Archive for April, 2013« Older Entries |
Saturday, April 20th, 2013
Storm Thorgerson designed classic album art for a host of rock greats – but only now that he has died can the truth be told about one of his final pieces of work …
Storm Thorgerson could be inscrutable, grand and archly funny – all qualities that placed him some distance from the music industry’s standard mixture of flimsy bonhomie and superficiality. Rather than serving either commercial considerations or following the whims of musicians, the work he accomplished as a sleeve designer betrayed a fierce independence, and an obvious belief in art for art’s sake.
My favourite photo of Thorgerson was taken in 1975, and shows him deep in conversation with David Gilmour and Roger Waters while on tour with Pink Floyd, the group for whom – in partnership with Aubrey “Po” Powell – he came up with his most iconic designs. The foreground is cluttered with glasses and bottles; it would be nice to think that the three of them are discussing Thorgerson’s latest neo-surrealist concept. Whatever, it is clear from this shot alone that he was no kind of underling: he is holding forth while the other two keep schtum and listen, and they are clearly creative equals.
The environment in which Thorgeson did much of his work now seems comically old-fashioned, not just in terms of the glorious canvas provided by the 12-inch vinyl record, but the people with whom he had to deal. For the early part of Pink Floyd’s career, Thorgerson and Powell – who traded as Hipgnosis – were theoretically answerable to an EMI staff member called Ron Dunton: as Powell later recalled, “this big, jolly fat man who was in charge of the album cover department”. When the pair presented the artwork for the Floyd’s 1970 album Atom Heart Mother – a solitary brown-and-white cow, staring at the camera in that blank way that cows do – Dunton and his colleagues were inevitably less than impressed. “It was: ‘What the fuck is this thing?’” Powell later told me. “They had no concept of something that was so original.”
“Whenever you went in there with something,” Powell continued, “Ron Dunton would say: ‘Well, what do you call that then? What’s that? He hated Storm and me. ‘Where’s the lettering? What do you mean, there isn’t going to be any? Well, I’d better speak to somebody upstairs about that.’”
Thorgerson and Powell, though, had a few trump cards. The two of them had a bond with Pink Floyd that dated back to their early days at Cambridge, where Thorgerson had ended up after an early childhood in Potters Bar, and time spent at the famously utopian Summerhill boarding school in Suffolk. They were employed by the band, not their record label. And at a time when rock was moving way beyond the cheap thrills of the jukebox era and into the album-led period of FM radio and popular-music-as-art, their work quickly turned out to be a perfect match for the records it adorned: high-end, wilfully non-commercial, so of a piece with the music that one digested them both as a sense-filling whole. As the Powell quote above suggests, as of the early 1970s, they led the way into a world where the most ambitious groups dispensed with band-portraits, and even typography: to this day, even if album “sleeves” are now often boiled down to the size of a postage stamp, musicians usually serve notice of their ambition by leaving such fripperies off their artwork.
Thorgerson and Powell’s work for Pink Floyd is now so seared into the popular consciousness as to barely need mentioning: the Atom Heart cow, the wonderfully crisp prism-and-light motif that accompanied – and now denotes – The Dark Side of the Moon, the pig floating over Battersea power station on Animals, the flaming figure shaking hands on the front of Wish You Were Here (and, indeed, the logo of two robot-arms doing the same thing, a perfect illustration of the album’s sense of musicians lost in a cold, mechanised industry). These were the days before Photoshop, when art budgets would easily stretch to prodigious international travel – and everything was done in person, on location, right down to the Egyptian pyramids featured on the posters that were tucked inside the Dark Side sleeve. All this reached its apogee in 1987, with the sleeve art for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Waters had by now left the band, and the music was mostly second-rate – but the cover image was arguably Thorgerson’s ultimate piece: 800 hospital beds, arranged in perfect lines on Saunton Sands, in Devon.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of other examples of the brilliant work Thorgerson did, both with Powell and on his own. His collaborations with Peter Gabriel reflected Gabriel’s restless, discomfiting aesthetic just as well as the Floyd designs had chimed with their music: the artwork for his self-titled third solo album (aka Melt), for example, consisted of a single shot of Gabriel’s face, apparently melting off his skull, something achieved by the simple expedient of smearing a still-developing Polaroid (a technique later known as Krimsography). The cover of the heavy rock band UFO’s 1974 album Phenomenon features a hand-tinted image of a suburban couple apparently faking a UFO sighting, and manages to be both camp and inexplicably unsettling. The Alan Parsons Project’s Pyramid (1978) was fronted by portrait of a solitary figure in a hotel bedroom, riven with a huge abstract, blue blob of interference, as near to an approximation of a migraine as any visual artist has probably ever managed.
Not everything, of course, was quite so wonderful. The signature Hipgnosis style was easy to parody, and Thorgerson occasionally did the job himself. The cover art for the Cranberries’ Bury the Hatchet (1999) was an evocation of paranoia – a giant eye bearing down on a crouching figure – that did neither band nor artist many favours; his image for Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations (2006) amounted to a thin revival of his work for the Floyd that, if you were being generous, suggested a wry comment on that band’s unconvincing attempts to revive the excesses of 1970s progressive rock. And his infamous picture of naked female backs adorned by Floyd artwork was a rare surrender to music-biz vulgarity, though he seemed to like it.
But mostly, Thorgerson delivered. In 2004, I was working on a history of Dark Side for the US publisher Da Capo. Having already interviewed three of Pink Floyd and most of the album’s supporting cast, I spent an afternoon in conversation with Aubrey Powell, and then contacted Thorgerson. Doubtless tired of telling the same old stories, he declined to talk – and offered instead to design to the book’s cover. It seemed too good to be true, but over the next sixth months or so, we occasionally spoke, and he delivered a tantalising couple of drafts. My strongest memory is of one early-evening phonecall: for at least three minutes, the voice at the other end insisted I was connected to the “Man of Mystery”, and tied me in knots, before I swore in frustration, and Thorgerson wearily played it straight, wondering when the deadline was, and how the book was going.
He soon delivered a lovely piece of art, built around meticulously arranged plastic letters spelling out the album’s bare informational bones (”A landmark album that stayed 724 weeks in the Billboard top 200 – the longest ever for an album”) in pyramid formation, set against a grey-brown stone backdrop, with a quietly enigmatic droplet of water (or marble, I was never quite sure) in the top right-hand corner. He was somewhat concerned about his work adorning a book that was unauthorised by Pink Floyd themselves – and, at the 11th hour, insisted that “Man of Mystery” should be his only credit.
Now, the truth can be told: it was a Thorgerson piece – and looking at it afresh, it could have been done by no one else.
Monday, April 15th, 2013
Margaret Thatcher never represented all of her party. But her legacy now obscures its centrist, socially concerned wing
Iset off last week to divine Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in such contrasting places as the south Welsh valleys and the borderlands of Greater London and Essex. As I did so, I hurriedly packed a bag with a dozen or so books. Among them was an elegant polemic titled Dancing With Dogma, written by her renowned Tory critic Ian Gilmour just after she had left office. Illustrating what a liability she eventually became, one of its chapters begins with a Thatcher quote from 1990, perhaps pointing to the weekend’s news about plans for a memorial library and museum: “Do not say it is time for something else! Thatcherism is not for a decade. It is for centuries!”
Gilmour – a leading “wet”, who was dismissed from her cabinet in 1981, tore into her policies from the backbenches, and died in 2007 – believed his party was faced with a choice: either to slough off the Thatcher inheritance or to live in the political wilderness. In 1997, he claimed that her brand of zealous free-marketry was on the way out. “Such attitudes,” he wrote, “will probably be even less appropriate in the coming decades, when the worship of the market is likely to be on the wane.” Tory neoliberalism, he reckoned, “probably reached its peak in the 1980s and early 90s, when the globalisation of the world economy was used to justify every rightwing excess”. By the mid-1990s, he thought the social and economic damage it had caused was self-evident, and advised his party: “The balance will have to be redressed.”
But no one much was listening. Indeed, in all the noise that has followed Thatcher’s passing, one other death has been rather overlooked: that of the kind of centrist, socially concerned Conservatism that could be traced back through all the pre-Thatcher Tory governments of the 20th century to Disraeli and beyond. Every year, if only for a laugh, I go looking for any signs of its revival at the annual Conservative conference, but it is nowhere to be seen. Whichever combination of the mind-boggling number of modern Tory factions MPs and activists support – the Free Enterprise Group, the Cornerstone Group, Conservative Voice, you name it – they are all Thatcherites of one kind or another – her very own Tea Party, much smaller in number than the old Tory party at large, and ever more shrill and uncompromising.
For all that confected noise about gay marriage, what Tory ministers are doing on social security, the NHS, schools and all the rest is largely in line with what their tribe demands. Their rhetoric, now enlivened by the arrival of the Australian campaign guru Lynton Crosby, certainly is. Moreover, whenever there is Tory dissent about what the coalition is up to, it always comes from the right. No Conservatives seem to worry about what austerity is doing to our social fabric, or offer much to the more blighted parts of the UK than a flimsy belief that “rebalancing” between the state and the market will eventually deliver.
In response to bad news about the economy, much the same chorus always goes up, urging labour-market deregulation, further cuts to social security, and attacks on the minimum wage. Such, it seems, will be their prospectus at the election of 2015, for which the mood music is already in place: witness, for example, George Osborne affecting a glottal stop while he apparently tells the employees of Morrisons that even the Church Of England’s views of the modern welfare state are “ill-informed rubbish” – a callow fifth-former in a school play about Thatcherism, barely up to the role.
As the more clued-up “wets” well knew, what Thatcher did to Conservatism exposed tensions that have never gone away. If you profess to believe in both the unrestrained market and such old Tory touchstones as family, nation and community, you will sooner or later discover that the former eats away at the foundations of the latter. Vividly ideological politics, moreover, are good fun to discuss, but always in danger of floating off into their own cold orbit.
For proof of this, read the mind-boggling Tory treatise Britannia Unchained, published towards the end of last year. It’s a picture of the UK’s future – and Thatcherism’s belated apogee – sketched out by five of the 2010 Tory intake of MPs, including Liz Truss, hyped up as the “Iron Lady 2.0” and lately heard paying tribute to the way Thatcher made the Conservative Party “the natural home of radical thought”.
Its vision is of 60-hour working weeks, an end to “generous” benefits, and deregulated everything – Thatcherism gone mad, with precious little sense of the empathy with millions of Britons that was her trump card. One of its most remarkable passages runs thus: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world … Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football or pop music.” This is what too much ideology can do to you, fostering a cold impatience with fellow citizens, a belief that the only thing standing in the way of utopia is human weakness (communists are often like this too). It would probably also amount to electoral poison.
Every now and again, a twitch within the Conservative soul suggests that at least a few people know this cannot go on. David Cameron’s early claims to a gentler, more enlightened kind of Conservatism now look hopelessly cynical but, early on, his old mentor Norman Lamont told Cameron’s biographers that he was “more like a Macmillan Conservative” than a Thatcherite. There was also the “red Toryism” advocated by Phillip Blond, a temporary friend of the Cameroons who pointed out that Thatcher had bequeathed to the UK a grim kind of “monopoly capitalism”, and that there was a case for “a restored and yet-to-be radicalised One Nation Toryism”. Note also the concerns about inequality and irresponsible capitalism among such members of the wider Tory family as Thatcher’s former policy chief Ferdinand Mount, and her biographer, Charles Moore, whose authorised account of Thatcher’s life is to be published this week.
While writing this, I began to wonder what would happen if the grandees of pre-Thatcher Conservatism were raised from the grave, and confronted with Britain’s current problems. They would agree with the basic goal of deficit reduction, but emphasise the protection of society, a key role for the state in sparking economic growth, and a need for fiscal balance to be achieved on a much more measured timetable. They would probably like large swaths of what Michael Gove is doing to our schools, but be much more uneasy about the ideological stupidities being visited on the health service. They would balk at the dichotomy between “strivers” and “skivers”, and worry about Scotland, south Wales, and the north of England. Thinking back to Macmillan’s admirable record of housebuilding, they might urge a modern equivalent; Disraeli’s empowering of councils would inspire them to question whether all that modern Tory talk about localism means anything at all.
They would also behold Ed Miliband, tentatively exploring some of the same themes, and claiming to be in charge of something called “one-nation Labour”. Most modern Tories view what he is doing with contempt; Gilmour and his like would wonder how on earth their party had let him get away with it.
Saturday, April 13th, 2013
Driving around the UK to assess Thatcher’s legacy is by turns fascinating, sad, bittersweet, and surprisingly moving
The south Wales town of Merthyr Tydfil feels like somewhere haunted by ghosts: not just of the coal industry that once underwrote hundreds of local livelihoods, or the renowned Hoover factory that closed four years ago – but of a way of collective being that slipped away during the 1980s.
“It’s a dead-end place now,” says 78-year-old Jean Stanton, waiting outside the local Salvation Army shop where she does voluntary work.
“It used to be booming. Lovely. But that’s all gone.”
At the mention of Margaret Thatcher, some of Merthyr’s younger residents talk about fragments of this week’s news – the cost of her funeral, mainly – and the odd second-hand memory of her time in office.
But for older people, the recollections remain vivid and the wounds are apparently still raw. With them, such frippery as what David Beckham has said by way of tribute or whether Radio 1 will play Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead count for nothing. Instead, when I ask for opinions about Thatcher’s life and death, people talk about events that happened 30 years ago as if they had only just drawn to a close – particularly when it comes to the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the bitter end of which spelled the start of her most turbocharged phase.
After two days on the road, this much is clear: driving around the UK to assess Thatcher’s legacy is, by turns, fascinating, sad, bittersweet and surprisingly moving. Usually, trying to start conversations about mainstream politics – let alone the events of three decades ago – can be unproductive and frustrating. But this week, there’s a sense of scores of Britons peering back though time, and thinking about then, and now. And in the midst of so many chats about recent history, mundane aspects of the modern British expanse – the ubiquitous Tesco, derelict factories, even the M25 – suddenly assume a symbolic potency.
A few miles from Merthyr is the site of the old Merthyr Vale colliery, a byword for the unimaginable horror of the 1966 Aberfan disaster and one of the incidents that, two decades later, arguably pointed to the miners’ eventual defeat. On 30 November 1984, a taxi driver named David Wilkie was driving a miner who had returned to work to the pit when his car was hit by a concrete post, dropped from a bridge by two strikers. Thatcher said she was enraged “at what this has done to the family of a person only doing his duty and taking someone to work who wanted to go to work”; for the National Union of Mineworkers, it represented a further blow to morale and confirmation that things were spiralling out of control.
Outside Tesco, I meet Malcolm Thomas, 73, a retired electrician, and Bert Lang, 67, who once worked at the Merthyr Vale pit. Like other locals, they wearily mention Arthur Scargill’s serial failures as the leader of the NUM and debates that can still flare up about the way he led the miners through something that felt close to a kind of civil war.
The killing of David Wilkie, says Thomas, “put a dent in the union’s end – it was a stupid thing to do.” The strike, he tells me, “is still embedded in us down here. It’s still something to talk about every day. Someone will always fetch it up: ‘What would have happened if it had gone the other way?’”
For other people, though, all that means next to nothing. Tamzin Cross, 16, lives in nearby Aberdare: she is unemployed and used to scores of job applications not even prompting a reply. What, I wonder, does she know about the woman staring from the front pages of all those newspapers? “I know she was the prime minister of Britain,” she tells me. “And she was quite unfair to the lower classes.”
It may be some token of how much Merthyr has changed that when I ask her if she knows what a trade union is, I draw a blank. “I don’t know,” she says. “I should know, probably.”
My next stop is the ex-steel town of Ebbw Vale, the heart of the parliamentary constituency once held by that local Labour titan Aneurin Bevan, and inherited by Michael Foot, whose time as Labour leader so highlighted the chasm that then separated the UK’s two main parties.
In one of the terraced streets cut into the hillside, I spend an hour in the company of two former councillors, and pillars of local life, John Rogers, 74, and Don Wilcox, 77. Just about every word they say attests to a culture that Thatcher and her followers did not just not understand, but often seemed to hold in contempt – and the way her time in office left so many of the UK’s former industrial heartlands stranded. “What happened here wasn’t a slow slide,” says Wilcox. “It was a sudden shock. And it almost killed us.”
There is, moreover, a twist to their story that speaks volumes about how much Thatcherism changed not just the Conservatives, but a Labour party that was eventually convinced that it had to adapt to what she had done. After decades of passionate Labour activism, the two of them left the party to co-found a local force known as People’s Voice.
It was formed in response to the alleged imposition of a New Labour insider as the candidate for the 2005 general election via an all-women shortlist, and built on a deep ideological estrangement from the party to which they gave a huge share of their adult lives. What rankled, they say, was how much Tony Blair took from Thatcher, not just in terms of her free-market economics, but their shared willful, imperious style of leadership.
The People’s Voice upsurge had one startling consequence: in this once-rock solid constituency, between 2006 and 2010, Labour had neither the MP, nor the Welsh assembly member.
But three years ago, when Labour wrested the Westminster seat back, People’s Voice folded, and Wilcox and Rogers now speak as two defenders of a politics that Thatcherism’s long legacy has pushed to the fringes. “My politics is based … on collectivism,” says Wilcox. “And, in the past, the basis of collectivism came from the non-conformist churches and radical trade unions.” He suddenly looks pained. “That’s the sort of collectivism we are losing. And unless we get that back, let’s be honest, my sort of politics is dead in the water.”
Ninety minutes down the M4 in Bristol, 200 residents of the Easton area spent Monday evening staging a celebration of Thatcher’s passing that ended with a small-scale riot. When I stop to canvass opinions in the nearby enclave of Stokes Croft – the scene, famously, of violence sparked by the opening of a branch of Tesco – mention of this causes at least two on-street arguments. “Disgusting,” says one man. “If people wanted to have a party, then fair enough,” reckons another. At one point, I find myself deep in a conversation about that byword for the pre-Thatcher UK, British Leyland. Here, though, what’s most interesting is a sense of what happened to one strain of left politics in the wake of the 1980s’ endless setbacks: what was once known as socialism reinvented not as a grand political project, but a matter of local culture and personal preference.
Outside the Magpie, a former charity shop now squatted by artists and activists, a 33-year-old local who calls himself Tom Roots says: “She was an icon of a lot of things we don’t like: an embodiment of what we want to move away from. And I don’t think she’d have liked us.” Does the Stokes Croft life represent some kind of alternative to Thatcher’s immovable legacy? “It’s very different. This is social living. It’s not about amassing lots of money and shutting yourself away from other people.”
I spend the night at a gleaming budget hotel on the M25 – the motorway opened by Thatcher in 1986, seemingly as an asphalt tribute to car-owning individualism (Jeremy Clarkson, let us not forget, will be at the funeral). By way of visiting somewhere that may have a rosier view of the Thatcher story, I’m en route to Hornchurch, on the Greater London/Essex borders, where many of the streets are lined with former council houses built in a spurt of postwar optimism and eventually sold under the right-to-buy programme. In 1980, in fact, Thatcher herself arrived at 39 Amersham Road in the Harold Hill district to ceremonially commemorate the 12,000th house sold, to John and Mary Patterson. Pictures of the occasion perfectly capture the era: Thatcher resplendent in a floral-patterned dress clutching the deeds; the Pattersons evidently thrilled at having joined the property-owning democracy for a price of £8,000, with a deposit of a mere £5.
Amersham Road is now split between owner-occupied homes – highlighted by the giveaway external fixtures and fittings – and those still occupied by tenants. The Pattersons have long since left number 39. The current owners, Amy Masters, 27, a London-based PA, and her teacher husband, Altan, 33, have just sold their three-bedroom house for £183,000, reportedly to a Lithuanian student. They have traded up “a little bit” – they’re moving 20 miles away to Rayleigh. “I wasn’t born when Margaret Thatcher was around,” says Amy, who has spent much of the past week answering the door to TV crews and journalists. “But she left the country in a better state. She certainly didn’t make it any worse.”
Down the street, however, at least one person sounds less convinced. At number 17, June Bissom, 50, tells me that in her 16 years on Amersham Road, the place has definitely changed. On one side of the street, former right-to-buy houses have been long since sold to buy-to-let landlords, and their tenants seem to come and go. “It’s less neighbourly round here now. And rougher. More break-ins. The hospitals are shutting down, police stations are closing down, and they’re building new houses … it’s just overcrowded, everywhere. I think we’re going back to the bad old days.” When were they? A grim laugh. “The 80s, I suppose.” The right to buy was a good idea, “but now, people can’t afford to buy their own home, can they? It’s tough now, especially if you’re young.” Her 19-year-old son has been looking in vain for a car mechanic apprenticeship. For him, she says, property ownership looks like an impossible dream.
Back on the M25, I meet Scott Parker, 40, from Bishop’s Waltham in Hampshire, who is on his way to Salisbury Plain to lay telephone cables for the army. One mention of Thatcher and he’s away: another person, it seems, happy to take the opportunity to look back 30 years. “She gave everyone the chance to own their own home,” he says. “She got us out of that trade union stuff, where we was being held to ransom. And I don’t think today’s politician would have the arseholes, basically, to do that. Like or loathe her, she told you the truth. Today’s ones [politicians] just tell you what they think you want to hear.”
I cast my mind back to Merthyr Tydfil, and wonder: does he feel sorry for any of the places that had it rough during the 1980s? “Yeah,” he says. Then a pause. “Yeah.” Another pause. “But it’s hard, isn’t it, cos today’s politicians would still have done what she done, if you know what I mean. But you knew where you were with her. You might have been at the bottom of the pile, but you knew where you stood.”
Saturday, April 13th, 2013
From post-industrial south Wales, via Bristol and Maggie’s own M25, and on to the heart of the right-to-buy revolution, John Harris and John Domokos take a two-day tour around post-Thatcher Britain
Wednesday, April 10th, 2013
Thirty years ago, Tim Waterstone founded one of the UK’s best-known booksellers, and is still in love with the idea of bookshops. So what is he doing starting a new ebooks venture?
Tim Waterstone’s house in Holland Park, west London, sits on the edge of a small cluster of book-industry landmarks. Round the corner is the HQ of Granta, the publisher and literary quarterly. Just as close is a sumptuous branch of Daunt Books, the six-shop bookselling company owned by James Daunt, now also managing director of the chain Waterstone founded in 1982, these days owned by the Russian tycoon Alexander Mamut. The nearest Waterstones is a 10-minute walk away in Notting Hill, an outlet its former owner would occasionally visit when it was managed by HMV – and, as he saw it, going to the dogs, at speed.
In an imaginary movie of his life, you can picture the scene: the principal character stealing a look at his life’s work and wondering what on earth had happened. “What I hated, to the point that I couldn’t sleep at night, was that I thought it was being badly run, and going backwards,” he tells me, while shooing off one of his cats. “It was just agony to me. I felt HMV were screwing it up, and I couldn’t stand it. Every time I walked to the tube station, past that shop, I could hardly bear to look in the window.” He felt it had drifted too far from the simple business of selling books.
Waterstone – a calm, candid presence, some distance from anyone’s idea of a big retail player – will soon turn 74. After three unsuccessful attempts to buy back the chain that bears his name, he assisted in its latest change of hands, and though his involvement now extends to little more than the occasional lunch, he says he is confident that it’s back “in proper ownership, with a very, very good business plan”.
Mamut, with whom he has worked on a bookselling venture in Moscow, is ”a very cultured, literary figure. Most unusually for a Russian oligarch, I must say.” He laughs. “But genuinely so.” Waterstone can now concentrate on his fiction writing: two short novels are on the way, following four already published. (Of these, In for a Penny, In for a Pound, which drew on his experiences in the corporate world, got the most attention.) Then there is his life as a venture capitalist, which has led him to invest in wholefood shops, magazine publishing and cosmetics.
He is also about to return to bookselling as non-executive chairman of a new venture called Read Petite. This will be launched to the trade at next week’s London Book Fair, and to the public in the autumn. An online outlet for short-form ebooks (fiction and non-fiction), its users will pay a monthly subscription – “a few pounds” – and have unlimited access to texts of around 9,000 words or under.
But this is no literary Spotify, offering hundreds of thousands of items with little quality control: Waterstone is insistent the service will be “curated” to ensure a high standard. Authors will have appeared in traditional print, and have been brought to Read Petite by a publisher. “The individual short story, or whatever it is, may not have been published, but the author will be an established, published writer,” he says, drumming his fingers on the table to emphasis those last three words. “The whole point is to avoid a slush-pile of material. What we’ll guarantee is quality writing.”
Read Petite’s name was inspired by Reet Petite, Jackie Wilson’s 1957 rhythm and blues classic. One of its key players, former Bookseller editor Neill Denny, has come along to further explain what it is all about. The pair are particularly excited about the chance to serialise new fiction à la Charles Dickens, reintroducing readers to the long-forgotten art of the cliffhanger. They enthuse about how e-readers seem to have increased people’s appetite for short-form writing. In the US, the New York Times has reported on a resurgence of the short story, benefiting new and established writers. We talk about such short-story masters as Somerset Maugham, Stephen King and Annie Proulx, and why the publishing industry has never quite managed to market the form.
“A lot of the best short fiction has never been properly exposed, because publishers don’t find it commercially comfortable,” says Waterstone. His bookselling business did have success with Graham Greene’s short stories, but such successes were rare. “Even with a collection, how do you package it? It’s difficult in print: traditionally, money was used up on production and distribution, and not enough was left for promotion. In the digital world, production costs are virtually nil, and distribution costs don’t exist, so you’re left with a much cleaner sheet.”
They plan to publish journalism, too. By the sound of it, they have not quite firmed up how deals with writers will work, but as Waterstone puts it, “if the site works, if the total subscriptions are high enough, it should leave a decent sum”. Time, then, for a rude question. How much is Waterstone in for?
“That’s too rude for me to answer,” he says, smiling.
It comes as no great surprise that Waterstone owns a Kindle. The last book he read on it, recently, was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. When he first used one, though, he felt a sharp pang of fear. “I think I went through a crisis: [was it] the end of Waterstone’s, and the end of the book trade? I was incredibly depressed. I pretended I wasn’t, but inside I was churning: ‘Maybe I should die now.’” He laughs.
He now thinks that, for the time being, ebooks and print can coexist. Nonetheless, the high streets on which so many shops still bear his name are in unprecedented crisis. For the moment, Waterstones (it lost its apostrophe in 2012, apparently to make online business easier) may be safe, but plenty of equally renowned names have gone under, and the future of the town and city centre is clouded in doubt.
Talking about this, Waterstone sounds by turn ambivalent, uneasy and open about the idea that no one knows where things are headed – but also somewhat optimistic. Town-centre rents, he explains, are finally coming down. His own chain is getting back to the idea that the shops “should be a theatre. It should be a lovely place to be on a Sunday afternoon. The physical browsing process is enormously pleasant. It’s an important part of our national culture, those bookshops.”
A pause. “But the arithmetic does get more and more difficult, and online retailing gets more and more seductive. And all of us get more and more used to it, from grocery supply to buying books off Amazon. Yet I go to the Westfield shopping centre down the road, and it’s turned out to be an absolute goldmine, heaving with people all year round. Anyone who tells you they know the future is telling you the most grotesque lie, because none of us do.”
Among the high street’s casualties, of course, is HMV, which bought Waterstone’s from WH Smith (who had acquired it in 1993), at the end of the 1990s. Waterstone himself was HMV’s chairman from then until 2001, and it was during that period that his nightmare began. So how did he feel watching HMV go under?
“I brought Waterstone’s into HMV in 1998,” he reminds me. “HMV stores at that time were extraordinarily successful, and very well run. I used them a lot: I thought they were a tremendous public service. I think some terrible decisions were made by the HMV management in the following decade. They blinded themselves to what was happening. Too slow to react, too slow to face the truth. The issue of downloading – they were always reactive rather than proactive in trying to find a way through. They should have led. I’m sad, really sad, as a consumer. But I’ve got children of 18 and 19, and they’ve got no interest in HMV whatsoever. All their music is downloaded. The switch has been so precipitate in that market.”
Bookselling remains more balanced. Amazon – about which Waterstone has mixed opinions, recognising their role in growing UK book sales, but decrying their “absolutely outrageous” tax manoeuvring – claims to be selling more ebooks than printed titles. As a whole, though, the market is still dominated by print: at the last count, ebooks made up 9% of the total. While the number of e-reader users grew by 150% through 2012, that rate of growth is predicted to slow. In other words, the digital reading revolution goes on – but more gradually than you might imagine.
“Robert McCrum, former literary editor of the Observer, rang me about a year ago,” Waterstone recalls. “He said, ‘Tim, I’m doing yet another piece on “Whither the book?” For God’s sake give me something new.’ I said, ‘I’ve done this so often.’ He said, ‘Well, have a go.’ While I was talking, I walked to the other side of the house, where my daughter’s bedroom is. She’s 19, at Oxford, reading English. I walked in, and I could hardly move for books. And she couldn’t be more technically savvy … so I rang her and asked, ‘Why have you got so many physical books?’ She said, ‘I like having a Biro in my hand, scribbling notes down the side.’ So I see the two forms sitting side by side.”
But what if people only have a finite book budget? If they spend x pounds on ebooks, won’t that mean x pounds not spent at a traditional shop? And in that sense, might even new ventures such as his contribute to the eventual demise of a lot of what he holds dear?
“That’s behaviourally too complex a question, because none of us really know what happens,” reckons Waterstone. “I am certain that if more people acquire the habit of reading, the more they’ll stick with it and the more they’ll read. And if that’s going be entirely digital in 50 years time, so be it.
“They’ll be reading,” he says, glancing at two shelves of novels behind him. “And that’s a great thing.”
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