Shaun Bythell (2017) The Diary of a Bookseller.

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Remember them, booksellers before Amazon? On 1st Septmeber 1962, 250 000 Glaswegians gathered in the driving rain to pay homage to the last run of the tram cars. Who will honour our booksellers?

Shaun Bythwell likes being his own boss. He is the owner of The Bookstore in Wigtown, which he bought in November 2001. His employees like him too, which makes him one of the good guys. Amazingly I’ve heard of the Wigtown Book Festival. His bookstore is the second biggest independent in Scotland and his diary dates from 2014 when the nation had a vote on Independence. We lost, but maybe next time. Shaun is still there.

George Orwell also had a job selling books. His ‘Bookshop Memories’ acts as a counterweight to Bythwell’s diary musings. Here in February 2015, for example, Orwell writes of his experience during the nineteen thirties:

The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman. But the hours of work are very long – I was only a part-time employee, but my employer put in a seventy hour week, apart from constant expeditions to buy books – and it is an unhealthy life.

Selling books is one of those jobs I could imagine doing. The thrill of the chase, the knowing and not knowing what you will find in the next book haul which Bythell experiences. But the long hours and the bad back hauling books. 172 000 miles on clock of his old van. 100 000 books in the shop. Nah, doesn’t sound that great. What is harder to imagine is how Bythell makes a living.

Amazon, of course, are like the orcs invading Middle Earth. ‘Cut-throat and barbaric’ notes Bythell in November 2014. An earlier entry 9th September states Amazon sells books cheaper, ‘for less than the cover price’. No book store can compete with that. No publisher can resist Amazon’s advance. No writer, with the exception of James Patterson, who campaigns against them, can fall out with Amazon. Amazon’s unique selling point is we’re cheap, but at what cost?

An analogy here is with Blythwell and his (ex-) wife Anna arguing against windfarms on Wigton Bay in a place dependent, almost totally, on tourism. Thursday, 22nd January:

At 4.30 p.m. a friend [who] lives right in the middle of the proposed site and estimates that if it goes ahead it will reduce the value of his house to almost nothing.

Scotland’s future, I believe, the future of an independent Scotland lies not in the black, black oil of the North Sea or the fossil fuels, but in renewable energy, wind and wave, but the land is owned by a handful of people with the murky past of the aristocracy. Here we have one of the smaller breeds of orcs, the developer of the proposed wind farm.

19th Janury…began by telling me, ‘I’m not here to try and change your mind’, then spent the next three hours trying to change my mind. Anna was very impressive dealing with him, asking how much he was going to get paid for allowing them to build on his land (over three times what the rest of community will receive each year) and whether he would be able to see them from any of the properties on his estate. He looked at the floor and sheepishly admitted that he would not be visible from any of the numerous properties he owns.

Standard bookish and Amazon fare, one guy gets paid more than the entire community, moves his money offshore, pays no taxes, but moans about it being too much and asks for a block discount, and doesn’t have to live with the monstrosity that he benefits from. Aye, right.

The leaven in the books is provided not by the customers, but mainly by Nicky, an employee who seems more like a member of Bythell’s extended family.

Friday 28th November: Nicky decided to stay the night so we could drink beer and gossip. Predictably we both drank too much. I offered her a bottle of Corncrake’s Ale and told me she doesn’t like any beer that has a bird’s name in it. This is the kind of logic that she applies to all her decision making.

Till total £62.50

5 customers.

I was surprised to read in the epilogue that Nicky had left The Bookstore for a job with Keystore ‘closer to her hovel’. Shaun Bythell split up with Anna, but they remain friends and The Bookstore goes from strength to strength. Ahh, a happy ending. Read on.

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John Banville (2014 [1998]) The Book of Evidence.

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I picked this book up to have a quick look. I was more than likely to just put it down again. As a younger self I had picked up John Banville’s prize-winning novel The Sea rolled my eyes and went under. I didn’t get beyond the first chapter. The Book of Evidence has redeemed John Banville. I’m sure there’ll be fireworks in writers’ heaven and he’ll be glad another reader has seen the light. Now I’ve read one and a bit of his books I intend to read more.

This is a book of grotesques because the narrator himself is grotesque. He is in prison for a murder that he freely admits he did. He’s trying to work out his motive –why he killed. The conclusion he reaches is he murdered a working-class woman, a servant, not because she had thwarted his robbery attempt, but because he could.  The Book of Evidence is not a mea culpa.

It is more than that. Fredrick Charles St John Vanderveld Montgommery (Freddie) from the ramshackle estate of Coolgrange in Ireland looks at the world and admits he hadn’t really seen it. He looks at himself and he’s not sure what he is. The only things he’s sure of his voice and sense of entitlement. The reader is in the privileged positon of seeing Freddie and the world he has created.

Think of an oversized boy man like Donald John Trump, born around the same time but obviously smarter (as are 99% of the population of the world he might well blow up). Freddie has had some education, thinks himself, in another life, an academic prospering in America, but threw it all over for a woman, Daphne. Well, not threw it over, exactly. Things happen to Freddie or they don’t. He’s not really culpable. Not really.

The plot is simple. Freddie and his wife and child have washed up on a Mediterranean island. It’s not clear where Freddie gets his money, but he likes the better things in life and has no intention of living within his means. It amused him to blackmail an ex-patriot drug dealer Randolph and obtain sizeable loans he has no intention, no notion, of paying back. But Randolph is out of his depth. His ear is hacked off by Senor Aguirre who now holds Freddie’s debts. The ‘silver haired hidalgo’ thinks himself a gentleman and comes to a gentleman’s agreement that he will keep Freddie’s wife and child on the island while Freddie goes home to raise the money.

Freddy has not been home in years, has no notion of how he’ll raise the ransom, but, of course, it’s a fait accompli. Forces greater than Freddie seem to be pushing him on. Pushing him home to his and the chamber maid’s fate.

A washed blue dawn was breaking in Madrid. I stepped out of the station and watched a flock of birds wheeling and tumbling…and the strangest thing, a gust of euphoria, or something like euphoria, swept through me, making me tremble and bringing tears to my eyes…I was at a turning point, you will tell me, just there the future forked for me and I took the wrong path without noticing—that’s what you tell me isn’t it, you, who must have meaning in everything, who lust after meaning…I have declared my faith.

Reductionism, standing apart from his self, Freddie does not see clearly, but understanding of his self, and the world around him, creep up on him. He is not unique in this. What makes him unique it the murder he commits. He is the prosecution and defence witness. In every way he is found wanting. But Freddie is someone you know. Someone like Trump. He lives and breathes in The Book of Evidence. On this evidence Banville has created an authentic voice with a knowing approximation to the truth. Read on.

 

Damon Young (2017) The Art of Reading.

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It seems a bit stupid to call reading an art. I was going to write counterintuitive, but that’s a kind of wanky word. Reading is just something I do. We can stick art as descriptive tag before most words and phrases and somehow make it seem erudite. Try it at home. The Art of the Blowsy Blonde. The Art of the Bicycle. The Art of the Mug. The Art of the Article.

But as Damon Young shows reading, if done properly, really is an art form.  And if you are interested in The Art of Writing this is a great place to start. The Art of Writing, of course, starts with The Art of Reading. Both are in constant flux. You are what you read. You are what you write.

Young has split his book into easy to read sections. All are readable. Liberating Pages looks are why we read. There are as many reasons as there are books. I quite like this explanation which combines two factors in a dance.

In classical Greek, the word for virtue was arête, excellence. As Aristotle argued, an excellence is not a state of mind, since these change—it as for life’s striving, not a single moment…Each excellence…is a hexis. So literary arête is not innate, but nor is it artificial. Like reading itself, a good hexis is a potential we are born with, but have to realise with regular toil.

I guess many of us might recognise ourselves here (guilty as charged).

…the art of reading often takes place to the fantasy of publication.

That old cliché you’ve got a book in you.

One survey reported that in the United States, eight out of ten people wanted to write a book—a startling figure even if only half right.

Contrast this with The Pew Research Centre found that a quarter of Americans had not read a book in the previous year.

Or in the President of the United States case the previous life time.

As Flannery O’Connor notes ‘They are interested in being a writer. Not in writing.’

‘The reader’s potencies are denied, along with a chance to exercise them more artfully.

Curiosity and The Infinite Library. In Jorge Luis Borges short story the ‘Library of Babel’, the rooms go on forever, rather like pages in the World Wide Web. Curiosity, in one reading of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature is ‘the love of truth’.  If a book is not true it is not worth wasting your time reading. A book must also be necessary. A plenum of possibility.

‘There is a joy in getting someone to hand us their butterfly,’ quipped novelist Zadie Smith, ‘so we can spend twenty pages making the case for it being our giraffe.’

Patience, Courage, Pride, Temperance and Justice follow Curiosity. I’m sure you get the gist of it. Reading is an art. Our tastes change. We change. But that love. That first love of reading makes your life better and you more empathetic. Those that don’t read are dullards. They have my pity. Read on.

 

 

 

 

Darren McGarvey (2017) Poverty Safari.

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Darren McGarvey was talking about his book in Dalmuir library on Wednesday. He spoke with passion, without notes, for over an hour. That takes some doing. I said to him  I knew before I’d read his book I’d probably agree with what he was saying. He’s one of us. There is different names for it. He calls it ‘the underclass’. It’s in the title. Poverty Safari: Understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass. Words matter.

I’d just call it working class. There’s no under about it. The benchmark is The Ragged Trousered Philantrhopist a book set in the early twentieth century but with many lessons that are still relevant today, perhaps more so, with all the flag waving at the royal wedding yesterday.

I read his book on Thursday. I’ve made some notes which some might call a review. I’m a reader, which, of course, gives you superpowers. The most powerful pieces of Darren’s book are the stories about himself and his family. His mum was an alcoholic who died aged 36 when Darren was 17. They lived in Pollock. Darren no longer lives in Pollock.

If he gets married £30 million of public money will not be spent on security for his wedding. Millions more on cleaning up Pollock before and afterwards.

Darren asks is in what ways are the old me different from the new me? Robert Burns in his address To A Louse nailed the posturing of the middle classes.  O Jeany, dinna toss your head/ An’ set your beauties a’ abread!/… O wad some Power the giftie gie us /To see oursels as ithers see us!/ It wad frae mony a blunder free us, /An’ foolish notion:

Knowing yourself is a religious calling. I’m quite attached to such foolish notions. And I certainly don’t know myself, but through reading I get to know others better.  I’m biased. I like calling Tory scum. I’m quoting Nye Bevan, but nothing much has changed.

Chapter 30, ‘The Metamorphosis’:

 I never got sober, at least for any length of time, until I admitted to myself that many of the predicaments in my adult life were of my own making. This, of course, is another taboo subject on the left. The idea of taking personal responsibility wherever you can and that is an important virtue in life.

Let’s look at AA’s Big Book and the (moral) premise made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Saul on the road to Damascus became blind. Something like scales fell from his eyes. Darren has taken a moral inventory, and having taken the mote out of his eye thinks he can see clearly. I don’t believe personal responsibility is taboo on the left or right. I do believe that the Tory scum sell fear and sow disorder. The only monopoly they acknowledge is the monopoly they have on virtue. And I’m with Blaise Pascal on ‘the only shame is to have is none.’ Look at Grenfell tower and weep as the Tory leader and Tory scum at the Royal boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea council scuttle away from responsibility and play the blame game.

One of the vices Darren admits too is junk food. I watched kids in the playground running about yesterday. One of them was a fat kid waddling about chasing his friend. It made me sad. I felt sorry for the boy and others like him. But far more dangerous is junk ideas. Unthinking with other’s thoughts.

By now, I’ve hopefully established that one of the biggest problems we face as a society is stress; how is shapes us as individuals, families and communities; how it directs the thinking that drives our behaviour and things we do to manage it; and how these coping strategies impact our families and communities. Stress is the connective tissue between social problems such as addiction, violence and chronic illnesses as well as the crises in our public services. I’ve even argued that stress even plays a part in shaping the tone and substance of our political debate and subsequent direction of our society.

Poverty is not about a lack of money. Eh, aye it is Darren. That’s the message Jeremy Corbyn is selling.  The default setting for Tory scum is it’s not only about money. It’s their fault. Those people are not one of us.  George Osborne picks on those outliers, people like Darrren’s family to peddle the idea that resources are wasted on them. They create caricatures and peddle them as propaganda that are fed back to us by the media as the truth. We self-mutilate with these lies.

Show me the money. £50 million of public money paid to rich kids in Grammar schools. And as Thomas Piketty showed gathering historical data this is a worldwide trend of money moving from the poorest to the richest citizen at an increasing rate, most notably, in the richest nations of the world. Britain is a good place to live if you’re rich.

The idea of banning McDonalds or modifying my own lifestyle and taking personal responsibility reminds me of a conversation I had with someone that was on a macrobiotic diet. He tried to convince me that if Hitler had been on a macrobiotic diet the Second World War wouldn’t have happened. Stress and a poor diet were synonyms for each other. They changed the world.

A wee story. Wullie, a successful business man, with the big house and a mobile home worth the price of a house thinks people in Drumchapel and Ferguslie Park are lazy bastards that don’t want to work. He can say that because he was brought up in Ferguslie and moved to Drumchapel. Both areas are poor by any measure, but he is now relatively rich. Lived experience trumps the paper tigers we put on the page to fight our rhetorical battles. This is Wullie and Darren’s strength.

Darren’s message is the personal is political. A throwback to the counterculture of flower power and the sixties. Yes, it’s true. Undeniably so. But let’s not forget people who hold the big stick and take delight in beating you with it for your own good belong to one class and we belong to another. They have won the propaganda war. We have lost most of the post-war gains that were made up until around the mid-seventies and they have gone back to the ways of the rich. The billionaies. Oligarchs. The 1%. The upperclass.  We the working class are being fucked over good and proper (no excuse for the language) and they want us to smile and say thank you. Fuck you, I say. Fuck you, Maggie Thatcher and all Tory scum. That’s personal. That’s political.  Moral inventory, let them make amends for the damage they have wrought on people like me with their foodbanks and hatred of us and I’ll change my point of view.   More chance of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely.

 

True Horror, Channel 4, Thursday 10pm.

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http://www.channel4.com/programmes/true-horror/on-demand/62853-003

This is my guilty secret, takes me right back to my childhood. I’m a BBC 4 kinda guy. The kinda guy that sneers at people that watch soap operas like River City, Coronation Street, Emmerdale or Question Time. Yet, here it is, factual stories based on a recipe borrowed from Hammer House of Horror. Remember the rule. Vampires. Scary Christopher Lee. Wrap the blankets around your neck and hope they bite your wee brother in the bed next to your own. Sit in the sunlight. Or if it’s a shark, do that Billy Connelly thing and hold up two fingers with your feet planted firmly on the ground.

Terror in the Woods.  Do not get lost in woods with a capital W and camp beside the most haunted cathedral in the world which has access to a long forgotten plague pit and the gate to hell. Two teenagers that like to mess about in front of the camera and play at being dead gay with each other, but not in that way, spend a night in a wood. There’s a mock-up of what happened. Scratching on the tent. The portable DVD doesn’t work. Your torch doesn’t turn on. And you keech your pants as the ghost of a wee lassie with no eyes floats through the tent. Who need the Blackpool rollercoaster?

Then you go home – with a big scary ghost in your haversack. Aye, the ghost knows where you live now. Ghost sat-nav. So you call in the Scooby Doo bunch of ghost busters. What do they do? Whistle it down. Hi, silver bullets. Crosses. Exorcisms and priests. Nah, tell the ghost to go and shaft itself, but it doesnae.

And you get the two wee guys, now a bit older saying we kidded on about ghosts until we met a real one. See telly, that’s educational, doesn’t need to be BBC 4 or a version of Ghost on Benefits. Smoking.

Ghost in the Wall. So you’ve got this woman with dyed red hair telling you, aye, I’d seven kids and eh, my man’s dad died in that chair. We could smell his cigarette smoke and he was doing a bit of haunting. He dragged my baby daughter through the walls and held her like a rat in the spaces. When I dragged her out her eyes were black. You know what they say, don’t go into the cellar. Move house. Nah, hang about. He was only kidding on. He’s settled down to baby sitting and making knocking noises. Families, eh, they fuck you up.

Hellfire Farm is right next to Terror in the Woods, but without the trees. It’s deepest darkest Wales, boyo. Look out for a massive electricity bill hitting you right in the eye. Ghosts are murder on the electricity. Shining pupils in the corner of the room. Farmyard animals that mysteriously hang themselves and a pig that does laps of the farm and runs itself to death. The focal point seems to be the dad. He seems cursed, but quite likes it. He’s like a pig on speed, drawing all these pictures that look vaguely like something you don’t want to look at, but can’t look away. Option A, go to the local cinema and watch The Shining, or jump in the car and fuck off. No. This couple and their children carried right on. It nearly cost them. They brought in an exorcist. He burned the Harry Potter books and the Satanic Bible and all of da’s painting and the outstanding electricity bill no one on earth could pay.  You know what happened next, don’t you? It followed him home. I want a legless leyless lined  map where these places with capital letters are so I can avoid them.  No floaters. Can’t wait until next week.

 

 

Tej Lalvani on Richard Feynman, Radio 4, presenter Matthew Parris, and expert witness David Berman, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary University of London.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b0pwgl

Richard Feynman was part of the team that designed the atomic bomb. He was the opposite of a Yes man. Despite being one of the youngest physicists, he was head of calculations in the computation division (remember no computers in those days; calculations were done in the head). If a physicist had a problem at Los Alamos Feynman was the guy you’d ask. He also saved lives. The storage of fission material at Oakridge was at that time likely to lead to meltdown. A problem he recognised and had fixed.

He won the Nobel Prize for Physics but appeared underwhelmed, saying he didn’t believe in such prizes and the real job was in that eureka moment the discovery of verifiably truth.

His friend and fellow physicist Freeman Dyson called Feynman, half buffoon and half genius, only to modify his opinion to full buffoon and full genius. In his book, Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman, he gave vein to his love of stories and as well as playing the bongo drums, he was a great raconteur. One of the stories here is that Feynman liked to go into topless bars and work on physics problems. He was a trial and error guy. Sometimes it worked and he got the girl, sometimes it didn’t. His first wife, Arlene, had died of TB, and his own mother didn’t want Feynman to marry her in case he contacted the disease.

Feynman was a notable anti-authoritarian. He was asked to solve the problem of what happened when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. He was able to show that it was down to the elasticity of a rubber ring.

He was an atheist, but that did not stop him being labelled Jewish. His parents having settled in Queens following the Russian pogroms. He gained a scholarship to MIT, but his application to Columbia was rejected because the science department had filled its quota of Jews. Princeton where he did postgraduate work asked the question if he was Jewish.  In those early years, of course, there wasn’t physics departments. As an undergraduate at MIT he had two papers published and he rewrote the Science syllabus for Cal Tech. He often joked that nobody understood quantum mechanics. The Feynman diagram made that impossibility more likely. Richard Feynman died aged 69. A true polymath and true genius.