Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Politics of the absurd

Responses to my email announcing the probable closure of the bookshop continue to come in. So many people feel the shop to be an important and vital part of the town. 

What direction is society taking? As a species are we capable of resisting the slide towards mediocrity, or will we choose the easier option and obliterate ourselves first?

I met Janet Alty today for the first time in maybe twenty years. A seasoned Green Party campaigner from Leamington. She says how difficult it is talking politically to young people in particular now that the tipping point of climate change is some six years behind us and no foreseeable change of policy by the world's governments can stem the tide. 

We have to hope because to be without hope is hopeless, yet the die is cast for us. What a truly absurd situation to be in. You have to laugh. Crying never got anyone anywhere. 

Turns in the road

I've just sent this email to my bookshop customers...

Dear friends,

I realise that I have been sharing my thoughts on the future of the bookshop with friends recently, and as a result I'll soon be guilty of starting my own rumours.

So here is the truth, unvarnished by rumour!

Not long ago, a good day's takings here were between £150 and £200. Sometimes a lot more. Nowadays a good day can be around £50, often a lot less. There are still a number of regulars who order their books from me, but the really noticeable and substantial difference is the disappearance of that very special variety of bookshopper, the browser.

And it is the browser who makes the bookseller's life worthwhile, both financially but also because the bookseller is always selecting and stocking new books (and backlist) to catch the eye of interested browser. It is enjoyable and challenging and fun. Take away the browser and the enjoyment, the challenge and the fun disappear too.

Although in financial terms, I don't lose money sitting here, it can get very quiet at times and I wonder what is the point. And if I pay someone to stand in for me on the occasional day off or holiday, then I do actually lose money every hour they are here.

I'd like to think -- as I once did -- that one day I'd retire, and that Charlbury is the kind of place where someone else might like to take the shop over. Perhaps that is still the case, and perhaps someone will come forward. Let's see.

I shall continue to Christmas and into January, and then make a strategic withdrawal! Angela and I have a month planned in South Africa, and I'd like to spend my 70th birthday in May covering at least a part of the Camino de Santiago (Well, maybe! Dream on!). Retirement is a time to explore, to expand one's horizons, to step out.

So there you are. It is impossible to predict the future of bookshops in this country. We are the only country in Western Europe that has voted (literally) to give a free rein to Amazon in the name of competition. Neither the French nor the Germans, the Dutch nor the Spanish, the Swedes nor the Swiss have taken this route to the future, and of course it shows in other ways too. I'd imagine that at least half the independent bookshops in the UK will have closed within a year, and Waterstones will keep shedding staff until all they have got left to shed are their shops.

But it is not just Amazon. There are good reasons too why bookshops will, even should, close. Ebooks are maintained at artificially high prices yet cost almost nothing to produce and sell. Prices will tumble when publishers no longer see any point in trying to shore up the price of the printed editions -- when so few people buy the paper copies that it no longer matters. It is all a question of tipping points. Thanks to ebooks prices should tumble and books become more accessible and affordable than ever. And the elderly can change the size of the print, while the reader itself is lighter than most books... There is good news here.

OK, so Charlbury keeps its bookshop at least until the new year. If you have any thoughts on how a bookshop might continue here beyond then, or whether it is even worth considering that option, let me know. But do remember that running a shop is not something you do in theory, it's something you do in practice.

That's all for now. There will be more on my blog in good time (see link below). Meanwhile all feedback welcome...


I'll have more to say about this here soon. And I'll report on what feedback I get...

Monday, 10 June 2013

The choice to stop

Well, it's been a kind of an addiction for three years!

When you are secretary of an organisation that puts on twelve (and occasionally more) films a year plus maybe four live entertainments (though these latter have been admirably and very competently managed by Jackie), the responsibilities are in the back of your mind day in, day out — and all too often in the front of your mind too.

This evening I walked out of the ChOC film after about twenty minutes. Argo seemed to be about Americans shouting at each other, but as I could hardly read the captions (possibly due to my tired eyes) and certainly couldn't follow most of the dialogue without subtitles, I really couldn't tell for sure. Suddenly I realised: I simply did not have to be here! I'd spent two hours helping with the setting up and would be back later for 45 minutes of chair stacking, floor mopping, loo cleaning, screen dismantling (that screen is seriously hard work to put up, take down and cart around: in its case it is too heavy for one person to carry but I have to get it in and out of the car), and helping trundle the kit out to Steve's car. (There are two speakers, each in its box: I can just, but only just, carry each one on its own.) Watching a film I didn't want to see for two hours in the middle of all that just seemed unnecessary!

Talking about ChOC to friends is gradually crystallising my view. I think I'm burned out. I'm also irritated and frustrated. Which is not a good way to be, and it's no one's fault but mine. Retiring will be good for me, but good for ChOC too.

Being secretary is a particular kind of job. The buck always stops with me. Someone can't help this week? They know they are supposed to find their own replacement but no one ever does: they just email me and leave me to sort it. A publicity breakdown? That's because I've missed a deadline: remember to write monthly items for The Leaflet and the quarterly report for the Chronicle. Can we book such and such a film for September? I have to look up when is the earliest we can screen it and who holds the rights, and remember to book it once we've decided. Don't forget to buy the next DVD in time or there won't be a film show at all! Update the ChOC and Charlbury websites. Get out our monthly pre-film reminders to members. Maintain the 300-strong members' email list. Get the next posters designed and printed in time and put them up (oh yes, and laminate them.) And so on. Month after month. 

Sitting here at home while Argo plays on noisily in the Memorial Hall, I look out at the light slowly fading over the cool and now calm garden. The colours are less vibrant but no less beautiful in the less assertive light. The wind has fallen and after several gusty days the trees and their leaves have achieved a visible peace. This is more true to life than (almost) any film. I'm looking forward to walking back to the hall now and breathing in the calm and relaxing air outside. I just hope the forty-odd people in there are enjoying the film as much as I'm enjoying not being there. 

I only hear later than four other people walked out after me, and are to be offered refunds…

Saturday, 8 June 2013

European fences

I keep finding myself on the wrong side of the European fence. I ought to be pro-European and against the kind of nationalism that has led to world wars. Yet I have a certain pride in my ancestry and forbears and I enjoy some of the associations to which this leads. I enjoy my own and other people's idiosyncrasies and I believe that our (my) elected government should have full decision making authority and powers. Even when I disagree with it. Yet holding such views makes me feel an extremist.  

Last week I photographed two roads. One is wide with a heavy Tarmac surface and apparently  substantial foundations. The other is an unmade track undergoing subsidence probably because heavy winter rains are washing it away. The former road was built with EU funds. The second obviously was not. 
The trick question is, What do these two roads have in common? The answer is that neither leads to any human habitation, business or agricultural site. In other words the EU funded road serves almost no practical purpose. It does run to some kind of Greek Orthodox establishment seemingly used occasionally for outdoor celebrations and incorporating a tiny chapel that might accommodate half a dozen people. I've seen several similar places around, all empty and with no sign of recent use. Do the Orthodox here hold such sway over the government that they can have millions of EU money spent on such projects?

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Ouzo and dereliction

Sitting sipping ouzo outside the Mikro Cafe on the waterfront here. Sixties music a speciality but not to deafen, starlit sky, lights twinkling from the tavernas round the bay and on the island-hopping yachts.

This is the life.
Behind us is one of the many grey, brieze block and concrete aborted buildings on the island. In very recent years people have embarked on various building projects, from small extensions to modest homes to entire glossy and glassy hotels with incomplete electrics and still barren gardens. Money obviously ran out. The hotel sign, with its ironic name, remains unconnected.

Another abandoned block of holiday apartments lies yards away.

I think the devastated island agriculture is relevant here. Tilos' verdant beauty springs from the terraced strips that ascend every hillside to the foot of high cliff faces and rocky crags (I've mentioned them before), an enormous feat of agricultural engineering over centuries that employed and fed a large population. Nowadays, since the massive depopulation that followed WW2, virtually all the productive land here lies unused and locals prefer – or are obliged – to cater to tourism. This activity is only really getting going now after a very poor May, with empty tavernas beginning to be less common of an evening and more people coming off the ferries. By the end of September it will be getting quiet again and the resident islanders will have to live on their modest store of fat till next May. Or do what the majority do, and simply lock up and leave.

And they will continue to import almost all their fruit and veg and cheese and milk by ferry from Rhodes. Apart from honey (where the bees do most of the work!) they will have grown nothing for themselves. I'm surprised that people from elsewhere on Greece, let alone the rest of Europe, are not leaving unemployment and misery behind them to come and cultivate the derelict fields here. Or that the island itself seems not to see a future for itself outside tourism. EU money went into infrastructure such as roads (there are almost no vehicles on them) and someone funded the creation of a national park and conservation project (the explanatory leaflet cum guide in English ran out a year ago and has not been reprinted, presumably for lack of funds).

Civil servants have taken a 50% salary cut. Householders paid a 'tax' of around €300-400 to the government on their electricity bills (clever: if you didn't pay, your electricity was cut off). This was to be a one-off but I'm told its now being collected for the third year running.

There is something terribly wrong.

Litter and class

I think it was on our seventh day on Tilos that I saw my second piece of litter. It was a crushed and empty Marlboro packet. Rubbish dumped on vacant plots, yes. Street litter, no.

It would be a fag packet of course. The Greeks are Europe's heaviest smokers and smoke their way to an early death in the way that we drink our way to ours. This emerged from a conversation with an extremely thoughtful taverna/hotel owner, age 34, who has never been to the UK, studied the Cambridge certificate (?) between the ages of 6 and 16, and speaks better English than many or most Brits. 

We had a discussion about class, and without going into details, let me just say that he used the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to illustrate different attitudes to class found in northern England compared with London. 

He remembers the travel company Laskarina who did so much to make the quieter Greek islands accessible to British holidaymakers, and also to explain to Greek hotel and villa owners what the basic needs of a civilised Brit are when on holiday. Laskarina closed down some years ago, but our friend remembered their clients mainly for their use of the word 'splendid'. Everything, he said, was absolutely splendid. 

As others hear us!

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Flags of (in)convenience

The blue box pictured here continues the island theme. In it is a Greek flag. We are on an inter-island ferry in waters claimed by both Greece and Turkey. The (Greek) ferry flies the Greek flag in the port. A few hundred yards out to sea and it is taken down and stuffed into this box. 

An island has many boundaries. 

And from one island the next land mass may be invisible. Or culturally so. On a clear day, looking out from the harbour here at Livadia, a considerable stretch of land pretty much fills the horizon from left to right of the bay. I ask the barman which island this is. He looks puzzled and says he doesn't know. He consults his girlfriend (local born and bred with a degree in business management and the hotel owner's daughter) and they cannot come up with an answer. 

So to the Rough Guide and Google maps for a solution. And the answer is very simple. We are very close to the Turkish coast here and wherever you are, on sea or land, Turkey is often nearer than the next bit of Greece. But invisible to the local Greeks. 

But they still take their flags down rather than appear provocative.