Thursday, June 27, 2013

All Tomorrow's Parties

I was in Smith's earlier today, waiting for my wife to buy a present for a child's seventh birthday party. There seem to be more parties than there are children in my son's class. I don't understand it, particularly as he doesn't socialise with half of them.

My youngest son goes to a standard state primary school and I'd say that the social mix between the middle classes and what my German neighbour coyly refers to as 'people from social housing' is about 50-50. As a middle class person who grew up in a working class family, I have watched the interactions of these two groups with interest.

At first it all seems to be going very well. At the age of four, the children all happily play together and although the mothers separate into different groups from the word go, there is still a sense of community and the party invitations are blind to any social divisions.

The middle class mothers might shudder with horror when Coca Cola is served at little Jordan's 5th birthday. They might also cringe at food that has more 'e's than the Hacienda Club in 1990 and worry that Sasha's manic dancing to 'Jive Bunny' is the result of consuming too additives. But they grin nervously and remind themselves to be otherwise enaged in a year's time.

The non-middle class mother are equally non-plussed by Sasha's party, which seems a joyless occasion consisting of activities that look like schoolwork, inedible, tasteless food and music that has never been in the charts. When Jordan is handed a plate of hummus and pitta bread, he looks as if he is going to cry.

And, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes. Gradually, the unspoken apartheid between the classes becomes more entrenched and the party invitations become more selective. It's all rather depressing. I've tried crossing the invisible lines, but I always end up sounding like Prince Charles visiting an inner city community centre.

But I digress. During my long wait in WH Smith's, I took a look at the books and felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I no longer had to sell new books. Browsing through the endless celebrity biographies, sub-Twilight/50 Shades/Da Vinci genre novels and dull, midlist fiction was an incredibly depressing experience. I'd forgotten how much I hated it all.

Selling secondhand books on the internet has its own challenges, but at least the selection of titles I sell is constantly changing and completely random. It's so refreshing to be able to discover new books every day, rather than putting yet another pile of Victoria Hislop's 'The Island' on the paperback bestsellers table.

However, I wonder how much mileage my business has. The way people read is radically changing and although there will probably always be a place for the printed page, I worry that the supply will begin to exceed the demand, driving prices down to an unsustainable level. I don't know what I'll do if that happens.

If I sound slightly gloomy, it's partly because we've discovered that our new kitten - the one we bought to cheer our oldest son up - is dying. He has Feline Infectious Peritonitis and is slowly fading away, getting thinner every week. I know it's only a cat, but we've grown rather fond of him, as he's an exceptionally affectionate little creature.

I feel particularly sorry for my son, as this experience has just reinforced his already pessimistic view of the world, instead of effecting a positive change. When a suitable period of time has elapsed, we'll get a new cat and hope for better luck next time.

By the end of last week, I was beginning to feel a little battle-fatigued, so I decided to brush away the cobwebs with a visit to the Shard. I thought the London Eye was impressive, but the view from here is in a class of its own:

It's just like flying (although EasyJet is probably cheaper). Indeed, a nearby plane seemed to be at a similar altitude, which was slightly disconcerting.

Afterwards, I wandered through the streets of Southwark, where my grandfather was born in the 1890s, gatecrashing a boy scouts' church service in the cathedral. One man sang 'Oh Worship the King' so badly that several very solemn-looking dignitaries started to get the giggles. 

I finished with a visit to the Tate Modern - a gallery that never fails to disappoint. I loved the Tate when it when first opened - the 'space' was very impressive. But these days I'd like to see a little less space and a lot more exhibits.

I'm not sure what the point of this rambling blog post was, other than trying to add content after a long gap. I can't blame alcohol this time, as I've been drinking nothing but tea all afternoon.

That reminds me, I think the sun's over the yardarm...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Middle England

Today I set off on another futile quest to find some stock for my business, driving 135 miles to a meeting that lasted for five minutes. The address sounded promising enough and I envisaged a vast industrial estate. Instead, I arrived here:

I've no idea why this building is on stilts, at such a precarious angle. Perhaps I should have asked.

I was met by a woman with a very territorial dog, who showed me a pitiful selection of books. I tried to seem enthusiastic, but I think she could tell that my heart wasn't in it. I got back in the car and drove past a sign that read "POLISH CAMP. PRIVATE. KEEP OUT." Then my satnav died.

After driving aimlessly for a few miles, I pulled over and stopped the car. I had no idea where I was, except that I was somewhere in Bedfordshire.

I've never really liked Bedfordshire. The countryside is generally flat and dull and its two main towns - Luton and Bedford - are twinned with Hell and Purgatory. However I was impressed that somewhere which had seemed over-developed and urbanised could still contain so many miles of remote, slightly menacing countryside.

With a growing sense of desperation, I fiddled with the power lead of my satnav until it suddenly sprang into life, telling me I was nowhere. Was this a fault or an upgrade? I turned the engine on and started driving.

Just as I was thinking horrible thoughts about Bedfordshire, I passed through a town that actually looked quite pleasant:

I was in Olney, a place I had never heard of. Most of the buildings were pre-20th century and had been made out of this attractive local stone:

I parked  the car and discovered a very likeable town, full of quirky, unusual buildings, hidden courtyards and little touches of civic pride that revealed a lot about its inhabitants. I didn't see a single piece of graffiti. Bedfordshire had redeemed itself.

Then I discovered that I was in Buckinghamshire.

The one thing that spoiled Olney was the traffic. The A509 cuts right through the heart of the town and the buildings shake as juggernauts hurtle past. Looking at Olney on Google Earth, I can see that the town is surrounded by flat fields of no particular merit, so perhaps this is one of those rare occasions when a bypass is justified.

After Olney, I made a slight detour to Bletchley Park, home of the World War Two codebreakers:

I'd always thought that Bletchley Park was a remote country house. It probably was once, but since the War it has been slowly enveloped by the urban sprawl of Milton Keynes - a new town with an impressive number of roundabouts. The entrance to Bletchley Park is now opposite a large office building with blackened windows.

The actual museum of Bletchley Park is a rather disparate collection of exhibitions, mainly housed in outbuildings. Some of the exhibits are fascinating, whilst others have a more specialist appeal (I'm afraid that I have a limited interest in the use of pigeons for espionage).

But whether you're interested in the subject or not - and I have to admit that there are only so many encryption machines that I want to see in an afternoon - it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer ingenuity of the codebreakers. The dazzling complexity of these machines made my head hurt:

A very earnest man tried to explain how these machines worked and I nodded and smiled knowingly, hoping that I'd be able to sneak off before he realised that I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. I think the gist of what he was saying was about how these machines took a code that had 128 trillion possible permutations and reduced it down to a more manageable number of alternatives. Thousands, possibly millions of lives were saved as a result.

Before I finished my visit, I had to see the ultimate codebreaking machine: Alan Turing's Colossus computer:

I left feeling inspired and very humbled. I thought I was reasonably intelligent, but if I'd been responsible for breaking the Enigma code, we would have probably still been at war in 1952.

As much as I enjoyed Bletchley Park, I think I'll have a break from visiting remote industrial estates for the time being.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Meetings With Unremarkable Men

This morning I set off on a 140-mile journey, for a meeting that I knew was probably going to be a complete waste of time.

It was my fault. I'd approached a recycling company to see if they had any books that they'd like to sell and this prompted an exchange of emails with someone who clearly wasn't terribly proficient in the English language. He seemed very keen to meet, but each new reply convinced me that he hadn't quite understood where I was, what I did  or what it was I wanted.

Perhaps I should have cancelled. But it goes against the grain to turn down any opportunity, however slim. In the end, with a heavy heart, I emailed to say that I would visit them this morning.

The journey was straightforward enough until I arrived at the town and wasted half an hour looking for an unmarked industrial estate.The recycling company occupied a building which looked like a tertiary college that had been abandoned after a nuclear accident, with long, unlit corridors and vast walls of peeling paint. It would have made a good headquarters for the warlord of a small, local militia.

The meeting was farcical. After a brief chat in an office, we walked over to a warehouse where they proudly showed me rows of paperbacks. Although I had clearly mentioned - several times - that I was interested in buying old books, they seemed to be under the impression that I wanted to run their business selling modern paperbacks. I didn't know what to say.

I tried to politely suggest that this wasn't a good idea, as I lived 140 miles away. Also, as I specialised in older books, I really wasn't the right man for the job. We looked at each other. I could sense that it wasn't going well.

We returned to the office and I was invited to sit down, but instead of talking to me, my host started filing papers and feeding invoices into a machine. Were any of these forms pertinent to our meeting, or had it simply come to an end? Perhaps it was a cultural difference. I wasn't sure.

I decided to make one last-ditch attempt to redeem myself: "If you're throwing these books into a bin and selling them as waste paper, wouldn't it be better to separate them and sell them to me for a lot more money than you're getting now?" There was a long silence, punctuated with more shuffling and filing of invoices. It was time to leave.

It could have been a rather disheartening experience, but luckily I had a contingency plan in place:

The village of Avebury, surrounded by a mysterious 6,000-year-old stone circle, was only eight miles away. My journey needn't be a wasted one.

This stone almost looks like two faces. Perhaps that's why a woman with badly-hennared hair and a floaty skirt was placing her hands on the surface. 

20 years ago, it was a lot worse. All sorts of people - mostly foreign - were hugging the stones and talking about "feeling the energy". Today, people were content to touch the stones with outstretched arms, rather like a polite handshake between strangers.

Between two large stones, an earnest-looking woman addressed a small group, talking about a 'stargate'. At the back, two middle-aged men sniggered like naughty schoolboys: "On no, not the Stargate!" We exchanged knowing smiles.

I walked around the edge of the village, avoiding the tree-huggers and seekers of ancient wisdom. It was now one o'clock in the afternoon and the sheep sought shelter from the glare of the sun:

I followed the stones until I found myself in the centre of the village. Avebury seemed almost impossibly idyllic, but when I heard the plummy accents of the local shop assistants, I wondered if it had become one of those 'heritage' areas where inflated property prices had driven out the real villagers. 

Avebury Manor was splendid and reminded me of the late-1970s children television drama 'Children of the Stones', which was filmed in the village. I watched it on DVD a few years ago and if anything, found it even more impressive as an adult. The intelligent script, which didn't make any compromises for a younger audience, has never been surpassed by anything on children's television:

Also, it had a wonderfully spooky intro sequence:

The quest to explain the stones, either in an archeological or supernatural context, seems futile. We will probably never know their purpose and while it is fine to speculate, I'm perfectly happy to accept the stones on their own terms. They are extraordinary, beautiful and mysterious.

I returned to my car and began the long, dull journey back to Lewes, but just as I thought I'd left Avebury behind me, I saw this:

Had they been there an hour earlier? I really wasn't sure.

I have more meetings lined up. Earlier in the year, I went into partnership with a man who ran several internet bookselling companies and it looked as if I would have a steady supply of stock of old books. However, he has decided to concentrate on his main business and after an amicable separation, I am back where I started.

At the moment I am working alone. If we can ever get our oldest son back to school, my wife will join me. I don't know if our bookselling venture will ever amount to a decent living, but I am quietly hopeful.

I intend to spend the summer finding new sources of stock, trawling the industrial estates of England. However, I suspect that there may also be some interesting detours as well, possibly with a few overnight stays.

Any recommendations for West Yorkshire?