Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Home & away

Just as CBe starts to make some kind of financial sense (sales last year were more than double the previous year’s), I wander off. If it was anyone else, I’d see a certain style in this.

CBe hasn’t shut up shop; I haven’t wandered off very far; but the landscape looks a little different. There is this: that the four most recent titles, published earlier this year – Agota Kristof’s The Notebook and The Illiterate, May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist – will be a hard act to follow. And now there is this: the unexpected (I mean that) consequence of taking time out (the Czech Republic in May, Sardinia in June/July; now home) is that I’ve started messing around with writing again – Jack is back, and I think Jennie too – after a long period of no writing at all, and writing takes time, and so does publishing, and so does finding and doing work that actually brings in money, and besides, the weather is fine.

Meanwhile, here is John Greening in this week’s Times Literary Supplement on Fergus Allen’s New & Selected Poems: ‘The pleasure that Fergus Allen takes in the “superior amusement” of making poems is evident throughout this handsome volume … Allen has learnt his trade well enough to shift from the playful to the erudite, from the grand style to the plain, without any loss of authority. The number of good opening lines alone is enviable: “The purpose of nettles is to make more nettles”, “Annie’s pubic hair was beyond a joke”, “Dark roles, my agent says they’re me”, “A solo glutton or wolverine”, “After the earthquake we decided to redecorate Hell”. The poems introduced by such lines are witty, humane, erotic, worldly-wise, sardonic, amiable, and overflowing with a true poet’s delight in language.’

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Lives of poets

This is Perseus Adams. He was born in South Africa in 1933; he won the South Africa State Prize for Poetry in 1963 and took the name Perseus at the advice of his hitch-hiking friend Athol Fugard, who suggested that if he wanted to publish there were too many Peters around already.

An old friend of Perseus who lost touch with him a while back, an artist now living in Jerusalem who happens to be a Facebook friend of my wife, asked if we could trace him. The Internet has a page from a local newspaper dated 2009 that mentioned his poetry and gave his address as Hadyn Park Road, which leads off the street in which we live. (It also mentioned that his grandmother was Van Gogh’s sister.) On Saturday we knocked on doors, and found some sheltered housing but there was no one at the reception desk. Going there again today, I was told that yes, Perseus had lived there, but had recently moved to a care home and they couldn’t tell me which. This afternoon I found him. He showed me his poetry books (including a 1970s competition anthology: Perseus won second prize, Derek Mahon was one of the runners up); a Selected Poems was published in South Africa in 1996. He talked non-stop: about his grandfather who died at 45 in Scotland, about meeting Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, about teaching English in India and Hong Kong, about being a stowaway on the Queen Mary, about a brief spell in Wormwood Scrubs, about a woman with coloured lights in her dress, about the newly discovered planet Kepler-186, about the end of the world … He happens to be in the same care home as Sheila, the ex-bookseller I’ve written about before who ran a tiny bookshop in Notting Hill for 44 years. If I visit again, he wouldn’t mind some croissants.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Czech-land (2): Prague

Kafka’s grave in Prague on the morning of last Tuesday, the 90th anniversary of his death, and the overgrown Jewish cemetery where it is. While I was away I read his America for the first time: an affectionate, comic novel in which our hero stumbles into a series of messes and then has to get out of them. Kafka-esque doesn’t have to mean nightmarish. By chance, I also re-read Peter Handke’s Short Letter, Long Farewell, which is another German-speaking writer’s take on the land of America and which I liked even better than I remembered. And on my last night in Prague I heard Ales Machacek and Jane Kirwan read from their book Second Exile (Rockingham Press, 2010), which is a book CBe would have lunged for: memoir of silent cinema, reading, arrest and re-arrest, prison, odd-job jobs, no Velvet Revolution panacea, told bluntly and with a gorgeous turn of phrase, punctuated by Jane's slanting-off poems and a goose-woman, plus photographs.

An empty yellow house I could live happily in:

My hotel was near a park on a hill, and here late last Sunday afternoon, early evening, are people sitting around on the west-facing slope of that hill: talking, meeting, drinking beer, with dogs and small children and guitars, watching the sun set over their city. The Italian tradition of the passegiata - the evening stroll, dressed up, ambling, pausing for iced drinks - I find stifling. This, by comparison, was Langland's 'fair field full of folk', by accident of geography and weather and size of city, and to say I'm glad to have been there is the least of it.

Czech-land (1)

The Freelance column in today's Times Lit Supplement is me writing from my 'retreat' in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Here are some photos to go with that (the next post will show Prague). I hadn’t been out of the UK, and rarely out of London, for more than three years.

Krumlov is almost too picturesque for its own good, but doesn’t insist on it. A photo of the apartment I was in is in the previous post; below is Egon Schiele's painting of the building, from a century ago:

Frequent rain, and once a hailstorm. Japanese tourists with colourful umbrellas and pac-a-macs:

Walk for less than 20 minutes and I was into the forest. Walk through the forest and I’d find a small village. En route, hidden by trees, the occasional tiny chapel, often with candles left burning by an invisible pilgrim:

Time passed. Reading was done, sleeping was done, I began to take even the bears for granted.

On one of the rare hot days I took a bus to a lake to go swimming: an hour to get there in a bus that took detours, then two buses on the way back. All the buses were driven by the same driver.

I came home last night. Last Saturday, while I was away, May-Lan Tan's Things to Make and Break was named runner-up in the short story collection category in the Saboteur Awards. I'm feeling mellow and still a little detached.

Friday, 23 May 2014

May days

You have just two days left to vote for May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break in the short-story collection of the Saboteur Awards: the voting page is here. May-Lan will be reading at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford on 31 May, when the awards will be announced.

In the last couple of weeks Agota Kristof’s The Notebook and The Illiteratehave been reviewed in the New Statesman and have been written about more extensively here, on the website of the US magazine Music & Literature.

I’m still away: the apartment I’m in is on the top floor of one of the two houses with terraces overlooking the river just down from the steeple in the photo above. There are (below) bears in the castle moat, and riverside walks, and forests, and an hour away a lake for swimming. Being a tourist is hard work. On 3 June I’ll visit the grave of Kafka in Prague on the 90th anniversary of his death.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

If I look up from my desk ...*

Above is the view from the window above my desk, early evening, overlooking a river in a small town in the south of the Czech Republic. There’s a passage in Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage where he lists some of the lovely places he’s been in order to get some writing done and then adds: ‘What they all had in common, these ideal places for working, was that I never got any work done in them. I would sit down at my desk and think to myself What perfect conditions for working, then I would look out at the sun smouldering over the wheat, or at the trees gathering the Tuscan light around themselves …’

This is basically to say: I am away. Until sometime in June, at which time I will relearn basic communication skills.

Meanwhile, the category shortlists for the Saboteur Awards are up for public vote to decide the winners, and you have until 25 May to go to this page and vote. For May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break in the short story collection category, perhaps. You choose.

*Geoff Dyer: ‘of the many varieties of sentence I dislike there is none that I despise more than ones that proceed along the lines of “If I look up from my desk …”’

Tuesday, 29 April 2014


This week’s poem on the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre website is D. Nurkse’s ‘The North Side’ from his collection A Night in Brooklyn, published by CBe last year. (I read that poem first in a US magazine; it was one of those poems I had to buy the whole magazine for, just to have it; I never guessed, at the time, I’d eventually publish the book that includes it.)

That US publishing rights for Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue (‘A wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous ... with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals’ – Independent on Sunday), published by CBe in 2011, have been sold is a happy surprise.

Update (non-update) on the tedious saga of Faber partially remaindering their poetry books – see this previous post. To my email to the sales director accepting his offer to sell me copies of my own book at 27p each (the price at which they were sold to a remainder merchant), no reply. To my email of over a month ago asking whether the same offer would be made to other Faber poets whose books are subject to ‘modest stock reductions’ (i.e., they are being partially remaindered), no reply.

I don’t think this is anything personal. (Well, it probably is, by now.) Earlier this year, after rereading work by an author I knew and admired, I emailed both his editor (at Faber, as it happens) and his agent to ask if they knew of any writing by him left unpublished at the time of his death in 2011. No reply from either. Alexei Sayle once wrote that the switch for the indicator light in taxis is located in the rear boot; for many in publishing, the email ‘reply’ button is similarly located.

From next week I’ll be away for a month (the Czech Republic, since you ask) and during that time I too may find the ‘reply’ button hard to find. Apologies in advance for erratic service.