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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In praise of Terence Conran

A Conran legacy

I was a big fan of Habitat in my twenties and thirties. I loved the clean design of the furniture, kitchen wear and dinner sets. I’m typing this blogpost on the 23 year old Habital dining table (now my working from home desk) seen in the photo, while drinking from the pictured 31 year old coffee cup from the store. Somewhere I still have a Habitat fondue set and towel rail.

It’s all thanks to Terence Conran, who has died aged 88. Conran was one of the entrepreneurs who changed the face of Britain, bringing fresh, modern design to the high street and the home.

“It is hard to overstate how uninteresting London was then,” Conran later said. “You could go along a terrace of houses, and every living room you looked in was the exactly the same, with the same extremely dreary furniture.” (You can see a glimpse of that world even today in many chintzy guesthouses.) Design was a hugely under appreciated discipline, as a glance at almost any household product would show. Conran opened the first Habitat store in 1964, and the stores quickly became a symbol of the Sixties. Over time, Habitat made the duvet (or continental quilt as my parents and grandparents called them), beanbag, wok and fondue part of everyday life.

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VE Day, 75 years on

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My grandfather at a Penarth street party, VE Day 1945

Today, Britain marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, VE Day. It was a muted occasion, held in the shadow of coronavirus and in the grip of lockdown.

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The 75th anniversary was more muted

True, the BBC replayed Churchill’s broadcast from 1945. And the Queen will broadcast to the nation at the same time as her father George VI spoke to the Commonwealth in 1945. (The Queen pitched it perfectly as always.) Broadcasters will offer a tired selection of wartime films.

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Chalfont St Giles, Bucks: a coronavirus-closed pub marks VE Day 75

In a curious way, perhaps this was an appropriate way to mark the occasion. It is time for Britain to look to the future, rather than continually harking back to those six years, critical though they were. We will always remember those who sacrificed their lives. I will always be fascinated by histories of those critical years. (I highly recommend James Holland’s War in the West series.) But perhaps we will now set aside these huge anniversary commemorations (apart from the 75th anniversary of VJ Day this August) until the centenaries from 2039 to 2045.

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Victory: Churchill about to address the nation

On VE Day, Churchill in his broadcast said, “We may allow ourselves a brief period of jubilation”. On the 40th anniversary in 1985, I contrasted that sober comment with the enormously hyped BBC coverage of the anniversary. It felt then as if the jubilation had never ended. Perhaps now we can built a better, more equal world, just as the people of Britain yearned for one in 1945 as they rejected Churchill’s Conservatives and gave Labour a landslide victory two months later. The NHS, the subject of 2020’s adoration, was the result of that peaceful revolution.

Churchill added in his broadcast: “Let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead”. Few on 8 May 1945 would have taken notice of that cautionary note in their huge relief that the war, in Europe at least, was over.

Coronavirus: my working from home tips

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Above: ready to start another day

For millions of people, home is now the office. The days of commuting are over. Welcome to working from home.

Some of us have been doing this for years, although in my case just a day or two a week. COVID-19 has made it permanent – for now.

It’s a very big change, and we shouldn’t assume that the switch to home working is just using your laptop on your kitchen table rather than the office desk. Here are my top tips for effective home working.

Create a suitable home office

Find a suitable quiet spot to work. (Obviously this is easier in a large house than a bedsit.) Ideally this will be a room with a decent work surface, such as a desk or table, and where you can shut out any distractions of home life.

If you share your home with others, make sure they understand that just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you are free to play. (Though this is easier with adults than small children!) Unless you have the whole place to yourself, you might want to wear headphones to avoid that conference call booming across your home.

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COVID-19: Bravo,Tesco

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Keep your distance: queuing at Tesco, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire

We’ve all seen the images of empty supermarket shelves. No loo paper for love nor money. Yet Britain’s supermarkets are doing a great job adapting to demand, and the need to let people shop while keeping apart, based on my experience at Tesco, Gerrards Cross.

I had a short wait getting into the store, as staff regulated the numbers in the shop. We were offered sanitiser at the entrance, which I used to wipe the trolley handle and my hands.

Once inside, I found everything I needed apart from liquid soap. It was a strangely calm shopping experience with fewer people in the shop. I did feel I needed to get it down quickly to allow others in.

There’s been a lot of talk of stockpiling – and I referred to this in my post last weekend about the British government’s communications response to COVID-19. We may have been too quick to judge: according to Kantar, the empty shelves reflect the fact we’re all adding a few more items to our baskets and making more shopping trips, rather than stockpiling.

PS: this unremarkable Tesco store has an unusual history. It was built over the Chiltern railway line and the tunnel collapsed on the tracks just after my train passed through in 2005. 

In praise of Thule’s amazing customer service

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The repaired carrier in action – thanks to Thule

I’ve always loved Thule’s clever bike carriers. They’re well designed and robust. Our latest Thule carrier is the EuroClassic G6 LED 929 tow bar carrier. It’s brilliant as you can swing the bikes clear of the hatchback door to gain access to the boot.

Unfortunately, I damaged it during a motorway service station stop during an interminable drive back from our Cornwall holiday last year. (I reversed it into a grass verge that was higher than I realised.) As a result, the swing mechanism wouldn’t swing.

I eventually contacted Thule asking how I could get it repaired. I was dreading the cost of having to return it, but to my amazement Thule arranged to collect, repair and return it to me – for free. Outstanding service, especially as I was to blame for the damage.

A very big and heartfelt thank you to Ann and the team at Thule Technical Services team at Haverhill in Suffolk. You’ve made possible many more happy family bike rides such as today’s along the Phoenix Trail in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. (The photo above shows the bikes on the carrier at Towersey at the start of the ride.) We even saw a steam train on the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway – below.

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Stephen Waddington on business jargon

The British are famous for being hopeless at languages. Yet when they get to work they start speaking another language. Unfortunately that language is business-speak. Former president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Stephen Waddington has blogged a list of the worst examples of business gobbledegook.

Stephen gathered the list after asking his Facebook friends for contributions. I happily contributed ‘visibility’ – a fine word in a weather forecast but nonsense when used as a synonym for information. (“I don’t have visibility on this” means “I don’t know” in the English language.) He could have filled a book rather than a blogpost: companies and other organisations create bullshit phrases on an industrial scale.

Business speak gets in the way of communication. It deadens the senses. And it prompts clever and sensible people to suspend their ability to think what they are trying to say and use the right words to communicate a thought. You’d be ridiculed if you talked to your friends like this. So why inflict it on the people you work with?

Let’s reach out to each other to create visibility about a roadmap to axe gobbledegook going forwards…

PS: it may be unfair to point this out, as Stephen is one of Britain’s finest communicators, but his job title is itself an example of business bullshit. ‘Chief Engagement Officer’ sounds like someone very important at a dating agency. 

Apple Pay arrives in the UK

Apple Pay arrived in Britain today. The new service lets people pay for things in store and in apps on the latest Apple devices, including iPhone 6 and Apple Watch.

I’ve been talking to analysts and journalists about PayPal UK’s view of the new arrival. Most people assume that Apple Pay is a competitor. The reality is different, as I explained to techradar editor in chief Patrick Goss in a meeting in London today. While people focus on PayPal as Britain’s most trusted and widely used digital wallet, behind the scenes we also help countless businesses accept other ways to pay, including Apple Pay, through Braintree, our mobile payments arm. Patrick’s article explains why Apple Pay is good news for PayPal and the other big names in mobile payments.

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Gerrards Cross Tesco tunnel collapse, 10 years on

Collapse! Tesco tunnel after the disaster

Collapse! Tesco tunnel Gerrards Cross after the disaster

Ten years ago today, I had a lucky escape. I was on the last train through the ‘Tesco tunnel’ at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, before it dramatically collapsed, closing the Chiltern main line for almost two months.

The tunnel was created to allow a Tesco store to be built over the railway cutting. The project was controversial, and many people in the village protested against it. It only went ahead after John Prescott overturned the council’s refusal to allow the store to be built.

I was on my way back from a work trip to Chester that evening, Thursday 30 June 2005. It was a lovely evening, and I had enjoyed the journey south. My train passed through the tunnel at around 7.15. It collapsed about 15 minutes later.

The scene three days later

The scene three days later

The weekend after, people flocked to the scene to see the damage.

Witnessing the aftermath

Witnessing the aftermath

Work resumed on the project two years later, and Tesco Gerrards Cross opened in November 2010, some 14 years after it was commissioned by the company. Despite the protests over the years, it’s proved popular with locals.

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

In praise of Sytner MINI High Wycombe

Almost as good as new

Almost as good as new

I took my MINI Cooper for a service today. It was a terrific experience – thank you Sytner High Wycombe MINI.

It started after I decided to extend the TLC car service package for an extra two years when I dropped the car off. Shortly after, service person Neil raced after me to say he had looked into it and concluded I’d lose money compared with paying for each service, given the car’s mileage. It’s always impressive when a company tells you not to spend money.

Later, Sytner emailed me a video showing the car on the hoist, and the work that needed doing.

When I collected the car, Neil said that they’d managed to do several of the jobs for less, as they’d done the work quickly. So the bill was less than I expected.

Finally, my MINI looked stunning after its wash and vacuum.

Very impressive!