Thursday, 16 June 2016

A thing about bookshops

Growing up, I read library books, mostly. First, from the mobile library van that came round to the village, two-toned, beige and cream, no mission statement or hard sell. Then I wandered into a bookshop in the Arndale Centre in Headingley that stocked Calder & Boyars books. I bought The Faber Book of Modern Verse there, I think, in 1960-something, with a book token that I’d been given at Christmas, remember book tokens? (Remember libraries?) Most of that book baffled me, some still does, but in a good way.

If I said that I’m a person who can’t pass a bookshop without going in, I’d be lying. I can pass by a Waterstones as easily as a Greggs (because I know without going in what the books are going to taste like?). Even – grumpy-old-man hat – many new independent bookshops are less bookshops than cafés or up-market stationery shops with bookshelves attached. There may be a financial reason for this – I’m thinking of restaurants that offer good food but survive only because of a huge mark-up on the wine – but they are not bookshops. They offer what’s won the recent prizes, and maybe even what’s been on the recent shortlists, and a predictable selection of contemporary fiction. They have poetry shelves that offer Heaney, Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, a local writer and a few anthologies. They offer cookery and ‘mindfulness’ and sometimes a selection of small press books but this is light fare without what’s come before, icing without a cake. Many new independent bookshops sell not books but lifestyle.

So, the good bookshop: Shakespeare, Cervantes and Brecht for absolute starters. Herrick – I’m immediately suspicious of any bookshop that doesn’t stock Herrick. A wholesome selection of NYRB books. Bolaño, of course, and not just the token one or two. And this, especially: those books that maybe didn’t sell well in their first six months, and maybe even the publisher has lost faith, I want them to be there for me when I get around to them. (Any bookseller who thought a book worth selling at the start, why stop? Keep, surely, at least a copy or two.) ‘But we don’t have enough shelf space’ – well, yes, not enough for everything; but don’t, please, argue lack of shelf space while at the same time parading Moleskine notebooks and Lamy pens and funny greeting cards.

Exemplary bookshops: John Sandoe’s, of course. Albion Beatnik, 34 Walton Street, Oxford (where Patrick Mackie and John Clegg read from their new books, CBe and Carcanet respectively, last Friday). Book & Kitchen, 31 All Saints Road, London. Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace (I haven’t been in there for a year; I need to go back). I don’t see how anyone can spend time in these places – half an hour minimum: how much time do you allow for visiting an art gallery? – without exiting with some wonderful book(s) they didn’t even know they needed when they went in.

What distinguishes the above bookshops is (now that I’ve mentioned art galleries) that their stock is curated (new word for an old thing). Knowledge (decades of it), selection (of course, again, not everything), enthusiasm (not the pushy kind), idiosyncrasy (part of the job description). Nothing puts me off buying a book more than a mass display of a single title (often including ‘signed copies’ – but that’s a separate post). Nothing makes me want to buy a book more than finding a single copy of, say, a book that came out a few years ago and I remember thinking sounds interesting but not acting on that and here, now, it still is, just for me.

The relationship between many new independent bookshops and local charity shops selling books, especially the Oxfam ones, is fraught. Oxfam – more by accident than design, but they’re now pretty canny about this – have got something right. They’re not bookshops proper, but they have terrific stock. Most of my book-buying is done in Oxfam shops. I’ll pass by a Waterstones but not an Oxfam bookshop. No, don’t wait, you go on, I’ll meet you in the café in half an hour.

Friday, 20 May 2016

On Jack Robinson

Those interviews with writers (or artists, film directors, etc) whose work (or public persona) is known for its bleakness: I like it when the interviewer finds it necessary to emphasise – often in the first para, and in a tone of happy surprise – that the given writer is, ‘in real life’, warm, funny, generous. Why shouldn’t or wouldn’t they be? While there’s a sense in which the work is the writer – it hardly ever turns out to have been written by the writer’s aunt or step-brother – it isn’t the work that opens the door and makes coffee.

I got sent a review this week of Jack Robinson’s about the same author, a slip of book I published with CBe at the start of this year. At around 2,750 words, it’s approximately half the length of the book itself. (It’s in the Cambridge Humanities Review, not online.) From it, I learnt some things about Jack. (Just as, a long time ago, I learnt things about my poet-self from a review of my last poetry collection: the reviewer pointed to a number of things in the poems which I hadn’t before been consciously aware of.)

I am, by the way, as well as being Charles Boyle (poetry and stories), Jack. And was briefly Jennie Walker (24 for 3, infidelity and cricket). Je est un autre. About the pseudonomy, just this: two of the first group of four CBe titles I published were written by me; I had no distributor, no plans to publish any more books; I knew that I was going to take these books into independent bookshops and say how wonderful they were and that the booksellers would ask who the authors were and that ‘me’ is not a persuasive reply, so the pseudonyms.

That’s about as pragmatic a reason as you can get, but of course it’s far from the whole story. (I doubt there is ever a story we can all agree upon. Or even a colour: it’s clear, as I discuss colours for the CBe covers, that one person’s blue is another person’s green.) The first pen-name was Jennie, and I can recall the tipping point exactly: writing a first-person narrative about a man between two women, I was labouring, but when – overnight – the ‘I’ became a woman between two men, the thing took off. It was liberating: suddenly, I was able to write in a way that I’d wanted but had previously been unable to.

Jennie was a means of escaping from the dull male poet I seemed to have become but who didn’t entirely convince me (so god help the readers). I have a pretty wavery sense of who I am. I think I’m shorter than most people but turn out, on inspection, to be about average. I’m not happy with my knees and I don’t like my name (that arle and oyle, the bloatedness). When in 1999 I read in a print interview Michael Hofmann saying ‘I have an overwhelmingly strong sense of who I am’, I was shocked (still am).

Then Jack. Jack because it’s flat, Robinson because – well, the name came in a flash, ‘before you can say . . .’ It was only later that I realised, or remembered, that I was allying myself to a whole tradition of Robinsons in fiction, poetry and film, all of them ne’er-do-wells or suspect in some way: in Fielding, Dickens, Conrad, Henry James, Céline, Kafka, Muriel Spark, Chris Petit, Patrick Keiller, Weldon Kees, Simon Armitage . . . (‘Know my partner? Old Robinson. Yes; the Robinson. Don’t you know? The notorious Robinson. The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose Johnny now alive.’)

Jack-of-all-trades? Hardly. He’s no poet. He’s not a non-fiction writer because he likes making things up, but nor is he a novelist: he has a short attention span, he lacks stamina, he can’t sustain a plot and he’s not that interested in how characters develop. He writes short books, generally made up of fragments, in which fiction and fact bounce off each other. He likes table tennis, without being much good at it. He’s a bit frivolous, frankly. I don’t think he’s married. He can be forgetful (as I can: I’d forgotten, until the review of by the same author reminded me, that I once described CBe as ‘a small machine for reading aloud to strangers’). He’s not good at joining things up (he can just about do joined-up handwriting). He has a problem with endings. (The review remarks on how many of the paragraphs – ‘It’s hard to describe these sequent pages as “episodes”’ – don’t so much end as simply stop: ‘Robinson’s paragraphs run for as long as their thoughts do, and then stop running’.) He’s stubborn: knowing that he’s not a ‘natural’ novelist/poet/journalist, he still insists on writing.

Jack is noticeably impatient. (I’ve never really understood why patience is generally reckoned a virtue: sometimes, yes, but by no means always.) The gestation time of each of Jack’s three slim books to date has been short: Days and Nights in W12 was written over a couple of months, Recessional over a few weeks, by the same author in around ten days. The work Jack is attempting right now is different; it dates back to my impulse-buying of a second-hand copy of a translation of Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist in a shop (now long gone) in Hammersmith in, I think, the late 1980s. (It was published by Chatto; D. J. Enright later recalled: ‘During my time at Chatto I managed to pull off US deals for two books I particularly liked. We printed copies of a new translation of Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist for a firm that went bankrupt, and a book on the son of Anna (“and the King of Siam”) and his doings in the teak trade for a company called Thai-American Publishing that couldn’t be tracked down. End of my career as a whizz-kid.’) Marie-Henri Beyle – Stendhal was just one of his pseudonyms; he had hundreds – got under my skin. There’s a Stendhal poem or two in a poetry collection I published in 1993, and more in a 1996 collection, and a whole sequence in a 2001 collection. He won’t go away, still. This is a job for Jack. The book Jack is proposing is about Stendhal and death, loosely, and it’s taking longer than usual because each time Jack finds what he thinks is an appropriate form it collapses in on him.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016


The first reprinted batches of CBe books in the new look are now in – shown above, alongside the pebbles from Brighton beach that cued the colours for the Ponge. Apt, given that the longest (prose) poem in the book is ‘The Pebble’: ‘a pebble is a stone at the precise moment when its life as a person, an individual, begins, I mean at the stage of speech.’

The reason for the new look is in a previous post. A retro look. Not-too-happy memories of academic paperbacks of, say, the 1990s. Happier memories of the two-tone mobile library van that came round to the village in Yorkshire where I grew up in the 1950s. The below is a 1968 Orkney Islands library van – the one I remember was brown and cream, a swooshing curve dividing them, and that I can’t find an image of it – or even something like it – on the net is a reminder that the net is not a repository of ‘everything’, in fact most things are not there at all.

Some of the first books I read came out of the library van. I didn’t know that I was supposed to start a book on page 1 and then read through the pages in consecutive order – I thought I could start with the chapters that sounded most exciting (‘The Pirates Attack’) and then get round to the others if I was still interested. This still seems a valid and perfectly reasonable way of reading a book.

For any new orders of J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, the above is what you’ll get. For Francis Ponge’s Unfinished Ode to Mud, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic, there are still a few old-style copies left (so, for a while, you have a choice). The insides are the same. That you may have already got these books is of course no bar on ordering them again.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Writers' mini-biographies

I mean, those little single-para biogs that usually appear on the very first page of a book, or on the back flap if it has flaps. They are introductions: reader, meet X, who lives in Gothenburg. There’s not room for much more info, but often they list an author’s previous titles (which are listed again on the second page, in case your memory is seriously short-term), and if relevant a prize or two (many of these with strange names: the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust award, the Ballygowrie Prize for Irrelevance). Plus, optionally, something on marital status, children, pets; previous jobs (fur trapper, peanut vendor); and a surprising number of writers still divide their time between one place and another.

CBe tends to be relaxed about these. ‘Patrick Mackie lives in Gloucestershire’ is all you get at the start of The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints (launch party at Daunts in Holland Park this Tuesday, 3 May, 6.30: if you’re curious to know more, come along). There are no author photos on any of the books. Two of the books carry no biographical information at all. In the case of Andrew Elliott, when someone requested life info and a photo I simply sent a photocopy of his poem ‘Self-portrait in Shades #2’ (from Mortality Rate). It has been rumoured that I am Andrew Elliott. I am not. On the other hand, I am Jack Robinson and Jennie Walker (‘has published, under a different name, several collections of poetry’).

I don’t think a lack of information need be confusing. I don’t think it really matters. I’m aware that many people do sometimes want some cut-and-dried hard facts about the author of the book they are reading. In the interests of clarity, here’s a screenshot of a website’s reply to a request for information about the CBe (and now HappenStance and Cape) writer J. O. Morgan:

PS: a fine review of Julian Stannard’s What were you thinking? is published in the Herald today, this bright May morning:

Monday, 25 April 2016

The shape of things

Don Paterson’s introduction to his little Faber anthology (part of their 101 series) of sonnets gave a lot of space (I can’t quote because I don’t have the book to hand) to the shape of the sonnet, proportion of width to height. The sonnet shape is roughly exemplified by Malevich’s 1932 Red House (which was on the cover of the original edition, 1990s I think; later editions dropped it, a shame). The Malevich, above.

The sheer shape of it has to do with the sonnet’s persistence. Portrait, not landscape. It’s roughly the shape of the notebook you carry around and write in, and of the A4 paper you print your poems and stories on when when you send them out (for those places that still don’t take online submissions) and of the magazine (except for Stand) or book that they may, god willing, get printed in.

I’ve been wondering (as one does) why the standard delivery system for poems in my lifetime has been the roughly sonnet-shaped book of 64 pages, in which so many of the poems have occupied a single page. The 64 (or 48, or 80, etc) has had to do with with a certain period of printing technology, which required a page extent divisible by 16, and needn’t apply to digital printing, but the basic shape? There’ve been other delivery systems in the past, but even the scroll was portrait not landscape.

Television and cinema screens are landscape. So are computer (but not tablet or smartphone, unless you swivel) screens – yet almost certainly, the window on the computer in which you do your writing is portrait.

About a decade ago an exact contemporary of mine (we were in the 6th form at school together; then he sailed off on a fishing boat to Iceland; much later, he had twin girls in Scotland, I had twin boys in England, all born within the space of about a year, a Shakespearian comedy in the making, and we met up; and then he died) published an online translation of Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune with links, artwork, video things, innovatory for its time, and I got a little excited: if online rather than printed book becomes the regular delivery system, the shape of a poem (or page) that I’m used to becomes just one of a possible many?

So far, it seems not. There are writers whose default medium is the screen rather than the A4 or printed-book page, but nothing (or very little) to date whose format simply has to be something other than portrait. (Correct me; I live a sheltered life; I may be wrong, often am.) The interaction between traditional publishing and online is generally dull. Ebooks are convenient, but reproducing print in an online form that mimics that of printed books is hardly an innovative use of the medium.

It’s possible – no? – that just as a wheel has to be round – a square wheel wouldn’t function as a wheel – a poem has to be portrait rather than landscape. For various human reasons. There are only so many words that a reader can take in per line before getting befuddled (text design kicks in here: type size and leading and line measure, to make the reading experience as reader-friendly as possible). For the length that one breathes out before needing to breathe in. In, out.

All kinds writing and reading key in. The lovely kerching when, writing on a typewriter, you have reached the end of a line and have to lever the carriage back to the left again and the page jerks up a little. Watching on the Tube someone opposite reading a book: the way their eyes move from left to right and back to left, and again, and again, the rhythm of it. It’s how people watch tennis. The shape of the buildings in which we, many of us, live, and do our reading and writing and all the other things we do. (I’ve spent a good proportion of my life going up or down stairs.) Further, some kind of predisposition to vertical hierarchy: upper-middle-lower. The ‘conscious’ and the ‘subconscious’ – as though these things were arranged in layers, levels, vertically.*

* ‘If we are trained well, we can do three or four things together at the same time: ride in a car, cry, and look through a window; eat, love, think. And all the time consciousness passes like an elevator among the floors.’ – Yehuda Amichai, ‘Nina of Ashkelon’

PS: The title of this post is cribbed from a 1999 book published by Reaktion (and designed by, guess who, Ron Costley): Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things. He’s sharp and witty. ‘Umbrellas are relatively complicated contraptions which refuse to work just when they are needed (when it is windy, for instance).’ ‘Why do machines stutter? The answer is, because everything in the world (and the whole world itself) stutters.’ ‘Roofs are devices to make us subservient.’ ‘Until recently our world consisted of things: houses and furniture, machines and motor vehicles, clothing and underwear, books and pictures, tins and cigarettes.’

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The new brown

From 2007 to now, all (well, almost all) CBe books have had brown card covers. These, as the website puts it, ‘allude with respect and thanks to the paperback London Magazine editions published by Alan Ross in the late 1960s and early 70s’ – a series designed by Ron Costley, who I’ve written about here before and who died last year. For a number of reasons – a main one being that I don’t want to be limited to printing with a printer who carries the brown card as regular stock – I want to change.

Alan Ross also published a hardback series. Here are three off the shelves: Bernard Spencer (1965), Tony Harrison (1970; ‘Loiners’, by the way, are people from Leeds, as I am); Tomas Transtromer (1972; translated by Robert Bly).

Keeping the Alan Ross and Ron Costley link, here (below) is what I’m thinking of for the new look. As before, usually no cover image (but yes if appropriate). First print runs of a new title will have flaps, reprints probably not. All new titles like this; and any existing titles that run out of stock and that I’d like to keep in print will move into this design. Any thoughts?

Saturday, 9 April 2016

'No flair but he plods on'

In the interests of accountability and full disclosure, here are quotes (all genuine) from my school reports between 1959 and 1964 (which I found last night while looking for something else):

1959 He is a neat, reliable worker.

1960 Rather slow progress.

1961 With more practice he should improve.
Moderate. He does not think fast enough.
He tries hard but is sometimes disappointingly inaccurate.
Rather slow. A more incisive approach would help.

1962 There are signs of improvement.
Trying hard but finds the work difficult. Never really shows his ability in exams. Working under stress seems to worry him.
Quality at the moment not impressive.
He finds advanced work difficult but has time on his side.

1963 No flair but he plods on.
Slow progress.
Rather pedestrian pace so far.
Elementary mistakes mar his compositions. Much ground remains to be covered.
Moderate standard but time is still on his side.
He plods on but finds none of the work easy.

1964 Works hard but the syllabus has become a tall order.
He has made progress but much of his work is below the standard required.
He is doing good work though a little slow.
Less confused but still not readily capable with grammar.
He is an excellent Scout, Secretary both of Library and Bird Club. He has played good rugger. His reading at the Carol Service was quite splendid.