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The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Sadly, after much imploring, petitioning and dissent among university and townsfolk alike, today sees the closure of Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth.

The shop has been the most extraordinary hub, with writers launching numerous books here, academics and townsfolk alike mingling and sharing ideas, students supported and helped by an extremely dedicated staff and numerous authors coming to give talks about their work. It has been a place of meetings and information exchange, and an increasingly rare thing: an informal face-to-face meeting place where ideas can form and grow in discussion, where friendships and projects have begun. It has seen readings, art, music – and has been one of the major hubs of culture in the town for a fiercely loyal and surprisingly large group.

When I first heard that it was threatened with closure, I started a petition on 38 Degrees imploring the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell UK to think again. It got over a thousand signatures in one weekend. This bookshop was not only loved. It was needed.

As a casualty of the changing nature of information, the closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth can be regarded in one light as a natural, even inevitable development. But it also shows a lack of understanding and imagination about how to really make it work. Its closure also reflects a wider matter: the disregard of large corporate entities for local communities. Bizarrely, the University has chosen to ignore the value it added to its own reputation and the service it provides its students in its headlong rush to milk money from the site in a more lucrative way. That will be to the University’s lasting shame.

So what really drove the closure of the bookshop?

The reality is that the idea of university died a death in Britain a generation ago. At least, the sort of institution I took my degree at in the early 1990s died a death. Even then, the idea of university was in the process of change, but there was still, in the slightly rarefied atmosphere of the philosophy department at York University where I studied, a sense that a subject had a value beyond its retail price conceived as a commodity. Back then, universities were, in fact, concerned with a wider issue – primarily, western culture, and also, with cultures more generally.

But the idea of the university as the custodian of culture is defunct. And, if you are of the mind that art and culture are byproducts of a successful economy, then you will take the accountant’s view that Blackwell’s University Bookshop’s passing is the natural function of economic Darwinism.

If, however, you place a value on culture beyond that of numbers in a bank account, then the demise of Blackwell’s is a belated weathercock for the way the wind has been blowing for the last thirty years.

Why, then, does this closure matter so much to me? Besides the personal support and purpose I found in the shop, it also strikes me that the closure of a bookshop in a town with high levels of illiteracy is the wrong way to go. Now, only one retail bookshop is left in a city of 200,000 souls, and that is a generalist shop on Commercial Road that piles them high and sells the bestsellers cheap. That is one reason.

But I am also struck by an irony. Thanks to the work of John Pounds, a figure from the 1830s now largely forgotten, the right to a free education in Britain was born in Portsmouth. Pounds believed that education is for everyone, including the poorest – and especially those who could not pay for it. That was a noble cause which eventually spread to the offering of education grants for all who made the grade, so they too could enjoy an elite education no matter what their personal finances. But, the decision to remove degree level grants has enslaved a whole generation with massive debt; the result is that the inevitable logic of economics has led to education being at the vanguard of cultural decline. From a social good, education and culture have been demoted to, simply, goods.

It used to be the case that education and culture were regarded as something more broadly useful to society than being retailed as employability skills, important though they are. It was held that the very nature of what it is to be human could be broadened and made richer through an education that transmitted the values inherent to an enlightened culture, those of understanding others, of creative endeavour, of articulate questioning and challenging of orthodoxy. That used to be the role of the university. There was also a general belief that having people educated in this broader sense spread out as a good to society generally. This belief made the criteria for political and social decisions include aspects of life other than those dictated by basic economics. This view of education was the symptom of a holistic view of society and culture.

Now, however, pure right wing economics are our master.

Some will argue that art and culture are byproducts of civilization – that our ancient forebears in the spare time between hunter-gathering needed something to do with their lives and so created art to while away their hours. Those people imagine that our ancestors, like us, came back from a hard day’s hunting in the savannah, and in the absence of a flatscreen television amused themselves by gawping at the Lascaux cave paintings – square-eyeing away the winter evenings for 20,000 years until their successors could eventually come up with Netflix.

This reductionist view of culture sees art and artistic endeavour as non-essential. It is the epiphenomenon of commerce. Artists and writers and poets and creators exist because they are supported by the real activity of life, which is all hard facts, and especially hard coin.

It is not a view I share. To me, it has become obvious that looking at the general degradation of culture over the last thirty years being spearheaded by universities such as the one in Portsmouth, we are slowly going backward. We are devolving.

There’s no doubt that hunting and gathering enabled early humans to work in co-operative hunting groups; that it led to a particular type of social cohesion in the form of tribes; that it led to the necessity of building an understanding of the world around them – nor that all these are the foundations of modern life. No doubt, all these social behaviours are products of the activity that provided ancient humans with food and fire and safety – activities that would later be labelled economic.

But the ability to progress did not come from the act of hunting alone. Before the act of hunting in groups, someone had the idea that humans could work together, could find a way to trap an animal, could find food by hunting in packs. Every advance in human life is the result of an act of imagination, every advance comes from the visualisation and the discussion of ideas and possibilities. Yes, it is true that groups of creatures other than humans hunt in unison and do not paint cave walls or discuss Sartre over coffee, but none of those animals has the imagination to shape a flint or attach it to a spear, nor possess all the fine gradations and nuances in thinking and language that humans have, that have led to our rise over millennia. Ideas were born and passed from one generation to the next by culture and the spaces in which culture is transmitted, be they caves, temples – or bookshops.

That is why the sacred spaces of ancient cultures are covered in paintings, spells and words. That is why ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians sculpted creatures that were impossible in the real world, but which stepped straight from the imagination. It was not simple superstition expressed in the statues of ancient gods, it was not that artists and thinkers created fancies while the real business of the world continued on despite them. Statues of ancient Gods and the rituals that surrounded them were central to the running of society, to civilization’s understanding of the world that was disseminated through temple rituals. Culture and the transmission of culture is humanity at its greatest. It has precedence over narrow economics.

And so we come to Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth, and its closure.

There are arguments that the days of the book are long past. That with the coming of digitization and with the ability of students to access material online, there is little need to produce books. Indeed, books are a terrible waste of resources, and the world is a greener place without all that woodpulp being converted. Think of the environment, we are enjoined. Think of the planet.

But this is to miss the point of the rituals that occurred in this bookshop. Book launches, author talks, informal seminars, discussions, sharing, recommendations are more than stock-in-trade. Bookshops are not only purveyors of books, at least the good ones like Blackwell’s in Portsmouth, aren’t. That good will could have been monetised, but the University wanted the site of the bookshop for another project.

A British university didn’t see the value in keeping its only functioning bookshop open. Let that thought sink in a while. Because it really is as simple as that.

Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s was a space where ideas could be disseminated, beyond the economics-driven imperative of university finances. It drew people to it that were not connected to the university, and they met with students and lecturers and ideas were shared. Culture happened – spontaneously. Blackwell’s, Portsmouth, was, in fact, a means of the transmission of culture just as the sacred spaces once were to our forebears. It was in its modest, modern way, a temple to civilization.

Blackwell’s wasn’t only about commerce. It was about humanity in a wider sense. It was about standing up to the cost-benefit analysis view of life and saying “what we do, what we think, is vital because it is human, despite you” in the face of the machinery of bean-counting that pays lip service to such ideas, but sacrifices culture and ideas to its own calculating god, Mammon.

My call, now, is that in its passing, we continue the rites enacted at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and work to preserve culture. That we do so, despite the decisions of businesses like Blackwell UK, and the value-free institution that is the University of Portsmouth.

Paul McKenna and Me 1: Getting Into A Pickle

I first encountered Paul McKenna as so many others did, doing hypnosis shows on the tv in the 1990s. He was an interesting phenomenon. To a young man, it all seemed pretty miraculous, the way he got people to do things without apparently knowing they were doing it. My testosterone-driven brain swam with the possibilities that this amazing “casting of spells” seemed to offer. Not all of them were wholesome. Some of them involved women and not many clothes. I was, after all, a young man, and this had fired my imagination!

But then, Paul disappeared from my consciousness. I grew up. I went on to do things. I developed a really huge view of life – a massive embracing of all its possibilities. I was wild with excitement for life.

In my early 20s I became a scriptwriter for Thames TV’s The Bill. Then I went on to university. Life bumped along nicely. I paid for my university life from the scripts I wrote for tv, and I had a grand time.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Something, somehow, got in the way. And the seeds of disaster were planted right there, at York University.

Some of it had to do with the academic approach to life. My degree was English Literature and Philosophy. I cannot now think of two subjects more likely to handicap me as a writer. Why? Because I was an instinctive writer, and whilst I enjoyed the cut and thrust of philosophy and the way that it encouraged one to order one’s thoughts, with its obsessive system building, it was really inflexible.

On the other side, the English Literature was like a long extended joke.

One of the jokes was in the complete futility of the enterprise. It was fashionable among many of the geekerati that ruled the English Department to “deconstruct” (ugly word) everything in print.

It was such a dry and pointless approach. I remember in my first week at the uni, a tutor introducing us to Othello (not personally). Discussing the speech that Othello makes after killing Desdemona, that begins: ” Oh, oh, oh… Othello…” our lecturer asked us in all earnestness why Othello prefixed his utterance with the words “Oh, oh, oh…”

I had no idea what was coming, and so I engaged with the text instinctively – and at face value:

“Because of the strength of the feeling…?” I ventured. “He is mourning and in shock.”

That seemed a pretty good answer to the “Why” question.

“Yes, but why does he say oh, oh oh?” Came the question again.

Others in the tutorial struggled to find a reason. After ten minutes of watching us floundering around, our lecturer said:

“Isn’t it because Othello begins with the letter O?”

At the time, I didn’t understand why I felt a massive wave of anger rise up through my body. A genuine sense of outrage. No, that wasn’t the answer to a “why” question. It was a description of alliteration.

I was later to discover that there would be three years of this bullshit for me to endure. Had I realised it then, I would probably have left there and then!

I look back on it now and see the English Department at York as a strange little island where survivors of the shipwreck of meaning had floated ashore clinging to the splinters of their own obsessions. In the same week that I was introduced to the nonsense of deconstructionism and Jacques Derrida* I also encountered another tutor with her own particular brand of lunacy.

This hairy woman in her 20s was meant to be teaching “approaches to mediaeval literature” in one seminar group. I do say “meant to be” advisedly. What she actually did was fire hostility and anger at every word that I, or any other male in the room said. Real, physical hostility to shut the men up, while she explained in slightly psychotic tones that the stories in Malory were all about the castration of men, and that the women were the true central characters throughout. She explained that although Malory had written the Morte D’Arthur as a man, the true magic in the story – that of women – shone through. No matter how much Malory acted as a male propagandist to cover or hide the importance of women, that single truth couldn’t be denied.

I didn’t argue with this. I found it quite an interesting way to interpret a text. But that wasn’t really the point. The point was that every time a man opened his mouth to speak, a look of rage crossed her face and she literally shouted him down. Only women were allowed to speak and be listened to in her group.

It was most peculiar, and just as with the Shakespearean deconstructionist, I felt it was an immense abuse of power – and responsibility.

The hairy tutor went on to talk about a knight in one story as a piece of meat that some magical maidens had bewitched to breed with and then slaughter. I thought this was quite amusing, and said in an offhand way. “Well, that’s not so bad: being used to breed…”

She fixed me with a pointed smile and said: “Oh, so you are on our side, then?”

Up to that point, I hadn’t even been aware that there were sides. This woman seemed to be going out of her way to install misogyny in us men. It could so easily have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Each of the geekerati in the English Department was obsessed with some such monomania or other. It might have been socialism, or structuralism, or Derrida, or existentialism, or homosexuality, or the role of women – or the colour of sheep when it rains – whatever. But this obsessiveness was most definitely unhealthy. When I walked down the corridor at Langwith College where the English Department was based, I was sure that I could hear, from behind each tutor’s door, the low rumble and scraping ring of an axe being ground.

It was ridiculous. And to think – I had gone to that University to discover more about literature… To be enlightened… I didn’t stand a hope.

Between the hard inflexibility of philosophy and the whirling nonsense of English Literature, I had to steer my erratic course. These two thought processes in which I immersed myself were ultimately deeply destructive. They undermined everything that I wrote. After three years of this trash, when I put pen to paper, I found myself writing diary entries about the nature of my own identity. I actually didn’t know who I was any more.

As a reaction to this way of being, I drank a lot, and slept around a lot. I think I was trying to find something to hold on to in the night. But there’s no getting round it, that way of being was ultimately destructive, too. My choice in partners was a disaster, and when one of them turned on me and my work, criticising the episodes of The Bill I had written, from a position of no understanding of what was involved, my education was complete.

I collapsed in on myself.

I lost any desire to write. When I did put pen to paper, what I wrote was a sad parody of the joyful, exuberant writing I had been producing only a few years before. I found myself shrinking, caged by rigid thoughts, and at the same time, too neurotic to write anything in case I used the “wrong” word and was misunderstood. It was as if the education system had deliberately tried to dismantle my creative ability. Or is that me being slightly paranoid? Quite possibly. Because at the time I was a lot more than slightly paranoid, that’s for sure.

Then my mother had a stroke after emergency heart surgery, and by the late ’90s I was back at home with my folks. Things in my life had gone terribly wrong.

Life lost its lustre. I had been the youngest scriptwriter on the tv show when I had started writing for tv, and five years later, I was struggling to write a sentence.

I had no sense of direction. I felt hopeless. A six month contract with The Bill to turn out four episodes turned into a four year stretch. I had to take bar work to subsidise what should have been a lucrative line of work. I was struggling.

On top of this, my mum was deeply depressed. The stroke that she had suffered gave her massive depressed mood swings. Life at home was bad for my soul. Things were bleak.

At that time, I watched a programme on the box and saw Paul McKenna doing his thing. Changing people’s lives. I thought then of writing to him and asking if he could help my mum – to lift her out of depression and help her eyesight that had been affected by the stroke. I don’t know why, but there was a conviction in me that we would meet.

The thought came and went. I did nothing to act on it.

The years rolled by and I stabilised. This mainly happened by my getting out of writing altogether. It was a hangdog time. Waking up in the morning and looking at myself in the mirror, and seeing a failure there. It was pretty grim. I trusted no-one, I was bitter and I was angry.

I had also discovered a new skill that I really wasn’t pleased that I had: I was superb at feeling sorry for myself.

I did find that I could do other things really well. I ran a computer repair company, I taught English as a foreign language in Egypt, and I discovered that I had a knack for buying and selling old books. That final interest turned itself into a job.

So I became a bookdealer. I may not have been able to write them any more, but I was determined to be near to books somehow. There was a certain magic in old tomes. It was a kind of solace, and a little torture, every day, going into the office to see how many thousands and millions of people before me had made a living from the written word. Well, so could I. But only by proxy.

Then, one day, I got scared. I was getting close to 40, and I walked into the book fair where I was about to sell my latest acquisitions. There, I saw a lot of other dealers. Miserable old bastards with beards and sandals, smelling of pipe tobacco and wearing big woolly jumpers, and suddenly a loud voice shouted an alarm in my head:

This will be you in 25 years’ time. You will have missed your life. Where the hell did all your optimism go?!?!

It was a complete shock to me to realise that the energetic, optimistic young man I had once been had allowed himself to be sidelined in this way – to have gone down a route so far removed from what he wanted to be.

My partner at the time had been working with young people, and told me all about a new system for bringing about change in people. Coming from my overly analytical highly sceptical background, I had dismissed what she was telling me out of hand. Yet she told me that she saw the most amazing turn-arounds in people. She mentioned three letters from time to time, but in my angry state, I was determined to argue that people could be stuck forever. And so I did. And to be frank, I probably affected her view of the change work she saw going on around her. That was unfair of me.

Meanwhile, I felt powerless. Could I change my life maybe my ramping up my sales? How could I do that? One day I caught Derren Brown on the tv persuading people to do things that they would never normally do. “Well,” I thought, “maybe hypnosis would make me a better salesman…” How desperate was that?

There was no clarity in my thinking and no joined-upness. While still having these thoughts, I also knew that my drive in the bookdealing business had completely gone. For six months, my secretary had been running the business for me. And one winter’s morning, on the second of January, I walked into my office, looked at the stock of mouldering old books and made a snap decision. I rang the auction house and told them to clear me out. It was a weight off my shoulders.

But what was I to do next?

I considered again Derren Brown. Maybe that ability to influence others, maybe that was what I needed… Where could I learn this stuff?

I looked up Derren Brown and hypnosis on the web. It was then that I started to take notice of the three letters that my partner had been mentioning to me for months. They came up on the screen time and time again.


What was NLP?

It seemed to be the thing that would give me more control over other people, give me more control in the world. My approach to the subject, it’s true, came from something that was unethical, but at the time, I was desperate. I needed a better life. One that wasn’t filled with the grind of miserable old bastards in bookshops. One where I was making money.

They say that when you get to a crisis in your life you start to go back down the line of your life, in order to find the branch that went wrong. Whenever I looked up NLP or hypnosis on the web, then Paul McKenna’s name appeared. And I was reminded of my earlier conviction that I would one day meet Paul. Since he was writing books about this stuff, it was time for me to take notice.

At around this time, my girlfriend went away on holiday. Not needing to work while I lived off the proceeds of the auction house’s sale of my stock, I found myself completely free for the first time in years. I was alone in the house, and I bought Paul McKenna’s Change Your Life In Seven Days. It was a fascinating time. I gave a week over to doing nothing other than Change Your Life. Every day, I woke up, put on the stereo, slept, played the CD, did the exercises, ate, slept, listened again to the CD, and so on – doing the chapters over and over again every day.

It was really intensive. I did nothing else than the exercises that were in the book. I found it deeply relaxing. And after a few days, I found that I was a happier individual. When my girlfriend came back from holiday, I was a different person. My outlook had changed. I was happier, more easygoing, and more determined than ever to get on with the approach to life offered by Paul McKenna.

I wondered – really wondered – what would happen if I learned from the horse’s mouth this magic that he taught? What would he be like?

So I rang up and booked on a course with him.

But more of that another time…


*Interestingly, I recently explained Derrida in unclouded terms to my partner Jackie, and she said to me: “But that is just evil”. What I like about this response is that it’s a gut reaction. Jackie isn’t even religious, but she recognises a force that is ultimately life-destroying when she sees one.