Sunday, 30 June 2013

Some reading habits

In novels with with multiple plot strands – one set in the past, say; one in the present; one involving a dog – I find myself skim-reading one strand because I’m more engaged by another. And then something interesting happens in the strand I’ve been almost skipping, and I have to weigh up whether it’s going be worth going back and reading that strand again with proper attention.

With some novels – the big Russian ones are obvious examples – I can get to the end and still not know how to pronounce the names of some of the main characters.

Early in a reading, maybe even when browsing, I check the last page. Not always, but sometimes. Suspense I can take or leave. With any book I take pleasure in reading, knowing how it ends doesn’t spoil that pleasure.

In a poetry book that includes certain poems that I’ve read before in magazines and liked very much, I find myself favouring those poems over the others, at least in part because of a sense of familiarity.

Submissions: the work I get sent by writers who’d like to publish with CBe. Usually I look at these immediately, and I know within a few sentences or lines whether I want to read on. If I don’t, I try to delay my reply for at least a few days, so that the sender can preserve the illusion that I’ve read the whole book, on which they may have laboured for years.

Literature allows its audience more freedom in how they engage than any other art form. And most of the options offered by new technology – now/later, fast-forward, rewind, pause, select, highlight, portability and choice of location – have for centuries been afforded by the printed book: everything else is just catching up.

(PS. If you happen to be in or near London, come to the CBe/Eyewear Publishing pop-up shop at 201 Portobello Road: open every day from tomorrow morning, 1 July, to next Sunday, and selling our own books and those of Arc, Five Leaves, Flipped Eye and some extras. They’re not even expensive, these things called books; around the price of pack of cigarettes.)

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Pop-up shop (2): Ken Garland

A while ago, between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on an autumn Thursday, Ken Garland gathered leaves from the street outside his London terraced house. Then he photographed them. The result was a book – a book of leaves.

This was one of the first of the (to date) nine books in the ‘Close Look At’ series published by Ken under the imprint Pudkin Books. Other titles focus on fire hydrants; Bangladeshi rickshas; Mexican windows; pebbles; Brighton street graphics (graffiti, shop fascias); landscape sequences; etc. A part of the wonder of these books is their modesty – that though the photographs might have been published large format, glossy, at a price to match, they are not. They are small (105 x 150 mm), and they cost the same as a text-only novel or poetry book.

A selection of these books will be among the wares for sale at the CBe/Eyewear Pop-up Shop (201 Portobello road, London W11, 1st–7th July, 10 a.m. till late). And on the walls – (how can you have a bookshop without wall-to-wall shelving? Come and see; you can even turn this to advantage) – there’ll be around 30 of Ken’s photographs, available for order as unframed prints (approx. 290 x 390 mm).

Ken Garland, now in his eighties, worked as art editor of Design magazine from 1956 to 1962, when he formed his own design studio. ‘Whether producing posters for CND marches or shaping the face of the Labour Party in more leftist times, designing the identity of Galt Toys and creating sleeves for RCA Records, Ken and his studio consistently pushed the boundaries of graphic design and united the practice with ethical values at the same time’ (James Cartwright). His 1960s ‘First Things First’ manifesto (‘We have reached a saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise. We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on …’) was updated in 2000 and signed by 33 designers from around the world. He still teaches; this year alone he has lectured in Berlin, Australia, Mexico …

From the fly-leaf of a monograph on his work published last year, KG in interview: ‘I’ve always thought it important to be able to say to someone: “You don’t need this – you can do without this symbol or you can do without that sign.” I think graphic design will only come of age when it can take on these sorts of questions, and sometimes answer them by saying, what you need here isn’t graphic design, it’s whatever else. Or maybe nothing.’

Pop-up shop (1): the programme

Left: the Shop, empty – at 201 Portobello Road, London W11 1LU. Next week: 1st to 7th July, the Shop filled with books (CBe, Eyewear, Arc, Five Leaves, Flipped Eye, and more), photographs by Ken Garland, other things. Various writers will be calling in to do brief pop-up readings through the week. The programme for the week at present looks like this (think of the whole thing as a work in progress, and if you’re in striking distance do call in to see how it’s going):

Monday 1st July
Evening: 7 pm: Eyewear party, with reading by Mark Ford

Tuesday 2nd July
Day readers: 2.30 pm, Leah Fritz; 3.30 pm, Kimberly Campanello;
4 pm, Christopher Reid; 4.30 pm, Astrid Alben; 5pm, Liane Strauss

Wednesday 3rd July
Day readers: 1.30 pm, Tim Dooley; 3 pm, Fiona Curran; 3.30 pm, Andrew Motion;
4 pm, Sandeep Parmar & James Byrne

Evening: Flipped Eye event:
6 pm: Sarah Westcott – runner up in the first Venture Award, reading from her new pamphlet Inklings for followed by Q&A/signing.
6.45 pm: Introducing The mouthmark Book of Poetry – a hardback anthology of all the single-author pamphlets produced under the mouthmark series, including Jacob Sam-La Rose’s Communion, Denise Saul’s White Narcissi, Inua Ellams’ 13 Fairy Negro Tales and Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth

Thursday 4th July
Day readers: 3.30 pm, Anthony Howell; 5 pm, Harry Man

Evening: 6.30 pm, Laura Del Rivo and Cathi Unsworth
Laura Del Rivo has been living in the Portobello Road area for over fifty years. She still runs a market stall. In 2011 Five Leaves reissued her debut novel, The Furnished Room (1961; filmed by Michael Winner in 1963 as West 11): ‘an evocative taste of black-coffee blues ... a perfect encapsulation of that shady, shifting Ladbroke Grove on the cusp of profound social change’ (Guardian). She has a story in the new Salt anthology of Best British Short Stories 2013, and a new collection will be published by Holland Park Press this year.
Cathi Unsworth is also a local author. Her novels include Bad Penny Blues, an exploration of the unsolved ‘Jack the Stripper’ murders of eight working girls in along the Thames in the1960s, The Not Knowing and The Singer (‘Cathi Unsworth has written the Great Punk Novel’ – David Peace). Her most recent novel, The Weirdo, was published in paperback in June. In the book of essays on London Fictions (Five Leaves, 2013) she writes on Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960).

Friday 5th July
Day readers: 1 pm; Tamar Yoseloff; 1.30 pm, John Greening; 3.30 pm, Steven Fowler;
4 pm, Michael Horovitz

Saturday 6th July and Sunday 7th July: still open, very open (we won't have sold ALL the books by then, will we?)

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


The photo here is descriptive of how a ship gets put in a bottle. It’s a thing I did, for a while, a few years ago, when I wasn’t writing. That period began when my children were at primary school and were being asked to make things for homework – a boat (its hull a halved water bottle), a bridge (string and toilet-roll tubes to raise Tower Bridge) – and then I moved in closer. The photos below show a fraction of what got made.

The first photo has parrots that dip and rise when you turn a handle, and my children at the age we made these things. The Chapeaux de Napoleon have batteries: no turning, just press the switch (bottom right). The box with ships also has batteries: switch (again bottom right) and the lighthouse flashes. Papier mâché factories, painted pink. The bottled ship: there were around 20 of these. The big wheel: turn the handle and the wheel turns too. There was a roundabout too. And those were the end: my children were growing away, leaving me stranded as a toy-maker.

My father left school at 14 to work in the iron foundry that his own father had helped establish. My mother was a ‘home-maker’ and was raised a Methodist, and I’m still not convinced that sitting at a desk all day constitutes work. Unless I engage manually with actual physical stuff, I’m not sure I’m doing anything. This why CBe does not, so far, publish ebooks – it’s the thinginess of the physical object that makes a book a book. This is why I collect the printed books from the printer myself and lug them over to the warehouse. This is why, though I’m not at all sure about how the pop-up shop (below) is going to work out through the week, I’m looking forward to the morning of Monday, July 1st, which is when we move into an empty space and set up.

Thursday, 13 June 2013


Today, for the second time, I was sent an email asking me to fill in a questionnaire for a survey ‘designed to provide the first really detailed picture of the different ways that arts and cultural organisations are using digital … Our hope is that this will turn into a key resource for all organisations across the sector …’

I click the link. First question: ‘Which one of the following best describes your role within the organisation?’ The tick-box options are: Managing Director / Deputy Director. Artistic or Creative Director. Director / Manager / Head of Marketing / Audience Development. Director / Manager / Head of Development. Director / Manager / Head of Digital. Director / Manager / Head of Programming/Curation. Finance Director / COO / General Manager. Other senior manager. Non-executive Director / Trustee / Chair. Other.

The survey is funded by the Arts Council, Nesta and AHRC. Of course I’m a little irritated and of course I’m not going to fill in this form. CBe’s applications for funding for its publishing have been turned down three times by the Arts Council. To see who the Arts Council does support through its Grants for the Arts programme, and how much each gets, click here and download a pdf or two.

‘paranormal romance’

Here’s a link to a fine talk on publishing I stumbled across this week (it dates from 2010, I think, but still): He’s in Canada and he’s addressing, I assume, a conference of publishers.

He has notes but on the whole he’s improvising, and his delivery is engaging. Lots of quotable stuff (including the phrase above). The so-called golden age of publishing, 1950s: ‘white men in tweed suits’. ‘Oprah needed books more than books needed Oprah’. A book: ‘fifteen hours of another’s voice inside your head’. ‘Pulped wood bound in cardboard isn’t culture … the words in it are culture’. ‘We’re a tiny industry perched above a massive hobby.’ ‘It is too risky not to completely reconceive our business.’ Engage with new technology and media (‘you can get any text you want for free, it’s not going to not happen’), but not in the way of ‘throwing a whole bunch of tools against a wall and seeing what sticks’.

Also this week, informally, I heard Meike Zeirvogel talk about Peirene Press. Because it seems right now to be poetry-world folk especially who are worrying about publishing models, and because among them CBe seems to be understood as a poetry press (it’s not: there are more not-poetry books than poetry on the list), I’m rashly assuming that some readers here may not have read their books. But they’re doing fine, since you ask. They publish short (under 200 pages) European novels in translation, by authors unknown in the UK, with no UK track record, but their print runs put every poetry publisher, including Faber, to shame. For comparable titles, they out-sell what Random House can do. And they do this from a house in north London with no full-time staff other than Meike herself.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

CBe 2013 5 / D. Nurkse, A Night in Brooklyn

from ‘The Present’:

And she who was driving said,
We know the coming disaster intimately but the present is unknowable.

Which disaster, I wondered, sexual or geological? But I was shy:
her beauty was like a language she didn’t speak and had never heard.

Then we were in Holyfield and it was the hour when the child
waves from a Welcome mat, his eyes full of longing, before turning
inward to his enforced sleep. We waved back but we were gone.

I rashly said in January that I’d do a blog post about why CBe is publishing each of this year’s books, so here we are again, but really for this one there should be no need. Starting with small presses, and more recently with Knopf, Nurkse has many books in print in the US and publishes regularly in both US and UK magazines. There is no good literary reason why his work hasn’t been introduced to the UK by a mainstream publisher – in the way that, for example, Faber (and Secker before them) has published Charles Simic, or Cape has published Sharon Olds. I did suggest this to editors at both those places, and in each case there was admiration for the work but a no to publishing. In 2011 CBe published one of Nurkse’s early books, Voices over Water, to which rights had reverted to the poet himself, and it was shortlisted for that year’s Forward Prize. A Night in Brooklyn, published in the US by Knopf, is his most recent book. I’ll leave the rest of the post to some of the US reviews:

Philip Levine, Ploughshares: ‘The voice behind these poems is certainly Nurkse’s, but more often than not I feel it’s that deepest voice we hear rarely if ever and then only in poems, the voice of those closest to us, those we love and care for and who–because they are human–remain mysteries: “All my life I have been dying, of hope and self-pity, / and an unknown force has been knitting me back together.” No one is writing more potently than this.’

Richard Hoffman, Solstice: ‘A Night in Brooklyn is a rich and deeply textured investigation of the intersection of memory, imagination, and history. It offers its humane and elegaic vision with the tonal range of a mature artist who has forged a voice by turns sorrowful, passionate, whimsical, and reflective. This is the finest book yet of one of our finest poets; no serious reader of contemporary poetry can afford to overlook it.’

New York Times: ‘These are not easy poems, but they don’t play tricks on the reader, either. Stay with one and it will unfold into a meditation on birth, death, longing or loneliness.’

Tina Chang, Brooklyn Poet Laureate: ‘Walking through these poems is like having a mythical landscape lit with as much brilliance as there is deep shadow. Filled with sensual beauty and fierce urgency, these poems usher the reader through “the doors, the stairs,/ the streets, the endless city”.’

And click here for a link to Nurkse talking about the book, and five poems from it, on the Gwarlingo site.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Two empty bookshops

Above is the empty shell of Notting Hill Books, less than five minutes from the tube station. For forty-four years, if you’d been waiting at the adjacent bus stop and seen something that caught your eye in the boxes on a table outside and gone through the door – there’ll be another bus along soon, and another – you’d have have found yourself in a version of heaven. Sheila’s shop.

I wrote briefly about Sheila’s shop in a TLS column early last year: ‘Once upon a time, Sheila came to London and found herself typing up manuscripts for Alexander Trocchi. I’ve arrived, she decided, without quite knowing where. For many years, from her shop round a corner in Notting Hill that feels like a shed or a ship’s galley, with timber ceiling and walls and the books in boxes as well as on shelves, she has been selling books that may not all be exactly new but neither are they second-hand and they’re certainly not remainders. She is known to many reviewers who don’t have shelf-space for all the books they are sent. From the price printed on the cover a buying price is roughly calculated, and a selling price is pencilled on the fly leaf, but these numbers are often, depending upon the interest of the conversation the books provoke, negotiable ...’

You can see from the slope of the ceiling behind the façade that this is more of a lean-to than a proper building. Paraffin heaters, not central heating, gave warmth. Accounts and receipts were written on scraps of paper. There were bargains galore (the poetry shelves not least), and always a fine selection of art books (from Phaidon and Thames & Hudson monographs to gallery catalogues). Sheila seemed to know everyone, or if not everyone then at least most of them, and even that is the wrong way of putting it because even if you were no one she drew you in, you were equal. Which shouldn’t really be difficult but in bookish circles can be rare. There wasn’t much money in that shop but there was a lot of good will.

Early last year Sheila had a stroke. She’s in a care home. I go round and read, and sometimes coincide with another former customer and sometimes with her brother, who is also in a wheelchair. A surreal place, it may be another version of heaven, an off-kilter one: strange moans from other rooms, the TV on loud in an empty day-room, institutional decorations, the staff few but patient, caring. Also in the day room: a shelf of board games with missing pieces; a set of plastic skittles; paperbacks of thrillers with embossed gold titles. We banter, gossip, she struggles for a name and we laugh.

Below is the shop in Portobello Road that in July, for one week only, the first week (1st to the 7th), I and Todd Swift of Eyewear Publishing will be taking as a pop-up bookshop (mostly small-press poetry, but not exclusively). One week compared to forty-four years – the blink of an eyelid. But selling books, and meeting random people who call in, whether or not they spend money, seems a decent way of spending time, and I’ll enjoy talking about it afterwards with Sheila.