Thursday, 31 December 2009

99 not out

Having said below that I was tired of lists of poetry books chosen by poets, which suggest (surely wrongly) that poets exist on an exclusive diet of poetry, I don’t mind that in the Morning Star George Szirtes chooses J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical as one of his favourite poetry books of 2009. I don’t mind at all.

Ninety-nine posts for the year is a good number to go out on. Happy New Year.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

2009

The honours board: 2009 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and shortlist, 2009 Forward Prize, for the first CBe poetry book; shortlist, 2009 Popescu Prize, for the first CBe poetry in translation; 2008 McKitterick Prize for the first CBe fiction.

The prosecution: Pretty prizes, huh. How many books have you sold?

The defence: Prizes are about the books being read by people who are in a position to announce to others that the books are worth reading. Such attention is everything. Does a book exist if no one knows it exists? And I’m glad for the authors who receive recognition, confirmation. Apart from that, prizes are like school speech-days at the end of term; they ignore the oddballs at the back of the class and have no influence on my own choice of reading. Sales: more than last year, but for a more specific answer you’ll have to ask again at the end of March when I do the adding up.

Favourite colour: Blue. Sometimes pink. Do not read anything into this.

Good guys: Chris, printer man down the road who cuts a good deal and looked after my cats in the summer even after he got sideswiped by a forklift truck; Wendy Toole, proofreader and ‘professional director of development’ at the SFEP when she’s in the mood; Shona Andrew (www.spikyshooz.com), cover designer of the books that aren’t brown but that’s the least of it. There are many others – booksellers, editors, readers – and easily the best part of this madness has been these people.

Bad guys: No actual names, because it’s the attitudes they represent rather than they themselves that irritate me, but one of them just might be the ‘pin-up boy of independent publishing’ (quote from online interview of a year of so back) and another a broadsheet panjandrum I’ve mentioned before: one might have thought reading the necessary first base for opinionating, but no.

The weather: cold. Rain coming in from the south.

Why? John Self’s Asylum offered a generous possible reason a month or so back: ‘Thank heavens for CB editions and their like: perhaps these are the places where everything worthwhile, however long forgotten, is preserved and recorded.’ But that’s not it; the books are good things to put into the world but as a record they are more transient than an online archive. It is, rather, more like serious play plus a dose of megalomania.

Wish-list: More time. Two crates of French wine from the man who deals in the next street. A better defence lawyer. Something written in invisible ink.

Civilisation-as-we-know-it: Earlier this year Philip Roth gave the literary novel another 25 years, then reconsidered: ‘I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.’ Writing is no longer central; poetry, arguably, already is cultic. But pointless to moan; for small-scale outfits such as CBe, a base of around the number of present-day Latin-readers will do nicely, as long as they are regular readers.

Leftover turkey
: peel meat off carcase in strips, fry to almost crispness, mix in serving dish with hot cooked rice, splash liberally with soy sauce, add lots of sliced cucumber round the edge. Very basic, but Boxing Day is hardly a time for culinary sophistication.

The next titles: David Markson in February. In May, short stories (‘shrewdly observed, wickedly funny,’ says Salley Vickers) by Marjorie Ann Watts. In the autumn, a short novel by Gabriel Josipovici. Meanwhile, Happy Christmas to anyone dropping by.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

&


And J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical gets a recommendation from the Scottish Poetry Library . (And someone walked into a bookshop on Monday and asked for 30 copies of the book.)

‘Everything only connected by “and” and “and”’ (Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance’). I’m wearying of all the lists (and they’ll keep on coming for another two weeks). In particular I’m wearying of the lists of poetry-books-of-the-year recommended by poets – they feel ghetto-ish, they give the impression that poets are an isolated sub-species who read nothing else except books by other poets. (Is this true? Most of the world thinks so. But surely not.) (Above photo courtesy Ron C.)

Friday, 11 December 2009

[K]night Crew

Nicholas Tucker, in a round-up review in today’s Independent: ‘Night Crew (CB editions, £7.99) is a fine but bleak updating of the King Arthur legend . . . cleverly worked out and compassionate.’

‘Did you mean Knight Crew?’ as google might ask. He did. Homophones, always a slip waiting to happen: Suns and Lovers, A Tail of Two Cities, A Farewell to Alms, The Blue Flour, Peyton Plaice. Clever things, perfectly disguised to get through the spell-check barriers.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

An outing

C and I went to Canterbury yesterday. In and around the cathedral the few clerics, striding from one chapel to another as if they really did have somewhere to get to, were outnumbered by the yellow-jacketed, hard-hatted building workers engaged in restoration and generally propping up the whole edifice, their progress slowed by health-&-safety regulations and (I’m guessing) uncertain funding. Not many visitors on this cold December afternoon, and the silence in the crypt was the silence of the tomb.

There was generous hospitality and the best soup I've had for a long time. In the evening we read poems to an attentive audience of mostly writing students and told scary seasonal tales about the state of publishing – which could have gone on and on, but were cut short by the arrival of the poker players who had booked the room from 8 o’clock. However good your hand, and however good you are at bluffing, you do also need a slice or two of luck.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Bursa: Dostoyevsky meets Joe Orton

Andrzej Bursa, Killing Auntie and other work, reviewed in yesterday’s Independent by Boyd Tonkin:

'From the admirable CB Editions comes a delightful discovery. Dead at 25 in 1957, the Polish postwar firebrand Andrzej Bursa acquired a reputation as a quick-burning, existentially tormented rebel: a literary James Dean of the Stalinist era.
‘This selection of his quirky, darkly witty work – poems, fables, above all the titular novella – does indeed summon the shades of Beckett or Kafka from time to time. Everyday life slips into scenes of fantasy or horror, as when the local Party sacrifices children to a dragon, “an old, blind, mouldy beast” that still tears them apart.
‘Yet Bursa’s dark humour and deadpan satire – finely captured here by translator Wiesiek Powaga – keep utter bleakness at bay. Some will think of Dostoyevsky when it comes to the snuffed-out relative in the novella; read to the end, and you hear something like Joe Orton's wicked cackle too.’

Buy from the website here.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Knight Crew, Brighton


What does a publisher actually do? The skills required, as any clued-up careers adviser knows, include the ability to heat up mulled wine in a microwave oven and then decant it – without flooding the staff kitchen – into those giant thermoses which are trolleyed into executive meetings for the coffee break.

Also, ideally, enough nous to get the flash working properly when taking photos, which in my case I didn’t have. But you can just make out through the murk, I hope, the Knight Crew hoodies, and we did sell books, and Nicky Singer spoke inspiringly and movingly about how the book came to be written.

Huge thanks again to the Jubilee Library in Brighton, which stepped in to host the event last night after Borders went into freefall.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Good wine, onion soup and the price of books

From a US newspaper report on the book wars: ‘Since 1981, French law dictates that both large chain booksellers and independent booksellers sell the same titles at fixed prices. This has allowed small independent bookstores to maintain their businesses . . . Gallimard Publishing House editor Jean Mattern commented, “On a national level there is an extremely strong will to keep the diversity of these independent bookstores alive, because these stores serve as a kind of guarantee for the future of independent publishing as well.”’

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Season of lists and mellow bookishness

Alan Hollinghurst in the Guardian (28/11/09): ‘I’ve been intrigued by what seems a new development in that slightly dreaded form, “the long poem” – three really vital books that wed the momentum of prose fiction to the imagistic concision of poetry. After Adam Foulds's gripping re-creation of the Mau Mau rising, The Broken Word (Cape), have come two books from the excellent new CB Editions: JO Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, the 70-page biography of an adventurous boy from Skye whose feats of improvisation are related in easy but apt free verse, and Christopher Reid’s riveting The Song of Lunch, a tiny narrative disproportionately rich in exact observation, sorry comedy and controlled pathos. After reading Reid you start to wonder why fiction-writers bother with all the padding and padding about of prose.’

Wendy Cope in the Observer (22/11/09): ‘[Christopher Reid’s] The Song of Lunch (CB Editions) is a witty narrative about a publisher meeting an old flame in an Italian restaurant. The story is sad, as well as funny, and very enjoyable.’

Buy Natural Mechanical and The Song of Lunch from the website – or, why not, any two titles – and Jack Robinson’s Recessional will be added free.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Distressed retail, bad plumbing


Whenever the plug has been taken out of the bath in recent weeks, water has been coming through the kitchen ceiling and showering the vegetables. The plumbing of the bath, shower and washing machine has been a bit iffy.

Meanwhile Borders has been losing money. Borders bookshops, that is: originally owned by Borders US; bought in 2007 by Risk Capital Partners, who reduced the number of shops; bought again in July this year by Valco Capital Partners (‘the private equity division of Hilco, the distressed retail specialists’, according to The Times), who themselves appointed Clearwater Finance to find a buyer, who failed to do this, and who put on standby the administrators BDO Stoy Hayward, who then found they had a conflict of interest because they have dealings with Borders US. The pipework, again, has been iffy, and the water pouring through the kitchen ceiling has been anything but clear, and Borders has gone into admin.

Now the good news. Larry the plumber has this morning bashed a hole through the house wall and solved (fingers crossed) the bath problem. And down in Brighton, where a bookshop event for Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew had been arranged for next Thursday at, you guessed it, Borders, Nicky has managed to relocate the event to the Jubilee Library.

Booksellers will lose their jobs. The reduction in the number of big chain bookstores may mean that the surviving ones will individually become more powerful (God knows). But right now, no sermon on the state of the publishing and bookselling industry. Instead, huge thanks to the individuals who have stepped in to deal with the immediate mess: Larry; Jen at the Jubilee Library; Marcus at Borders in Brighton.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Go, little book


Another cheapskate publisher who’s too mean to fork out for flimflam on the cover. (Photo courtesy of ‘a friend’: thank you.)

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ – on the other hand, most browsers in bookshops have nothing but the cover to judge by. On the third hand, it’s what’s inside the cover that determines whether it’s going to stick around. You do what seems right for the book and then say, with Chaucer, ‘Go, litel bok . . . And red whereso thow be, or elles songe,/ That thow be understood, God I biseche!’

Or, with Robert Louis Stevenson:

‘Go, little book - the ancient phrase
And still the daintiest - go your ways,
My Otto, over sea and land,
Till you shall come to Nelly's hand.

How shall I your Nelly know?
By her blue eyes and her black brow,
By her fierce and slender look,
And by her goodness, little book!’

Sunday, 22 November 2009

You see?


‘At least CB editions don’t try to outdo other publishers in the garishness of their covers,’ remarked a blog review of last year. Not least for reasons of thrift: what the typographic covers bypass is the whole longwinded process of the author preferring one image and me another and the designer going her own way – and then this: when we do find the perfect photo for a book (in this case, a CBe title for next May), and the author is happy and I’m happy and the photographer is happy to take a free book or two in lieu of a fee, there’s still a spanner lying around for someone to throw in. The girl in the photo, taken two years ago, is now with an agency that says using this photo on a book cover would be ‘detrimental to her career’, so no release.

The photo in question is beautiful (and also unsettling and funny), and so is the girl. It cannot be – can it? – that her agency minder thinks that having her on a book cover implies she reads books, and that this an unsexy thing to be implying? If so, the minder clearly hasn’t seen any of the several photos around of Marilyn Monroe reading (one of which was used on a recent Faber cover).

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Flyer


Brighton today, where I took books and flyers for a Knight Crew event on 3 December at Borders in Churchill Square – where, alongside Nicky Singer talking about the book, there’ll be some of the children involved in developing marketing ideas for the opera, and prizes too: books, opera tickets, hoodies with the Knight Crew motif . . . For those at the back of the room whose attention has been wandering, a recap: Knight Crew will be staged at Glyndebourne next March as a youth opera, with 6 professional singers and 60 young performers recruited from local schools and community groups; and the making of the opera is being filmed with Gareth Malone for a BBC documentary.

But first is the book, and for this you don’t have to wait until March. In fact you could go to the CBe website and buy a copy right now.

Nicky’s website is here; the Knight Crew opera website is here.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Popescu


Here’s the get-together of books shortlisted for the Popescu Prize for European poetry in translation. The ‘winner’ gets his/her prize at an event on Thursday. Dante, meet Constantine Cavafy – oh, I know your work well, I’m so pleased at last to – Gabriela, come and join us – so sorry, Ms Shvarts, that your flight was delayed – Monsieur Ponge, I’m afraid if you must smoke your cheroots you’ll have to . . . oh, never mind.

There’s a magic about this assembly that no other prize in this season of prizes can match. It’s to do with the poems made available here having been written over several hundred years, and in many languages; and it’s to do with celebrating the names in small-size print, the translators, whose work always serves something other and larger than themselves.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Postscript


Was it worth it? – sitting for two days behind a table at the book fair. Well, I was stuffed with a cold, and overdosed on Sudafed to keep me breathing, so I couldn’t have got anything else done; but that’s no answer. And the financial reckoning is only a part of it. More than enough books were sold to cover the payment for the table, but I think very few of the folk travelling from outside London (Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Norway . . .) covered their costs for the trip. It’s to do with conversations, new people, common interests (Judy Kravis from Road Books on the next table knew Grace Paley, was hugged by Grace Paley, and taught Ponge to literature students in Ireland; the chap behind the CBe table above, by the way, is Toby, sitting in while I took a coffee break).

A visiting friend remarked, amazed, surveying the crowded hall: ‘All these people are interested in books!’ There was that, but there’s a more specialised common interest here in books (and pamphlets, cards, posters) as objects of design (some handmade, some printed in tiny editions), and text-heavy CBe is far from being one of the main gang. Design here is often at least as important as content, sometimes is the content. As a celebration of the variety of bookmaking, this annual event is a glorious thing; and I felt more comfortable here than I would do in a more commercial book fair, or even one devoted exclusively to, say, poetry publishers; but I doubt this is CBe’s natural habitat.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The front line


This is me at last year’s Small Publishers Fair looking a bit glum, looking a bit bored. Although truly I enjoyed it – being stuck behind a table like being in the dentist’s chair: no rushing to do things, no emails or phone calls demanding immediate response; just being there, at the mercy of passing strangers.

This coming Friday and Saturday, 13th and 14th November, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, WC1R 4RL, nearest tube Holborn, I’ll be there again – with the CBe books of course, but also with the Ken Garland books of photographs I posted about some time ago but can’t recall when, and a new Christopher Reid publication never before offered. You need to be there, you really do. To leaf though books and maybe buy one; to gossip, pass time; to distract, charm or harangue me; to be part of something that’s more than worth your while.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Aldeburgh 2009


Seagulls (14: a sonnet) on the roof of the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh yesterday morning, waiting to find out who’d won the 2009 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize . J. O. Morgan with Natural Mechanical is who.

In an October post I quoted Barbara Epler on editing; here’s how that quote continues: ‘And after you do the best you can, you enjoy the beautiful book and people’s pleasure in it. There is the more rare delight of a great success, of a marvelous book reaching a wider audience: the pleasure, as Graham Greene said of the success at the time of William Gerhardie, of watching your horse come in first. Merit doesn’t always have its own reward and when it does, that’s exhilarating.’

Of course there’s more to be done. Anyone who’s read the book knows it should be not only on the poetry shelves of every bookstore but also on the memoirs, children’s and true stories shelves, and in every school too. But meanwhile, Saturday: I was there, taking books, and taking in a reading and Philip Levine in conversational mode – funny, serious, laced with the occasional expletive (a particular occasion being a scenario in which he’s stuck for four hours in a lift with Ben Jonson): this is something the older-generation Americans do so much better than the Brits. And going for a long walk along the beach in brisk autumnal weather, which is also exhilarating.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Restaurant review: Zanzotti’s, Soho

This week’s TLS has a review of Christopher Reid’s ‘surprisingly successful and innovative’ The Song of Lunch, alongside his Mr Mouth and A Scattering. Given that the review remarks ‘how far Reid has matured and moved on’ since the early collections that established his reputation, it’s worth noting (and asking yourself, if there's no one else around, why this is) that all the three new books under review come from publishers so small they’re not even on the radar of the Poetry Library’s list of 69 small-press poetry publishers.

Also briefly reviewed in the same issue of the TLS is Simon Rae’s Unplayable, a children’s cricket book (published by Top Edge Press, designed and typeset by CBe last summer): ‘The dream of the unplayable bowler, the natural who can barely understand the game but can beat all-comers . . .’

Monday, 2 November 2009

‘The most original book I have read this year’


That’s the heading for a 5-star review of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew on waterstones.com: ‘This is – and isn’t – a book about street gangs being drawn into knife crime, about warring factions on two tough estates; about a weird baglady. Yes, the kids are believable – the gang leader and his challengers; the geeky boy who shouldn’t be underestimated. But there is something else going on in this story – an astounding, highly original twist that gradually reveals itself – and soon you will realise this is a whole different story from the one you thought you were reading.’

A similar line is taken by Angela Kiverstein in the Jewish Chronicle: ‘Teenage passions are played out against a background of grim estates, gang feuds and knife crime and told in authentic street language. That’s the story on one level but, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that something deeper and more extraordinary is going on. To explain would be to pre-empt the pleasure of discovery.’

A blog review of the book by David Hebblethwaite starts off by referring to the very thing the above notices want readers to discover for themselves; but really it doesn’t matter what your point of entry into the book is. Knight Crew ‘draws on one of the most fundamental of all British stories, a story which deals in archetypes. Nicky Singer has brought together the old and new to craft a fable that demonstrates the enduring relevance of even the most apparently well-worn legends, whilst asking questions about the world in which we live today.’

The above are good notices, but not yet good enough. For small presses especially, the amount of kissing, licking and generally leaning on people you have to engage in to get any attention for a book is usually out of all proportion to the actual results; but just occasionally someone will pick up the book and SHOUT, and kiss you back, and I’m still hoping for that.

(A PS to the previous post: I did once know the ghost writer of a celeb biography who, after the book was published and got some good reviews, decided that he did after all want his name on the title page. Too late, said the publisher: you signed the contract, you’re a ghost and you stay that way.)

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Ghosts

Today I went to see Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry, 3 metres by 15 metres, at Victoria Miro, and works by Keith Tyson next door, lots of them and most very big. Afterwards, to M who was with me, I said: Did he make that all by himself? She laughed. And Keith Tyson? Oh, he has ‘assistants’ too.

I think I kind of knew this, but I still paused before moving on. Isn’t the point of pretty well most artistic activity that you discover what you’re doing by doing it? That it’s your engagement with the making of it that turns your original idea, impulse, whatever, into the finished piece it becomes?

‘You are old, Father William, and your hair has become very white.’ Guess so. And I decided to be mellow about this. One of the funny things about the Walthamstow Tapestry is that the words, hundreds of them, stitched into the tapestry are all brand names (the work, says the press release, ‘explores the emotional resonance of brand names in our lives and our quasi-religious relationship to . . .’: yes). It’s not black-and-white, anyway. There are parts (the boring bits) of many paintings by the Old Masters that were done by others in the studio. And everyone knows that Katie Price’s books aren’t actually written by Katie Price.

And then I thought, Heaney is a busy man, and Ashbery is over eighty, and Martin Amis has two books coming out early next year, and all those folk on creative writing courses at the very time when publishers are closing doors, where do they go when they graduate? . . . No, no. It's Halloween.

(Meanwhile, some of the reviews are saying the paintings done by D. Hirst himself now at the Wallace Collection show he can’t paint. Which suggests that if you see a painting by ‘Damien Hirst’ that is well executed, it’s not by him.)

Monday, 26 October 2009

Small Publishers Book Fair 2009


Advance warning: this will be on Friday 13th and Saturday 14th November at the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. both days. CBe will have a table. I’ll post a reminder nearer the time, but meanwhile . . .

‘Small’ is relative. Is Hesperus small? Alma? Pushkin? Salt? Tindall Street? Yes, relative to Random House (but none of this band are showing at the fair); no, relative to Reality Street Editions or, say, Tufnell Art Press. The word ‘publisher’ here is also slippery, as the great majority of the exhibitors at this fair are not producing the kind of books you’ll find in Waterstone’s (or indeed on amazon). RGAP, who organise the fair, is an ‘artist-led organisation’, and in most of the work on show the visual interest trumps the literary.*

So CBe, whose books (except for the Jack Robinsons**) are text and not image, will be odd man out. (Not entirely: Shearsman will be there too, and among the visual extravaganza you’ll occasionally find some very fine text: the poetry of Thomas A. Clark, for example, published by Moschatel Press.) But I won’t feel that way, because the common factor uniting all the exhibitors is that they are vocational publishers – publishing, that is, not in the expectation of making a profit or even a living out of it, but for the difficult pleasure of the activity itself.

That said, a living does need to be made, by hook or by crook or by book, so bring money.

* Is it just me that finds it odd that, while there are book fairs for artists’ books and comic books, etc, there’s no national UK book fair for non-mainstream literary publishers? (Not even a fringe event at the London Book Fair, or as an add-on to one of the major literary festivals. I’m sure other countries have these things.)

** Yesterday morning my local (Labour) councillor knocked on the door, and then along came my (Labour) MP. Did I have any ‘issues’ I wanted to discuss? They went off with copies of Jack’s Recessional and the W12 book.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

me/not me


‘Charles Boyle’s career as an owner, breeder and trainer of champion horses both in the U.S. and Canada was a long, colourful and distinguished tableau . . . Mr Charles Boyle began his Taekwondo training aged 17 under then Master Hee Il Cho . . . Charles Boyle was charged with the murder of his mother and the two young children of a neighbour on 31st May, 1924.’

This is the kind of thing you find when you google yourself. A name by itself is never enough (which is why, when I go to collect an undelivered parcel, I have to remember to take along my Taekwondo diploma); while more than one name may be too many. Some sorting out and narrowing down is needed, and in this week’s TLS J.C. performs a useful service: ‘CB editions now has a list that includes people who are not Mr Boyle: Christopher Reid (The Song of Lunch) is not he, nor is Francis Ponge (Unfinished Ode to Mud, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic), nor the German novelist Gert Hofmann (Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl, translated by Michael Hofmann) . . .’

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Posties


These are the carrier pigeons of Shepherd’s Bush, waiting for private hire to deliver post. Many of them make half a dozen deliveries daily within the London area; rates for deliveries beyond the M25 are negotiable. They’ve been busy these past few weeks, and next week they’ll be even busier.

Either my local postman is the mild-mannered, friendly, hardworking man I know him to be or he’s the lazy, stick-in-the-mud, recalcitrant, hard-line union activist that the Royal Mail and most newspapers are telling me he is. For an insight into the conditions he’s working under, read this piece, written by a postman, from the LRB of last month. It rings true to me, and probably to anyone who has worked in a large organisation. People don’t go on strike, thereby risking their own jobs, without a good reason, and there are plenty here: poor management, low morale, dodgy statistics, private companies piggybacking on Royal Mail labour and creaming off profits, office chiefs ‘who aren’t all that bright’ . . .

In today’s Observer there’s another good piece, by Victoria Coren. There used to be, in some places still is, a custom of slipping your postie a thankyou present at Christmas; this year I’ll be baking early and taking cake to the picket lines.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Hanging, smoking, etc

The poster for the new Terry Gilliam film is classified 12A: ‘contains infrequent strong language, scenes of threat, hanging and smoking’. My italics (I kill, or am killed by, a pack a day). I sold a copy of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew this week to a woman for her 14-year-old son and, because this book is a very different book from Nicky’s Feather Boy, felt a need – why? – to mention that, hmm, people get knifed in this book, and people make love, and . . . The woman: ‘Oh, he knows all about that. [infinitesimal pause] He reads a lot.’ He’s currently reading Thomas Hardy.

Don’t, please, print recommended age bands on children’s books. Not just because it’s bossy, not just because this scheme is designed chiefly to help booksellers rather than readers (if booksellers don’t know what they’re selling, they’re in the wrong job), but mainly because any such banding is anti-book. Literature – reading – is freedom. Any attempt to enclose or partition it is ignorant and doomed.

Do, please, fix the gents toilet in Borders in Charing X Road.

Other thing: go to John Self’s Asylum for a review of In Sarah’s House, W’s translation of stories by Stefan Grabinski, and a puff for CBe in general (‘thank heavens for CB Editions and their like: perhaps these are the places where everything worthwhile, however long forgotten, is preserved and recorded’). This attention is nice. But as for translating that into actual sales of books, I’ve a feeling I’m missing something, some magic phrase I should be intoning every morning as soon as I wake up, a phrase that they whisper to you on a sales-&-marketing course, but only after you’ve signed up to the rest of the mumbo-jumbo, and that’s the catch.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Quaffable

Here’s Kate Bingham on Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch in the new Poetry London:

‘Slick with wit and pace and verbal panache, and as quaffable as the two bottles of wine the unnamed protagonist single-handedly “kills” in as many courses, The Song of Lunch slips down the page without giving its reader pause to wonder where he or she is headed. If the opening reference to Captain Oates’s famous last words hints at the self-destruction to come, the early sections bounce along as, full of the “rare joy of truancy”, the hero skips and darts his way across town for lunch with an old flame. The writing is breezy and supple, with Reid’s masterful interior monologue effortlessly shifting gear . . . Reid has a scriptwriter’s ear for the cut and thrust of table talk, and the dialogue crackles with subtext as the hero’s defences are lowered and raised. Sulky, bitter and leering by turns, he thoroughly disgraces himself, but we sympathise . . .’

This is not a dutiful review – she’s enjoying the book. A good lunch companion.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

25K

Another prize? Here is a new prize of £25,000 for a single short story. You could pay a nurse’s annual salary with that, or a couple of ‘clinical support workers nursing’, or publish several books or keep an independent bookstore alive or set up a whole new publishing company. The prize has six judges, all with fine mainstream credentials; there’ll be some excellent writers looking at that list of names and wondering whether it’s really worth their entering.

The short story is not, despite the received wisdom to the contrary, neglected. There are writing courses galore; far more mainstream publishers have story collections on their lists than, say, poetry; there are more opportunities for short-story publication in magazines, both printed and online, than ever before (probably more opportunities than good stories); and there are many prizes too, the biggest of these (until now) being the BBC National Short Story Award, which declares itself ‘the largest award in the world for a single short story’ – now trumped by the new Sunday Times one, offering ‘the largest prize for a single short story in the world’.

This is a mine-is-bigger-than-yours shoot-out between heavyweight sponsors eager to show off their cultural credentials. Money from banks and other wealthy institutions, yes please, but there are more interesting and imaginative ways in which they could be doling it out.

PS: Another example of non-neglect: the display stand at Foyles in Charing X Road that’s currently showcasing the recent Harper Perennial books of classic short fiction: Melville, Wilde, Stephen Crane, Dostoyevsky, Willa Cather, Tolstoy. Each book includes stories that are not in the standard Penguin collections. And the covers are lovely and so is the text design. And each book contains a ‘bonus’ story by a contemporary writer from a collection of stories newly published – slightly corny, perhaps, but as a way of promoting new short stories, and of getting them into the hands of readers, this is a far more imaginative and practical idea than another thumping prize. Has the Sunday Times even noticed this series? I think not.

26

More praise for J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical:

‘A single, book-length poem telling the story of Rocky, a dyslexic boy who grows up on the Isle of Skye, dropping out of school and learning his lessons from the land. Sounds old-fashioned and Wordsworthian when you sum it up like that, but it’s an amazingly fresh, assured piece of work, full of memorable episodes, all beautifully told. On a first reading, you can enjoy it purely as a great story (perfect for film adaptation). But then you can revisit it time and again just to savour the music of the language. Best thing I’ve read in a long while.’ – Nick Asbury

This is from the website of 26 – which seems to be a kind of networking site for marketing copywriters, brand consultants and the like, founded ‘to inspire a greater love of words, in business and in life’. There’s a page on which members recommend ‘anything that hits the spot’ (Nat Mech falls between the Museum of London and a Jonathan Meades DVD set). I’m thinking it all looks a bit too mission-statementy for me but then, oh, look, Elise V is a member and Simon Armitage too and they do some odd and interesting things.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Nobel Prize for Embarrassment

Annually, both funny and shameful, and I think we win it every year – none of the literary eds knows what to say about the Nobel Prizewinner for Literature (unless they’re Brit or American). Robert McCrum, ex-Observer lit ed and still general panjandrum, admits on a Guardian podcast that he’s ‘never read a word she’s written’, and has been ‘frantically searching the web to find out things’. He says this from the comfort of knowing that he’s not alone.

Which is no excuse. For starters, Michael Hofmann’s translation of Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums (‘currently unavailable’ on amazon, hah) won the 1998 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, which is arguably the major literary award in these English-speaking isles.

Being lazy by habit and temperament myself, I’m in no position to opinionate on Herta Muller. But I do think that the EU Lisbon Treaty, another trans-national thing which seems to embarrass anyone in a position of authority, should include a clause to this basic effect: that if you have no idea what’s going on in writing and publishing in the nearby European countries at the very least, that if you have no contacts or indeed any interest out there, you should be disqualified from any position of national literary influence (e.g., lit ed of a national newspaper, or senior editor at a mainstream publisher).

My friend Alan D shames me: if you are seriously interested in any writer writing in one of the major European languages, he tells me, then read them in the language they write in. It’s not difficult. He sends me obscure works of Stendhal in French editions. Recently he was learning Chinese; his hallway was decorated with gorgeous Chinese script. Sack McCrum and give Alan a decent wage.

(I’m writing this after visiting this afternoon West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane, London NW6. They stock, their website claims, ‘over 1,000 imported titles’, and their poetry shelves in particular are brilliant. Liberating.)

Friday, 9 October 2009

Fear

So I was in Borders, deciding whether to spend £7.95 on the new Poetry Review so I could report here on a brief review of Christopher Reid’s A Song of Lunch – which because of the author’s story-telling skills is, according to the reviewer, not so much like Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, which she was initially put in mind of, but more like a Philip Roth novel; and she likes it – but there, I can remember that, so did they have a copy of the TLS? No, not stocked.

A magazine they do stock is The Expatriate, and it’s frightening. (I'm sending my copy to Tracey Emin.) Not the travel articles (Bali, where ‘Heppy and Sudani helped us dress’; South Africa, where a guide is ‘prepared to leap from the truck to bring samples of elephant and rhino dung for comparison’); and not the tax advice for non-doms, which thankfully is so ill written that no one could possibly understand it. But the ‘security’ feature. ‘Polo shirts that can take the impact of a 9mm revolver’ – from £4,300. And ‘how about a bullet-proof handkerchief for your evening jacket? The Bullet-Proof Gentleman’s Pocket Square measures 270 by 270 mm and is made from military grade ballistic protective aramid to protect your heart.’

Heartbreak? Our servants can do that for us.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Forward


The Forward Gold Cup was won by Rain, ridden by Don Paterson, owned by Faber; the Silver Cup for yearlings by The Striped World, ridden by Emma Jones, owned by Faber; best individual horse, Robin Robertson.

I was, obviously, favouring Christopher Reid for the Gold Cup and J. O. Morgan for the Silver, and though I’ve packed away certain emotions in a box and sealed it up, some sense of waste lingers.

The Forward defines its job thus: ‘to bring contemporary poetry to a wider audience’. Small-press books have little opportunity to reach a readership of any size. Some of the poetry magazines take note of them, but to reach beyond that tight circle the small presses need another platform. The books pages of the national newspapers are hardly going to provide that: the lit eds, busy folk, take short cuts, judging by covers – do they recognise the author’s name? Are they familiar with the imprint? No. Then it can’t be much good, can it, because if it was it would have been published by one of the big imprints. There was a chance last night that the Forward could have recognised the worth of small-press poetry, could have given it the platform it needs far more than the big publishers, and the chance went begging.

Nice to see J. O. Morgan’s name mentioned by one of the judges in the Guardian today as one of three of the also-rans ‘who would have graced the winners enclosure in another year’. Still, if I’m told again I should be proud to have published a book that got on the shortlist I shall hit someone.

Another race starts today: J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical is on a shortlist of five books, from an entry of 92, for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. Also on that shortlist, books published by Salt, Yew Tree Press and Templar. No Faber, no Cape, no Picador.

I was steered home to West London last night, by the way, by Michael Horovitz, who has been in this game for decades longer than myself, and I salute him.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

On second thoughts


Two pages of proof corrections from a book I worked on several years ago. (The book, the first of three volumes, was over a thousand pages long, and the corrections here were typical rather than exceptional. I quit before vols 2 & 3 arrived.)

Lawrence twice rewrote Lady Chatterley from scratch. Balzac famously rewrote at proof stage. Infuriating for the desk editors, but understandable: in life you generally get only one chance, but in writing you can revise endlessly (or until the publisher’s patience snaps) in the attempt to get it right. My mum once heard it said of a writer that she delivered her manuscripts letter-perfect and would allow not a comma to be changed – and for my mum, this showed what a wonderful writer she was. Me, I’m suspicious. Arrogance, just as much as indecisiveness, can be a sign of insecurity.

‘Getting it right’ suggests there’s a rightness to be had. I doubt there is, in any absolute sense. (Which are more right, the original, mostly unpublished versions of Raymond Carver’s early stories or those edited by his editor?) Still, it’s worth going for. Both writer and editor would agree on that, and it’s in their disagreements en route that a provisional rightness may emerge. This piece on editing by Barbara Epler of New Directions seems to me so wise there’s little more to be said (except that there always is): ‘Editing doesn’t seem to be a process of knowing but of asking. You just do the best you can. (And hope the book goes into a second printing to fix typos and add the right portrait to the frontispiece or turn the Japanese family crest upside up.)’

Thursday, 1 October 2009

On size


A Close Look at: The Tall Windows of Mexico . . . Fire Hydrants . . . Rickshas of Bangladesh. (And a gratuitous pirate.) With the arrival of these books (each approx. 4 by 6 inches) yesterday, my desk became an altogether more colourful place.

The books (which follow last year’s books of Trinkets, Pebbles and Fallen Leaves) are the work of Ken Garland, legendary designer – books, posters, toys, games, many other things besides – and impresario of Ken Garland & Associates for forty years: ‘Those who worked with me between 1962 and 2002 have always been designers designing – no secretaries, no typists, no donkey-workers. There were never more than three of them at any one time. I intend no criticism of larger, probably more illustrious design groups when I say that, for me, an increase in size would have meant fruitless to-ing and fro-ing, more unexplained and unacceptable overheads, and less fun.’

Fun – is that why we do it? Producing small books, he his, I mine. Well, it helps. Serious fun, not fun-lite. Watch children at play: the absolute engagement, the surrender to the activity. And as any organisation (though obviously I’m thinking here of publishers and bookshops) increases in size, so too the to-ing & fro-ing and the overheads, and the joy diminishes.

Also yesterday, I went over to the Central Books warehouse, where the woman who’d packed a package of books I was collecting told me her boyfriend had four poetry books of mine and here they were and could I sign them, please. Golly. Usually when I go over I have coffee and gossip with Bill. Central aren’t one of the big distributors, but this feels right.

At some point I’d like to live by the sea, in a town where no building is higher than the trees.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Lights. Action.


This is the café I mentioned a few posts back, the one with ceiling fans that would make a fine bookstore; the one that many months ago stocked copies of Days and Nights in W12 and then closed down, and the books vanished; the one in which today something – a story? an ad? – was being filmed, and the photo has so much reflection in it you can’t tell what’s outside and what’s in.

A confusion between fact and fiction was one of the points of Days and Nights. Though if Jack was doing the book now, it would include at least two more items of historical fact that at the time escaped his notice. One is Urania House in Lime Grove (almost directly opposite this café), a hostel founded by Dickens in 1847 for ‘fallen women’. For its time, the regime in Urania House was liberal and practical. The education provided was to be ‘steady and firm . . . cheerful and hopeful. Order and punctuality, cleanliness, the whole routine of household duties – as washing, mending, cooking – the establishment itself would supply the means of teaching practically, to every one.’ There was a garden, and a piano. A prison governor warned that ‘the love of dress is the cause of ruin of a vast number of young women’, but Dickens disagreed: ‘Colour these people always want, and colour I would always give them . . . in these cast-iron and mechanical days.’

The second historical item (just slightly outside the border of W12) is Frestonia, a community of squatters who declared their independence from UK in 1977; Heathcote Williams served as ambassador to Great Britain. In the way these things go, the independent republic became a housing co-operative; now there are new houses and, of course, an arts centre.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Cats


We had a fire practice this morning, and here is the staff of CBe, one of them a bit camera-shy, at the boat, which is the assembly point. Actually there’s another one, but Harry was out getting the mouse sandwiches for lunch.

From the final paragraph of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss:

‘. . . the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists – Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations! – in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and what it continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.’

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Andrzej Bursa: ‘Poet’


A poet suffers for the millions
from 10 to 1.30
At 11 his bladder is full
He goes out
Unzips his flies
Zips up his flies
Returns to his desk
Clears his throat
And again
Suffers for millions

– by Andrzej Bursa, and included in Killing Auntie and other work, newly available from CBe. It seems the kind of slight thing that might get a laugh at a reading, but for Bursa (born 1932 in Kraków, Poland) the idea of the poet as someone who suffers for the millions both wasn’t a joke at all (it was part of the job description, along with being conscience of the nation, etc, a job description left over from the 19th century) and was a huge joke, a tasteless one (members of his family died in Auschwitz).

The translator Wiesiek Powaga writes in his preface: ‘The fact that Bursa grew up surrounded by war and Stalinist terror focused his mind in a way that may be difficult to appreciate fifty years later’ – which seems to me a huge understatement. His in-your-face disenchantment (‘I’ve seen the sunset/ And the loo in a nightclub/ Same difference’) is not, as it later often became for writers in the West, a pose: it’s a living response to impossible demands.

Bursa was young, ambitious, and had around just two years (between the death of Stalin in 1953 and his own death at the age of twenty-five) to speak. About much of the work in Killing Auntie there’s an urgency and restlessness; Bursa was experimenting with all the forms available to him, and the book includes poems, parables, stories, dramatic scenarios. There is also – see the first chapter of the short novel Killing Auntie – wit and a sophisticated maturity; and, teasing our retrospective view of Bursa as writer in history (though this wasn’t that long ago: W will be taking copies of the book to Bursa’s son, still living in Kraków), his own retrospective (‘You are too big to cry/ And too small to love/ So I wander the earth/ With holes in my tights/ And big red ears’) on the childhood history messed up for him.

(Among the poems there's one on Joseph husband-of-Mary, who always seems to me to have had a rum deal: ‘he raised the Child/ whom he knew/ was not his own/ but God’s/ or someone else’s’).

The first chapter of Killing Auntie is in the September issue of Litro. The short prose ‘Freemason’ is on the untitledbooks.com website. The book can be bought from the CBe website.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

VIP treatment


Here is Anthony Thwaite, OBE, poet and literary executor of the Larkin estate, helping deliver packs of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which arrived at the house this morning. Does Faber employ such distinguished unloaders? OUP? Random House? Any other publisher?

Also this morning, the updated CBe website went live, so you can now purchase the new books – Knight Crew and Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie. A team of renowned authors will be calling by shortly to put them in envelopes and lick the stamps.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The glove compartment (2): Ambidexterity


This, of course, is the other man in the rear-view mirror – Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. Sometime last year I said that the only way you can tell me and BBT apart is that he holds his cigarette in his right hand, I in my left. But it’s not as simple as that. I watched the film again a couple of weeks ago; BBT smokes pretty well continuously through the whole thing, and sometimes he has the cigarette in his right hand and sometimes in his left.

An exchange from a few years ago:
Therapist: Tell me about your father.
Me: He died a long time ago.
Therapist: So fathers are people who are absent?

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The glove compartment


The above is the new photo on the CBe website home page (up by the end of next week, I hope), and the face in the driving mirror is my dad. Appropriate for a home page. The photograph was taken (by who?) before he actually became my father. He’s been dead for over fifty years now, and would be surprised to find himself driving through a website, a literary one at that; he was an iron-foundry man and a weekend farmer.

The photo has a late 1940s, early 50s feel. Douglas Dunn’s ‘La Route’ (‘A poem-film, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo’). Camus and the existentialist crowd – there’s a packet of Gauloises in the glove compartment.

On Saturdays we’d drive out to a farm, me in the front with my dad, my mother and my brother behind us. Going down the narrow, twisting, blind-cornered Creskeld Lane, my dad would tell me to open the glove compartment and take out his driving gloves; then he’d remove his hands from the steering wheel, first one and then the other, and I, aged four at most, would fit the gloves onto them. In the back, my mum pretended not to look, maybe even closed her eyes and didn’t open them again until we were on the straight at the bottom of the hill and picking up speed. My dad would glance in the rear-view mirror and grin with delight.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Mud


‘Mud pleases the noble of heart, because it is constantly scorned . . . You are beautiful, after the storm makes you, with your blue wings!’

Unfinished Ode to Mud, Beverley Bie Brahic’s translations of Francis Ponge, has been shortlisted for the 2009 Popescu Prize for European poetry in translation.

(No living books were harmed in the making of this picture – it was a rogue copy, with pages in random order.)

And then, just when I'd taken this picture, my cousin came round with his son, who is called Francis.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Brian Jones


I missed this last week – an obituary of the poet Brian Jones. The above is one of his first two books, 1968, published by London Magazine Editions (which, with their brown card covers – ‘like wholemeal sandwiches’ said The Times – were and still are the role model for CBe). Before this one there was Poems (1966) – one of the most straightforward titles ever. The descriptions of the copies for sale on abebooks are apposite: strong spine and clean text throughout, edges rubbed, pages a little age-toned. The poems themselves are still fresh, strong, packed with both love and a kind of baffled anger. About the above book he wrote: ‘I am convinced that poetry can still cope with narrative . . . It need not be forced to explore exclusively personal or extreme states of mind or feeling . . . I have tried to be colloquial, and at the same time to make no sacrifices of subtlety and depth. As the poem is born out of a great admiration and respect for my own, unliterary family, I wished to make it accessible . . .’

I came across Jones’s first books in my teens: they were among those that showed me poetry is worth the candle. I’m annoyed that I’ve paid no attention to his later books (published by Carcanet). He’s not on any syllabus, I think, and he was never promoted to the premier league, but there are other ways in which minor poets can still be major.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Good eggs

In 1908 – almost exactly a century ago – Ford Madox Ford founded the English Review, in which he published Hardy, Conrad, Wells, etc, and – their first appearance in print – D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, others. (Later, in 1924, he founded the Transatlantic Review: Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, etc.) Half of it was to be devoted to current affairs: ‘To imagine that a magazine devoted to imaginative literature and technical criticism alone would find more than a hundred readers in the United Kingdom was a delusion that I in no way had.’ He persuaded a wealthy politican ‘to provide half of the capital necessary, which we agreed was to be £5,000.’

This is an astounding figure. A net machine tells me that the purchasing power of that sum in 1908 is equivalent to, in 2008 figures, £389,200 (using RPI) or (using average earnings) £2,042,500.

But money aside, and politicians willing to invest in magazines, the literary life Ford witnesses is completely familiar. The established writers guard their privacy: Conrad ‘always managed be out at tea-time, in case anyone literary should come in’; James telephoned before visiting, ‘so as to make sure of meeting no writers’. The younger writers ‘crowded my office drawing room, they quarrelled, they shouted.’ Ford describes a dinner at which ‘Mr Chesterton and Mr Belloc were one on each side of Mr Baring. They occupied themselves for some time in trying in vain to balance glasses of Rhine wine on his skull. That gentleman comes back to me as having been then only a little less bald than an egg. The floor and his shirt received the wine in about equal quantities. But he did not seem to mind.’

The politician pulls out, but Ford is persuaded to keep going when no other magazine will, ‘on the score of immorality’, print a poem by Hardy. ‘Then came Ezra . . . He threw himself alarmingly into frail chairs, devoured enormous quantities of your pastry, fixed his pince-nez firmly on his nose, drew out a manuscript . . .’ Ford, guessing ‘he must be rather hard up,’ takes a poem and pays Pound ‘not a large sum’ but enough for him to live on for six months. And then Wyndham Lewis, wearing ‘an ample black cloak of the type that villains in transpontine melodrama throw over their shoulders when they say Ha-Ha!’ ‘He must be Guy Fawkes,’ Ford thinks – ‘but his writing was of extraordinary brilliance.’

Ford was ousted as editor in 1910 – problems with money, and in his personal life. ‘I remember only one dull moment’.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Ashes to ashes

England have beaten Australia in the 5th Test – I’m talking cricket here – and won the Ashes. This is not what most of us expected. Jennie Walker, guest blogger, writes:

‘Rules, play and skill – it’s their job, for godsake. Twenty-two players and one small red ball, and there are only so many things you can do with it. (It can be more fun without skill, but at that level it tends to be slapstick.) Add in a slice of luck or, powered up by adrenaline, super-skill. Hard to tell the difference: millimetres, a fraction of a second. Given an accumulation of these moments – one tends to prompt another – one side wins, the other loses, a nation celebrates.’

If Jennie sounds less than ecstatic, it may be because Waterstone’s, this week’s bogeymen, don’t seem to be stocking the paperback of her 23 for 3 (concerning cricket and infidelity; ‘I loved it’ – Mick Jagger), and authors take these things personally.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Something about ceiling fans

At the end of last month Crockatt & Powell (booksellers to the discerning) shut up shop. It’s not a death, but it causes a jolt nonetheless – a good thing in the world, and one that I’d assumed was carrying on merrily even when I wasn’t paying it attention, has gone, overnight. Early on, I took books into the Lower Marsh shop; numbers were written on a piece of paper; some time later I went back, and a sum of rounded up or rounded down pounds was offered and taken. This is a perfectly reasonable and efficient way of doing business.

Compare Waterstone’s. Wrong time of year, too many books already, they said; sometime later I went back and collected the (unopened) parcel of sample books I’d left for the manager. Now I know: they have a system, I need the nod of the Independent Publisher Co-ordinator. A publishing friend got that nod, sent flyers (along with reviews from the Independent, TLS, Telegraph, etc) to more than 200 individual Waterstone’s managers, resulting in orders for 12 books. This is not efficient. Yet C&P are gone, and W remains.

It’s to do with scale and volume and systems (see last post). But also, people simply don’t read. Not you. I mean the people who run the chain stores, and the publishers who supply the chain stores, and the lit eds who decide what gets attention and what doesn’t. They’re not illiterate; but they read only for work, or only the books they feel they should read.

Fortunately, the folk at Foyles read. And those at John Sandoe, Daunts, Broadway, Crow (all independents) read. As did, and presumably still do, Matthew and Adam of C&P. They read books that the chain stores don’t even know exist. Which shows that ways can be found of putting bread on the table without having to sacrifice the vocation of bookselling to the business of same.

There is, by the way, a fabulous premises in the Goldhawk Road, bang next to the Tube station, that used to be a café and is now vacant; split levels, bare floorboards, garden at the back, those big ceiling fans that waft around lazily. It wants to be a book place: selling, reading, writing, publishing, talking. M, A? Anyone?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Management methodologies

If you’re moving to a new flat you probably hire a van or get a couple of friends with cars to help shift your books. If you’re moving a lot of books, things get more complicated. In the Guardian this week there’s a job ad for a ‘book move manager’ in Oxford: ‘The postholder will be responsible for the OULS Book Moving Team, together with agency staff . . . Candidates should have experience managing large scale strategic projects including budgets of over £1 million using standard project management methodologies, a good working knowledge of library storage systems, shelving methods and equipment as well as an understanding of relevant Health and Safety principles and practices.’

(The job pays up to £43,622 p.a. Go for it.)

The number of books shifted by most small presses is usually at the friend-with-a-car end of the scale. But Amazon and the chain bookstores deal in mass quantities, and they have systems and ‘management methodologies’ to cope with these – systems that interlock neatly with the big publishers’ systems but which disadvantage the small presses.

For the record, how to buy a CBe book . . . From the website (financially, best for us). From a local independent bookstore (which may have to get the book from the distributor, but these stores need support). From a chain bookstore (if it has to order the book in, this time a more elaborate system kicks in and time and money are lost). If you must buy online, instead of Amazon try bookdepository.co.uk – which not only is more likely to have the book in stock but offers discounts and free worldwide delivery.

Monday, 17 August 2009

‘I laughed. I scowled. I cried. I loved it’

My favourite critical review of my own poems came during a phone call, when someone told me that they’d made his wife laugh in bed. To get on the cover of a book, a review line usually has to have the name of a newspaper attached to it, or come from someone you’re expected to have heard of, but for an author the most meaningful responses often come from unknown ordinary readers.

Natural Mechanical has two reader reviews on Amazon; both are 5-star. I particularly like this line from one of them: ‘I forgot for most of the time that I was even reading poetry.’ And today I had a postcard from a man who once taught me English, when I was in my teens: ‘I have just finished a second reading of Natural Mechanical. If I thought it extraordinary the first time, the second was even more stunning . . .’

Sunflowers


We have contracts, of a sort, and account books and ISBNs and so on but especially we have authors who, when they come round with some final proof corrections, arrive with wine and Polish chocolates and books (the new Arc Mayakovsky translation, with full-colour Rodchenko photomontages, a wonder). And sunflowers. I’m chuffed.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Gateway consortia

To Glyndebourne today, to talk about Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew (book in September, opera next March) with a marketing person, a press person, an education person, plus others. I’m floundering a bit here, but don’t want to hold up the conversation by asking what a gateway consortium is. Some of the assumptions and conventions I’m unfamiliar with; apparently I’ve already announced something which I shouldn’t have, at least not until December. I come home with a headache.

But Nicky herself is terrific: there’ll be at least 60 young people involved in the opera project, and she wants to get them selling the book themselves; she talks with passion about the book itself, which has to do with the potential in people that both society (because they dun wrong) and they themselves are often blind to.

And really it should be simple, no? I persuade one or two people that the book is worth a few hours of their time and more; they tell others, who tell others, who tell others. I may have to shout to get the ball rolling, a thing I’m not good at (a few people might disagree), but still. A chain letter. Consider it started. (Finished copies beginning of September; if anyone wants advance proofs or a pdf, email.)

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The pilot scheme



(Photographed this afternoon in Central London.)

Figures today show that unemployment is up to 2.4 million, the highest since 1995. And book sales are down and, they say, young people don’t read. SORT IT OUT: pay people to read. In public. Role models. Behind temporary barriers, so they’re not jostled or interrupted. Local booksellers and publishers can advertise on the barriers. Result: unemployment down, book sales up, and the whole country becomes more literate, imaginative and civilised.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Looking out


What’s going on out there? J. O. Morgan reading from Natural Mechanical at the West Port Book Festival in Edinburgh next Thursday, the 13th, is what.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Hideaway


It’s in Puglia, bottom right of Italy, on the east coast, a couple of hundred yards from the sea. Pretty basic: one big room (has been used as an artist’s studio), two bedrooms, a kitchen (of sorts), a bathroom (and another, better one at the back, separate door; and a shower on the roof too), a bicycle. Around 15 miles from Brindisi, 20 from Lecce. At the end of a rough road (car needed). If anyone has a liking to go there for a spell, probably for free, email me. And apparently it’s for sale, so if anyone has a liking to own this place, get in touch likewise.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Forward Prize shortlists

J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for the best first poetry book of 2009. I’m enormously pleased for J.O. (and prouder than if I’d written the book myself), but about the next stage – the announcement of the winner in October – I’m uneasy.

These little lists . . . If these and the prizes bring some wider recognition for good books, and give a writer confidence and a sense of achievement, those are good things, but it’s an odd ritual everyone goes through to get there: a ritual that presumes there is such a thing as a ‘best book’; that involves the judges saying how difficult it has been to select a winner this year (every year)*; and that has all but one of the shortlistees turning up to the awards do only to become, at the opening of an envelope, also-rans (a nasty experience; large amounts of alcohol are often needed to recover from it). Prizes with shortlists are a form of blood sport played for the entertainment of literary hacks, and it would be good if these things could be managed in a less newspapery, more writerly/readerly way.

Shortlisted for the Forward best book category – for the oldies, as opposed to the new kids on the block – is Christopher Reid’s A Scattering, published under the imprint of the magazine Areté. Christopher’s second book of this year, The Song of Lunch, was published by CBe in May. Despite the small rant above, we sincerely hope that both Morgan and Reid become considerably richer in October.

*Because, obviously, there is (except very rarely) no 'best book'. It's like being asked a nonsense question: which is better, a kangaroo or a fishing rod?

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Liquidity

Now that there’s someone else in place for the cats to boss around, I’ll be away for some days, to the very same place in Italy where I walked into the sea with my wallet in my swimming trunks two years ago and then came home and within 24 hours had decided, well, if money flows out of my possession so fast, it would be more fun to publish a few books than simply hand it over to the crabs.

I don’t think hordes of online buyers will be inconvenienced by delays in the posting of books; this seems to be one of those periods when I get more enquiries about submitting work than actual purchases. (Are there more writers out there than readers? I’m not the first to wonder about this.) But I’m looking forward to being back. Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew will be published in the same week in September as the new Dan Brown. Mainstream publishers are bringing their big names forward in a desperate attempt to get shelf space. Dan who? We will stick with mid-September.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

‘Seductive, amusing’ – a round-up

Over on Asylum, a review of Christopher Reid’s ‘seductive, amusing and even touching’ The Song of Lunch which takes pleasure in quoting from the book a ‘vigorous rant on the current state of the publishing industry’. (The review also notes that the CBe books ‘are much more handsome in person than they appear on their website’. It’s true: on the site the books all appear to have jaundice. The yellowness will be corrected when we update in September.)

In today’s Guardian, Nicholas Lezard reviews Simon Rae’s Unplayable (typeset and designed by CBe): ‘young boys (and, let us hope, some young girls) will read this book, and like it, a lot. They will be given it by their fathers (for the most part); but their fathers will read it first . . . Simon Rae, who has written two grown-up books about cricket (one of them an enormous biography of WG Grace), seems to have acquired . . . the knack of writing fast-paced, entirely plausible and gripping narrative for children of a certain age . . . Plus you have the bonus of a brief but winning introduction by Gatting, where, as he is condemned to do for the rest of his life, he has to talk about That Ball from Shane Warne. And it's come out at just the right time. Maybe the England team should read it.’ The book is available here, or can be ordered from bookshops.

On Thursday there was a launch party for Unplayable down the road from Lord’s, on the evening of the first day of the current Test. Instead of drinking free wine and making small talk with poets I could have been drinking free wine and making small talk with Mike Gatting and other cricketers, but I wasn’t there, dammit, because that day I went in for some minor day surgery and when L arrived home and saw me slumped in my dressing gown with a patch over one eye and the other eye half closed beneath a bruised, swollen and stitched eyelid he said I looked like a character in No Country for Old Men.

Also worth recording: I sent some advance proofs of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew to Benjamin Zephaniah, in the hope that that he might like the book and say so in words that could be used on the cover. This was a big ask; it takes time to read a book, time to think about it, time to put thoughts into words, and BZ is a busy man. (Also, I feel uneasy about the whole business of writers’ puffs for other writers, some of them being not what they seem; I’ve seen letters go out from publishers with the words of praise already written by the publisher and asking simply for the recipient’s yes/no.) Many writers to whom books are sent simply don’t reply.

Zephaniah read the book. He liked it, and wrote a letter to tell me why. He doesn’t always say yes – in 2003 he said no to an OBE. I have a lot of respect for Benjamin Zephaniah.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Unlikely bedfellows

– or at least, sharers of the same paragraph.

One likes – it isn’t just me, is it? – to hear of, speculate about, unlikely but possible encounters. Did Chaucer, while briefly in Florence, meet Boccaccio? (David Markson, in This Is Not a Novel, to be published by CBe early next year, wonders about that one. And in his next paragraph mentions that Charlotte Corday, who stabbed Marat in his bath, and read Plutarch on the morning she did this, was a great grand-niece of Corneille. And elsewhere mentions that Wallace Stevens, while working briefly as a newspaper reporter, covered the funeral of Stephen Crane. The book is full of such random but true links.)

Somewhere in Soho there’s a blue plaque commemorating the fact that Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong leader, worked briefly in his early twenties as a kitchen porter at the Carlton Hotel in London. Mae West (I’m No Angel: ‘When I'm good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better’) stayed at the Carlton while performing at the nearby Haymarket theatre and, decades later, told Gavin Young in an interview of an encounter there with ‘Ho . . . Ho . . . Ho something’: ‘There was this waiter, cook, I don’t know what he was. I know he had the slinkiest eyes though. We met in the corridor. We – well . . .’

So very nearly, a whole different history between America and Vietnam. Accidental encounters, coincidences: these may have more to do with the way history plays out, literature too (Robert Frost meeting Edward Thomas in a bookshop in 1913), than the interminable hindsight essays on the causes of the First World War etc allow for. Put them in a novel, though, and they’ll likely be criticised as implausible, not true to life.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

‘A shower, a veritable downpour’


George Szirtes reviews J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical in the new issue of Poetry London. He brings in Wordsworth – The Prelude, and the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads (‘a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’) – and he attends to the prosody and he discusses ‘the empty opposition’ of poetry and prose. At this point I was reminded of my wife’s impatience with some of the reviews she reads in art magazines: she ponders, throws it to me, asks ‘But does he like it?’ He does:

‘Though the language is plain, almost rugged, the verse is rhythmically supple . . . None of this is dry-as-dust prosody. It is the very life of the poem: sure-footed, complete with transitions, the eye sharp, the poetry not in the description but in the noting of brute, luminous fact. Subtle verse and a feeling for precision of detail lie at the heart of the poem’s success . . . The remarkable thing about Natural Mechanical is that it is not in the slightest bit quaint or sentimental. It is a shower, a veritable downpour, of fine particulars in a single, robust life . . . It is one vivid gathering sensation in skilfully calibrated real language. It is itself natural-mechanical.’

Yes, I do know there’s a typo on the back cover. My eye wasn’t as sharp as the poem’s. But as soon as we sell out of the present print-run we can correct it, and those who have already bought will have something whose flaw only increases its value. In the words of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, ‘Whoever has two pairs of pants, sell one and buy this book.’

Three pieces of string

The culmination, last night, of the theatre thing (New Connections, commissioned new plays being performed by youth groups all over the country, an initiative I’ve said before that has me awestruck and I’ll say it again). The Things She Sees, adapted by Ben Power from a short novel I wrote some six years ago, was performed by a group from Lancaster at the Cottesloe at the NT. The play was chosen largely because it offered opportunities for audio-visual stuff and all kinds of hi-tec fandango, and the groups who chose the play were encouraged down that route. And the production at the Cottesloe was good, more than good, to my mind not least because it ignored all that: a few boxes, a couple of screens, three pieces of string, and actors who spoke and moved with feeling proved entirely sufficient for a play that involved staging, among other things, breaking into a house, a motorbike ride, a massacre of French soldiers in Morocco in 1924, a hut set on fire and, crucially, a series of drawings in a notebook. An overload of story, and back-story too, was what might have decided them to simplify the means of telling it. They were brilliant.

The Murray-Roddick match ended ten minutes before the performance started, one-on-one giving way to a team performance. For Murray to have prolonged the match into a fifth set would have been disrespectful.

PS: there’s a (short) piece about Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew with a (postage-stamp) preview of the cover in the new issue of The Bookseller. CBe is referred to as an ‘indie’.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Nothing to do with anything


A cricket? A critic? Taking advantage of the cats being too hot and flaked out this morning to bother, a moth called in at my desk. We discussed a dream I had at the weekend: I was writing a book, but the book I was writing in was printed on every page, and my writing was a continuous erasing, so that what I’d end up with would be a book of white pages. The moth mentioned Flaubert’s ambition to write a novel about nothing, composed of pure style. Or was this happiness writing, literally, white? The moth didn’t stay. But it was, I think, a learnèd moth.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Cricket balls


Next week, the first Ashes Test between England and Australia. You knew this already. Anticipation builds. The tennis is as nothing. And just in time . . .

Above left is Jennie in her new summer dress: the paperback of 24 for 3 (‘I loved it’ – Mick Jagger) is published next week, but seems to have arrived in shops already. Above right is Jennie’s new friend, Unplayable by Simon Rae (author of, among other books, the standard modern biog of W. G. Grace). Unplayable is a children’s book, the story of Tom Marlin and his (blurb) ‘dizzying rise through the cricketing ranks – a journey involving danger, controversy, heartbreak and heroics, and culminating in the chance to help win the Ashes for England’.

Unplayable, also published next week, is published by Top Edge Press (and typeset by CBe); it will be for sale at cricket grounds and from the Unplayable website (up in a few days, Alan and god both willing) and can be ordered from bookshops (ISBN 9780 9545495 4 1; distributed by Central Books). Sales of the book will support the Cricket Foundation, a charity whose Chance to shine programme operates in 3,000 state schools. It has a foreword by Mike Gatting, who captained an England team that actually did win the Ashes. All things are possible.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

The number 11 bus route


Talking of buses, as yesterday I was, I set off in search of the number 11 in Elizabeth Bowen. I was sure it was in The Death of the Heart – but no, although there ‘a 153 bus did come lurching round the corner, but showed every sign of ignoring them, till Lilian, like a young offended goddess, stepped into its path, holding up a scarlet glove’, and Major Brutt ‘found that an excellent bus, the 74, took him from Cromwell Road the whole way to Regent’s Park’, it was the wrong book. I found it in To the North (1932), another Bowen novel in which an adolescent girl is placed temporarily in the care of bemused adults who have no idea what they’ve taken on (a Bowen staple).

Mrs Patrick advises the 14-year-old Pauline on bus routes, bearing in mind that ‘a young girl cannot be too careful’. ‘She would not, she said, have countenanced a No. 24, which goes down Charing Cross Road. Pauline blushed, she had heard about Charing Cross Road.’ However, ‘The number 11 is an entirely moral bus. Springing from Shepherd’s Bush, against which one has seldom heard anything, it enjoys some innocent bohemianism in Chelsea, pick up the shoppers at Peter Jones, swerves down the Pimlico Road – too busy to be lascivious – passes not too far from the royal stables, nods to Victoria Station, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, whirrs reverently up Whitehall, and from its only brush with vice, in the Strand, plunges to Liverpool Street through the noble and serious architecture of the City. Except for the Strand, the No. 11 route, Mrs Patrick considered, had the quality of Sunday afternoon literature; from it Pauline could derive nothing but edification.’

Though it no longer springs from Shepherd’s Bush, the number 11 still follows much of the same route. Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944) has an instructive example of ‘innocent bohemianism in Chelsea’ along the number 11 route. I can’t find my copy, but Gulley Jimson’s lesson, as I remember it, is this. You’re heading for Liverpool Street, you get on the bus and go to the back of the top deck, and by the time the conductor (remember them?) reaches you you’ve travelled a fair distance. You ask for a ticket to Fulham; the conductor says right bus but wrong direction, you need to get off and catch a bus on the opposite side of the road. You get off; you repeat the same procedure; after an hour you’ve reached Liverpool Street without paying the fare.

I’m applying to London Transport for a grant to complete my thesis: The Journey of Life: Morality and Subterfuge on London Buses.