Is Waterstones eating itself?

What good is an e-reader, without anything good to e-read?

It was depressing enough watching HMV cannibalise itself: devoting a mushrooming allotment of floor space to “devices” and “accessories”, without having to watch the nation’s premier bookseller do the same. Perusing the shelves in Waterstones (look, mum, no apostrophe!) this afternoon, I observed that one of the display tables had been pilfered from an Apple retail store, while another – pilfered, by the looks of it, from the now defunct Habitat – consisted of a collection of leather and plastic dust jackets, aimed at keeping safe the retailer’s bright new hope: the Amazon Kindle.

Being interested in books and harbouring a futile concern for their well-being, I knew this was coming. I was, am and will remain ambivalent about e-readers and what they mean for literature. (A question which is almost always subservient to the question of what they mean for “the industry”.) I await developments with great interest: by no means a technophobe, but certainly a bibliophile. What I found difficult to understand about the new arrangement was the weak defence made on behalf of books. Opposite the Kindle playground stood a bookshelf labelled “Beautiful Books”, presumably an argument about the desirability of paper-and-ink and the surrounding culture. In other words: the Luddite’s retort. The shelf held a series of ugly readers-digest-wouldn’t-even-go-there stocking-filler anthologies, making no strong claims for either beauty or books. And this to distract the endlessly distracted? Try again.

These books, great though they may be (I do not know, I suppose it depends how much you like crosswords), do not make an adequate riposte to the collection of proddable black mirrors jittering and flashing on the new display. A shelf stacked with books is both functional and aesthetic, furniture and form. It is an endless repository of colour, exploration and experience. The texts look fine on electronic devices, but as for the objects themselves? Most already look like they belong in a box labelled “80s” – along with a brick-sized mobile phone and a languid Betamax.

What would a world in which there were endless methods of consuming “content”, but hardly any “content” to consume, look like? In two words: Hong Kong. Nowhere on earth have I seen so many shop-floors dedicated to entertainment technology, with so few offering anything to play. Arguably, the piracy problem in China is not a question of morals, it is a question of taste, and the result of cynical business models. It is equally hard to find Bach’s cello suites as it is Sasha Grey’s Homo Erectus. Both are best discovered in pop-up stalls and underground markets around Sham Shui Po or Causeway Bay. Culture in China – like pornography – is an underground affair.

We are all responsible for the downward trend. In being so eager to sup the latest nectar from the Apple tree, we have failed to see that devices which play “your favourite tunes” or “the latest Hollywood blockbuster” are predicated on a vibrant, credible and worthwhile culture to begin with. If creativity is not nurtured, valued and appreciated where it matters most, we will all have been accessories to the fact. And all those devices flooding the loft will be evidence of our misplaced passions.

Five minutes’ walk from the Waterstones in question lies the Cheapside Daunt Books: a store whose anti-“stack ‘em high” policy has worked wonders, turning over a profit of £912,966 last year. It might be hard for Londoners to imagine a world in which Foyles or Daunt Books do not exist, but spare a thought for the rest of the country’s cities and towns, where it is not uncommon to find Waterstones is the only source of serious books left (library budgets, lest we forget, are being evaluated quicker than you can say tighten your belt). Failure here, is not desirable. The company’s flagship store on Piccadilly Circus has recently been taken over by the team from Nottingham town centre, about whom Daunt has said: “You walk into that store and you say ‘My Lord’ this is a very good example of a shop that has been given autonomy and knows how to get on with it.”

“Amazon are a fact of life,” he continues. “I use Amazon. But we do something else.”

Clearly that something else needs fine-tuning in this particular branch, but with Daunt at the helm – his enthusiasm and love of books, is highly infectious – my hope is that we can extend the franchise, not diminish it. Below are a handful of titles published this year, selected by Nico Taylor, book designer at HarperCollins.

Kimberly's Capital Punishment by Richard Milward. Faber, 2012. Design: Faber.

"Perfectly simple and bold design that does a great job of subtly suggesting the raw and surreal contents within."

The Book Of Life by Stuart Nadler. Picador, 2012. Design: David Pearson.

"David Pearson, of Penguin Great Ideas fame, produces another striking and elegant typographic cover."

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. Granta, 2012. Design: Peter Mendelsund.

"Such an aesthetically pleasing cover with its vibrant colour palette and cut out paper design which can't help but beg you to pick it up, and in an age when some are starting to see book covers as just flat pixels we see on screens, this can only be a good thing."

The Creator by Guorun Eva Minervudottir. Granta, 2012. Design: Fuel.

"Under the art direction of Michael Salu, Granta have been consistently producing fantastically unique and striking covers for the past year or so and this is no exception with its slightly sinister marriage between title and image."

E-readers jittering and flashing at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Why divided Brussels is the perfect hideout for jihadists

Counterterrorism requires on-the-ground policing in tandem with centralised control. Belgium’s fragmented political set-up is not conducive.

In Belgium, Santa Claus comes to town early. Children get their presents on 6 December, so that, on Christmas Eve, parents and grandparents can devote themselves single-mindedly to eating and drinking.

Santa Claus, or St Nicholas, arrives, logically enough, on the feast day of St Nicholas. He is dressed in the cope and mitre of a bishop rather than the fur-trimmed flannel of his anglophone counterpart and has come, not from the North Pole, but from Spain (a throwback to the Spanish Netherlands).

This year, however, there is no telling if St Nicholas will be allowed in or instead kept in a holding bay at Antwerp docks. And, if he does get through, will anyone be around to greet him? Last Saturday, Brussels was put into a state of suspended animation. In the days after the Paris atrocities, connections had been established between the perpetrators and the Brussels district of Molenbeek, but a series of raids had failed to locate Salah Abdeslam, who, it was believed, had escaped from Paris and headed to Brussels.

In response to a warning of a “very serious and imminent” threat, the city was subjected to what Twitter calls #LockdownBrussels. Soldiers patrolled the streets. Armoured vehicles parked outside train stations and central squares. Markets, sports fixtures and concerts were cancelled. The Metro was stopped and bars were instructed to close early.

For the most part, residents greeted the developments with their customary phlegmatic good humour, comforting themselves that the weather was so bad it was good to stay indoors. But when the government announced that public transport, schools and kindergartens would not open on Monday, grumbling intensified. How long could this departure from normality be sustained? On Monday, having chaired the national security council, the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, announced that the security threat level would be maintained for another week but public transport, schools and other public buildings would be reopened progressively from Wednesday, once defences were in place.

Before the lockdown, I made myself unpopular with the locals by writing that Belgium’s political set-up is not conducive to counterterrorism, which requires good on-the-ground policing joined to centralised, specialist expertise. Beset with linguistic and territorial divisions between the Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and the French-speaking south (Wallonia) – a roughly 60-40 split – the political class embarked more than 40 years ago on successive waves of decentralisation, weakening the federal government, pushing responsibility and money down to the regions but also to the provinces and 589 communes (units of local government). In 1989, Brussels became a stand-alone bilingual region between Flanders and Wallonia, a point of uneasy stalemate: West Berlin in Belgium’s linguistic cold war.

Although Brussels is the capital of Flanders, Dutch speakers are outnumbered by French speakers and by the large ethnic minorities from North Africa and Turkey. (Before Wallonia’s coal and steel industries declined in the 1960s and 1970s, companies encouraged migration from the Mediterranean basin.) Most Dutch speakers who work in Brussels commute from outside and so pay their taxes elsewhere. The division of federal income between the regions is fiercely contested. To make matters worse, this city of only 1.2 million is subdivided into 19 uneven communes. Their populations vary from 21,000 to 175,000 and their size from little more than a square kilometre, in St Josse and Koekelberg, to 23 square kilometres in the leafy Uccle – home to so many Parisians escaping the high wealth taxes of France.

Some town halls provide efficient services; others have become bywords for mismanagement and worse. Above them, the regional government, weakened by factionalism between and within language groups, is incapable of imposing uniformity. It was no surprise, then, to see confusion and disunity under lockdown: mixed messages from mayors and ministers over whether public crèches would be open, how many terrorists were at large and when the Metro might reopen. Brussels residents are, however, for the most part tolerant and resourceful.

Economic and security logic might suggest that, if and when the threat subsides, Belgium would address dysfunctions in Brussels. Sadly, they are hardwired into the Belgian political settlement of the past half-century. Even Santa Claus would be hard-pressed to find a way out. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State