Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ever Decreasing Circles

My phone rang today. Nobody ever phones me, apart from my wife, who likes to find things for me to do. I was almost grateful until I heard the unmistakeable acoustic of an Indian call centre: "Hi, I'm Steve MacDonald phoning from BT..."

They have phoned before. Each time, the caller has a strange, fake American accent that sounds like Stephen Hawking's voice simulator. Why would they train their staff to speak like that? Perhaps it's part of a cunning plan to seemlessly replace people with machines in a few years.

I politely ended the call and was plunged back into silence.

During the last month or so, I've found myself becoming increasingly nostalgic about the days when I was a bookshop manager. I think I miss the company of other people. Yesterday, my only visitor was a ram, which ambled nonchalantly around the shelving units before making a sudden, desperate bolt when it saw me.

But would I really want to go back? I know that it must be miserable running a bookshop these days, watching the sales gradually decrease each year. Amazon should just buy Waterstones and rename the shops 'Amazon Showroom'.

Sometimes I think of applying for a part-time job in an office. I'm not sure what I'd do, but I enjoyed the project management aspect of my last job and felt that I was reasonably good at it. It would be nice to work somewhere where my companions had opposing thumbs.

However, my alarm bells rang when a friend told me that in her former workplace, the boss had introduced a 'Onesie Wednesday'. Apparently, everyone in the office was expected to wear one of these:

Great if you like 'onesies'. Embarrassing and deeply offensive if you don't. I'd forgotten about the growing tendency for socially inept people in management to insist that their staff routinely humiliate themselves through 'team building' activities.

Ironically, it's a mental health charity. How depressing.

I suppose I mustn't complain about my working environment. How many jobs offer you the opportunity to watch two middle-aged men half-heartedly dismantle a grain silo?

 Another setback for the British space programme

But aside from the isolation, I'm worried that I might not be able to live by books alone. Sales have been rather slow recently and although I could blame it on the good weather, I also wonder if the secondhand book market is beginning to feel the effects of the Kindle.

When valuing books, I've noticed that an increasing number of backlist titles have been digitised. Ebooks may not be able to compete with my gorgeous, clothbound editions, but most of my stock veers towards the mankier side of tolerable, selling to people who just want the text at the cheapest price.

There is nothing to stop Amazon from making sure that their Kindle versions undercut every other copy on sale.

My other concern is about the supply chain. At the moment, there is a thriving 'penny book' business on Amazon and eBay, fuelled by donations to charity shops and book banks (my stock is the waste product of those businesses, as many people find non-barcoded books too labour-intensive).

However, as sales to continue to migrate to the ebook format - particularly for paperback fiction - the penny book market's future must surely have a limited lifespan.

Of course people will still want books, but the number who prefer print won't be enough to sustain the industry at its current level. The specialist antiquarian booksellers are safe, but the rest of us are probably in trouble.

I feel as if I ought to start developing a Plan B.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Three Quotes

This isn't really a blog post, but just three quotes that struck me during the last week. They are all far longer than 140 characters, so Tweeting wasn't an option:

1941 - Czechoslovakia

"Some Czech workmen are on the roof of the Opera House in Prague in order to take down a statue of Mendelssohn, the composer, because he's a Jew. The order has come directly from Heydrich, recently named Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and a connoisseur of classical music. But there's a whole row of statues on the roof, and Heydrich hasn't specified which is Mendelssohn. Now, apart from Heydrich it seems that nobody - even the Germans - is capable of recognising the Jewish composer. But nobody dares disturb Heydrich just for that. So the SS guards decide to point out the statue with the biggest nose. Well, they're looking for a Jew, aren't they? But - disaster! - the statue the workmen start to remove is actually Wagner!"

- Laurent Binet, 'HHhH'

1932 - Russia

"Much blood has been shed, hundreds of atrocities have been committed, and the spirit of destruction has breathed over the country (Russia). But in my heart of hearts, I feel it would be superficial and untrue to dismiss the whole Bolshevik regime in terms of violence and rapine. It strikes me as being all very simple, and yet highly complex in all its aspects, in all its form; I see something profoundly Russian, an ugliness essentially Russian in the mixture of folly and cruelty.

I should be blind and prejudiced if I did not recognise that to Lenin and some of his associates the Bolshevik movement was an attempt to re-create life on a fairer basis. They were definitely not "mere thieves and brigands." The tragedy lay in the fact that our Russian architects were not content to build an ordinary human edifice on a reasonable scale; nothing less than a "tower defying the heavens"  a Tower of Babel would do for them...

They were not satisfied with the steady progress of the man who goes to and fro between his work and his home - they must rush headlong towards the future. "Down with the old world!" was the general outcry, and so the old world needs to be swept away, lock stock and barrel.

Thus it came about that every human quality, like a medal, showed its reverse side. "Liberty" became tyranny; "fraternity" civil war: "equality" ended in the thrusting down of any head that dared to lift itself above the level of the morass."

- Feodor Chaliapin, Man and Mask

2013 - USA

"Aaronson tells me he's shocked by the number of kids he knows who believe the Jews were behind 9/11. "The problem with this demographic is that they do not know the basic narratives of their histories – or really any narratives," he says. "They're blazed on pot and searching the Internet for any 'factoids' that they believe fit their highly de-historicized and decontextualized ideologies. And the adult world totally misunderstands them and dismisses them – and does so at our collective peril," he adds."

The first quote comes from one of the best books I've read this year. The second is from an autobiography that I recently discovered in a box of titles from a house clearance. The final quote sums up my frustration with my son's blind faith in the veracity of YouTube videos (fortunately, he has a healthy cynicism about the lizard people and most 9/11 conspiracy theories). 

You can read Janet Reitman's full article on the Boston bombers by clicking on the link above.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Seven Year Itch

In a couple of days, this blog will be seven years old. From what I've read that's unusual, as many blogs reach the end of their natural life much earlier. That said, I'm aware that this blog doesn't have the youthful vigour it possessed three years ago. If it was a person, this blog would be in a care home, aware that the best was probably over.

When I first discovered the world of blogging, ten years ago, I thought it was an absurd idea. Why would any strangers want to know about the minutiae of my life, or care what I thought about a particular book? I regarded blogging as a harmless but futile pastime.

I was reasonably contented managing a bookshop and although it wasn't always terribly stimulating, I had other projects that stopped me from becoming bored. In my spare time, I researched and wrote material about authors for an intranet site and had also begun to train as a Justice of the Peace.

I was very upset when I discovered that as a magistrate, I wouldn't be required to wear a wig

Naively, I thought that life would just tick along. At some point I'd move to another bookshop and my son would go to secondary school, but apart from a few grey hairs, little would change.

But a couple of years later, things began to unravel. My father died, my wife discovered that she was pregnant, the company I worked for was taken over and we began to have the first inkling that something wasn't quite right with my oldest son.

This time seven years ago, my wife had taken our sons to stay with her mother for a couple of weeks so that I could decorate the house. I think I must have painted half a wall before I began to feel the first signs of the worst food poisoning I've ever experienced. I was in bed for nearly two weeks.

During my convalescence I spent many hours aimlessly surfing the internet. At some point I stumbled across Blogger and out of curiosity, decided to see if I could create a blog page. I casually decided to call it 'The Age of Uncertainty', as it seemed apposite, then wrote a short post and published it.

For better or worse, this blog has nothing to do with John Kenneth Galbraith

Perhaps that would have been the end of it. However, someone posted a comment and I was so surprised and delight that a stranger had read what I'd written, thought about it and given an interesting reply, I felt compelled to try again.

I soon discovered that I was wrong about blogging. It wasn't simply another form of vanity publishing, but rather a new way of connecting with like-minded people whose lives I would have been blissfully unaware of in the pre-internet age. The thoughtful comments, helpful suggestions and sympathetic responses from others have enriched my life. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, I have discovered different authors, visited new places and made a few friends.

I think that  this blog was at its peak when I worked in my last job, as I had a wealth of material to write about and share. I find blogging far more difficult these days, partly because I no longer have access to dozens of photo albums and diaries, but also because I'm now self-employed and feel that I should spend as much time as possible trying to earn some money. The book business ticks along, just, but I hover on the edge of penury.

Also, I find it difficult to write an entertaining blog when my home life is so dysfunctional. The highlights of the last month have been cancelling a holiday, having a kitten put down and trying to persuade my oldest son to leave the house for more than five minutes. I suppose I could extract some black humour from recent events, but I'd rather not.

In light of everything that's happened, I've been wondering if I should continue to maintain this blog. I worry that it has become a disappointment to the people who began to follow it in the days of the Derek diaries and the Victorian photo albums.

However, I'm not quite ready to give up.

I don't want to stop blogging for two reasons. First, I  really enjoy reading people's comments, which are always kind, thoughtful and incisive. Second, the act of writing a blog post is nearly always an enjoyable journey into the unknown. For example, when I did a little research for a recent post about Arnold Bennett, I discovered a great article by someone I'd never heard of called Wendy Lesser and looked her up on Google. A week later, I was reading a wonderful book that she'd written about Shostakovich.

I think the answer is to continue, even if it's only once or twice a month. If circumstances change, then perhaps I can breathe new life into the ailing patient. In the meantime, here is a picture of the winner of the European royalty Buddy Holly lookalike competition:

Friday, August 02, 2013

The Ladybird Book of the Recession - Part Three

This is a hotel. It is a place where people can sleep and eat, if they are away from home. 

They are called guests. 

Many people work in the hotel to look after the guests.

The lady is called a receptionist. She asks the man what his name is. 

He tells her that it is Mr Smith.

Mr Smith does not want anyone to know what is in his suitcase. 

Mr Smith drops the suitcase by accident. It rattles and begins to make a buzzing noise.

This guest is also called Mr Smith. He has just told the hotel porter that his niece will be visiting him later.

Mr Smith has asked the porter to help his niece, as she is from another country and does not speak very good English.

The porter asks what country the niece is from. Mr Smith is not sure. 

It could be Latvia, he thinks.

Jean is the hotel's main receptionist. She can see that the new guest is writing 'Mr Smith' in the visitors' book.

With so many guests called Mr Smith, it can be very confusing when the hotel receives a telephone call for one of them.

This lady is called a maid. She tidies the room and puts clean sheets on the bed.

The maid has found something that she does not like.

The sheets will have to be thrown away.

Many hotels hold wedding receptions. This man is very rich and has paid the hotel to hold a big party. 

He has married his secretary, who is 24 years younger than him. He is very happy. 

The secretary is in love with someone else.

This is Reginald. He is the head barman. 

Reginald can hear voices in his head telling him that the world is going to be cleansed in flame. 

Maurice is the head waiter. He is asking the guests to speak quietly, as their voices are too common.

Maurice suggests that they might feel more comfortable in a 'steak house'.

The guests leave.

Some guests can be very rude to the staff. 

A lady from South Africa has been unkind to one of the waitresses, so the kitchen staff are adding a special ingredient to her desert. 

The rude lady will not know about the ingredient.

These porters are standing in an empty foyer. 

The hotel used to be the most popular one in the city, but not many people stay here now.

These men are in charge of the hotel. They are talking about why the hotel has fewer guests than it used to. 

One man thinks that guests now expect a television and private bathroom.

Another man wonders if ballroom dancing has gone out of fashion.

With fewer guests, the hotel does not need as many staff.

Stanley is the deputy chief porter. He has been asked to see the manager. 

The manager will thank Stanley for his 32 years of loyal service, before asking him to take early retirement.

Stanley had thought that he was going to be offered a pay rise.

In the kitchen, everyone is worried about losing their job. 

Some of the staff are starting to swear back at the head chef.

Outside the bar, Jean is changing the flowers. 

Reginald the barman walks past her, muttering something about the 'end times'. 

Jean can smell burning.