Friday, 31 March 2017

Arrigo Beyle



‘Semi-retired’ is like that crop-rotation thing that farmers do: no harm in leaving a field fallow for a year, not forcing it.

This year, zero + 2. Two by me, under the Jack pen-name and riding upon the privilege of having under another hat an imprint to publish them with. The first is available now, from the website and from Central Books, the second in the autumn.

Today I posted off 50 copies of the first book to friends and it took a little time, because the post office has reconfigured the software: before, I was able to say this envelope and ten the same, please, and they’d rattle out the labels, but now they have to record the postcode for every label. Early afternoon, no one fuming behind me in the queue, it was OK, but we do, we Brits, at least 52% of us, insist on making life difficult for ourselves.

Out of those 50 I posted off to friends maybe two or three were to people in the trade, who write reviews or are similarly engaged. No more. And I have not solicited quotes for the covers, and I have sent them to no literary editors on the newspapers, the magazines, and they are not in any catalogues and there is no sales agent or publicist and I will not be entering these books for any prizes. (I don’t think they’re eligible for any, but that’s by the by, and makes it easier.)

A form of arrogance, yes. It’s also publishing lite, cutting out the tedious stuff. I can do this with myself, I couldn’t do it – this refusenik thing – with any other writer I’d taken on.

The first Robinson book puts to bed, perhaps, an obsession with Stendhal, and above is a photo of his tomb in Montmartre in Paris taken last week on the anniversary of his death, 23 March. Below is a nice 1940s edition of Le Rouge et le Noir picked up on the same day for 5 euros, and the Robinson book.

Monday, 27 March 2017

David Storey, 1933–2017

I've been neglecting this blog. Only one post this year, before this. I've been busy (how did I ever find time to publish books?), but that's a poor excuse.

David Storey died today. His early novels, more than the plays, were formative for me. I mean that for a certain time they were the most important books in the world. When I was at university, and the exam system allowed me to write an extended essay, I wanted to do this on Storey, and I wrote to him and he wrote back saying, basically, good luck, but you're on your own.

Here's a paragraph from a blog post I wrote back in 2012:

"David Storey’s first three novels – This Sporting Life (1960), Flight into Camden (1961), Radcliffe (1963) – didn’t so much speak to me as grab me by the goolies. Northern, father a miner, wrestling with the inner life and the social codes, he was, in a rough way, Lawrence, but alive and writing now (then). After those, plays, and other, cooler novels (he won the Booker in 1976), and long silences. Sometime while I was working at Faber they published a book by his daughter, the fashion designer Helen Storey; there was a party at some extravagant venue to which I didn’t go, and when someone told me there was an older man there, on his own, not mixing, I wished I had."

From a newspaper interview in 1970, almost half a century ago: "I dislike the whole social context of the novel, and where it is, the conventional apparatus which has featured so largely for so long. The novel in England in this kind of society is passed art. The tradition wanders on in a desultory fashion ... The novel is no longer a reliable metaphor for what’s going on."

After that first surge of early novels, there was a backing away. Every so often, I've thought about Storey's silences. And now there is just one silence. If I had gone to that Faber party, what would I have said to him? Embarrassment all round. But still, I should have gone, if only to say thank you.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

2007–2016



Since 2007 CBe has been a one-person freelance activity, easily the most enjoyable one I’ve ever had. But fifty-odd books in print is as far as that model can stretch, and I appear to be unsuited to any other, so CBe is going into semi-retirement. No new titles have been taken on for 2017.

In practice: the website stays up and all books in print will continue to be sold, both from the website and (for ‘the trade’) through the distributor, Central Books. Please do carry on buying. By semi-retirement, I mean that CBe is retreating into ‘hobbyist’ mode: I may well publish the occasional book (there’ll be a new Jack Robinson book this year, and maybe two), but without committing to the marketing and publicity that are necessary if the books are to reach as wide a readership as possible.

A part of the fun has been proving – to myself as much as anyone – what can be done with little money and no funding. Extracurricular activities have included a London book fair for poetry presses in 2011 (now an annual event, independent of CBe: website here) and a pop-up shop in Portobello Road for a week in 2013. Should I mention the gongs? CBe titles have won the McKitterick Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize and the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (three times), and have been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, the Guardian First Book Award, the Forward main prize (twice) and the Forward first collection Prize (four times) and more. Well, I have done now, but the risk here is that it turns the whole thing into one of those feel-good small-press stories which reek of worthiness. That was never the point. Quite simply, I’ve had a ball, and met extraordinary people, and for every single purchase of every book I am truly grateful to readers.

I did suggest a couple of years ago that I was stopping, but on that occasion found that (as with smoking) stopping was actually harder than carrying on. This time it’s different.

For the record: 57 titles, rough count. Heinz Means Beans. Placed in a pile on the floor, the total run of these books comes to around 64 cm, just over 2 feet, not much above my knees. Around 30 authors. Some titles are now out of print, others may follow. Two titles first published by CBe are now with other UK publishers, and half a dozen are now available from publishers in other countries. Three of the authors have died since I published their books, one at the age of 37. The oldest author on the list is 95. I have stood in line at the post office 1,147 times.


2007
Erik Houston, The White Room
Jennie Walker, 24 for 3
Stefan Grabinski, In Sarah’s House, trans. Wiesiek Powaga
Jack Robinson, Days and Nights in W12

2008
Gert Hofmann, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, trans Michael Hofmann
Greg Loftin, Saxon
Francis Ponge,
Unfinished Ode to Mud, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic
Elise Valmorbida, The TV President

2009
Andrzej Bursa, Killing Auntie and other work, trans. Wiesiek Powaga
Christopher Reid, The Song of Lunch
J. O. Morgan, Natural Mechanical
Nicky Singer, Knight Crew
Jack Robinson, Recessional

2010
Fergus Allen, Before Troy
Gabriel Josipovici, Only Joking
David Markson, This Is Not a Novel
Marjorie Ann Watts, Are they funny, are they dead?
Tony Lurcock, Not So Barren or Uncultivated

2011
D. Nurkse, Voices over Water
Nancy Gaffield, Tokaido Road
J. O. Morgan, Long Cuts
Jonathan Barrow, The Queue
Jack Robinson, Days and Nights in W12 (new edn)

2012
Apollinaire, The Little Auto, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic
Beverley Bie Brahic, White Sheets
Joaquin Giannuzzi, A Complicated Mammal, trans. Richard Gwyn
Stephen Knight, The Prince of Wails
Miha Mazzini, The German Lottery, trans. Urska Zupanec
Dai Vaughan, Sister of the artist

2013
Todd McEwen, The Five Simple Machines
Dan O’Brien, War Reporter
Fergus Allen, New & Selected Poems
Alba Arikha, Soon
Andrew Elliott, Mortality Rate
J. O. Morgan, At Maldon
D. Nurkse, A Night in Brooklyn
André Naffis Sahely and Julian Stannard, eds, The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann
Tony Lurcock, No Particular Hurry

2014
Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist
May-Lan Tan, Things to Make and Break
Agota Kristof, The Notebook, trans. Alan Sheridan
Agota Kristof, The Illiterate, trans. Nina Bogin
Dan O’Brien, Scarsdale

2015
Matthew Siegel, Blood Work
Agota Kristof, 2 Novels: The Proof, The Third Lie, trans. David Watson and Marc Romano
Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew
Dan O’Brien, New Life
Tony Lurcock, A Life of Extremes

2016
Beverley Bie Brahic, Hunting the Boar
Will Eaves, The Inevitable Gift Shop
Patrick Mackie, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints
Julian Stannard, What were you thinking?
Jack Robinson, by the same author
David Collard, About a Girl: A Reader’s Guide to Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
Lara Pawson, This Is the Place to Be
Ananda Devi, Eve out of Her Ruins, trans. Jeffey Zuckerman (co-published with Les Fugitives)

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Publicity eats itself

Damn it was cold, but the art show I enjoyed most this year was The Infinite Mix, ten video installations playing over the several floors (and basement garage) of a derelict office building in The Strand, London. Click here to see what was there. The ones I liked best: Stan Douglas, Cyprien Gaillard, Kahlil Joseph, Ugo Rondinone. I really liked those, and I – someone who doesn’t exactly rush to see video art – liked many of the others too.

It was free (it was a Hayward Gallery pop-up show, with a pop-up café too). The people who staffed it – directed you when you got lost, handed out 3-D glasses, talked if you wanted to talk but otherwise just let you alone – were friendly, despite being even colder than me. They wanted to be there. I doubt they got paid much. I went on a weekday afternoon, stayed a few hours, and it was busy – people moving through at a pace that the work itself seemed to determine, a number that felt the right amount, who were interested and patient. It hardly felt like I was in London. I mean, it felt like London at its best, when it’s not insisting on being ‘London’.

I don’t think there was much publicity. Word-of-mouth got me there. I think a lot of publicity – a lot of marketing, selling – just eats itself. This of course was a part of why I so liked this show: no one had told me to go there; I was finding it for myself.

I’ll go to the Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, but I know already that it will be a different experience. Must see. I’ll be going there after being told on the Tate home page in the imperative, the advertising imperative, ‘Discover the artist who changed American art forever’. So helpful, to be told what I’m going to discover, before I’ve even left home.

In theory, the UK has a large enough, diverse enough, rich enough, educated enough population to sustain a range of small-scale arts initiatives that can operate even without external funding, without budgets for publicity. These things happen in some much poorer countries than the UK. And they do happen in the UK too, just about. Precariously, of course.

Meanwhile, here is a this-week review of a book – published by CBe in 2013 – by a writer who out-Ferrantes Ferrante in his refusal to play the game: no readings, no photos, no social media, zero presence of any kind that publicity requires. The book is available here, from the CBe website.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Three

Best postal service. Someone in Finland ordered three CBe books, and I posted them. Someone else misread Thailand for Finland. The royal Thai post system returned them. I re-posted, refusing to pay again and using the original ‘single-use only’ postage label, and today the books got to the right place, after travelling around 13,000 miles.

Worst train service. Not-so Great Western Railway. I’ve been on just four day-return train journeys this year, and two of those were GWR. The first, to Bristol: the train never left the station, because they couldn’t get the brakes off. The second, yesterday, to Taunton: the train got as far as the first stop, Reading, and then decamped all passengers and returned to London, because something had been triggered.

Best new font: Palatino Sans. Discovered last week on the cover of a re-issue by a Canadian small press of Anne Carson’s Small Talks (2015; first published 1992), found in an Oxfam shop last Saturday for £2.99. The book was designed by Robert Bringhurst, who is not only a master designer of books (and has a classic book on typography) but also has a very fine Selected Poems available here from Cape. Most sans-serif fonts lack wit and character; this one doesn’t.

PS: on the same visit to Oxfam bookshop, I picked up the DVD of the documentary film titled Helvetica. Sans serif. Haven't watched it yet. I know, I know: the country is going to the dogs, up shit creek, plenty clichés on hand, and Syria and Yemen are open wounds and I'm fussing about train times and typefaces.

Monday, 28 November 2016

On German doors and Buckingham Palace

In the 1980s I worked for a company that produced coffee-table books, some of them instructional, and the company took on a project to produce DIY books to be sold in Germany and France as well as the UK. No one seemed to have noticed that in Germany and France they wire and plumb differently. We hired a couple of consultants who got expenses-paid trips to London to explain things, and the more we talked, of course, the more differences became apparent.

Doors, for example. An English door is basically a rectangular thing with straight edges. A German door has rebates, often more than one, matching rebates in the frame: it keeps out draughts. The hinges are different too. I visited Germany at the time, and took in some art and some castles, but what seriously impressed me most were the doors. And the windows. They were streets ahead of anything I was familiar with in the UK. I was in Germany last week, which is why I have their doors on my mind.

A significant factor in the current UK housing crisis – quite apart from the lack of commitment over decades to building social housing, and the absurdity of ‘affordable’ housing – is the dilapidation of a large part of the UK housing stock. Our cars and laptops and coffee-shops and fashion match those of the rest of Europe, but the houses we live in are generally more decrepit and therefore more expensive to renovate or even keep in good repair (besides being insanely expensive in the first place).

For example, Buckingham Palace, comprising 755 rooms and lived in by the Queen for only a part of each year, now needs major refurbishment (new wiring, new plumbing) at a cost of £37 million. It hasn’t been redecorated since 1952. (What is the point of having £34 million in the bank – the Queen’s wealth, according to the 2015 Sunday Times Rich List – and not having fun painting the throne room pink and yellow, and polka dots in the state banqueting room?) Who has allowed the place to get into this condition – the government, the Royal family? And who now pays?

The Royal Collection (‘being the works of art held by the Queen in right of the Crown and held in trust for her successors and for the nation’) is large: its website has records for over 250,000 objects. A fraction of these have been seen by the public. The collection includes a couple of Titians, 27 works by Rubens, 33 by Van Dyck, 69 by Rembrandt, 237 by Canaletto and 567 by Leonardo Da Vinci (the latter including a drawing, c.1510, titled ‘A Cloudburst of Material Possessions’). As a contribution towards the £37 million, couldn’t some be sold? Does the Royal family (does anyone) really need over 230 works by Canaletto? These are not rhetorical questions. A little less Canaletto – I don’t think they’d even notice.

Friday, 11 November 2016

9/11 (2016)

A couple of posts ago I wrote: ‘The Brexit vote was won by the comment threads, the surrender to opinion. Not thinking.’ Now Trump …

I’m not constructing an argument here, I’m too lazy for that, but here are a few things in my head.

The net and social media and online journalism and radio phone-ins (a really cheap, cost-cutting way of doing broadcasting) have opened up all topics-for-debate to everyone with a keyboard. Everyone has their say, often on subjects they know little about. (I mentioned in that previous post that, bizarrely, I have an opinion to spout on the TV baking programme, even though I’ve never watched it. And there are certainly some writers I have an opinion about even though I haven’t properly read them.)

Not Cogito ergo sum, but: I have an opinion, therefore I am. (And I am not – yet – going to be shot for it. In some countries I would be. This one is still, I’m told, a ‘free country’.)

In the space where opinions are aired, they tend to coalesce, in a way that often involves a further degree of not-thinking. X (who may be a close and long-time friend, or a group of friends, or a critic or a politician or some other professional I have learned to trust) thinks this about Y (which might be globalisation or a particular issue in gender politics or the England cricket team selection or Z’s new novel), therefore I think this too.

A ridiculous BBC notion of balance – if publicly funded airtime is given to this argument, then there’s an obligation to give airtime to the counter-argument – encourages this free-for-all of opinion. It’s democracy, innit?

Some people do know whereof they are speaking. They used to be called, and often still are, ‘experts’. Skilled and qualified people who have devoted their whole working lives to learning about, and thinking deeply about, a particular subject (climate change, for example; or poetry).

The diminishment of automatic respect for expertise, certainly for an expertise that is built into the status-quo establishment way of thinking and dealing with things, has been healthy, also the loosening-up of deference. The world is not flat. Giving votes to women – and god, the struggle to achieve even that – was not a bad idea. The trampling of expertise by opinion is not healthy.

It’s in these my-opinion-is-as-good-as-yours democracies that the votes for (1) Brexit and (2) Trump have been counted. It’s in this my-opinion-is-as-good-as-yours atmosphere that the Brexit campaigns were conducted, utterly lousily, utterly condescendingly, without trust in the intelligence of their constituencies, by both sides. Rhetoric. Fear. Money the only god. Instant opinion. Re-tweet.

And the experts? The experts the media treated us to, day after day, were not the ones who have devoted their lives to the issues but the ones who claim to know about how the issues play into politics. And they got it wrong, every time: on Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, on the last UK election, on Brexit, on the US election, on who would win the last Ashes series (cricket) between England and Australia, and a whole lot more. They consistently get it wrong, and they are paid to be wrong. The message then being: experts, huh. Climate change, huh.

The proposition in the last post, by the way, that the Palace of Westminster – home to the Houses of Parliament, whose decaying, asbestos-ridden fabric will cost around £4 billion to repair – might be demolished and rebuilt in the Midlands, and that on the present site there might be new social housing – was meant completely seriously. No irony. It’s too late for irony. Why should Trump be the only one who can go out of the box and still win? What box?