Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Best of Times

It's exactly ten years since the bookshop company I worked for - Ottakar's - was taken over HMV Media, who incorporated the shops into its Waterstone's chain. I was happy at Ottakar's. It was a company that valued individuality, not only tolerating the quirky and eccentric, but actively encouraging it. Ottakar's and I were a good fit.

The company culture came from its founder and managing director, James Heneage - a man who was the antithesis of the grey-suited businessman. Fiercely intelligent and disarmingly honest, he had an unusual background. Expelled from public school, he went on to join the army at Sandhurst and was allegedly responsible for the only mutiny in his regiment's history, when he got his soldiers lost in a jungle.

I suspect that many of the anecdotes about James were apocryphal, but it wouldn't have surprised me if they were true. James was a larger than life character, with a clipped military voice that boomed across the room. During a visit to one shop in early December, James was dismayed to find that there were no Christmas decorations and bellowed at the manager "What are you? Some sort of Calvinist?!"

But underneath the bluff exterior, there was a great warmth and we all felt that he was on our side. I have met many politicians, actors, writers and artists, but few of them have had the charisma that James Heneage possessed. He was a natural leader.

I enjoyed the job because in addition to the mundane business of running a shop, I had the opportunity to hold events, write articles about authors and meet a variety of people at launch parties. Sometimes the encouters were quite surreal: a conversation about NCP car parks with Lee Child, meeting John Grisham in a medieval hall that looked like something out of Hogwarts, dancing with a very drunk Mrs Doyle from Father Ted, meeting a True Crime author who told me that he could kill me with his bare hands if he wasn't a Buddhist, discussing the book trade with Jacqueline Wilson whilst sitting on a merry-go-round, advising Katie Price what she and Peter Andre should read in bed together...it was all very amusing.

I also worked with some lovely people - bright, unpretentious, full of fun, mostly. Most of the staff went on to greater things, but a few would have struggled to find employment anywhere else; for example, one member of staff liked watching DVD boxed sets of Apollo landings in real time and also had a collection of music by Nazi swing bands (one dance hit was called 'Bomb England'), but they loved their books and were a real assett to the business.

When the business was taken over, the new owners said how much they valued our 'passion' and wanted to incorporate it into the wider business, but within a year my job had turned into a very dull admin role, with all of the important decisions made elsewhere. After 18 unhappy months, I decided to leave Waterstone's before they left me.

But rather than dwell on sad endings, here's a small celebration of what I loved about Ottakar's:

Partly out of devilment, but also in an attempt to boost sales, I held an event featuring dangerous and exotic animals during the school holidays. In hindsight, it could have ended badly, but luckily it passed without a hitch. This woman has a rather useless chameleon on her arm. Why hasn't it turned blue?


In this photo, I'm holding a tarantula, wondering what will happen it it jumps off and runs away.

The Science Museum decided that their existing bookshop was too dull and asked Ottakar's to come in and make it more 'visitor friendly'. Less charitable souls might say that we took a good academic bookshop and dumbed it down, but it went down very well with the Museum and I really enjoyed the challenge of setting up a shop in such a unique envionment.

I'm not sure if the Museum realised how little we knew about science - we were completely winging it - but I think we got away with it.

I was very flattered when James Heneage told me that I was the ideal man for the job, possessing the necessary tact and diplomacy to deal with the museum authorities. Later I discovered that four people had turned the job down before I was offered it.

We had to work with the existing fixtures and fittings, all of which were very drab, but managed to come up with something half decent. Unfortunately, the director of the museum didn't like the illuminated sign, as he felt that the phrase 'Adult Books' had unfortunate associations.

An Ingmar Bergman moment from a lovely weekend in Sweden, courtesy of one of my ex-booksellers from the Clapham branch, who let us use her flat in Stockholm. As much as I love books, it's the people that I valued most about the job.


In the Crawley branch, we held the longest ever Jacqueline Wilson signing event, which lasted for eight hours. This photo doesn't do justice to the length of the queue.

Even the most jaded, world weary bookseller would be hard pressed not to be moved by an event like this. Jacqueline Wilson was wonderful and made every child feel as if they had a special bond with her. It was quite terrifying when it started, as I had no idea that so many people would turn up. When some very 'assertive' mothers started to surge forward, I had to act quickly to avoid a punch-up.

In Ottakar's the ethos was that quirky, interesting shops were good for business. Staff were encouraged to think of innovative ways to display and promote books, which made the job far more interesting for them. Every shop I worked in had at least one talented artist who produced the most astonishing windows.

In 2005, I had to open a shop in Worthing at the same time that my father was dying. It was a challenging time, but in many ways it helped having something to focus on. It was the first time I'd had the opportunity to recruit a team of staff from scratch, so I decided to follow my gut instinct and pick people I'd be happy to go to the pub with. The result was one of the happiest places I've worked in.

The set-up week involved converting a bare shell of a unit into a fully stocked shop with 25,000 books within five days. Every day we worked for up to 12 hours, then went out drinking. No matter lively the evening was, everyone was back the following morning at 8.00 sharp, which was quite remarkable in some cases.

The takeover of Ottakar's wasn't a certainty. The bid had been referred to the Monopolies Commission and we spent the best part of a year wondering what our fate was going to be. But on a Monday morning at the beginning of July, I turned on my PC and saw an email that read 'Welcome to Waterstone's'.

My heart sank.

If I ever come into a small fortune, I will revive a branch of Ottakar's just for the fun of it. I suppose the name is copyrighted, so keep an eye out for a bookshop called Ottokers, O.T.Takars or Otto Kerr's.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Life After Britain

The night before the EU referendum, the clouds prophetically darkened and a terrible storm broke over Lewes. My wife, who had been helping at a book launch in London, sent a text asking me to pick her up from Haywards Heath.

As I drove through the blinding rain, trying to work out where the road was, I thought about the following day's referendum and confidently concluded that the Leave campaign had lost its momentum. At the final moment, people would step back from the edge and take comfort in the fact that at least they had made their feelings clear. But I was wrong.

It feels as if someone has lit a fuse. This isn't just the end of Great Britain in Europe, but of Great Britain itself. In a few years' time, the famous Union Jack will be redundant and if there is still a United Kingdom, it will probably just consist of England and Wales.

People around the world are rightly asking why a successful, prosperous country has pressed the self-destruct button. In Britain, many of the 48% who voted for Remain are in a state of shock and anger.

Looking at the post-referendum statistics, it is clear that the country is split down the middle and that, rather than simply being a conflict between left and right, the divide is between old and young, rural and urban, graduates and non-graduates and, most destructively, Scotland and Northern Ireland versus England and Wales. Never has the ancient Chinese curse, 'May you live in interesting times', been more apposite.

I rarely write about politics, but as so many people are offering their two penn'orth, here are mine. It will be nothing new to British readers, but might be of mild interest to people elsewhere.

I think that the referendum result was largely about immigration and the pace of change that has taken place during the last decade or so. There has been a steady Commonwealth immigration to the UK since the Empire Windrush first arrived in 1948, but it was largely limited to the cities and those towns that had an industrial base, like Bradford, Luton and Oldham.

As recently as the 1980s, vast swathes of Britain were barely touched by immigration. There was an unofficial apartheid between two alternate visions of Britain: one a multiracial, multicultural, metropolitan society; the other, a more traditional, homogeneous one.

Overall, society was changing, but at a pace that all but the most bigoted could cope with. High levels of emmigration counterbalanced the influx and even during the 1950s and 60s, when Britain was supposedly 'flooded' with immigrants, the net migration averaged at about 12,000 a year.

But during the last decade, two things have changed dramatically. First, the level of net migration has risen to between 200,000 to 300,000 per year - in context, this is the equivalent to adding the population of the city of Brighton and Hove every year. Second, the distribution of migrants has been over a much wider area, often in places that had been untouched by earlier waves of immigration. In Wisbech, for example, around a third of the population are now of Eastern European origin.

Many voiced their fears about the rising level of immigration, but were frequently dismissed as racists. The famous encounter between Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy perfectly summed up the divide between the metropolitan classes and those who felt left behind in a changing society.

Why did people feel so threatened? Was it simple bigotry, or a legitimate objection to the workings of global capital? I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but I think it might be pertinent.

A few years ago, I worked for a business that employed 200 people in a huge warehouse. When I started, the workforce consisted entirely of locals, then one week, a few Latvians joined. From the moment they started, it was clear that the Latvians were superior to their English counterparts: harder working, mostly better educated and nearly always far more motivated. The management took notice and recruited more.

My work often took me to other recycling companies and, time after time, I saw migrants working uncomplainingly in often awful conditions, doing dull, repetitive work in dim, unheated warehouses. The local people, who didn't find the minimum wage as alluring as their Eastern European colleagues, struggled to compete and began to resent the rising local rents and competition for work.

When the mainstream political parties failed to take the issue of immigration seriously, those who felt ignored and disenfranchised voted for UKIP in increasing numbers. David Cameron won the last election by undermining UKIP with the promise of a referendum. History may remember him as the man who unwittingly sacrificed Great Britain to win an election.

The referendum campaign has been a pretty lamentable affair, full of bigotry, hysteria, cheap sentiment and misinformation on both sides. Interestingly, although many dubious figures were bandied around, the economic arguments had far less impact than the ones based on principles.

I think the decision to vote to leave the EU was a desperate act by those who felt that this was their last chance to halt a tide of change that had already made the English an ethnic minority in London.

The fact that only half of the net annual migration came from within the EU was never really highlighted. EU migrants were also increasingly blamed for the rise in house prices when, in truth, they were only one factor in a complex picture.

Overall, I didn't witness any real anti-European sentiment, even towards the migrants from Eastern Europe. In the warehouse I worked next to, the attitude was more one of "You can't blame them for coming here, but where will it all end?". However, there was a real, visceral anger towards the middle classes, the institution of the EU and the metropolitan elite.

This has been a cultural revolution and a consensus has been shattered.

In a way, this conversation I had yesterday with my mother is indicative of the mindset of many:

"Well, we won. Now they won't be able to come over here and take our benefits."

"But most of them aren't on benefits. They often work a lot harder than we do."

"Well then, they won't be able to take our jobs."

For me, the referendum always felt like a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. The Leave campaign was dominated by jingoistic rhetoric and unreliable economics. The more sophisticated arguments by figures like Tony Benn, about democracy and accountability, were rarely heard.

On the other hand, the Remain campaign conflated the EU with Europe and frequently implied that anyone who voted to leave was a backward-looking racist. As someone pointed out, all racists will vote Leave, but not all Leave voters are racists.

The tragedy with this referendum, like the Scottish one, was that it offered only two extremes. I suspect that most Scots would have voted for the 'Devolution Max' option if they'd had the choice, and in Thursday's referendum, more people would have voted to remain in the European Union if a compromise had been on the table. But for the EU, the principle of free movement was non-negotiable.

So that's it for Great Britain, probably. Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler tried to vanquish Great Britain, but a peaceful referendum succeded where they had failed. There may now be a vacant seat on the UN Security Council and there'll be no Team GB in the 2020 Olympics.

It's not all doom and gloom. With around 90% of the UK population, the remaining rump of England and Wales will still be an economic and cultural power, but it won't be the same.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Day Release

As some people who have followed this blog will know, my older son has faced many difficulties over the years and at one point, I wondered if he would ever set foot in a school again, let alone pass any exams. For quite a long time, things looked very bleak. However, I'm pleased to say that the last year has seen a remarkable turnaround.

With funding from the local authority, my son has been able to attend a school that caters for children like him and at last, he is beginning to discover his potential. He is particularly interested in science, maths and computing and is getting glowing reports from the teachers, so there's every chance he'll end up being far more successful than me (which wouldn't be that hard).

It's a pity that children often have to go through years of hell before they get local authority funding, but better late than never. And from the state's point of view, it's money well spent if a child can be turned from an individual who faces a life on benefits into an employable person.

I am now the prime carer in our household and spend most of my time ferrying our sons around, cleaning the house, shopping and cooking. It feels as if that is all I do now (one reason why I look forward to returning to work), but Instagram keeps reminding me that I do occasionally get out.

The following photos were all taken in Sussex during the last couple of months:

Herstmonceaux Castle. I visited it for the first time recently and was delighted to find that the car park was almost empty. Nothing kills the romance of an ancient castle more than several coachloads of people in pastel leisurewear. Even when the castle is closed, the grounds are still worth seeing.

This redundant observatory has been resurrected as a wonderful science museum for children, with lots of hands-on displays that make the official Science Museum in London look rather dull by comparison.

Market Street in Lewes during a rare, traffic-free moment. I like the lack of uniformity.

The Seven Sisters cliffs at Birling Gap. My sons love to explore the rockpools here. It's not quite the Great Barrier Reef, but it can still yield the odd surprise, from a beach covered in starfish to a woman covered in tattoos of Michael Jackson.

Whenever I see a red telephone box, I want to go and and ask for Scotland Yard. I don't know why.

My older son, during a rare moment in daylight. I think he was in a good mood because he'd just had an excellent school report; an event that surprised him as much as us.

This is a small annex to the bedroom of Rudyard Kipling's son, John, who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

The black house, just next to Lewes Castle, has what are called 'mathematical tiles' - fake bricks, that were used by the Georgians to make older, timber-framed houses look more impressive.

This is Bateman's - the 17th century home of Rudyard Kipling. Whether you're interested in the author or not, it's well worth a visit.

Market day in Lewes, where the affluent middle classes abandon Waitrose for the day.

My favourite car outside one of my favourite pubs. In Lewes, even the cars are half-timbered.

Ypres Tower, Rye, where the English kept an eye out for any marauding Frenchmen.

An abandoned quarry, just outside Lewes, now largely populated by nervous rabbits and dog owners who assure you that "He's just being friendly".

The entrance to Rudyard Kipling's library. Whilst browsing through the books, an elderly man came up to me and started to talk about the unexpected death of a middle aged man he knew: "Chap was about your age." I left feeling like a condemned man.

This tiny circle of stones appeared, briefly, one afternoon. The next day it was gone. Rudolf Steiner would have probably attributed this to gnomes.

Smaller and prettier than Lewes, Rye offers a number of literary curiosities, including the homes of Henry James, Radclyffe Hall, EF Benson and John Christopher. I love Rye, but it is a victim of its own success, with more tourists than locals during the spring and summer.

The moon and Jupiter over a Tudor rooftop at twilight. Not great quality, but not bad for a phone.

Lewes in the rain. There seems to have been a lot of it recently.

This is a close-up of a pillar at Lewes Station. It's being redecorated and the workmen have stripped away decades of layers of paint, leaving a rather interesting abstract design.

Lewes Station at twilight, when the station is almost deserted.

I never tire of this scene and have photographed it in all weathers. In an ideal world, every town would have a 1000-year-old building at its centre, to give us all a sense of perspective.

This is Uckfield - a much-maligned market town near Lewes. It's not the prettiest of places, but the older part of the town is full of hidden delights for anyone who takes the time to explore.

Birling Gap, where a child can turn a distant yacht into a pirate ship.

I apologise for the mundane nature of this post. I can't promise that the next one will be any better.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Usual Nonsense

After a lovely, child-free weekend in Frome last week, the karmic balance is now being restored by the ordeal of a half term holiday. As much as I love my sons, I am getting rather tired of repeating this particular conversation twice a day:

"Dad, can I have something to eat?"

"Okay, what would you like?"

"I don't know."

"Well that doesn't really get me anywhere. What about some toast?"

"No thanks."

"A croissant?"

"No, I don't like them any more."

"Carrot sticks?"

"No." (said with a weary sigh).

"Well, let's go into the kitchen and see what there is, shall we?" (said through gritted teeth).

We go into the kitchen and despite being presented with a full cupboard of cakes, crisps, biscuits, fresh bread, stale bread, cereal, nuts and various bars, I feel as if I have somehow failed. Eventually, a packet of crisps is begrudgingly accepted and I feel as if I'm the one who is being done a favour.

I think my younger son's still cross with me for tumble drying one of our cats (I did stop the machine as soon as I heard a strange bumping noise, I hasten to add).

Written down here, it all sounds incredibly petty, but one should never underestimate the power of a dripping tap.

Perhaps this was why I found myself being infuriated by almost everything I saw this morning, during a brief shopping trip to Brighton.

The chief offenders were as follows:


1. Jeans with holes in the knees:

I am neither a genuphobe nor a knee fetishist. Indeed, I am completely indifferent on the subject of knees, but these jeans offend me. The ripped jeans of the 80s were pretty daft, but at least the tear appeared vaguely natural. These just look stupid and I feel irrationally annoyed by everyone I see who wears them.

2. Hipster beards:

Long beards are fine in the 1892 England cricket team, or at an Iranian theological conference, but on the streets of Brighton they are just irritating. Why are so many young men slavishly following this trend? It's no longer just poncy, middle class men, sitting outside a chi chi cafe, pretending that it's perfectly normal to have a typewriter; I've also seen builders who look like Brahms.

I suppose that the one plus side of this trend is that it makes it harder for Islamist gunmen to distinguish between believers and infidels.

3. Mad eyebrows:

Feeling compelled to pluck one's eyebrows to the point of oblivion is wrong, but the pedulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction, hasn't it? Whose bright idea was it to introduce eyebrows that look like Groucho Marx's moustache? In the history of fashion, I think this trend will be regarded as a brief moment of madness, like bubble skirts and spray-painted DMs.

4. Man-buns:
I suppose this hairsyle can be useful if you have a bald patch that you want to cover - it's certainly more windproof than the traditional comb-over, but I'm not a fan.

It reminds me of those gormless-looking backpackers who use to congregate in Traflagar Square and have a strand of their hair threaded with beads, to show how deep they were: "I'm part of a global consciousness. I'm really into World music. Let's sing some Manu Chao - has Jens got his didgeridoo on him?"

I know I'm being grumpy and petty. I think it's probably a dental abscess that's exacerbated my mildly misanthropic tendancies. I've been taking antibiotics for over a week and nothing has changed. Perhaps I've entered the post-antibiotic age, in which case I'm doomed.

On a more upbeat note, my weekend in Somerset was a pleasure from start to finish. Frome is one of the most interesting and visually appealing towns I've visited, full of eccentric delights. I was also introduced to a beautiful village I'd never heard of, which turned out to be the setting for one of the most notorious murders in Victorian England.

The house below features in Kate Summerscale's marvellous book, The Suspicion of Mr Whicher, which I read as soon as I got back from Somerset. It's extraordinary how little both the house and the village appear to have changed, physically, at least.


A weekend of good company and interesting discoveries lifted the spirits. There was a time when I wanted to walk the Machu Picchu trail, or go on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but these days a mere two days in Somerset is all I need to clear away the cobwebs.