Friday, November 27, 2009

Could somebody please explain why...?

There is something particularly nice about a week day off – I definitely see it as one of the plus points of working in retail. The illicit joys of day time TV aside it’s particularly satisfying to enjoy a not to early breakfast whilst watching the rest of the world go off to work and shopping is far nicer without the weekend crowds. On a weekday whichever side of the counter you’re on you’re far more likely to be treated as a person rather than a necessary evil. (I’m not a fan of the policy that demands purchase related conversation with every customer. It’s hard on the assistant to keep up the required level of enthusiasm and drains the joy out of genuinely spontaneous discussion.)

I really rather wanted the ‘Postcards from Penguin’ box which had resolutely failed to be available for purchase either on the internet, in my home town, or even the quite-cosmopolitan-in-comparison Nottingham, but yesterday they finally hit my local Waterstone’s. Working on the theory that even at full price 15p a postcard is terrific value and that they’ll make great birthday cards I threw caution and loose change to the winds and got a set. Now I’ve had a look the idea of letting any of them go seems ridiculous; so not so economic but still a very nice thing to have.

One postcard particularly grabbed my attention and that’s because I have a bit of a bee about the book in question. It’s Ludwig Bemelmans ‘Hotel Splendide’. I first heard of Bemelmans in a ‘Slightly Foxed’ article although I was already familiar with the title ‘Hotel Splendide’ because it’s on a penguin tea towel (and a mug and a pencil). I should probably add that I’m a fan of the Penguin merchandising, I have tea towels, lots of mugs, a beloved bag, and now of course postcards. I would also have deckchairs if they funds permitted, so this isn’t me being some sort of design snob. What I would like to know is why the book itself is out of print? It’s a good book – Ebury have printed a slightly abridged version under the title of ‘Hotel Bemelmans’ which I have, but it was an effort to find. It seems somehow wrong that I can send a postcard of a book which I consider a classic, but I can’t buy the book.

“But copies are cheap and plentiful on amazon” I hear you cry, “well yes they are” continues the conversation in my head, but... when you read a recommendation for a book, and money is perhaps short, and it’s not like a blog where it’s always possible to question the reviewer more closely, well sometimes you just want to pick the book up, consider it, flick through it and then decide to buy, or not. Or at least that’s how it is with me. I fully intend to get a copy of the Penguin version one day and sit down to compare both books to see what’s omitted by Ebury, but it’s not a project that feels pressing.

Further investigation of the postcards reveals an interesting mix of books and styles. Plenty classic stripy Penguins, some which I imagine we’re meant to laugh at, and some I want to investigate further. Putting aside the (not insignificant) consideration that this box set is more about a design legacy than literature I’m still wondering why some books last and others disappear, seemingly regardless of quality. Back to Bemelmans – this is the man who wrote the ‘Madeline’ book and also the man packed off to New York from his uncle’s hotel in the Tyrol at the age of 16 after he shot a waiter. His life in hotels as described here would be fascinating enough but he was also a gifted painter as well as writer and bon vivant. Anthony Bourdain (of ‘Kitchen Confidential’ and other bad boy cooking memoires) wrote the introduction, he too clearly loves the book. The thing about ‘Hotel Bemelmans’ for me was that the world of petty (and grand) scams and rigid hierarchy is still familier to anyone who’s worked in catering. The prohibition era grand hotels have gone, excess today is a little different, and fortunately child labour laws and human rights have improved working conditions, so just from a historical point of view this is worth a read....

Enough, I think it’s a terrific book which should be better known but unaccountably the world at large doesn’t bend to my every whim, however I still don’t see why it should be possible to buy ‘Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps’ and not ‘Hotel Splendide’ unless it’s because one’s a joke and the other isn’t. Bookselling is truly a strange game.

Finally I want to spare a thought for Borders (UK) staff today who will be facing a grim Christmas after yesterday’s announcement that the company has gone into administration.


  1. Lucky you - both having the weekday day off (much deserved I'm sure, working in retail must be pretty hard at this time of year!), and getting hold of The postcards! I too have been frustrated by the inability to get them online; I didn't spot them in Waterstones yesterday but I wasn't actually looking!

  2. I got mine quite easily from The Book Despository.

  3. Out of stock now Thomas! My fault for delaying buying...

  4. The V&A shop stocks them!! You can buy them online there!

    There is something wonderfully delicious about days off during the week...whenever I have one, which is usually because I'm just ill enough to justify not being at work, but well enough to still leave the house, I feel like a little girl again, exhilarated by my naughtiness in daring to bunk off school! You see the world in a whole new light on a weekday...I love it. Shame I'm a 9-5 office worker and rarely get a weekday off.