Monday, 22 June 2015

On James Kennaway

I was sent the above last week.

Here’s some post-coital gallows humour. After drinking with a newspaper editor and then in a club, and after very rashly placing Susie (‘in little bruised pieces’) in the care of Fiddes and then camping out for a while in another drinking club, Link goes to see Mandy, a prostitute on whom Fiddes has performed an illegal abortion, and after they fuck Mandy tells him about a documentary she watched on TV:

Quite the scene. This is of cows going into a slaughterhouse. Great, it was. They look exactly like people, you know – there’s Aunt Maisie with her bow legs and udders brushing the gound, and there’s another who’s the split image of a silly tart that used to stand on the corner of Audley and Curzon Street, when I was in the first bloom of my youth. But most they’re like horrible housewives in Winchester or Blackheath, or maybe Wembley. Stupid, you know, not vicious, stupid. And they waddle into this slaughterhouse calm as can be, just like the supermarket; then ‘bonk!’ there’s a chisel gets hammered right through their nuts. They sway a couple of times, then fold up. It had me in stitches. It’s horrible really. But it was funny for me ’cause I knew all the cows.

The night is far from over – after being chucked out by Mandy (‘I hate sleeping with men. There’s always that meddling goes on at half past five’), Luke goes on to a police party with a couple of other prostitutes in tow, and then flies to Germany to see the son of his last true love, who was killed when she skied into an army truck – so the slaughterhouse comes almost as light relief, a welcome change of pace. All of Kennaway’s novels are short but you do need stamina (and a good head for drink).

Link, Fiddes and Susie combine to form the triangular relationship at the heart of Some Gorgeous Accident (1967), the last novel published by Kennaway before he was killed in a car crash at the age of forty in 1968. The bond between Link, a war photographer, and Fiddes, a doctor in a charity hospital (‘wondering why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money. There was such awful, English arrogance in that’), is already there at the start of the book: ‘When they met there were always the same ironies, obscenities, insults and jokes.’ So is the bond between Link and Susie: ‘Why, he just took the girl out a couple of times. Once for a week, a super steeple-climbing, Ritz-eating, no sleeping frayed-lovers week. Next time for a few months of hell in the Village in New York.’ The link between Fiddes and Susie is effected by Link, acting out of motives that seem sometimes innocent, sometimes not. That there’s a sexual element in the bond between Link and Fiddes is arguable: ‘A homosexual, or latently homosexual attachment, Mr Link? … If I sometimes think so, Fiddes would go on, it is only because I can find no better for such a close relationship.’ Later: ‘Is there always a moment in a triangular situation where everyone’s sex is the same?’

Formally, you could – though I can’t see why you’d want to – call Some Gorgeous Accident an experimental novel, at least mildly so. Pages in the second half of the book are taken up by transcriptions of court proceedings (someone has snitched to the BMA about the abortion carried out by Fiddes). The novel is written in brief sections under italic sub-heads (sort of); some are straightforward scene-settings or timelines (‘Meanwhile, back in Jack’s café’, ‘Later, two or three drinks later’), others very different: ‘Nerves, Linky, nerves’; ‘Yet it’s too easy to throw this scene away’. Who exactly is narrating? The stop/start of the sections might suggest that what you’re reading is more draft than finished novel, but not so. According to The Kennaway Papers (1981) by Susan Kennaway, a memoir including extracts from her husband’s letters, diaries and notebooks, ‘James used to say that for every slim novel he published he would write an average of a million and a half words, which was not an exaggeration.’ The book began as a novel set in Kashmir, then it shifted to Scotland, then to London; and at some stage it became, well, life: the Link-Susie-Fiddes triangle mirrored – though you don’t need to know this – by that involving Kennaway himself, his wife Susan and the writer David Cornwell, as documented in The Kennaway Papers.

What came before Some Gorgeous Accident was far from negligible: Tunes of Glory (1956), an army-barracks novel (later filmed with Alec Guinness and John Mills); Household Ghosts (1961) and The Bells of Shoreditch (1963), both featuring aldulterous triangles; a number of screenplays. But then the two posthumously-published novels …

They were painting the gothic corridors of the railway hotel when the economist arrived. It was about six o’clock in the evening, early in May, which is no great time to die, and it had been raining heavily.

That’s the opening of The Cost of Living like This (1969). The economist is Julian, who has cancer (and a flask of jungle juice in his coat pocket: includes heroin, morphine, cocaine); the other two in the triangle are Sally, a teenage office worker and champion amateur swimmer; and Julian’s wife, Christabel. Also featuring: a wedding party on a flight from London to Glasgow; a Scots football referee called Mozart; a painting by Lucian Freud (‘No shit, d’you know? It’s just a few leaves, and it fascinates me because when you’ve seen it you feel you’ve never looked at a leaf before’); a student demonstration, a fire, suicide. It’s about sex and death, of course. It’s slightly absurd; intricately but fluently structured (though given the high stakes and Kennaway’s gift for sparring dialogue, at times you feel that all he has to do is get any two or three of the characters in a room and let them get on with it); and the drifting first chapter especially (before ‘All three. All hell let loose.’) is a wonder.

And then Silence (1972). ‘I wish I could say I were a simple man, but none of us can say that any more.’ A doctor’s daughter has been assaulted by a man with an address in ‘the Negro quarter’ of Chicago; her husband and his rich pals, fuelled by liquor, drive there to exact justice, and the doctor goes along, though ‘he couldn’t quite believe that the boys were reacting from love of Lilian’. The man is not in the apartment, but his family are: ‘It was as if they had expected the visit and in a sad sort of way were glad their time had come.’ In the street, violence, gunfire. The doctor, with a knife wound in his side, flees, enters a building, then a room. ‘The doctor knew that he was not alone in the room.’ The doctor, and a silent woman. ‘Really, the doctor couldn’t believe that she spoke any language, except that she looked at him sometimes, very slowly, almost, almost smiled.’ She hums, smokes pot, treats the doctor’s wound, feeds him, listens to him; they play games, make mistakes; and the end (there's another cattle slaughterhouse), the end is almost unreadable, unspeakable. Astonishing, terrifying book. (Under 100 pages.)

The publishing history of Kennaway’s novels is patchy. Most were at one time in Penguin, but now not. An omnibus edition (including Tunes of Glory, Household Ghosts and Night) published in 2001 by Canongate is still in print, just about. A US publisher, Valancourt, reissued The Cost of Living like This in 2014. The climate perhaps does not favour books by men who were educated at public school and Oxford and served in the army; and novels infused (but not Silence) with the hard-drinking macho kind of masculinity that background can produce, however brilliant the writing (Kennaway writes sentences that can hurt); I don’t know.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Dark Horse

Friday eve was the London celebration of the 20th anniversary of Gerry Cambridge’s The Dark Horse magazine. There was a party in Scotland before, there’ll be another in New York later. Music from John Lucas et al; Gerry himself on harmonica. The first issue was put together not just without funding but without a roof and four walls: the first slide in a brief introduction showed the caravan in which everything began. To have kept this thing going for twenty years – 21-gun salute, at least (or whatever’s the equivalent for those who prefer harmonicas to guns).

The second half of the readings was especially wonderful. (And as you know, I’m not generally an enjoyer of readings.) Kei Miller: simply, he’s the man. (Brecht: ‘Unhappy is the land that needs heroes’; but we’re not there yet, we’re still unhappy, and I’d follow this man.) A highlight of Clare Pollard’s reading was a long, angry, funny, heartfelt rant (but it was more than that) on, let’s say, the commodification (ugly word, but then it’s an ugly thing) of pregnancy and motherhood, not least the language it comes wrapped in: patronising, pseudo-scientific, health-&-safety prioritised, trust-in-‘experts’, product-selling, profit-seeking …

Somewhere there surely already exists – and if not, someone please write – a long, angry, funny, heartfelt rant (but more than that) on the commodification of ‘the writer’. It might best be written by an emerging writer (not yet an established writer). Someone who’s maybe had work published in a few magazines (but are they the right ones?) and thinks they should perhaps be aiming to having a pamphlet out but they’re uneasy about doing any ‘gigs’ because they haven’t done the performance skills course yet. Etc. The author photo; the festival appearances; the well-meaning articles on how to self-publicise; the contacts. So much anxiety; so much help and support on offer; and the two run around in a circle.

No point, really, in arguing with this, because it’s here to stay. But worth remembering that fine babies have for millennia been born to mothers who have done a lot worse than miss a few NCT classes; and fine poems and novels have been written, and still are, by people who haven’t had to pay for a single course for the privilege of writing them.

Also this: neither writer nor mother (I’m not going to push this analogy any further: mother wins, no question), though both part of the ‘economy’, are paid for what they do. Only J.K. Rowling and a handful of others (count them on one hand, two?) actually make a living from their writing. A century ago a writer could live off selling a couple of stories a year to Strand magazine. Now, the more the commodification of the ‘the writer’, the more she or he is reliant for income on work peripheral to actual writing: readings, festivals, hack-work journalism, and above all teaching (usually on CW courses), all of which contribute to to the aforesaid six-syllable word. Someone has flicked a switch while I wasn’t watching.

Monday, 8 June 2015

2 or 3 degrees of separation

Let’s say you have written a book that’s got as far as being published (a very long way). And then what?

If you are with one of the big publishers, presumably their marketing and publicity departments (I’m still not wholly sure of the difference between those two) kick in, and your book gets reviewed everywhere and advertised on public transport and … (Or maybe not. I think it’s true that the more famous the author, the bigger the marketing & publicity budgets; if you are not already famous, the less money and effort is available for making you so.)

If you are with one of the small presses, different story. Very few of these have any money for advertising. And – speaking for myself here – even if I did have a ‘budget’ for marketing and publicity, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I have zero professional experience in this. And frankly, like many others I’m uneasy with the whole notion of publicity, especially self-publicity. (Stendhal: ‘I’m like a respectable woman turned courtesan, at every moment I need to overcome the modesty of a decent man who hates to talk about himself.’)

In practice, I send out the books to a few places for consideration for review (but the lit eds seem to change places frequently, and I can’t keep track). I’ve been known to organise the occasional reading (but many of the CBe authors are dead or abroad or, in some cases, not that interested in readings). (Aside: I once put on a joint launch with one of the big publishers; I suggested they pay half the wine bill; they said they didn’t have a ‘budget’ for this, so CBe paid the full bill; and wine, according my accountant, is not a tax-deductible expense.) I may even tweet. Luckily, a surprising number of the books put out by CBe have benefited from prize shortlistings and more – the Forward, the PBS Recommendations, the Fenton Aldeburgh, the Goldsmiths, the Guardian First Book, the translation prizes – and from the ‘books-of-the-year’ lists in the broadsheets. These are a form of free publicity. They’re one of the things that have kept CBe alive.

And maybe, at this end of the scale, a big budget for marketing and publicity wouldn’t make any difference at all. ‘Six degrees of separation’ is, according to Wiki, ‘the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world’. The books world being far, far smaller than the real world, it’s likely that any potential reader of a CBe book is only three or even two degrees of separation from the book. For the negotiation of these degrees, personal recommendations, and the expression of personal enthusiasm (on the social media of course, but also on the street) may be all that’s needed. These are another thing that has kept CBe alive. Thank you.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The first ebooks from CBe

At long last, CBe is dipping its toes into ebook waters.

The first two ebook editions are Not So Barren or Uncultivated: British Travellers in Finland 1760–1830 and No Particular Hurry: British Travellers in Finland 1830–1917. (Print editions of these are still available from bookshops and from the CBe website, and a third volume – 1917–1942 – will be appearing in print later this year.) These are anthologies: they present extracts from the writings of, well, British travellers in Finland, introduced and with linking passages by Tony Lurcock. Compiled over many years, they are also labours of love – for Finland, and for (some of) the travellers.

Being neither short fiction nor poetry, these books sit a little awkwardly on the CBe list, but they are very welcome. Tony Lurcock originally approached me for advice on how to self-publish the first volume. I started reading. ‘In the Introduction I have presented the writers against the background of their times, describing some of the cultural, social and literary ideas which they reflect. Themes such as “the picturesque” can then be mentioned in the body of the book without further digression. It is by no means necessary to read the introduction to enjoy the contents of the book, nor need the book be read chronologically, in full, or indeed at all. That is the way with anthologies.’ My italics. I was seduced.

We learn, through the travellers, about not just the landscape of Finland but its progressive social character. Finland is ‘undoubtedly the best educated nation in the world’ (Young, 1911); it was the first country in Europe to enfranchise women (1906) and to elect them to parliament (1907); in 1908 Travers sets off eagerly ‘to the only civilised country in Europe, the one place where women have got their full rights’.

We witness the bemusement of travellers when experiencing the sauna and naked bathing – ‘This was my first experience of a bath à la Finnoise, and I am not anxious to renew it, for to stand in puris naturalibus and be soaped from head to foot by a buxom lady (even of mature years) is somewhat trying to a novice’ (Harry de Windt) – and local food and drink: ‘A supply of Finnish beer, a sort of attenuated rhubarb and magnesia tends to gravitate the solidities, but it is funny stuff’ (George Francklin Atkinson); ‘With regard to that brown rye-cake of Lapland, I brought a piece home to England, which my dog saw and annexed. He is a fox-terrier of lusty appetite, and he tried to eat it. He tried for a whole afternoon, and finally left the cake alone on a lawn, very little the worse for the experience’ (C. J. Cutliffe Hyne).

But perhaps the chief pleasure of the books lies in the linking commentary of Tony Lurcock, whose style has an odd affinity with that of many of his travellers. Here is Captain Batholomew Sulivan (who later sailed with Darwin on the Beagle): ‘Sometimes we meet a small boat with two or three people in it, and a cow standing as quietly as possible, though looking too large for the boat to hold in safety.’ Here is Lurcock: ‘On the evidence of the various accounts given by travellers, one may say confidently that the Great Coastal Road was not great, not always coastal, and not always even a road.’ There are not many books of this kind, and possibly none in which the content and the style and temperament of the compiler combine so happily.

For sale from Amazon: here and here. The Amazon pages carry some 5-star reader reviews for both books.

(Coming next, ebook editions of two of my own poetry collections: Paleface, 1996, and The Age of Cardboard and String, 2001. The print editions were once published by Faber.)

Wednesday, 13 May 2015


Get over it, I tell myself. I worked for them in-house for 14 years, and then freelanced for them for a few years, before they dumped me without any notice or reason why, and I’ve published books with them. So, to get it over with:

1. After querying to Matthew Hollis why copies of one of my own books were being sold in remainder shops for far less than I as author would have to pay Faber to buy them, which was pissing off not just me but a number of independent bookshops who want to keep Faber poetry in stock, he opened by asking me why was I being so oppositional. For starters, because Faber was breaking contract. (There are many other Faber authors who are being treated in this way.)

2. Basic incompetence in sending out work to freelance editors. A book missing half its contents. A book sent in two versions without any indication of which was the correct one. A book sent in early draft form (so the work had to be redone). A book whose publication was postponed by a year without either the author or the copy-editor/typesetter (me) being told this. A book that was to be co-published with a US publisher: I wasn’t told this when sent the book, nor was I given any contact details for the editor (I had to find him online). A book with two co-editors who were both, I was told, very helpful and ‘hands-on’: one of them, I then found, had had cancer for several months and his involvement was nil. Proofs sent to me for checking and indexing that included superseded material that should have been ditched at an earlier stage, and would have been if anyone in the office had bothered to read what they were sending to be typeset. (Previous to this, by the way, in-house, an Alan Bennett book that the sales had decided was to sell for £25. It was edited and designed and typeset. The page extent had to be bigger, we were told, for the £25 cover price. So redesigned at proof stage, pushed out, resulting in bad page design and cost of re-indexing. And then they decide to sell at £20 after all.)

3. Miserliness. Freelance, I text-designed from scratch at least a dozen books without any payment. Offered £75 for text design for design of one book, I queried the previous non-offers and was told too late for that, my fault for not asking, which I guess it was. Querying rates for typesetting, I was told that the current standard rate was way above what I’d agreed to several years previously, and was still invoicing at, but no chance of retrospective payment. That they hadn’t advised me of the revised rate when it started operating was my fault, not theirs. I asked a manager person about this and she invited me in to lunch and we went to a falafel bar and paid separately.

4. A few instances. Ezra Pound, Selected Poems and Translations, ed. Richard Sieburth: I was given this to copy-edit and design and typeset. Reading the introduction, I became aware that this was a major book, a bringing together of the US and UK publishing strands of Pound’s work, to be published in cooperation with New Directions in the US. Faber hadn’t told me this, nor had they given me any contact details for the editor. I found an email address for Sieburth on the net, and he spelt out the project. He sent new files (though I’d been told by Faber that the files they’d given me were final). New Directions were already working on the book: their designer was going through the previous Pound editions, coming up with informed suggestions for the design of this edition. I suggested to Faber that rather than typesetting separately, which would result in the editor having to correct two completely different sets of proofs, with different line numbers, they let New Directions do the job and buy in the setting. Eventually, they agreed. They did pay me for several needless hours of work, bless. Samuel Beckett, Collected Poems, ed. Sean Lawlor and John Pilling. They had been assured by Faber that the inclusion of a series of short poems, of previously disputed authorship, had been agreed by all parties. At proof stage, these poems were relegated to an appendix at the insistence of one of those parties. At the next proof stage, these poems were deleted entirely, at the insistence of another of those parties. The surviving editor was not a happy man. Basil Bunting, Collected Poems, ed. Don Share. They have had the book a decade, more.

5. Dependence on the nous of others, despite their staff of salaried editors. Deborah Levy, Swimming Home – first published by And Other Stories, then by Faber, coming a little late to the party. Eimear MacBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, prize prize prize prize, now with Faber but don’t tell me that they didn’t reject it before all that.

6. Basic arrogance. I’ve written before about the poem from a CBe book that they printed in a Faber anthology without any credit, with mis-spelling of the translator’s name, and crediting to her of another translation she had nothing to do with; and late payment; and no copy of the book, as per the agreement. Hollis’s response was that the book was on a tight schedule. Bless. No small press that I know would be so irresponsible.

By the way: D. H. Lawrence in the Faber poet-to-poet series: he did not die in Venice, as the back cover still says, still says, several reprints after I first pointed out, very gently, the error, at proof stage before the first edition.

6. Getting through. I’ve emailed editors, sales people, Faber Factory about ebooks, over the years, repeatedly, always by name, and had no reply. About interest in backlist authors, about contact details for authors or agents, etc. Illustration: for months I tried to get Faber interested in having a table at the Free Verse: Poetry Book Fair, and they were going to have meetings to discuss this, and eventually, a week before the event, someone phones me and says yes, they’re interested, and I say good, it’s on this particular Saturday, and he says Oh, that would be be a problem, they can’t do Saturdays. Bless.

7. Faber’s grant of £40K a year from the Arts Council for the Faber pamphlets series, announced at the same time as cuts to Arc and Enitharmon and others, was outrageous. I queried this with Antonia Byatt at ACE; she suggested that this was enabling new talent to benefit from Faber’s sales and marketing expertise, which is a reasonable argument, but when she gave me sales figures it rather fell apart.

8. The Faber Finds list, which brings out-of-print golden oldies back into print, is a scam: the first design was simply bad, the new is hardly better, and to charge what they do for these books (almost all of which can be bought cheaper and in their original editions from, and reissue them without any passion or apparent interest (in the form, say, of an introductory essay by someone championing the book, as NYRB do), smacks of simple money-making. As does the Faber Academy.

9. The above para is about branding: the Faber name on your shelf, on your cv. A brand earned by its wonderful backlist, and by some of its frontlist. Not by the last book I was paid to work on: ‘Do snakes have arseholes? Does the Queen spit or swallow?’

Monday, 4 May 2015

Small pre-Election rant

The 1997 General Election was held on 1 May, a sunny day. In the afternoon, my twin sons’ 6th birthday party in the garden, and then in the evening and long through the night a continuing euphoria as many of the adults stayed on and we watched, seat by seat, the landslide Labour victory, and indulged in the belief that our kids were going to be safe, more than safe, were going to part of the kind of society that we so wanted for them. Next day, the new dawn (bliss was it), Robin Cook’s ‘ethical dimension’ to foreign policy and much else.

My sons are now 24, graduated, in debt, live in London. Today, the Guardian reports that ‘first-time buyers need to earn £77,000 a year’ to get on the laughingly called ‘housing ladder’; another Guardian report today mentions the 900 migrants drowned in the past month while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, to get to the promised land of Europe.

On Thursday I vote. I don’t, honestly, yet know who for. I don’t even know whether I’m going to be voting on principle or for the best way I think my vote can count in the local circumstances. I haven’t watched any of the TV debates but I haven’t been immune to the reporting and I feel blistered by the echo-chamber gap between the vision speeches and the pettiness of the to-&-fro: who is responsible for the ‘deficit’ and who not, who is going to impose a ‘mansion tax’ and who not, who will freeze child benefits and who not, who is going to impose a ‘cap’ on immigration and who not, who is going going to hold a ‘referendum on Europe’ and who not, who said what to who and oh no they didn’t yes they did.

The above pic is a screen-grab of Aneurin Bevan – who not just got the NHS set up but seems to have suggested that housing should be nationalised. Food, clothing, shelter: not one of the vying parties, in one of the ten richest countries in the world, is guaranteeing these for all their citizens. They are mediating the pressure of a form of capitalism they’ve laid flat on their backs to. Rich world, poor world: arguments about immigration caps simply miss the point. Sort it.

I’m angry and confused, course I am. (See the downloadable pdf of Recessional on this CBe page, written in 2009, at a time when the financial meltdown offered a window for a rethinking of the whole structure and we just let it go by, go by.) Looking back to to that sunny day in 1997, looking now at where my children are, I feel shame. Not guilt, which is a different thing. I can’t feel bad all the time; today was good (weather, food, reading, one deeply funny incident); I (deeply privileged) cultivate my garden, and on Thursday will scrawl an X. But not in any much hope. The main feeling I have is waste: there is so much intelligence and kindness in this country, and they’re being failed.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The creepiness of stock photos

Stock photos are often just plain wrong, often hilariously so. Early this year the Tories illustrated their slogan ‘Let’s Stay on the Road to a Stronger Economy’ with a photo of a road near Weimar in Germany. In 2009 the BNP promoted an anti-immigration campaign with a photo of a WW2 Spitfire plane – one belonging to a squadron flown by Polish pilots. (Wiki: ‘By the end of the war, around 19,400 Poles were serving in the Polish Air Force in Great Britain and in RAF.’)

And even if they’re not wrong, they’re creepy. For a take-down of stock photos of office life (those teeth), see this Buzzfeed selection, helpfully paired with extracts from the books shortlisted for last year’s Bad Sex Award.

The ones that currently irritate me most – because I’m among the prime target audience for the ads they are used in – are the ones illustrating anything to do with ‘retirement’: rural or seaside settings, clothes in pastel shades, deckchairs, hammocks, golf. And if I were one of the grandchildren who sometimes feature in these stock photos, I wouldn’t be just irritated, I’d be angry. Education, health and politics itself given over to business management; a blindness to the effects of climate change; increasing inequality between rich and poor, a housing crisis as never before – this is what they (we) are leaving behind, these grandads and grandmums, as they stroll off into the sunset with their ISAs and their pensions and their wistful smiles.