Books and their readers: The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

A bookish read

I’ve loved books for half a century. I remember the moment the love affair began: my grandmother giving me an Enid Blyton tale featuring a wooded island. (The Secret Island?) There was no turning back. My reading status changed: in a relationship.

Martin Latham has made books his working life as well as his passion. He has sold books for 35 years, and has produced a book of his own, The Bookseller’s Tale, that is full of intriguing stories and authors I had never heard of. Even his dust-jacket is revealing: it reveals he was responsible for the largest petty-cash claim in Waterstones’ history when he paid for the excavation of a Roman bath-house floor under his bookshop.

Latham opens by talking about ‘comfort books’ – books we love, and keep buying and reading. They may, or may not, be literary masterpieces. The author recalls the novelist AS Byatt buying a copy of Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book in his Canterbury bookshop and admitting she couldn’t be seen buying it in London.

Latham never quite defines a comfort book. A book you read in difficult times? A volume you loved when you were young, and which gives you a heady draught of nostalgia every time you re-read it? A book that moved or inspired you deeply and which you read time and time again?

The definition may not matter. Most of us have books that we remember vividly and which we will happily read again. Here are some of mine.

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Return to Thomas Hardy country

Thomas Hardy’s birthplace, Higher Bockhampton, Dorset

Few writers have become as inextricably linked with a region as Thomas Hardy. The novelist and poet brought Dorset and neighbouring counties to life as his reimagined Wessex.

Greenwood Grange: its Hardy history

We’re enjoying a holiday in the heart of Hardy country. His birthplace is a short walk from our holiday cottage at Greenwood Grange, a group of buildings built by Thomas’s father. One gable (shown in the photo above) shows its 1840s heritage. Our holiday home Coomb Barton is reputedly mentioned in the last verse of Hardy’s 1915 poem, The Oxen:

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

I confess to thinking it’s more likely a general reference to the then lonely farmyard (or ‘barton’) but it’s nice to think Hardy might have meant the cottage in which I am typing this sentence!

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Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

Screenshot 2020-07-03 at 15.28.51Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the BBC’s Test Match Special was my summer soundtrack. I loved the ritual of turning on the radio just before 11am in time for the start of play in a test match. It was a treat to hear the rich Hampshire accent of commentator John Arlott, the voice of cricket. Arlott also wrote for The Guardian, taking on the mantle of the legendary Neville Cardus.

The other great name in cricket journalism during the mid 20th century was EW (Jim) Swanton. The two men were chalk and cheese yet Stephen Fay and David Kynaston’s wonderful book Arlott and Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket shows unexpected similarities. Most notably, both men hated racism and were appalled by South Africa’s racist apartheid laws, which segregated races and treated non-whites as second or third class citizens. As pressure grew to cancel South Africa’s 1970 tour of England, Arlott said he would not broadcast tests if the tour went ahead. And Swanton argued strongly that South Africa should field multi-racial teams. That didn’t happen until the 1990s, after the end of apartheid. More on that later.

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Cycling my own lost lanes

 

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Lost Lanes – an inspiration

I recently discovered the Lost Lanes series of cycling books by Jack Thurston. They’re an inspiration, with evocative 1930s style covers, gorgeous photos and intriguing touring routes. I can’t wait to explore Rye and Romney Marsh, an area that has intrigued me since reading Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine mysteries set there when I was a child. And those lovely Welsh border roads.

In the meantime, I’m exploring my local lost lanes. Tonight I cycled up to Hodgemoor Wood above Chalfont St Giles on my mountain bike – and promptly got lost. It is uncanny how easily I lose all sense of direction in this small woodland area.

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Classic Chilterns: the view from Mumfords Lane

The real object of this evening’s ride was Mumfords Lane, a narrow lane that links the A40 between Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross with Layter’s Green near Chalfont St Peter.  I’d never cycled it before but it was a perfect opportunity to widen my route repertoire. There was climb from the main road but my mountain bike’s low gearing made it easy. The view from the top was gorgeous – one I had never seen before, even though it’s barely three miles from home. I’ll be cycling this lost lane again.

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I was lucky to dodge a heavy June shower. I sheltered under a tree as I pulled on a rain jacket. This was the scene as the sun came out as the rain eased over the A40. This was once the main route from West Wales and Oxford to London before the M4 and M40 were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

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I’ve really missed cafe stops on my lockdown bike rides. Especially the longer ones, where a coffee and cake adds to the pleasure. A week ago, I decided to do something about it. I can’t reopen cafes, but I can take my own tea or coffee, thanks to my new Klean Kanteen insulated water bottle. I enjoyed my tea and snack overlooking Maidenhead’s historic road bridge this lunchtime. I even brought my Costa collapsible mug!

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I’ll end on a Lost Lanes note. As a proud Welshman, I smiled when I saw Jack’s note on my copy of Lost Lanes Wales. Cymru am byth – Wales for ever! Thank you, Jack. 

Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue

I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.

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False hopes

These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.

Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:

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How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.

Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:

“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:

“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”

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Wales takes the lead

It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.

As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.

Testing, testing

It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.

The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.

Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.

Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:

“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

Bill Shankly Red or Dead

I remember the shock of Bill Shankly’s resignation. I was 10 years old. I’d been to just one league football game. (Cardiff City 0-1 West Brom.) Yet even I realised this was an important moment.

My mind went back to that summer 1974 bombshell this week as I read David Peace’s book about Shankly, Red or Dead. Forty years ago. It was the summer I became truly interested in the game. Travelling back from a family holiday in Dunoon, Scotland, I was intrigued by Shoot magazine’s league ladder. I used it to track Carlisle United’s brief spell at the top of the first division. (I recounted this in my blogpost about the closure of Shoot magazine in 2007.) 

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The Ordnance Survey map addict

One of the joys of browsing in a real, rather than online, bookshop is coming across a brilliant book on a subject you’d never think of reading about. So I was chuffed to discover Map Addict by Mike Parker, published by Collins, during a holiday visit to Waterstone’s in Dorchester, Dorset.

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Ordnance Survey goes metric: the Rhondda, 1970s

I’ve blogged before about my love of maps and the map’s evolution from a printed sheet to an icon on a smartphone. Parker’s book brought back many more memories – such as the lack of any photo on the cover of the original Ordnance Survey maps that replaced the much-loved one inch series. And the fact the 1:50 000 series index map, showing which map covered which part of Great Britain, was cut by a line across the country indicating that the northern maps would only appear two years later, in 1976.

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In praise of Great Missenden’s Roald Dahl museum

Willy Wonka wall

Willy Wonka wall

Roald Dahl was a wonderful storyteller. Over 20 years after his death, millions of children and adults still love his tales of the unexpected. So it’s no surprise that the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden is so popular.

It’s a wonderful place, with storytelling sessions, displays telling Dahl’s life story and even a wall with fighter planes screaming across the sky. (Dahl was a pilot in the second world war, and was badly injured when he crashed in the desert.)

I’ve always had a soft spot for Roald Dahl. He was born in my own home town, Cardiff, growing up in Llandaff. He was christened in Cardiff’s Norwegian church in 1916. His stories are dark rather than sugary confections. Great Missenden has done him proud.

Measuring up against the BFG

Measuring up against the BFG

See my earlier post about the museum here.

Review: Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden's Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden is a brave man. The Great Western Railway is the most chronicled railway in Britain, if not the world. So any additional book about it has to be very good to justify its existence. The good news is that Roden has risen to the challenge, although a series of irritating factual errors spoil what would otherwise be an outstanding history.

My Nan gave me Frank Booker’s one volume history of the GWR as a Christmas present in 1979. Booker’s account was a much easier read than McDermott’s legendary account, published by the GWR over 80 years ago. Roden takes a different approach, giving a vivid insight into the lives of ordinary passengers and railwaymen, as well as the social impact of the railway. This alone makes his book a worthy addition to GWR literature.

Roden is particularly strong on the GWR’s troubled years in the 1860s. He explains how the broad gauge had become a millstone at a time when financial crisis brought the company almost to its knees. Yet the GWR bounced back, with the extraordinary achievement of the Severn Tunnel and the 1892 gauge conversion: an engineering and organisational triumph.

It’s a shame that this fine book is riddled by factual errors. Wootton Bassett is misspelled repeatedly (odd, given that town’s current high profile). Roden claims the Severn Tunnel to be eight miles long (it’s actually half that). He describes 20th century GWR chairman Viscount Churchill as Winston’s father – bizarre, as WSC was just 10 years younger, and was in fact the son of 19th century politician Lord Randolph Churchill. ASLEF is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman, not Enginemen and Footplatemen as Roden suggests. (Where did he get that howler from?) There are others…

 

How social media can win your brand friends for life

Companies around the world are waking up to the power of social media. They’re looking for the magic sauce that turns customers into fans. So it was no surprise that today’s Social Media for Results conference in London revealed some great examples of the best of social media practice.

I spoke about how organisations can use social media to help their customers, especially when things go wrong. I quoted an amazing finding from the United States: 47 percent of social media users had turned to social for help (this rises to 59% of people aged 18-24). And 71 percent of people who have had a positive experience will recommend that brand, compared with 19 percent who got no response. [Source: NM Incite: State of Social Customer Service 2012.] Incidentally, the figures are remarkably similar for men and women. In short, handling complaints well on social could turn an unhappy customer into a friend for life.

I spoke of my own experience as a Vodafone customer: how I enjoyed outstanding customer service after the social customer service team contacted me after I blogged and tweeted about my unhappy experiences. I also cited the example of Vodafone’s rival, O2, which did a great job keeping people informed with humour (and allowing critical comments) on its social channels after service interruptions recently.

My favourite experience however was Chiltern Railways. Last year, I got on the wrong train at London’s Marylebone. I tweeted about my stupidity. Within minutes, Chiltern’s excellent social team tweeted back the best train to return home on. Experiences like this make you feel special.

My other point today was that it’s so important to ask what’s in it for the customer (or council tax payer…) when you’re developing a social media presence. So many companies think: we need a Facebook page. Yet they don’t ask what value it will give. What content will you share? Are you simply going to churn out sales messages and dull news releases? Or do you have something interesting and relevant to say?

I also repeated my favourite subject at any communications conference: the need to use simple, compelling language. I quoted RIM’s apology (during the 2011 service failure) to customers in ‘EMEA’. As the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones mocked, ‘Where on earth is that?’ It doesn’t exist, except on corporate organisation charts.

Finally, a plug for an excellent book raising money for a very worthy cause. Behind the Sofa, compiled by Steve Berry, is a collection of celebrity memories of Doctor Who. All profits from the book will go to Alzheimer’s Research UK. I called Steve after we at PayPal had let him down. I was keen to find out how we could put things right and learn from the experience. Seven months later, I was delighted to read the book. Well done Steve!

[Disclosures: I am Head of PR & Social Media at PayPal UK. Steve Berry kindly gave his permission for me to mention his experience.]