I’ve never liked February, but this one was worst than most and it was hard to ignore the creeping feeling of despair that grew as the days passed. Then, just as I thought the worst was over, I learned that my friend Jane had died.
It wasn’t a complete shock. She had been suffering from secondary cancer for many years, but had survived against the odds for so long, a small part of me began to believe that she was indestructible. If only.
I first met her at Waterstone’s in Richmond when I became a bookseller, 28 years ago. She was a freelance illustrator who worked part-time and for the next five years, we must have spent thousands of hours in each other’s company, sharing jokes, baring our souls and bickering like an old couple.
Work relationships are strange things. They can seem like a very close friendships (or a deep animosity), but once people leave their shared environment, the intense feelings often seem to vanish into thin air, leaving a polite awkwardness.
That never happened with Jane and although we only met a few times in recent years, the rapport was unaltered.
At one point, we even shared the same therapist. I was feeling rather glum after a close relative was killed in a car crash and Jane said that I should see a woman in Kew called Isabel, who had studied with Freud’s daughter. The idea of being only two steps away from the great man himself appealed, so I decided to give it ago.
Isabel was a lovely woman, but had never quite grasped the concept of professional detachment and once invited the two of us round for tea and cakes, which was both nice and strange at the same time. Neither of us were quite sure how effective the theraputic aspect was, but the experience was not to be missed.
In addition to sharing therapists (just writing that makes me shudder with embarrassment), Jane was also my wife’s landlady for a while, so the three of us developed a bond that remained strong.
As a friend observed, Jane was a quiet person but had a remarkably strong personality. She had very particular likes and dislikes, with a large vocabulary of nicknames for things. A snack was always a ‘snackerel’ and if anyone dared to use the word ‘portion’ in her presence, she would hiss like a cat.
She had a rather eccentric approach to running her cookery section in Waterstone’s. I remember that she always ordered three copies of The Cranks Recipe Book. It used to arrive, go on the shelf and sell out within 24 hours. We would then have to wait a week or two for the next delivery of three copies. When I dared to suggest that it might be an idea to order 15 or more, I received a hissing cat noise in response.
But while Jane may not have qualified for the Bookseller of the Year award, she was an excellent illustrator whose work was in great demand. She studied at the Chelsea School of Art in the late 1970s and developed a commercial style that echoed Quentin Blake, but was instantly recognisable as Jane Eccles to anyone that knew her work.
Here are some examples of her art:
Jane could have probably enjoyed greater recognition, but she was never pushy and couldn’t take the corporate world seriously. Like the best people, she cared about the things that really mattered and thought that the world of corporate strategies and brand values was all rather silly.
When Jane discovered that she had cancer, her only child had recently started at secondary school. Jane was determined to see him grow up and did everything that her doctors advised, enduring a gruelling regime of treatment without any self-pity or protest.
She appeared to beat the cancer, but sadly it returned and Jane was told that her condition was terminal. At that point, we all thought that she would never get to see her son go to university, but Jane suprised us all and lived for several years longer than expected. More importantly, she enjoyed a suprisingly active and healthy life for much of that time and was able to be there for her son when he started out as an undergraduate.
I had very little idea of what secondary breast cancer was and what made it different from normal breast cancer, but this short film of Jane’s explains it perfectly.
I feel terribly sorry for Jane’s son and husband. I also feel very sorry for her father, who has now outlived two of his three children. I tried to think of something positive or comforting to say on their cards, but was lost for words.
Jane was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met: kind, gentle and generous, with a loveable eccentricity and a wicked sense of humour. She loved her family, friends and pets and that love was easily reciprocated.
The world will be a poorer place without her.
The following post was originally published in my old blog, just over nine years ago. As very few people read the blog in those days, I thought I’d give it a second outing.
It was written a couple of weeks before I walked out of my job as a Waterstone’s manager. I was very unhappy and in a mood of desperation, applied for a training course that later turned out to be a complete waste of time and money. Thankfully, I realised that something was wrong before I handed over any cash.
But I digress. I’m reposting this not because of any literary merit, but because it almost feels like a short story, although every word is true:
Last week I went to take part in an aptitude test session at Tolworth Tower – a grim, 1960s office block on the fringes of Greater London, next to the busy A3 road. When I booked the tests, I was asked if I knew where the tower was. I said that I had been there before, but didn’t mention that it was when I was on my first date.
I was a very young 17 and had wanted to ask a girl I knew out, but didn’t know how to go about it. Then, for some reason, I hit on the idea of suggesting tenpin bowling. I’ve no idea why.
I found her number in the phone book and dialled it. To my delight, she said yes and three days later, we met at the bus stop and caught a 281 to Tolworth Tower’s bowling alley.
I thought the day had gone well. After a game of bowling, we took the bus back to Teddington and had what felt like a romantic walk in Bushy Park. It was a beautiful spring day. Sadly, she didn’t share my view and I never saw her again. I quite upset and resolved to abandon tenpin bowling as part of my wooing technique.
After the aptitude test I decided to catch the train to Twickenham and revisit the places I had known since childhood. There were quite a few changes. Every other building now seemed to be a restaurant and what had once been a solidly white, slightly down at heel area, had been augmented by more exotic faces and languages.
I walked down to the River Thames – a part of Twickenham that hasn’t changed much in 250 years – and visited the church where my parents married and I was Christened. It was empty and after lighting a candle for my father, I studied a noticeboard to see if I recognised any of the photos of the members of the parish council. They were all strangers.
How can you grow up somewhere, attend school with over a thousand other local children and, within a fairly short space of time, feel like an outsider? Where had everyone gone? I began to feel slightly depressed.
Suddenly the church door swung open and a woman asked me if would be much longer. I explained that I was about to leave. ‘Okay that’s fine.’ she replied ‘When you go can you make sure that you shut the door very firmly – you really have to slam it.’
I nodded and just as she was leaving I realised who she was. I wanted to rush after her and say how strange it was that after visiting Tolworth Tower for the first time since our one and only date, I should bump into her like this. But by the time I had obediently slammed the church door shut, she was gone.
At the end of last year, my wife and I swapped roles. It was an easy decision, as I was the only one of us able to drive our sons to their new schools. My wife joined a publishing company and thrived, while I joined the world of stay-at-home fathers, and withered.
However, although this has been a challenging year, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to read more books than ever.
I began the year by resolving to abandon my Kindle and enjoyed some serendipitous discoveries in charity shops. However, almost a year on, my teetering piles of books have reminded me why I bought a Kindle in the first place.
Here are a few of the titles that made a particular impression on me:
1. SURPRISINGLY TOPICAL READ OF THE YEAR
Philip Roth’s novel ‘The Plot Against America’, published 12 years ago, takes place in an alternate timeline in which Roosevelt lost the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindbergh. At the time, a story about an experienced politician losing to a celebrity with fascist sympathies and no experience of government seemed rather far fetched.
Of course, Hillary Clinton is no Roosevelt and Donald Trump is no Lindbergh, but the essential message of this book is worth heeding: democracy can become quickly debased if we allow it.
2. BETTER THAN EXPECTED READ OF THE YEAR
I’d always assumed that Norman Collins’ novel ‘London Belongs to Me’ was a dreadful old potboiler, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that for all its faults, it was a compelling and vivid evocation of London on the eve of the Second World War. Set in a boarding house that has seen better days, the novel eavesdrops on the lives of its occupants with insight and humour.
The perfect comfort read, ‘London Belongs To Me’ has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with a glowing recommendation on the cover from Sarah Walters.
3. RANDOM CHARITY SHOP DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR
The name VS Prichett meant little to me apart from his occasional appearance in short story collections, so I was intrigued to find a novel by him in the Lewes branch of Oxfam. Largely set in the Amazon jungle, ‘Dead Man Leading’ reads like a Conradian tale as written by Evelyn Waugh, with a finely-tuned sense of the absurd. But although it is faintly reminiscent of the last part of Waugh’s own ‘A Handful of Dust’, Pritchett has a clear, confident voice and the result is a book that is odd and unsettling, but strangely compelling.
4. DYSTOPIAN NOVEL OF THE YEAR
‘The Life & Times of Michael K’ by JM Coetzee was published in 1983, winning the author his first Booker Prize. There is an awful lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre fiction being published at the moment and some of it is very enjoyable, but Coetzee’s brilliantly stark vision has yet to be matched.
5. BEST NEW THRILLER
I enjoy a good thriller and with a Kindle I can read any old trash without anyone knowing, but I’ve no patience with books that suffer from lumpen prose, implausible characters and cliche-ridden dialogue, no matter how good the plot is.
Fortunately, Sabine Durrant’s ‘Lie With Me’ is a cut above the average thriller and a worthy successor to Patricia Highsmith, intelligently written and well plotted. I thought it was much better than the overrated ‘The Girl on the Train’.
Durrant does a very convincing job of narrating the story from the perspective of a man in his early 40s and her depiction of an affluent South London family rings horribly true. I also enjoyed her evocative descriptions of a Greek island, written in a clear prose style that avoids the overwritten cliches of many genre novels.
6. NON FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR
The subject of John Preston’s ‘A Very English Scandal’ will mean little to anyone under the age of 45 and absolutely nothing to anyone outside the UK, but it is a story that will appeal to many. Jeremy Thorpe was the charismatic leader of Britain’s Liberal Party, with a lust for power that was only exceeded by his penchant for young men. When the latter threatened the former, in the guise of a troubled individual called Norman Scott, Thorpe asked a friend to have him killed.
Beyond some smutty 1970s playground jokes (“What do Jeremy Thorpe and Captain Kirk have in common? They both ask Scotty for more thrust towards Uranus”), my only memory of Thorpe was a sympathetic one – a good man defeated by the bigotry of a different age.
How wrong I was. The Thorpe that emerges in these pages is a charming psychopath, callously exploiting the extraordinary loyalty of his friends and family to further his political career.
‘A Very English Scandal’ reads like a thriller and is utterly gripping from start to finish.
7. OBSCURE CLASSIC OF THE YEAR
‘The Serious Game’ is an extraordinary 1912 novel by Hjalmar Söderberg, who in his native Sweden is regarded as the equal of Strindberg. On the face of it it’s a simple enough tale of a young couple who fall in love, but end up being unhappily married to other people. What’s remarkable about the book is its modernity and insight, containing a candour that no English novelist would have dared to attempt in Edwardian Britain.
8. FORGOTTEN MASTERPIECE OF THE YEAR
‘The Deadly Percheron’ by John Franklin Bardin is one of those rare novels that transcends its genre. What begins as a rather eccentric mystery novel set in New York quickly changes gear, taking the reader on a strange journey into the darker recesses of the human pyche, where nothing is what it seems. Written in 1946, this novel has been largely forgotten since it was republished by Penguin during the 1960s, but has enjoyed a cult following.
9. MOST HARROWING READ OF THE YEAR
‘Chernobyl Prayer’ by Svetlana Alexievich is a brilliant piece of reportage, collecting eye-witness accounts of people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
One of the most shocking stories relates how some robotic devices – sent in to move irradiated graphite rods – kept breaking down after a bried period of exposure to radiation. In the end, men were dispatctched to pick the rods up by hand, wearing only the flimsiest of protective suits. Told that they couldn’t have more than 40 seconds’ exposure to the graphite, the men soon discovered that it was impossible to do anything in under two minutes and went ahead regardless.
For me, the most harrowing part of the book was reading a wife’s account of how she nursed her husband during a long, debilitating and painful illness, following his exposure to a massive dose of radiation. When he finally died, his body treated as radioactive waste, buried in a lead-lined coffin.
But if this all sounds too upsetting, I should also add that ‘Chernobyl Prayer’ also contains some remarkable stories of heroism, compassion and survival. It is a gripping read that reveals the best and worst of humanity.
10. SILLIEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
I really enjoyed Dorothy Hughes’s 1940s noir thriller ‘In a Lonely Place’ and was keen to explore her backlist. Sadly, ‘The So Blue Marble’ is one of the most ridiculous books I’ve ever read, with an implausible plot and a selection of unbelievable characters.
Thinking that Hughes must have had an off day, I tried another novel by her and was equally nonplussed.
11. LIGHTEST HEAVY BOOK OF THE YEAR
Adam Roberts’ ‘The Thing Itself’ is a high concept novel that bandies ideas about Kantian philosophy, quantum physics and artificial intelliegence around with the ease of someone talking about the weather. A description of the plot would be no help at all. All I can say is that it’s a playful, witty, knockabout tale that wears its cleverness lightly and is consistently funny.
12. BEST NOVEL BY A BALD, SOUTH AFRICAN EMIGRE
I’m a big fan of Justin Cartwright and really enjoyed reading his 2002 novel ‘White Lightning’. With a narrative that alternates between South Africa and England, this is a poignant tale of grief and loneliness that is redeemed by the author’s wit and humanity. I was particularly amused by Cartwright’s description of a ‘saucy film’ shoot, only to later discover that in the 1970s, he wrote the screenplay for ‘Rosie Dixon – Night Nurse’.
These were the books that made a big impression on me, but I should mention that I also really enjoyed Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’, Trollope’s ‘Doctor Throne’, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel ‘Purity’, Andrew Hurley’s superb ‘The Loney’, Lionel Shriver’s latest book ‘The Mandibles’ and Derek Raymond’s grim but brilliant ‘Factory’ novels.
I also read three books by Dutch people.
Next year I intend to not read any DH Lawrence or Commonwealth novels with lengthy descriptions of marketplaces, fruit and wise old men, but other than that, I am open to almost anything.
During the last year or so, I’ve noticed a growing trend for thrillers on Amazon to have absurd bylines that read something along the lines of: “A gripping psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the final, utterly shocking twist”.
Why are they doing this? Surely a picture of a remote cottage and a title like ‘Nowhere to Hide’ are enough of a clue. Indeed, whatever happened to the cliche about a picture painting a thousand words?
I suppose the answer is that the impact of book jackets has been significantly dimished by the advent of online sellers and ebooks. I’d be interested to know what the average budget for a book jacket today is compared to, say, 20 years ago, when the average cover for a thriller novel was usually understated and very effective.
However go back another 20 or 30 years and once again, subtlety has gone out of the window. Sorting through my decaying inventory last week, I noticed how the covers of older thrillers were all largely variations on the same theme: a man holding a gun, with an often scantily-clad woman next to him.
According to Wikipedia, Grant Holmes is a baseball player born in 1996. Further research has been unfruitful. As you can see, like the modern jackets, we have a helpful byline to tell us that this is a ‘hard-driving thriller’, in case the dead body and gun weren’t enough of a clue.
In this cover, we get two guns for the price of one. As for Mike Brewer, a brief internet search has revealed that he owns a car dealership in Sheffield and is also a professor of economics at the Institute for Fiscal Research. There is no mention of any thrillers.
We’re now in the 1960s and the raincoats have gone out of fashion.
Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I always used to think that if a book jacket only had quotes from a provincial newspaper, this was generally a bad sign.The exceptions to this rule were The London Evening Standard, The Scotsman and, perhaps, The Yorkshire Post. I can’t remember why I thought this.
Desmond Skirrow was a local man, who lived in in Brighton and died in his early 50s. According to a Wikipedia article, Skirrow was “Tall, big, bearded and seemingly incapable of being serious for more than a few minutes at a time.” He worked at an advertising agency with the motor racing commentator Murray Walker, who later claimed that they disliked each other intensely.
If I was writing a thriller, I probably wouldn’t call my hero Ira Hand. But as names go, it’s not as bad as the one William Shatner chose for the hero of his Tekwar series: Jake Cardigan.
We’re now well into the 1970s and this chap isn’t even wearing a tie! But otherwise, the casual sexism and hint of danger remain the same.
Brett Halliday was the pen name of Davis Dresser, which also sounds like a pen name (albeit a rather bad one). As a boy, Dresser lost an eye in an unfortunate encounter with some barbed wire, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a remarkably prolific writer of thrillers, under a variety of pseudonyms.
We have now reached the age of what my father used to refer to as “those flippin’ women’s libbers”. The image of a woman holding a gun would have been more of a blow for feminism if she’d been wearing some clothes. As it is, this cover is as dated and sexist as all the others.
These covers are mildly amusing, but they are nothing compared to some of the horrors that I will reveal at a later date.
I have just closed my bookselling business. It limped along like a consumptive war veteran for five inglorious years before I decided to call it a day. My remaining stock now lies in a cowshed being slowly consumed by cobwebs and mould.
The business wasn’t a complete failure. I managed to sell over 12,000 books and in the early days, worked in an idyllic rural setting with a group of people that included one of the cast of ‘The Archers’. Sadly, I then made the mistake of moving to a remote, malodorous farmyard, where the pleasant bleating of sheep was replaced by the agonised cries of frustrated bulls sodomising each other.
I shared my new unit with four Polish alcoholics, all of whom liked to get drunk within the first hour and race around in a fork lift truck, seeing how close they could get to my shed without crashing into it. It wasn’t quite the antiquarian bookselling idyll that I’d envisaged.
In the end, it wasn’t the bulls or the Poles that finished me off, or even the menagerie of rats, robins, minks, newts, spiders and toads that shared my premises. It was the simple problem of obtaining stock from a recycling industry that found it more cost-effective to bin their old books and sell them to waste paper merchants.
I can’t say that I’m particularly sorry that it’s over. When, during one wet, wintry morning last year, I was almost crushed to death by a one tonne delivery of books, I couldn’t help thinking that there must be easier ways to earn a living.
The next few months will be spent disposing of my stock and fixtures and if I come across any interesting books or abandoned photographs, I will share them here.
I’ll begin with some lost photos, all of which have come from different sources. Most of them have no dates or places, which is both tantalising and frustrating.
A timeless scene like this is hard to date, but at a guess I’d say it was taken between the late 40s and early 50s. The rather bland building must have been fairly new then.
The two people who interest me are the waiter and the airman, both of whom are outsiders in this setting. The airman appears to regard the scene with an attitude that could range from simple indifference to outright contempt. (I’m assuming that he’s an airman. For all all know, he could be from the Dutch navy)
These women are celebrating qualifying as the runners-up in a ‘Ladies Darts League’, somewhere in the Birmingham area during, I would guess, the late 1950s. I’m particularly drawn to the older woman, who almost appears to be snarling at the camera. Perhaps she had her heart set on the First Prize.
I’ve also noticed that the woman in the back row – second from the left – bears more than a passing resemblance to Cherie Blair.
The next photo appeared perfectly innocuous, then I read the writing on the back:
I can’t begin to imagine the story that lies behind these chilling words.
I like this photo because it is nothing more than a snapshot, but fills me with a longing to be a passenger on that ship, sipping cocktails as the sun sets on the British Empire. In reality, a cruise ship would be my idea of hell.
This setting, in Knott End, Lancashire, offers slightly less glamour than the 1930s cruise liner. Indeed, I think that the woman might be sitting on part of a disgarded sewerage outflow pipe.
And that ends this rather inauspicious beginning to my new blog. I had planned something quite different, involving my mother and her friends talking about their memories of World War Two. The aim was for something a little more ‘multimedia’, with podcasts and links to Instagram and Twitter.
My mother had got as far as gaining her friends’ agreement to take part, but then she ruined everything by dying. Now I’m quite rudderless.
However, after waiting in vain for the right moment to begin a new blog, I have decided to just get on with it.