Friday, 24 August 2012

               What I did in my Summer Holidays. By Paul Foster. Aged 45 ½.


As another summer nears its end I wonder where it all went. This year my summer period of quiet time has been longer than most years but seems to have passed so much quicker.

For me the end of the London Olympia ABA bookfair signals the start of the regular downturn in business that lasts until the end of August (and with Olympia being staged a couple of weeks early this year, so my summer got longer) as people turn their attention to holidays, the Tennis at Wimbledon, keeping bored children entertained, and this year the Royal Jubilee celebrations, European Football Championship and the London Olympics.

                                                              Stourhead gardens.
At the end of July I exhibited at what must be one of the smallest bookfairs to be held in Britain. Just 12 dealers from as far away as Sheffield, London and Kent, housed for two days in a small hall next to the National Trust owned Landscaped gardens at Stourhead House in Wiltshire, all smoothly organised by 2 local dealers on behalf of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (PBFA), of which I am a member. My elder Brother Stephen (also a book dealer) was among those 12 dealers as well and we were placed next to each other in a corner of the hall. This had the desired effect of containing us in one small area away from the other dealers but also meant that we could keep each other amused with the legendary Foster wit over the 2 days of the fair. We even sold some books, which took us both by surprise.

You might ask why we both booked the fair if we weren't expecting to sell any books (my accountant did), and the truth is it seemed like a good idea at the time. Although neither my Brother or myself are what you would call nostalgic people, when the PBFA decided to put on the fair we both got momentarily carried away with the idea of spending a couple of days in this part of the world since it is where we spent many of our school holidays when we were young.

As soon as I got there I realised the flaw in our plan. When we were young and foolish we would spend our days cycling, walking, hill-climbing, fishing, exploring the many forests nearby, and teasing our little sister (the price you pay for being the youngest of four children) but mostly fighting amongst ourselves (we have a third brother who was at the forefront of this part of our youth) and devising new ways to drive our parents mad. A job we accomplished some time in the mid 1980’s.

Now approaching middle age and foolish, we had stupidly booked ourselves in for 2 days of work (ok, so it’s not digging a ditch but it’s my blog and I’ll call it work if I want to) and so had to sit in a cold hall being grown up booksellers while looking out at the many hundreds of people enjoying the warm sunny weather outside. By the time we finished in the evening the gardens were closed and we had to take what comfort we could from the local pubs.

Stourhead was my only bookfair of the summer months and as many of my customers are distracted by things other than buying books, the auction season ends and the ‘phone doesn’t ring as much it creates a perfectly good reason for me to slow down my normally hectic work rate and enjoy a shorter working day, long lunches with friends and this summer I even, in a moment of madness, joined a Gym.

It started with great promise. A perky and enthusiastic trainer showed me around and encouraged me to give everything a go to get the most out of my membership. There were rows of strange looking weight lifting and muscle toning machines that mostly look like the weird contraptions that I saw in a late night documentary about the seedy side of Amsterdam on the telly a few years back. I tried them all and awoke some muscles in my back that have been asleep for years now. I also awoke an old sports injury that had not troubled me for years as well, and is now back with a vengeance. There was a 50 foot swimming pool, unfortunately full of bouncing aqua aerobics classes every time I tried to use it, a steam room (just plain wrong. If I want to get sweaty with strangers in a confined space I’ll take the London Underground, thank you. At least on the Tube I won’t be sat opposite a naked Rugby player who keeps stretching out, spread eagled, on the bench while exhaling loudly. Although, now I think about it, there was this one time on the Piccadilly line………), ‘spin’ classes (20 people in a room, all sat on static cycling machines and pedaling furiously while a bored instructor shouted “come on, pedal” over and over for 40 minutes while texting on her phone for the whole time), and, my favourite, the stretching mats. I don’t know who had the brilliant idea of putting cushioned mats down on the floor in amongst the machines but they should be congratulated. The chance to have a cheeky five minute ‘power nap’ as part of a strenuous work out was very welcome.

I spent 3 weeks going 3 times a week but then had to stop to take my annual summer holiday (Sicily this year, since you ask. First in the dusty heat bowl of a city that is Palermo, then 2 glorious weeks in a hill side villa just outside the beautiful old sea-side town of Cefalu, pronounced Chefaloo, on the northern coast).
                                                                     Cefalu town.
                       Photo presumably taken from a helicopter or jet-pack. Or a very tall boat.

With temperatures in the high 30's and 40's every day, keeping cool became a priority. Luckily, with a pool at the villa and the beautiful long sandy beaches of the Mediterranean sea just 15 minutes drive away it was easily done. I love the sea and particularly being in it. I am equally happy floating about on the top of calm, flat water or swimming my way over big waves and being thrown about as they come crashing down. I can, and often do, spend hours at a time in the water.

The only day not spent in a combination of Beach in the morning and pool in the afternoon, or vice versa, was a trip to see Mount Etna.
                                                         Mount Etna. Very, very big.
This involved lots of driving up winding mountain roads and the most alarming road warning sign I have ever seen. Inside the traditional red triangle was bright yellow and orange balls of burning lava falling to the ground. You will have to take my word for this as despite one of the passengers in my car being a photographer (albeit one who shoots fashion rather than landscapes), complete with fancy expensive camera, she slept as we passed the sign on the way up and on the way back down again. I wanted to stop the car so that we could get a picture of the sign but pulling up on a narrow mountain road with a few thousand feet drop to one side is considered bad driving even by most Sicilians, a nation of people with the driving skills of a drunk child, and who take extraordinary risks on the roads every day in what seems like a constant race to get wherever as quickly as possible while ignoring every other motorist, cyclist and pedestrian around them. Strangely, when they get out of the cars the aggression disappears and people are genuinely relaxed and friendly.

I would recommend the Island to anyone keen on good food and wine, beautiful landscapes, interesting, if sometimes brutal, history, and exploring a country not in a hurry to change, outside of the cities anyway. (whilst chatting to the car hire rep who was preparing my paperwork at Palermo airport I was asked had I been to Sicily before. I said yes, but the last time was 13 years ago. "Don't worry, nothing has changed" was the reply. It took me a moment to realise that it was not a joke and that they meant it as a good thing).

The Sicilian/Italian beaches mostly operate a Lido system whereby somebody takes over a stretch of beach and builds some basic facilities including showers, changing cubicles and a café (some more basic than others but mostly to a pretty high standard), provides lifeguards (one of the girls in our group spent many days flirting with one of these men thinking, at first, that his name was Salvataggio as he had it printed on the back of his tee-shirt), and generally takes responsibility for keeping the beach clean and safe. In return they get to hire out sun loungers and umbrellas, all laid out in neat lines with each lido choosing a matching patterned material on all of their umbrellas so that even if you swim, or take a pedallo, a long way out you can always spot your bit of beach to return to. For someone like me that spends uninterrupted hours in the sea and often gets carried away (and not just by the tide) it is reassuring to be able to see where my friends, not to mention my towel, Ray-bans and cash supply, are at any given time. This system also makes it easy to arrange to meet friends on the long beaches (‘we’ll see you at the red and white striped lido’ ). These Lido’s are spread out with ‘Public’ beaches in between for those that don’t wish to pay for the facilities.
                                                   I'm sat under the blue and white one.
                                      The 3 finalists in the Biggest Sun Glasses competition.

Despite covering myself in factor 30 sun block at regular intervals, I find myself back home with a sun tan. People have commented that I look ‘healthy’, although one did qualify it with ‘for you, anyway’, and my body clock is telling me that the hard work months are just around the corner. Time to start setting the alarm clock a bit earlier in the morning, and paying attention to it when it does go off. The pages with ‘Lunch, so & so’ casually written across half the day start to be replaced with specifically timed work appointments in my desk diary and the number of incoming emails, telephone calls and post are increasing every day.


Oh, well. It will be Christmas holidays soon.

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