Monday 4 December 2023

Lives. Books.

In the late 1970s I sat in Fulham town hall listening to Bruce Kent (CND) ask Richard Harries (who wrote on the ‘just war’ and later became Bishop of Oxford): Do the personal moral values and standards we ask of our friends also apply to politicians, or do they get a realpolitik get-out clause?

Palestine. Israel. I cannot speak on behalf of all the writers I publish, I am not their elected representative, but by definition a publisher operates in public so, for the record: damn the State of Israel’s apartheid and barbarous actions, and damn Hamas, whose own actions are those of a death cult. And damn, too, political leaders in my country and elsewhere who are prepared to accept indefinite killing and mutilation of women and children in the interests of what, precisely?

Books. A free copy of Leila Berg’s Flickerbook, which is one of CBe’s touchstone books, will be sent with the next 12 online orders. Berg: immigrant Jewish family, Manchester, defiantly left-wing and an activist for the welfare of children all her life.

Tony Lurcock’s Uncommon Places, a commonplace book by the author/compiler of a trilogy of books about Finland published by CBe that stretched to four volumes, was recommended in the TLS last week; it’s not a CBe book but is available from the website.

Books alone do not save lives. But they are voices too and my work is to get some of them heard. Either for yourself or as a present for others, see the Season Tickets on the website home page: 6 books of your own choice for £45, or 12 for £80.

Thursday 23 November 2023

More on public schools

(Earlier post here.)

Anyone who thinks that paying for a child to go to a public school will buy them a ‘good’ education needs to read the diary extracts supplied to the Covid Inquiry by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser (2018–23): Eton-educated Johnson was confused by graphs and data and watching him try to ‘get his head round stats is awful’. Johnson struggled to understand basic scientific concepts ‘and we did need to repeat them – often’.

And then read this: ‘Man claims £1m damages over Loretto boarding school “abuse”’: ‘For me, we're talking about thousands of assaults over more than 2,000 days.’ These are allegations of torture. In the 1990s. The current headmaster of the school has stated in an email that ‘the defence of the legal proceedings is being handled by our insurers and their lawyers’.

I was at that school in the 1960s. The normalisation of violence, bullying and abuse was already in place – see the 200-page report on the school published earlier this year by the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry. The SCAI is an ongoing inquiry into the care of children in Scottish boarding schools and other institutions. To date, the inquiry has announced 112 investigations and has completed 11 case studies. No such inquiry exists in England: it would be too expensive, it would never end.

The result of the case mentioned above will be important. Potentially, thousands of historic abuse claims for damages against public schools may follow. At the very least, the cost of the insurance policies taken out by the schools to protect themselves against such cases will rise steeply.

Monday 30 October 2023


‘Every square meter is filled with so much stuff. Fruit vendors, lottery booths, blind singers, tires, scrap metal, old motorbikes, buckets filled small nuts, bananas gone a little bad, live and dead chickens, heaps of indistinguishable merchandise …’ This is from Gianni Celati’s description of a street market in Bamako in Mali, which I was reading during (rare) quiet periods behind the CBe table at the Small Publishers Fair in the Conway Hall last Friday and Saturday. ‘Everywhere people are selling things and chatting with an admirable indolence. Everything moves in discontinuous fluxes, trailing-off busyness, frequent encounters, continual deviations off the path. Movements that are busy, yet meandering, in the space that is packed with human bodies and lively colors, and merchandise heaped into piles. Nothing gives the impression of being isolated … In this continual rubbing up against people who speak as soon as they see you, without barriers that protect against approaches, I am forgetting the funereal privacy with which I live in England …’

Celati talks with his friend, a film-maker, ‘about the fact that in Europe the passion of business seems like a means to an end, and the end is only profit … Here, instead, it seems that living and doing business are the same thing, the same stuff as the hours of the day, for which the goal of profit is not separated from the chatting and the cloud of dust, and rarely are the encounters reduced to an anonymous rendering of services …’

Still, Celati does wonder ‘What is the profit of the cigarette vendor in front of the hotel who sells perhaps ten packs a day? And the profit of the woman selling ten bananas total, on a little table in the street?’ For the record: CBe sold 87 books over the two days of the fair, for an average of £8.50 per book (which is less than the cover price of any one book, which varies between £8.99 and £14, because I was offering two for £16). A few more than ten bananas. And I gave away a few, and 30 free copies of Farthings. There were discontinuous fluxes and frequent encounters and deviations off the path. Enormous thanks to Helen Mitchell for enabling the fair to happen.

And now a new banana, perfectly ripe, freshly delivered: Lara Pawson’s Spent Light, which publishes in January 2024 but is available now for pre-orders from the website.

Plenty other bananas. They keep well. Selling not from a little table but from the website, where bulk orders, also known as Season Tickets – 6 titles of your own choice for £40, 12 for £75 – are available from the home page. Think of the website as a street market.

Sunday 15 October 2023

A tale of two book fairs

1. Above: flyers for the first two years of Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair.

In 2011 the Arts Council cut funding to a number of poetry presses. It might be fun, I thought, to do something, to show what was under threat. I emailed some people. I hired a hall in Exmouth Market – £250 – and some trestle tables. I put together a pamphlet with poems and an essay by Michael Horovitz. Katy in the pub said: No readings? Where was I living, in the 1950s? There happened to be a room above the hall to hire. Chrissy Williams came in and arranged the readings.

24 September 2011: 22 publishers, a tight fit. There was a tube strike that day but people came. A woman with a lovely voice who was busking on the street came in and did a set on the stage. People bought books. It happened, and I think what took everyone by surprise was the surge of good will. Random quotes from feedback over the next days: ‘It was like a holiday … People came in droves. Really. Not only did they come, they spent money; lots of money … A book fair can be a revelation and, on Saturday, Free Verse was … With poets, publishers and, most importantly, readers brought face to face, you were reminded of what's actually important and of how much time and energy gets wasted drawing up binary or even balkanised models of the poetry world … The Free Verse fair was inaugurated in a spirit of defiance, collaboration and small-scale entrepreneurship … I am very much hoping this will become an annual event. Judging by the number of people who poured through the doors while I was there (and the number of people leaving with bags as heavy as mine was!) it should be.’

  The following year the fair hosted 50 publishers over two floors at Candid Arts. Chrissy was up and running, determined that we should make no distinction between the big publishers (with their tiny poetry lists) and the little ones, who operate far and wide. (Cape said no; they couldn’t work out whether the £40 table charge should be costed to the marketing or the publicity budget. Faber, bless them, told us how difficult it would be to get someone to sell books on a Saturday.) We got ACE funding to pay travel costs to presses from far afield and to pay the people running workshops. In 2013 the fair moved to the Conway Hall and Joey Connolly joined the gang; I dropped out the following year. 2014–17: around 80 presses participating each year; welcome assistance from enthusiastic volunteers; readings (both inside and out of doors), workshops, evening events in nearby pubs.

In 2018 Chrissy and Joey stepped back and management of the book fair was taken over by the Poetry Society. Chrissy in 2018 (quoted on the book fair’s website): ‘We know the Poetry Society will be able to give [the Poetry Book Fair] a more stable and secure future. We’re delighted that they've agreed to take it on, and look forward to seeing how it flourishes in their hands.’

The last Poetry Book Fair was in 2020. The Poetry Society – which receives more than £350,000 per year from ACE, but the book fair is not one its core activities – has no current plans to get it going again. This tends to be what happens when a very small outfit is taken over by a larger one: it disappears.

2. Above is the flyer for this year’s Small Publishers Fair, to be held at the Conway Hall on 27 and 28 October.

The Small Publishers Fair is basically run by two people: Helen Mitchell, who has organised the annual fair since 2012, and the designer and publisher Colin Sackett, who has been involved since the beginning in 2002. Advisers and close supporters are acknowledged on the website. ‘There’s a balance of geography (around 2/3 of publishers come from outside London or around the world) and of diversity of work (artists books, poetry, fine press, zines, etc).’ During Covid, instead of cancelling they ran an online ‘slow book fair’ over two months. The fair is focused, efficient, friendly, relaxed. It generates good will. They have found a recipe and it works and they don’t faff with it. If you want something done well, this – ‘independent, self-funding and not-for-profit’, and run by just two or three people – may be the only way to do it. CBe is honoured to be invited to take part.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until the end of the month to buy books. See, for example, the Season Tickets (6 books of your own choice for £40, or 12 for £75) on the CBe home page.

Monday 25 September 2023


A CBe event at the Barbican scheduled for Wednesday this week, the 27th, has been postponed (to 31 January next year) because of poor ticket sales. How many tickets were sold? As many as a tree-surgeon friend could count on his right hand, after having lost two fingers on that hand to one of those chopping machines into which fallen branches are fed.

Ouch. It’s dose of realism. Event organisers who schedule Ian McEwan or Zadie Smith or Marie Kondo or Michael Palin can stroll into the box office, quids in; event organisers who schedule small-press writers have to run ten times faster for often, as here, zero result.

The Barbican event was ticketed. They pay the writers. Many book events don’t. This is tricky: earlier this month I heard a librarian speak about her unease at having to charge £3 for an author event when for many of the people she wanted to come that was a barrier. The regular charge for book events in London is £10, which equals 2.5 Costa coffees and the food budget for a week for many. We want open access; we want writers to be valued; and it’s depressing how often money gets in the way rather than helping.

Once, a friend and I were the only people to turn up to a stage adaptation of Kafka in a pub theatre and they put on the show just for us.

On the plus side: for publishers whose authors cannot fill stadia, every reader matters. There are no pictures on the CBe site of authors hand-signing (or rubber-stamping) massed ziggurats of new books. For record, the books we were going to talk about on Wednesday evening are: Caroline Clark, Sovetica and Own Sweet Time; Julian George, Bebe; Charles Boyle, 99 Interruptions. Available from the website now, and on the CBe table (with other books) at the Small Publishers Fair in London on 27th and 28th October. Free entry.

Friday 8 September 2023

Ducks in a row

Things are happening. Here are some of them, in no particular order:

The autumn books, all delivered: Philip Hancock, House on the A34; Caroline Thonger and Vivian Thonger, Take Two; Julian George, Bebe; Ann Pearson and Charles Boyle, The Simplon Road. There’ll be a launch party for three of these at 49 Great Ormond Street, London WC1N 3HZ, on 9 October – email if you’d like to come.

CBe now has an Instagram account. This will be run by Vik Shirley, who is helping in other ways too and who is also working with Shearsman and Sublunary Editions. Both I and Vik Shirley will be at the Small Publishers Book Fair on 27 and 28 October at the Conway Hall in London – do come.

This month the Redstone Press publishes Seeing Things, subtitled ‘the small wonders of the world according to writers, artists and others’ and with a foreword by Cornelia Parker: an anthology of images posted on Instagram by David Byrne, Roz Chast, Amit Chaudhuri, Jarvis Cocker, William Dalrymple, Elizabeth Day, Peter Doig, Neil Gaiman, Marc Quinn, Jon Ronson, Elif Shafak, Nina Stibbe, Rachel Whiteread and others. Interspersed with texts (‘droll’, says the TLS) by Charles Boyle. Available from bookshops and the Redstone Press online shop.

An exhibition of objects from The Camden Town Hoard, curated by Natalia Zagorska-Thomas, opens this week at the Bower Ashton Library in Bristol and continues to the end of October. Full details here. The book is available here: Camden Town Hoard.

A brief history of CB editions, written in instalments over the past decade – Farthings: CB editions in 113 bites – is now available exclusively from the website (it’s not an official publication, doesn't have an ISBN and won’t be in bookshops) at the exorbitant price of £10. But if you click a button for one of the Season Tickets on the Home page – 6 books of your own choice for £40, or 12 for £75, post free in the UK – I’ll add in a copy of Farthings for free.

I may have to re-think that ‘post free’. Something you don’t want to hear, and nor do I, is that the cost of posting 2nd-class a slim book of poems or prose, which last increased in April this year, will be going up again next month by more than 50p. But to date, all UK orders from the website are post free.

Sunday 13 August 2023

Table for 6

Table for six at one o’clock … The four September and October CBe titles are now available on the website: House on the A34 by Philip Hancock, Bebe by Julian George, Take Two by Caroline Thonger & Vivian Thonger, The Simplon Road by Ann Pearson & Charles Boyle. And two recent reprints: BB Brahic’s translations of Apollinaire and JO Morgan’s Natural Mechanical.

The new titles: poetry, literary essays, and a couple that booksellers may shelve under fiction (Bebe) and non-fiction: memoir (Take Two), but like a number of CBe titles they are not as clear-cut as that. I know that when I sit down at the table I do want the menu arranged in a way that helps me to choose – starters, mains, desserts; fish, meat, vegetarian – but sometimes it works to just say that one, because I want to be surprised. I may like it, I may not. If the latter, I really haven’t lost much. Maybe think of this table as one big sharing platter. You can have all six books for £40 – or indeed any six CBe titles of your own choice for the same amount: see the Season Tickets on the home page of the website.