Whilst this blog was on hiatus I kept an eye on The Campaign for Real Books, intending to write a follow-up to my previous articles on ‘CAMBO’. Now I come to it, I find the presses silent, the campaigning has ceased.
This was particularly surprising. When a publicity campaign hasn’t had any publicity for a year, things are probably not going well. It’s worth taking a moment to consider the campaign in retrospect to see what went wrong and what it says about our understanding of eBooks.
The Campaign for Real Books was started in the same spirit as The Campaign for Real Ale – a successful movement to promote the production and consumption of traditionally brewed Ale. This bookish variant would involved advertising and collaborations with independent booksellers to ensure the survival of real books – what could be wrong with that? Everything.
Wherever there’s debate on the merits of real books vs. eBooks there’s someone declaring that books are old-fashioned and have been superseded. Often they’re the tech’naive or digital-evangelist; newly converted, spreading the word with glazed-over eyes, glossy as Macbooks lids. Sometimes they’re cynical; unpublished authors with a grudge or embittered bloggers crusading against the mainstream media, getting their shots in where they can.
Then there are those with good intentions. Those that want to extol the virtues of the humble book but damn it with faint praise. They love the smell and feel of ink on paper, the satisfaction of holding words in your hands – so delightful, so twee. They reinforce the idea that the book has become obsolete and we should preserve it as a kindness. Some will rally to the cause but the majority read such comments and assume the eBook is ascendant.
The Campaign for Real Books fell into such a trap. To claim that real books are in danger, is to present them as weak. To equate them to real ales puts them firmly but falsely in the category of the niche, boutique good. In reality eBooks sales are but a fraction of all book sales and their growth is stalling, but to jump so vigorously to the defense of real books indirectly increases confidence and awareness of eBooks. What they should have been doing was exposing some of the outstanding issue regarding the current eBook scene and why we should have less confidence in them.
To further illustrate their imminent extinction, The Campaign for Real Books compared Books to Vinyl records.
It’s a prevailing trope: that books are analogous to the various out-dated media standards – after 600 years they have become Beta-Max. It’s nonsense. Books are more than a storage medium, they are the delivery device and the interface. They create the physicality of the word in such an intuitive way that eReaders attempt to replicate it as accurately as possible – with mixed results. Whilst they offer some benefits, eReaders are very much a sideways step.
In contrast, The transition from records to tapes to CDs to MiniDiscs (or not) was progressive, it did not change the formula of how music was stored and played. One device and medium superseded the other with superior quality or capacity. Where one outmoded medium had an advantage – Vinyl’s acoustic warmth for example – it will survive.
What characterises each of these transitions is that they were, in essence, natural. Record Companies, Electronics Manufacturers and Retailers would present the options and over time Consumers would make a choice as to what device was preeminent. Formats such as MiniDisc (and potentially Blu-Ray) could be rejected, it was not possible for a any particular faction to truly force a product onto the public. But times have changed.
We have a situation now where Amazon controls the marketplace, the electronics and, to a large extent, the publishers. Furthermore they have proven that they are prepared to take large losses just to take market share. And this is what is driving the recent eBook push, one companies attempt to dominate a market to an unhealthy degree. Had Amazon not developed the Kindle and allowed Sony, Kobo et al. to produce the actual eReaders we would not have seen half as much eBook activity. The soi disant eBook explosion has been driven by one company’s desire to lock consumers into a walled garden and onto their proprietary device.
There’s so much here for anyone campaigning on behalf of real books to get their teeth into. If Amazon had their way their stranglehold on the market would become a death-grip. Their DRM is restrictive and poorly understood. The concept of renting ones media as opposed to owning it has wide ranging implications (and not just for Bruce Willis). These are important and complex issues, ones that are obscured by the constant barrage of pro-eBook propaganda.
The last thing I saw from the Campaign for Real Books, aside from the defunct website, was a poster in which someone whose child is having a medical emergency needs to consult a help book but it runs out of power. Scaremongering, really? Opportunity missed.
I have been selling books for a relatively short time so whenever I detect a change in the business it’s always strangely exciting and/or edifying. Or it would be if these changes weren’t all for the worse. Thus far the most marked change has been in charity bookshops.
There’s a deep seated antagonism between the charity sector, Oxfam especially, and secondhand book trade: They get their stock and staff for free; they make little money for charity yet spend more on refits that most booksellers make in a year; there’s a statement floating about (apocryphal yet persistent) that Oxfam want to wipe out the used books business. etc. etc.
Yet my biggest problem is not with the existential threat posed by this ham-fisted, overly subsidized job-creation scheme. It’s with their manic and shameful pricing strategies that affect me as much as a consumer as a competitor.
It’s no longer a surprise to walk into a charity bookshop and see the base price of their cheapest books raised from 50p to £1, from £1 to £2. Each price jump usually accompanied by a new ever fresher face behind the counter – as if price is inversely proportional to their age (and distance from their GCSE Business Studies class).
Worse is the gentrification. It’s just as common to pop into your local charity store and see the same books that were once humbly shelved now displayed proudly on stands with bibliographic data stuck on post it notes with inflated prices. Occasionally it’s justified, usually it isn’t. Usually it’s slightly wrong and somewhat misleading. Soi dissant ‘First Editions’ are anything but. Other times the label may be technically correct but the book is obscure, unwanted and endured only one print run, it makes the whole thing exploitative.
Worse still is when they mention the price of the book online. The intention is to show that this book is a bargain (an investment) – even though there is no mention how it compares to those online copies in terms of condition etc. Yet, to me, it frequently seems like an excuse for their exorbitant prices – you think we’re bad, look that this!
I recall especially being in a YMCA store run by trendy young things. Vintage clothes were hung over louche dummies, a collage of cut-outs from fashion magazines covered the roof, stickers from folk-festivals clogged the door frames. There was an elderly gentleman there too, with his wife. He wanted a WW2 book that they’d listed for £14 and couldn’t understand why it was so expensive. He could get such books for £1 on the market, he told the young guy running the store. In reply he received a brief and slightly embarrassed explanation of market economics. No sale was made.
Now they have no books, save a wodge of 50p paperbacks to decorate the furniture. This is, in my experience, the upshot of hot-shotting prices: the tactic fails and books are removed from the stores or, if they were exclusively for books, they shut.
The gentrification of charity bookshops and shelves has reached the unlikeliest of places. In a town I shall not name – a more wretched hive of scum and misery you’re unlikely to find – worn, dog-eared 1930s hardbacks are now displayed and curated as grandly as if at the Olympia Book fair. Get’em whilst they’re overpriced because they won’t be there for long.
Suitability of books as fuel called into question
By Richie Parentis – Straight from sixth-form to your national newspaper!
Long a topic of contention in the bookselling world, the practice of ‘re-listing’ is now under wider scrutiny for its role in the fuel shortages that have gripped Britain over the past couple of weeks.
As coal and gas supplies dwindled Pensioners and lower income families resorted to using books as fuel, only to find more than a third of estimated book supplies were drop-shipped re-listed phantom stock, totally unsuited for burning.
Re-listing is the process whereby an online bookseller lists another dealer’s book as their own and, in the event of a sale, simply orders from the original seller with the buyer’s details. Thus the innocent consumer searching, say, for Heidi’s Bedtime Stories: Erotic Quickies for Men and Women, at popular sites such as AbeBooks.com or Amazon, may see pages and pages of copies that, tragically, do not exist. Something people up and down Britain have just learnt the hard way.
The government has tried to deflect criticism for misjudging the supply of books. A statement issued today from the Department of Trade and Industry read: ‘We were informed that there were enough unsold copies of Yellow Dog and Shalimar the Clown to see us through the winter. We had no reason at all to doubt this.’
Though most have gone to ground, I was able to meet with a re-lister and get her side of the story. Joanne Downs has been re-listing and drop-shipping for the past two years but is now considering a change of career. Whilst she admits some responsibility for the crisis, she believes re-listers are being demonised. ‘I hold my hands up but people need to understand that we’re suffering like everyone else. We don’t have any books either, which is sort of the whole point.’
In a bold move that news agencies are calling a bold move, online retailer Amazon.com today took extreme measures to protect their market share by annihilating all of humanity – ironically enough on a day designated by booksellers as a celebration of the independent trade.
Roads leading out of major cities were empty as major city-dwellers rushed online to blog about the attack, including retail analyst James McMurphison, whose opinion I now pass off as if it were newsworthy: ‘What I’m hearing, what people are saying to me, is that this is a bold move. Beyond that, I don’t know.’
Humanity sent its champion, Johnny Depp, to offer Amazon our unconditional surrender, including a promise that all items that can be bought and sold are done so via Amazon, as well as new legislation on physical rights management that will mean that all consumer items are effectively ‘on loan’ from the Seattle based company.
Despite Depp’s effeminate good looks and interesting career choices, negotiators are, in private, pessimistic about his chances. Amazon have shown in the past that they can go years without making a profit just to ensure their market position and are well placed to survive in a world devoid of humanity.
Following on from the massive success of David Fincher’s Oscar nominated re-telling of the rise of Facebook, The Social Network, comes news of a film detailing the history of web uber-retailer Amazon and their founder, Jeff Bezos.
Directed by Michael Winner, The Anti-Social Network will mirror its predecessor’s Citizen Kane-like plot and suggest that Bezos’ business strategies were a result of being spurned by a beguiling bookstore owner, played by Lindsay Lohan; and a ravishing record store owner, played by RnB diva Rihanna; and a kooky Electrics store owner, played by Zooey Deschanel; and the owner of a Diaper supplier; and the owner of an Arts and Crafts store; and the owner of a DIY showroom; and the owner of etc. etc.
But unlike the semi-tragic ending of The Social Network, Winner promises us a happy finale where Bezos annihilates his lost loves and their businesses, uttering his popular and sinister catchphrase ‘And you’re done!’
Whereas Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was less than enamoured by his recent portrayal, Bezos, who resides on a throne constructed entirely of office chairs, has given the movie his blessing – providing Amazon is supplied with the DVD release at 10% of the RRP and 70 years before their competitors, marginally better terms than they’d usually demand.
Every now and then the discussion over whether or not you should watermark your images crops up (yes, we’re looking at you, Guy).
I’m more concerned about copyright infringement in the clouds
The idea that your pictures should be tagged seems to be gaining ground and the ability to add a watermark to your images is something that is slowly being incorporated into bookseller’s tools and CMSs.
As someone who had once made the decision to watermark my images and then subsequently abandoned the practice, I kept a keen eye on these discussions – though I rarely contributed.
This was because I had so many thoughts on the issue, they could only be done in long-form. So here it is…an analysis of whether or not you should watermark your images and the things you ought to bear in mind if you do…
This was why I started watermarking my images, to promote my business. The trend in marketplaces is to minimise the presence and importance of booksellers, to reduce them to a field in a list of bibliographic data. By tagging your pictures you are putting yourself in front of buyers at a time when their interest has been piqued. It’s a way to claw back your identity at AbeBooks, Biblio and co. ( but not Amazon, try it there and you might find yourself on an unmarked CIA plane to Seattle.)
This all sounds good but it’s important to remember that how you watermark your images will effect how your are perceived.
I have seen examples with watermarks in awkward, blocky, low-resolution fonts, obscuring the book and even displaying the paranoia that someone will copy the picture. It’s not the best way to communicate your brand.
What you want to project is competence and confidence. Whether I achieved that is debatable but my approach was to use a simple modern font (in tune with our other branding), neutral tan colour and a semi-transparent black shadow so that the text would remain legible no matter the background. For the text itself I chose the website address. This seemed less intrusive, less redundant and more efficient, since getting customers to your website is one of the goals of such promotion.
This raises another important point… They have to be good pictures in the first place. Any image is useful to the buyer but when you attach your name to one, the image itself can effect the perception of your business. A fancy logo atop a poor image may indicate strange priorities.
When we take a picture of a book we are doing work in order to achieve a sale. So if someone takes one of our pictures, they are exploiting our work in order to achieve a sale. Despite having sold a small number of books compared to most booksellers I too have found my pictures being reused, predominantly on eBay.
This can grate. Especially if you have invested money in photographic equipment. Furthermore it is misleading to buyers. People expect a custom image to be of the book they are buying, so not only have they have ripped you off, they’ve tricked a customer.
But how much should we care about any of this? Whilst it is true that someone has re-appropriated your work I have never seen an egregious misuse of my pictures. An eBayer onced used a composite image I’d made for the Heron Dickens. Maybe they did not have access to a camera and it wouldn’t be strange if the condition of their set was almost the same as mine, in which case not much harm was done. It helped buyers and the seller with no loss to myself.
I have yet to see an example of a bookseller at AbeBooks using another bookseller’s picture. I don’t know what the punishments are but I’m sure that they will exceed the small benefits. Similarly I have never seen an instance of a Megalister culling images from across the web and reusing them. If this sort of behavior were commonplace and without punishment then I could see the case for Watermarking your images but it isn’t.
Workflow and other issues
As mentioned, there are systems available that will allow you to automatically apply a watermark to an image. If you are working with a sufficiently advanced graphics program there will be probably be addons or macros that can help the process along.
I do a lot of manual work with my images: cropping, rotating, airbrushing anomalies in the edges of the light tent. As such it was very easy to CnP in my watermark and position it. I always felt that if you applied it automatically the watermark could obscure something in the image.
The problem here is that if you are a perfectionist but not particularly swift or savvy with your editing program, the process will become too lengthy to be worthwhile.
Space is another thing to consider. You may want to keep an unmarked version of an image; I have had frequent need of pristine images for my own website. If you have several tens of thousands of pictures, doubling that number may cause problems in terms of storage and management.
It’s not just you that may need an unmarked version of an image. AbeBooks frequently do promotions showcasing books from their listings. For practical and aesthetic reasons they will avoid any images bearing a tag. This may not be too large a concern though. Even if they cannot use your image for the promotion there’s probably others to choose from, it will still create interest in that book and send buyers your way in the end.
There are many compelling reasons to watermark your images if you can do it in a pleasing and effective way. So why did I stop? In short I did not think the benefits were sufficient to justify the time spent.
Only a miniscule fraction of, say, AbeBooks visitors will look at your pictures. Of them only a minority will choose to visit your website. And of them only a minority will buy something. If you only have a small stock of books then the number of AbeBooks visitors looking at your pictures is small and the chances they will find something else to buy from you are again reduced.
We also have the problem of data. We have no way of knowing how many AbeBooks customers are looking at your pictures. We have no way of knowing why people visiting my website wrote ‘AJ Scruffles’ into a search engine – and these days most browsers’ data is private, so we don’t even know what their search terms were.
It might be the case that having thousands of watermarked images at AbeBooks and co. does generate a significant amount of traffic but until someone does a controlled test (monitoring their traffic over a period when their images are watermarked and a period when they are not) we can’t know.
I also think that aesthetically I turned against the process. Few if any of the most attractive booksellers’ websites feature watermarking on the images. If you scroll down you can see a mixture of watermarked and non-watermarked thumbnails on this page of my site: http://www.aj-scruffles.co.uk/leather-books-special-editions/ . To my eyes the tiny unreadable text atop the images is rather ugly.
Last weekend I was in Warwick. In addition to seeing a Trebuchet launch a fireball one hundred feet into the air, I also saw this charming Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Watership Down in the excellent Duncan M.& V. Allsop.
It reminded me how pleasant it can be to find a beautiful edition of one of your favourite books.
Today I saw this…
p>Although utterly dwarfed – critically and physically (my copy is a paperback frisbee) – by his seminal opus Underworld (a brick), with a film adaptation on the horizon and with the world still reeling from the recent financial crisis, it’s worth taking another look at Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo’s take on the super-rich.
Cosmopolis received a poor reception on release and from the off you can see why. It begins abrasively, spooling through signifiers that inform us that our protagonist, twenty-eight year old currency trader Eric Packer, is, variously: intelligent, angsty, fabulously wealthy and so on. It’s fragmented and fast and interspersed with epigraphic philosophising – DeLillo doesn’t attempt to acclimatise us, preferring instead to push us beneath the book’s truncated prose and adolescently brutal theorising. In retrospect it doesn’t seem so bad but that’s because it’s easily forgotten.
We are then swept up into Packer’s fantastically white, cork-lined, sound and bullet-proofed limousine for a day long odyssey through the gridlocked streets of a near future New York, ostensibly so he can get a haircut.
As Packer crawls towards his destination, the mind-bogglingly well equipped vehicle allows him to go about his normal business, which involves betting against an inexplicably buoyant Yen, a medical check-up and being menaced by a credible death threat. Homer and Joyce are invoked in equal measure as Packer juggles a string of sexual encounters with his attempt to create a traditional home, a Homeric oikos, with his wife Elise – whom he has only recently married yet already become estranged from. A budding self-doubt is nurtured over the course of the day, in which he is progressively stripped down in a sequence of set piece episodes that are, by turns, thrilling and baffling.
Thrilling where the limousine wanders into the choreographed chaos of an anarchist protest. Here there is a sense of dialogue, of one-up-man-ship as Packer tries to assimilate the increasingly violent and unpredictable action into his conception of the market. When he is finally unnerved by events, it becomes equally unnerving for his travel companions and the reader. A well worked ripple effect.
But baffling when we happen upon the funeral procession of Packer’s favourite Sufi mystic rap star, Brutha Fez. The life of the rapper and his cortege are described in great detail and are stupendously boring. We also hear snatches of Fez’s lyrics which, obviously, are scant in light of the hagiography we’ve just been subjected to and we are left wondering if that was the point. This is kind of ambiguity is a continual problem in Cosmopolis. For example, Fez’s is one of a slew of high profile deaths but it is the only one that causes Packer any sorrow. Is this because Packer identifies more with the young rapper than the older businessmen or because he realises that his own death will be comparatively unlamented? You never feel it’s meant to be ambiguous in this way.
And yet ultimately Cosmopolis succeeds. Though it has little to do with who Packer is or what he does and everything to do with what he is. In his review for the New Yorker John Updike wrote that, ‘DeLillo’s sympathies are so much with the poor that his rich man seems a madman.’ And that if one wants to read about young masters of the universe they should read Tom Wolfe. Whilst this may be true I think it misses the point.
Packer is not a master of the universe, nor some new Wall Street archetype to be satirised. DeLillo is necessarily vague but it appears that Packer made his breakthrough with software, making him more of an engineer or dotcom entrepreneur. He has technical intelligence that surpasses all around him. So he’s not a trader but nor is he some kind of quantitative analyst, using a fraction of his knowledge in a rather limited capacity. Packer is something else, something that doesn’t exist in our world and appears unique in his.
His extravagant purchases don’t feel like aspirations realised, but emollients. He isn’t some brash, roving Homeric hero. To all intents and purposes he is stationary; employees, information and even doctors come to him as if he is the centre of the universe. If anything he is a modern Delphic oracle within his hi-tech limousine-cum-temple, a nexus between the mystical and technological.
So Eric Packer is a futuristic seer. He answers with questions and questions with statements; not because he’s meaning to be obtuse but because he is out of step with others. He is surrounded by kinks in time. From a constant video feed of himself that is slightly delayed to the semantic incongruities of operating in different time-zones. At one point he expounds that the market has divided time into smaller and smaller units: ‘Yocto-seconds, one septillionth of a second.’ And has all but eradicated the present. He is explaining this to his head of ‘message,’ who, at the same time, is tasked with mythologizing him.
There is an almost constant frisson where the ancient is fusing with the futuristic. It informs and enlivens an otherwise lacklustre narrative and, perhaps, this is the grander satire of Cosmopolis; that the rush of modernity and unrestrained greed can birth such throwbacks. And in that sense the book becomes an intriguing and effective portrait of a modern oracle.
Before his tragic and mysterious death earlier today, we caught up with famed nonagenarian book dealer Eustace Rashburn to get the inside story of his life in bookselling and his remarkable entry into the trade…
I suppose my entry into the trade was, on the whole, unremarkable. I took the route favoured by most bookmen of my era: that of being abandoned as a baby in the aisles of my local bookstore. There were few of my contemporaries who didn’t get their start in this way. Though I think I was luckier than most, as my parents chose for me J.J. Comusterball’s Colchester shop. A quiet establishment but one whose rats would rarely bite and whose stock was free of the most virulent fungi – a serious hazard to the nascent lungs of the budding bookman.
Even so, growing up amongst the books was a hard life. So much so that when I finally revealed myself to Mr. Comusterball at the age of seven, I was in quite a state: malnourished, covered in dust, suffering from severe foxing. Comusterball, possessed, as he was, of advanced years and unaccustomed to surprises, dropped dead at the sight of me and since he had no employees or living relatives, the running of his shop fell to me.
Nowadays one would blanch at the idea of a seven year old owning a business but it was, as it was, a different time. Some would say a better time, a time when a young man could strike out on his own and make something of himself. Not me though. I ran that business into the ground in less than a week, unable, as I was, to work the cash register or to speak.
It wasn’t long before the London trade got wind of the situation, descended as they were wont to do, and began picking over my choice stock. Now, I’d like to make something clear, whilst the iniquities of the trade have been well documented – I refer, of course, to the rings or how booksellers would frequently enter a competitors premises in the guise of an affable Drunk and ‘deface’ the stock – to my mind bookmen were, and remain, the most noble of fellows. Thus when a sharp eyed employee of the esteemed dealers Horatio Swabbit seized me up, intending to sell me as ephemera at Sotherbys, I can only believe it to have been a genuine mistake.
Nevertheless there I was: catalogued and ready to be shipped to auction, when suddenly I had the good fortune to be felt by Swabbit’s senior director Baldwin Schnap – who was, of course, a veteran of the Boer War, where he had, of course, lost both eyes and both testicles in a boating accident. It was he who decided to hold me back from auction so that I might serve as his eyes until such time as medical science would make it possible to harvest me for parts. His faith is in the speed of medical advancement was robust, if misplaced.
Once again I was back where I’d been every day since birth, living and working in a book store. Only now, freed, as I was, from the burdens of running a shop, I could finally enjoy the subtle delights of a fine used book store. Then Baldwin got the leash. But still, it was a nice week.
I cannot say that my apprenticeship with Baldwin Schnap was an altogether happy one but I took solace in the first rate education I was receiving. That and the vain hope that one day he would ask me to serve as his testicles. Alas the ways of the human heart are a mystery to me, but it was enough to sustain me through those weeks and months and years. Books came, books went, people came and people went. Even Balwin Schnap passed on, coveting my organs to the last, clawing at them from his death-bed. Seasons change, birth and rebirth, it was ever thus. Until one day everybody just left and never came back.
I later learnt they’d moved to some larger premises and had forgotten to pack me. An oversight to be sure but fate has a funny way of giving people what they want, even when they daren’t admit it to themselves; seventy years after my first failed attempt at running a book store it was time to try again. Rashburn Books was born.
You may say that I’ve led a sheltered life and that my opinion counts for nothing but I truly believe there’s no finer life than a life spent in books. They’ve been my faithful companions even before I could read. They’ve provided me with sustenance and warmth, shelter and rudimentary tools. Then, when you can read, some of them are actually quite entertaining, I speak of course of the Hardy Boys. And new ones are always turning up. Why just this morning a lady brought me a 1545 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that her mother received as a prize in a village fete. I can show it to you if you like.
Eustace Rashburn 1915-this afternoon
The junior Officers’ Reading Club
First published 2009
copies from £9.65
I’m not sure who to blame for being slightly dissatisfied with this book; false advertising, lazy subediting of newspaper reviews (yes, yes, it’s a horribly tiring and thankless job) or my own Super-Mario like ability to jump to conclusions. Probably all three.
I began The Junior Officers Reading Club with hopes of a subversive take on the Army experience and the fighting of Blair’s wars. Its author, Patrick Hennessey, was not just educated at Oxford, but was described as ‘Oxford-Educated’, as if this were a surprising thing and we should expect the unexpected. I imagined a trajectory similar to that of Tim Collins, once the darling of the military and then almost a thorn in its flank, only edgier and even more literate. A book that would eschew the traditions of the war memoir. Not just a fish out of water but into a flak jacket and off to the Hindu Kush.
Hennessey disabuses us of such notions early on. We learn that he comes from a military background and that he is fiercely proud of his regiment and company. Whilst we (or perhaps just me) quickly remember that it’s hardly strange for well educated men and women to join the Army and begin to feel a little silly at having assumed what we (probably just I) did.
What we get is a personal journey from Oxford to Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, a brief pause in Bosnia and then onto the meat of the book, tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is slightly limited in scope, never straying very far up or down the chain of command, which is a shame as there are some tantalising glimpses of his interactions with the regular soldiers under his command. Hennessey doesn’t really attempt to analyse events far beyond their effect on him. This might seem appealing as these events have already been covered sycophantically, critically and every which way in between. Nevertheless he can hardly avoid all context or observation, thus when he does describe, for example, the nature and culture of the Afghans he must train or the absurdities thrown up by Army life, these are stories we have heard before – in greater detail.
Likewise, most of us are now familiar with the experience of being a hip, modern soldier; the unashamed bloodlust, the boredom punctuated by terrifying excitement, the difficulties of the comedown. They are, for the most part, excellently conveyed but again, it’s not really anything new.
In this sense the Sandhurst portion of the book is a bit of a letdown. Hennessey notes that when Prince Harry ‘rocked up’ there the academy received a lot more attention in the media but he misses a trick by not giving it more attention himself. Usually in such memoirs, as in fiction, the training sections are often some of the most thrilling; simultaneously lifting a veil and describing a weird hinterlands between worlds. We learn of some hardships and customs but there’s not much on the other recruits, their motivations and how they variously adapt. There’s something unaffecting about the whole episode. Hennessey mentions having lost some of his journals but perhaps it is because these experiences have been parsed and contextualised by what is to come.
Two seminal accounts of modern warfare are namechecked: Jarhead by Anthony Swofford and Michael Herr’s Dispatches from Vietnam. The Junior Officers’ Reading Club derives heavily from them in style if not in tone. It is laden with ironic wit, coarse language and acronyms. At times Hennessey is conversational, throwing in allusions to pop-culture, at others he becomes lyrical and metaphorical or makes references to Brueghel or Stravinsky. It doesn’t always hang together, especially early on but as we move into Afghanistan and, for the first time, real combat it gets exponentially better and better. As if Events started making their own demands, which Hennessey more than meets. The descriptions of combat here will surely be some of the finest writing to come out the conflict and could redeem a far lesser book than this.
So if it was getter better and better, why didn’t I finish? In truth, I didn’t so much stop as get waylaid. In the Sandhurst portion Hennessey mentions a text they were forced to study: 18 Platoon by Sidney Jary. Tracking it down was hard, it’s relatively rare but copies will often pop up (here). I borrowed a rather filthy edition from the central library.
It was a revelation. Jary was a 20 year old junior infantry officer when he was sent to command a platoon in Normandy. He is introduced to his assignment with a speech on the rather dismal life expectancy he faces. There is an immediate pathos that the experiences of non-conscripted soldiers just cannot match.
Jary surveys his training and prevailing attitudes with a far more critical eye. He felt forced to develop innovative new measures to increase his platoon’s chance of success and survival. It is a thorough account of his campaign and of leadership but it is never dry, Jary has a good eye for detail and scenes of high drama and tragedy are effectively depicted. It is humble and thoughtful in tone but extraordinary in impact. Hennessey at one point describes how he and his colleagues wanted to be the new Jarys but you begin to realise that such extraordinary situations may never come around again.