#amthinking: Are Charity Shops the Cuckoos of the High Street?

6666975941_36c18ea55c_zThe appearance of another charity shop in town this week was greeted by local social media users with cries of ‘Enough already,’ ‘Not another one,’ and, ‘Just what the town needs – not!’ The general consensus seems to be that we have too many charity shops and that they’re killing off the high street.

We do have lot of charity shops in Waterlooville. We’ve got national charities including British Heart Foundation, Sue Ryder, Marie Curie and Barnardos, plus local charities including The Rowans Hospice, ASAP Cat Rescue, Headway, Naomi House, Wessex Cancer Trust and Smile. The newest one to open was Stella’s Voice whose slogan is: protecting the world’s most vulnerable from traffickers. I’m pretty sure than none of the people who complained this week have a problem with charities in principle, just the sheer number of their shops. I understand that, but I’m not convinced that charity shops make our town ‘dismal’ or that they’ve ‘killed all the small businesses’.

I confess: I’m biased toward charity shops – my mum’s been working in and running them for 30 years, and my first ‘job’ as a teenager was in a Save the Children shop. I go into town most weeks specifically to do a trawl of the charity outlets, and I’ve picked up plenty of bargains over the years. But it’s not just me who thinks they’re a boon; a study carried out a couple of years ago, concluded that instead of being a blight on the high street, charity shops are actually a benefit.

The growth and continued presence of charity shops may have maintained footfall to high streets, which are suffering from the downturn. [There is] no evidence [charity shops are having an] adverse economic impact. Charity shops do not increase rents for other shops on the high street and do not prevent small and medium-sized businesses from opening on the high street.

I believe charity shops are healthy for town centres. They bring people, like me, into town and those people then go to other shops and use other facilities like the library. They act as little community centres for those looking for company and those looking to volunteer their services. They provide work experience for young people and those looking to return to work after a period of unemployment. They play an important role in reusing and recycling goods that might otherwise end up in landfill. They also occupy shop units that would otherwise be empty. One of the myths I come across regarding charity shops is that they pay reduced rents. They do pay reduced business rates, but their landlords are rightly out to make a profit and charge the charities accordingly. My mum’s shop (which, admittedly, is in a town closer to London) has to make at least £40,000 a year just to pay its rent. Charity shops pay full price on their utilities too. They don’t just use volunteers either; many pay their managers a wage.

The so-called decline of the high street should not be blamed on charity shops. It’s more likely due to the rise of online shopping, super-supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres – all of which, of course, have their place too, but more on that next time …

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#52librarybooks: Are You Watching Me?

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 13.22.14I should have written this review a couple of weeks ago when I finished the book, but I got sidetracked by zombies again. Anyhoo … Are You Watching Me? by Sinéad Crowley was Book 6 of my 52 Library Books reading challenge. It’s the story of a young woman, Liz, who has a past she’d rather forget and who reluctantly becomes the face of the charity she helps run. Soon, she finds herself the object of a fanatics affection and the centre of a murder investigation. It’s also the story of a less young woman, a police sergeant called Claire, who has just returned to work after maternity leave and finds juggling a baby, a husband and a case more difficult than she thought it would be.

I quite enjoyed this book, but I think I’d have to shelve it under ‘OK’. It’s well-paced with plenty of tension, so it kept me turning the pages, but I found both of the main characters a bit too angsty and a bit too cliche for my liking – Liz especially suffers from the Too Dumb To Live trope. I also guessed the twist fairly early on which damped the ending a bit. The general consensus on Goodreads is that Sinéad Crowley’s first book is better, so I’ll probably give that a go as this one was almost my cup of tea.

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#52LibraryBooks: The Day of the Triffids

The Day of the TriffidsBook 5: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

I think this story might have been where it started: my love of all tales apocalyptic. As a kid, I remember watching both the 1962 movie (Not in 1962 I hasten to add!) and the 1980s TV series. I was totally gripped by both, but until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never actually read the book. Shameful!

So, it goes like this: there’s a dazzling meteor shower; almost the whole world goes blind as a result; society collapses; carnivorous plants literally stalk the land; plagues spread like the plague, and a handful of survivors have to … well … survive.

I love this book for so many reasons. It’s very much of its time. It was written in 1951, and you can feel the Cold War breathing down your neck as you read. The changing gender roles of the period are also discussed – overtly and covertly. The narrative voice is very 1950s British; it put me in mind of Ian Flemming’s James Bond books. But what I really love is the whole ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ choices the characters have to make, because, for me, that’s what apocalyptic stories are about. They’re about maintaining our humanity (the good parts at any rate) in the face of extreme adversity. When the rules and norms of society are stripped away, what do we become? Who do we protect? Who do we save? How do we decide who is ‘them’ and who is ‘us’? And should we? And then of course there are the titular Triffids, which are basically plant zombies. Attracted by sound, they trudge relentlessly toward their blind victims, dispatching them with their venomous stingers and then waiting for their bodies to decompose so they can digest them. You could write a whole PhD thesis on the symbolism of triffids/zombies (In the 1950s they pretty much represented the Soviet Union.), and I’m sure someone has, but when I read about them the one thought that goes through my mind over and over again is that, today, triffids/zombies = consumerism. As a race, we’re mindlessly chomping our way through this planet’s resources (and people), and most of the world seems blind to it.

Fans of The Walking Dead might enjoy this book – there is a lot (and I mean a lot) of similarity between the plots, but that’s not a bad thing; 1950s Britain and 2010s USA are very different places, the people who inhabit them, however, are not …

“Zombies are all the things that will not lie down and die, the truth we cannot repress, the thing that will rise up until it overwhelms us all. Whatever you want to forget is stumbling, dead-eyed and open-mouthed towards you.” Naomi Alderman

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#52LibraryBooks: The Stories So Far

8343846So, I started my #52librarybooks reading challenge on 11 April 2016 by borrowing Chattering: Stories by Louise Stern. This is a touching yet somewhat unsettling collection of short stories revolving around the themes of communication, dislocation and isolation. Most of the main characters are young women looking to broaden their horizons and let their hair down. They’re also deaf. Beautifully written: graceful and fluid, these stories don’t spoon-feed the reader – some don’t have a sense of denouement, but that suits the characters and situations about which these stories were written. I think I found this collection unsettling because it reminded me of my own travels as a young women, half a lifetime ago, and of just how vulnerable I often felt living and working among people whose language and culture I didn’t understand.

closure-22Book 2 was Closure Limited and Other Zombie Tales by Max Brooks. This choice was inspired by my latest obsession: The Walking Dead. (So far, I’ve watched Seasons 1 – 4 on Amazon Prime.) As with all good zombie stories this isn’t about zombies; it’s about surviving an apocalypse whilst retaining some shred of your humanity – unless you’re a vampire and then it really is just about surviving. I enjoyed all four stories, but my favourite was ‘The Extinction Parade’ – of course vampires would be worried about losing their food source to the zombie hordes! ‘Great Wall’ was a heartbreaker, and ‘Closure, Limited’ offered an intriguing scenario. I found ‘Steve and Fred’ engaging, but I can’t help wondering if the zombies outside Fred’s toilet cubicle were all in his imagination.

51yLwMYOIKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I took out Book 3 – Pictures or It Didn’t Happen by Sophie Hannah – because I wanted a ‘quick read’ and I’ve enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s poetry in the past. The book was certainly quick to read as it only took me about an hour to finish, but it felt a little … unsubstantial. I read a lot of short stories, so I know you don’t have to compromise character to achieve a low word count, but that’s what I feel happened here. I felt I was skimming along the surface of everyone’s lives. On the flip side, there was plenty of suspense which was what kept me reading to the end. I guess it was just not my cup of tea.

 

18744618And finally for this update: Book 4 – The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Oh my goodness, what can I say about this other than I loved it?! I loved the writing, and I loved the story. Both have a fairy tale quality to them, but neither are for kids – to be fair, most fairy tales aren’t for kids are they? There’s a lot of mythology and a lot of allegory and a lot of wisdom – this book is Neil Gaiman’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I could write for ages about all the things I loved about this book, but I won’t, instead I’ll leave you with my favourite quote: “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

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#52LibraryBooks: A New Challenge

ShootsIt must be something to do with the warmer weather and longer days – as the vegetable seeds germinate in my planters, the urge to take on a new challenge germinates in me. It’s the same every year.

This year, I’ve decided to take on a year-long challenge: to read 52 library books in 52 weeks. The reason for this is three-fold:

  1. I’m trying to save money, and borrowing books is infinitely cheaper than buying them. I did think about buying cheap secondhand books from charity shops or Amazon, but this way …
  2. the authors of the books still get paid, and …
  3. I am supporting my local libraries, which are perpetually in danger of closing due to funding cuts. It’s ‘use them or lose them’ time.

There’s no two ways about it; libraries are essential. To quote Albert Einstein:

 “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.”

Where else will you find all those stories, all that knowledge, all that wisdom? Where else will you find all those support groups, citizens advice sessions, comfy sofas, study rooms and public PCs with wifi – all for free at point of use and equally accessible to everyone?

Not to mention the kids clubs, adult education courses, and arts ‘n’ crafts workshops!

As Neil Gaiman says:

“Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”

If you’d like to join me as I read my way through the libraries of Hampshire, I’ll be posting updates here on the blog, on goodreads and on Instagram. Any book suggestions will be greatly appreciated, although I suspect the lack of pressure to purchase, will mean I’ll be indulging myself in many blissful hours of in-depth browsing!

“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man”
― T.S. Eliot

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Blinking In the Sunlight

WaterA year ago, almost to the day, I pretty much disappeared from the web. I hid my blog; I deleted my Twitter account, and I closed 1000words. The reason? One of my children became unwell, and I knew that I needed to have my head in the mum game. Some people can keep lots of plates spinning, even in a hurricane. I’m not one of them. I tend to stow my crockery below decks and batten down the hatches.

I won’t go into details – it’s not my story to tell – but a year has now passed, my little one’s health is turning a corner, and I can feel the urge to write returning.

I don’t expect the writing community to throw me a Welcome Back party; I’m just letting those who might be interested know that I am here, blinking in the sunlight, tentatively dipping my toe in the water again.

Love Natalie x

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#LastLineFirst – A #FlashFiction Challenge: Hiatus

last line first 300Once again, I must apologise for being a tardy host! I was supposed to post this on Monday, but life got in the way. Speaking of life getting in the way, I’ve decided to take a break from running Last Line First, so this will be the last post for a while. Thank you to everyone who has taken part. It’s been a delight to read your stories and wonderful to see what you’ve done with each new first line.

We started, back in January, with “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.” from Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and we go into our break with not one but two great last lines:

  • I just hope I am making a big difference to these people’s lives. From Listen and Learn by Paul, and …
  • She would wait for this man, who she loved more than life itself, to wake and then she would break his heart and hers. From Heartbreak by Denise.

Thanks for playing, and keep flashing!

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#LastLineFirst – A #FlashFiction Challenge: Week 16

last line firstGreetings on this Bank Holiday Monday! I hope you’ve had/are having a lovely day – wherever you are. I’ve got five minutes before I have to put the kids to bed so I’ll keep this brief … This is flash-fiction we’re talking about after all!

Your last line prompt this week comes from Stillness by Denise. I picked it because it grabbed me with its urgency.

Remember, you have until midnight (BST) on Sunday 3 May to comment on this post with your ≤200 word flash-fictions, and you can change the prompt however you see fit. For a full run-down of the rules and easy access to previous challenges and their stories please visit this page.

So, here’s your new first line:

Today the still small voice must be heard.

Happy flashing!

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#LastLineFirst – A #FlashFiction Challenge: Week 15

last line firstWell, aren’t you a cheery bunch! Last week’s screams inspired ailing grandparents, demons, monsters and serial killers. Death stalked the stories, giving my goosebumps goosebumps and even bringing a tear to my eye. Great job!

Your last line prompt this week comes from To Rest by Jacki Donnellan. I picked it because it immediately brought an image to my mind. I hope it inspires you as quickly too!

Remember, you have until midnight (BST) on Sunday 3 May to comment on this post with your ≤200 word flash-fictions, and you can change the prompt however you see fit. For a full run-down of the rules and easy access to previous challenges and their stories please visit this page.

So, here’s your new first line:

Time to turn up the volume.

Happy flashing!

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#LastLineFirst – A #FlashFiction Challenge: Week 14

last line firstAnd so, another Monday rolls around, bringing us to the start of another week of Last Line First. I hope you all had a chance to read through last week’s stories. Maybe you’ve already been playing with some of the submitted last lines?

Your last line prompt this week comes from Charlotte‘s story. I picked it because it because it’s another one of those lines that can be interpreted in many ways … we scream for all sorts of reasons, don’t we?

Remember, you have until midnight (BST) on Sunday 26 April to comment on this post with your ≤200 word flash-fictions, and you can change the prompt however you see fit. For a full run-down of the rules and easy access to previous challenges and their stories please visit this page.

So, here’s your new first line:

Their screams are music to my ears.

Happy flashing!

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