Browsing the bookshop shelf is more rewarding than surfing souless sites



The next time you spot a book you have been meaning to read for ages nestling among the items conveniently suggested to you by your friendly giant online retailer, pause before you hit “one-click ordering”. There is something soulless about the process, a commercial transaction untouched by human emotion.

How much more rewarding to stroll into an independent bookstore, each as individual as its owner, in search of the latest John Le Carre, only to stroll out instead with a biography of Churchill, a compendium of crosswords, a present for your partner, and, possibly, a little bit of gossip about what the vicar told the council officer when they were in the shop last week.

Last week “super-Thursday” in the book world – the day when major publishers launch what they hope will be their big Christmas blockbusters. New books by John Cleese, Jacqueline Wilson, and Heston Blumenthal will crowd the windows of bookshops across the county. The promotion will give a much appreciated shot in the arm to beleaguered booksellers.

Sales nationwide dropped by £98 million or 6.5% last year but the rate of the decline is slowing, according to experts. Super Thursday generated sales of £34.7 million and this year booksellers are hoping for more of the same.

But beyond the once-a-year hype, entrepreneurial booksellers are showing what can be done to drum up sales. In Hove, City Books, founded and run by Paul and Inge Sweetman, is a beacon of civilisation on Western Road. Its imaginative events programme has attracted a raft of well-known authors to talk about their works. This season will see appearances by Will Self, John Lydon, Claire Balding and the Reverend Richard Coles, among others.

Events such as these foster the sense of community and help to bring the books alive in a way that the online behemoths never can.

It’s a myth that bookish people are loners – as the mushrooming of book clubs has shown.

Shut down that computer and head off to your nearest independent bookshop – you never know where that journey might take you.


This piece was first published in The Argus on October 12, 2014


Why calls for an boycott of Israel do a disservice to Palestinians


Noam Chomsky is not a household name in the United Kingdom. He is an expert in abstruse linguistic theory and has produced well-regarded academic works in cognitive science and artificial intelligence.

Among  international left-wing activists he is admired as a trenchant critic of the foreign policies of the United States and Israel.

In July, he published a surprising essay in The Nation magazine in which he took issue with the tactics of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. He believes comparisons between Israel and the apartheid state of South Africa are misleading and self-defeating.

He wrote: “Failed initiatives harm the victims doubly—by shifting attention from their plight to irrelevant issues (anti-Semitism at Harvard, academic freedom, etc.), and by wasting current opportunities to do something meaningful.”

It is doubtful that Professor Chomsky has heard of Councillor Ben Duncan who represents the Queen’s Park area in Brighton, but his words are a perfect description of Cll Duncan’s call for the city council to join the international boycott of Israeli firms.

Council officials moved quickly to thwart any debate of his motion but Cllr Duncan has vowed to fight back. It is difficult to see this as anything other than gesture politics.

According to a reply to my Freedom of |Information request, which I received this week, Brighton and Hove City Council keeps no record of where the firms it does business with are headquartered.

The leader of the Green Party administration at the council, Cllr Jason Kitcat, said:”Ownership is fluid, complex and can change. Our ethical and sustainable procurement policies do put stringent requirements on bidders though.”

A spokesman for the city council said: “As far as I’m aware, the vast  majority of our council contracts are with British firms. The question of whether any of them ‘have links and affiliations with companies in Israel’ does not arise during a tender process or as part of our financial checks. Therefore we have no information on this.”

A list of the city’s contracts and  contractors can be seen here

Tweets of endurance: Peter Jukes publishes new book on phone-hacking scandal

Rebekah Brooks arrives at the Old Bailey

Rebekah Brooks arrives at the Old Bailey

The phone-hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, and five others, at the Old Bailey in London, was billed as the trial of the century. It was never going to live up to such excitable claims and for many of the reporters and broadcasters covering the legal wrangling, it came to seem more of an endurance test than a thrilling joust. Between the sensational revelations were hours of legalistic longueurs.

But one man documented every detail and in the process reinvented court reporting and established a possible new way of funding journalism.

Author and screenwriter Peter Jukes began blogging during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. It is fair to say he later became consumed by the scandal over the so-called ‘dark arts’ of tabloid journalism in the UK.

He was initially dubious about asking complete strangers to fund him to sit in court every day after day tweeting the progress of the trial, yet that is exactly what they did. Using a crowdfunding website he raised £4,000 to keep him at the trial until the end of last year, followed by a further £14,000 which allowed him to carry on until the verdicts, and sentences, were delivered this summer.

Last night, in a unseasonably warm venue in south London, he launched his account of the trial in a more traditional format – a paperback book. Beyond Contempt is published by Canbury Press, founded by journalist Martin Hickman who co-wrote Dial M for Murdoch, another account of the criminal behaviour at News International.

“I am very proud to be the publisher of this book,” Hickman told the 100-plus crowd at the Mernier Gallery. “When Peter told me about his the idea I thought he’d be gone a few days.  But he is a dramatist and this trial was full of drama. There were 21 barristers in the court – it was the most bewigged trial I have ever seen.”

Peter Jukes paid tribute to Guardian journalist Nick Davies whose lonely and obstinate investigative journalism chipped away News International’s denials until the truth emerged.

Davies could not attend the launch as he was giving a lecture in Verona (a reporter’s life is not always spent meeting shady characters in waterfront locations).

Jukes said his book is dedicated to Alastair Morgan whose brother, Daniel, was murdered in south east London in 1987. Campaigners claim that police corruption prevented the case being solved despite six separate investigations.

Jukes said: “This was the cradle where the dark arts were born. Alastair has been fighting for justice for 27 years.”

Revealed: Brighton council spends millions on staff payouts

King's House, home of Brighton and Hove City Council

King’s House, home of Brighton and Hove City Council

A city council spend more than £6 million pounds over four years to compensate former employees.

Figures I obtained through a Freedom of Information request  show that between January 2010 and March 2014, a total of 436 employees at Brighton and Hove City Council have received compensation for loss of office under a settlement agreements.

The cost of ‘releasing’ these individuals was £6,333,944.90.


Compensation for loss of office is  made in cases where the council’s compensation panel considers that:

  • the level of legal risk indicates settlement of an issue should be considered;
  • there is a clear business case from a financial and organisational perspective that demonstrates the benefits and why alternative solutions are not viable
  • a settlement agreement is both necessary and proportionate in the circumstances

About one third of agreements entered into each year relate to employees who were employed in schools. The council says a “significant number” of the individuals took voluntary redundancy under its  voluntary severance scheme offered to staff in 2011/12 and again in 2013/14.


In  accordance with the statutory requirements, the council has, since the 2010/11 financial year, published in its annual accounts the amounts paid to employees in connection with the termination of their employment, if their total remuneration is over £50,000.


The requirement is to publish these amounts by job title if the total remuneration is between £50,000 and £150,000 and by name if it is over £150,000. Links to the relevant parts of the Council’s Statement of Accounts for the financial years 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/13 and 2013/14 are given below.


A spokeswoman for the council said: “The individuals cited in these accounts are not in addition to the 436 referred to above.  However, we should point out that in a significant number of cases it has not been possible, due to the way in which the information has been recorded, to identify the split between the contractual and non-contractual elements of the final payment made to these individuals.  This means that the figure of £6,333,944.90 will not accurately represent the compensation for loss of office for these individuals.”

Brighton council gets coy over unpaid bills

Follow the money...

Follow the money…


A city council has refused to name business owners who do not pay their rates.

The man in charge of collecting unpaid rates said that naming the firms could damage their reputation.

National Non-Domestic Rates – to give business rates their bureaucratic name  – are a tax.

The council must take recovery action against any business that does not pay.

If the business fails to pay up after receiving a liability order, the council can apply for insolvency action and  the final stage will be a committal hearing at court which can result in the business chief going to jail.

Brighton and Hove City Council refused my request under the Freedom of Information Act for the names of all limited companies in the city who have had in the past six months, or are about to have, liability orders made against them for non payment.

According to the Government’s Information Commissioner, there is a public interest in disclosing some commercially sensitive information about private companies that is held by public authorities.

The Information Commission Office guidelines state: “In the course of its role as a regulator, a public authority may hold information on the quality of products or on the conduct of private companies. There would be strong public interest arguments in allowing access to information which would help protect the public from unsafe products or dubious practices, even though this might involve revealing information that is likely to harm the commercial interests of a company.”

Graham Bourne, head of revenues and benefits at Brighton & Hove City Council disagrees.

He  said: “I can confirm that we hold this information. However, we consider the information to be exempt from disclosure under Section 43 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act and we will not be providing it to you. This exemption relates to information where disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person.

“We have considered the public interest test; it is our opinion that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure. We consider that disclosing the names of property owners against whom liability orders have been obtained is likely to prejudice their commercial interests; it could damage their reputation and the confidence that their customers, suppliers or financiers has in them, and it could have an impact on revenues or threaten their ability to obtain supplies or secure credit.”

So know you know. Or rather, you don’t.


Brighton Council lives on borrowed time

Going up - and so are interest rates

Going up – and so are interest rates

The decision by Brighton and Hove City Council to borrow £36.2 million for the Public Works Loan Board to fund the building of the i360 has generated many column inches, not least by me.

But in February 2011 and February 2012, the council also borrowed money (for what we do not know, but watch this space)  from a High Street bank via a less publicised route. The weirdly named “lender option borrower option” (LOBO)  facilities have raised the eyebrows of financial experts because they contain a myriad of complicated clauses.

According to figures I obtained through a Freedom of Information request, the LOBO loan agreements from the Royal Bank of Scotland drawn down by the council within the last five years, total £30,000.

In February 2011, Brighton and Hove City Council drew down a lender option, borrower option loan from the RBS totalling £10,000. The initial interest rate is 4.22% and the loan term is 60 years. The rate will be reviewed in April 2016 and every five years thereafter.

The council borrowed a further £10,000 in the same month at a rate of 4.20% and another £10,000 in February 2012 at a rate of 4.35% under the same terms as above.

 As Private Eye points out in its latest issue, working out whether these loans are a good idea or not depends very specialist know-how. Treasury rules state that a public body “using a new or non-standard technique should ensure it has the competence to manage, control and track its use and any resulting financial exposure which may vary with time.”

It may be that the council finance department is staffed with people possessing the savvy of a supremely successful spread betting expert. Or it may not.

Time – and the markets – will tell.


October 16

Update: I asked the council to explain what the LOBO loans were for. They sent me this reply:

“The council had the opportunity to restructure it’s debt during a time of low interest rates in order to reduce future borrowing costs. The three tranches of £10m debt entered into in 2011 and 2012 were undertaken to re-finance cumulative capital programme investment funded through borrowing.”

The question is , of course, what happens when the interest rate goes up.



Why Owen Jones thinks the system is fixed – and we should break it

see sid


If you see Sid, tell him Owen Jones wants a word.

The fresh-faced, fiery-penned, polemicist has written a trenchant analysis of how the con-trick of ‘popular capitalism’ has become the only political game in town. His new book The Establishment aims to provide a forensic examination of how the bankers and business owners that drove the economy over a cliff in 2008 managed to walk away unscathed. They remain the biggest beneficiaries of Government spending.

I’m old enough to remember the British Gas ad campaign in 1985 which was trumpeted as the high-water mark of the Thatcher government’s privatisation programme. In reality, the share-owning democracy proved a damp squib – private investors now make up less than a 10th of stock market ownership. But the seed had been sown – “we are all in this together and if the ship sinks there’ll be no lifeboat for you lot”.

The neutering of the  trade unions underlined the notion that workers owed their souls to the company store, and the destruction of building societies fanned the flames of debt as a lifestyle choice.

I can vividly recall the wild talk of my twentysomething contemporaries about how the house they had just paid a fortune for would make them rich. My partner and I narrowly avoided catastrophe when one of us (it wasn’t me) had the good sense to insist we turn down a mortgage facility put together in a matter of minutes by a financial adviser on the other end of a phone. We were all neo-liberals – though few of us back then had heard of the term.

Many years later, I happened to be in New York when Lehman Brother collapsed. Grown men were running up and down Fifth Avenue yelling into their cell phones: “The  Dow is f*cked! The Dow is f*cked!”

But no senior figures  found themselves tossed onto a tumbril bound for the guillotine. Owen Jones wants us to understand why.

What I liked most about his previous book Chavs: the demonisation of the working class was his gumshoe reporting. He had clearly hit the road with his notebook in hand. Early reviews of “The Establishment suggest the same thorough approach has paid off again and I am looking forward to reading the new book. I might even go along when his rolling tour hits Brighton.

But I winced (and I bet the author did) when I read the blurb on the cover by Russell Brand hailing Owen Jones as “our generation’s Orwell”.  I’ll have to break it to him that my daughters (18 and 23) had never heard of him. They favour political action over polemics and they know that the current economic order offers them precious few opportunities.

Sid might want to give them a wide berth also.