Saturday, 20 March 2010

What did you get?

Each workplace has its ritual conversations. There are the standard grumbles: “Seems like a long day,” “Feels like Friday,” “Wish I’d stayed in bed.” – even, “I think I’ll throw a sickie tomorrow.” They don’t mean quite what they say. The colleague who speaks most fiercely of gloom will smile encouragingly as soon as the first problem of the day arises. The colleague who threatens to “throw a sickie” never fakes illness and struggles in, a few days later, taking paracetemol to quell a burning head and aching limbs.

Most workplace conversations are like talking to neighbours about the weather. They imply that, however bad things get – and all workplaces are bad from time to time – we’re in it together and can sympathise with one another’s experiences.

Other conversations are less pleasant. Fellow workers jockey for superiority, find ways to imply “I’m more important than you.” The workers who play these games are usually those who never question their employer’s changing values – or, if they do, keep their doubts to the privacy of home. I suppose this lack of thought and adventure will increase as the recession continues – and that workplaces will be filled with a new competitive passivity as workers insist on their importance to the employer. In the new fear, anger and fear will burst out as strikes, usually on the wrong issues and expressing grievances in ways that the – public – especially the fearful and newly-unemployed public - won’t understand.

Not all workplace conversations are about work. There’s “Did you do anything nice at the weekend?”, “Got any plans?” – the conversations that look back and forward to times of leisure if not of liberty. Too often the answer is: “The house needed work,” “The children were ill,” or, simply, “I caught up on sleep.” But they're a chance to remember that work does not define us - we are more than that.

In the past few years, a new question has crept in after fetes and festivals. I was quite shocked when first I heard it, one year after Chrsitmas. A colleague turned to me and said, "What did you get?", following it up with, "Did you get anything nice?"

"It's childish," I thought, recalling on that urge to fierce for possession and experience that adults learn to quell. And it seemed so materialistic - not "did you have a nice time?" but "what did you get?" as though life was no more than a competition about who owned the flashiest possessions. It didn't help that the question came from a colleague who I didn't expect to view the world in that way.

Now it seems as though that was the first time I noticed a change in how people viewed the world. I've got used to the question. I hear them everywhere: at work, on the train, from friends and acquaintances: "What did you get for Christmas?", "for your birthday?", "for Valentine's Day?", "for Mother's Day?" It's a horror. What do people say when the answer is "nothing"? When did intimate family festivals turn into a public parade of acquisition and consumption? I never thought money or posessions a fair measure of value - or love.

Sometimes I think I'll feel more comfortable in an economic downturn.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Late for the punk revolution

I missed the punk revolution the first time round.

Of course, I was aware of punk rock - it was impossible to miss the shock-and-horror news stories or the deliberately outrageous album covers - but I never paused to listen to the music. Looking back, this seems startling, especially since I headed to Anti-Nazi League festivals - I think I may have heard The Clash play live in Victoria Park without noticing.

It's hard to be sure why I missed out. In part I was busy discovering other aspects of music. I was prepared to travel a long way for a Monteverdi opera and to sit through an otherwise dull concert for a spectacularly good performance of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras number 5.

I first encountered punk through an Oxford filter, which didn't help. Punk was greeted enthusiastically by mostly well-off students - the students who would soon vote Thatcher into power. They loved the excuse to dress down. My sense of punk in those early years is crystallised by watching a gang of twenty or thirty Oxford undergraduates dressed in carefully-styled binbags with imitation safety pins stuck to their faces. They were on their way to a fancy-dress party. I hated the aura of condescending fakery and avoided the whole movement.

It was a long time later that my son started listening to punk as well as metal, folk and other genres. I began hearing snatches of his albums an realising that I'd missed something exciting, angry and thoughtful. A friend who was much more open to a wide range of music educated me further with recommendations of bands beyond my experience.

Sadly, I didn't follow up all his recommendations as he gave them - I tended to listen to a clip or watch a youtube video and mentally file it for later reference. It was only when he died at the end of last year that I re-read his emails and returned to his recommendations. One band cropped up again and again: the Yorkshire-based Sex Patels. I started visiting their myspace page to hear the few tracks there. I watched all the youtube videos I could find. Eventually I managed to acquire their rare and wonderful CD (I shan't say how I did this - I'll just thank the people who helped) and have been listening to it ever since.

I don't know if I'll ever get to see the Sex Patels perform live. I don't know where they would be - and I feel a little uneasy at the idea of going to a gig alone, especially at my age. I fear I've missed something tremendous - a mixture of celebration, anger and fun that fuses punk classics with bhangra .

I'm a little sad that Jacqui Wicks has left the band - she has such a terrific voice. I'm sure her new work will be successful but, just at the moment, I'm sticking with the Sex Patels - and I've a feeling I'll be playing that CD for ever.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Falling in love with books

What is happening to books?

Even the most committed and enthusiastic writers and publishers have scare stories. On World Book Day I listened to a talk by Chris Hamilton-Emery of independent publisher Salt. He's gambled his own and his family's livelihood on the idea that books - including books of short stories and poetry - have a future.

My first job, for four months before university, was at Foyle's bookshop in London. The manager was said to believe all staff were potential thieves. He certainly acted that way. New staff members were kept away from departments in which they had any interest, so that members of the public tended to be served by ill-informed shop assistants. Our bags were searched from time to time, in case we were stealing the stock.

As a book-lover, I was placed in an office that was little more than a cupboard safely away from temptation and provided with a candle in a bottle. It was the three-day week and the candle meant I could work through power-cuts. In front of me was a large book with a list of the names and addresses of publishers, a stack of envelopes and a huge, unsorted heap of flimsy order-forms. My task was to reduce the backlog, place orders in the correct pigeon-holes and then, if they weren't collected, send them out in envelopes which I had to address. I felt a little like the would-be princess in the story of Rumplestiltskin. No-one from the shop had sorted the orders for the past six weeks - they had simply piled up waiting for someone to do something.

My allies were the publishers' representatives, who would find their way to my cubby-hole and help me to rummage. They showed me how to find my way round the pigeon-holes, which required expert knowledge about which publishers had merged and which clubbed together to share a rep. The reps also told me about their glossy new books and grumbled when the manager of Foyle's failed to see their sales potential. Occasionally they offered me free books from their back catalogues. Gifts included some lovely Loeb parallel texts, a hardback of Women in Love and a slim Samuel Beckett volume. There were lots of reps, mostly enthusiastic and never seriously in competition with one another. There were many bookshops and many buyers.

Those of us who worked there - mostly on insecure, temporary contracts - sometimes wondered how long Foyle's could survive on the strength of its famous name. We muttered among ourselves that it had lost touch with books and book-lovers - that its concern with making money was driving customers away and even encouraging them to shoplift, though the two store-detectives regularly hauled suspects to the manager's office.

Somehow Foyle's re-invented itself and survived - there's even a small, helpful branch at St. Pancras. Instead the small shops - small rooms in paradise to their devotees - quietly crumpled and vanished. Chains are collapsing too. Waterstone's survives but it's no longer the treasure-house Tim Waterstone created. Now any branch in any city is much any other. Bestsellers are piled high and 3 for 2 offers abound. Display space and promotions are paid for by publishers and it shows. I don't browse there often - what's the point? There's little chance of being surprised into a purchase or of falling in love with a hitherto-unknown book.

Bookshops and publishers always needed to make money. I'm sure that most of the people who start work in the book trade choose their career out of love. But something seems to have gone wrong. As modest publishing houses are swept up by conglomerates, I have to look very hard to find the books I like. Some authors - established, prize-winning authors - find that publishers won't take a risk on their work. Joolz Denby, who was recently short-listed for the Orange prize, is offering her novel free to readers as an email attachment. While publishers praise her writing, they're no longer willing to take a risk on a book that doesn't fit neatly into a marketable genre.

At least there are still independent publishing houses, like Chris Hamilton-Emery's Salt, though it's hard to find the books the smaller houses publish in Waterstone's, or W.H. Smith's (or Tesco). When I want to recapture the thrill of the bookshop, I have to head to London or Cromford - or go to one of the one-day-only independent press fairs where smaller, keener publishers who really care about books can display and sell their wares.