Saturday, September 29, 2012
However that wasn't the whole story. I also think I'd reached a crisis point where, in my mid-40s, I was no longer willing to tolerate the frustrations of working for other people. Ironically, it was probably the most successful job I'd had and I enjoyed a good relationship with my employers. But I felt ground down by the nine-to-five routine, the 25-mile commute and the grim environment - an open plan office on a drab industrial estate.
Although there was little danger of me regretting my decision, I made this short film to remind me why I'd left:
One year on, I feel as if I have become myself again for the first time in 25 years. It is as if I have been been deprogrammed after belonging to a rather unpleasant religious cult.
Some people find security in the routine of working so many hours a day, for so many days a week, for so many weeks a year, but I couldn't stand it and felt as if the best years of my life were ebbing away. I had watched my father endure years of hard work and a tortuous commute, only to succumb to heart disease within months of retirement. I wasn't willing to follow the same path.
The last year has been difficult. I have been trying to negotiate the thin line between self-employment and unemployment - time versus money - but I think I've cracked it. In a few weeks I will be starting a new project which should, hopefully, provide the financial security I need to deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
That's Plan A. There is no Plan B, so I'd better make sure that I get it right.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
I did exactly the same thing with my first child. It was ridiculous, but I was so excited at the prospect of being able to take him on days out I couldn't wait. I probably wasted a lot of money on trips that my son has no memory of. With my second son, I have had the good sense to ration museum excursions and lower my expectations of the visit.
Yesterday I took my younger son to the Imperial War Museum. Normally, the word museum doesn't provoke a terribly positive reaction in my children, so I carefully said that we were going to the *mumble* Imperial *speak up* WAR *mumble again* Museum. My son look thoughtfully and replied "Cool".
I wish he wouldn't say that.
I like travelling to London on a Saturday. During the weekdays the trains are packed full of weary-looking people that hate their jobs, self-important businessmen who think the carriage is an extension of their office and lumbering NVQ students on their way to Crawley, with headphones pumping out cicada-like rhythms. On Saturday everyone's in a good mood.
The train arrives on time and to my relief, it is 12 carriages long. Occasionally, for reasons unknown, the train only has four carriages and an unseemly scramble ensues. It's quite amusing watching well-to-do people desperately running down a platform, trying to maintain their dignity.
I wonder how we will pass the one-hour journey. Sometimes my son is extremely garrulous, bombarding me with questions like "Dad, how many bullets would it take to kill a stegosaurus?" Today he is silent, possibly overawed by the experience of being on a train, so I'm able to eavesdrop on other people's conversations:
"I say she should be able to do whatever she likes, but she can't go around wearin' a bodice all day. I mean, it's not the Victorian age."
I look behind me and see two men in their late 20s. I was hoping to hear more, but they are drowned out by a recorded annoucement.
To my left, a man in his 60s is holding court to some people who don't seem to know him very well:
"Well I love looking at the boats in the harbour and seeing what the people are doing and if that makes me a peeping tom, then yes, I suppose I am. But they don't kow anyone's looking at them so there's no harm in it. I think people are fascinating. As you get older, you can get a bit cut-off being in the country. I'd quite happily live in the centre of Lewes, right on the High Street where I could watch everything going on, but Sheila says she'd miss having a front garden."
I am distracted by the trolley service. I don't know why, but having a tea or coffee on a train always feels like such a treat, I'll even buy one when I don't really want a drink. Like every other trolley attendant on this line, the young man who serves me is Eastern European. A few years ago, there used to be a man in his 70s who must have been one of the last people to have a real Sussex accent: "Tay, cahfee, beerrr..."
The man on my left is still talking:
It's an investment. They won't build any more like that. Last Sunday I was sitting in the conservatory, watching the thunder storm. It was the most spectacular storm I've ever seen. I saw three forks of lightning dancing along the top of the Downs..."
We arrive at Wivelsfield. The name always makes think of an obsequious, Uriah Heep-style character in a Dickens novel. No-one ever gets off at Wivelsfield.
The rest of the journey is uneventful so I read the Guardian magazine, which has an interesting interview with JK Rowling about her new novel for adults. I was one of the early supporters of Harry Potter, but grew disillutioned when it became a franchise. By the time of the fifth book, I was so sickened by the hype and the obligation to dress up as a wizard at midnight, I decided to liven things up with some real snakes and venomous spiders. That was a memorable book launch.
We stop at Gatwick, where two men with beards, backpacks and flip flops board the train. One of them sits next to me and leans right into my body space. I glare and he shuffles away. Welcome to Britain.
At Clapham Junction we change trains. I tell my son to look out for Big Ben, but the skyline has changed and we can't see a thing.
The walk from Lambeth North to the Imperial War Museum is unremarkable, but I have a pleasant surprise:
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Person: Is this the sort of thing you want?
Still, I suppose it is important to meet people face to face, shake hands and establish contact. I also quite like the opportunity to get out of the house and visit places I haven't been to, even if most of them seem to look exactly the same.
After planning my route, I realised that I'd be passing Aldbury - a village I'd wanted to visit ever since I watched this (try 1:16 to 3:20):
In this episode, Murdersville, Aldbury appears as 'Little Sworping In-the-Swuff' a wonderful name that is only slightly more absurd that those of many real villages I can think of. Was Aldbury as idyllic as it seemed and if it was, how much had it changed in the 45 years since that episode was filmed? Would I be like George Bowling in Coming Up For Air, searching for a land of lost content, only to find that it had been ruined beyond all recognition?
Fortunately, Aldbury seemed to be completely unaffected by the march of progress:
Aldbury is dominated by pre-19th century buildings, including several Tudor houses with thatched roofs. It's a picture postcard village, almost too perfect, as if it has been constructed for a film set. Unsurprisingly, Aldbury has appeared in 'Midsomer Murders'.
These stocks are next to the village pond, where Mrs Peel was subjected to waterboarding. Even today, it's quite a shocking scene and I pity her poor stunt double.
Up on the hill, there's a rather interesting looking building. I know that someone who grew up in Aldbury occasionally visits this blog, so I hope they might be able to shed some light on this mystery:
Almost every house I passed had something unique and eye-catching. I particularly liked this chimney, which seemed a little ostentatious for a small cottage:
When I saw one man waxing one of three 1960s MGs in his drive, I wondered how many of Aldbury's current inhabitants were born there.
On the way home, I listened to a podcast of an interview with Salman Rushdie and was delighted to discover to during his time in advertising he was responsible for this:
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Like Ingmar Bergman films and Tori Amos albums, you have to be in the right mood for Gissing. His bleak tales of poverty and thwarted ambition aren't for the faint-hearted and as with Hardy, it's sometimes hard to commit yourself to a narrative where the outcome seems predetermined from the first chapter.
But I'd forgotten how funny Gissing can be, in spite of his übermiserabilist credentials . I'd also forgotten how good he was at capturing the mood of late Victorian Britain, outwardly comfortable and complacent, but inwardly racked with tensions over issues of sex, class and religion.
With its gentle social satire and absence of grim melodrama, Our Friend the Charlatan sometimes feel more like an abridged Trollope novel in which the verbose digressions have been removed by a foward-thinking editor. Like so many Victorian stories, there is an elderly aristocrat, a young man on the make, a question of inheritance and a dilemma between marrying for love or money. But these familiar elements are merely a device for Gissing to create something where the sum is far greater than its parts.
Dyce Lashmar, the improbably-named main character, is a young man whose Oxford education has given him ideas above his station. Blessed with no discernible gifts except an unwavering confidence in his own abilities, Lashmar is horrified when his two sources of income - an annuity from his improverished father and the tuition fees he earns from instructing the son of a young widow - suddenly come to an end.
However, when the daughter of a former family friend tells Dyce that she is a secretary to a wealthy philanthropist, he sees an opportunity to cultivate a patron who will sponsor his glittering career.
Like Vanity Fair, this is a novel without a hero and all of the main characters are highly flawed individuals, but none more so than Dyce Lashmar, whose ability to recycle the ideas of an obscure French book on sociobiology convinces others that he is a 'coming man':
"All I know is, Dyce, that you might be the coming man, and you're content to be nobody at all."
"The coming man! Well, perhaps, I am; who knows? At all events, it's something to know that you believe in me. And it may be that you are not the only one."
A master of self-delusion, Lashmar soon believes that the Frenchman's ideas are merely a crude prototype for his own sophisticated philosophy and this genuine convinction successfully gains him a growing number of supporters. Only one person sees through him and their mischievous intervention adds tension to what could have been a rather plodding story.
Dyce Lasmar is clearly a vehicle for Gissing to explore the growing frustrations of the emerging middle class at the ruling aristocracy:
What, in deed, did such titles mean nowadays? They were a silly anachronism, absurdly in contradiction with that scientific teaching which rules our lives. Lashmar, of course, was right in his demand for a new aristocracy to oust the old, an aristocracy of nature, of the born leaders of men.
In Our Friend the Charlatan, it is Darwin who has changed everything, not socialism. Even Dyce's father, an impoverished rector, agrees:
The Rev. Philip was in his sixty-seventh year; a thin, dry, round-shouldered man, with bald occiput, straggling yellowish beard, and a face which recalled that of Darwin. The resemblance pleased him. Privately he accepted the theory of organic evolution, reconciling it with a very broad Anglicanism; in his public utterances he touched upon the Darwinian doctrine with a weary disdain.
Later in the story, Gissing mentions that Lashmar and a friend have become interested in Nietzsche and in a passage that is remarkably prescient for a novel published in 1901, they discuss their reservations about his philosophy:
"He'll do a great deal of harm in the world," she said, this same afternoon, as Dyce and she drank tea together. "The jingo impulse, and all sorts of forces making for animalism, will get strength from him, directly or indirectly. It's the negation of all we are working for, you and I."
"Of course it is," Dyce replied, in a voice of conviction. "We have to fight against him." He added, after a pause, "There is a truth in him, of course; but it's one of those truths which are dangerous to the generality of men."
Nietzsche's views are, of course, the symptom, not the cause and Gissing clearly feared certain aspects of the fin de siècle culture that was replacing the old order:
Mrs. Toplady had always wished for the coming of the very hero, the man without fear, without qualm, who should put our finicking civilisation under his feet. Her god was a compound of the blood-reeking conqueror and the diplomatist supreme in guile. For such a man she would have poured out her safe-invested treasure, enough rewarded with a nod of half-disdainful recognition. It vexed her to think that she might pass away before the appearance of that new actor on the human stage; his entrance was all but due, she felt assured. Ah! the world would be much more amusing presently, and she meanwhile was growing old.
Mrs Toplady, a woman in early middle age, would have probably lived long enough to see her wishes come true, albeit in a rather different guise. Gissing didn't even reach his 50th birthday.
Gissing's novels about the lower middle classes, educated beyond their means, trapped in lives of genteel poverty on trifling annuities, will have resonances for many modern readers and their obscurity is ill-deserved.
Today, only New Grub Street is widely read whilst others like The Nether World, In the Year of Jubilee and The Odd Women are merely admired. This is a great pity, as few writers have managed to create such a vivid panorama of late Victorian society. His descriptions of suburban London in In the Year of Jubilee are so well written that the sights and sounds almost become a false memory of something actually experienced.
Perhaps Gissing would have attracted more readers if he'd emulated Hardy, moving his stories to a more attractive rural setting where he could begin each novel with a portentous topographical description of the local area. I'm glad he didn't.
In Our Friend the Charlatan, the narrative is dominated by dialogue. This makes it very easy to read but suggests that this is a slight work, produced in a hurry. Some of the characters are a little two-dimensional and the Lady Bracknell figure feels all too familiar. However, I found it fascinating.
Gissing's portrayal of the plight of someone of limited means whose ambition was inversely proportional to their talent, is extremely entertaining. But, more importantly, it provides an insight into a society that was hurtling towards civil unrest and world war. This novel does not deserve its current status as an obscure, linkless item on Wikipedia. I hope that in the age of the blogosphere, Gissing's time will come.
Friday, September 14, 2012
I don't think many schoolchildren were into slide photography in those days, but my father had access to a steady supply of slightly out of date films and in the void left after my all-consuming obsession with Marvel comics, I needed a new hobby.
As luck would have it, my Auntie Nance died and left me the princely sum of £30. I used it to buy the latest Abba LP and a no-frills 35mm 'manual focus' camera. It was money well spent.
Looking at the pictures over 30 years on, I have no idea why I took most of them. I can only assume that a trip to London was so exciting (despite living a mere ten miles away from Hyde Park Corner) that even the most mundane features warranted a photograph:
At a glance, the Waterloo station of 1979 doesn't look radically different. In the background, you can just about see the brown and orange livery of WH Smith and the font on the signs seems to be the same, but you'd search in vain for a cappuccino or a pain au chocolat.
However, if you think Waterloo station's boring, try this for size:
High Street Kensington. From a modern perspective this photograph has a timeless dullness, but the advert for Silk Cut cigarettes clearly dates the image. It's also nice to see a poster for Pernod after my recent experience with a bemused barmaid.
I haven't been to Earls Court for a long time, but I remember the blue signs with illuminated arrows that indicated where each train was going. During many a long wait for the Richmond line, I developed a deeply-rooted hatred for Ealing Broadway and Wimbledon, which seemed to have more than their fair share of trains.
London seems more drab in these photos and if I remember correctly, parts of the Thames were lined with disused warehouses and gaps left by bomb sites. I wish that I'd had the sense to photograph that aspect of the city rather than waste film on shots of Big Ben and the Tower Bridge.
Home: the dreaming suburb of Teddington, with street upon street of semi-detached Victorian houses. I never liked it that much and couldn't understand why Teddington became a property 'hotspot' until I started visiting other London suburbs. When you've been to Sidcup and Perivale (not to mention Ealing Broadway), Teddington suddenly looks very attractive.
Twickenham riverside, taken from the bridge to the once famous Eel Pie Island, where the Rolling Stones used to play at the now defunct hotel. As a child I took this area, with its parks, stately homes and Georgian buildings, completely for granted, but by the time I bought my camera I was beginning to see it differently.
The Richmond May Fair, 1979. Interestingly, I don't think it's the man in the bow tie that dates the photo - you'll probably still see people like him wandering around Richmond - but the woman on the left, with the long dress.
I used to dread going to this fair because my parents invariably bumped into people they knew from their childhood and I would have to listen to one conversation after another. In the 1980s something changed - perhaps the advent of the Yuppie era - and it was as if the area had been ethnically cleansed. The last time I went to the fair with my parents, they didn't meet a single person they knew.
When I tell people that I grew up in Richmond-upon-Thames, their reaction is usually something along the lines of "Oooh, la-di-dah!", but it was a normal place in those days. Like Hampstead, Richmond had more millionaires per square mile than most London suburbs, but there weren't many of them by the gasworks where my mother lived.
In many ways I prefer the London of 2012, but I wish that the local communities hadn't been destroyed by the vagaries of the housing market. Today, Richmond feels soulless, almost like a gated community for the very wealthy.
I went to school with over 1000 children, but could spend a week walking the streets of Richmond and Twickenham without bumping into anyone I know. Where did everyone go?
In addition to photos of London and Richmond, I also found a few from trips to the west of England (including the picture at the top):
This is a medieval barn in Bradford-upon-Avon, Wiltshire. It has an ingeniously-designed feature where, at a certain time of the day, the setting sun produces a golden cross on the floor. By sheer chance, I turned up at exactly the right moment:
Further west, the photo below of Dartmoor makes it look even more desolate than I remember:
For a cheap camera, manufactured in one of the lesser regimes of the east, these photos beat the Kodak Instamatic hands down. If only the pictures hadn't been quite so dull. Why did I take photographs of Brentford high street, mallard ducks in Bushy Park and a blurred shot of a train entering Twickenham station?
Thank God there were no digital cameras in 1979. If I'd been let loose with 8GB of memory, then there's no telling how far I would have gone. Bus stops? Lamp posts? It makes me shudder to think of it.
Sunday, September 09, 2012
(Maisy's departure wasn't quite as straighforward as I'd anticipated. After a seemingly emotional reunion with her family, she ran away the following day and was discovered sitting on our doorstep. I can only assume that this and subsequent escapes were prompted by happy memories of long walks and Tesco's Finest dog food)
It has been a sociable weekend. Yesterday I spent a very pleasant afternoon at the Coal Hole in the Strand with a couple of friends from university. We argued about Twitter, agreed about the Olympics opening ceremony and recalled a rather unpleasant encounter I had with a vicar who worked in a boys' home.
We ended up in the Chandos where, to my horror, a young Australian barmaid had never heard of a Pernod and lemonade. I felt like a man who had been released from prison after a very long stretch.
I felt slightly fragile this morning, but when a friend reminded me that this was the weekend for the wonderful Heritage Open Days scheme, we decided to visit St Michael's Church in Lewes:
On the outside, St Michael's is a pleasant but fairly unremarkable medieval church, right next to a main road. However, it contains one of Lewes's hidden gems: a beautiful walled graveyard, tucked away between the Castle and some old houses:
If ever I feel the need to get away from everything and enjoy an hour's solitude, then I come here. The bustling high street is only yards away, but there is an eerie quietness that evokes an older world and spiders' webs lie undisturbed.
With Lewes Castle towering over the churchyard, you can enjoy the same view that Thomas Paine and his bride had, when they married here in 1771.
Wednesday, September 05, 2012
Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Monday, September 03, 2012
Over 90% of the stock is disappointing: book club editions, out of date encyclopaedias and bestsellers by unfashionable authors like Howard Spring, Frank Yerby, Naomi Jacob and Frances Parkinson Keyes, but the remaining titles can produce a modest profit if you know what you're doing.
Occasionally I acquire 'private collections' that I'm sure their owners would have destroyed if they hadn't been caught short by an unexpected misfortune. I certainly won't forget the photograph album I discovered (I was going to write 'came across', but decided against it) which began with shots of a reasonably attractive blonde woman in saucy lingerie, but gradually revealed that she was more of a man than I'll ever be.
It won't be like this forever. These days, the darker recesses of the human psyche can be sated in the privacy of cyberspace, so the day will come when house clearances no longer reveal as much about people's hidden fantasies. Also, their books, photo albums and music collections will be conveniently stored in an object no bigger than a coin.
But in the meantime, there are plenty of gems. Today, I found a collection of magazines tucked away at the bottom of a box. This was my favourite:
Published in New York in October 1968, Man's Story is an absurd collection of short stories, salacious tabloid journalism and saucy photoshoots.
Judging by the many adverts for hairpieces and cures for baldness, I'd guess that the magazine was aimed at middle-aged men who had missed out on the sexual revolution and wanted a piece of the action:
THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION AND ITS IMPACT ON YOU.
This is the era of the swinger when anything goes and no holds barred. Yet it can become the time of your greatest frustrations as it has for many.
"I've done eveything they suggest in the Kama Sutra and then some. There's no possibility of committing the act that I haven't tried. And that goes for all the exotic buildups too. Frankly, sex is getting to be a nothing with me." The speaker is a 20-year-old coed whom we'll call Connie.
19 pages on, another article asks: "Is sex dead? Before you laugh at the thought, listen to what the experts are saying. You may be in for some startling surprises."
By now, you don't know whether you're coming or going, but luckily there are plenty of helpful products to help you negotiate your way through the late 1960s sexual minefield.
Let's begin with the hair:
Perfect. Those groovy chicks will dig your hair, but if you're not convinced that $20 will be enough to maintain the illusion of youth, there are more expensive alternatives:
I think I'll go for the Seville, but although my hair now looks great, there's not much I can do about my appalling physique, or is there?
The Charles Atlas adverts were a staple of American magazines and comics long after this edition of Man's Story was published. Even as a boy, I hated this advert when I saw it in the imported Marvel comics that I was addicted to. For me, the 'weedy' man's transformation into someone like my PE teacher was a betrayal.
However, if you have managed to develop the perfect physique, you'll need a racier range of underwear:
Now that you've transformed yourself from a balding, flabby middle-aged man into a 60s swinger, you can join the sexual revolution:
But how will you afford all of this sex? Fortunately, Man's Story is packed full of useful career advice:
I'm not convinced that those swinging chicks would be attracted to a man who'd just spent the day cutting up dead animals. Surely it would be better to go for something like this:
Sorry, no dames. Judging by this advert, in addition to a generous salary and a new car, you are also encouraged to have sex with victims of car accidents. Perhaps you might even meet someone like Collette Berne:
There are several photoshoots of 'aspiring actresses' who, posterity now tells us, continued to aspire.
As for the stories, they are surprisingly literary in tone - obviously the work of frustrated authors. To compensate for their dullness, the magazine's editors have added sensationalist bylines:
Through the vice-ridden cess pool of Oran, I clawed my way to the sinister abode on Rue de l'Aqueduc where the diabolical auctioneer dealt in lovely sex slaves and hideous slaughter...
But the best has to be the Nazi biker story on the front cover:
"WE'LL TAKE YOUR CHICK THE HARD WAY, PUNK!
You owe us something, Narko. And doll face here is your first payment." The way they looked at Arlene told me just how high their price would be.
However, beyond the humorous aspect of these magazines, the portrayal of women and the casual link between sex and violence makes me feel quesy:
When I was at university in the 1980s, the pendulum had swung so far in the other direction that it sometimes felt as if we were living in a theocratic state, where even the most innocuous remarks could be branded as sexist and offensive. But after reading these magazines, I can see exactly why the reaction was so strong.
Ten years on, the pendulum had swung back again, but this time the sexism was 'postmodern' and 'ironic'. I don't think magazines like Loaded and Nuts have been our finest hour, but at least they didn't contain the awful sensationalist violence of their predecessors.
The one thing I really like about American magazines of the 60s and 70s is the adverts. You couldn't have got away with this in spoilsport Britain: