Speaking up for Oxfam and for those who seek to do good

I don't like to post negative opinions here, but I have got pretty cross at Susan Hill's latest broadside, against Oxfam bookshops, in her Spectator blog. Some of the comments to her post are, in my view, quite ugly. (There are some more enlightened points of view at the Bookseller's website, including some comments by me.)

Susan Hill does not like Oxfam bookshops because she says they are putting good independent and antiquarian booksellers out of business. She likens them to Ottakar's, a bookshop chain which, according to her, checked out small towns for the presence of a thriving independent bookshop, and then opened up nearby, putting said bookshop out of business. She does not bother to reconcile this accusation with the fact that Ottakar's itself went out of business.

Further, she does not like Oxfam bookshops because she says that they are unfairly competing with local charity shops, such as hospice shops. This is certainly not the case where I live, where the local hospice charity shop does a roaring trade despite an Oxfam bookshop, an Oxfam "normal" charity shop, a Fara (Romanian orphans) shop and a cancer charity shop all in walking distance. 

Ms Hill is very rude about Oxfam, damning the whole organisation on the basis of a couple of anecdotes on the level of one of its staff having a four-wheel drive in a poor country. She is also incensed at the organisation's stance in global warming, a fact in which Ms Hill does not believe on the basis of flawed arguments by the likes of Nigel Lawson. I refer both of them, and anyone else, to the facts and evidence about climate.

As is probably evident, I disagree almost totally with Susan Hill's diatribe. Oxfam is doing basically good work, raising money to help those less well off than me, Ms Hill, and most other people lucky enough to be born in affluent countries. If Oxfam can raise money for a good cause by selling second-hand books, good luck to it.

There are problems in the bookselling trade and challenges to the book publishing industry. But don't blame Oxfam for them. And I see no reason to believe that Oxfam is putting other charity shops out of business, either. They are all trying to do good, and I admire them all for it. We should be applauding them, not lambasting them.


18 thoughts on “Speaking up for Oxfam and for those who seek to do good

  1. Maxine – I agree completely that we should support Oxfam and other reputable organizations that work to help the less fortunate. It’s especially important in these times of economic difficulty, and even more so when natural disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, strike. It’s neither possible nor the most efficient use of resources for each of us as individuals to go to places of dire need. We can, however, support those organizations that have the infrastructure, the resources, and the experience to go there and make a difference. Oxfam is one of those organizations.

  2. Firstly let me say that Spectator website is a shocker – I read the article and then clicked on the About Susan Hill link but all it did was take me to a list of her previous posts – I scanned a couple of them but I wanted a “Susan Hill is…” kind of thing. Who is she? What are her credentials for providing her ‘opinions’? Is it Susan Hill the author or another person of that name? Does she have a science degree? Is she familiar with the not-for-profit sector and how it operates?
    Secondly I have no truck with the whole bashing of ‘big business’ trend of modern life. If a big version of a store moves into a town people are not forced at gun point to buy from them. When people do buy from them it’s their choice to do so and competition is what it’s all about – even in the charity business (and yes, these days charity is a business). There are plenty of examples where that kind of thing hasn’t worked (Starbucks moved into my town for example and lasted about a year before slinking away again – people here didn’t want what they were selling and we continued patronising the local independent coffee shops we’ve been supporting for years and Starbucks is no more). And frankly if people want to buy their second hand books from a store that is clean and bright then so be it – the hospice shops either compete or find another way to support their causes. Oh I know that some big businesses have some fairly poor supply chain management and HR management practices that make it easier for them to compete but in the end it’s we consumers who make the purchasing choices and no amount of belly-aching will stop that from being reality.
    Thirdly, I really do despise the kind of crappy, third-hand ‘I heard from so-and-so’s cousin…’ opinion espoused by Ms Hill about Oxfam’s practices. It’s bad enough to hear that kind of ill-informed rubbish when sprouted off around the office water cooler but when it’s printed in a respectable (?) paper it’s downright rude. If she had done a modicum of research first she’d have found out that Oxfam America meets all 20 of the American Better Business Bureau’s standards for charitable organisations (in comparison the Bill Clinton charity that’s been receiving a load of money for the Haiti relief only meets 13 of the same standards).
    I know that’s only the American arm but I’m fairly confident it would be an organisation-wide thing and if I were going to write a newspaper article (even an online one) I would do the research and confirm (or otherwise) the facts. Shame on her.
    I’m not even going to bother with fourthly. Which would be about her obvious ‘global warming…what’s that?’ stance. I don’t have enough time or patience to take that one on today.

  3. Thank you very much Bernadette and Margot for your support and very informed comments. I much appreciate it. It is the same Susan Hill as the author. She blogged on her own platform for quite a while but then stopped, partly she said because of the opinions that were being expressed and the vitriolic way some people expressed them, at her blog. (There were other reasons.) She has fairly recently started up again at the Spectator. I have found several of her posts upsetting and offensive but really, I think this one takes the biscuit. I don’t even read her blog because of its content, but this particular post was featured in the Bookseller daily alert, hence I clicked through and read it, probably a mistake!

  4. I support you entirely in your position Maxine; but yesterday had a full day of meetings with high earning charity executives, who are in my opinion not a good advert for the industry.
    I have a basic philosophical difference with them in that I don’t believe people with dementia and severe learning difficulties [including no speech] should be removed from their home in which they have lived for thirty years, in some cases, and placed in “supported living” accommodation on short term leases.

  5. Thank you Norman. I agree that there is no organisation that is perfect and I am sure there are non-ideal things about Oxfam and other charities. However, these organisations are at least trying to do good, and in a world where there are so many things to get angry or upset about, it seems to me that Susan Hill’s post had lost the plot.
    From what I have heard about your particular case, there are some disgraceful things going on that should not be allowed to happen. I wish Prince Charles would step in. (Would keep him usefully occupied!)

  6. Well said, Maxine! I hadn’t seen the Bookseller post (not been on-line much) but I had seen a couple of (to me unbelievable) comments from a literary agent and associates about how the Oxfam shops were depriving authors of royalties or some such thing. Authors may not earn much but at least we’re not in a war zone or starving to death and begrudging Oxfam books is just churlish.

  7. Thanks for popping over, Clare. I agree that it is tough on authors – at least, I suppose, if someone buys a second-hand book and likes it, they are likely to look up other books by the same author. These are hard times for authors. I don’t think Oxfam is to blame, though! (And I know you don’t think so, either.)

  8. Thanks, Kim. I read Scott Pack’s post yesterday after being alerted to it by Clare on Twitter. Mainly he is lambasting the commenters at the Spectator blog for their ignorance. I agree they are ignorant and worse, but why waste the energy on gettting indignant about them? (Spectator readers). Luckily, there aren’t that many of them;-). Scott Pack also misrepresents Susan’s blog post by saying she did not state what she in fact did, so I don’t think he read it very carefully. In general I don’t read Scott Pack’s blog because I don’t like the language he uses – not that am prudish but I don’t like reading constant rudeness, etc.

  9. To be honest, I don’t read Scott Pack’s blog either, but was alerted to the post via a RT on twitter. And then, about two minutes later I was on your blog and saw this post, and realised you were discussing the very same subject.

  10. I suppose a lot of people in the book blogging world became aware of Susan Hill’s Spectator post when the Bookseller featured it on its daily news alert. Otherwise, most people would never have read it. It is the sort of blog post that, once you have read it, you can’t get it out of your mind as it is kind of unbelievable that anyone could really think some of those things. Hence my post – sort of catharthic. Usually I keep out of these internet spat things because they aren’t very edifying, but this post needed something said, I felt. OK, back to reading, now! πŸ˜‰

  11. Ha! No, I’m afraid not.
    I was checking my blog stats and quite a few people were visiting my blog from here – so thanks for that.
    And as I am a fellow Typepad blogger any replies on here seem to get emailed to me.
    I can see how stalkers get started.

  12. I’ve come across Susan Hill on Facebook, as she is friends with some of mine, and I’ve been taken aback by her belligerence on almost every subject. She hates bloggers who review books, for instance. We are very bad at it.
    So, Maxine, we’d better give up here and now…
    I’ll do my own Oxfam blog later this week.

  13. Yes, Bookwitch, she certainly does not think much at all of us book bloggers who don’t have the expertise to review books. I find her attitude odd, that she is so belligerent and yet furious when people who disagree with her comment to say so, however politely. I once got very sternly told off and partonised by her about her stance on global warming, when I commented on her then blog to the effect that there is expert commentary and debate available, and where. Of course, climate research is one of those topics on which Susan Hill knows best and the experts are wrong – the opposite to her stance on book bloggers πŸ˜‰
    I finally stopped following her blog when she wrote a post about how supermarkets were stupid and wrong because their special offers were for (her one example) water softners. She ranted on about how could anyone need to buy water softners for their laundry, what a waste, encouraging people to spend money on things they did not need, etc. I think it did not occur to her that some people (eg me!) live in areas where the water is so hard that if you ran a load of laundry without softner, everything would come out as stiff as a board, and feel very itchy.

  14. Incidentally, none of this puts me off reading her crime series, which I think is very good. To me, it does not matter whether the author is a saint or anything else, I read books if I like them and not if I don’t.

  15. I love scratchy towels! That aside, I know what you mean. The climate thing was weird.
    Have only read one book by her, a long time ago, but you’re right, people don’t have to be nice to write well.

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