Wadebridge Bookshop and Thingley Press

Only just got round to visiting Wadebridge, despite it being home to the wonderful Wadebridge Bookshop, despite living in Cornwall for 18 years so far… How did I manage to end up tootling round St Columb swearing at the place for having no signposts – until I found one? Not at all sure, might be something to do with customary Cornish abstemiousness over signs on crucial roundabouts? Road rage? Moi? No, I suffer from absent-signpost rage.
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The aim was to support Thingley Press\’s launch of the ABC Animals books, wittily illustrated (by Hermione Skrine) stories for kids about Alana the Angy Alligator, Bertie Bullfrog and the Bullies, Charlie the Cheating Cheetah – all by Emma Tofi. I bought all three for my nephew in New York and clogged up the till chatting to the owner about Independent Bookshop Week, starting 18th June.
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This massive change to the blog is due to my friend the Financial Hack being brave enough to tell me some home truths about how my blog wasn\’t working for me. So it\’s all his fault.
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No. I\’m not sulking. Not at all. Well yes.

THE GLORIOUS BATTLE AND THE HOTEL INSPECTOR

I wasn\’t sure why I was watching the Hotel Inspector (Five), starring Alexandra Polizzi. It\’s the kind of car-crash reality TV show that bores the arse off me, so what was I doing watching while this curvacious Italian-descended hotel-royalty Ghastly Woman stomped about in down-at-heel b&bs?
The Hotel Inspector is in a sub-section of orrible reality shows in which a successful upper middle class person with an ego the size of Gibraltar patronises, bullies and browbeats lower middle class failures in whatever business wherein the Ego happens to have made their pile (often helped by substantial backing from family in the same business).
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The Lower Middle Class Failures are allowed to argue a bit so that the Upper Middle Class Success can hammer home the point that they got where they are today by hard work and talent (not family influence at all, no no). Then the Upper Middle Class Success pays for the bullying by refurbishing part of the failing business and doing a spot of publicity and the LMCF (or Helped Peasant) says how Alex/Gordon/whoever is wonderful while the UMCS says generously that the LMCF seems to have made progress and might be able to make a go of it.
Divided into four sections by pointless adverts (why, apart from the obvious reason, is the Hotel Inspector sponsored by Playtex?), each section opens with a tedious repetitive five minute recap about the previous section, who Alex Polizzi is, what she\’s doing and why she\’s doing it and how the proprieter will be showing some pointless resistance to whatever it is she\’s ordering him to do.
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Last week was, in its way, a minor tragedy. A feckless wide boy with zero experience had set up the First Inn Last Out in Winchester (or F.I.L.O) as a money-spinner and wound up renting rooms to contractors for bugger-all. Even the frightful Polizzi had a point when she commented that she wasn\’t used to being reassured that the sheets were fresh and clean. It didn\’t help that the manager doing the reassuring was a dead spit for any of Paul Whitehouse\’s more hapless creations.
And the place was undeniably filthy. With great drama, La Polizzi reeled back from the mouldy shower and refused to stay the night in the place at all. The wideboy worked his rumpled charm as hard as he could. He put his hands up to it, guv, the place was a bit dirty, his cleaners didn\’t do their jobs (they were conspicuously invisible). No dice.
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In the end he bolted in terror from the bar after Polizzi offered to show him how properly to clean a sink that was off-the-scale in filthiness as registered by her handy machine. His hunted little eyes and dopy bewilderment at the levels of cleanliness this terror with tits seemed to think was normal were heart-breaking in the way that even a crushed slug can be heart-breaking.
Under Polizzi\’s eagle eye, the place was steam-cleaned, the shower was replaced, the breakfast room was refurbished, the Paul Whitehouse look-alike returned to his first love of plastering and decorating and previously disgusted guests came and agreed it was a lot better.
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I need to put my hands up to something myself here. I\’m quite certain that Polizzi would reel back in horror from my house and refuse even to enter such a hell-hole of disorganisation and dirt. Which means, as far as I\’m concerned, that she has quite serious Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and needs to get help. I\’m just fine, and my immune system is fantastic, thanks.
No, don\’t worry, I have no intention of ever opening a b&b or country house hotel, ever.
So I felt quite sorry for wide boy. The ruthless nuances of English middle-class snobbery had had full play as Polizzi stomped about calling him dahling, and he\’d done what was expected of the Helped Peasant in this kind of show, which was that by the end he was really grateful and agreed that Alex was wonderful and quite right about everything.
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This week though… This week, English middle-class snobbery came through in a very different way. This time it was about the Hill House in Ross-on-Wye, a mildly eccentric place, owned and run by a large mild eccentric called Duncan. At once, Polizzi\’s OCD found things to upset it – mess in the garden, dusty higgeldy piggeldy books which she immediately had to sort out and rearrange, a historic spider\’s web behind the bar.
There was quirkiness. A small plastic skeleton in a cupboard was greeted with \”I suppose that\’s some kind of joke,\” in a tone of voice that implied a joke was a species of insect. La Polizzi does not do quirkiness. \”I\’ve heard of shabby chic,\” she said, completely missing the point, \”But this is shabby shit.\”
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It was a palace of eco-correctness. Everything was locally sourced, there were characterful, sexually ambiguous pigs, chickens laying actual eggs in the kitchen garden. Was there perhaps a trace of annoyance when Polizzi announced that the enormous dinner Duncan cooked her was absolutely delicious? Then she wanted to know what it had cost him to put on a plate.
Duncan reacted with touching horror. The idea of costing his meals per portion was hideous, mad, he wouldn\’t do it. All through the program he fought this outlandish notion of finding out what it cost him to make dinner for his guests – which simply didn\’t compute for La Polizzi. \”Dahling,\” she said, crushingly, \”You\’re not doing it for love, it\’s a business.\” Something crossed Duncan\’s face then, a look of guilt. Actually, dahling, I think he is doing it for love. But he couldn\’t quite bring himself to say so.
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Still, the man is clearly a helluva worker, as his wife said. Left for four weeks to do something about the mess, he did something about the mess. Thoroughly and quite cheerfully, he cleaned, dusted, polished, rearranged, put away. Even La Polizzi agreed it looked much better – although there was still that historic cobweb behind the bar. \”Dahling, it\’s not Listed,\” she hissed. The cobweb went but it was an important cultural clue: there is a wild tribe of English Upper Middles who regard too much tidiness and cleanliness as an infallible marker of Lower Middle Classness in anyone. They are the Intelligentsia. And they also have a horror of thinking about money. Worse, they make rotten Helped Peasants.
And no, Duncan still hadn\’t found out the cost of his breakfast – a huge platter full of goodness, very unlike the pallid stuff normally called a full English in b&bs. Polizzi had got his faithful clientele to write and tell him they would be happy to pay more to keep him in business. Tentatively he put his prices up. Part of the deal was that she would refurbish one of the suites, the one with Indian brass pots and a garish Indian print on the wall. Reeling back from that quirk, Polizzi sent in her minions.
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This was where the nuances of the English middle class truly started to show. In the red corner, we had La Polizzi, scion of the Fortes, hotelier extraordinaire, MA Oxon, a member of the Upper Middles, certainly, but also In Trade. And in the blue corner we had Duncan, eccentric, bookish, probably originally from some profession and also very much a member of the Upper Middles. Only he had obviously strayed in from the Intelligentsia. Why they insist on going into business is a mystery but it\’s never a happy thing: the essence of the catering trade is to know precisely what each portion costs you and then charge at least three times that to your customers. Duncan would not, could not do it. Well he did it eventually, but in a joky quirky way using pictures on a blackboard. And I bet he left things out.
La Polizzi returned for a nice shot of gratitude from the Helped Peasant after her lovely refurbishment of one of the suites. She had conducted a complete quirk-ectomy and done a lot of blue.
But Duncan wasn\’t happy and not at all grateful. The suite was a nightmare, he said. La P was surprised: \”everyone thinks they have good taste,\” she had remarked earlier. Did he not know that she was the only one who was supposed to really have good taste?
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They had a stand-up row about it in the middle of all the blue. Alex Polizzi is pretty free with her opinions (which are, of course, matters of fact). Duncan gave her one of his opinions. \”Two star Spanish beach hotel style,\” he said.
I cheered. I punched the air. It was magnificent, a carefully chosen, lovingly crafted insult, right between the third and fourth ribs. It went home with an audible chunk. La Polizzi threw a tantrum. \”He\’s so RUDE!\” she spat, as if she never was. Beautiful.
No doubt producers and suchlike stepped in and smoothed over. In a chilly climax, various eco-journos turned up and tried Duncan\’s excellent food, agreed with La P that sometimes a conventional bedroom was better and put carefully neutral comments on their blogs. Duncan went along with all of it. He knew his poisoned blade was still in there and he knew he had won the battle of the Upper Middles.
So that\’s why I was watching the bloody show. I wanted somebody to bite back. Thank God I don\’t have to watch it any more. That Ghastly Woman will have me worrying about the antique spider\’s webs and piles of books all over my house too. Which would never do. I\’m Intelligentsia, not Trade, dahling.

THE LITTLEST BUREAUCRAT AND THE MAD FAVOURITE MINISTER (PT1)

Once upon a time (and a very interesting time it was too) there was a young goatherd who decided to become a Bureaucrat because he was clever and ambitions. By scrimping and saving and studying very hard (using libraries), he eventually succeeded. As he had only just started, he was known as the Littlest Bureaucrat and got all the jobs nobody else wanted to do. But he worked diligently at those jobs and did quite well, until after a while he had his very own desk in the palace offices and a peg to put his cloak on. If he\’d had a cloak which he didn\’t because he wasn\’t sure he could afford one. All the bigger bureaucrats laughed at him for this and other telltale signs that he had not been to a proper school and so was not properly a member of the class of people who got to tell the peasants what to do. In fact he clearly was a peasant himself so should do what he was told and dig fields, not sit at a desk and draft memos.
The Littlest Bureacrat was not just clever and ambitious, he was also wise beyond his years. And so he kept his head down and did what he was told and laughed along when his colleagues made goat-noises or went sniff sniff next to his desk or asked if he had any goat milk for sale. The nice ones advised him to go to the bankers to borrow money to get himself a proper cloak for God\’s sake.
The Littlest Bureaucrat didn\’t trust the bankers, especially as he\’d seen the state of their money trees while helping to shovel wads of money around them to keep them up. He was sure that that getting into the clutches of the bankers except for an enormously large sum was not the way to fulfil his ambition.
So any money he got from making and selling goat cheese in his spare time, he kept to himself or used to buy things with.
But he was getting more and more worried. He watched what was happening in the kingdom through the memos coming across his desk and the news-criers in the marketplace. The only explanation he could think of for what was going on was that the King\’s Favourite Minister had taken leave of his senses. Was in fact bonkers. Gaga.
He didn\’t say anything. His colleagues and their friends the bankers all liked the Favourite Minister and thought he was jolly sound. This meant he had been to a proper school and a proper university and had lots of land and money just like they did. The Favourite Minister tried to pretend that he didn\’t and was just like the peasants really, but not even the peasants believed that.
Obviously the Littlest Bureaucrat knew better than to be a whistleblower. He knew whistle blowers were always persecuted until they committed suicide or had suicide committed for them. He was ambitious and he didn\’t fancy that.
But he had to do something. He could see that things would soon start to go very badly wrong again. He got a cousin of his to look after the goats temporarily, in exchange for their excellent milk, and he stored some excellent cheese in a cave nearby. He made himself a moneybelt and kept gold coins and a lockpick in it and wore it night and day.
Then he spent many evenings drafting a careful memo. He didn\’t send it to his boss (who only cared about the minutes of meetings being nice and tidy) nor to his boss\’s boss (one of the loudest goat-noise makers) nor to his boss\’s boss\’s boss (seldom visible). He didn\’t even send it to the Minister for Bureaucrats (a good mate of the Favourite Minister\’s).
He sent it directly to the Biggest Bureaucrat of All. Nobody had ever seen him and nobody was sure what he looked like. Many doubted his existence. But the Littlest Bureaucrat reckoned that if there was a Littlest something (him) then there had to be a Biggest of it. And there was an internal mailing address for the BB of A, in a very obscure corner of the Almanac, so he used it.
And then he sat back and waited. Not a lot happened. The peasants decided to have a march through the capital city and a few of them busted up some shops and had a sit-in. The Littlest Bureaucrat recognised the invaluable Miggs James Miggs 001 among the rioters, wearing a balaclava.
He was very nervous and quite tetchy. Goat-noise makers by his desk got only a fishy stare and an offer of a hanky, from which they concluded that he had no sense of humour. The FM had decided to destroy the Royal Libraries as well as the Royal Sick Peasants Service – only of course he called it reform – and the Littlest Bureaucrat was more and more worried about the whole situation. What if the FM really was mad? Not the drooling raving demons-have-invaded-my-brain kind of madness, but the deadly kind which looks all right at first, but ends up killing a lot of people one way or another. There had been other instances especially in hot southern kingdoms where there were lions and elephants. One of the King\’s own relatives had had a terribly unsuitable Chancellor only 80 years before and people were still talking about the War he started.
One morning the Littlest Bureaucrat was dealing with his in-tray as usual when a small bald man with small round glasses came past carrying envelopes stuffed full of more work.
\”Psst!\” said the small bald man.
\”Yes?\” said the Littlest Bureaucrat in a tone of voice he had been practising specially, \”Can I help you?\” The trick was to say it in such a threatening tone of voice that the annoying peasant wanting something went away, but not so aggressively as to get into trouble in case it was another Bureaucrat.
\”Very good,\” said the small bald man with a smile that made dimples in his cheeks. Something in his voice made the Littlest Bureaucrat look at him more carefully. He was wearing normal grey palace livery but the Littlest Bureacrat suddenly realised that it had been cut to fit him very nicely and was lined in silk, even if it was a boring grey pinstripe on the outside. The back of the Littlest Bureaucrat\’s neck prickled with fright and certainty.
\”Yes sir?\” he said quietly.
\”You sent this?\” said the bald man, opening an envelope a little so the Littlest Bureaucrat could see his own best handwriting.
\”Yes sir,\” he said, trying not to tremble.
\”Come along with me then,\” said the Biggest Bureaucrat of All (for it was he). \”Let\’s have a little chat.\”
The Littlest Bureaucrat wiped his pen, gulped hard and went with him…
(to be continued)