No place like home?

Sheep Market, Spalding

Sheep Market, Spalding

My son called me yesterday evening to gloat because of the outcome for him of a BBC quiz he’d just completed, entitled ‘Where would you be happiest in Britain?’ (The quiz can be found here, if you’re interested. I assume, for readers of this blog who live outside Britain, that it will guide your choice should you wish to emigrate from your country. 😉  I should add that, since the way into it is by selection of a miserable three photographic choices, I rather suspect that it has an equal paucity of possible places to put participants!) It told him that the place in which he’d be happiest is Lewes, in East Sussex (also its choice for my husband – QED my point about the limitations of the quiz), but his reason for calling was to let me know it also forecast the place in which he’d be most miserable. The prediction for him was ….Spalding! Where, apparently, the inhabitants are bereft of several character traits that those of other places have in spades, including friendliness. My son was delighted because he’s always affirmed that I, a native of Spalding, was born among bog-dwellers with webbed feet (and, in point of fact, my paternal aunt did have webbed feet!), whereas he is one of God’s Yorkshiremen.

Not willing to take this lying down, I decided to complete the quiz myself. It told me quite firmly that the place I’d be happiest living in would be Oxford (where there is, allegedly, a very high ratio of ‘cultured, conscientious and’ … ahem… ‘neurotic ’ people, just like me, apparently). And the place in which I’d be least happy? You may have guessed it already: Spalding!

Now, apart from pointing out the obvious – that the BBC must have a real down on my home town; so much so, that I wonder if the quiz might have been compiled by Jeremy Clarkson after he found out that all the restaurants serving food (hot or cold!) there are closed by 10 p.m. – I’d like to take issue with this.

First of all, I know Oxford well and have never considered it to be my idea of residential heaven. It’s pleasant enough and I’ve been to some good concerts there and eaten some excellent food in its (largely overpriced) restaurants. I have a significant number of friends and acquaintances who live or work there, most of whom are cultured and conscientious and some of whom are undoubtedly neurotic.

But, over the years, I’ve also had some pretty duff experiences in Oxford. Here are a couple of examples:

When I was working for a Scottish library supplier, I was once booked into a hotel (called Green Gables, but there, its resemblance to the home of L.M.Montgomery’s heroine ended), a turn-of-the-twentieth-century building that sat right in the middle of a run-down housing estate containing a maze of roads through which feral dogs and glue sniffers roamed at large. The hotel didn’t serve food and I didn’t dare to go out after dark in search of any, so I dined on a cereal bar that I had in my brief case and a glass of tap water. My room looked as if it hadn’t been decorated since 1930 (the décor was bottle green and cream) and the ‘en suite shower’ (cunningly concealed behind a clear plastic curtain) was fitted with a rubber mat which, when lifted, revealed a thriving family of wood lice. Not very Oxford as Oxford conceives of itself!

My second example, however, is quintessentially Oxonian. I was visiting a publisher who persuaded me to attend an evening soirée featuring a ‘traditional African music ensemble’. Intrigued, I changed my train ticket and turned up at the event, hoping to feast on some of the exotic music and dancing I’d seen executed by a visiting troupe from Zimbabwe when I worked in Huddersfield (another awful town, according to the BBC). Imagine my chagrin when the ensemble turned out to consist of a quartet of upper middle class white Oxford ladies of a certain age playing its own arrangement of ‘native’ music on some very European instruments! I couldn’t capture my idea of Oxford better than by telling this tale, which does indeed demonstrate that Oxford is conscientious (if self-consciously so), cultured (in its own inimitable way) and neurotic (possibly).

When I think of places which have made me miserable, therefore, I’d have to include Oxford in the list. There are more deserving candidates, however. Among these, I’d cite Rotherham, a town that seems to have had nothing going for it since its magical (definitely, then, before the Industrial Revolution snapped it into its jaws!) ‘merry England’ manifestation, described by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe; Solihull, for several years home of the HQ of Dillons and Waterstones, a place which never seemed to have anything to recommend it except a larger-than-average number of dress shops catering for ‘the fuller figure’; its much bigger and uglier sister, Birmingham (though I admit the canal system there is superb and worth a visit); Bridgnorth, a place so benighted that even the local copper didn’t know where the library was; and, last but not least in the misery-making-for-me stakes, Middlesbrough, which I’ve visited twice and where I had my car broken into on both occasions.

And places where I’ve been happiest? Sometimes in London, spending delightful evenings with friends, though I’d hate to live there; often in Surbiton or Mawdesley, basking in special friends’ wonderful hospitality; at my God’s-own-Yorkshireman son’s various homes over time, both entertained and amused by him and his wife; and – yes – in Spalding; certainly, in Spalding, that sink of human baseness by BBC reckoning. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there, so I’d have experienced a childhood of Dickensian deprivation if I hadn’t been very happy some of that time, and an unusual teenager if I hadn’t also sometimes felt melodramatically sad. Finally, I do actually like the place I live in now – otherwise, why would I have chosen it? – even though the BBC thinks it is only 54% suitable for a person with my character traits.

Which brings me to my final point. Supposing that I do exhibit more than average conscientiousness, cultural awareness and neuroticism, why should I want to ghettoise myself with a massive bunch of people just like me? My immediate neighbours are as unlike me as possible. They include a racehorse trainer, a physiotherapist, a lawyer, a doctor and several businessmen, as well as a number of retired people. Their passions include horseracing, greyhound racing, playing the harp, planting rare snowdrops and keeping bees, in none of which I have more than a passing interest. Some are bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met and extrovert; others are quieter, more reserved, but fascinating once engaged in conversation. Some take three holidays a year; one lives in the South of France for six months out of the twelve; others never have a holiday and hardly leave the village at all. We all appreciate the surrounding countryside. We all like being within a short drive of several major cities and towns. Other than these common points of consensus, mutual variety is the spice of our lives in so far as we share them.

So there you are, BBC. Mood and character createth the individual woman… or man; but not the place. In my book, anyway.

An author to assuage hunger…

Rose Tremain

Discovering Rose Tremain

I remember exactly when I first discovered Rose Tremain.  I had very recently joined Dillons (destined to merge with Waterstones within a year, though none of us knew that then) and had been invited to attend a party at Hatchard’s (a fine old bookselling business that had been acquired by Dillons some years previously) to celebrate its 200th birthday.  Along with many colleagues, I accepted.  As Dillons HQ was in Solihull, Teresa, one of our administrative assistants, was asked to find hotel accommodation in London overnight for those of us who requested it.  Teresa had been supplied with a directory of hotels ‘approved’ by the company for use by its staff and, as I was to discover, had an unerring knack for picking out those that were most dismal and unwelcoming.  Most of my colleagues made alternative arrangements.  New to the company, I put my trust in Teresa’s mercy.

The party was the most glittering book trade bash I’ve ever attended.  Princess Margaret was there, resplendent in elbow-length gloves and drinking something from a tall glass wrapped around with a linen napkin.  Salman Rushdie had dared to attend, even though it was only a year or so after the fatwa against him had been issued.  The other guests included dozens of well-known writers and publishers.  As you can imagine, security was very tight.

The evening was ‘elegant’.  I use the term in a way that was new to me then, but in which I’ve had other occasion to use it since.  As I’ve previously mentioned, the first bookselling company that I worked for was in Yorkshire and the second in Scotland.  Both hosted many literary events and all of these shared a single prominent common feature: we ensured that our guests were served a plentiful repast of excellent food.  We believed in feeding the body just as much as the mind. In Yorkshire, we favoured sides of salmon, roast hams, salads, pizzas and quiches and generally included a selection of gooey puddings; in Scotland the food was usually hot and hearty: soups, pies, lasagnes, stews and curries.  But always food, ‘proper’ food, and plenty of it.  And drinks, too, of course, though the food was paramount.

At the party at Hatchard’s, on the other hand, the wine flowed but the food was sparse.  Exquisite, but sparse.  It consisted of tiny canapés that were delivered individually at long intervals by uniformed waiters and waitresses who bore them aloft on circular trays.  There were miniature salmon rolls, morsels of pastry stuffed with even smaller slivers of meat and cheese, the babiest of baby sausages skewered with eighths of tomato and Lilliputian biscuits bearing deftly-placed dots of pâté, each one garnished with a parsley feather.  The waiting staff weren’t particularly keen to distribute these fairy victuals, either: sometimes it was impossible to snatch one before it continued on its airborne journey through the crowd.

The upshot of this was that, when eventually I arrived by taxi at my hotel, which belatedly I had discovered was situated in  the further reaches of Camden, at around 10 p.m., slightly tipsy and completely famished, I found that not only did the establishment serve no food (it would not even be providing breakfast on the following day), but that there was no restaurant or even a takeaway within a radius of at least a mile.  I took one look at the dark and dingy street beyond its none-too-hospitable doors, and decided that I would be foolish to risk venturing forth in quest of sustenance now.  I therefore toiled up the three flights of stairs to my room (it wasn’t the sort of hotel that offered to help with luggage) where I found a narrow single bed in a cheerless room with no bedside lamp and an ‘en suite’ shower behind a plastic curtain in an alcove.  The lavatory was outside, shared with the occupants of the other rooms on the same floor.

Mercifully, my room did contain a kettle and some sachets of coffee and tea (the brand-names of both were unfamiliar) and two or three of those little bucket-shaped plastic containers of UHT milk.  Too cold and hungry to go straight to bed, I made myself a cup of indifferent but scalding coffee, groped in my bag in the hope that I hadn’t absent-mindedly eaten the cereal bar that I’d placed there some weeks before (I hadn’t) and fished in it again for the book that I’d snatched from a stash at Dillons HQ for staff to help themselves to before I’d caught the train to London many hours earlier.  It was Restoration, by Rose Tremain.  Immediately, I was enthralled. I drank my coffee, ate my cereal bar and read.  And read.  I went to bed some hours later, my hunger forgotten, and slept soundly until the following morning, when I rose early in order to find breakfast and get another quick fix of Restoration before the day’s work started.  I had become a Rose Tremain addict.

I had intended this post to be a review of Merivel: a man of his time, by Rose Tremain, which I have just completed, but I’ve probably written as much as you want to read for now, so will save that for another day.

Bring back the Net Book Agreement? I think so, yes…

NBA pricing

I am quite often asked to explain why almost all bookshops display the same ‘Top 20’ blockbuster books so prominently in their windows and on front-of-store tables. Somewhat less politely, I’ve heard this referred to as the ‘W.H. Smith syndrome’. There are, of course, some magnificent exceptions, both in the independent sector and some of the chain bookshops, and I hasten to pay tribute to them. However, it is true that range bookselling is becoming rarer and more difficult to maintain in terrestrial bookshops, while, paradoxically, the so-called ‘long tail’ of publications from independent publishers and self-published authors becomes ever easier to access via the Internet. Both as a former bookseller who still believes in the power of being able to browse among shelves of print books and as an author who is published by a superb but still small independent publisher, this is a subject that concerns me greatly.

Incredible though it may seem to me, there is a generation of book buyers who have never paid prices for books that were subject to the Net Book Agreement [NBA]. In fact, anyone who was sixteen or over when the NBA agreement was abolished, in 1997, will be well into their thirties now. The NBA acted as the linchpin of book retailing for ninety-seven years. It was set up in the year 1900 by a group of publishers who were afraid that booksellers were discounting their publications so heavily that their businesses would become unviable and that so many bookshops would therefore be forced to close down that across the nation there would no longer be an adequate shop window to promote their titles. (This was, of course, decades before internet bookselling and also long before some publishers began to sell direct. The only alternatives to high street booksellers at the time were book clubs (which had a reputation for unscrupulousness) and, until the foundation of the public library service, paying to borrow books by subscribing to circulating libraries such as Mudie’s and Boots.) The NBA declared that no bookseller could sell a book at a price lower than that decreed by the publisher and printed on the cover. After the public library service was given its charter in 1932, an exception was made in favour of allowing booksellers to apply discounts of up to 10% to orders that they received from public libraries.

Also called Resale Price Maintenance, the NBA was effectively a restrictive trades practice. When it was first set up, it was among a number of such restrictive practices allowed by British law; when it was re-examined in 1962, it was one of only two remaining (the other involved the supply of certain products to the pharmaceutical industry). In 1962, it was declared still to be in the public interest. One of the main reasons for this ruling was that it enabled bookshops to stock a wide range of titles; in other words, it stopped outlets like supermarkets and other non-specialist retailers from buying up large quantities of top-selling titles at a discount and passing on this discount to the customer, thereby depriving proper range booksellers of their bread-and-butter income. Ironically enough, the argument for its validity began to disintegrate when Terry Maher, proprietor of the Dillons book chain, illegally began to apply discounts to some titles in 1991. The NBA was re-examined in 1996, when it was declared to be against the public interest and therefore outlawed.

The effects of this were not immediate, because both booksellers and publishers were cautious about dismantling wholesale an implement that had supported their industry effectively for almost a century. However, eventually booksellers began to demand higher discounts so that they could attract customers by offering loss leaders. Only the big publishing houses were able to offer significant discounts and then only for the most popular titles (it is one of the paradoxes of modern bookselling that the titles that are most heavily discounted are the ones that people are most likely to buy anyway). It has since become more and more difficult for small independent publishers to sell their titles into bookshops and, if they do succeed, they rarely manage to get these titles prominently displayed; the net effect of this is that the titles then sell less well than titles that are prominently displayed, which means that the bookseller’s next order to the independent publisher is likely to be even smaller than its predecessor. It’s a vicious circle, exacerbated by the relatively recent practice adopted by some chain booksellers of selling prime in-store display space to publishers. Naturally, only the largest publishers can afford to pay the price. Ergo the ‘W.H. Smith syndrome’ [a slightly unfair soubriquet, by the way, because a) Smith’s does not pretend to be a range bookseller and b) individual Smith’s stores will sometimes go to considerable lengths to promote local authors].

So, should we have allowed the UK’s Net Book Agreement to be first vilified and then murdered? Both France and Germany still operate some form of Resale Price Maintenance on both print books and e-books; both still have flourishing terrestrial bookshop chains and independents that offer range titles. It is also an interesting fact that e-books have been much slower to take off in these countries. Is it in part because RPM makes them more expensive than in the UK? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

I was particularly fascinated when Apple came up with the agency model as a fair way of selling e-books. The agency model does not fix the price at which the book can be sold, but it does establish the minimum margin that must be made by the publisher. Effectively, like the NBA, it is therefore a form of price-fixing and has been declared illegal.

When you look at the legal reasons for abolishing Resale Price Maintenance of any kind, they seem to be entirely proper. But the argument about what best serves the need of the customer is much less clear-cut. Fine, if the customer wants to read only blockbusters, but for those of us who would like more variety in our reading diet, a mechanism that enables bookshops to stock less popular titles has been proved to be beneficial. Would the reintroduction of the Net Book Agreement therefore be ‘a good thing’? A difficult question, but one to which I am inclined to answer ‘yes’. I am quite certain, though, that, given the present economic climate, it will be a long time, if ever, before we are given the chance to find out.

My favourite bookshop!

Gower St Waterstone's

Yesterday I visited Waterstone’s Gower Street, which in my mind is called simply ‘Gower Street’ and, in many other people’s, is still indelibly fixed as ‘Dillons’. A great bookshop and, of all the bookshops I have visited (there have been a few), easily my favourite. It’s situated in the heart of Bloomsbury. Approaching from Gordon Square, you come upon it suddenly, an Arts and Crafts enchanted castle before which there is always a litter of student bicycles, as if thrown down in homage at its feet. On an early spring day, especially when the sun is shining, your heart lifts immediately.
The shop was founded by Una Dillon, herself one of the extended ‘Bloomsbury set’. Almost every other door of the houses in Gordon Square and adjoining Fitzroy Square is adorned with a blue plaque celebrating the fact that a Bloomsbury author lived there; Una Dillon created the shop to serve them. The building was originally an early experiment in franchise retailing, a sort of forerunner of the Galeries Lafayette or Selfridges. It was designed to house twenty-four retail units, one of which was initially taken by Una Dillon. Gradually, over a period of years, she expanded until she had bought all of the units and therefore the whole building. (This also lifts my heart: I wonder if there is the remotest possibility that this could still happen today? Could a bookshop oust, say, Zara, Boots, Gap, Marks & Spencer and their ilk from such an ‘emporium’? I have my doubts!) Consequently, behind the scenes, it is a rabbit warren of corridors and small offices. It is also a protected building – of which I’m entirely in favour – although it does mean that not even a nail can be knocked into the wall without English Heritage’s being first consulted.

This shop came under my jurisdiction for several years in the 1990s.  At the time, there were booksellers there who could remember Una Dillon’s being wheeled into staff meetings in her wheelchair and who were still in awe of her memory.  (I must admit that the image of this is conflated in my mind, unfairly I’m sure, with the image of Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed corpse, similarly wheeled into meetings at UCL nearby, but I’m sure that Una was still alive on the occasions of which they spoke!)

I myself have many excellent memories connected with the shop – for example: the launch for George Soros’s book, which attracted so many people that it had to be held in a lecture theatre at UCL, with a television link to an overspill room; coming out of the manager’s office and finding Will Self chatting to the staff in the reception area; walking back a little dazed to King’s Cross through a summer dawn on a Sunday morning, having – with all of the staff – been up all night stocktaking.  And it is still my favourite place for browsing and buying books.

Great bookshops are like people – they have personalities.  A great old bookshop like Gower Street also has secrets.  As far as I know, there has never been a murder committed there, but there could have been.  Maybe someone will write a novel about it!Gower St frontage

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