Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The social history of books

There was that Kenneth Patchen 1957 Selected Poems I bought in a local Oxfam shop just before Christmas, signed on the flyleaf: ‘George Buchanan, 1959’ – the Irish-born poet, 1904-89, who published with Carcanet and whose daughter lives opposite me.

Last Saturday in another local Oxfam shop there was a treasure trove of late 1950s/early 1960s Penguins. I bought three. Inside a Moravia I found a forgotten bookmark in the form of a letter dated 7 February1961, thanking a Dr Helen Rubens for her job application and inviting her to attend a interview at a doctors’ surgery on the afternoon of the 10th – in other words, almost certainly this book was last read over a half a century ago, and perhaps the woman reading it had it with her on the day of the interview (the surgery opening times are handwritten on the back of the envelope). I googled the name and found her: her grandparents on both sides were Jewish immigrants and her parents met while working as market traders; she married a trades unionist at the age of 23, became a GP, mentored refugees studying medicine, was made a Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1992, and died last year. For her Guardian obituary, written by her son, see here. I feel proud to have some of the books she once read.

Thursday, 15 January 2015


A thing about reading many contemporary novels and poems is that often they make me conscious of doing so. That is, there’s me, the book, and the author too, saying ‘Hey, this is me writing a novel/poem, how’s it going?’

This happens at least as often, more, with work that’s conventional in form and content as it does with the kind of writing that gets called ‘experimental’.

I’d prefer the author to wander off, leaving just me and the book, but really I’m arguing against myself here, the best kind of argument. An ephemeral review of John Updike – in The Listener? late 1960s? – has stuck with me: the reviewer’s complaint was that whatever was being being described was being done so with such gorgeous resources of language that the reader’s attention was on the description, not the thing being described. And thus, as a description, it was functionally amiss.

Words, of course, get in the way. That’s their tease: see what I’m signifying or see me, me. There’s an early Alan Sillitoe novel in which the protagonist goes on a rampage against his bookshelves: I think all writers sometimes want out of it, the wordiness of it all. Shkolvsky: ‘How I want simply to describe objects as if literature had never existed; that way I could write literarily.’

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The short story, in sickness and in health

Here is Philip Hensher in a Spectator review of a short-story collection: ‘Superficial signs of success and publicity – such as Alice Munro winning the Nobel, or the establishment of another well-funded prize – are widely mistaken for a resurgence. But what has disappeared – and disappeared quite recently – is the wide spread of journals willing to pay for a single story … writers in this country are reduced to giving away their short fiction for nothing, or to collecting it from time to time and persuading their publisher to bring out a volume for minuscule advances. It is scandalous that short-story writers of the talent of Helen Simpson, Jackie Kay, Gerard Woodward, Ali Smith, Shena Mackay and A.L. Kennedy have never established a firm relationship with a journal which, like the Strand with Conan Doyle, would regularly publish their stories. But there are no such magazines in this country.’

To which a fairly widespread response was: but the short story is resurgent: see the large number of readings, organisations, websites, magazines, etc, now promoting it.

Maybe both are right. Two different publishing models are being referenced here, and the differences between them are to large degree determined by money. Put simply, when writing and reading were more central to the culture than they are now, there was more of it around. In 1902 the Strand magazine paid Conan Doyle up to £620 (in today’s money, around £66,000) for a single episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles. To found The English Review in 1908, Ford Madox Ford raised £5,000 (in today’s money, over half a million). A consequence of the money was stable, long-term relationships between writers and editors, publishers, magazines. In tiny pockets this model still survives – in, for example, as Hensher points out, the long-term association between certain story writers and The New Yorker – but the new model, now that writing-&-reading have been shifted out to the periphery, is increasingly focused on competitions. The Book Trust website lists 76 of them in the UK. As Hensher points out in his Spectator piece, ‘With the funds one Sunday newspaper makes available for its annual short-story prize, it could afford to pay handsomely every week for a short story’ – but no, rather than pay many authors a reasonable sum, it chooses to pay one author a staggering sum. Competitions do many things effectively: they provide publicity for the sponsors and the genre itself; they provide money (through the entry fees) for the small presses or magazines that run many of them; they act as a filter, offering a select number of names to interested but time-strapped readers. What they do not do is foster the kind of long-term writer-editor relationship (as between, say, Carver and Gordon Lish) that was integral to the old model.

The latter kind of nurturing relationship is perhaps now more available in the creative writing industry than in publishing. This would make sense, given that it’s towards there that the money has shifted.

Monday, 5 January 2015


Faber publish an anthology titled The Complete Book of Aunts. (There was also The Faber Book of Christmas, with one of my favourite indexes ever: alcoholism, death, despair, disease …) A work colleague and I once started gathering pieces for a proposed Faber Book of Trousers. Contents included a letter from Martin Luther to his tailor; Lenin’s interruption of his journey by train from exile to Russia in 1917 to buy a new pair of trousers, followed by an eye-witness account of his giving a speech in St Petersburg in which the journalist John Reed noted that his trousers looked too big; a newspaper account of Pamella Bordes scissoring the crotch out of a pair of Andrew Neil’s trousers; and the death, in Nabokov’s Transparent Things, of Hugh Person’s father while trying on a pair of trousers in the fitting room of a menswear shop.

Also this, which I remembered this week: a thank-you note from T. S. Eliot to the father of a near neighbour whose surplus clothing coupons (this was during the war) allowed Eliot to purchase a new pair of trousers. With the note, Eliot also sent two LP records of himself reading his poems. John Bodley at Faber was excited by these: one of the records was not listed in any discography or catalogue. Unfortunately the record was so scratched that it was unplayable.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

New start-ups in 2015

New ventures in 2015 will include books from Jo Bell’s 52 project; the first two publications from Jennifer Griggs’s Green Bottle Press; the first books from the poetry list at Liverpool University Press, edited by Deryn Rees-Jones; and the first publication from Cécile Menon’s Les Fugitives.

More new presses? In politics and economics, this country is up shit creek; public funding for the arts is cut and cut again; and anyway, ‘no one reads books’. Yet, in just the past few years, Penned in the Margins, Peirene, And Other Stories, Eyewear, Istros, Notting Hill Editions, Emma Press … Magazines, too: print (Gorse, Bare Fiction, the reincarnation of Ambit) and online (Asymptote) and both (The White Review). Many of these presses are finding a readership for kinds of writing – work in translation by writers no one in the UK has heard of, short stories – that according to traditional publishing wisdom don’t stand a chance. Maybe, having nothing to lose, we become both more adventurous and more discriminating.

Meanwhile, according to Robert McCrum in last Sunday’s Observer, the only thing happening in literature in 2015 will be some books looking ahead to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April the following year. Bless.


The novel by Nathalie Léger from Les Fugitives I recommend. ‘First published in France in 2012 to critical and popular acclaim, this is the first book about Barbara Loden: a genre-bending novel inspired by her film Wanda – a masterpiece of early cinema vérité, an anti-Bonnie-and-Clyde road movie about a young woman adrift in rust-belt Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, until she embarks on a crime spree with a small-time crook […] As research yields few new insights into Loden’s sketchy biography, the words of Duras, Perec, Godard, Plath, Kate Chopin, Melville, Beckett, Sebald et al. come to the narrator’s rescue […]’

Wanda is one of those cult movies. In the novel I happen to be reading right now, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethowers (which throws together motorbikes, the 1970s New York art scene, and radical politics in Italy), a woman and her boyfriend are mugged outside a bar in New York at night; the boyfriend shoots the mugger’s hand and waits with him until an ambulance comes, telling the woman to go home, which she does, and turns on the TV and ‘The three a.m. movie was just beginning’. Guess which. The next pages are waiting, memories, and running commentary on the film.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014


The photograph I’m looking at, which has been reproduced as a postcard – on the back there are lines printed for an address and the word ‘Wellington’ in italic where the stamp should go, with the left side left blank for a message, though there is no message – shows fourteen men in a simple laboratory. Seven are wearing white lab coats. Two of the men appear to be older than the others – one standing on the right, with glasses and white hair, the other towards the back – and are perhaps the teachers, or supervisors, of the others, who are students. None is facing the camera; all have their heads down; the atmosphere couldn’t possibly be more studious. The students are sitting on stools and are working at benches equipped with those little nipples for attaching Bunsen burners; some are looking into microscopes; there is also some electrical equipment, and perhaps flasks, and the man at the very back may be observing or adjusting a kind of gauge. The room is lit through tall windows to the left, and there are also overhead electric lamps; the floor is bare wooden boards. They are studying what happens when you put this in contact with that; how gases and liquids and electric currents behave, how light behaves, how cells behave; what makes us tick. This is progress. I doubt their professors make many jokes in their lectures. There are no women in the room, and I believe that even if a woman did enter the room – in a long black skirt and white blouse, with her hair pinned up – it’s possible that none of the students would look up, so focused are they on their work. But a woman could do worse than find her husband among these men, because they are serious and conscientious and after their studies are completed many will acquire secure and well-paid jobs. They will wash their hands before meals, be moderate in their drinking and keep strict accounts. Some of the students will become village pharmacists but one will go on to make an important new discovery that will change how in the future a disease is treated or miners work more safely or murderers be put to death more humanely or babies born prematurely may have better chances of survival. A number of them will be killed in the next war. They may fight on different sides, according to circumstances or their beliefs, which need have little to do with the work they doing. Suicide and madness will also feature. Meanwhile, some will return in a few years’ time for their professor’s retirement dinner, at which speeches will be made and comic incidents will be remembered. All of this is already known in outline to the student at the back who looks to be the youngest in the room and who is standing up while one of the two teachers inspects his work and who I will call Jan, but this is an important time in his life and he cannot afford to let it distract him.

Saturday, 20 December 2014


In Gap yesterday there were some OK jumpers, except that were so many of them they were nothing. Second-hand shops and charity shops, on the other hand: there’s only one of each item, and often that’s one too many but one is exactly the number I’m looking for.

Portobello Road, this afternoon. Paprika from Garcia, and then the stall with those disposable plastic black pepper (& pepper-&-chilli, & ‘Himalayan salt’) grinders, a quid each. (Why, other than those, do you have spend an avalanche of money to get a pepper grinder that actually carries on working after a refill or two? Or am I doing something wrong?) Then the Oxfam bookshop. A Gerald Murnane novel (previous owner, a library in Massachusetts). A 1957 New Directions edition of Kenneth Patchen selected poems. Above, one of the poems. Previous owner, according to the fly-leaf: ‘George Buchanan, September 1959’. This was surely the Irish-born poet, 1904–89. His daughter lives opposite me; she and her husband host excellent parties.

£4 for both. Here’s another from the Patchen:

Back to Buchanan. The opening lines of his book Minute-Book of a City (Carcanet, 1972), pure shopping: ‘Does multiplicity undermine / the story? Does an overbreeding / in fiction make cardboard figures?’ Much of it is angry, and brilliant. ‘Absence of ideas in the Cabinet. Dust fell / from the ceiling in slow shower. They rang and sent / for another basket of statistics. Could no one find / the document which would increase the amount of hope?’

‘The number of the killed / was a minor consideration. They were thoughts / in the thinking of a High Command / accustomed to shoots on the moors.’

‘No doffing of the cap and saying “sir” to the universe. / The state of mind in which we pray is both / the prayer and the answer to the prayer.’

‘A suitable marriage. They speak about problems / of the State at breakfast. He does well at the office, / is sure of promotion. They laugh at the wit / of a neighbour who comes to dine. Afterwards / they lie asleep in twin beds. Occasionally / flushed with wine they speak of a thing / called “personal relationship”.’

‘The animals are herded slowly from green fields / to be eaten by gentlemen in restaurants.’ Here’s a last Kenneth Patchen scan, a vegetarian gentleman one (but not before remarking that Rosemary Tonks is not the only good poet from the 60s, 70s who went AWOL; she managed her own disappearance, others have had that done to them):