Thursday, 22 December 2011

Alfred Hayes

1911–85; born in London, worked in the US and Italy. He was in the US army in Italy in WW2, and stayed on as a screenwriter for Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica. Later, scriptwriting in Hollywood, and for TV. Not much seems to be known about him. Three books of poetry and half a dozen short novels. If he’d happened to be female some of those would have been reissued by Persephone Books by now, though their decorative endpapers wouldn’t have sat comfortably with the contents.

In The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949; reissued a few years ago by Europa, a Brooklyn-based publisher) an American soldier in Rome near the end of the war takes a room with an Italian girl; the deal, he thinks, is straightforward – he gets sex, she gets chocolate and cigarettes and a roof over her head and sex too – but it isn’t, and when the woman running the house is denounced, the police issue the girl with an official prostitute’s license. It’s just possible, near the end, that the couple’s barely articulated feelings for each other will enable them to rise above this mess, but the book isn’t saying.

In Love (1954; in print with Peter Owen; my copy a 1961 Penguin, £1.99 from an Oxfam shop): a girl in a convenient (to them both) relationship with a man is offered a thousand dollars by a rich businessman for one night. (Familiar scenario? Frederic Raphael: ‘To measure the difference between a work of art and its degradation, compare In Love with Adrian Lyne’s 1993 film, Indecent Proposal, in which Robert Redford offers Demi Moore a million dollars to sleep with him and you don’t believe a word of it, or give a damn whether she does or not, because the whole thing is famous-people confectionery.’) The story is recounted by the boyfriend to another girl in a bar, the story of an affair in which the needs and capacities for love of himself and the girlfriend intersect and then don’t and then maybe do again and then maybe don’t, and in which neither behaves in ways that would would win them a medal of honour.

My Face for the World to See (1958; my copy a 1960 Arrow Books paperback, also courtesy Oxfam): a jobbing Hollywood screenwriter pulls a drunk girl out of the sea at a party and starts a desultory affair that ends in melodrama (‘Had I thought once there were acts of which I was incapable?’).

Elizabeth Bowen called In Love a masterpiece; John Lehman and Antonia White reckoned pretty much the same. Echoed by The Times and the Independent on its reissue in 2007. Paul Bailey, who wrote an introduction for the reissue of of The Girl on the Via Flaminia: ‘Hayes has done for bruised men what Jean Rhys does for bruised women, and they both write heartbreakingly beautiful sentences.’

The sentences are what win me, of course. Plain but exact, one after another. Hayes has become one of the writers I’m liable to bore people about. The story-lines above are hardly original, and each time there’s something a little dated in their setting-up, as if you’re watching a black-and-white film, but once he gets the he and the she together he’s electric. The restaurant/nightclub scene in My Face for the World to See, after he’s told her he’ll be meeting his wife off a plane the following Monday, is not only lacerating, hilarious, drunken (‘She was very articulate when she was drunk; hadn’t I noticed? Martinis improved her vocabulary’), but done with a control – direct speech (you can see why he was a screenwriter), a kind of indirect reported speech I don’t know the technical term for, observation – that amounts to wizardry.

For Christmas, please can someone find me a cheap copy of Hayes’ The End of Me.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Whitman & Co.

Mortality kicks in. My mum once told me she’d been to three funerals in a week, and I’m starting to know how she was feeling. In the past weeks, and limiting this to the Anglo bookworld, Peter Reading, Christopher Logue, Gilbert Adair, Russell Hoban, George Whitman – have died. It’s bloody.

Logue and Adair I’ve mentioned. Russell Hoban I first met in the 80s; I was living round the corner, and asked if I could show him some stories for children I’d written, which were crap, and he said so in the kindest possible way, by praising the illustrations done by my wife. George Whitman I met in November of last year, when three of the CBe writers read at the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris. It was a little late for me to have done so. The NY Times obituary quotes his own estimate of 40,000 writerly wanderers having been put up – been given bed and pancakes, in return for a few hours work and talk and a promise to read – in that shop over the years. Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian: ‘The shop was open from midday till midnight and, if you needed a place to stay, you could sleep in one of the beds hidden under the bookshelves . . . I found a second home at Shakespeare and Company. George always gave special privileges to writers – he lent me his dog to keep me company. He was an affront to modern capitalism, because he ran a successful business that put people, culture and books before money. He made his own world, and that is the best that anyone can do.’

Founded in 1951, a port in a storm for Durrell & Burroughs & Ginsberg & Ferlinghetti and countless others since, Shakespeare & Co has become ‘heritage’, a place to tick off on the tourist map. It can’t help but. Is it just that? Because of George Whitman, and because of Sylvia his daughter, no. They still take in the tumbleweeds. They still have a whole floor of books that are there not for selling but for reading, that’s a library from which you can borrow for free. Saara Marchadour, ex the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill, now works there. If not exactly your own home, it’s like your best friend’s home: a place more interesting, more exciting, than your own, and you wish it was yours, and though you’ll leave or it will kick you out, because that’s the other thing homes are for, it will still be there.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

For the record

I was asked today for a photo of my mum, so I went into the albums, and here is not my mum but the first school I went to, in a village in Yorkshire. ‘Village’ romanticises it, it was really a dormitory suburb of Leeds, but it wasn’t big and this was the complete local school. That’s Miss Williams at the back, who taught everything: reading, writing, maths up to long division. The school was not a building, it was this gathering of children that took up space where space was offered. The church was welcoming, offering its adjacent hall, outside which the second picture is posed. Circa 1960. Have you ever seen so many little white cotton socks in a row? My brother is in there, on Miss W’s left, peeking from behind the girl in front. The punishment for badness was this: to have to stand in the corner, facing the wall, with a blackboard duster on your head.

I don’t remember much. Maths: a number on the doorstep, to be carried over and knock on the next door. I do remember that I wasn’t good at bowing my head at the name of Jesus, during prayers. I think (all this thinking) I was thinking about it too much, and came in a bit early or late. I had to have private lessons in the cloakroom, where everyone hung up their wet coats. (Did Miss W speak some random speech, with the name of Jesus thrown in at random?) I did try. The whole thing was not about trouble-making but about being over-conscientious, which made me physically inhibited. I was the older brother. (Later, at an appalling minor public school, I was hopeless at marching, at getting the left arm forward at the same time as the right foot, and I had to have private lessons in that too. In the end they gave up and made me a lance-corporal, so I could stand to the side and shout.)

I had left the village school by the time of the second photo, but I’m in the top one, taken a year or two earlier, when the children were fewer and Miss W is looking a little less weary. For the record: back row, left to right: Stephen Nettle, Jeremy Willis, me, Jane Kirby, Keith Wallace, Howard Cliff, Michael Yeadon. Front row: Diana Macintosh, Alastair Cliff, Richard Ginever(?), Marta Watson, Philip Sinclair.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Thief in the night

I was tired, and I left three boxes of books, collected from the printer, in the car overnight. Someone got into the car (I have difficulty with always remembering to lock doors and to turn off the gas ring after cooking scrambled eggs). I know this because my reserve pack of cigarettes had gone and one of the boxes had been torn open – but none of the books had been taken, not one. (This appears to be supporting evidence for the statement by James Sutherland-Smith in a review in the new issue of The Bow-Wow Shop that 'CB editions has established a reputation for publishing what it likes rather than what everybody else likes'.)

Last week Christopher Logue died – whom I worked with at Faber, of whom I was very fond. This week, Gilbert Adair – whom I also worked with, whom I also was very fond of. Patient, funny, tireless; for the paperback editions of his books, following the hardbacks, he’d make many revisions, tiny and perfectionist, and because nothing was ever done until it was seen to be done he insisted on sitting next to me and watching as I took in those corrections onscreen. I told him that I’d started CBe not for the money but for the pleasure, the fun; ah, he said, une petite danseuse.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Camden / Cecil Sharp / Pudkin

I went to Cecil Sharp House in Camden, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, to look at the main hall as a possible venue for a book fair next year, and there’s a readings room downstairs and through the cafĂ© and it’s all magnificent. Except that it costs (but we can find ways), and except that it’s asking a lot of people to trek up Parkway and then cross a road or two, and except that for almost every Saturday next year they’re already booked. To be continued.

Meanwhile, Cecil Sharp: who early in the last century travelled around the West Country collecting folk songs. The very first he collected, in 1903, he took from the gardener of a vicar he happened to be staying with – a man (the gardener) called (you couldn’t make this up) John England: ‘Sharp whipped out out his notebook, took down the tune, and afterwards persuaded John to give him the words.’ The words, yes. I’m not a song man, and anyway the original tune, once it has been re-whatevered and re-presented from a stage, has surely been gentrified, but the words can stand alone (though robbed in print of the dialect voice), and they do so in a book I bought second-hand in York a week ago: The Idiom of the People, 1958, edited by James Reeves from Cecil Sharp’s manuscripts. ‘Clean wantonness’. Wonderful book. (Re-issued in the print-on-demand Faber Finds list, which normally I wouldn’t be advertising at all – badly designed, expensive editions of out-of-print books, most of which you can still find on – but in this case I’ll make an exception.)

And after Cecil Sharp House, on to Ken Garland, on the way back to the tube. To call him a designer (he designed the banners for the first CND Aldermaston marches, and Galt toys in the 1960s and early 70s, and onwards and onwards, with lots of digressions) is woefully short of the mark. His website is here; you’ll need walking boots and willingness to keep changing direction. Late each year he publishes three small-format books of photographs (leaves, fire hydrants, Bangladeshi rickshaws, Mexican windows: eclectic). I swapped two CBe books for two of his new ones: drawings of children playing in the street made by his daughter when she was 14 (decades ago), and photographs by Lana Durovic of those things the eye usually glides over but which may in fact be central: they train you how to look. Pudkin Books, available direct from Ken Garland.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Lists, presents, that time of year

In the Observer last Sunday Daljit Nagra wrote that J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts ‘would be an ideal gift as I loved his first collection, Natural Mechanical, and reviews suggest this one is even better’. Anyone wanting to take the hint and send him a copy for Christmas, order a copy here. (If you decide not to keep to keep it for yourself, address it to Daljit Nagra, c/o Faber, London WC1B 3DA, and it will get to him.)

In this week’s TLS Books of the Year, Beverley Bie Brahic finds Morgan’s Long Cuts ‘every bit as startling in its originality as Natural Mechanical’, and Andrew Motion chooses, as one of ‘the two most impressive books of poetry I’ve read this year', D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water – ‘an ambitious saga (broken into fragments) of emigration and re-settling’.

In the Glasgow Herald, Todd McEwan promises that ‘Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road, based on a series of prints by Ando Hiroshige, by turns antique and modern, elegiac and dazzlingly clear, will surprise you at every turn.’ (For an online review by Mike Loveday from last week go here.)

For a bargain offer of all three 2011 CBe poetry titles – J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts, Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (winner of the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize) and D. Nurkse’s Forward-shortlisted Voices over Water – for £20, go to Special Offer 2 at the foot of the Books page of the website. Free postage within UK.

On the same page, Special Offer 1 has Fergus Allen’s Before Troy and Marjorie Ann Watts’s Are they funny, are they dead? for £13.50. Fergus Allen is 90; Marjorie Ann Watts is 80-something. This is the Prolong Active Life offer. These books may be for yourself, your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents; they’re a lot more inspiriting than chocolates or socks.

The above offers are only available until Christmas. Or thereabouts.

Something for someone younger? Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which updates the King Arthur legend to contemporary gangland. Staged at Glyndebourne last year. Benjamin Zephaniah: ‘A story for this generation . . . written with love, passion and intelligence’. Perhaps her best book, this is still woefully undersold by me. Put ‘2 copies please’ or similar in the ‘instructions to merchant’ box as you check through when ordering a single copy and I’ll send exactly that. (And if anyone thinks that writing for ‘young adults’, or whatever they may now be termed, is a soft option, read Nicky Singer’s account of prison-visiting during her writing of this book here. I’ve linked there before, but it’s worth it again. The prison service is not charged with Christmas spirit.)

Bursa, 195?

Andrzej Bursa on the left. Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1932, he had a brief publishing opportunity between Stalin’s death in 1953 and his own death at the age of 25. I had lost this photo, then found it tonight. He's neither writing nor posing, and how I come to have this photo is one of several mysteries. The child in the centre, pirate’s cutlass in his lap; the old woman already fading to the right, as if just waiting to be cropped out; something off-stage, to the left, they are looking at. It’s not how author photos usually come. Buy the book.

Boyd Tonkin in the Independent: ‘Dead at 25 in 1957, the Polish postwar firebrand Andrzej Bursa acquired a reputation as a quick-burning, existentially tormented rebel: a literary James Dean of the Stalinist era. This selection of his quirky, darkly witty work – poems, fables, above all the titular novella – does indeed summon the shades of Beckett or Kafka from time to time. Everyday life slips into scenes of fantasy or horror, as when the local Party secretary sacrifices children to a dragon, “an old, blind, mouldy beast” that still tears them apart. Yet Bursa’s dark humour and deadpan satire – finely captured here by translator Wiesiek Powaga – keep utter bleakness at bay. Some will think of Dostoyevsky when it comes to the snuffed-out relative in the novella; read to the end and you hear something like Joe Orton’s wicked cackle too.’