Thursday, 21 August 2014

Robinson: the quiz (again)

Slack days, and I’ve been neglecting this blog. So in honour of Jack Robinson, and because when I first put this up last summer no one, despite the wondrous powers of Google, got all the answers, here’s the quiz again (slightly enlarged). First to email me before 31 August with author and title of each work from which the below are extracted can choose a couple of free CBe books.

June 21. – Very ill; frighted almost to death with the apprehensions of my sad condition—to be sick, and no help. Prayed to God, for the first time since the storm off Hull, but scarce knew what I said, or why, my thoughts being all confused. June 22. – A little better; but under dreadful apprehensions of sickness. June 23. – Very bad again; cold and shivering, and then a violent headache. June 24. – Much better. June 25. – An ague very violent; the fit held me seven hours; cold fit and hot, with faint sweats after it. June 26. – Better; and having no victuals to eat, took my gun, but found myself very weak. However, I killed a she-goat, and with much difficulty got it home, and broiled some of it, and ate, I would fain have stewed it, and made some broth, but had no pot.

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
– And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

We are now settled in lodgings in Clock Lane off Long Acre. I go by the name of Mrs Cruso, which you should bear in mind. I have a room on the second floor. Friday has a bed in the cellar, where I bring him his meals. By no means could I have abandoned him on the island. Nevertheless, a great city is no place him. His confusion when I conducted him through the streets this last Saturday wrenched my heartstrings.
Our lodging is together five shillings a week. Whatever you send I shall be grateful for.

It happened one night that Robinson could not sleep. A pool of moonlight shone on the floor of the Residence. An owl called in the darkness, and he seemed to hear the very earth groan with a plaint of love deprived. His mattress of dried grass felt incongruously soft and unreal. He lay for a while thinking of Tenn’s mad, erotic dance round that open furrow, the body offered after being violated by Friday’s spade. It was a long time since he had visited the combe. His daughters, the mandrakes, must have grown big by now! He sat up with his feet in the moonlight and smelt the scent of sap rising in his big body, white as a root. He rose silently, stepped over the entwined bodies of Friday and Tenn, and set out for the copse of gum-trees and sandalwood.


The published confection has as much imagination as truth in it: Alexander becomes Robinson; the Scottish son of a cobbler becomes a merchant’s son from York who ignores the advice of his father; four years and four months becomes twenty-eight years, half a lifetime.


[Click on image to enlarge]

Usually Robinson reserved the same large table in a fashionable restaurant where a dozen or more of us sat down to dinner. He went out of his way to be charming and intriguing (answering a question with a question), his deliberate reticence about himself calculated to provoke speculation. Everyone had a different angle on Robinson, who was at his most Gatsby-like during this period, mixing high and low life at the same table, seating rebellious young aristocrats next to a former criminal associate of the Krays who explained how to saw off the barrel of a shotgun. ‘Dangerous thing to do, now looking back on it,’ he told me. ‘But they were available, yeah, and they were usable.’ He fixed me with a dead stare perfected in the course of thousands of protection money collections.

The vocation for murder that had suddenly come over Robinson struck me in a way as an improvement over what I’d observed up until then in others, always half hateful, half benevolent, always boring with their vagueness, their indirection. I had definitely learned a thing or two by following Robinson in the night.
But there was a danger: the Law. ‘The Law is dangerous,’ I told him. ‘If you’re caught, you with the state of your health, you’ll be sunk … You’ll never leave prison alive … It’ll kill you …’
‘That’s just too bad,’ he said. ‘I’m fed up with honest work … I’m getting old … still waiting my turn to have some fun, and when it comes ... if it does, with plenty of patience … I’ll have been dead and buried long ago … Honest work is for suckers … You know that as well as I do …’

Because I am done with this thing called work,
the paper-clips and staples of it all.
The customers and their huge excuses,
their incredulous lies and their beautiful
foul-mouthed daughters. I am swimming with it,
right up to here with it. And I am bored,
bored like the man who married a mermaid.

Recent occurrences to which he need not more particularly allude, but which have not been altogether without notice in some Sunday Papers, and in a daily paper which he need not name (here every other member of the company names it in an audible murmur), have caused him to reflect; and he feels that for him and Robinson to have any personal differences at such a moment, would be for ever to deny that good feeling in the general cause, for which he has reason to think and hope that the gentlemen in […] have always been distinguished.

‘Robinson is not man for the ladies.’
That, too, I knew already. There is easily discernible in some men a certain indifference, not to woman precisely but to the feminine element in women, which might be interpreted in a number of ways. In Robinson I had detected something more than indifference: a kind of armed neutrality. So much for his attitude to me. And I thought it likely that he could be positively hostile to the idea of women in general.
‘Look here,’ I said to Jimmie, ‘I wasn’t born yesterday.’
‘Is so?’ said Jimmie gallantly.
‘And in any case,’ I said, ‘Robinson is not my style.’

‘Know my partner? Old Robinson. Yes; the Robinson. Don’t you know? The notorious Robinson. The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose Johnny now alive. They say he used to board the sealing-schooners up Alaska way when the fog was so thick that the Lord God, He alone, could tell one man from another. Holy-Terror Robinson. That’s the man. He is with me in that guano thing. The best chance he ever came across in his life.’

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminol? Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

Robinson hesitated a moment, and then said, with a smile, ‘I am going to make you, sir, a very odd proposal after your last declaration; but what say you to a game at cards? it will serve to pass a tedious hour, and may divert your thoughts from more unpleasant speculations.’ I do not imagine Booth would have agreed to this; for, though some love of gaming had been formerly amongst his faults, yet he was not so egregiously addicted to that vice as to be tempted by the shabby plight of Robinson, who had, if I may so express myself, no charms for a gamester. If he had, however, any such inclinations, he had no opportunity to follow them, for, before he could make any answer to Robinson’s proposal, a strapping wench came up to Booth, and, taking hold of his arm, asked him to walk aside with her; saying, ‘What a pox, are you such a fresh cull that you do not know this fellow? why, he is a gambler, and committed for cheating at play. There is not such a pickpocket in the whole quad.’ A scene of altercation now ensued between Robinson and the lady, which ended in a bout at fisticuffs, in which the lady was greatly superior to the philosopher.

‘Let’s go for a spin,’ Mr Robinson said.
Benjamin reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys. ‘Can you work a foreign gearshift?’ he said, holding them out.
‘Do you know how to operate a foreign gearshift?’
‘Well sure,’ Mr Robinson said. ‘But I thought you’d take me for a spin yourself.’

‘You ask that,’ groaned Robinson, ‘and yet you can see what I look like. Just think of it, they’ve very likely made me a cripple for life. I have frightful pains from here right to here’ – and he pointed first to his head and then to his toes – ‘I only wish you had seen how much my nose bled. My waistcoat is completely ruined, and I had to leave it behind me too; my trousers are in tatters, I’m in my drawers’.

He had determined to remain calm, so that, on turning round at the quick advent of the little woman of the house, who had hurried up, white, scared, staring, at the sound of the crashing door, he was able to say, very quietly and gravely, ‘Mr Robinson has shot himself through the heart. He must have done it while you were fetching the milk.’


Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows (1908) – in which Toad is bailed out from various scrapes by kindly others who have a soft spot for this feckless, conceited toff – while working at the Bank of England. Several of Grahame’s colleagues kept dogs in the basement and organised dog-fights in the lavatories. In 1903 he was shot at by an intruder named Robinson, whom the press referred to as a ‘Socialist Lunatic’.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

May-Lan Tan

I’m indecently proud that May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break is included, as readers’ nomination, on the Guardian First Book Award longlist.

Huge thanks to everyone who has helped keep the boat afloat, and not least to Claire TrĂ©vien, who nominated Things to Make and Break and whose own first book took this same slot on the list last year. Any purchase from the website gets more money directly to CBe. I suggest you buy now rather wait till later (a used CBe edition of Christopher Reid’s A Song of Lunch is currently on ebay at £100).

The photo above is © Brian Carroll and was taken, I think, when May-Lan read earlier this year in Cardiff for Bare Fiction magazine - click here for a podcast of that reading. May-Lan is currently in the US; her website lists the places/dates of her readings there. In September she (and I) will be at the Cork International Short Story Festival.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Home & away

Just as CBe starts to make some kind of financial sense (sales last year were more than double the previous year’s), I wander off. If it was anyone else, I’d see a certain style in this.

CBe hasn’t shut up shop; I haven’t wandered off very far; but the landscape looks a little different. There is this: that the four most recent titles, published earlier this year – Agota Kristof’s The Notebook and The Illiterate, May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist – will be a hard act to follow. And now there is this: the unexpected (I mean that) consequence of taking time out (the Czech Republic in May, Sardinia in June/July; now home) is that I’ve started messing around with writing again – Jack is back, and I think Jennie too – after a long period of no writing at all, and writing takes time, and so does publishing, and so does finding and doing work that actually brings in money, and besides, the weather is fine.

Meanwhile, here is John Greening in this week’s Times Literary Supplement on Fergus Allen’s New & Selected Poems: ‘The pleasure that Fergus Allen takes in the “superior amusement” of making poems is evident throughout this handsome volume … Allen has learnt his trade well enough to shift from the playful to the erudite, from the grand style to the plain, without any loss of authority. The number of good opening lines alone is enviable: “The purpose of nettles is to make more nettles”, “Annie’s pubic hair was beyond a joke”, “Dark roles, my agent says they’re me”, “A solo glutton or wolverine”, “After the earthquake we decided to redecorate Hell”. The poems introduced by such lines are witty, humane, erotic, worldly-wise, sardonic, amiable, and overflowing with a true poet’s delight in language.’

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Lives of poets

This is Perseus Adams. He was born in South Africa in 1933; he won the South Africa State Prize for Poetry in 1963 and took the name Perseus at the advice of his hitch-hiking friend Athol Fugard, who suggested that if he wanted to publish there were too many Peters around already.

An old friend of Perseus who lost touch with him a while back, an artist now living in Jerusalem who happens to be a Facebook friend of my wife, asked if we could trace him. The Internet has a page from a local newspaper dated 2009 that mentioned his poetry and gave his address as Hadyn Park Road, which leads off the street in which we live. (It also mentioned that his grandmother was Van Gogh’s sister.) On Saturday we knocked on doors, and found some sheltered housing but there was no one at the reception desk. Going there again today, I was told that yes, Perseus had lived there, but had recently moved to a care home and they couldn’t tell me which. This afternoon I found him. He showed me his poetry books (including a 1970s competition anthology: Perseus won second prize, Derek Mahon was one of the runners up); a Selected Poems was published in South Africa in 1996. He talked non-stop: about his grandfather who died at 45 in Scotland, about meeting Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, about teaching English in India and Hong Kong, about being a stowaway on the Queen Mary, about a brief spell in Wormwood Scrubs, about a woman with coloured lights in her dress, about the newly discovered planet Kepler-186, about the end of the world … He happens to be in the same care home as Sheila, the ex-bookseller I’ve written about before who ran a tiny bookshop in Notting Hill for 44 years. If I visit again, he wouldn’t mind some croissants.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Czech-land (2): Prague

Kafka’s grave in Prague on the morning of last Tuesday, the 90th anniversary of his death, and the overgrown Jewish cemetery where it is. While I was away I read his America for the first time: an affectionate, comic novel in which our hero stumbles into a series of messes and then has to get out of them. Kafka-esque doesn’t have to mean nightmarish. By chance, I also re-read Peter Handke’s Short Letter, Long Farewell, which is another German-speaking writer’s take on the land of America and which I liked even better than I remembered. And on my last night in Prague I heard Ales Machacek and Jane Kirwan read from their book Second Exile (Rockingham Press, 2010), which is a book CBe would have lunged for: memoir of silent cinema, reading, arrest and re-arrest, prison, odd-job jobs, no Velvet Revolution panacea, told bluntly and with a gorgeous turn of phrase, punctuated by Jane's slanting-off poems and a goose-woman, plus photographs.

An empty yellow house I could live happily in:

My hotel was near a park on a hill, and here late last Sunday afternoon, early evening, are people sitting around on the west-facing slope of that hill: talking, meeting, drinking beer, with dogs and small children and guitars, watching the sun set over their city. The Italian tradition of the passegiata - the evening stroll, dressed up, ambling, pausing for iced drinks - I find stifling. This, by comparison, was Langland's 'fair field full of folk', by accident of geography and weather and size of city, and to say I'm glad to have been there is the least of it.

Czech-land (1)

The Freelance column in today's Times Lit Supplement is me writing from my 'retreat' in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Here are some photos to go with that (the next post will show Prague). I hadn’t been out of the UK, and rarely out of London, for more than three years.

Krumlov is almost too picturesque for its own good, but doesn’t insist on it. A photo of the apartment I was in is in the previous post; below is Egon Schiele's painting of the building, from a century ago:

Frequent rain, and once a hailstorm. Japanese tourists with colourful umbrellas and pac-a-macs:

Walk for less than 20 minutes and I was into the forest. Walk through the forest and I’d find a small village. En route, hidden by trees, the occasional tiny chapel, often with candles left burning by an invisible pilgrim:

Time passed. Reading was done, sleeping was done, I began to take even the bears for granted.

On one of the rare hot days I took a bus to a lake to go swimming: an hour to get there in a bus that took detours, then two buses on the way back. All the buses were driven by the same driver.

I came home last night. Last Saturday, while I was away, May-Lan Tan's Things to Make and Break was named runner-up in the short story collection category in the Saboteur Awards. I'm feeling mellow and still a little detached.

Friday, 23 May 2014

May days

You have just two days left to vote for May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break in the short-story collection of the Saboteur Awards: the voting page is here. May-Lan will be reading at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford on 31 May, when the awards will be announced.

In the last couple of weeks Agota Kristof’s The Notebook and The Illiteratehave been reviewed in the New Statesman and have been written about more extensively here, on the website of the US magazine Music & Literature.

I’m still away: the apartment I’m in is on the top floor of one of the two houses with terraces overlooking the river just down from the steeple in the photo above. There are (below) bears in the castle moat, and riverside walks, and forests, and an hour away a lake for swimming. Being a tourist is hard work. On 3 June I’ll visit the grave of Kafka in Prague on the 90th anniversary of his death.