Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Next: the travelling circus

Above: a mobile library for sale. (One careful lady owner.) There are others.

One of the many enthusiastic online responses to last Saturday’s book fair ends thus: ‘Here’s hoping CB Editions will take their fair around the UK.’

Well. Given this: that in recent years hundreds of independent bookshops across the UK have closed; that in many towns a bricks-&-mortar bookshop is not now sustainable; that most (there are valiant exceptions) of the bookshops that do survive stock little other than the usual tedious and predictable titles –

Then why not this: a mobile bookshop. With a core stock of good books, which can be supplemented with books from local presses according to where the bookshop parks itself (Inverness, Aberystwyth, Land’s End, wherever). Doesn’t have to be a van like the above: a bus, a caravan, something smaller with a yurt packed in (I’ve always wanted a yurt). Its arrival would be a publicity event in itself. Can do the festivals as well as the bookless towns.

It takes just five days (I’ve checked) to train for an HGV license.

Seems to me a flippin’ obvious idea. So did the book fair, honestly, but no one was doing it. Comments?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

More post-bookfair: ‘Health is infectious’*

Whether by accident or not, and it hardly matters, we got some things right:

The timing. This has been, since the ACE cuts in late March, a mess of a year for the public profile of poetry: the cuts themselves; the Poetry Society fiasco (and it’s not put to bed yet); the rolling-of-eyes at the shortlists for the Forward prize, in some quarters now termed the Backward prize. If people needed to feel better about themselves, to come together in a cooperative way rather than with an adversarial agenda, to be assured that what they’re doing is worth the doing, the occasion may have enabled this.

The work on display.
(1) When judged by the amount of new poetry they put out each year, the poetry publishers no one ever calls ‘small’ – Faber, Cape, Picador – are, in fact, small; and most of their publishing slots are taken up by new work from writers already on their list.
(2) Whatever you think of creative writing courses and the professionalisation of writing, they’ve contributed to an increasing amount of quality writing seeking publication.
(3) It’s the presses that people do call ‘small’ who publish most of this work.
(4) There is no gap in quality between much of the work published by the small presses and the work put out by the Big People. There is no gap in the dedication and professional skill with which the books are produced; if anything, the small presses, in their attention to the design of each specific book, score more highly here. There is a gap between the marketing and publicity resources of the Big People and those of the small presses; that is, in their ability to get their books to readers. Which is why a book fair ain’t such a daft idea.**

And then, the selling. Mostly only anecdotal evidence so far, but there was more actual buying going on than I – or, I guess, many of the presses – had dared to expect. It’s possible this was influenced by the way in which the fair was presented in the publicity: as something put on without public funding, and needing support. More likely, I think, it was an infectious thing: if you’re standing next to someone who’s shelling out, you think, hey, so it’s OK to buy, I can do this too (and if I don’t get that book that’s teasing me now, it may be gone when I come back). Special thanks to the buyers who set this going.

* Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–99); quoted in the programme to the book fair.
** This isn’t brain surgery. But it does seem, as Chris Hamilton-Emery argues in his post on the book fair, to be beyond the Arts Council.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Post-bookfair: I spy something beginning with . . .

My sons turned up to the Free Verse poetry book fair in Exmouth Market on Saturday, and did shifts on the table outside with the programmes. A decade ago, maybe longer, we were sitting in a pizza restaurant in Cornwall and during the fidgety wait between ordering and the arrival of food we were playing I-Spy. ‘Something beginning with C,’ said one son. We gave up when the food arrived. Smugly, he gave us the answer: civilisation.

Something of the sort was happening on Saturday. Put together on a wing and a prayer, the event became what it was because of the support and good humour and generosity of everyone who turned up: the publishers, many of whom I’d guess were expecting a bit more space to display their books, shifting along a bit and making the best of what space they had; people saying yes, no problem, to an unscheduled reader getting time; and the visitors, whether friends of friends or just curious passers-by, not just mingling and talking but getting out their cash. (A few months ago one of the publishers had been doubtful whether the effort and time put into into book fairs were ever repaid in sales; late on Saturday, after selling far more than he’d expected, he said he took that all back.) Especial thanks to Chrissy Williams, Anna Selby, Michael Horovitz. Three early blog reports are here and here and here.

All planned events need an injection of the unplanned, the unpredictable. For me on Saturday this was the woman who happened to be busking nearby on the street outside. We’ve got a book fair going on in the hall, I said, and – Oh, she said, sorry, am I too loud?, I’ll move along. No, I didn’t mean that; would she like to step up on stage? She came in about halfway through the day and did a set of three songs. I loved them. Her website (from which you can buy her music) is here.

Sometime soon Chrissy and I will go to a pizza place, not necessarily in Cornwall, and discuss the future of civilisation. We’ll get some feedback from the publishers who took part on Saturday but anyone else who wants to chip in – visitors, presses we didn’t have room for on Saturday, whoever – please do. Things can be different. That’s the point.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Eve of the book fair

There are now a few more trestle tables in the hall, and some books and string and miscellaneous. My son, delivering the tables with me, approved the street; a few doors along there’s a café/bar with three full size table-football tables. The only tricky bit tomorrow will be the setting up: there are now easily enough tables to fill the space, but not necessarily enough to accommodate all the presses in comfort. Meanwhile, the man who rented the trestle tables to me told me I looked like Lee Marvin (first pic). I still think more like Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There (second pic, with James Gandolfini). Just in case you arrive and are trying to work out which one is me.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The book fair: reasons to delight

Selected reasons for coming along on Saturday to Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE: the poetry book fair, from 10 a.m.

1: It’s free, and the cricket season is over so what else are you going to do on a Saturday? The shopping?

13: There hasn’t been such a gathering of poetry presses in London for too long, and without your presence to show that it’s a worthwhile assembly there won’t be another for another long time.

14: Exmouth Market itself: cafés, bars, outdoor stalls and a fine independent bookshop (Clerkenwell Tales) next door to the book fair. Joseph Grimaldi, celebrated English clown, lived here between 1818 and 1828.

29: Madame Rosa, after reading your palm, has foreseen that at the book fair you will meet someone ‘who could be important in your life, / the future tells me / he could be the one.’ Or she. (I’m quoting from a Bill Manhire poem, so it must be true.)

33: There’ll be poets there from planet mainstream and poets from planets that do exist but whose discovery has never been recognised by the Royal Astronomical Society. The Poetry Wars: think of this event as the equivalent of that Christmas 1914 occasion when when the Tommies and the Boches clambered out of their trenches, dropped their rifles and played football.

34: There is no VAT on books. Yet.

41: To hear an early-autumn chorus of 30 poets reading from their work throughout the day.

57: If you think any event larger than than a one-off book launch has to have corporate resources and/or Arts Council money behind it but would like to believe otherwise, then come and believe.

99, 100 and 101: Michael Horovitz. From even before the 1965 Albert Hall reading (Ferlinghetti, Corso, Burroughs, Logue, Horovitz et al, and an audience of 7,000), he has carried the New Departures and Poetry Olympics torch through to today. Legend. On stage at 11 a.m.

293, 408 and 666: Because there’ll be books at the fair you won’t come across elsewhere. Because a book in the hand at the fair is worth six in the post from a rainforest in South America. Because you’re worth it.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Twinkle, twinkle

This week the online Guardian carried a review not of one of the books, but of CBe – here. ‘A brilliantly idiosyncratic operation . . . some truly dazzling books’ – that, from the come-on line at the top, may have been written by the sub-ed rather than John Self, who wrote the piece itself, but you get the flavour. Do I read reviews of my own work? Of course I don’t. Do I let them go to my head? Of course I do.

A new online review of D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water – ‘this excellent book, being full of startling images and crisp language . . . one of the most consistently satisfying collections I have read this year’.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

On editing (or not)

‘Impeccably researched, written in an accessible, lively and lucid style, with useful appendices, notes, and bibliography, this is a gem of a book which will delight the scholar and the general reader alike’ – that’s from the most recent review of the book by Tony Lurcock that CBe published late last year.

CBe doesn’t, as a rule, publish non-fiction. The main reason why this one got through is because I like Tony Lurcock’s writing: lucid, yes, and with wit. A large number of non-fiction books aren’t written nearly so well, because their authors are not, primarily, writers – they are, first, academics, or TV presenters or whatever. And they need editing. Not just the line-by-line stuff but the major structural work too.

Once upon a time (the 1980s) I worked for Time-Life Books, which published up-market, heavily illustrated non-fiction. Each chapter in each book was commissioned from a freelance writer (and generously paid for: more money for a few thousand words than many novelists now get paid as an advance for a whole book), whose research was guided by a specialist academic consultant. When the copy came in, it was edited by the volume editor; and then by the series editor; and then by the European editor-in-chief; and then by an editor in America. Each of those editors could, and often did, ask for re-writes. The final text may have been a bit flattened out, but editing, however expensive, was a clearly recognised priority (there were others; I had a drinks cabinet in my office, restocked every week).

That amount of editing doesn’t exist now, anywhere. There are exceptions, there are fine editors who work with authors through draft after draft, but there are many books from whose opening paragraphs you can deduce the background scenario: the book is announced to the trade with a fixed publication date, the manuscript comes in late and the time factor reduces editing to a cosmetic process, not an organic part of the making of the book. (On my desk I have a book, not a CBe one, whose Word file came in on 7 September and that has to be copy-edited, typeset, proofread, corrected and sent to the printer on 20 September. It will happen.)

And the point? Not nostalgia for any golden age. (The Time-Life routine was over-egged, a bureaucracy, each editor editing for the next one above.) But no sympathy for publishers complaining about poor sales unless they’ve put everything they can not just into the packaging but into the words too.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011


All over London there are rooms with tottering piles of boxes of books (a revolution waiting to happen). A fair proportion of the books are by Michael Horovitz. Today he, I and Tuesday – that’s her with Michael in the picture –contribruted to this distribution of poetry, loading up the car first at the Barbican and then at Central Books (where the photo was taken, at the delivery door) in Hackney Wick and and offloading boxes at various points on the journey back west. Many of the rooms piled high with boxes are up four flights of stairs. This publishing game isn’t just deskwork, oh no. It was a good day, a day that had started with me waking late in the middle of dream in which I wasn’t just looking after a herd of cows but teaching them for GCSE Drama, and before I left (but who would then milk them?) we had to perform in front of the examiners.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

‘He’s still alive, I think’

Lucian Freud died in July this year.

‘It’s just a picture, really it’s of a leaf or a few leaves, nothing more. It’s kept here in the Allan Ramsay School of Drawing and it’s by one of your English artists, by a man called Lucian Freud. And it gets me . . . There’s no tricks about it. No shit, d’you know? It’s just a few leaves, and it fascinates me because when you’ve seen it you feel you’ve never looked at a leaf before.’
‘You mean it’s realistic?’
‘No. I mean it’s true . . . I know nothing about the man, but he’s still alive, I think. And someone once said of him, “He’s got a long, unblinking stare.” If I were an artist I’d like them to say that about me.’

The above is from James Kennaway’s The Cost of Living Like This, which I’m re-reading. That novel was published in 1969, the year after Kennaway died at the age of forty. Of course it’s out of print now; Canongate have an omnibus edition of three of Kennaway’s short novels, but really they should be doing more than that. There are many things this post could be about, but first, Kennaway. From Frederick Raphael’s introduction to The Cost: ‘He refused to to make mere literature out of living experience (not his necessarily, but his time’s). He forced life into the page; savour his dialogue and you will feel the barbs still in it, the poison no less than the poise. Watch his characters and you would swear that they were struggling to get off the page.’ Later: ‘The reader may, if he can remain aloof (which I doubt), amuse himself by trying to make cuts in The Cost of Living Like This. I doubt if it’s possible to excise more than, say, a dozen lines.’ Kennaway – ex-soldier, professional (he also wrote screenplays) – could write.

The quoted conversation takes place in Glasgow and is between Mozart (underpaid clarinet-playing football referee) and Christabel, wife of the dying Julian, who is having a tortuous affair with a 19-year-old swimmer (Kennaway specialised in triangles). They never see the Freud painting because the Allan Ramsay college is being occupied by protesting students; the protest turns violent, and someone dies in a fire. I’ve tried to find out which Freud painting Mozart is talking about, but I don’t know. It’s not the one above. (I did discover that after a tiny portrait of Francis Bacon was stolen in Berlin in 1988, Freud allowed its reproduction only in black-and-white; and that another Freud portrait of Bacon sold earlier this year for £23 million.)

I first saw Lucian Freud’s paintings around the time Kennaway was writing, in the city art gallery in Leeds, and I felt like Mozart does. Late teens. Reading rather than looking at art, but these connected. The stark, focused intensity. Always there’s the matter of timing in the reception of art, both historical (a couple of years earlier or later, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger wouldn’t have been the same thing) and personal. Freud went on to become celebrated above all as the painter of flesh, the naked body, but for me this wasn’t it at all, it didn’t matter whether the bodies were clothed or unclothed, it was more to do with isolation and that ‘long, unblinking stare’, and the later Freuds, though I admire them deeply, never had the same impact on me as those early ones in Leeds.

I, and the times – I in the times – have moved on. I still occasionally respond to art, writing, with the same shock of recognition (not necessarily of something I know) as I did in Leeds, but it takes something different: connection rather than isolation, perhaps; blinking, not unblinking. But Kennaway still does it. The opening lines of The Cost of Living Like This: ‘They were painting the gothic corridors of railway hotel when the economist arrived. It was about six o’clock in the evening, early in May, which is no time to die, and it had been raining heavily.’ The first chapter – 42 pages – is a wonder. The other 15 chapters take up just 150-odd pages. It’s one of those novels that, when you stand back, looks to have been artfully constructed, but while you’re reading it makes itself up as it goes along.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Aldeburgh prize shortlist

Autumn, season of lists. Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road, already shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize, has been shortlisted for the 2011 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize.

CBe is not a poetry press. It’s a small press that publishes some poetry alongside other books, mostly fiction. Since November 2007, when the first books were published, the list has included just six poetry titles, and just two of those were first collections. But both those two first collections – J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical and Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road – can boast the following: Poetry Book Society recommendations, shortlistings for the Forward First Collection Prize, shortlistings for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (Morgan’s book won that prize in 2009).

Nothing there to generalise from, but (allow me) two observations. First, the convention whereby a poet proceeds to first collection through an accumulation of poems in magazines (a convention backed up by the advice given on many writing courses and by the submissions guidelines of many publishers) is just that, a convention. It’s not a rule. Morgan had published nothing prior to Natural Mechanical; nor, at the time I first read her collection, had Gaffield (she’s since had poems in a Children in Need anthology, in the online magazine The Bow-Wow Shop and in the print magazines Fourteen and Magma).

Second, the decision earlier this year by Arts Council England to cut regular funding to the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Trust (who administer the Aldeburgh prize) is a disaster. CBe and similar small presses do not have the resources to make new work widely known; both the PBS and the PT do perform this role, and by cutting their funding ACE is preventing good new work from finding the readers it deserves.

As a PS, see here for a new blog review of CBe’s bilingual edition of Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Jacques Robinson

‘Less filling’ – weight-watchers’ edition.

‘A man walked into a bank . . .’

At the weekend I wandered around town a bit, leaving flyers and the occasional poster for the book fair in what seemed appropriate places. Lord knows if it’ll do any good. I’ve noticed that people – well, not all people – tend not to see what’s in front of them; they see instead what they expect to see. But I stumbled across a tiny second-hand bookshop in which I found a proof copy of George Barker’s In Memory of David Archer, copyright 1973 but, printed on the cover, ‘publication date not settled’. Lunch in a café where there was notice promising 10 per cent off if I told the man behind the counter a joke (not rude, not racist) which made him laugh. I told him one that was in the JC column on the back page of the TLS a week or so back, and got a salt beef sandwich for around £2. In another second-hand shop I bought a purple, more aubergine really, velvet jacket, I’ve no idea why, except that it fitted and the mood was on me. And in another café I bumped into the man who turns up once or twice a year on my doorstep selling his poetry pamphlets. I told him the joke from the TLS and he laughed too but he didn’t offer me a discount. I’ve always meant to ask him how many he sells, and have felt awkward about it: asking about sales figures, like asking about someone’s salary or sexual history, feels intrusive, because numbers alone are stark without some surrounding context to take the edge off them. Today I asked, in a roundabout way. He told me he’s heard of publishers who print a run of as few as 350 copies, and he grinned. Though what he saves on postage he probably spends on shoe leather, I don’t think he does badly.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Fergus Allen at 90

Congratulations and the very best wishes to Fergus Allen, who is 90 today.

There’s an interview with Fergus Allen in PN Review earlier this year in which Joanna Blachnio cannot resist a brief description of the man himself – ‘scintillating with wit, dressed in canary-yellow corduroy trousers and white trainers’ – and opening with talk about peacocks: ‘The first one just strayed down our garden path one day,’ her host explains. ‘A neighbour thought it was sad he didn’t have a mate, got him a white pea-hen – and the pair soon began to hatch young ones all over the place. Now we have only one, simultaneously the son and grandson of the first peacock.’

Fergus Allen’s first collection was published by Faber in 1993, when he was seventy-two; two more Faber collections followed, then one with Dedalus, and most recently Before Troy from CBe in 2010. ‘Allen writes poetry that is limpid, very subtle and marvellously wise,’ says William Boyd, and if that makes him sound too much like a venerable elder I’ll add that the poetry is written with, and offers, enormous fine-tuned pleasure. From Before Troy, here’s ‘Musselburgh’:

I think it was Musselburgh where I confronted,
Or was confronted by, that girl with the long hair,
Soft brown and waving gently to her shoulders.
She stood behind the counter, hidden to breast height
By glass cases displaying soaps and toiletries,
The air scented with synthetic attar of roses.
When I asked for aspirin or something like,
She restated the question in a local accent,
Looking at me as she did so with a gaze
So unwavering, calm and disregarding
Of the niceties of social intercourse
That my headache or whatever it was
Ceased to exist or at any rate to matter,
And that day’s issue of my soul was soaked up
By the absorbent blotting paper of her retinas.

There’s a line, a line and a half, that was batted back and forth so often during proofs that I couldn’t swear on – on what? why not this very book – that the printed version accords with Fergus’s final decision; I believe it does, but I believe that he believes it doesn’t, but I also believe that his recall of the final decision reverts to a version previously discarded (though of course there’s no reason why he shouldn’t go back to it). So much artfulness to make the thing seem artless. To settle the matter, please buy a copy from the website, to edge us towards a reprint in which we can print exactly, or a little more exactly, what he intended.

A poem from Before Troy is included in the 2011 Forward Book of Poetry. Fergus Allen will be reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival at the start of November.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Add to cart

The revised CBe website is now up. It’s not singing-and-dancing, but there are tweaks: each book has its own page, special offers, that stuff. I’d like to sell more of these books; I am not, by temperament, a salesman; the site feels to me OK.

I am, of course, inordinately proud of the books. (I hadn’t realised, before starting this thing, that a publisher can be more simply proud than an author; the author is always dogged by that ‘but it could have been even better’ feeling.) In the past year CBe has published three poetry books: one is on the Forward Prize shortlist, one is on the Forward First Collection Prize shortlist and has a PBS Recommendation, a poem from the third is in the Forward anthology and the author is reading at Aldeburgh in November. Previous: McKitterick Prize (best first novel by a writer aged over 40) in 2008; Aldeburgh Poetry Prize 2009; shortlisting for a European poetry in translation prize; other shortlistings. Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch was broadcast by the BBC as a TV film with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman; Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew was staged as a youth opera at Glyndebourne, with a BBC series of programmes about that.

Some good breaks as well as books. But given that I had no expectation that this adventure would continue beyond its first four books in late 2007, and that I don’t publish to win prizes, the above paragraph is bizarre.

There are occasions when prizes can be helpful to a small publisher but as a reader and writer I shy away. (CBe publishes mainly fiction, but I don’t think I’ve read a single novel even shortlisted for the Booker, never mind the winners, since Coetzee’s Disgrace.) Likewise many other aspects of the present book culture. Books as show business (the Edinburgh Book Festival is a cattle market, not even an efficient one; I sent some books up last year for a reading by a CBe writer and they lost them). Writing as a professional career (with courses and qualifications and all that grooming). The idea (lurking behind the funding mechanisms of the Arts Council and the mission-statement business-speak of public arts organisations) of literature as being ‘good for you’. [Insert Bolaño quote here.*] Not to mention the bland indifference – it’s not active dislike and it’s nothing personal, it’s just the standard behaviour of institutions grown too big for their roots – to small presses shown by the big retailers, the broadsheets and other arbiters of what gets attention.

None of those things has anything to do with my personal reading and writing – of which CBe is an extension by other means. Some engagement with the mad world is of course necessary, if the books aren’t just going to moulder in boxes, but CBe will stay small. (The entire team consists of printer Chris, down the road; distributor Bill, at Central Books; web-man Alan; and me. No designers (except for two of the covers), no typesetters, no publicity or marketing folk, no envelope-stuffers. No receptionist, no nightwatchman. No water cooler. No spreadsheets. And no external funding; I’ve applied twice to the Arts Council for sums of under £5K and twice been refused.)

Fortunately, books are not expensive to produce. Compared to films, obviously, but compared to pretty well all the other arts too. (I used to wish I was an artist, mainly because I wanted a studio – a den, a playroom – and now I’m glad I escaped that.) But to keep the show on the road, I do need to sell them too. Off you go to the website. Press the ‘Add to cart’ button more times than you really want to, and give me a good reason to get away from this desk and join the queue at the post office.

* Bolaño: ‘Writers today . . . are no longer young men of means unafraid to inveigh against the norms of respectable society, much less a bunch of misfits, but products of the middle and working classes determined to scale the Everest of respectability, hungry for respectability . . . They pursue it desperately. And in order to attain it they really have to sweat. They have to sign books, smile, travel to unfamiliar places, smile, make fools of themselves on celebrity talk shows, keep on smiling, never, never bite the hand that feeds them, participate in literary festivals and reply good-humoredly to the most moronic questions, smile in the most appalling situations, look intelligent, control population growth, and always say thank you.’