Tuesday, July 22, 2014

There is one thing wrong with the new Foyles

I was expecting to love the huge, shiny new Foyles in the former Central St Martins building on Charing Cross Road, but it's even better than I expected. The space and light and organisation don't blot out the eccentricity and curiosity; they accentuate it. No building containing this many freestanding shelves will ever be free of odd corners, however open its floorplan, and the imaginative ways the extra display space is used give a vivid sense of the fine individual tastes stocking the shop. There's more of everything, as far as I can tell. The magazine selection, already quite good, is now very good: I saw my first print copy of The Baffler there yesterday, and bought it. But the way the magazines are stocked is wildly frustrating.

Consider three magazines at the intersection of politics and culture: The Baffler, Adbusters, Dissent. They are none of them easily obtainable in Britain, and Foyles has the lot. Great! Now try to find them. Adbusters is easy: it's in the magazine display at the front, which looks extensive enough to be the whole thing, until you notice a little sign explaining that this is only the art and design magazines: a discreet colour-coded map lists selections of magazines on five different floors. And in fact that underestimates the complexity: most floors have several caches of magazines scattered around their different sections, and there are no signs within sections to tell you where the magazines might be hiding.

Dissent is, logically enough, among the politics magazines, which as promised are on the second floor - on a back wall underneath a secondhand book selection, just to the left of magazines about jazz and world music. (Magazines about rock, pop, film and theatre are on the far side of the same floor.) The Baffler, meanwhile, because of its bookish format, has been classified as a literary magazine: that puts it on the floor below. I look forward to browsing magazines at the new Foyles. I foresee a lot of exercise.

The scattered arrangement also seems to discourage stocking of weeklies: there were some in business, but literature didn't have the New Yorker (or the Atlantic or Harpers - perhaps they're all on another floor) and politics seemed very heavy on quarterlies and quite light on anything else. Stocking magazines is more of a North American bookshop habit than a British one; it's to be encouraged, especially now that so many newsagents are concentrating on the chocolate-and-booze business; but all the American bookstores I've been in kept the magazines together in one place, and there are good reasons for that.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tell me a story

A sketch from the childhood of Kingsley Martin, future editor of the New Statesman. Basil Martin is his father, a socialistically inclined Congregational minister:

Kingsley's illnesses as a boy were frequent, facilitating much reading in bed but also involving - in a way typical of the family and the period - his mother and his elder sister in long sessions of reading to him: Henry Seton Merriman, Stanley Weyman, Dickens, Rider Haggard, Baroness Orczy - and Ivanhoe (in a mercifully abridged edition) many times over. The whole family were great readers aloud; which in those days was common among literate families with little or no money to spend on places of entertainment. Visitors to the house were assured of a welcome by the children if they would read a story. Speakers down from London for Basil Martin's Sunday afternoon "conferences" (which, truth to tell, were usually Socialist seminars) would often stay at his house - and read to his children. Among these was Mrs Despard, the suffragette leader, who read them Alice in Wonderland and was canonised from that day.

[From Kinglsey: The Life, Letters and Diaries of Kingsley Martin, by C.H. Rolph, Gollancz, 1973. For a pious life-and-letters, published five years after its subject's death, this is remarkably entertaining: Martin was both a great gossip and a great cause of gossip. It's a sort of compliment to Rolph that I found myself yearning for someone to do his job over again, because he is frank enough to show you when he's being discreet, marshalling whole crowds of anonymous and pseudonymous lovers and deploying euphemisms whose effect may have become more or less severe with time. Perhaps the New Statesman's centenary will have landed someone there the relevant book deal. I can hope...]

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How to make someone enjoy a mediocre curry

The other day I found myself needing a late lunch near St Albans City station. (This is what will sometimes happen if you go for bike rides on your days off.) I went into a nearby pub that had a big menu outside.

"Hello. Is the food still on?"

"Ye-es. Until three." (It was quarter to.)

"Thank you! I'd like the chicken curry and a pint of the Tribute."

"Would you like chips with that?"

"Um. Can I have rice?"

"I'll call the kitchen. We ran out the other day."

So she called the kitchen and they did have some rice, and I found a table and she brought over the cutlery, along, separately and unasked, with the ketchup, the mayonnaise and the malt vinegar. The curry was all right but oversweet - after its build-up, however, it tasted like a miracle. I didn't try it with the vinegar.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The rat-eating railway of Forest Hill

Pneumatic trains were to the Victorians something like maglev trains are to us: a transport technology of the future that seemed destined to remain there. They even merited some light sarcasm from George Eliot, in the introduction to Felix Holt: The Radical:

"Posterity may be shot, like a bullet through a tube, by atmospheric pressure from Winchester to Newcastle: that is a fine result to have among our hopes; but the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory."

What I hadn't realised until the other day was that there was an actual pneumatic railway in London in the 1840s - and that I used to live on the route of it. According to The Phoenix Suburb: A South London Social History, by Alan R. Warwick, the London and Croydon Railway ran air-powered trains between West Croydon and Forest Hill from October 1845.

The service was smooth, and silent, and apparently capable of exceeding 60mph. It had three ornate architect-designed pumping stations: "the most beautiful things of their kind that have ever been erected in this country". It was also ahead of its time in the literal sense that, when it was built, the materials did not exist to make it work properly.

The trains drew their air power from a pipe between the tracks, connecting to it through a "longitudinal valve", which a few decades later would have been made from toughened rubber. In 1845, it was a leather flap lubricated and sealed with a mixture of wax and tallow.

This was all right except in summer, when the tallow melted and the leather became too floppy; in winter, when the tallow froze and the leather became too stiff; and in spring and autumn, when rain washed the tallow off altogether. Oh, and the tallow mixture was also delicious to rats, which would "invade the track nightly":

"When the pumps started up in the morning, rats would be sucked through the pipe into the pumping station. To combat this, the engine room men placed open sacks over the inlet, to catch the rats as they poured in."

Less than a year after the experiment began, the London and Croydon merged into another railway, and the new company turned off the pumps for good.


[The Phoenix Suburb: A South London Social History, by Alan R. Warwick, Blue Boar Press, 1976. Haven't finished it yet, but so far it is proper old-school local history, full of street names and semi-disclaimed sensational anecdotes. It's also magnificently provincial. "Whether a suburb is S.E. or S.W., or N. or E., or whatever," says the preface, "it represents a way of life." In this sentence, as best I can tell, "whatever" covers the entire world beyond the inner London postcode system.]

Monday, March 21, 2011

Never read the label

Here are three extracts from the packaging of a Pizza Express 'Sloppy Giuseppe' pizza.

Extract one, from a list under the heading 'Cooking like a real Pizzaiolo':

- Now most importantly, drizzle over a tablespoon of olive oil

Their bold.

Extracts two and three, from the ingredients lists for, first, the dough, and then the toppings:

- Wheat flour, water, salt, yeast, sugar, flour treatment agent (wheat flour, dextrose, emulsifier E472e, rapeseed oil, antioxidant E300)

- Tomato sauce (short omitted sublist here), mozarella cheese, spicy beef sauce (long omitted sublist here), red onion, green pepper, rapeseed oil, tomato puree

My bold.

I haven't eaten the pizza yet. It will probably be very nice.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Signs of ageing, newsprint edition

When the New York Times worries about mystifying young people, it now means people younger than me. This is reassuring and depressing at the same time - although given that my twenties fit its anomic, nomadic template (several jobs, periods of return to education and living with parents, failure to marry and have children) not all that reassuring.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Running away from Radio 4

From a discussion on Woman's Hour, just now, on life after retirement:

"I loved being a district nurse. I hated the thought of staying at home and listening to the Afternoon Play."

Oh, madam, it's worse than that. If you don't fill your days with purpose, you could end up listening to You and Yours.

The district nurse in question went and volunteered abroad, which eliminated the risk of hearing even Quote Unquote.