I wonder if I’m alone in looking at the one and two star reviews on Amazon when searching for an interesting book.
I began doing this a few years ago after buying a number of books based on four and five star reviews. With a few exceptions, they turned out to be hugely disappointing.
The problem when it comes to reviews of books is that we all have different tastes. Books are like food in that sense.
For example, some people find the best-selling American “humourist” David Sedaris very funny. I’ve tried reading several of his books, but they left me cold. And when I looked at the one and two star reviews afterwards, I found they articulated my own response.
If a book on Amazon has the “Look Inside” feature, I’ll begin to read the first chapter. If the writing doesn’t captivate me in the first few pages, I’ll move on.
There’s another issue related to reviews. And that’s how publishers all too frequently over hype an author. Often there’ll be a quote on the front of the cover from some big name, but I’ve learned not to trust these. I know from personal experience that the chances are the big name hasn’t even read the book.
So how do you find a book that you are going to enjoy? There’s no easy answer. A recommendation from a friend can be one way, but it’s not guaranteed.
Some of the best books I’ve read are ones that I have stumbled across by accident, either when browsing on Amazon or rooting around in a charity shop.
There are some great books out there waiting to be discovered. It’s just a matter of finding them. So I’ll keep to reading Amazon’s one and two star reviews.
I walked in apprehensively, carrying my props in a holdall, to be greeted by the sight of a load of blokes with tattoos and boxer’s noses crowded around the bar talking loudly above the sound of Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man. While The Trafalgar Arms could be rough, this place looked like a training camp for psychopaths. In the corner under a window was a small podium with a microphone stand on it and a drum kit and amps. I felt panic began to descend on me. Why on earth had I decided to do this? I must have been crazy. But I couldn’t back out now.
I went up to the bar and introduced myself to the landlord.
‘You need to get changed or anything?’ he said.
‘Is there a room I can go to?’ I asked.
‘You must be joking. You’ll have to use the gents.’
‘Yeah. They’re at the back.’
‘Oh. Okay, then.’
All of the cubicles had puddles of water on the floor, broken locks, missing door hooks. Trying to remove your jeans and put on a pair of shorts while balancing on one leg is not an easy task.
After finishing work one evening, I had bought a copy of The Stagefrom the news kiosk outside Victoria Station. This was an odd thing for someone not particularly interested in theatre to do, but perhaps at the back of my mind I was still remembering my performance in A Doll’s House in a draughty college hall back in Derbyshire. I say performance, but all I had been required to do was walk on to the stage in the opening scene carrying a Christmas tree and say, ‘Fifty ore.’
Maybe also at the back of my mind were the memories of being a bingo caller, when I would be greeted like a celebrity by elderly women, who appeared to be sponsored by the makers of Grecian 2000. When I hopped onto the podium and flicked the switch on the machine that sucked bouncing coloured balls up through a chute into a Perspex box, they would be sitting there with cheap pens posed over their cards and eyeing me with intense expressions on their faces that suggested they believed I possessed sacred powers.
I had arrived in London full of optimism and energy, but I could feel all this starting to drain away from me. I had sent more letters to magazines and newspapers enquiring if they had any vacancies, but, as before, I hadn’t received a reply from any of them. I can recall looking up at the tall IPC building in Stamford Street, which was the home of numerous magazines, and wondering what it would be like to work there.
I’d written to a number of colleges and universities to ask if they might consider me for an English degree course with my current set of qualifications. The reply from each one was the same: no. The sticking point was that I didn’t possess a second A level. All I had was a grade E in religious studies. The category below is an F, meaning a fail. I wasn’t going to give up, though. I drew inspiration not just from Educating Rita, but also from Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, in which a young man in a small village finally achieves his dream of going to university.
I was twenty-five, working in a crummy job, living in a tiny room, and with zero in the bank. I wanted more from life. Like Jude, I also had a dream. It sounds a cliché to say follow your dream, but I think you have to. We only get one shot at life. It’s not a rehearsal.
In the classified adverts at the back of The StageI had stumbled across several for pub talent shows. ‘Anyone welcome,’ they all said. Why don’t I give it a go? I thought. I was desperate to do something to combat the boredom at Expresso each day, and I was more or less prepared to give anything a go.
I plucked up the courage and phoned one of the pubs, The Frog and Nightgown on the Old Kent Road.
‘So what sort of stuff do you do?’ asked the landlord.
I paused and then found myself saying, ‘Well, er, comedy.’
‘You’re a comedian, are you?’
‘Yeah,’ I said, surprising myself at how easily I had taken on my new persona.
He chuckled. ‘Well, you’d better be good, mate, because they all think they’re bloody comedians in this place. Come down next Friday for seven thirty, then.’
My second memoir, Waiting for the Night Bus, was published today. It’s always a big moment when you have book published. It’s a bit like giving birth.
I’m absolutely delighted with how eye-catching the cover is, thanks to the fantastic work of artist Jeremy Sanders and cover designer Mike Keeling-Smith.
If you lived through the 1980s in London, then the book might resonate with some of your experiences. Writing this memoir made me realise just how much London, and Britain, has changed in the last 35 years.
Back in the 1980s there was no internet and mobile phones, few decent places to eat that were affordable, and people bought newspapers to find out what was happening. More or less anyone could afford to buy a property, jobs were much more secure, and there was no obsession with health and safety.
There was no Canary Wharf, 02 Arena, Docklands Light Railway, and hardly any luxury apartment blocks along the river. In many high streets you would find branches of Woolworth, C & A, and British Home Stores. And you could hop on and off Routemaster buses.
But cities are always changing. It’s their nature. I wonder how different London will look in another 35 years.
With the publication of my second memoir, Waiting for the Night Bus, due this month, all the familiar doubts writers have start to surface.
Is it any good? Does the humour work? Who will be interested in it? Should I have taken that story out? Or should I have put that story in?…
Writing is a solitary occupation, just you and your computer screen, or, if you’re old school, an A4 pad. You sit in a room for hours at a time, trying to find the right words and put them in the right order. Often, nothing will come, or what comes is rubbish, and you are tempted to give up. As Ernest Hemingway remarked, writing’s more about perspiration than inspiration.
But you keep going. You don’t know how some days, but you do. You keep going because you’re a writer. You may not be the best writer (a glance at your bookshelf reminds you of that), but you are a writer. It’s what you do. It’s who you are.
You allow yourself to think, “Maybe this will be the book that will make my name.” Tom Wolfe was I his fifties when The Bonfire of theVanities burst on the scene. And wasn’t Frank McCourt in his sixties before he had that huge success with Angela’s Ashes?
And then when you pop into a bookshop or visit Amazon this optimism soon disappears, and you think, “There are just so many books out there!”
I wrote Waiting for the Night Bus, an account of how I became a writer in London in the 1980s, because if I didn’t do it, no one else would. How could they? You are the only person who can tell your story. No one sees life in the same way that you do.
This seems a good reason to write a book. Every writer wants their book to sell and to be talked about. Every writer wants to be the subject of lengthy articles in newspapers, wants to be invited on to Front Row, or have a documentary made about them by Alan Yentob. The chances are, none of this will happen.
But you are still a writer, and each book you write is a gift to the world.
The death recently of TV producer David Pritchard will have saddened those, like me, who love the Keith Floyd and Rick Stein programmes.
Pritchard was the man who discovered both cooks. He not only turned them into household names, he came up with a new style of cookery programme. Floyd and Stein didn’t cook in a TV studio; they cooked outdoors and they undertook gastronomic journeys, where they visited fish markets, small restaurants, bakeries, farms, and even people’s homes. They shared their passion for good produce their curiosity about food, its culinary history, and the people who produced it.
Although Pritchard was the man behind the camera, we occasionally glimpsed him or heard him asking Floyd or Stein a question. In a scene in one of Stein’s programmes in Spain, Pritchard can be heard saying, “You didn’t really like that did, you?” Stein pauses and then says, “I did…I really did…I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t.” I sensed from the expression on Stein’s face that Pritchard was right.
Pritchard’s love of good food and good wine meant that he was a natural to make such programmes. When you watch any of his programmes you sense that everyone is having a great time, and probably an even better time when all the equipment was packed away and they head off to find a restaurant or bar.
His book Shooting the Cookprovides a fascinating behind the scenes look at how they were made and some of the inevitable arguments and disasters that happened. In one case, Floyd stormed off, and it looked like the programme wasn’t going to be made. Of course, it was.
I can watch the Floyd and Stein programmes again and again. They are simply wonderful. You feel that you too are there in France, Italy, Thailand, or wherever, and they are so entertaining and insightful. This is down not just to the presence of Floyd or Stein, but also to Pritchard creativity and feel for where and what he was filming. He was a genius.
In his obituary in The Guardian, Tom Jaine wrote, “My own small memory of it is of having lunch on the seafront at Arcachon, south of Bordeaux, one summer when striding along the promenade came a posse of bulky Englishmen who turned out to be Pritchard and the crew assessing the location for their next series, Rick Stein’s Long Weekends. The encounter was jolly.”
The scene is a planning meeting for Front Row, BBC Radio 4’s flagship arts programme, at the BBC’s expensive offices in Salford. Around the table are sat the production team.
Editor: “So, what do we all think about Jake’s idea? The guy who’s written the novel about the orphan who gets into crime but then finds his way and becomes rich?”
Researcher: “Is he black?”
Jake: “Don’t think so.”
Researcher: “Is he a woman?”
Jake: “Er, he’s a man.”
Researcher: “Oh, yeah…Trans?”
Jake: “Doubt it.”
Editor: “Does he mention the gender pay gap, then?”
Jake: “No, nothing like that.”
Producer: “What about homophobia?”
Jake: “That doesn’t come up.”
Researcher: “What about anti-establishment?”
Jake: “Yeah, you could say that.”
Editor: “Is he anti-Trump, though?”
Jake: “The thing is, the story’s set in Victorian times.”
Editor: “Sorry, you did say. What’s his moral line?”
Jake: “I suppose he takes a traditional Christian view of things.”
Editor: “No good, then. Sorry, Jake. Now, let’s move on…Tell you what, I really like the idea about this arts festival for gay dog owners…”
I’ve been listening to Front Row for several years, and I’ve heard some great interviews. But, increasingly, when I tune in now I find myself feeling that I am being preached at. I get the impression that some items on the show have not be chosen for their artistic merit, but rather because they tick the politically correct boxes drawn up by BBC bureaucrats who are part of the diversity and equality industry.
Recently, for example, it seems that the main focus of many discussions or interviews on the programme is what a book, play, film, or piece of art has to say about women: the Me Too movement, inequality, under representation, gender stereotypes, sexuality.
Front Row is in danger of becoming a parody of itself – just like the programme depicted in the new Alan Partridge TV series.
The report last November that the Vatican Museums are considering putting a cap on visitor numbers because of overcrowding came as no surprise to me.
The 54 galleries of the museums, which stretch for seven miles and contain some of the world’s greatest treasures, attract over six million visitors a year.
I was not surprised, because the overcrowding at the Vatican is part of a larger picture of how mass tourism in Europe is making some cities unbearable in the summer for tourists and locals alike.
Budget airlines such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet have made cheap travel to Europe possible, and millions of us search their web sites for bargain flights. If you are lucky, at certain times of the year you can find return flights to some cities for as little as fifty quid.
And now we have more and more cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers in cities such as Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, and Amsterdam.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that Europe is being turned into a giant theme park.
While local shops, restaurants and hotels rub their hands with glee at the hordes of tourists crowding the streets, locals are not so happy.
In cities across Europe, there are now regularly protests about everything from noise and litter to Airbnb out-of-towners pushing up house prices. The deregulation of taxi laws has seen a spike in taxi services like Uber clogging the streets.
Venetians have long complained that mass tourism is swamping the city, famous for its canals. Traditional businesses such as pharmacies and bakeries have been replaced by tacky souvenir shops and many locals have moved out.
The figures for Venice are startling. The city’s population has dropped to 59,000 from a peak of 164,000, and each year, between 20 – 24 million visitors descend on it.
In Barcelona, fewer locals now do their shopping at its famous food market, the Boqueria in La Rambla, because so many tourists go there. They come to gaze at the incredible array at fresh meats, fish, and cheeses on display, but not to buy. Some stalls now sell takeaway food and put up “Photos No!” signs.
It’s the same all over the centre of Barcelona. The pavements are too crowded. When I was last there, I wanted to see the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s amazing unfinished cathedral. But I couldn’t face having to join such a long queue and then when I eventually got inside having to shuffle along with hundreds of other people.
If you travel to any European tourism hotspot, it doesn’t take long to work out that one of the largest tourist groups is now the Chinese. I remember three years ago sitting on a ferry in Sorrento about to depart to Capri when I was astonished to see nearly a hundred Chinese tourists suddenly clamber aboard – each one of them eating grapes from a bag.
In her book Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism Elizabeth Becker says one of the main reasons the Chinese travel to Europe for is for shopping. “They shop for brand names, luxury clothes, jewellery, luggage, and whisky, anything with prestige.”
So many Chinese tourists come to Venice that tour operators often drop them off at pizza restaurants and cafes owned by Chinese, and they are directed to shops selling “Venetian glass” that was made in China.
When I took a train up the Italian Riviera to visit the Cinque Terre, five historic towns nestling by the sea, it was standing room only. And you could barely move through the streets in each town. In this case, most tourists seemed to be other Europeans or Americans with backpacks.
In the UK we have similar problems with mass tourism. Those of us who live in London know to avoid areas such as South Kensington, Piccadilly, and the South Bank at certain times of the year.
Elsewhere, because locals in Cambridge have complained about not being able to move around easily, the tourism body Visit Cambridge and Beyond has been forced to take the step of encouraging the Chinese to visit in smaller groups and it is also working to tackle coach congestion in the city’s narrow streets.
While down in Cornwall, fans of the BBC TV series Poldarkarrived in such numbers that it threatened what attracted them in the first place: the tranquility. Last year, the Cornish tourist board pleaded with people not to visit its beaches, but to stay away from them!
Well, I’ve decided to avoid visiting any towns and cities in Europe that are tourist destinations. Instead I’ll go to somewhere off the tourist trail, where I don’t have to join a long queue to buy a train ticket and where there are no tourist menus – I just hope lots of other people don’t have the same idea.
According to accountancy firm Moore Stephens, in 2017/18 there were 1,219 restaurant insolvencies, up 24% on the year before and nearly double the rate seen in 2010/11.
Brexit concerns, business rates and over expansion are among the top reasons given for this.
Jeremy Willmont, head of restructuring and insolvency at Moore Stephens, says closures in the restaurant sector are at “epidemic” levels.
“The impact is visible on almost every high street of a major town or city,” he said.
He says an influx of private equity investment into restaurant chains has led to some opening too many sites which fail to break even.
The massive explosion in the number of restaurants in London has always struck me as unsustainable. Many high streets have just too many places.
My corner of south-east London is a good example. If you walk along Lordship Lane in East Dulwich on a weekday afternoon, you will see hardly anyone sitting in its forty or so eateries.
Elsewhere, a new trendy café is about to open in Forest Hill, an area that already has enough such places. If you go to Peckham, once a backwater when it came to decent food, it seems there’s a sourdough pizza restaurant around every corner. And over the last year in Crystal Palace, where you are spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants and pubs, several more places have opened, all no doubt thinking they can cash in on the craze for eating out.
This situation can be seen in many parts of London.
The fact is that London has too many restaurants, and it has too many restaurants that are unable to offer good service and good food and at a reasonable price. Fourteen quid for fish and chips in a gastro pub is way too high.
The problem is, the huge increase in restaurants in the capital has outstripped the number of suitably qualified or experienced staff to work in them. Many restaurants are so desperate for someone to work in the kitchen or front of house that they will take virtually anyone.
What’s more, most restaurants in London rely on staff from overseas. If people start heading back to Poland, Bulgaria, Spain, or wherever, then many restaurants will have to close their doors.
So will the restaurant bubble burst? Quite possibly. And that might be a good thing, because then perhaps will see restaurants providing higher quality food and service, and better value for money.
Tom Kerridge has been grabbing the headlines this week at the opening of his first restaurant in London. The reason is his menu includes fish and chips priced at £32.50.
I won’t be heading to Kerridge’s Bar and Grill at the Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall to sample them. To charge £32.50 for a piece of brill and a few fried potatoes is outrageous, even if they do come with pease pudding, tartare sauce and something called a matson spicy sauce.
Kerridge, whose TV persona is that of the chatty bloke next door, clearly believes customers will stump up that sort of money. And he may well be right. Trying to find perfect fish and chips in London is like trying to find the proverbial holy grail. A couple of weeks ago, when I went for a takeaway to a fish and chip restaurant in south-east London that has garnered many outstanding reviews, I ended up depositing most of my meal in the bin.
I have to say that I’ve always come away underwhelmed when I’ve eaten at restaurants owned by celebrity chefs. I’ve only been to three – Jamie’s Italian, a Marco Pierre White place near Harrod’s, and Rick Stein at Barnes – , but I’ve seen enough to realise that they are no better or worse than countless other restaurants.
Something tells me that if I did indeed go to Kerridge’s Bar and Grill, expecting sensational fish and chips, I’d come away at the end of the meal very disappointed, which is exactly how I felt upon leaving Rick Stein at Barnes.
Of course, the exorbitant price Kerridge is charging for fish and chips has got him acres of space in the media. Everyone now knows Kerridge has a spot in central London.
I’d like to think the cost of fish and chips was a publicity stunt, and the price will drop by half once the media chatter has died away. But I very much doubt it.
I walked into a branch of Waterstone’s the other day and immediately gravitated to the food and drink section. And not for the first time, I was astonished by the number of recipe books on the shelves.
When I came out of the shop, I found myself musing how many copies these often lavishly and expensively produced books sell.
Okay, Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients was the best selling book in the UK last year, and people like Mary Berry and Rick Stein shift copies because they have the ability to make a connection with viewers of their TV programmes. And, of course, if you are a regular face on TV – no matter how bad you are on the screen, like Nadia Hussein or the Hairy Bikers – you will sell books.
But what about all these other chefs? How many copies of their books are actually sold?
And have you noticed how big some of these books are? They take up a lot of space on a shelf. Last year, The True Food of Spain by Monika Linton, the founder of Brindisa came out. It’s a thumping 544 pages!
It seems that every chef who makes an appearance on Saturday Kitchen has just published a recipe book. The scenario has almost become a parody. After asking what the chef will be cooking, Matt Tebbutt will then say as if surprised, “So you’ve got a book out.”
“Yes,” says the chef. “I’ve loved writing it.”
“So what’s it about?”
“Well, Matt, I want to show how cooking delicious meals at home can be really quick/I want to provide busy people with some simple ideas for healthy meals/I want to show that vegetables don’t have to be boring…”
They say this in the manner of someone who has some secret to share when what they are doing is the same as hundreds of other recipe book writers have already done.
“No!” I yell at the TV. “We don’t want another cookery book like this. There are hundreds of them out there. Please! Go back to the kitchen in your restaurant and stay there.”
Of course, only the publishers know how many recipe books get sold – and they only release figures when they want to boast. They never tell you which recipe book has been a turkey.
But I would hazard a guess that many of these books are probably bought as gifts for birthdays or Christmas, and that they never actually get used.
At least that’s how it is with me. I much prefer to watch a video of a chef cooking a dish on You Tube. It’s a far better way to follow a recipe – and it doesn’t take up space on a shelf
When I go on holiday I nearly always come away full of admiration for some restaurant, bar, or chef.
On my recent trip to Lisbon I stumbled across a tiny café, not much bigger than a living room, in a back street near the Amoreiras shopping centre in the north-west of the city, just off the E24 tram route. It had nine seats inside and sixteen outside.
Adorning the walls of the café were photos and paintings of the nearby Águas Livres Aqueduct, built in the eighteenth century to provide Lisbon with fresh drinking water.
The café was called Elova. What impressed me was not the food, as all it served was bread rolls (bought from the bakery opposite), pastries coffee, wine and beer, but the owner. His name was Rui, and, with his lived in face and pony tail, he looked as if he might have been a drummer in some rock band years ago.
The reason Rui made such an impression on me was that he ran the café single-handed, at least until his wife came to take over in the afternoon. He made the rolls (and the cheese and ham were very good), served the customers, washed up, cleared tables, squeezed oranges by hand, took the payments, anything that needed doing, in fact. And he did all this with a smile.
When I asked Rui about the story behind his café, he told me he had opened it in 2000. Before that, he had only worked in one restaurant. The café’s name, he explained, was made up of the names of his two children.
I didn’t get the chance to ask him if he had ever been in a rock band, but the rock music that was always playing in the background suggested that I might have been right.
Elova isn’t the kind of place that you’ll find tourists in. It’s strictly for the locals, who pop in throughout the day for a coffee, or a beer or glass of wine, no doubt to catch up on local gossip.
It’s inspiring to meet people like Rui, who have an idea, work hard to achieve it, and build a successful business. Rui’s café is the kind of place I could imagine myself running one day, offering perhaps a few simple but fresh tapas dishes. Well, we can all dream, can’t we?