Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Fierce and beautiful world

I wrote most of this post last night, shortly before the unspeakable mass murder in Manchester of young people “without any protection against all the sudden, hostile forces loose in our fierce and beautiful world” (Andrei Platonov), and today I couldn’t decide whether to post it. The juxtaposition of joy and horror is not to be borne. I’m posting it.

On the wall in Ken Garland’s house there’s a black-and-white photograph of some people sitting around a table in the middle of a field on a summer day – I’ve no idea who the people are or how they or the food and the wine and the tablecloth came to the table, or how the table itself got to the middle of the field, but when I first happened to glance at that photo I immediately recognised what it was showing. It’s a picture of heaven.

Last Sunday, something too close for comfort. I went into town to meet David Collard in Holborn, where we were going to pick up his wife and go back to his home for lunch. David called his wife: she’d finished her work early, we’d meet her in the pub. The pub was the Seven Stars, also known as Roxy’s, in Carey Street, and there – no? really? – was Christopher Reid. Well, Christopher likes a good pub, so not a total surprise. An hour before, on the Tube on the way into town from Shepherds Bush, I’d been sitting next to the one vacant seat in the carriage and Nicholas Lezard had dropped into that seat – these things happen. Oh, hold on – there is Lezard again, in the pub. And Lara Pawson. And Will Eaves. And Patrick Mackie and Nancy Gaffield and Nicky Singer and Julian Stannard and Tony Lurcock and Tony White and Gabriel Josipovici and Alba Arikha and Stephen Knight and David Henningham and who … this is Paulette Jonguitud, who I have not met before but who has come from Mexico to be here today. As one might catch a bus to see a friend down the road. And it was a sunny day in May and there was a feast, plate upon plate of home-cooked food, and wine, and though it said 'No pudding' on the proper printed menu (with its list of all CBe titles and its quotation from Stendhal) there was of course a cake, a Lara-cake. And over the course of the afternoon, Cécile, Natalia, Michael, Houman, others …

In the New Statesman this week, which happens to feature a poem by Patrick Mackie ('A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,/ and the new one will be bitter, tired,/ opaque'), there’s a photo of a unicorn. Very, very rare, and bringing all the elements together in conditions of secrecy takes months of planning, but they do exist.

Two years ago Matthew Siegel (San Francisco) came over from the US and he and I and May-Lan Tan (born Hong Kong, then US before London, currently Berlin) took a bus to Oxford, where Matthew was going to read, and we walked around and went to a pub before the reading and he pretty well wept for strange joy, then me too. And here’s a photo from a few years back of Miha Mazzini (Slovenia) and Beverley Bie Brahic (California/Paris) in that tiny bookshop-in-a-greenhouse that used to be in Wapping:

A number of other CBe writers were unable to gather round the table on Sunday – Fergus Allen, Nina Bogin, Andrew Elliott, Todd McEwen, J. O. Morgan, D. Nurkse (but he’ll be over from Brooklyn at the end of this week and reading at the Troubadour on Monday), Dan O’Brien, Wiesiek Powaga, Marjorie-Ann Watts, Diane Williams – but actually they were there (and others too who, though not published by CBe, are part of the gang) in the form of words or drawings assembled in a box-of-a-book (like a custom-made Anne Carson) designed and made by the Henningham Family Press:

What’s been going on for the past few years has been partly to do with books but mainly to do with a group of people finding one another out and bringing one another to the table. Christopher (who is a very good finder indeed) found Beverley who found Paulette; Gabriel and Nina found Kristof, who was also found by May-Lan, a finding which led to me finding her, and May-Lan found Matthew and Diane, or was that the other way round, and there are many more of these links. I understand this, and I don’t understand it at all. There was Sunday, and then there was Monday.

If you haven’t had enough of CBe, come to Vout-O-Reenees (30 Prescot Steet, E1 8BB) this Thursday, the 25th, from 6.30, to hear Will Eaves, M John Harrison, Lara Pawson and Jack Robinson (launching his book Robinson). I was at Vouts last July on the night 86 people were killed by a truck driver in Nice, and we will go to Vouts again and again and again.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Robinson diptych

About the two CBe titles this year, both by me under a previously established pen-name, here’s a little background.

An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. was several years in the making. I read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black in my teens, but it wasn’t until I bought a copy of an English translation of Memoirs of an Egotist in a second-hand bookshop (long gone) in Hammersmith in, I think, the 1980s, that a switch clicked fully on. There are poems featuring Stendhal in the collections I published between around 1990 and 2001. That translation of Memoirs of an Egotist, by the way, was published by D. J. Enright at Chatto. In Cairo in the late 1970s I bought a copy of Enright’s first poetry collection, published in Alexandria in 1948, for the original cover price, 5 piastres, and I wrote to him; and then I met him regularly on the Tube – he travelling in daily from Wimbledon to Chatto, me on the same line from Fulham Broadway to a job near Green Park. We talked, strap-hanging, awkwardly. I also met him on a train from Kings Cross to Leeds; I’d just bought his OUP Collected Poems, 1981, and as I was unpacking it to read I noticed Enright himself in the seat behind me, lighting his pipe. This is one of the few books I possess that’s signed by the author (a convention I don’t really understand). Enright wrote to me that the Stendhal book and another were the end of his ‘career as a whizz-kid publisher’: co-publishers went bankrupt, warehouses burnt down. He – Enright – quotes my son’s school homework in one of the riffs on quasi-literary matters that featured in his last three books, this one in Injury Time: What’s the name we give to the period between the ages of around 11 and 14 when the body rapidly develops and the mind too gets a little excited and confused? ‘Purgatory.’

I seem to have wandered. (But I miss Enright. He was a very fine writer, enormously well-read and often funny, without selling anything short.) Digression is a part of what An Overcoat is about. To get back to Stendhal, you’ll need the book. Review here.

Having stuck with Jack Robinson as a pen-name, and having re-watched one of the Patrick Keiller Robinson films, I thought I’d send Robinson into the family archives: Defoe, obviously, but then a whole mad sequence of offspring, interestingly dysfunctional. (Having a new project was of course also a way of putting Stendhal finally, perhaps, to bed.) I thought this little hobby might keep me occupied for a year at least, ticking along in the background – like one of those unfinishable PhDs that people embark on and I can see why – but given that I started on this soon after the Brexit vote in June of last year, and given that in June this year the UK is being asked make a decision (though only a part of the electorate will bother) about what kind of country it is, or wants to be, the book began to feel more foreground than background.

Bits of Robinson are cooked, bits are raw. If the book had an index, its entries would include (along with Céline, Coetzee, Defoe, Kafka, Keiller, Rimbaud, et al): author’s mother; books read by author at age 12; Colonel Fawcett; English public schools; First World War; housing crisis; male duos (Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Wooster, Vladimir and Estragon, a host of others); migrants; the Sixties; smoking; time-share apartments; trees; Trump; Uxbridge Road; Volkswagen camper vans.

You – or I – may well ask, what am I doing self-publishing these books. The basic answer is simply, because I can. (I have an imprint, I have a cache of available ISBNs.) And because of a degree of megalomania: for better or worse, I enjoy having complete control over design, cover, the setting, etc. Though of course if any other publisher I respected wanted the rights to publish the books and offered me a large sum of money to do that, I’d say yes. I did send An Overcoat to three other publishers; all declined. Robinson is a little different: it feels, to me, topical, of its moment. And in general, the publishing trade works very slowly; the gap between a publisher taking on a book and putting it out into the world is usually nine months or longer. (It doesn’t have to be this way. In 1992 I worked on a Faber book about the general election campaigns that was printed and in the shops 24 hours after the results were declared. But that was an exception; as a rule, the lighter, more flexible small presses are better at getting things done fast.)

Robinson will be launched on Thursday of next week, 25 May, at Vout-O-Reenees, 30 Prescot Street, London E1 8BB, from 6.30 pm. There will be other writers with something to say, directly or indirectly, about the coming election: Will Eaves, M. John Harrison, Lara Pawson. All are welcome. (Is that a sentence anyone has ever heard spoken by Theresa May?)

Monday, 1 May 2017


Sometime in March 1950, I was conceived. For various reasons, my parents’ sense of timing was pretty wonderful. Here’s a brief quote from Robinson (to be published on 8 June) – Robinson has just asked a question (‘Why are there not more crazy people running amok with machetes or second-hand Kalashnikovs?’) and now he wants to ask another:

‘And here is Robinson’s supplementary question; or rather, it’s the same question but framed more specifically. To get the frame in place, he needs me to confirm certain data. Yes, I own the house that I live in, and it was bought for a fraction of the price it’s now supposedly worth. Yes, I am white male. Yes, I went to university on a grant, the government actually paid me to go to university. Yes, I have had a number of not-bad jobs and a couple of them had the kind of pension schemes that are now pie in the sky and my health has been well attended to by the NHS – who only this week have sent me a fun-looking bowel-cancer screening kit – and I now have a state pension and a free bus pass. No, I have never had to fight in a war. That is not a small thing. And then his question: why do my children not rise up and smite me?’

May 1st 1997 – twenty years ago today – was a sunny day in London. Our children’s birthday party was held in the back garden. It was polling day in the general election; the atmosphere was expectant and became celebratory as what began in the afternoon as a children’s party continued into the night and the early hours of the following day as a party for the grown-ups. Some of the other parents stayed very late, barely believing what we were seeing on the TV screen as the election results came in. Children were sprawled asleep on cushions around the room. They were going to be safe, they were going to live in a good place. Everything was going to be hunky-dory.