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?

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Parliament: a health warning



According to the government’s Health & Safety Executive, ‘Asbestos is the biggest occupational disease risk to construction workers. HSE commissioned research estimates it was responsible for the death of over 2,500 construction workers in 2005 – more than two-thirds of cancer deaths in the industry.’

The Houses of Parliament are falling apart, and they are riddled with asbestos. This is from the official website: ‘There has been significant under-investment in the Palace [of Westminster] for decades. Parts of the building, including the House of Commons chamber, were renovated following bomb damage during the Second World War. Other areas have not undergone appropriate renovation since the Palace was built in the mid-1800s. Currently, the speed at which the work can be carried out is slower than the rate at which the building is deteriorating, therefore the backlog of essential repairs, and in turn the risk of system failure, is growing significantly over time. These challenges are compounded by the presence of asbestos throughout the building and fitting work around sittings of Parliament. The current piecemeal approach of repairing only those areas at highest risk of failure to ensure the work of Parliament remains uninterrupted is no longer sustainable and we have now reached the stage where a substantial renovation is needed.’

And this is from a Guardian report dated September this year: ‘Plans to move MPs and peers out of parliament for six years of repairs to the Palace of Westminster could end up costing more than £4bn, as a report on the restoration works put no firm price tag on the project. Tina Stowell, who co-leads the joint committee on the Palace of Westminster, said the restoration and repair works were essential to mitigate the risk of parliament burning down or suffering a catastrophic systems failure.’

The UK is falling apart. There is increasing wealth inequality: ‘The poorest fifth of society have only 8% of the total income, whereas the top fifth have 40%.’ There are divisions between between old and young (75% of 18–24-year-olds voted remain in the Brexit vote) and along other faultlines (race, gender), and between London and the regions (a major element of the Brexit vote was protest by those who felt neglected by the ‘metropolitan elite’).

It’s possible that the current UK political system is already suffering ‘a catastrophic systems failure’. A divided UK is currently ruled by a divided government that came into power committed to staying in Europe and that is now committed to exiting Europe, that rejects the High Court’s judgement that the terms of Brexit should be debated in Parliament, that holds a small majority in the Commons and yet faces an Opposition even more divided than itself. It’s possible that more than ‘substantial renovation’ is needed.

Knock the Palace of Westminster down. Rebuild in the Midlands, out of London. On the present site, build social housing for those teachers, nurses, social and transport workers and others who keep this city running but who are priced out of the property market. I’d vote for this.

(Not for the total irrelevance that is the Garden Bridge, on which around £40 million public money has already been spent. To go ahead with this now would be at least as provocative as Marie Antoinette’s ‘Let them eat cake.')

Monday, 7 November 2016

On consumer protection

The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 ‘prevents manufacturers, retailers or service industry providers from misleading customers as to what they are spending their money on’ (Wiki).

So, if I buy something online and it turns out to be not as described, or the wrong size, or there’s a bit missing or malfunctioning, I can cancel the deal and get my money back.

Sometimes, of course, I just change my mind (it’s what minds are for).

The UK version of parliamentary democracy also offers a form of consumer protection. If I don’t like how the party in government is acting, I have the opportunity – every five years at least – to vote for a different party.

Brexit does not work like this. And irrespective of whether you voted in the referendum to leave or remain in the EU, there is this godawful mess to be dealt with: in the last General Election the UK voted into power a party that wanted the UK to stay in the EU, and is now governed by a party committed to getting out of the EU.

The 2015 Tory manifesto of course played it both ways. Here’s the relevant passage, page 74: ‘We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market. Yes to turbo-charging free trade. Yes to working together where we are stronger together than alone. Yes to a family of nation states, all part of a European Union – but whose interests, crucially, are guaranteed whether inside the Euro or out. No to ‘ever closer union.’ No to a constant flow of power to Brussels. No to unnecessary interference. And no, of course, to the Euro, to participation in Eurozone bail-outs or notions like a European Army. It will be a fundamental principle of a future Conservative Government that membership of the European Union depends on the consent of the British people – and in recent years that consent has worn wafer-thin. That’s why, after the election, we will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in Europe, and then ask the British people whether they want to stay in the EU on this reformed basis or leave. David Cameron has committed that he will only lead a government that offers an in-out referendum. We will hold that in-out referendum before the end of 2017 and respect the outcome.’

There are no arguments, there is no reasoning, here. ‘We say: yes to the Single Market’. No explanation of what that is. Capital letters, as if it’s a thing – like God, say, or Nature – that can’t be changed, a thing that’s just there. Wiki takes the capital letters off, because it is not a given, it’s something that has to be worked for, and in this case has been, for decades: ‘A single market allows for people, goods, services and capital to move around a union as freely as they do within a single country – instead of being obstructed by national borders and barriers as they were in the past. Citizens can study, live, shop, work and retire in any member state. Consumers enjoy a vast array of products from all member states and businesses have unrestricted access to more consumers.’

Freedom of movement of goods and services and capital without freedom of movement of people is not a single market. We know this; the Tories know it, and knew it when they constructed that manifesto, and said yes to the single market. And now, after being elected by the UK democratic process on the basis of saying yes to it, they are saying no to it.

The preceding sentence is hideous: ‘what we want from Europe’. ‘Europe’ is some other place entirely from which we demand things, even expect them as our right? Maybe history has got it all wrong, maybe the UK (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and god knows that was hard to achieve, over centuries) really is some free-floating little continent all to itself.

The ‘will of the people’ – in this case 52% against 48% – is a fickle thing. On the whole, this system we live under allows for this: we can change our minds, we are protected against our own impulse-buying habits. In the case of Brexit we have no protection. And we’ve been sold a pup.