, in ways that we could never predict.

In the late 1990s, Graham seemed to have it all. He was earning at least four times as much as me and always seemed to be getting promoted. Evenings were often spent in smart restaurants, dining with the leading lights of international banking, or at the Strangers' Bar at the House of Commons, getting gossip from drunken MPs.

Occasionally Graham would say how depressed he was by the ease of his ascent. He'd never been particularly interested in business publishing and couldn't understand why people at the highest levels accepted him as one of their own. Success bought financial rewards and status, but also increasing levels of stress, boredom and frustration.

I don't know what finally pushed Graham to suddenly hand his notice in and he'd never expressed any interest in visiting Kent, let alone living there, but within the space of a few months he completely transformed his life.

Today, Graham plays the fiddle at folk festivals and private functions, earning just enough to pay the bills and enjoy the occasional trip to India. He lives quite frugally but is completely debt-free and doesn't miss his old life at all.

I'm sure that Graham's example partly gave me the courage and inspiration to change my life. Unlike Graham, I've never had to face the same temptations (although I was made a very attractive offer earlier this year), but it was still hard to take a leap into the unknown.

After saying goodbye to Graham, I sat on the train and looked at BBC News. In a piece about people who died in 2011, I saw these particularly apposite quotes by Steve Jobs:

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."

I know it's easy to make statements like that when you're the billionaire CEO of a corporation (I'm not sure what the Chinese sweatshop workers who make many of Apple's products would say), but I agree with the sentiments.

I think that next year will be all about putting these ideas into practice.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Age of Uncertainty

This evening, as we were driving home in the dark after returning a van to a slightly menacing industrial estate, my wife turned to me and said, 'You haven't done your blog for ages.'

This came as a shock. Obviously I knew that I hadn't written any posts for over a month - the longest gap in five years of blogging - but I had no idea that my wife was aware of this. She used to claim that she never read my blog, as she was far too busy being an ├╝bermother to fritter her time away on such trifles.

I hadn't intended to stop blogging, but it seemed a rather self-indulgent thing to do while I was trying to establish an internet business. Also, I couldn't think of anything to say. However, after receiving several kind emails from people who have wondered if things are okay, I thought I'd write this brief post.

I've now been self-employed for 11 weeks and, although it hasn't been a particularly easy time, I feel liberated in so many ways. Steerforth Books didn't get off to a rip-roaring start, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of a fellow blogger (I won't embarrass them here, but I am eternally grateful), it received a huge boost and the business no longer feels like a pipe dream.

I've no idea what the future holds. I've swapped the dependable, but soul-destroying, certainty of my last job for something that makes emotional sense, but may lead to financial ruin. Have I made a terrible mistake?

All I know is that the worst decisions I've ever made have all been rational ones that appeared to make perfect sense, whilst the best ones have been inspired by childhood fantasies, daydreaming, gut instincts and my adolescent sense of right and wrong. In the last two months, I feel that I have become me again, after years in exile.

Perhaps this is my mid-life crisis. All of the elements are there: an aging parent, a child entering adolescence and the sense of having possibly passed the halfway point. Some men respond by dying their hair that weird, chestnut colour and sleeping with someone in their 20s. My ambitions are hopefully less ridiculous.

I apologise for the solemn nature of this post. I have just been to Sainsbury's in Newhaven and it always has that effect on me. I've no idea why.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Travels With My Aunt

Last week, during a particularly depressing, overcast, autumnal day, I decided to clear out the loft. I say loft, but after converting most of it into a third bedroom, all we have left are some hidden eaves which look like the sorts of places where people used to hide from the Gestapo.

Getting into the eaves requires a Houdini-like dexterity, as the space is so narrow. Getting out is even harder, reminding me of the claustrophobic tunnel scenes in The Great Escape. On several occasions, when my wife has failed to hear my hysterical shouting, I've had to phone her and ask to be rescued.

Fortunately, this time I seemed to be more pliable (perhaps six weeks away from the 9 to 5 routine has relaxed my tensed muscles?) and managed to move around easily, unpacking boxes that had remained unopened since we moved here ten years ago.

Almost everything I found was of no use or value to anyone, but there was one exception: a small square box with a Super 8 cine film inside.

This is what it contained:

The woman pushing twigs into the kettle was my mother's sister, Patricia Eunice Dorothy Prior, who worked as a midwife in a small town at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco. Officially she was a missionary, sponsored by a number of churches in Britain, but as it was against the law to promote any religion other than Islam, my aunt had to limit her activities to good works.

Pat grew up in a family of six who lived in the upstairs half of a small, terraced house. She shared a bed with her two sisters and at night she would lie awake listening to the sound of mice scuttling across the floor.



My aunt, on the left

Her parents' ambitions for her were typical for their background: at 14 she could either go into service or get a job in a shop. But Pat was bright. She passed her 11 Plus and got into Richmond Grammar School, where she sat her final exams during an air raid.

If Pat had come from another background she might have gone to university, but higher education was never an option. Fortunately, her parents didn’t object when Pat announced that she wished to train as a nurse.


My aunt during her training, on the left (above) and second row, third from left (below)

By all accounts Pat was an exceptional student and the skills she learned at West Middlesex Hospital would prove invaluable a few years later, when she decided to train to become a missionary. In Pat’s words, she had a ‘calling’ and felt compelled to pursue it. A gruelling training at Bible College followed, during which Pat had to learn to become fluent at reading and writing Arabic.

I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for Pat when she first arrived in Morocco, where a young, single woman was a second-class citizen. However, during the next 25 years, my aunt carved out a successful life for herself, respected by everyone in the community.

It helped that almost every person under the age of 20 had been delivered by my aunt, sometimes under difficult conditions. Many local families felt that they owed Pat a debt.

When I was 16, Pat invited me to stay with her. We couldn’t afford to travel as a family, so I flew alone to Casablanca and met my aunt at the airport. It was a 300km journey to her home and, as we drove south, my preconceived notions of an arid, desert-like country were replaced by vivid memories of lush pine forests, snow-capped mountains and orange-blossom scented air.

It was a culture shock. I had grown up in a dull London suburb, where evening meals alternated between fish fingers and beef burgers. Suddenly, I was plunged into an alien world of strange food, exotic landscapes and opulent souks.

I had been terrified of eating the local food (particularly when I learned that I would have to eat everything that was put in front of me), but I needn’t have worried. After two weeks of dates, artichokes, couscous, mint tea and carrot and orange salad, I learned that eating could be a pleasure as well as a necessity.

Morocco changed my life. It awakened me to a new, sensual world of smell, taste and colour. But, more importantly, for the first time in my life I learned to see my own society more objectively, realising that happiness was not related to GDP.

I was in a privileged position in many ways. As my aunt enjoyed some prestige in the local area, we were invited into several homes and I was struck by the contrast between the public and private worlds of the local people. Outside, I only saw impoverished-looking mud-brick walls and austere, veiled women. Inside, the veils came down and I found myself in colourful, comfortable rooms, full of laughter and conversation.

Using my aunt as an interpreter, I was able to have conversations with people and, perhaps because of my age, I could get away with asking direct questions.

I had arrived at the right time too. Television aerials were starting to appear on buildings, but the town was still largely cut off from the outside world. As a European, I could have encountered some hostility, but the days of French colonialism belonged to a past generation and religious enmities belonged to a future one. I was treated as an honoured guest.

When I returned home, I felt very depressed for a while. I looked out of my bedroom window at the different shades of grey, from the slate roofs of houses to the low-lying clouds, and yearned for blue skies, prickly pears and orange blossom. I could see why my aunt didn’t want to come home.

Nine years later, my aunt was reluctantly contemplating retirement in Britain. She would have to swap social status and a large house for the genteel poverty of a state pension and a pokey flat. I think she dreaded it.

Pat came home for a short visit to sort out her affairs and work out where she was going to live. On the last day, I said goodbye to my aunt and wanted to hug her, but Pat wasn’t a physically demonstrative person and I was afraid that I might unnerve her, as if we were saying goodbye for the last time.

The next day Pat arrived at Tangiers Airport and was planning to get a lift home from a friend, but a Moroccan lawyer was waiting for her and insisted that she travelled with him instead. He was interested in buying her house and wanted to get her signature on some of the legal documents. They argued for a few minutes until Pat finally agreed.

During the journey from the airport, a lorry crashed into the side of the lawyer’s car. My aunt died a few hours later. The lawyer escaped with a few scratches.

Most of my aunt’s friends were Christians and their attempts to find some meaning in her death only increased my sense of the utter futility of it. I couldn’t accept the argument that some crude form of divine intervention had spared my aunt the horrors of retired life in England. I know that she would have made a successful new life for herself and been a doting great-aunt to my sons.

My aunt’s death was tragic and pointless, however her life certainly wasn’t, because I know that in a small town 2000 miles away, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives that wouldn’t have been lived without her.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Chair Way To Devon

According to my wife I am impulsive, frequently making rash, reckless decisions that I later regret. I'm not sure how true this is. My most impulsive act - spontaneously booking a flight to Chile because the weather in February was depressing me - made perfect sense.

I would also argue that it was due to my impulsiveness that we got on the property ladder, during a brief lull in the housing market.

However, the case for the prosecution has become much stronger recently, thanks to a moment of madness on eBay a couple of weeks ago, when I made a winning bid (in fact the only bid) for four Edwardian chairs.

It seemed too good to be true: £40 for the lot. Surely I could sell them for at least £200?

It was only after I'd congratulated myself for winning the chairs that I realised that collecting them would involve a 350-mile round trip to Devon.

I don't mind driving long distances in the Nevada desert, but in Britain it's an endurance course of roundabouts, roadworks, caravans and geriatric drivers. I was very tempted to pull out and tell the seller that they could keep the money.

However, this morning I began the long drive along the coast of southern England. To make the journey bearable, I had several CDs of Radio Four podcasts: a recent Start the Week, from Sydney, with Thomas Keneally, Kate Grenville and Deborah Cheetham; the first episode of a dramatisation of 'Life and Fate'; a documentary about Elgar during the First World War and two episodes of 'Desert Island Discs', with Diana Athill and Ann Leslie.

When 'Life and Fate' was first broadcast as a BBC radio drama, two months ago, I considered listening to it as an alternative to tackling the dauntingly thick book. But in another edition of Start the Week, Linda Grant was so persuasive about Life and Fate's status as one of the great 20th century novels, I felt I had to read the book.

I'm really glad I did.The radio adaptation is perfectly fine, but it's very different from the book and barely scratches the surface of Grossman's complex, profound masterpiece.

Sadly, just as the episode really started to take off, I hit a succession of roundabouts and every other minute the Satnav lady bellowed instructions at me, which was rather distracting:

"Ludymila, we are returning to Moscow! We must TAKE THE SECOND EXIT AT THE NEXT ROUNDABOUT."

I arrived at the house just before 11.00. Luckily, I remembered the Remembrance Sunday two minutes' silence in time to avoid any faux pas.

In the window of the front door, there was a slightly intimidating notice warning that the owners possessed a ferocious, possibly illegal dog. I wondered what I was letting myself in for. Fortunately, the seller was a really nice man who seemed genuinely concerned that I had made such a ridiculously long journey (I'm not sure if it was my physical or mental health that he was worried about).

On the way back I decided to make a detour to one of my favourite places - Lyme Regis:

The Cobb hasn't changed very much since Jane Austen described it in 'Persuasion'. Today it wasn't quite as dramatic as the opening scene in 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (when Meryl Streep's stunt double was nearly washed into the sea) and people confidently ambled along the occasionally treacherous stones:

I've lost count of how many times I've been to Lyme. I used to dream of running the bookshop there and imagined walking along the seafront during winter storms, searching for fossils that had been loosened from the crumbling, slate cliffs.

During the journey home, I discovered that 300,000 Londoners used the Underground to shelter from air raids in the First World War, compared to 150,000 during the Blitz. I also learned about the enforced separation of Australian Aboriginal babies from their mothers, Diana Athill's first kiss and Ann Leslie's bizarre meeting with Indira Gandhi.

It might have been a long drive, but there are worse ways of spending a day than driving through pleasant countryside, listening to intelligent conversation.

I now have four chairs to sell (which I may end up keeping) and I'm relieved to say that my rather pathetic inventory of 42 books has now increased to 437. Only 7563 books to go.

One other piece of good news: I now also have a 'Steerforth Books' header, which has subtle echoes of the Downs and 1940s book jackets. I shall be using this on my website when it's launched next year:

I can't wait to get started.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Arcane Fire

I'm feeling a little fragile today, as I celebrated November 5th at my next door neighbours' house and whenever I go there, things always get out of hand. I don't know how much I had to drink, but at some point in the evening I became an expert on subjects as diverse as French history and Arcade Fire.

Luckily I think I got away with it.

Our party included a French woman and a Canadian girl who had never seen the famous Lewes bonfire procession before, so we tried to prepare them for some of the more bizarre aspects of the evening.

Last year my neighbour forgot to warn a visitor - a black South African - that the parade included some local people 'blacked-up' and dressed as Zulus. She said that it was a slightly uncomfortable moment, but luckily he was more bemused than horrified.

It's estimated that every November 5th, the town's population swells from 16,000 to 60,000, much to the annoyance of many locals. However, there is a quieter part of Lewes where the crowds are bearable.

Here's a short video that I took last night:



The next video, which I didn't take, gives a much better idea of the scale of the crowds and the wonderful sense of anarchy that pervades the town:



I think there was an attempt, a few years ago, to address the obvious health and safety issues, but officials gave up in despair. However, beyond the facade of chaos and pyromania, there are plenty of people on hand - from St John's Ambulance volunteers to plain-clothes police officers - to ensure that the public are safe.

According to the BBC, last night there were 15 arrests and 170 injuries, only two of which were serious (and not caused by fireworks).

Apparently it used to be a lot worse before the 1850s. I wonder why things changed?

Friday, November 04, 2011

Lovejoy

I am now selling antiques.

I'm not quite sure how this happened, but an earlier joke about becoming the Lovejoy of bookselling has turned out to be remarkably prescient.

(I read somewhere that Lovejoy has been shown in 127 countries, however if you are from Iran and haven't seen the pirated Farsi-dubbed DVDs, I should explain that he is a fashion icon and widely-respected specialist in antiquties, whose chaste courtship with a woman called Lady Jane would surely appeal to even the most conservative clerics.)

I fully intended to stick to books - that's what I know about - but when I saw a set of Edwardian chairs on sale for £40 on eBay, I couldn't resist and made a winning bid, with only seconds to go.

I wish the chairs weren't in Devon - 320 miles seems a long way to travel in one day, but I'm convinced that I can make a decent mark-up if I ensure that the chairs are well-photographed and the auction ends on a weekend evening (when many potential buyers will have had a few drinks).

Even if I don't make any money, the chairs will have served their purpose by making me realise that there's no earthly reason why I have to stick to books. I can sell anything I like, as long as I make a profit.

Indeed, earlier in the week, I contemplated emailing the person who's designing my logo and getting them to scrap the word 'books'.

But just as I was losing any faith in getting some stock, the phone rang. It was a man who'd just seen an advert I'd placed in a local paper: would I be interested in buying some military history books?

I scribbled down the address and agreed to drive over the following morning.

The next day, as I rang the bell of a stranger's house in a town I'd never been to before, I wondered what to expect. An older man opened the door and asked me to remove my shoes and go upstairs. I quickly checked the number to make sure that I had the right house (after an embarrassing incident where I unwittingly turned up to someone else's massage appointment).

It was the right place.

I was led into a bedroom which, to my relief, had several boxes of books. My heart sank when I saw a pile of short story anthologies (they're impossible to sell), but some of the other titles were more promising.

I'd been worrying about how to agree on a price - I hate haggling - and made what I thought was a fair offer. He accepted it immediately, which made me wonder if I could have got away with less. But although I need to make a living, I don't want to rip people off. There has to be an honourable compromise.

I now have 38 books, plus a kind donation from the Poet Laura-eate, bringing the total inventory to 42 titles. That's about 0.5% of the total I need to achieve what my old boss James Heneage always used to refer to as 'critical mass'.

It's going to be a long, hard slog.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Deep End

I've just watched an extraordinary 1970 British film called 'Deep End'. It received widespread critical acclaim when it was released and was a huge success at the Venice Film Festival. But in spite of this, it became almost completely forgotten in the years that followed and until recently, nobody was sure if any prints had survived.

Fortunately, a copy was found recently and the BFI have just released a cleaned-up version on Blu-ray and DVD.

Here's a trailer:



I say 'British' film, but in fact it was financed by the USA and West Germany, written and directed by a Pole - Jerzy Skolimowski - and mostly shot in Munich, with a superb soundtrack by the 'Krautrock' band Can. However, it feels authentically home grown, capturing the depressed, 'morning after' feel of the early 70s perfectly.

The film stars Jane Asher and the 16-year-old John Moulder-Brown. I'd never heard of Moulder-Brown and for people of my age, Jane Asher was that nice middle-aged lady who made cakes and used to go out with Paul McCartney. I had no idea what a fantastic actress she was, or how devastatingly sexy she could be.

Indeed, the whole film is one of the sexiest things I've ever seen on screen, as Jane Asher's Susan teases and plays with the pubescent passions of 15-year-old Mike. If I'd met Susan when I was 15, I wouldn't have stood a chance.

Here is the opening scene. As you'll see, there's some dodgy lip-synch going on with the baths' manager. That's because many of the actors were Germans, who must have been dubbed later:



'Deep End' also contains an extraordinary cameo from 1950s screen goddess, Diana Dors, who manages to create a wonderfully grotesque scene that is both comic and deeply unsettling, with an unusual reversal of gender roles.

Dors appears here at the beginning and end of this clip, but if you don't want to see all six minutes, skip to 4:04:



Finally, before I end up posting the whole film, I particularly liked this scene. The interplay between Jane Asher's Susan and Erica Beer's cashier works very well, but the red paint almost steals the show:



I was planning to write a long post about 'Deep End'. However, I found this excellent Guardian article by Ryan Gilbey which says what I was going to say, but far more eloquently. This review by Christopher Weedman is also worth reading.

It's strange how British this film feels, given that it was conceived and filmed by a Polish director who had never filmed in Britain before. Like Emeric Pressburger before him, Jerzy Skolimowski managed to take a universal theme and make it seem both quintessentially British and utterly alien at the same time.

The result is a triumph.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October is the Cruelest Month

It's ironic that now I have all the time in the world to write, my blogging has almost ground to a halt. This wasn't supposed to happen. I'd imagined writing posts about the progress of 'Steerforth Books' and my first steps in the precarious world of self-employment.

Sadly, the last four weeks have been a bit of a disaster. Within 24 hours of leaving my job, everyone in the Steerforth household succumbed to the horrible Norovirus, which had the one redeeming feature of rapid weight loss.

At times I felt as if I'd made a terrible mistake. Lying in bed, surrounded by people making zombie-like groaning noises, I couldn't help looking back fondly to the ordered world of my last job. Perhaps I had just made one of the most stupid decisions of my life.

In the end I wrote a list of the positives and negatives of my last job. There were two positives: the books and some of the people. The negatives were everything else. Suddenly everything seemed much clearer.

It's just as well that I felt reasonably sure about my move, as the month didn't get any better. Bits of the house collapsed, someone died and both of my sons succumbed to further illnesses.

As for Steerforth Books, it was just a name. I had no stock to sell, thanks to my former managing director's last minute intervention.

It would be easy to become despondent, but I'm fairly sanguine. There are times when it pays to be a pessimist and before I handed my notice in, I made sure that my business plan could survive a number of setbacks (including a mean-spirited former employer). I knew that it could take months to get Steerforth Books off the ground and planned accordingly, so it's not over yet.

I will be glad to see the back of October, but it hasn't been completely dreadful. I've been enjoying Vasily Grossman's epic masterpiece 'Life and Fate', watching some long-forgotten British films of the 1960s and trying to become a domestic god, with mixed results. I also had a very pleasant evening out at the Lewes Arms with two fellow bloggers.

In some ways it's not a bad life, but even if I could afford to never work again, I don't think I'd change my plans. I really miss working with books.

I particularly love being surrounded by old books and sometimes feel as if I am in the literary equivalent of a telephone exchange, connected by invisible skeins to the lives of strangers. However great or absurd the titles are, they have furnished both rooms and minds. My passion, I suppose, is to try and find them new owners.

So the plan for the rest of the year is simple: fix the ceiling and get some books. Now that I've come clean about my lack of progress, perhaps I'll also write some more blog posts - there are recent discoveries that I want to share.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Early This Morning

I've always been very dismissive of camera phones and could never understand why they became so popular. The picture quality was consistently awful and transfering the images to a computer was tedious, but in spite of this many people still chose to record some of the most important moments of their life with photos that made the Kodak Instamatic look like the Hubble Telescope. Why?

However, I have now discovered a phone that has a half-decent camera:

This morning I was driving back from a particularly awful car boot sale that would have made a street market in Burkina Faso look luxuriantly decadent. I don't what I hated most: the piles of used shoes that looked like something out of 'Schindler's List', or the dew-soaked DVDs of low budget horror films like 'Satan's Little Helper'.

After such a depressing experience, I decided to lift the spirits with a visit to the Long Man of Wilmington. It was a beautiful morning and as I got out of the car, I regreted not bring a camera with me.

Then I remembered my new phone:

It's not a great photo. The saturation's not right and the zoom has affected the sharpness, but compared to the old VGA images that I was used to, this was a revelation. It's almost good.

This image was taken without the zoom function:

Not great, but not bad either.

This lacks sharpness, but the colours are far richer than the washed-out, grainy sub-CCTV images on my old phone.

A decent camera would have been able to cope more effectively with the contrasts of light and dark, but it's still perfectly acceptable.

As I fiddled with the phone's touch screen, The Long Man looked on impassively. He'd seen it all: Roman centurions, Saxon thanes, medieval pilgrims, Victorian farmers and, today, people in garish fleeces walking their oversexed dogs along public footpaths.

I shall be seeing a lot more of the Long Man in the future. I think we're going to get along very well.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Vita Nimis Brevis

I left my job on Friday. I had been dreading my last day there for a number of reasons and it proved to be a far more emotional experience than I had anticipated, thanks to some very strange behaviour on the part of my managing director, who overruled his colleagues’ earlier offer to sell me some stock.

When asked why, he explained that I was now a competitor. I suppose I should be flattered, but it seemed unnecessarily petty and mean-spirited.

For a few minutes I felt like walking out. It would have been so easy to get in the car and drive away, but I decided to hang around just in case there was a surprise presentation with a succession of heartfelt eulogies. It’s just as well, as there was.

Also, I would have missed this:

It's a cake with my face on it (printed with edible ink). I was really touched that someone had gone to such lengths, but slightly disappointed to see that nobody wanted my tongue in their mouth. Nothing changes. In the end, I had to eat my own mouth.

By the end of the day my mood had lifted. Several directors thanked me for everything I'd done for the business and, for the first time in my working life, I really felt as if I had accomplished something. Managing a bookshop was always a work in progress, unresolved and incomplete, in which leaving felt more like absconding. Here, I could go with my head held high. Sort of.

My official reason for resigning was the errant politician's favourite: to spend more time with my family. But, of course, that was only half of the story.

The simple fact is that I'd had enough of it all: commuting, working nine to five, managing people, going to meetings, filling in spreadsheets, worrying about sales targets and having to pretend to be a certain type of person. I think that the recent stresses of family life had simply reduced my ability to tolerate the intolerable. As much I liked some of the people I worked with (and for), I felt like a round peg in a square hole.

I value time more than money. I also value intellectual curiosity, a sense of the absurd, integrity and kindness. These enduring values are far more important than the ephemeral trappings of worldly success (not that I had many ephemeral trappings to worry about).

Several years ago, when I was unemployed for a while, I read Tom Hodgkinson's exhilarating manifesto 'How To Be Free' and recognised a kindred spirit. It strengthened my resolve to avoid being a wage slave, so it was apposite that in today's Independent, he wrote this:

'Can you do something you enjoy and make money doing it? Can you do it without exploiting people and draining resources? Can you do it with your friends? This was the punk spirit as translated into entrepreneurialism.

The point is that if you yearn to escape the stifling restrictions of the nine-to-five in the corporate or state bureaucracy, your only alternative is small business. Every artist is an entrepreneur because you have to do your own tax and invoicing. In my talk I quoted GK Chesterton's famous quip, "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." Most of us are working for the megamachine when we should be creating our own mini-machines. This is why, in order to escape slavery and embrace liberty, we need to face up to taking responsibility for our own lives as traders.'


I couldn't agree more. Steerforth Books may end up being a complete disaster, but I have to try.

Farm Fresh

It was nearly 30 degrees yesterday, so we sought refuge in the shade of Wilderness Wood. Like the ferns in this picture, I don't thrive in direct sunlight.

On the way back, I stopped in a farm shop (as the food in Waitrose just isn't expensive enough) and was surprised to find it completely deserted. I walked around the wooden floor with heavy, giant steps, but nobody came. Then I tried slamming down the freezer lids more vigorously than usual, but still nothing.

Minutes later, a ruddy-faced man came stumbling out of a door at the back of the shop and greeted me:

"Haven't been waiting long, have you sir? Found what you want? Or perhaps what your wife wants. Mind you, the wives don't know what we get up to when we're on our own, do they?"

He gave a half wink that reminded me of a rather unpleasant uncle I once had.

I smiled and nodded knowingly , thinking "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about". Did he mean that, that or that?

Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Caption Competition

My favourite finds from this afternoon:






Most of my captions are too rude to repeat.

Any suggestions?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Horror

This afternoon, my oldest son and I caught a taxi to Ditchling Beacon and walked home along the South Downs Way. My son didn't want to go, but he is still young enough to be manipulated by false promises and cheap incentives. Once he was up on the Downs, the grunting and shoulder shrugging were replaced with animated conversations about serial killers and horror films.

It was a beautiful day, but halfway between the summer and winter solstices, the light had a muted quality, as if the sun itself was failing.

Frustratingly, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, my mind played through a tracklist of annoying music: the theme tune of Lazy Town, a Sousa march, something by the Black-Eyed Peas, If You're Happy and You Know Clap Your Hands (my one gesture of defiance at primary school was to hold my hands wide apart during this song).

Then I started wondering if I hadn't made a terrible mistake when I handed my notice in. Every other news story last week seemed to be about the imminent collapse of the Western economy. Was this a good time to be leaving paid employment and setting up a business? Was I even setting up a business, or was I just quitting my job and pretending that I wasn't unemployed?

A man on a hang-glider hovered 50 feet above us, gently rising with the thermals. It was so quiet and the air so still that he must have heard my son's voice:

"Dad, ask me about any serial killer and I bet I'll have heard of them. Do you know about Leatherface? Do know what he did?"

Three weeks ago he knew nothing about Leatherface, but now that my son has started at secondary school he's suddenly a man of the world, determined to earn respect from his peers with his encyclopaedic knowledge of horror films that he has never actually seen. I hope.

The walk from Ditchling Beacon is perfect: only six miles and downhill all the way, with glorious views of the Weald on one side and the coast on the other. It is mostly open countryside, following ancient paths that enabled people to avoid the dense forests of the lowlands. Sadly, wooded areas like 'Black Cap' are a rarity now:

Further on, Lewes appeared in the distance, so far away that like an astronaut on the moon, I could blot it out with one hand. I liked the fact that it was so finite. I had grown up in suburban London, where one town simply merged into another, sometimes worse than the previous mile, sometimes better.

A young girl galloped past on a colt and I felt a vicarious rush of pleasure. My son turned to me:

"Dad, can we watch The Ring? Not the original version - that's an 18, but the American one, because that's only 15. Don't ask Mum, she'll say no. Can we? Several of my friends at school have seen it."

He reeled off a list of names that sounded like characters from Blake's Seven. Why aren't children just called John and Mary any more? I blame Dynasty and Home and Away.

As we reached the outskirts of Lewes, I realised how many things had changed in the last year. We'd had an awful time, but it hadn't lasted. Seeing my mother, blissfully happy in her new home and my son, confidently ambling home with his new friends at a school I never thought we'd get him to, I felt relief more than joy; like someone who has survived a storm at sea.

We turned the corner into our road and I told my son that he'd just walked six miles, rather than the three I'd led him to believe. "You didn't get even slightly tired. You should be proud of yourself."

He turned to me. "Dad, when we get home, will you watch Creep with me?"

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Birds, Cars and Wood

Do you like vintage motor cars and wildfowl? Then Bentley Wildfowl and Motor Museum is the place for you.

I can't say I've ever regarded birds and cars as natural bedfellows for a musuem (and the squashed pheasants on the driveway would seem to vindicate this view), but Bentley does have a strange, indefinable charm. If you're in the area and fancy a walk in beautiful surroundings, I'd recommend it.

I took my wife and sons there today to visit a 'wood fair', which was as worthy and middle class as it sounds, but not quite as dull. My youngest son, who began the visit by sitting on the grass and shouting "I HATE WOOD!" gradually perked up once he realised that it could be deployed as a weapon:

There was a slightly menacing, pre-apocalyptic atmosphere at the wood fair, as if people were preparing themselves for an imminent disaster. In addition to the usual selection of fairly hideous garden ornaments and obscure country crafts, I noticed a lot more knives and survival tools.

I can see the temptation to become self-sufficient in an increasingly uncertain world. But if the oil ran out and things kicked off, what would happen? I once asked a man who was a bit of an old hippy and ran a smallholding what he would do. Without hesitating, he replied: "Find the nearest gun shop and get tooled-up".

It wasn't quiet the answer I was expecting.

To add to the surreal atmosphere, at one point I found myself sitting in the carriage of a miniature railway, travelling at 5mph, discussing The Wire with two 11-year-olds.

At the wood fair we met a couple whose son was in the same class as ours. They had recently moved down from Stoke Newington and I found myself wondering if I would ever meet anyone in Lewes who didn't come from north London. I'm convinced that there is some sort of Stargate-style portal in Hackney that sucks middle-class people in once they have children and sends them off to Lewes, Southwold, North Norfolk and Brighton.

Where do all the real Lewes people go?

Actually, I did recently learn that a friend of my wife's came from St Margarets, only a mile or so from where I grew up in SW London. As children we'd been to the same parks, shops and cinemas, travelled on the same buses and, later, drank in the same pubs, but it had taken her years to bother mentioning where she came from.

There was also something else that she took ages to reveal. Occasionally the friend would mention various members of her family, including a step-mother called Beryl. One day last year, she said that she was worried about her half-sister, as Beryl was dying of cancer and the funeral would probably be quite a big 'do' because Beryl had published a few novels and knew lots of people. My wife nodded sympathetically, then suddenly the penny dropped:

"Hang on, do you mean that Beryl?"

It's strange how we can sometimes talk so much about ourselves without revealling things that others would regard as fundamental.

We had a good chat with the couple from Stoke Newington (at least as good as you can have within the context of constantly of being constantly interrupted by children) and at one point the husband asked me how long we'd lived in Lewes. I realised that it was ten years next month.

"Do you feel local?"

I hesitated and surprised myself with the answer: "No. Not quite. It hasn't happened yet."

My wife disagreed. Ten years of standing in playgrounds twice a day has given her a good network of friends and acquaintances. But my days have tended to involve getting in a car and driving somehere 25 miles away. Whenever I had a drink with someone, it usually took place in London.

Perhaps I need to join something, but I'm not quite sure what.

As we drove back to Lewes, I looked at the clouds over the South Downs and couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I may not be a local yet, but it does feel like home.

That must count for something.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Turning the Key

A beautiful day - a tantalising glimpse of the summer we never had. I don't know if it's anything to do with global warming, but the English summer now seems to take place in April and May, with a monsoon season in July and August. It's very odd.

I had to drive to a farm to drop off a cheque for the deposit and first month's rent for Steerforth Books. I had no idea where I was going, but had been given a postcode for the satnav and blindly followed directions which took me onto increasingly narrower and emptier roads. I'd forgotten how sinister the English countryside can be (I blame this on watching reruns of the Avengers).

I ended up driving for miles along a deserted lane, wondering if I was going to end up in a ditch with the satnav lady announcing "You have now reached your destination", whilst some grinning toothless locals began untying the string around their trousers. Fortunately this is Sussex, not the Appalachians.

The farm turned out to be a beautiful, large Georgian house, with breathtaking views of the South Downs. I handed the cheque over and felt a pang of remorse for the fact that I will probably never be able to afford to live somewhere like this.

Driving to the next destination, I listened to a podcast of 'Broadcasting House'. Francesca 'Horrid Henry' Simon, Tori Amos and a bloke whose name I never caught were talking about being in New York on 9/11. More recent events like the invasion of Iraq have faded into the recesses of my memory, but I remember September 11th as if it was yesterday.

I arrived at Steerforth Books. Peter, the gentleman farmer, was out on his tractor doing agricultural things, but another man handed me the key and at last I was able to take possession of the new unit:

It's not big, but if I'm clever about it I think I can get around 8,000 books in this room, which should be enough to generate a reasonable income. I won't get rich - most of the books won't sell - but hopefully the children will have shoes on their feet. The main challenge will be to find enough stock to reach this magic figure. I have a few potential sources.

So Steerforth Books is almost a reality. I have a business account, domain name (com and co.uk), office unit and even a little bit of stock. I can't say that I'm looking forward to the sheer, unmitigated tedium of building 46 feet of shelving (and given my track record in DIY, it will probably collapse at some point), but without it there will be no Steerforth Books.

In the meantime I'm still going into work, three days a week, getting things ready for my successor. It feels strange going through the motions of the working day, making decisions about a future that I won't be part of. I will be glad to leave the world of '9 to 5', but I'll also miss several people more than they probably realise.

In some ways it feels like a very early retirement, leaving the 'real' world of work for a John Bull Printing Set fantasy. But work can simply be work. We don't have to be part of an organisation: commuting, attending meetings and working in open plan offices. Paunches and stomach ulcers are optional, not compulsory.

But whilst a part of me relishes the idea of leaving office life behind, another part feels a deep sense of loss.

No more talking about last night's telly. No more "Did you see the quiz night Phil?", followed by detailed postmortems of 'University Challenge' and 'Only Connect'. I have met some good people through work.

I apologise if this blog has lost its 'mojo' at the moment. The amusing covers and photographs have been thin on the ground recently. I had hoped to publish one final installment of the Derek diaries, but - and you'll have to take my word for this - they are mostly very dull and I have struggled to find any more material that is worth publishing. I haven't completely given up.

So until Steerforth Books is fully established, this blog will limp along like a consumptive war veteran, looking back to better days, hoping (perhaps unrealistically), for better times ahead.

Finally, as far as a Steerforth Books logo is concerned, I have been particularly dim. When I first visited my new farm unit last week, I need only have turned my head 45 degrees to have seen one of the most striking 'logos' of all time:
Nobody knows how old the possibly prehistoric Long Man of Wilmington is, or indeed why it's there, but in theory you can't miss it. I did.

But then one September in 1995, I managed to spend a whole day travelling around Manhattan without noticing the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The next morning I caught an American Airlines flight from Boston to Los Angeles, blissfully ignorant of what the future held.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Listening Without Prejudice

You may want to just completely skip this post. It's about opera. I won't be offended if you do.

I was looking forward to meeting some old friends in London yesterday, but sadly my stomach had other ideas. Instead, I have spent the weekend in a horizontal position, looking at YouTube clips and catching up with people's blogs.

I found quite a few gems, including this post about Roddy McDowell's home movies, this beautifully-written anecdote and this photograph, which appeals in so many ways.

However, the thing that gave me the most pleasure was finding this (best viewed in full screen mode):



I went to see this performance of Shostakovich's 'Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk District' almost exactly five years ago and wasn't sure what to expect. I had never been to an opera before and had some deeply-held prejudices about overweight singers and overpaid audiences.

I wasn't overjoyed when I discovered that the whole thing lasted for over three hours.

However, it was a truly magical evening and at last, I understood why some people were so fanatical about opera. Aside from Shostakovich's wonderful music, which incensed Stalin so much he banned the opera immediately, I was bowled over by the set design, the costumes and the wonderful singing.

Shostakovich wrote the opera in his 20s and the music buzzes with youthful energy and bawdy humour. I had imagined that the Royal Opera House would attract a rather stuffy crowd, but people were rocking with laughter at the saucy jokes and satirical digs.



I don't like flying, but I'd travel halfway around the world to see this production again. Sadly, the airfare would probably still be cheaper than a seat in the balcony.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

All at Sea

This morning I found a home for 'Steerforth Books': a small unit within a converted agricultural outbuilding, owned by a gentleman farmer called Peter*.

I had wanted somewhere in Lewes, but this option makes much more financial sense for the time being. The rent is very reasonable and if my business turns out to be an unmitigated disaster, I only have to give a month's notice.

I suppose that I should have visited lots of properties and carefully weighed up the options, but what's the point? I liked the office and I liked Peter. Also, with only three weeks left before I leave the comfortable world of paid employment, I need to get cracking.

I'll hopefully take possession of the unit next week and my first priority will be to install shelving for up to 10,000 books. I had thought of doing the shelves myself, but I've no desire to suffer the same fate as the French composer Alkan, who was killed by a falling bookcase. I think I'll ask an expert.

After the shelving, I need to sort out internet access, buy some desks and chairs and set up seller accounts on marketplaces like Amazon. Once that's done, I can start ordering the stock. None of this will feel real until I actually have some books.

At some point during the next few months, I'll also launch a website. I've been think of a logo and have scoured the internet for images of the original Steerforth from David Copperfield, but this was all I can find:


Steerforth all at sea? I'm not sure if it sends out the right signals.

Does anyone have any bright ideas for a logo or accompanying font? Most of my stock will be general titles from the 20th and late 19th centuries, with a few rare and antiquarian books thrown in. I certainly won't be 'high end', but I don't want to look like the bargain basement either.

What sort of things would you find reassuring or attractive as a buyer if you stumbled across Steerforth Books on the internet?

I'm resigned to opening a Twitter account, wading through the tedium of Google analytics and possibly beginning a new Facebook page (although I think that Facebook has 'jumped the shark').

Failing that, I could go viral with a book-related video on YouTube. 'Happy slapping' is so last decade, so perhaps a flashmob in the reading room of the British Library, or my five-year-old son and his friends dressing up in their Fireman Sam outfits and recreating 'Fahrenheit 451' would grab some attention? I'm not convinced.

Maybe I should just stick to selling good books at a slightly cheaper price than everyone else, wrap them in decent packaging and make sure that they're posted promptly?

Anyway, any suggestions would be much appreciated.

* NB - By 'gentleman farmer', I mean a farmer who is a gentleman, not a man of leisure who dabbles in farming.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Language Problem

During the last year I've been trying to learn French. It has been a struggle, as I'm not very good at learning languages (I achieved the lowest mark for Welsh in the history of the University of Wales). The only time I have been able to pick up a language is when I've been immersed in another culture, cut off from English speakers.

I like to tell myself that this is because I am a musical person who learns aurally rather than visually. But it could just be that I'm bone idle and only pick things up when deprived of any alternative. Either way, in an ideal world I would spend a few months working behind the bar at Chez Jacques, interacting with the locals to the point where, months later, Parisians would be appalled by my strong Toulouse accent.

Sadly, work and family committments have meant that it was unlikely that I would ever be pouring a glass of Ricard for Monsieur Bertillon, so I had to find a compromise.

At one point I joined an evening class, but soon discovered that it was actually a dating agency for middle-aged divorcees, masquerading as an educational course. As an alternative, I tried the traditional book and CD route, but it was really hard to assess how well I'd done. What was the answer?

After a long search, I found an internet course that combined traditional teaching methods (books - remember them?) with videos and exercises, where I could record myself and be assessed by native speakers. I could also join a social networking site and make friends with people in Francophone countries. Parfait!

Unfortunately the reality was a little disappointing. The feedback on my exercises amounted to little more than 'tres bien'! One or two brave souls remarked that my accent wasn't all it could be, but practical tips were thin on the ground.

The social networking didn't quite live up to expectations either:

This young woman is from the Ukraine and, as far as I can tell, doesn't speak French. However, she does have a fine collection of commemorative plates celebrating military helicopters. I'm not sure why she's wearing angel wings.

The French course taught me enough to ask a wide range of questions, but sadly left me completely unprepared for the answers. In some ways, knowing a bit of a language is worse than knowing nothing. It was humiliating.

I have decided to take a break from French for a while and try German, which seems to be easier in many ways, as it's more closely related to English. But there are two possible problems. First, I'm a little concerned that my pronunciation strays too easily into war film German: "Achtung! F├╝nf, vier, drei, zwei, eins...". Second, they have those terrifyingly long words, like bet├Ąubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung. There's no excuse for that.

Perhaps I should just stick to French. But I'd rather speak three foreign languages badly than one reasonably well.

When I was 26 I went to Lanzarote. I didn't speak a word of Spanish and had an unfortunate incident which ended with me being dumped in a lava field at 2.00 in the morning, surrounded by hostile dogs. It was horrible and I know that if I'd been able to speak some Spanish, however badly, things would have been different.

(Fortunately, after wandering across the lava field for an hour, I was rescued by some local lads in a jeep who helped me find my house, driving at ridiculous speeds in the dark, along dirt tracks with terrifying vertiginous slopes. Once we found where I was staying, I invited them in for a drink and as they left, one of them suddenly handed me a huge lump of dope and said, with a grin, "See you in Hell")

After that experience, I learned some Spanish and reached a point where, a few years later in Chile, I was able to book hotel rooms and train tickets in Spanish over the phone. It was exhilirating.

But unless you have a particular affinity with one nation or linguistic group, does it make sense to limit your options? Wouldn't it be better to learn the essential 1000 words in several languages, unless you're one of those nauseating people who are naturally fluent in six languages? In the early part of the 20th century, some people would have had a simple answer: Esperanto.

Sadly, Esperanto is largely forgotten and I wouldn't be surprised if the most popular artificial language of today is Klingon. What a waste of time.

If anyone has any tips for learning a language that don't involve working in a bar for a year, I'd be interested to hear them.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Day Out

Last week we travelled up to East Anglia to visit my wife's great-aunt for lunch. It was a ridiculously long drive in torrential rain, during which I battled to resist the soporific effect of the windscreen wipers and a Noel Coward play on the radio. At one point, everyone else in the car was asleep and I only had the 'satnav' lady to keep me company, with her annoying rising inflection: "At the next roundabout? Take the second exit? Then take the road to Lowestoft?"

I'd never visited the great-aunt's house before, but had wondered why such a nice, cultured woman lived in a place like Lowestoft. In addition to being the easternmost point of Great Britain, Lowestoft is one of the most economically depressed areas in the country. It has a terrible reputation.

However, as the satnav announced "You have reached your destination?", I entered a leafy road full of beautiful Victorian villas and realised how blinkered I had been. Lowestoft may be economically depressed due to problems in the fishing industry, but like Hastings and Margate, it is largely unspoiled and has retained its character. All it needs now is a high-speed rail link to north London and a modern art gallery.

From the outside, the great-aunt's house seemed untouched by the 20th century, let alone the 21st; I almost expected a maid to appear at the door. But I didn't think that the Victorian theme would continue once we were inside:

This photo doesn't do justice to the beauty of this house. The great-aunt's son - an antiques restorer and dealer - has filled the house with beautiful objects and said that he tries to lead a plastic-free existence.

He and his sister had prepared a lavish candlelit lunch, with fine bone china, silver cutlery and lead crystal glasses. With a grandfather clock ticking gently in the background, it felt as if we were still waiting for 1900 to arrive.

I complimented the son on a beautiful sideboard, which looked as if it should be in a museum. He replied that he had bought it when he was 16. What sort of teenager goes around buying antique furniture? Later, I learned that when he was in his teens, the son and his best friend used to dress up as Queen Victoria and drink tea from very expensive china.

I was also told that when the son was sent to Austria on a school skiing trip that he didn't want to go on, he used to sneak away from the ski slopes and spend the whole day in the local village, buying objets d'art and porcelain. When the son's deception was discovered, the master took him to one side and said "Do you know what a homosexual is?"

I left the house feeling inspired by what I'd seen, but depressed by the ordinariness of my own home. I used to seek out beautiful things, but as soon as I became a parent I stopped bothering. I could blame it on money, but several of the objects I saw in Lowestoft had come from car boot sales.

I think it was more to do with the belief that a self-indulgent period in my life was over and it was time to create a more child-centred home, full of clean, new utilitarian furniture. What nonsense. Have my son's lives been enhanced by a glut of plastic toys and flatpack self-assembly furniture?

I still have a few things that I value: a Swedish barometer with art noveau lettering, some chairs that used to belong to Jade Jagger, a Victorian clock with a plaque dedicated to 'Mr and Mrs Ashdown of the Plumtree Ragged School' and an old bakelite phone that was owned by the BBC.

But overall, I have allowed too much junk to creep into my life. I look longingly at blogs like Grey Area and marvel at the beauty of other people's homes.

Luckily, my house is so strange anyway, that no amount of flatpack furniture could completely destroy its character, but it deserves better than an Ikea table and an Argos chest of drawers. As I'm about to embark on my new career as the Lovejoy of books, perhaps I should add antiques to my portfolio.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Grey is the Colour of Hope

I popped into the Colchester branch of Waterstone's this morning to see if the recent change of ownership had made any difference. At first, it looked exactly the same, but then I noticed that the shelves seemed much fuller and there were very few annoying posters with banal bylines.

It felt more like a bookshop.

I suppose it was unrealistic to expect anything dramatic; after all, James Daunt's only been in the job for a couple of months. I shall have to go back later in the year.

I must have been scrutinising the shop a little too conspicuously, as a nervous-looking assistant made a beeline for me and asked if I needed any help. I think they thought that I was a mystery shopper. I was tempted to play along and start asking ridiculous question, but thought better of it.

I've never been a mystery shopper, but I used to pretend to be a restaurant critic. I'd dress smartly and turn up with a small clipboard, pretending to surreptitiously take notes which I made a great play of concealing every time a waiter approached. After ordering, I'd inspect the loos and ensure that I 'accidentally' walked into the kitchen, scanning the surfaces for any signs of dirt. As the evening progressed the waiters became increasingly attentive and at some point, I'd invariably end up getting at least one free drink (a decent one, not a thimblefull of Bailey's).

At the end of the visit, the waiters would wait by the door and, with anxious smiles, ask me if I'd had an enjoyable evening. I'd nod knowingly and reply "A very enjoyable evening indeed." Their relief was palpable.

Was that wrong? I never actually claimed to be anything I wasn't; I just let people infer it from my behaviour. Either way, it was good fun.

But I digress. Returning to Waterstone's, the shop looked good and it was packed, so perhaps there's still some hope for the high street bookshop. I hope so. The way everyone is talking about the 'Kindle', it feels as if the question about the demise of bricks and mortar bookselling is not if, but when.

However, I have uncovered evidence of a failed attempt at Kindle-style reading from the 1940s:

This book was published during the Second World War and although it looks perfectly ordinary on the outside, the contents reveal a bold new initiative in the publishing world. Black on grey:

"Black text on a grey background? It'll never work, Carstairs. It looks damnably awful!"

And that was the end of that. The book industry had to wait another 65 years before the Kindle made grey backgrounds acceptable.

But sometimes grey can be good:

I love cover designs like this from the 1960s, which have an elegance, simplicity and wit that has never been surpassed. In this post, Richard from Grey Area posted a comment that pointed out how much work went into creating such seemingly effortless designs.

Just a few years before 'Choral Verse', dustjackets like this were the norm:

This is a sex education book for young people from the late 1950s. I'm no expert on these matters, but I would have thought that the first thing they could do is take their raincoats off.

But I mustn't mock. It's actually quite a good book, full of dangerous, radical ideas, like trying to see things from the woman's perspective.

I'm not sure if these women needed any advice with delicate matters:


In the second picture, the urban sophisticate deals with a group of 'brigands' with barbed wit and condescension. I've tried that approach too, but with more mixed results.

There's something very appealing about the demi-monde of the period between the wars, but I'm also attracted to the innocence of children's book illustrations from the mid-20th century:

I expect that these children were called Peter, Joan, Colin and Kenneth and their parents didn't mind them sitting on the edge of tall buildings in the dark, because they were too busy getting 'tight' at the local yacht club.

Finally, four photos that turned up at work last week:


A very moody shot. Perhaps it's all a little too English for this gentleman.

The sporting Scotsmen theme continues with this appealing portrait of a young boy.

This couple are also from Scotland, but there's no evidence of any sporting activity.

Finally, a slightly disturbing portrait of Father Christmas:

I'm not sure what effect this Santa would have had on the young visitors to his grotto, but I'm sure that it can't have been as bad as the New York department store that had a sign outside which promised: 'FIVE SANTAS. NO WAITING.'