One of the pleasures I had been looking forward to in my visit to England was simply going into a bookshop and browsing. Of course I can do that here in China but it's so much more fun when the books contain squiggles and spaces that recognisably form words than when, beautiful as they may look, they form nothing more than – to me – incomprehensible patterns and shapes.
It was almost the first thing that I did. I attended to it straight after sinking a couple of pints with my mate Pete in the Post Office Vaults which, for those who have no knowledge of either Birmingham or ale, is a fine hostelry in the city centre.
Anyway, the second place I visited was Waterstones. I had a jolly good browse too – checking out everything from the poetry section to Sherlock Holmes pastiches to books of architectural drawings to celebrity biographies to... well I'm sure you get the picture.
During my browsing I ran across the rise of the non-book. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I do have a sense of humour and I have in the past chuckled at such non-books as “Everything I Know about Teaching by Michael Gove” - a tome consisting entirely of blank pages. Not to mention guffawing heartily when I discovered people were actually prepared to pay money for a Kindle edition. While I've been away this kind of thing has proliferated on such a scale that it now has its own section in Waterstones which may be a small section but is, nevertheless, a section devoted entirely to books which, for the large part, contain no actual words or pictures.
In addition to those, like the Gove, which, in my schooldays, were usually no more than the punchline to “What's the shortest book in the world?” jokes, there are dozens of assorted “interactive books”. I realise that all books are interactive in the sense that you open them and read them and they put pictures in your head but these are interactive in the sense that you open them and do stuff. No words or pictures necessarily involved.
So, for example, there are books where one, otherwise completely blank, page will have a heading like “Draw a picture here with your eyes closed” and another will be titled “Write a sentence using the words “aspidistra”, “gumshoe” and “pterodactyl”, while a third will exhort you to get the person standing next to you to write two words describing you.
“Gullible prat” springs to mind. These books aren't cheap.
There is a whole series of “List” books where the heading on each page tells you what to write a list of; favourite drummers, things to do before you die, most pointless purchases – that kind of thing. They run out at about twelve quid apiece and there are at least half a dozen of them. I don't know who buys them but someone must or they wouldn't go on publishing them. (Publishing seems an inappropriate word in the circumstances, but not as much so as “printing” would.)
It's genuinely money for nothing. Your money for their nothing. And damn I wish I'd been the one to think of it first.
I mentioned walking from the Post office Vaults to Waterstones which should be a straight three minute stroll but is by no means that easy nowadays. Getting from any given point A to any given point B in Birmingham is by no means that easy nowadays.
Two years ago, when I was living in Baiyin, the authorities decided to make repairs to the underground heating system that the city has. They did this by simultaneously digging up every road and most of the footpaths. Oh, how I laughed the peculiar ways of the Chinese. At least I did when I wasn't making mile-long detours to cross the street or climbing painfully out of muddy trenches that I'd fallen into. Well they can laugh at us now. Birmingham must have sent a fact-finding committee to China as the current works in the city centre seem to have been modelled on the same idea. There are multiple building projects going on which have resulted in what feels like half the city being dug up. Principally there is the redevelopment of New Street Station and the extension of the Metro line from Snow Hill to New Street.
The former, were it actually to do what needs to be done, would be a good idea. The passenger facilities and platforms are long overdue for modernisation. It's a cold concrete wind-tunnel of a place that could be much better than it is. Of course, that's not what they are doing. The sole change to the actual passenger areas has been the removal of the stairs so that access is now only by elevator or escalator. No platform has seen as much as a new lightbulb and no waiting room has received a single new chair. Instead all the changes have been exclusively to the retail areas and the station facade which now looks uncannily like the Eye of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings movies. No passenger's life is one iota better for any of it though, to be fair, they now have a choice of places to buy a latte on their way down into the bowels of the Earth.
The Metro extension is worse. It has necessitated the digging up of several main routes through the city centre to lay tramlines with the net result that trams that formerly terminated at Snow Hill will be able to go one stop further so that people will not be inconvenienced by the tedious chore of a five minute walk. I could look up how much all these “improvements” have cost but I suspect it would just depress me so I shan't bother. Whatever it is, I'm sure that in these times of austerity it is money well spent.
Not that the other end of the Metro, Wolverhampton Saint Georges, is any better. The station there closed early last year so that track could be relaid and was due to open again in October. Now, in February, it still looks like a building site with no end to the work in sight. The official reason is that when they relaid the track they discovered a mineshaft that makes it all too dangerous. This of course raises the interesting questions of why they didn't discover it when they originally laid the track and just how dangerous it's been while the trams were actually running. Cynics might suggest that only two explanations are possible.
a) It's just an excuse to explain the long delays and there is either no mineshaft or no danger.
b) It was discovered at the time but ignored in the rush to open the capital-hungry flagship project.
I don't find either of those particularly reassuring though either seems more plausible than them just never noticing it before. (Which would be even more worrying, if true.)
Speaking of roadworks my return to the airport was severely delayed at Nutley where fully three feet of road had been dug up, coned off and left unattended, reducing traffic on a major route to single file. No one was working there, at least not in the forty minutes it took my bus to crawl up to it and past it.
As this has all been rather negative let's put a bit of a positive spin on things.
1. In spite of the novelty of selling blank pages at exorbitant prices most people seemed content to buy books with words and sentences in them. There may be hope for the future yet.
2. New Street Station will probably look quite nice if they ever finish it.
3. The Metro extension will come in handy when it's raining, especially for people dragging around heavy luggage.
4. If there is a dangerous mineshaft at Wolverhampton, it's probably a good thing to prevent trams falling into it.
5. Nutley is a pleasantly scenic village and being delayed there gives both drivers and passengers a chance to properly appreciate its charms. It's certainly better than being delayed on the M25.