Thursday, 26 February 2015

Ron Costley

Above, I Saw Three Ships; Ian Hamilton Finlay/Ron Costley. Below, Figleaf, 1992, Ian Hamilton Finlay/Ron Costley, acrylic on garden wall.

Decades ago, I read a book by the ‘social psychologist’ Liam Hudson – probably the one published as a blue Pelican in 1968 and subtitled ‘Psychological Study of the English Schoolboy’, which is what I was at the time – from which I remember only this: what teachers teach is not a little specialised body of information (you can get that anywhere) but a way of apprehending the world: conviction, openness, humility. And they don’t actually teach these things; you just learn them from being in the same room.

No one has to shout. I remember one awful day at Faber when – tired, frustrated – I did shout at someone, and Ron was in the room and I couldn’t meet his eye, I felt ashamed.

Ron Costley, who died earlier this month, had started his job at Faber as text designer before I joined in 1991. I somehow knew vaguely who he was, probably from Alan Ross – when Ross became editor of the London Magazine in 1961, Ron gave it a design that still looked contemporary four decades later (Ross died in 2001); and in 1966 he designed the paperback London Magazine Editions, typographic covers on brown card and a text font chosen to mesh with their narrow measure. See here for images. Ron is, you understand, a godfather of my own press, CB editions. Of course when we just happened to be working in the same office, I didn’t know that this would be a result.

The 90s were that time when it dawned upon the managers, slowly but inevitably, that given the new machines on the desks and the software programs becoming available, they could cut out specialist designers and typesetters and just have people press buttons in Quark. Credit to Faber, they did not sideline Ron. While all around was going a little haywire – cover design given over to Pentagram – they trusted Ron with the text design, how the books looked when you got past the cover and started reading. They trusted him also with cover design for the first several books in the poet-to-poet series in 2000 (below; this series has gone through at least two non-Ron makeovers since then).

Almost none of the books he designed carry a credit. (There are many blogs devoted to cover design, very few to text design, a silent skill.) And that you may not recognise any particular book as being a Ron Costley design (though you can see when it’s not) was exactly the point – the aim of good design being that it should be invisible to the reader, entirely in service of the text and the reader's experience of that. The last thing it should be doing is drawing attention to itself. He was a ‘less is more’ man: a precise aesthetic, selective (only certain fonts favoured; small caps; bold eschewed; no letter-spacing of lower case) to the point at which it could be termed conservative, but if so, further, to the point where it comes out the other side and is absolutely radical.

Ron enjoyed working with authors. This is, among in-house designers and editors, a rarer thing than you might think: authors can be difficult, with knotted insecurities and anxieties, and many are surprisingly non-visual. Ron also worked for many years with Ian Hamilton Finlay (who I doubt was the easiest person to get along with): see above. Below is a spread from Ron’s In Horto, in memoriam IHF, edition of 150, 2007. There was another tiny book he did with the photographer Fay Godwin. For Christopher Reid, he designed All Sorts (with illustrations by Sara Fanelli) and other books from the Ondt & Gracehoper imprint. Nothing solo, I think. It’s one of the several ways in which in which he is instructive, exemplary: the matter of a book is the author’s, but the manner in which a book comes into being is collaborative, none of us can do this thing entirely on our own. Ron added a lot, for so many authors.

These limited editions, this minimalism – a bit austere, a bit precious? There’s control in there, and absolute focus, but there’s also, in everything he worked on, a clearly sensuous feel for the shape of a page, a line, a letter, a comma (there are books set in one font but with another font for the punctuation). When in the early days of CBe I wasn’t feeling too confident about a design, I’d go and have lunch with Ron at Pizza Express (extra chili flakes for him), and sometimes he’d suggest a tiny adjustment that made all the difference, and sometimes I disagreed with him, and we’d laugh at that. And order just one more glass, and then back to work.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Slow Publishing

I was reading something about the Slow Food movement. (There is also Slow Fashion, Slow Travel, Slow Photography, Slow Science, etc.) And then I heard Emma Barnes, who set up Snow Books, give a talk about Bibliocloud, a software program for publishers. I’ve heard her before; she is brilliant, and funny and wise. Most of the bigger publishers work off some kind of similar program, usually customised: a database, ever-expanding, in which you input basic information and can then spin off a whole lot else: sales reports, advance information sheets, catalogues, royalty statements, print orders. There was one at Faber, where I worked (back-room) for 14 years (until 2005); in the last year or so of that era, much of my time was spent tangling with this thing.

We’ve known for decades now that ‘labour-saving’ devices do not actually deliver the promised freedom to do with your time what you really want to do with it: read, write, edit, sleep. John Maynard Keynes believed in 1930 that his generation’s grandchildren, us, would be working just 3 hours a day, and often out of choice rather than necessity. That’s not how it has worked out. We are ever more time-poor. Here is a link to a long piece in The Economist on this, published just before Christmas.

It occurred to me, while listening to Emma Barnes, that much of what I do consists of Slow Publishing. I don’t actually want to spin off things by pressing a button, because I enjoy designing each book, cover, advance information sheet, catalogue, from pretty well scratch. I also enjoy dealing with no more than four or five authors per year. I enjoy collecting the printed books in person and talking to the man who prints them (over the years, his divorce, custody battle, remarriage, new family); I enjoy taking the books over – by Overgound if just a couple of boxes, by car if more – to the distributor’s warehouse, and being told off by Fred if the boxes are too big for his shelves, and gossip and tea with Bill. I enjoy writing numbers in columns in ledgers bought from stationery shops, and putting books in envelopes, and writing address labels by hand, and going to the post office, queuing, and talking to the family who run it (25-year certificate on the wall) about local news, their children, what's happening to Royal Mail.

The boxes could be couriered, of course. I could go with another distributor who is also a printer, and who would reprint automatically when stock gets down to x, with a print run calculated from previous months’ sales (we would email, I guess). I could do ebooks. I could learn how to make a spreadsheet. None of this has much appeal. I suspect that any gains in efficiency would be offset by losses in other things.

In some aspects of their work – not all – many small presses, perhaps, engage in Slow Publishing. It’s not actually a movement; it’s more an attitude. It comes from taking pleasure in books.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Bookshop praise

The below is from the 'preamble' to issue 1 of Sonofabook (subscribe or buy copy here):

'A word on independent bookshops, whose quarter-page adverts in this issue were offered free. Without good small bookshops it is very hard for small publishers to get their books out into the physical world. In February 2014 the Booksellers Association reported that the number of independent bookshops in the UK had fallen below 1,000, following a year-on-year decline over the previous decade. This massacre is in part the consequence of ebooks and online buying, but a key moment was the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997. The ending of the NBA – which required retailers to sell books at the cover price – led to aggressive discounting (which actually forces up the cover price of books, as publishers struggle to maintain their margins); concentrated bookselling in the hands of chainstores, supermarkets and Amazon; and forced the closure of hundreds of bookshops. The literary culture of the UK was changed overnight; but while France and Germany legislate to restrict discounting and offer good breaks to independent bookshops, none of the political parties in the UK cares a damn, this not being a vote-winning issue.

Back when CBe started up, I put books in a bag and trekked around some of the independent bookshops in London. It rained. I had no distributor, no trade reps, no reviews, no credibility and no umbrella. Johnny de Falbe at Sandoe’s read one of the books overnight and rang next day to order 40 copies; also supportive were Max Porter at Daunts (now an editor at Granta) and Matthew Crockatt at Crockatt & Powell (now with And Other Stories); and then Dennis Harrison at Albion Beatnik and Gavin Housley at Foyles and Jonathan Main at Bookseller Crow and Muna Khogali at Book & Kitchen, and others. I had never met any of these people before wandering into their shops. I owe them. The ads for bookshops in this first issue, and I hope in future issues too, are intended as more than just fillers.'

Sonofabook the magazine issue 1: mash-up

Lines from the first issue of Sonofabook magazine, out in March. Subscribe now (or buy a single issue) and I'll post within 24 hours. Contributions below from: Will Eaves, Elizabeth Mikesch & May-Lan Tan, D. Nurkse, Nancy Gaffield, Dan O’Brien, Francis Ponge, Agota Kristof, Adnan Sarwar, Andrew Elliott, David Collard, Ryan Van Winkle & J. O. Morgan, Jack Robinson.

Acoustic dark: voices and squeaks, the slide and shunt of forms. The darkness has a leathern softness, lit by brass flashes.

To be sucked through a tube is a rare kind of honesty.

Now the Age of Terror. A clique of ecstatic suicides. For each killer, a thousand steady jobs; bankers, publicists, bloggers, documentarians, Security diplomates in office complexes with tinted windows, in leafy suburbs where the streets bear no signs, custodians on server farms.

The family watched him float up through the sunroof. His crotch flowered like agave.

Her clothes were changing. / Gauzy halters. And her diet. / Slim Jims in taco sauce.

Beware of parataxis. The New Poets / (British Branch) want nothing / to do with you.

Good news about the sporadic interest / in your poems.

poetry (damn this word)

Obese women, sitting outdoors to get a bit of fresh air, will watch me pass by without a word. Filled with happiness, I’ll greet everybody.

Where’s your God now they asked. He’s not here in Kuwait and he wasn’t there in Iraq, was he?

Give me that ole time religion. / Your sorrows pin you to / this place.

where I liked to pass an hour every morning / with a coffee, a croissant, an American classic – / a Moby-Dick, an Invisible Man

Chosen genre: aesthetically and rhetorically adequate definition-descriptions. Limits of this genre: its extension. From the formula (or concrete maxim) to a Moby-Dick sort of novel, for example.

The opening line of Melville’s novel is not ‘Call me Ishmael’. This appears only after fifty pages of what the author calls ‘Front Matter’, an accumulation of fragments like the unsightly trash and clutter surrounding a whaling station, rough chunks of text roughly flensed from the body of leviathan literature.

For weeks the whale is content to hang in a column of water, to press its face to the sheen of kept-out air, to fill its cold cathedral with lament. But here, if it rains for more than you can bear, you will be forgiven if you write in your diary: stretch me no longer across this rough and presupposing world.

I hid and watched / the spider take the fly apart.

An eye, a cloak, a tremolo of creeps: cartoons, the imps and gristly disjecta of Disney, Bosch; a swarming substrate with a will.

Did you ever try to grow yourself from sand, to tongue a clam and wear the beach like a clog?

It’s an irrelevant question, like asking ‘and what sort of time do you call this?’ Into the answering silence pours the questioner’s self-doubt, his powerless pride.

feeling like a dead guest on a talk show / couch with more dead guests and a dead host who / entertain a studio audience of the dead, all for the invisible / dead who watch at home

How do the dead stay dead?

I hold my pee, and it hurts me.

I thought of how some things resist / by taking all the weight you can put on them.

They’ve got a beautiful country, we made holes in it

Lived here once, / existing from the collar up, / the sleeves out.

Here today I was going to get my head kicked in and that was going to be part of my history, part of me. Come on, then. White faces all around shouting and spitting and me in the middle.

Meanwhile Freud had continued to stare and the novelty of someone / so famous staring at my father had worn off. It was embarrassing.

There is nowhere that my father walked with me, hand in hand.

Because my father shouted at me / over the lid to the mustard jar / I made up the story in which he dies.

People don’t want stories, she says: ‘They want to be told how to do things, how to live their lives, they want advice.’ The author as agony aunt.

There’s so much I have to tell you, but I can’t open my mouth right now.

Of course, if I wish to be perfectly sincere, I do not conceive that one can validly write other than as I do.

Before the sun rises, I must speak of everything.

You might whisper to me like I’m there in your summer, panting without sound.

There are rewards for breaking all the china.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The social history of books

There was that Kenneth Patchen 1957 Selected Poems I bought in a local Oxfam shop just before Christmas, signed on the flyleaf: ‘George Buchanan, 1959’ – the Irish-born poet, 1904-89, who published with Carcanet and whose daughter lives opposite me.

Last Saturday in another local Oxfam shop there was a treasure trove of late 1950s/early 1960s Penguins. I bought three. Inside a Moravia I found a forgotten bookmark in the form of a letter dated 7 February1961, thanking a Dr Helen Rubens for her job application and inviting her to attend a interview at a doctors’ surgery on the afternoon of the 10th – in other words, almost certainly this book was last read over a half a century ago, and perhaps the woman reading it had it with her on the day of the interview (the surgery opening times are handwritten on the back of the envelope). I googled the name and found her: her grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants and her parents met while working as market traders; she married a trades unionist at the age of 23, became a GP, mentored refugees studying medicine, was made a Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1992, and died last year. For her Guardian obituary, written by her son, see here. I feel proud to have some of the books she once read.

Thursday, 15 January 2015


A thing about reading many contemporary novels and poems is that often they make me conscious of doing so. That is, there’s me, the book, and the author too, saying ‘Hey, this is me writing a novel/poem, how’s it going?’

This happens at least as often, more, with work that’s conventional in form and content as it does with the kind of writing that gets called ‘experimental’.

I’d prefer the author to wander off, leaving just me and the book, but really I’m arguing against myself here, the best kind of argument. An ephemeral review of John Updike – in The Listener? late 1960s? – has stuck with me: the reviewer’s complaint was that whatever was being being described was being done so with such gorgeous resources of language that the reader’s attention was on the description, not the thing being described. And thus, as a description, it was functionally amiss.

Words, of course, get in the way. That’s their tease: see what I’m signifying or see me, me. There’s an early Alan Sillitoe novel in which the protagonist goes on a rampage against his bookshelves: I think all writers sometimes want out of it, the wordiness of it all. Shkolvsky: ‘How I want simply to describe objects as if literature had never existed; that way I could write literarily.’

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The short story, in sickness and in health

Here is Philip Hensher in a Spectator review of a short-story collection: ‘Superficial signs of success and publicity – such as Alice Munro winning the Nobel, or the establishment of another well-funded prize – are widely mistaken for a resurgence. But what has disappeared – and disappeared quite recently – is the wide spread of journals willing to pay for a single story … writers in this country are reduced to giving away their short fiction for nothing, or to collecting it from time to time and persuading their publisher to bring out a volume for minuscule advances. It is scandalous that short-story writers of the talent of Helen Simpson, Jackie Kay, Gerard Woodward, Ali Smith, Shena Mackay and A.L. Kennedy have never established a firm relationship with a journal which, like the Strand with Conan Doyle, would regularly publish their stories. But there are no such magazines in this country.’

To which a fairly widespread response was: but the short story is resurgent: see the large number of readings, organisations, websites, magazines, etc, now promoting it.

Maybe both are right. Two different publishing models are being referenced here, and the differences between them are to large degree determined by money. Put simply, when writing and reading were more central to the culture than they are now, there was more of it around. In 1902 the Strand magazine paid Conan Doyle up to £620 (in today’s money, around £66,000) for a single episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles. To found The English Review in 1908, Ford Madox Ford raised £5,000 (in today’s money, over half a million). A consequence of the money was stable, long-term relationships between writers and editors, publishers, magazines. In tiny pockets this model still survives – in, for example, as Hensher points out, the long-term association between certain story writers and The New Yorker – but the new model, now that writing-&-reading have been shifted out to the periphery, is increasingly focused on competitions. The Book Trust website lists 76 of them in the UK. As Hensher points out in his Spectator piece, ‘With the funds one Sunday newspaper makes available for its annual short-story prize, it could afford to pay handsomely every week for a short story’ – but no, rather than pay many authors a reasonable sum, it chooses to pay one author a staggering sum. Competitions do many things effectively: they provide publicity for the sponsors and the genre itself; they provide money (through the entry fees) for the small presses or magazines that run many of them; they act as a filter, offering a select number of names to interested but time-strapped readers. What they do not do is foster the kind of long-term writer-editor relationship (as between, say, Carver and Gordon Lish) that was integral to the old model.

The latter kind of nurturing relationship is perhaps now more available in the creative writing industry than in publishing. This would make sense, given that it’s towards there that the money has shifted.