Wednesday, 31 August 2011

342 vs "Good Bookselling"

342 was a feature of Waterstone's bookselling when I worked there so it has obviously been around for a very long time, almost certainly too long. I was at Waterstone's when I saw my first billboard advert for Amazon. 24hours delivery to your home? Surely not? But it turned out to be true. Right from the start when Waterstone's handed out a Yahoo branded CDrom that basically turned your computer into a Yahoo advert they have failed to deal with the Internet. They have consistently failed, through a host of differing management structures and strategies, to cope with change. When I first read The Wind-Up-Bird chronicle I was so impressed I filled half the windows of the Chiswick branch with the book. We sold loads until someone from head office spotted the window and made us pull it out. One book? All that space? Are you mad? Yes, mad for good books. I feel vindicated now seeing as how massive Murakami has become. But the result of this attitude from head office was that I buggered off to the Pan Bookshop, then Daunt then started my own bookshop.

I'm not going to claim to be some perfect bookseller but I do think what Waterstone's needs to do is to get back to good bookselling as the basis of everything it does. Good bookselling? What is that? I can understand the frustration when such seemingly vague phrases are bandied about. The fact is like good wine, good sex, good football and good writing it's hard to explain to others. (Blackberry undertones, crisp passing, creativity and better penetration - choose your own order!) The point is you know it when it's right and it's pretty exciting. That's what makes you go back for more...

Thursday, 25 August 2011

I'm Not Racin' Ya!

Had an eventful ride down the coast to Reculver earlier. First off a dog, soggy and excited from swimming in the sea, dashed in front of the bike. We collided but it was only a glancing blow and no damage was done to me, the bike or Fido either. On the way back I experienced my first real "car door" moment on Herne Bay seafront. There was no other traffic around so I was able to swerve to avoid the door. If there was other traffic on the road what would be best? To brake and crash into the door as slowly as possible or swerve and hope the other traffic was able to avoid you? A nasty situation so easily avoided by car drivers glancing in their side mirrors before exiting their vehicles...

The best bit came later though. I was almost back, just alongside the skate park in Swalecliffe, when a dude came alongside. Recently I have challenged myself to not let anyone overtake me on a ride. Yes, I am fully aware of how sad this is, please read on. Usually my victories consist of passing children on hills or tandems or old men but this guy was my age. He had a large pair of white headphones on and a swish bike with a super-thin frame and funky wheels.

I immediately accelerated and changed gear in a rather obvious NONE SHALL PASS manner. Moments later he cruised alongside, lifted the headphones from his ears and announced "I'm not racin' ya!" before cruising past. Now if you are a cyclist you probably know how it is. It's always a race. Not a proper race with a start and finish line and agreed rules etc but a race nonetheless. I was about to say something like this when I realised I couldn't since he was already too far away. Come back! It is a race! It's always better to get into these kind of duels at the start of a ride or, as previously mentioned, with people you are very very likely to beat. But I was in it now. Did I mention the headwind? There was the mother of all headwinds. That affected the dude too but I am bad with headwinds. They get to me. I felt it affected me more. I was also jealous of his bike that looked a lot lighter and faster than mine. (That's just an excuse I hear you cry.) He also had some pumpin' choons to boost him. (That's an excuse I hear you cry.) Well battle commenced. I worked hard. I sweated. I gradually began to catch up. As I got closer I could see he was wearing flip-flops. Usually people who beat me in races wear helmets and lycra - all the gear. But this dude was in flip-flops like me. He wore no helmet like me. He turned around, smiled, and accelerated away again. Right. Dig deep. COME ON! 

I almost caught him in the end but by that time we had run out of seafront. I made sure he knew I was just on his back wheel as I turned off for home. Damn. 

Back at the hoose I needed a shower I was sweating so much. In the mirror I caught sight of my paunch. Why does my six-pack disappear every time I take my clothes off? The whole episode reminded me of playing table football with one of my dad's friends when I was about 10 and he was probably 40 ish. I kept on beating him. He kept on insisting on one more game. I would beat him again. Pretty soon I realised he was properly cross. Now I understand. They call it middle age I think...

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Gooseberries, Blackberries and Other Plotless Stories...

It's the summer holidays so routines have been splattered all over the place and my writing has suffered. I've started several stories but finished none of them. Part of the problem is that I've been trying to write the kind of stories people advise you to write. The kind with punchy openings that grip the reader and force them to press on. The kind of stories that sketch a character in a few lines who is so real you feel they could be a centre point for an entire novel. Trouble is that as the years go by I am less and less interested in plot. To make matters worse I've never been that interested in characters that seem real either. 

Then I read a couple of connected Chekhov stories - Gooseberries and About Love. This passage in Gooseberries stopped me dead. I read it twice. 

It's the correct thing to say that a man needs no more than six feet of earth. But six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man. And they say, too, now, that if our intellectual classes are attracted to the land and yearn for a farm, it's a good thing. But these farms are just the same as six feet of earth. To retreat from town, from the struggle, from the bustle of life, to retreat and bury oneself in one's farm - it's not life, it's egoism, laziness, it's monasticism of a sort, but monasticism without good works. A man does not need six feet of earth or a farm, but the whole globe, all nature, where he can have room to display all the qualities and peculiarities of his free spirit.

It was Tolstoy who suggested a man needed only six feet of land. 

Have not I retreated from the city? Have not I escaped the riots and looting of my beloved birthplace to make blackberry jam beside the sea? I finished the story and in a sign of it's quality continued thinking about it all day. The man who utters the passage above is the same man who takes great sensual delight in swimming in a mill pond earlier in the tale. He also greatly enjoys the hospitality of his country host. With great subtlety Chekhov is showing how it is possible to say one thing and do another without even realising you are contradicting yourself. He achieves this effect by paining vivid word-pictures for the reader then allowing  his characters to speak. The contrast between their words and actions leads the reader towards a fuzzy truth that is never clearly expressed. Having recently moved out of the city that passage resonated and seemed like an attack on the bourgeois complacency of my new life. And yet the story the man tells about his brother (who describes his home grown gooseberries as "delicious" where he finds them "sour and unripe") is unsatisfying to those listening. Why? Probably because on some level they appreciate the hypocrisy of his words though he is unaware of this himself. 

My point? Ah yes. I don't care if my stories have no easily graspable plot or message. I'm going to carry on writing the fuzzy stuff. Goodbye plot! Hello word-painting, poetry and confusion...

Friday, 12 August 2011


scum n. 1 a layer of dirt or froth on the surface of a liquid.
              2 informal a worthless or contemptible person or group of people.

Emotive language keeps being bandied around following the riots. The main purpose of this is to create a sense of "us" and "them". I have heard children described as "rats" on television and during conversation. In the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew (quoting from Wikipedia - try substituting Hoodie for Jew)

One of the shots early in the film shows a pack of rats emerging from a sewer, juxtaposed with a crowd of Jews in a bustling street of a Polish city. Close-ups of individuals show sickly, malformed facial features. The narration says that, as rats are the vermin of the animal kingdom, Jews are the vermin of the human race and similarly spread disease and corruption.

If we resort to labeling groups of people as subhuman we are treading into highly dangerous territory. Those using such language should control themselves a little better. 

Among those using emotive language is our own Prime Minister David Cameron. He labelled sections of our society "sick". It should be remembered that Mr Cameron was a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. Members are not adverse to a spot of vandalism and criminal damage. That they "leave a cheque" to cover the cost is supposed to make everything better but is more like adding insult to injury if you ask me.
Name calling and emotive labeling might make you feel good for a second or two but it serves no useful purpose. There has been a lot of talk about responsibility as well. Rather than "them" taking responsibility for "their" actions I think we need to find a way of bringing even the most unsavory groups (Hoodie nihilists, EDL nuts, Islamic and Christian fundamentalists) and making them feel a part of "us". It's easy to fight about black and white, less so to thrash about in shades of grey. As David Cameron said in his infamous "hug a hoodie" speech:

"But hoodies are more defensive than offensive. They're a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in. For some the hoodie represents all that's wrong about youth culture in Britain today. For me, adult society's response to the hoodie shows how far we are from finding the long-term answers to put things right." 

Thursday, 11 August 2011

But excuse me that is MY book

I was reading Lauren Child's classic But excuse ME THAT is my book to my kids last night when I noticed certain books in the library that I recognised.

I own these three and managed to find them in my library today. Art in Theory is clearly visible when Charlie and Lola are outside the library looking through the window. 

In my crap photo it is the big blurry white book towards the right of the middle shelf. This volume of Art in Theory covers the period 1900- 2000 showing Lauren's tastes are modern. Towards the end of But excuse ME THAT is my book you can clearly see the Faber Plath's collected poems right next to a copy of The Bell Jar (pink spine, yellow writing).

Also visible in the book is Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware - another book I claim as MINE actually in FACT excuse ME. (Just to the left of Charlie's head there.) 
Also visible in the pic above are Martin Amis's The Information and the Black Sparrow edition of Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye. 

Other books I can make out are Will Self's The Quantity Theory of Insanity; Seeing Things by Oliver Postgate; Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius; The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories About Childhood; Malignant Sadness by Louis Wolpert; Ardal O'Hanlon's The Talk of the Town and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary. 

I'm getting bored now but there are plenty of others. Why not find yourself a copy and carry on the game? 

Which of those books do you have at home? 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's Burning

So here I sit in Whitstable, sunshine and blue skies, whilst my old stomping grounds burn and get looted. I feel guilty. A pathetic sort of survivor's guilt or something.

Walworth Road looted - I used to go to college along there on the bus then it was my route from Camberwell to Crockatt & Powell in Waterloo.

Mayhem in Peckham. I used to walk down to Peckham on a Sunday with Finn when he was a baby. We'd go to the soft play or to the library at Peckham Pulse. Lordship Lane looted. My wife was at dinner last night while one her colleagues was on the phone to his girlfriend. They live on Lordship Lane and she was terrified watching a chemist opposite get broken into and looted.

Hackney in flames. Half my London friends live in Hackney. I was at a wedding in Stoke Newington just last weekend. We stayed with my brother-in-law in Walthamstow, another affected area. Put Walthamstow into Google and the first entries that come up are Walthamstow riots and Walthamstow looting.

The list goes on...

I feel angry. Not just with those chucking bricks and burning stuff but with the collective failure that has led to a generation of young people feeling completely alienated from our society. "Mindless vandals" don't just appear, they are created from dire social conditions. Ok so we may not have people starving to death like Somalia but there are massive divisions in our society that breed ill will and destruction.

Living in Camberwell we were often too close for comfort to crime. Stabbing next door, fatal shooting at the end of our road, constant sirens and helicopters overhead. But we lived there during the good times, when the economy was booming. I feel guilty saying it but it is true. I'm glad to be out of it, down by the sea. But my heart breaks when I see the city I love torn up by rage.

It's too easy to blame it on mindless thugs and call for them all to be locked up or cleansed from the street with water canon. We are all culpable and need to think long and hard about how to make our society work for everyone. I don't claim to have the answers - I'm just a writer, book-lover and dad. But in my heart I feel a rich elite have ridden roughshod over people's lives. Maybe it's time for them to give something back? We need a rethink of our social contract, to find a way to give people hope and faith in their futures. Otherwise this may only be the beginning...

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Publishers be Damned!

We went to a beautiful wedding in Ely on Friday. The next morning we visited Topping & Company, one of two superb bookshops set up by my friend and former colleague Robert Topping. We were enthusiastically welcomed on the way in to the shop (James Daunt take note!) and I asked about a book I was interested in buying. My son found a book he was keen on within moments of entering the extensive children's section. I was directed upstairs where another charming employee offered me a cup of coffee. Well, it wasn't just a cup. I was served coffee on a wooden tray with a china milk jug and sugar pot. They found a window seat for us with a view of the cathedral.
This is the poetry section - not some miserable corner but books floor to ceiling.
Here's a snapshot of the politics section. I ended up spending thirty eight quid - money I really don't have. The point was we were surrounded by wonderful books. They were often wrapped in plastic sheets making them feel like objects of great value. Everywhere you looked there was something to desire and with coffee, the LRB to leaf through, great staff (chatty and friendly but also highly informed) and a list of mouth-watering events coming up it was utterly impossible to resist.

Later we visited the Cathedral. I was struck by the similarity between the reverent atmosphere inside and a certain something about Topping & Company. A cathedral is a kind of advert for religion. Look at this wonderful building. Think of the years of worship. The whole place leads you further, draws you into a realm beyond the everyday, beyond mortality. Topping & Company does a similar job for books. These are not mere words, marks on paper or on a screen. This is distilled human thought and emotion we are dealing with. There is beauty here, something that will last and be a joy forever. Books are taken beyond themselves and into a reverential realm where they matter A LOT.

It wasn't until later that I became enraged. Shops such as Topping & Company, The Bookseller Crow on the Hill, Daunt, even Waterstone's deserve a much better deal from publishers than they receive at present.

It is A FUC*ING INSULT and A MASSIVE INJUSTICE that they should pay roughly the same for a book they want to buy into their shop as an Amazon customer. 

I just can't get that sentence into big enough capitals or red enough writing to express the rage I feel about this issue. If I were a publisher I would be unable to look Robert Topping or John Main in they eye. I would skulk and hide my well-fed face. High Street bookshops are doing publishers a huge service. The likes of Topping & Co do an incredible job for publishers. They make the books produced feel special and of value.

All the Internet does is shift units. It places books on the same level as beans. It makes all books seem cheap. Stop passing the buck by trotting out the same old lame bottom line crap. Ok, so people will buy books where it is most economical to do so. Ok publishers, make it more economical for people to buy from High Street shops. Go on, do it! Level the playing field and recognise that High St shops are subsidising the Internet stores.

There must be more that publishers can do for High Street bookshops. They should all take a look at themselves and put their hands in their pockets.


Something can, and must, be done.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Waiting For The Evening News by Tim Gautreaux

It's not often I find myself quoting from scripture. Ok, you got me, I've never done it before. But for this post the following scrap says it all:

Ecclesiastes 1:9-14 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 

I was watching the news. I forget what terrible thing was occurring, but it was something really bad. "What if that was all my fault somehow?" I thought and felt a story coming on. In the bookshop yesterday I was reading from a book of short stories by Tim Gautreaux. The collection was titled Waiting For The Evening News and the second story I read was called Waiting For The Evening News. A train engineer, drunk on cheap whisky, is flying through the night along a route he has travelled thousands of times before. He is contemplating the sameness of the journey and how it hardly matters if he is there or not when something catastrophic happens. The train derails and the chemical containers it is carrying smash to bits and start to burn. The engineer runs off into the woods because he is drunk and thinks he will be sacked. He hitches a lift with a priest (this is the Deep South - every other person is a Preacher!) and finds a motel for the night thinking he will call in when he is sober. We never really find out why the train derailed but the engineer, though drunk, is convinced it would have happened anyway and that it was not his fault. 

When he turns on the TV the next morning he is shocked to discover the train crash is all over the local news. It seems the chemical spill is pretty bad and the fire is out of control. Not only that the derailed cars destroyed a Seven Eleven and mashed half a small town. The engineer heads for New Orleans thinking he can hide there. Every newspaper he sees covers the story. Every bar has the wreck on TV. Some of the chemical cars have mixed their cargoes and created deadly mustard gas. People have died. His face is plastered all over the place. He is public enemy number one. It just keeps getting worse. His wife appears on the news, pleading for him to come back so he can paint their living room. The engineer rages at the TV claiming he didn't do anything. Eventually the priest appears again. They talk. He asks the engineer if he thinks running away, not being noticed, is the same thing as Innocence. Eventually, in a brilliant finale, the engineer turns himself in. He is arrested with TV cameras rolling whilst the action is played out behind him on the TV in his motel room. 

It's a great story and well worth reading despite the fact I've just told you what happens! 

What I found interesting was that it engaged with exactly the same theme I was hoping to use in my story. I'm still going to write mine. Rather than the Deep South it will be more South London. In fact I'm going to cease blogging right now to go and make a start...