Bye, bye HMV - now bring back the books

The HMV closures are to be expected - it's Waterstones we should be mourning over.

The space which used to be my local Borders has turned into an Urban Outfitters. Just down the road there is a Waterstones, and just up the road an HMV.

Recent news that the company which owns these two stores is planning on closing down 60 premises around the country is mildly saddening (especially if they all turn into the horror that is Urban Outfitters), but not exactly ground-breaking news.

In fact, the forty HMV stores which are set to close as part of a cost-cutting measure barely sadden me at all, and I consider myself something of a music lover. The last time I went into a music shop (gosh, it sounds terribly quaint, doesn't it?) was probably when I bought myself B*Witched's single on cassette in 1996.

I don't own a single CD and here's why: they're inconvenient, expensive, lifeless and ugly. If I'm going for a digital format Spotify does the job brilliantly. A few clicks of a keyboard and I've got an endless supply of songs at my disposal. If I want the warm fuzzy feeling of a record turning I play my vinyl.

CDs fall somewhere in between, with no redeemable feature whatsoever. The death of Spotify would make me shudder - the imminent death of HMV makes me roll my eyes thinking "it's still around?!".

If there was ever an opposite reaction though, it would be at the thought of 20 Waterstones stores shutting down - and not just because I'm scared of pretentious clothes shops popping up in their place.

As irritatingly middle-class student-y as it may sound to fawn over the "soul" of real books (and I promise I don't say this over a Starbuck's bagel), I admit, slightly embarrassed, that when it comes to literature I am a true paper-and-pen-loving Luddite.

With the contempt that the fashion-savvy save for Topshop, or food connoisseurs feel for Jamie Oliver, I loathed high-street bookshops more than words can describe, taking myself on journeys to find dusty copies of Dostoevsky in a basement in Lewes every Sunday.

But however tragic the demise of the small bookshops and libraries may be, the reality is that they don't draw people to literature - Borders did. Waterstones, hanging by the thread of its teeth, still might.

A book on a folding screen does not in any way provide a more convenient, cheap, exciting or aesthetically pleasing experience and I am at a loss to understand people's attraction to e-readers.

Reading is just about all I have left in my life which hasn't been invaded by cold, hard robots and it helps me sleep well to know that there's nothing anyone can do to take away the pleasure I get from holding a real book.

Nothing except closing down all the bookshops.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge