Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Costa noise

‘Christopher Reid’s quiet Costa triumph’ is how the Guardian puts it. ‘Quiet’ is not how I’d have described the evening: a room hugger-mugger with media folk (why so many newsreaders?), disco lighting, fanfares; the speeches, the praise for each book on the list, the announcement . . .

Then I see the phrase that the headline-writing sub-ed took a cue from: ‘Quietly published last spring by Craig Raine’s Areté . . .’ (In fact many of the poems were printed in the journal Areté long before they were collected in a book, but that is a form of publishing so quiet as to be, in media terms, almost silent.) ‘Quietly’ is not a choice, it’s simply how small presses operate; often they are run by one or two people, working in the time left over from what they do to earn an income; they don’t have the marketing and publicity staff whose purpose is to create noise. As mentioned before, none of the publishers of Christopher’s three books of 2009 is even on the radar of the Poetry Library’s list of 69 small-press poetry publishers.

Which is why, when the volume is suddenly turned up high, you think at first there must be something wrong with your hearing. Christopher Reid, A Scattering, Costa Book of the Year – did she say that? She did. And amid the following noise there were generous words from many people, including those who were also up for the prize. Congratulations to Christopher and to Areté.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Sunday, 24 January 2010

brown / not brown

There are a couple of places in Scotland, near where Rocky lives, who have said that they can’t sell a brown book. It’s oatmeal, it’s a brown paper bag, it says good for you rather than enjoy. So, for the fun of it, and because rules can be broken, there is now a short run of the book with an alternative cover: still pretty severe, no mermaid in a loch at sunset, but shiny and with a picture of Rocky himself at the age he scampers through the book. Selected outlets only. But if you’re ordering online and prefer the colour edition, say so in one of those boxes that crop up as you punch your way through.

Here, on the other hand, is a bookshop that likes the brown books and is currently stocking the complete CBe list. Glass instead of bricks and mortar, cages instead of shelves: it’s a greenhouse, a place where things grow. In summer it must be blisteringly hot; in winter there’s a woodburning stove. It’s in the grounds of the Wapping Project: art, photography, music in a 19th-century pumping station with much of the heavy industrial apparatus left intact. Good food and bar. Films screened outdoors in the summer. And outside the big brute building, this tiny space of glass and light, the domain of Lydia, where you find unexpected things and where the readings on Thursday nights are eclectic and intimate.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

JW goes global

Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 is being published in the US this month (under another title). The reviewer for Publishers Weekly wasn’t over-excited: ‘How frighteningly dull everything is.’ Dullness can indeed be scary. The Italians are on to it too, and Jennie has been asked, in an on-line interview with an Italian newspaper, for her opinions on cricket, infidelity and whether, in ‘a nice and cultivated and politically correct’ English family, having a lover is ‘an OK thing to do’. What she’d been expecting was translation questions on leg before wicket and silly mid-on, not this. But I’m sure she’ll have some answers.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


Here’s how it’s done: the masts fold down. And when you’ve inserted the boat in the milk bottle and glued it to the plasticene sea (using that odd bit of coat-hanger wire to press it down), you pull on the long bits of cotton to elevate the masts, glue and cut off the ends, and drink a bottle of champagne for its cork.

It’s fiddly and time-consuming. Life’s too short, you may well think. But that’s not the reason why, years ago, I stopped ship-bottling. I stopped because, after making around a dozen, it was becoming a routine, with diminishing returns of pleasure. And stepping up a few levels to become a professional bottler did not appeal. There are plenty of other things to do at an amateur level – gardening, origami, sport, cooking (cooking is especially good, because of the social element) – in which the time-consuming factor is irrelevant to the enjoyment derived from the sheer damn difficulty of what you are attempting to do. Fail, fail again, fail better. It’s why some of us play music, paint, write. Some of us better than others, but that’s not the point. That sentence again from the memoir of Hugh Sykes Davies I quoted a few posts back: ‘He loved doing things he couldn’t quite do, such as writing fiction or playing the accordion.’

Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Scattering

Christopher Reid has won the Costa Poetry Prize with A Scattering (Areté Books), which was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize and is currently on the T. S. Eliot Prize shortlist. Last year Christopher also published The Song of Lunch (with CBe) and A Box of Tricks for Anna Zyx (with Ondt & Gracehoper, his own imprint). There’s a rich abundance here, and the word scattering aptly describes Christopher’s preferred methods of publishing and distribution, which involve broadcasting the books with a generous sweep of his arm to friends and followers new and old. Christopher has been a loyal friend of CBe since the beginning, and the Costa is news that warms the cockles.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


What are you reading? asks my wife. Oh, just a book. Donald Barthelme, Paradise. It’s about this man in his fifties who takes a break from his job and his marriage, meets three lingerie models in a bar and invites them to move in with him . . .

‘Barthelme’s novel is an instance of non-mimetic referential narrative, which consistently employs culturally codified elements of reality as transitional objects for the construction of its characters’ subjectivities. This mode of referentiality is mirrored on the meta-narrative plane, where the book, by exploiting exterior cultural and literary elements, projects its author’s assessment of the situation of an artist in the postmodern world, and by the same token provokes readings that instead of passively receiving this assessment at face value, use the transitional space of Barthelme’s novel to enter a deconstructionist dialogue with its discourse.’ – Zuzanna Ladyga, ‘Faking the Artificial in Donald Barthelme’s Paradise’, American Studies, vol. XXI.

So that’s all right then.

Friday, 1 January 2010

How to live

In place of resolutions, some wisdom words from those who’ve gone before:

Famously, Nelson Algren: ‘Never play cards with any man named Doc. Never eat at any place called Mom’s. And never, never, sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.’

My head teacher’s three sentences of advice to the school leavers, year after year, to set us up for life: ‘When you shake a man’s hand, always take a firm grip. When you see a funeral passing by, stand to attention. You’ll go a long way in life without finding a better drink than lemonade.’

This is all, of course, pretty useless. And the good advice, which deals with the matter head-on (‘To thine own self be true’, etc), so often comes from meddling fools that we walk away. (The David Tennant Hamlet, by the way, on TV over Christmas, I thought terrific.) Maybe the old poetry-workshop mantra, ‘show not tell’, is apposite.

Also remembered, and probably more worth remembering than most of the above, this indirect advice from a man* who taught me at university: ‘I never review a book by a friend or colleague.’

* Hugh Sykes Davies. I recently stumbled upon this very fine memoir of HSD by George Watson. He was variously a Surrealist, a Communist, a motorcyclist, a fishmonger, a Structuralist, a wine-maker; he knew Breton, Dali, Eliot, Wittgenstein, Keynes, and drank and played pingpong with Malcolm Lowry; he was married five times (the fifth wife was also the third). ‘He loved doing things he could not quite do, such as writing fiction or playing the accordion.’ Wonderful sentence. I wish I had known him longer and better.