Charity Begins At Tome – Bringing Charity Shops to Book!

 

My husband and I are both book worms, as a result of which our house often resembles the local library. Book shelves overflow onto the floor, then rise in volcanic stacks, the summit growing ever higher.  Elsewhere, ruthlessly culled boxes, full to the brim, await transportation down to the local charity shops.  Not any more!  Having recently spoken to a number of disgruntled elderly friends and acquaintances, many subsisting on a state pension, I have discovered that they are being priced out of the charity shops. The £3.00 and £4.00 price tag for a second-hand book is, quite simply, beyond their meagre resources. And, whilst I accept that the charities’ aim is to raise money for their particular cause, I would also contend that by pitching their prices beyond the affordability of the majority of their customers, they are biting the hand that feeds them. Okay, so we all know there are also well-off canny people who trawl the charity shops for vintage or designer items they can sell on Ebay for a nice big  profit. Others, more worthy souls, flash their green credentials at the drop of a pre-loved hat in a bid to save the world’s resources by choosing to re-use what is already in existence.  But, the majority of charity shop users are elderly people on a pension and low-income families whose needs are basic and nothing whatsoever to do with profiteering, moralising or saving the world.

However, rather than just moralise, myself, for the past few months I have been on a scouting mission around the local charity shops of Thanet and Canterbury.  The results were mixed but, overall, the picture emerging tallies with the experiences of my elderly friends.  Books, in particular, have been hiked up to a ridiculous degree, the price structure seemingly plucked out of thin air. An anorexic book of no more than a couple of hundred pages is often priced the same as a massive tome, and a book by a well-known author regularly priced at two thirds (and more) of the original cost. Bearing in mind, (and as an author I know this all too well, to my own cost), that brand new books are often discounted to an enormous degree, pitching used books at the higher end of the scale begins to look less like shrewd business and a damn sight more like greed. Let me make it plain, I am talking about ordinary paperbacks and hardbacks and not rare, out of print, first edition, signed by some great, now-dead, literary giant.

Often, it is the big chain charities that are the more culpable in this regard. In Canterbury, one very well known outlet, had priced its books to such a degree that it was cheaper for the customers to visit the discount book store a few metres up the road and get three brand-new, current books, for less than the cost of two used ones (in various states of disintegration) at that store. That is not just bad business. It’s sheer stupidity.

As a donor, it’s important to me that the books that I paid good money for and which I am donating free gratis, be priced reasonably and placed within the grasp of those in most need. The same goes for clothing and bric-a-brac, both of which seem also to have suffered a seismic rise in pricing. For example, I saw items of used clothing priced HIGHER than their original selling price. What’s all that about!  With stores such as Primark, the supermarket clothing brands and street markets, it is becoming a toss-up as to which is cheaper to buy – used or new.  Given the choice, I think I know which the majority would plump for.

In Ramsgate, one charity shop has a number of pictures for sale. There is nothing special about them. They are pretty, but pretty ordinary. Prints. Not originals. Not limited edition. Not particularly desirable. Not new! All carry price tags in the upper twenties and more.  Six weeks on, not one has sold. I’m not a gambler,  but I would lay good money on it that six weeks further on, six months further on, they were still be there and the charity will have profited not one whit. Greed and stupidity again! Lower the prices, make the sale.  ‘Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny’, was the mantra used by Michael Marks when he opened his first bazaar in Leeds in 1884. He later teamed up with Tom Spencer and the rest, as they say, is history. The charity shops might do well to revisit that particular school of thought. Pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap. Obviously, I am not advocating that everything be reduced to a penny, but a judicious lowering of prices will bring in more punters and result in more sales. Better the heel off the loaf than no bread at all!

And, before someone comes back and hits me with the cost-of-administration card,  let us not forget that charity shops benefit from exemption from corporation tax on profits, a zero VAT rating on the sale of donated goods and 80% mandatory non-domestic rate relief. This 80% relief is funded by central Government.  A further 20% rate relief is available at the discretion of local authorities. They are also staffed, in the main, by a wonderful army of civic-minded, unpaid volunteers, so a little latitude price-wise would not go amiss. After all, we are in the grip of an economic recession.  There is a real danger that charity shops run the risk of donors finding alternative methods of disposing of their unwanted goods and disheartened buyers dwindling away.

I have also noticed an attempt by a number of outlets to make their store look more attractive, more boutique-like. Fine. Nice. We all like attractive surroundings. But a change of decor, an artistically arranged shelf, better quality air freshener, does not confer the right to charge boutique prices.  Second-hand is second-hand, dress it up how you may!

As I type, I can see two large boxes of books gazing forlornly at me from the floor of my living room. A further hunt will, I have no doubt, result in as many more, all on the lookout for an appreciative new home.  I will invite my friends to come plunder, and whatever is left I will distribute direct to hospitals and care homes, and to the few charity outlets I found where reality still holds sway.  Sometimes, the cost of charity is not to be borne.

 

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The Non-Domestic Goddess – If I knew you were coming, I’d have bought a cake!

 

Despite well-documented evidence to the contrary, I occasionally have delusions of domestic competency. This is when I picture myself in perfect housewife 1950s mode, gingham apron’d, flushed of cheek, a blob of flour on the end of my adorable retrousee nose, whisking up all sorts of culinary delights in my shiny, chromey kitchen. In her basket, in a corner of the kitchen, the cat purrs contentedly. On the wall, the clock ticks a mellifluous countdown till my husband arrives ‘hi-honey-I’m-home’ from a hard day at the office.  I greet him, smiley, adoringly, a perfectly cooked apple-pie with a pastry-leafed motif, cradled my hands. His name is Darren. (Look, this is my 1950s fantasy – all the men are called Darren! Some even wear a pilot’s uniform.)

‘Hi durlin,’ he says. (They all say ‘durlin’ too!) ‘Mm, that sure looks good.’ He kisses the smudge of flour from my nose.

‘Shucks, honey-bun.’ I say with a nonchalant shrug. ‘That ain’t nuthin. Just wait till you see the meatloaf yer little ol’ wifey threw together earlier. Six kinds of sausage meat, I do declare,  a large pinch of fydelity and a whole fistful of lovin.’

Meantime, back in the real world, my kitchen has taken on that Ground Zero look that was so fashionable back in King Tut’s time.  The surfaces lie hidden beneath so much dust I am expecting Tony Robinson and the mob from Time Team to arrive, spades in hand, any minute.  Should they happen to stumble (stumble being the operative word) upon my saucepan cupboard, they may well discover an artefact or two amongst the proto-type juicers, mincers and sprockety gadgets acquired in other delusional moments for their ‘handiness’.

The cat, far from purring contentedly in the corner, has just hawked up a gigantic fur ball.  I am afraid to look too closely in case it has legs and a head too. The fur ball, I mean.

The clock, bought on Ebay, is not ticking. The clock has not ticked since 19-hundred-and-frozen-to-death, when the ship it once adorned was enticed onto some rather unwelcoming rocks. Ebay has mugged me before. (A certain miniature barrel also comes to mind, reputed to have been carved by Nelson, himself. Turns out it was carved by a crim in the prison workshop. Nielsen, I think he was called.)

Moving swiftly on. I do have a husband, but he is called David. He is not the type to kiss flour from anyone’s nose, neither does he wax lyrical over apple pies and meatloaf, except when the latter is big and hairy and belts out ‘I Would Do Anything For Love, But I Won’t Do That’.

Regardless, this morning my 1950s delusion was in full swing. Faced with a mountain of runner beans, I decided to search the internet for inspirational recipes for what is, in effect, a fairly uninspiring vegetable.  In fact, I have a theory as to why they are called runner beans – when faced with them, turn and leg it away, as fast as you can. Unfortunately, like my 22 inch waist and crush on David Cassidy, my days of running are but a distant memory.  So there I stood, beans before me, mouse in hand, (not the one the cat hawked up) and Googled till I hit chutney. Runner bean chutney. Okay, so it’s not exactly up there with Nigella’s finger-sucking, hair-flicking, hourglass-shaped, Haricot en Vin D’Extraordinarily Expensive, but it’s a way of getting rid of the rotten little blighters.

And lo it came to pass that I embarked upon my first foray into the secretive world of runner bean chutney. I de-stringed, and chopped, and boiled and minced. I chucked in onions and vat-loads of vinegar, sugar, mustard, turmeric  and cornflower. I stirred and coaxed and crooned words of encouragement a la three witches in Macbeth.  Double. Double. Toil and Trouble. And, verily, it all began to look quite encouraging and chutney-like, if a rather bilious and unappetising shade of green.  Then, the phone rang and, by the pricking of my thumbs, whilst I was busy discussing my friend, Jenny’s umbilical hernia and the state of the NHS, some vandal snuck in and replaced my lovely chutney with a load of sticky, foul smelling tar.

Alas, it’s true what they say, fantasies are best kept as fantasy, even 1950s housewifey ones. I rub a porthole in my dusty mirror, look deep into my own eyes and realise that, just as at the age of 37 I never drove through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in my hair, neither will I ever be a domestic goddess.

Ah well, I guess, I’ll just have to content myself with being a Non-domestic  goddess instead! Still, I might just hold on to the Darren fantasy, all the same.  Oh, Darren . . . cooee, Darren . . . don’t forget your uniform . . .

PS. If anyone would like the recipe for Runner Bean Encroute de Tarmacadam, please report immediately to your nearest psychiatric unit.

St Laurence Churchyard – A Great Place to Visit – Make no Bones About It!

Ten o’clock on Saturday morning found me in the churchyard of St Laurence in Ramsgate, about to embark upon the guided tour I have somehow managed to miss on several previous occasions. Unintentionally miss, let me add hastily but, this time, I made it. And very glad I am that I did. The sun was shining, the birds practising their scales in the trees and though St Laurence is situated on a somewhat busy intersection, the noise of the traffic scarcely registered, especially as one ventured further into the tranquil hush of the churchyard.  Barbara, our guide, a lady who exuded both bonhomie and efficiency, duly gathered her small, surprisingly age-diverse flock, and shepherded us off on what turned out to be a most interesting tour of the past.

Obedient as school kids, we crocodiled down pathways bordered by topsy-turvy ivy and lichen covered headstones, traipsed across over-grown graves, carefully avoiding the stinging nettles lurking with intent, and ducked beneath bowers of holly, bejewelled with the reddest of berries. Every so often we stopped to allow Barbara to introduce us to the incumbent of a particular grave, along with a potted account of their lives.

And there, in the heart of this relatively unremarked churchyard, we found ourselves in the presence of luminaries such as the eminent lawyer, barrister and politician, William Garrow, recently the subject of a TV series, Garrow’s Law, and the gentleman responsible for that cornerstone of British law, ‘innocent until proven guilty’. In his will, I have since learned, he requested that he be buried in his birthplace, Hadley, alongside his uncle, a request which was for reasons unknown not granted.

In a shady nook, overhung by arthritically-twisted branches, stands a cross marking the final resting place of John Collis Brown, the doctor who invented chlorodyne, originally a treatment for cholera. Although savvy in medical matters, he was no Sir Alan and failed to patent his prescription leaving him to miss out on the profits of what became a ‘miracle’ cure for everything, from colds and diarrhoea to whooping cough, neuralgia and rheumatism. Amongst its principal ingredients were laudanum, tincture of cannabis and chloroform, meaning, as Barbara wryly pointed out, that even if it didn’t cure you, at least you died happy!

The jewel, or perhaps what ought to be the jewel in the crown of St Laurence were it not in so parlous a state with broken ducal coronets and smashed angel heads, is the D’Este mausoleum, in which lie the remains of two of the grandchildren of King George III. Lady Augusta Murray of Dunmore , their mother, who married Prince Augustus Frederick in 1793, shares the same resting place. Unfortunately, under the Royal Marriage Act of 1772, the marriage was ruled invalid and the couple parted in 1801. She was given (or perhaps paid off with) the title, D’Ameland in 1806, and given a Crown allowance to keep her and her children in a certain style.

Leaving Lady Augusta and her offspring in the guardianship of the four-trees standing sentry, one at each corner of the once-grand mausoleum, we pressed onward to where John Woolward, an admiral who served under Nelson, came to anchor for the final time. In 1798 he fought in the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay, helping Nelson to scatter the French fleet and put them to rout. John later became the harbourmaster at Ramsgate, a position he maintained for twenty-six years.

But it wasn’t just the dignitaries I found interesting – I was particularly taken with the grave of a young lady who ‘as she was walking upon the cliff on October 1801, unfortunately she fell over and was killed upon the spot’.  There is no name upon the gravestone, but she was later identified as Louisa Grevis. Who said exercise is good for you!

Although many of the stones carry, in keeping with the Victorians, rather grim reminders of the fleetingness of life and a basic caution to refrain from smugness because we’re all on the same bus, just on different time tables, St Laurence churchyard really is something of a haven.  One section of the grounds has been left to revert to nature and nature has not been backward at coming forward. Lothario Bees flirted shamelessly with the wild flowers, visiting first one, then another, while Ladybirds lolled about on long sunny stems and leaves, totally unconcerned that their house might be on fire and their children alone. The birds, as I mentioned earlier, were tuning up en mass for the feathered version of The Proms and, I understand,  that burning bright in the churchyard of the night is, no, not a tiger, but a fox, waiting, perhaps, for an exhausted songster to fall off its perch.

I could go on. I could tell you how privileged I felt following in the footsteps of William IV, Queen Victoria, even William Pitt, all who have trod the leafy pathways of St Laurence at one point or another, but I won’t. Instead, I suggest you come on one of the tours yourself, which are held regularly and which are free – though it goes without saying that a donation towards the upkeep is always acceptable.

And, I could go on about the church itself, which dates from 1062 – yep, before the Norman conquest, but I also suggest you come along and see its many architectural and historic gems at first hand.

On which note, I will leave the last word to one of our Victorian forebears, whose stone is inscribed with a verbal two fingers up!

‘Farewell vain world, I‘ve known enough of thee

And now care not what thou sayest of me’.

Further information can be found on: http://www.whatsoninkentlocal.com/all/details/21135/

Depression – don’t make me laugh!

 

A beautiful still night a few months ago, picture-perfect, with an almost full-moon wreathed round in a tracery of white cloud. On the balmy air, the scent of night-scented stocks. In the distance the seductive lapping of sea kissing beach. And did I stop to admire the sky, inhale the scents, dream to the rhythm of the waves? Like hell I did. My prevailing thought at the time, the one that finally brought me to the realisation that something was wrong – not just wrong, but really wrong – was ‘I wonder what it would be like simply to walk into the sea, to just keep on walking, to feel the waves closing over my head and then . . . the blessed relief of nothing’. That’s what I longed for. Nothingness. Not to feel. Not to exist. Erasure, from everything and everyone. Oh yes, I was more than prepared to thrust off the mortal coil, and not just go gentle into the good night but to go galloping head first. Depression! The realisation hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t just a bit down, out of sorts, having a bad day or the hundred and one  other trivial things I had tried to persuade myself I was suffering from, to one degree or another. I was depressed. Dangerously so.  Enough to seriously consider ending it all.  The black canine had me by the throat and he wasn’t letting go.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the signs but, as they say, when you’re in the moment, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. Besides, I was too damn tired. Lethargy was my constant companion. With a publishing deadline looming, this is not a companion you would actively seek out and many and oft were the days I found myself sitting in front of a blank computer screen willing the bloody book to complete itself.

And crying. Boy, did I cry a river. A veritable cauldron of emotion, I went to pieces over anything and everything, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I once found myself welling up over a schmaltzy advert for baby something or other, the kind of contrived tripe I would normally roll my eyes over whilst sticking two fingers down my neck.

Wine! Wine, Lethargy and me spent several cosy evenings together. Me, the girl a boyfriend happily once described as a very cheap date, owing to my abstemious penchant for soda water and lime. Did I become an alcoholic – no, but I can see how it can happen, the insidious way one glass can lead to two and from thence to a whole bottle.

Yet, on the outside, I was switched to automatic and managed to keep up a good pretence at normality. Nobody knew, nobody suspected that I was wearing a shell, a walking, talking occasionally even joking shell. Inside, out of sight, I was all shrivelled up, hopeless, guilty, joyless – a complete mess.

With the wonderful hindsight that is of 20/20 vision, I can pretty much identify the main triggers for my depression and despair – the death of my mother in January, an altercation with a family member that shook me to my core, ongoing problems with an adult son, who is more child than adult.

Oddly enough, almost as soon as I acknowledged/realised the extent of my depression, it began to lift. Words flowed onto the screen once more and I completed my book (Blue-Eyed Girl, for your information). Energy flooded back. I sought out friends again and socialised. I actually answered the telephone with enthusiasm. One day, I found myself singing, as I washed the dishes, a sound no one had heard for many months and, I confess, no one had missed.

Now, why the depression should so miraculously have lifted I have no idea. But, this I will say, hand-on-heart, had it carried on, I would have had no compunction about seeking medical help.

Today, I feel good again. The sun is zipping round the sky in his golden chariot. The sea is moving back and forth, which is what seas are paid to do. This time, though, I’m happy to stand on the beach and admire it curling and unfurling from a distance.

But wait! Is that a black dog I see before me? Yes, but this one is chasing a ball. Run, Spot. Run!