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.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

What do you think?

Very often, I don’t know. Je ne sais pas. Often, Je ne comprends pas.

About the Clinton emails, for example, I haven’t been following. I don’t know much about Hillary Clinton except that certain people I respect who do know about her have no respect for her, despise her, but on the other hand … This binary thing. Of course I have an opinion (first definition in my online dictionary: ‘a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge’) about Clinton, but that’s not the same thing as thinking. I have an opinion about the silly things, about the way Clinton is so often called Hillary, while Trump is Trump. I have an opinion about the way this whole thing is played out on the media that reaches me. I have an opinion about the way meatballs should be cooked (poached, since you ask; no need to pan-fry them first).

I’ve recently come out of Facebook, or maybe just ducked very low, because of this: it’s a medium that excites immediate opinionating, and I was doing that, about things I hadn’t thought through, and I was getting into binary arguments I shouldn’t have, and was being liked or disliked, but a lot less than I was disliking myself for getting into this mess.

Radio phone-ins: some are very good, they filter. The comment threads on news sites are moderated but less filtering, they are more a free-for-all, which is their point? Current online Guardian offers me the opportunity to opinionate about the US election, Bake-Off, Uber, Russian involvement in Syria, England cricket team selection and something titled ‘The end of cleavage’. I could, if I could be bothered, comment on all, not least the cricket thing, which is a part of my life, and the Bake-Off thing, which I’ve never watched but which I still, oddly, find myself opinionated by, but why?

There is news and there is news, the latter being people’s opinions (those party promises, all of them: ‘We will listen’) which are scrunched, analysed by well-paid people and then themselves become the news, and then policy, and then round we go again, and can someone get a grip? I’m thinking, enlightened despotism. Because this way of democracy clearly isn’t working (and not just because I disagree with some of its decisions).

The Brexit vote was won by the comment threads, the surrender to opinion. Not thinking.

No, I don’t distrust ‘the people’. Among them, the 27.8% of the electorate, well over a quarter, who didn’t vote in the referendum. The 33.9% of the electorate, over a third, who didn’t vote in the last general election. More people didn’t vote at all than voted for any particular party. I do trust; see last post. I trust in a third of the electorate’s disaffection from political rhetoric.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Down the road from Wetherby

A few hours after writing the last post – on Wetherby – I met someone whose mother came from Knaresborough, which is just 8 miles from Wetherby, and whose father was a German prisoner-of-war in Knaresborough. I had no idea this POW camp existed (nor any of the several others located in Yorkshire), even though it wasn’t finally empty until after I was born (after the war it served as a camp for displaced persons).

The POW camp at Scriven Hall, Knaresborough, was an internment camp for low-risk prisoners – no watchtowers, no barbed wire, and the prisoners were generally able to wander in and out. The camp was home to Italian POWs from 1941, and later Russian and German ones. Extracts from an online research paper on the Knaresborough camp:

‘Under escort, [the Russians] were allowed to visit the nearest “local”, which was the Royal Oak on Bond End, where they sold beautiful hand-made wooden toys to supplement their income … The Russians were well thought of by local farmers and endeared themselves further at Christmas 1944. The local paper recorded: “For some time a number of Russians have been working on the land in the Knaresborough district, and have won golden opinions from the farmers who have employed them. Although the men receive only a few shillings a week, they have expressed a desire to make some contribution to the Christmas festivities of evacuated children in the town and have subscribed in small amounts a total of £16, which was presented by their representatives at a special meeting of Knaresborough Urban District Council on Tuesday afternoon. The men have also sent about 100 toys for the children. This is a thoughtful gesture that is very much appreciated.”

‘German POWS seem to have arrived after this and were not repatriated until two or three years after the end of hostilities … Otto Feltz was in the Luftwaffe, captured in France a short time after the outbreak of war. He spent the rest of the war in sixteen internment camps in Europe and the UK, including Scriven. During the winter of 1947 he was sent into York to clear the streets of heavy snow and where he encountered some hostility from the Jewish community who “poured hot drinks into the freezing snow so that we could not drink ...”. Nevertheless, Otto chose to remain in the UK after the war and farmed at Brereton … Heinz Emmerich had commanded a German minesweeper before it was sunk in the English Channel in 1944 and he was captured. Speaking good English, he became an interpreter in British POW camps, moving from camp to camp throughout Yorkshire and he spent some time at Scriven. Disregarding the rules, and trusted by the authorities, Emmerich used to drink in pubs and had English girlfriends. His First Officer had been the son of a brewer and whilst they were held in a Rotherham POW camp, they began to distil illicit spirits which were sold at £1 per bottle to both prisoners and the public outside the camp on the black market, the alcohol being marketed by British army drivers. By the time of his release in 1948, Emmerich had accumulated an impressive total of £800 in savings from this illegal activity. He was repatriated to Germany but found that it was not the country he had known and so he returned to marry an English girl.

‘By the end of the war, more than 400,000 Germans were being held in POW camps on the outskirts of most towns and by 1946, these prisoners were responsible for 20% of all farm labouring in Britain. They also made significant contributions to the major rebuilding programmes of roads and housing.

‘One resident recalls the POWs selling slippers door to door around Knaresborough and remembers how “they were mostly nice people who fitted well into the community” … At Christmas 1946, about one hundred POWs were invited to spend Christmas Day in the homes of local residents, a number of whom travelled by car to the camp to pick up their guests. The remainder of the prisoners were allowed liberty from the camp during the day and groups of them, in their uniforms of blue or brown with the distinctive POW patches, were to be seen about Knaresborough. In the evening, the men put on an impromptu concert which included pieces played by their own band … In January 1948, The Germans hosted a party at the Methodist hall in Knaresborough High Street for 100 local children as a return for the hospitality they had received in the area. The children were given gifts of hand-made toys, described as “miracles of ingenuity and improvisation”, from old pieces of wood, tin and wire, painted in bright colours.

‘POWs apart, there were many people at the end of the war who were, for various reasons, unable to return home. Some of these displaced persons (DP) were also accommodated at Scriven. From 1947, under the European Volunteer Workers (EVW) scheme, citizens of any state, including “defeated hostiles”, could apply to come and settle within the UK. This was an effort to aid those who had been rendered homeless during the war and to help alleviate the chronic labour shortage in essential services within Britain immediately thereafter. Although most successful applicants were single, EVWs could subsequently invite close relatives to join them in the DP camps and a number of children were born in UK camps … Only the Poles were welcomed into the UK as a group of immigrants, being allies who often could not return to Poland. They were offered naturalisation, language training, help with housing and vocational courses to help them settle here. Some 300,000 Poles settled in the UK after the war … Vacated by the European Volunteer Workers, the camp was empty in August 1952.’

I find the above oddly moving: the acceptance – not unanimous, of course: if you’d had a son or husband or brother killed in the services, or relatives killed in the Blitz, it can’t have been an easy thing to have captured enemy soldiers walking the streets of your town: but in general, acceptance, yes – by a largely rural, conservative community of outsiders dumped on their doorstep. The making do, the getting on with life, the bonds formed. The absence of political rhetoric.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Wetherby



Wetherby is a town in north Yorkshire, population around 11,000 (Wiki). There’s a nearby services on the A1(M), where I hitch-hiked from, long ago, when people did hitch-hike. The town itself is a little separate, and has a one-way system I was regularly bemused by, in later days when I drove from Bramhope, near Otley (where my mother lived) to York (my brother). The weather in Wetherby: ‘Cloudy weather tends to predominate, but settled, sunny spells occur at times, as well.’ It really does say that, in the Wiki entry.

Wetherby is where my father ran a farm. He wanted to be a farmer but was diverted by his own father’s involvement in starting an iron foundry in Leeds, making cast-iron drainpipes (this was before plastic) and manhole covers, so he – my father – was duty bound to go into that, leaving school at 14, but when he became managing director of that company, and had some cash to play with, he bought a farm at Wetherby and ran it through a manager. We – him, my mum, my brother, me – drove there on Saturdays. My father’s car, the one I remember, was a Riley. I sat in the front. To join the main road from Otley we drove down a thrillingly twisty, narrow, steep, blind-cornered lane: he’d ask me to pass his driving gloves from the glove compartment, and take his hands off the wheel to put them on, and my mum in the back seat would despair of these stupid games boys played.

Wetherby is where the bit of the British Library is located to which I have to send a copy of every book that CBe publishes.

My father died when I was five, sixty years ago, and my mother sold the farm, I think not to another farmer – maybe for motorway expansion, maybe for a trading estate. Invisible, now, when I drive past. Among the not many things of my father’s that my mother kept – a Longines watch; a wallet, in an inside pocket of which I found a decaying condom, a generation past its use-by date – was the farm ledger book: wages, transport, hay, things in, things out, all in that handsome handwriting that everyone seemed to have, then. I lost it. The CBe accounting system – which is conducted in pencil on paper in ruled columns, I have never made a spreadsheet – maybe the whole of CBe – is a daft attempt to reconstruct that ledger.

Wetherby is a 1985 David Hare film, with Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm (I’ve always liked him; he plays a semi-alcoholic solicitor, ‘the town’s official sanctifier of greed’) and Judi Dench (herself from north Yorkshire). I watched it long ago, and then again the other night. A student arrives, uninvited, at a dinner party, then comes round again next day and kills himself in the kitchen. That gunshot reverberates through everything else (a standard trope, as is the uninvited guest). It’s fiercely intelligent, as I’d expect of David Hare (though his acceptance of a knighthood in 1998 I did not expect). It’s about the particular people but it’s also, in a non-pushy way, a state-of-the-nation film – to take the temperature of England, stick the thermometer into a small town adjacent to a motorway – six years into Thatcher’s premiership. ‘Revenge. That’s what she does, something, some deep damage, something inside, god knows what, some crimes behind the privet hedge. She’s taking some terrible revenge, and the whole country’s suffering.’

‘It’s funny how so many people forget.’ ‘It wasn’t that long ago’ – from the dialogue played over the opening credits.

It got to me when I first saw it, in the 1980s. The Vanessa Redgrave character is a teacher in a secondary school. Early in the film, a girl asks her why she should even think about going into the 6th form, even if she goes to college and gets a degree she’ll at best get a job as a secretary. Redgrave waffles: ‘fulfilling your potential’, ‘ways of fulfilling your life’. ‘What ways?’ says the girl. I’d been briefly an English teacher myself in Yorkshire, I’d been asked that question (Tanya, where now?), and I’d got out of teaching precisely because I wasn’t mature enough, knowing enough, to answer that question with any degree of honesty. I had no idea what I was doing.

Thirty years later, Wetherby still gets to me. It is deeply, uncomfortably English. It’s middle-class white, books on the shelves, me. (There’s no reason why that in itself should disqualify it from attention – subject for discussion, announced by Redgrave going into her classroom: ‘Is Shakespeare worth reading, or is it all about kings?’) I suspect that not much has changed in Wetherby since the 1980s (except the house prices: properties of the kind that school-teacher Redgrave lives in now cost around a million). The boyfriend of the young Redgrave (the latter played by Redgrave’s daughter, Joely) joins the air force and is killed in Malaya; my mother had a boyfriend, an RAF pilot, who was killed in WW2; the solitariness of the Redgrave character echoes that of my mother, who was widowed when young and lived alone for nearly 50 years a few miles from Wetherby.

John Morgan, the 25-year-old who kills himself, is a PhD student at the University of Essex, very 1980s; he’s come to Wetherby to research at the British Library outpost. The girl who asks Redgrave what’s the point of education runs off to London. (London is to Wetherby what Moscow is to Olga, Maria and Irina in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.) Wetherby is a pessimistic film, but there are some fun moments. ‘Do you like murder?’ asks a reader of the Judi Dench character, who works at the British Library outpost. ‘Not much. But I prefer it to romance.’

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Bartleby goes publishing

‘If you create something that is of some interest, and then make it unavailable, it starts to build its own momentum.’

My italics. I read that sentence yesterday (it’s Chris Petit in interview with The White Review, 2013).

A couple of months ago I mentioned to an author that I’ve got this hankering to publish a book next year in this way: no chasing after puff quotes from known names to put on the cover; no preparation of blurb and cover six or nine months before publication, as sales and publicity schedules require; no advance reading copies to send round to possibly influential people months before publication; no entering the book for prizes; no sending out a pile of copies to literary editors; no tweeting, no Facebooking, no launch party, no readings. Just this: have the book printed, take a couple of boxes to the distributor, put it up on the website. A sort of anti-publishing.

Oh, said the author. But please, not one of my books.

I can see the contradiction in the Chris Petit sentence – how is anyone to know if anything is of interest if they can’t get hold of it? – but oh, I can see the attraction too.

Some of those things (no advance reading copies, no launch parties) I’ve already done – or rather, not done – for some of the CBe books. I don’t think it’s made much difference.

There are Bartleby authors: Ferrante, Salinger, Pynchon ... The most conspicuous(?) one on the CBe list is Andrew Elliott, who is invisible (no photos, doesn't do readings, I've never met him), whose book I'm proud to have published. But publishers? I'm supposed to make money, I think.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The man who dislikes the prize-winning book



You know the cartoons of H. M. Bateman (1887–1970). Typically, they show someone who has committed a social faux pas, or has done something other than she/he is expected to do in the context, and the horrified reactions of others. The title of the above is ‘The man who lit his cigar before the Royal toast’. Some other titles: ‘The girl who ordered a glass of milk at the Café Royal’; ‘The cad who was improperly dressed at the lido’; ‘The man who breathed on the glass at the British Museum’; ‘The culprit who admitted everything’; ‘The guardsman who dropped it’; ‘The builder who finished on time’.

They are very British – all that embarrassment – and they are very clever. The only person who's at ease is the one who's transgressed the codes.

The reader who didn’t think that McBride novel was that special. The reader who thought ditto about Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. The reader who found The Vegetarian (winner of the Man Booker International Prize) unreadable. The reader who likes Miranda July hugely but thinks her novel was just bad. The reader who did read one Elena Ferrante novel but didn’t feel he needed to read others. Time for some men: the reader who thinks that Geoff Dyer does sometimes have an off-day, an off-book. The reader who would go to the wall for some of Frederick Seidel’s poems, but by no means all. The reader who thinks John Berger is almost wonderful, but he seems to have no sense of humour. The reader who feels that Knausgard, fine, but I’m not interested enough to read it all, let alone have an opinion about it.

I am interested, a little, in how, for any given book or indeed writer, a consensus seems to gather (often fuelled by what’s generally called the social media, where the habit of agreeing is built in), deeming very good or very bad, and anyone who differs finds themselves – as I increasingly do – in a Bateman cartoon.

(I talked today with a writer who’s been publishing for decades, I mentioned a multi-prizewinning novel, said I didn’t rate it, he said him neither but he was ‘not allowed to say that’. Said lightly, jokingly. But ridiculous.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The locker room


I go there most days, when I go swimming. Aesthetically, these are crummy places, though the one I’m now used to is nicer than many I’ve known, and some I still know. There’s a jokey notice when you come in, putting off women who’ve strayed in through the wrong door.

There’s a TV right above the towel-dump and sometimes it’s on, sport or rolling news, but most often it’s broken.

Women have the same. Different door.

I assume, I think, more conversation goes on in their place, though there’s a sexist assumption. In ours, not much. Some friends in at the same time, chatting, joking. I once heard a man referencing a certain ice-cream shop in Musselburgh, Edinburgh, and inferred he’d been to the same school as I had, decades ago, and this was true, but neither of us were interested in following through.

Maybe once a year, a notice gets pinned up: hair dryers are for drying head hair, not your crotch or your armpits. And for a time, it's observed.

It’s pretty neutral, pretty bland. No banter (weird loaded word) of the kind I remember reading in locker-room scenes in Saul Bellow novels, Chicago, back a few decades. Nothing like the two guys in the Tube, today: “But hey, she’d be good for a hand-job.” Any men saying similar, they don’t now need locker rooms to say it in.

Trump is giving the locker room a bad name, and that’s one of the several million reasons why I have some difficulty with him, why I’m failing to understand how he and I inhabit the same world, and I’d like to defend it. I like the locker room. Stripped down, same-sex nudity in a neutral place: such huge variety in body shapes, and the genitals, a sort of democracy, mine no better or worse. And the tattoos, of course: some, why did you bother, some amazing ones. Some men are extremely tidy, some not. Some men can’t pee next to other men peeing. Some men close the shower curtains, some don't. This is fine.

Something single-sex boarding-school familiarity about this, for me, but not for most of the others. It’s just a place, briefly, I pass into and out of, back into the world where there are also, wonderfully, not just men. Hell is a single-sex locker room, with Trump in it, without exit.

(Incidentally: locker rooms imply locks, and I don’t like having to wear keys so the number option, but I forget my glasses so have to ask others to unlock. The punch-key padlock, not widely known, is the answer.)

A few weeks ago, when I came in from the showers, there was a pigeon that had got in and couldn’t find out, and a staff guy tried to field it and couldn’t and this completely naked tall guy stuck out his arm – Greek god, minus trident – and caught it, and then cupped it, with tenderness. Everyone clapped, spontaneously. What bodies are for, that tenderness. And that reaching out, that rashness, that too, that confidence in the body, which locker rooms do highlight at the expense of a knowledge of Kierkegaard, but I’m fine with that.


Midweek, midlife

Tuesday, so not quite.

Yesterday Diane Williams read (from Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine) and talked (with Kirsty Gunn, and the audience) at the London Review bookshop. At a certain point – quite early on – I realised, couldn’t deny it, that I was moved, in ways I hadn’t expected. You put out a book by a US writer who has been, with dedication and perseverance, practising a wholly non-commercial form of writing for a quarter of a century, and also (not least through her editing of the annual journal NOON over fifteen years) enabling other, younger writers – a writer who you think almost no one in the UK has heard of, let alone paid attention to, and you find that she is respected, loved, even.

The youngest person in the audience was three weeks old.

I doubt the Middle Ages knew that they were middle. They aren’t, now; they never were. A fair few of the people in the Middle Ages believed the world was about to end. There are, still, more beginnings than endings.

There are seven events involving CBe writers this week. Last night, Beverley Bie Brahic read (from Hunting the Boar) at the Manchester Literature Festival; tonight she reads in Bolton; tomorrow, Wednesday, she reads with Patrick Mackie (The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints) at the Broadway Bookshop in London E8 4QH). Also tomorrow, Lara Pawson (This Is the Place to Be) reads with Richard Scott at Burley Fisher in London (E8 4AA). No one can go to both: it’s either/or (and I tend to favour both/and). But there’ll be a mingling afterwards.

On Thursday, 13 October, Will Eaves will be performing The Absent Therapist at Vout-O-Reenees in London (E1 8BB). He’s done this before but again won’t be the same as before. This is special.

Same day, Thursday, Diane Williams will be reading at the English Faculty in Cambridge, 4.30pm. (I went there myself, back when; not the best time in my life, and Thursday will be only the second time I’ve been back there – an hour away on the train! – since 1972.)

This is not, for CBe, a typical week.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Want to buy a book?

This week’s TLS carries a review of Patrick Mackie’s The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints: “a welcome onslaught, a carnival of erudition paid out like tickertape …”. In the same issue, Will Eaves’s The Inevitable Gift Shop shares a review with Angela Leighton’s Spills (Carcanet), another prose-and-poetry book. “The Inevitable Gift Shop is a puzzling book, and meant to be so … it is a reminder that prose and poetry can happily coexist, and that publishers might reconsider their customary reluctance to let them do so.” The Eaves/Leighton review occupies a full page. There are photos of both authors, not a usual TLS thing.

The Inevitable Gift Shop is in stock with the distributor, Central Books. But there is currently no way a bookseller or wholesaler can get hold of copies, because when they go into the Central Books website from the buyer’s end it says the book is “Temporarily out of stock”. (Ditto for 27 other CBe titles which actually are in stock at Central. Kristof's The Notebook, for example; and May-Lan Tan's Things to Make and Break, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award; and Dan O'Brien's War Reporter, Forward-shortlisted and winner of the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize: all these books are in stock and yet all these books, according to the current system, cannot be accessed by trade buyers.) Amazon list Will Eaves's book as “Not in stock; order now and we’ll deliver when available”. Foyles online and Waterstones online list it as available, bless them. Or – the whole flipping system comes down to this – you could order it online from the CBe website, free UK delivery, and I’ll put it in an envelope, handwrite an address label and post it tomorrow.

(This includes booksellers: email or call me (07984 798404), talk and agree discount, and I'll send the books. In London, where I live, I'll deliver by hand, next day. This week I hand-delivered to a reviewer in north London with a sharp deadline. CBe has run for 9 years, single-handed, in despite of how the publishing game works, without ACE funding, and it's the best job I’ve ever had. But I don't have much hair left.)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Diane Williams and the Conservative Party conference



Diane Williams will celebrate the publication of the UK edition of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine at the London Review Bookshop next Monday, 10 October (more details here) and at the English Faculty in Cambridge on Thursday, 13 October.

Just in time. Following the logic of this week’s Tory Party conference, official government Dept of Culture, Media & Sport policy will soon be: British publishers will have to explain/justify the presence of all non-British writers on their lists. And similar for British theatre companies, orchestras, art galleries, football clubs … (And Oxford Dictionaries will have to revise their definition of ‘economic migrant’ – ‘A person who travels from one country or area to another in order to improve their standard of living’, an entirely non-judgemental definition – to fit the Tory agenda.)

Here’s a link to two stories (one of them in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine) and an interview with DW at The White Review.

Here’s a link to the page at McSweeney’s where some of the reviews of the US edition are excerpted.

Diane Williams is doing things with prose, with sentences, that sometimes make my heart burn and laugh, often at the same time, things that no current British writer is doing. I exaggerate: there are some, if you go looking, hard, very hard indeed. But DW, who has been publishing for more than a quarter of a century, is herself a chief reason why there are such. She liberates others. This is what writers worth their salt do, whether they want to or not. It’s about time we welcomed her.

I doubt, at the LR shop event or the Cambridge event, the whole issue of British/non-British will crop up. Diane Williams is white, and writes in English. She doesn’t fit what the Tories generally mean by non-British – other-language-speaking, other-skin-coloured. But Diane Williams is, I think – I haven’t met her yet – as non-British as they come. As non-British as the Canadian governor of the Bank of England. As non-British as most of the managers and many (most?) of the players in what is claimed as the ‘national game’. As non-British as many of the doctors and nurses who have kept my children, in countless emergencies, alive. As non-British as the Chinese investors they court to keep this ‘tight little island’ (Byron) well-lit and afloat.

I’m conflating things: enthusiasm, anger. Laughter, despair: the usual.

The Arts Council, ACE, meanwhile, committed in its funding decisions to diversity and access, the standard mantra but rightly so, is surely now in even more of a mess, depending on a government that is clamping down, closing off, and the minister - can anyone reading this even name her? Culture in the UK could hardly be taken less seriously - having to toe the line.

A quite large proportion of the CBe books are in translation. This isn’t a deliberate policy, it’s just how I read, and walk about the streets. Last Saturday’s Guardian review of Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins, a novel about young people on the backstreets in Mauritius – try asking any minister in our government where that is; no, don't bother – quotes one of the characters: ‘I read as if books could loosen the noose tightening around my throat. I read to understand that there is somewhere else. A dimension where the possibilities shimmer.’ In isolation, that sounds pat, literary. In context - the character's, mine, yours - it’s not.








Monday, 3 October 2016

A very sober post (with added numbers)

1 There’s a system (sort of) in place for getting books from me (publisher) to you (reader), and it’s in everyone’s interest – mine, yours, the author’s, plus all those along the way who take their cut – that the system works well. For CBe – and, I guess, a number of other presses – it is not working well.

2 The players. The publisher (me). The distributor (Central Books), who fields trade orders. The sales agent (Inpress), who stimulates trade orders on behalf of CBe and a number of other presses: by employing reps who visit bookshops, by meeting regularly with a Waterstones buyer, etc. Also: booksellers (big, small, fat, thin) and wholesalers. And Amazon.

3 Some bookshops (bless you, Foyles Charing X Rd and others) order direct from Central, the distributor: they set up an account, negotiate a discount that will apply to that account, and all flows smoothy. Many bookshops (most?) do not. Typically, a smaller bookshop will order only from Gardners and/or Bertrams, the wholesalers – thus avoiding having to open multiple accounts with multiple distributors, often just for very occasional orders. It makes sense.

4 It helps, of course, if the book the bookseller wants is in stock at the wholesaler. If it isn’t, the bookseller can still usually order it, but the wholesaler will have to source the book from the distributor, and this adds time; the bookseller or customer may well decide not to bother.

5 There are 51 CBe titles in print. Number of titles in stock at Gardners (checked today): 9 (most just single copies; maximum number of copies per title, 3). Number of titles in stock at Bertrams: 1 (4 copies of this). There is misinformation: Will Eaves’s The Inevitable Gift Shop, for example, is NOT “out of stock at publisher”. There’s a hole here, maybe a black one. How big is the hole? How many sales are being, and have been, lost? I don’t know. Tens? Hundreds?

6 Amazon. I’ll try to keep this clean. Of CBe’s 51 titles in print, 9 are listed as “currently unavailable”. This is not true: all these titles are in stock at Central. At least 10 titles are available only through third-party sellers (i.e., the sellers you get through to by clicking the “used and new” link); Amazon itself doesn’t stock or sell them. A surprising number – 17 – appear to be in stock but “only 1 copy left, order soon” – which I suspect is code, perhaps meaning “I’m sure we’ve got a copy somewhere, but where?” Some titles appear to be in stock but will be dispatched “in 10 to 14 days” or “in 1 to 2 months” - which suggests that they are not actually in stock. It’s hard to give precise figures because for a number of titles Amazon itself doesn’t seem to know: look up “collard about a girl”, for example, and you’ll find the book is both “currently unavailable” and in stock (“Only 5 left in stock, order soon”).

7 Another thing about Amazon. Look up “kristof notebook” and you find the US omnibus edition (which is not legally for sale in the UK) not just available, but you can even “get it by tomorrow”; the CBe UK edition is “not in stock; order now and we’ll deliver when available”. Or Suite for Barbara Loden, published by Les Fugitives: the US and French editions are in stock, the UK edition is available only through third-party sellers. Or Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins (co-published by Les Fugitives and CBe): the US edition is in stock, for the UK edition “order now and we’ll deliver when available”.

8 I’m writing this post because of the three CBe autumn titles – Lara Pawson, This Is the Place to Be; Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine; Ananda Devi, Eve out Her Ruins (co-published with Les Fugitives). All are in stock with the distributor and have been released. The Guardian has already carried reviews of the Pawson (“brilliant and uncompromsing”) and the Devi (“this stunning short novel”), reviews that might even prompt a few sales. Except that … Amazon: Williams and Devi not in stock, Pawson “usually dispatched within 1 to 2 months”. Both Bertrams and Gardners, as of today, have no stock of any of the three. Waterstones online have two of the three titles available. Blackwells online: for all three titles, “Sorry, this title is not available for sale at the moment.”

9 I happen to be reading The Alienist by Machado de Assis today. A doctor opens an asylum in a small town in Brazil. “Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that it is not an island at all but a continent.”

Sunday, 2 October 2016

How not to sell books

This blog has been neglected and is looking like my garden. I’m looking a little tired myself. I’m going to restart with something very specific.

At the weekend the Guardian Review carried a very fine review by Deborah Smith of Ananda Devi’s Eve out of Her Ruins, which is co-published by CBe with Les Fugitives: the last para quoted one of the four characters who are the focus of the book – “I read as if books could loosen the noose tightening around my throat. I read to understand that there is somewhere else” – and ends: ‘It could be a manifesto for reading translated fiction, and this stunning short novel is a perfect starting point.’ Earlier in September, the Guardian Review carried a review by Jonathan Gibbs of Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be: ‘It challenges the reader to examine their own beliefs and decisions as closely as Pawson has examined hers. Brilliant and uncompromising.’

Most CBe books do not get Guardian reviews. Most small-press books do not get Guardian reviews. (It was lovely, in last weekend’s Review, to notice also a review of a book from Uniformbooks. And Lezard, patron saint, on a Peirene book.) Attention has, always, to be worked for, I can't just rely on being beautiful, and – in terms of advance copies sent out, books sent out, contacts sought and nurtured – costs. Necessary costs, because if no one pays attention to a book it doesn’t exist. And even then, reviewed, shortlisted for a prize, attention doesn’t automatically translate into sales: from a review in The Poetry Review, the TLS, maybe one or two extra sales, no more.

But in the Guardian, maybe …

Turn it around: how – where - do people buy books? X, brunching on a Saturday, has read one or both of those reviews over her eggs, or her mushed avocado. She goes to Amazon: ‘not in stock’. She might, if she’s keen, ask at her local bookshop, who will look the book up on the sites of the wholesalers they order in from – Gardners, Bertrams – (they are not, most small bookshops, going to order direct from the distributor, Central Books: too many accounts, too many invoices, keep it simple) – and find also, “not in stock”. Expected date of stock arrival: more than two weeks ahead. X shrugs, buys another book instead. Just possibly, small hope, she notes the name of the publisher and checks out the CBe website and orders from there and I fall in love and we will spend the rest of our lives in bed, reading and fucking, because selling books is just too damn tricky.

CBe has a distributor and an ACE-funded sales agent, to both of whom I pay a cut on every book sold out of the distributor, it’s in their interest to sell, and last week I hand-delivered the Pawson book and the Devi book to three London bookshops because they could not otherwise get hold of the books. At the very heart of the book trade, dysfunctionality and inefficiency. I recognise something there. It’s maybe why I love it. (Also at the heart of the trade, white male privilege, I'm aware of that. Any connection between that and the basic inefficiency?) Next year, back to hobbyist mode: no sales agent, no puff quotes, no organised publicity.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

A thing about bookshops

Growing up, I read library books, mostly. First, from the mobile library van that came round to the village, two-toned, beige and cream, no mission statement or hard sell. Then I wandered into a bookshop in the Arndale Centre in Headingley that stocked Calder & Boyars books. I bought The Faber Book of Modern Verse there, I think, in 1960-something, with a book token that I’d been given at Christmas, remember book tokens? (Remember libraries?) Most of that book baffled me, some still does, but in a good way.

If I said that I’m a person who can’t pass a bookshop without going in, I’d be lying. I can pass by a Waterstones as easily as a Greggs (because I know without going in what the books are going to taste like?). Even – grumpy-old-man hat – many new independent bookshops are less bookshops than cafés or up-market stationery shops with bookshelves attached. There may be a financial reason for this – I’m thinking of restaurants that offer good food but survive only because of a huge mark-up on the wine – but they are not bookshops. They offer what’s won the recent prizes, and maybe even what’s been on the recent shortlists, and a predictable selection of contemporary fiction. They have poetry shelves that offer Heaney, Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, a local writer and a few anthologies. They offer cookery and ‘mindfulness’ and sometimes a selection of small press books but this is light fare without what’s come before, icing without a cake. Many new independent bookshops sell not books but lifestyle.

So, the good bookshop: Shakespeare, Cervantes and Brecht for absolute starters. Herrick – I’m immediately suspicious of any bookshop that doesn’t stock Herrick. A wholesome selection of NYRB books. Bolaño, of course, and not just the token one or two. And this, especially: those books that maybe didn’t sell well in their first six months, and maybe even the publisher has lost faith, I want them to be there for me when I get around to them. (Any bookseller who thought a book worth selling at the start, why stop? Keep, surely, at least a copy or two.) ‘But we don’t have enough shelf space’ – well, yes, not enough for everything; but don’t, please, argue lack of shelf space while at the same time parading Moleskine notebooks and Lamy pens and funny greeting cards.

Exemplary bookshops: John Sandoe’s, of course. Albion Beatnik, 34 Walton Street, Oxford (where Patrick Mackie and John Clegg read from their new books, CBe and Carcanet respectively, last Friday). Book & Kitchen, 31 All Saints Road, London. Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace (I haven’t been in there for a year; I need to go back). I don’t see how anyone can spend time in these places – half an hour minimum: how much time do you allow for visiting an art gallery? – without exiting with some wonderful book(s) they didn’t even know they needed when they went in.

What distinguishes the above bookshops is (now that I’ve mentioned art galleries) that their stock is curated (new word for an old thing). Knowledge (decades of it), selection (of course, again, not everything), enthusiasm (not the pushy kind), idiosyncrasy (part of the job description). Nothing puts me off buying a book more than a mass display of a single title (often including ‘signed copies’ – but that’s a separate post). Nothing makes me want to buy a book more than finding a single copy of, say, a book that came out a few years ago and I remember thinking sounds interesting but not acting on that and here, now, it still is, just for me.

The relationship between many new independent bookshops and local charity shops selling books, especially the Oxfam ones, is fraught. Oxfam – more by accident than design, but they’re now pretty canny about this – have got something right. They’re not bookshops proper, but they have terrific stock. Most of my book-buying is done in Oxfam shops. I’ll pass by a Waterstones but not an Oxfam bookshop. No, don’t wait, you go on, I’ll meet you in the café in half an hour.

Friday, 20 May 2016

On Jack Robinson



Those interviews with writers (or artists, film directors, etc) whose work (or public persona) is known for its bleakness: I like it when the interviewer finds it necessary to emphasise – often in the first para, and in a tone of happy surprise – that the given writer is, ‘in real life’, warm, funny, generous. Why shouldn’t or wouldn’t they be? While there’s a sense in which the work is the writer – it hardly ever turns out to have been written by the writer’s aunt or step-brother – it isn’t the work that opens the door and makes coffee.

I got sent a review this week of Jack Robinson’s about the same author, a slip of book I published with CBe at the start of this year. At around 2,750 words, it’s approximately half the length of the book itself. (It’s in the Cambridge Humanities Review, not online.) From it, I learnt some things about Jack. (Just as, a long time ago, I learnt things about my poet-self from a review of my last poetry collection: the reviewer pointed to a number of things in the poems which I hadn’t before been consciously aware of.)

I am, by the way, as well as being Charles Boyle (poetry and stories), Jack. And was briefly Jennie Walker (24 for 3, infidelity and cricket). Je est un autre. About the pseudonomy, just this: two of the first group of four CBe titles I published were written by me; I had no distributor, no plans to publish any more books; I knew that I was going to take these books into independent bookshops and say how wonderful they were and that the booksellers would ask who the authors were and that ‘me’ is not a persuasive reply, so the pseudonyms.

That’s about as pragmatic a reason as you can get, but of course it’s far from the whole story. (I doubt there is ever a story we can all agree upon. Or even a colour: it’s clear, as I discuss colours for the CBe covers, that one person’s blue is another person’s green.) The first pen-name was Jennie, and I can recall the tipping point exactly: writing a first-person narrative about a man between two women, I was labouring, but when – overnight – the ‘I’ became a woman between two men, the thing took off. It was liberating: suddenly, I was able to write in a way that I’d wanted but had previously been unable to.

Jennie was a means of escaping from the dull male poet I seemed to have become but who didn’t entirely convince me (so god help the readers). I have a pretty wavery sense of who I am. I think I’m shorter than most people but turn out, on inspection, to be about average. I’m not happy with my knees and I don’t like my name (that arle and oyle, the bloatedness). When in 1999 I read in a print interview Michael Hofmann saying ‘I have an overwhelmingly strong sense of who I am’, I was shocked (still am).

Then Jack. Jack because it’s flat, Robinson because – well, the name came in a flash, ‘before you can say . . .’ It was only later that I realised, or remembered, that I was allying myself to a whole tradition of Robinsons in fiction, poetry and film, all of them ne’er-do-wells or suspect in some way: in Fielding, Dickens, Conrad, Henry James, Céline, Kafka, Muriel Spark, Chris Petit, Patrick Keiller, Weldon Kees, Simon Armitage . . . (‘Know my partner? Old Robinson. Yes; the Robinson. Don’t you know? The notorious Robinson. The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose Johnny now alive.’)

Jack-of-all-trades? Hardly. He’s no poet. He’s not a non-fiction writer because he likes making things up, but nor is he a novelist: he has a short attention span, he lacks stamina, he can’t sustain a plot and he’s not that interested in how characters develop. He writes short books, generally made up of fragments, in which fiction and fact bounce off each other. He likes table tennis, without being much good at it. He’s a bit frivolous, frankly. I don’t think he’s married. He can be forgetful (as I can: I’d forgotten, until the review of by the same author reminded me, that I once described CBe as ‘a small machine for reading aloud to strangers’). He’s not good at joining things up (he can just about do joined-up handwriting). He has a problem with endings. (The review remarks on how many of the paragraphs – ‘It’s hard to describe these sequent pages as “episodes”’ – don’t so much end as simply stop: ‘Robinson’s paragraphs run for as long as their thoughts do, and then stop running’.) He’s stubborn: knowing that he’s not a ‘natural’ novelist/poet/journalist, he still insists on writing.

Jack is noticeably impatient. (I’ve never really understood why patience is generally reckoned a virtue: sometimes, yes, but by no means always.) The gestation time of each of Jack’s three slim books to date has been short: Days and Nights in W12 was written over a couple of months, Recessional over a few weeks, by the same author in around ten days. The work Jack is attempting right now is different; it dates back to my impulse-buying of a second-hand copy of a translation of Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist in a shop (now long gone) in Hammersmith in, I think, the late 1980s. (It was published by Chatto; D. J. Enright later recalled: ‘During my time at Chatto I managed to pull off US deals for two books I particularly liked. We printed copies of a new translation of Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist for a firm that went bankrupt, and a book on the son of Anna (“and the King of Siam”) and his doings in the teak trade for a company called Thai-American Publishing that couldn’t be tracked down. End of my career as a whizz-kid.’) Marie-Henri Beyle – Stendhal was just one of his pseudonyms; he had hundreds – got under my skin. There’s a Stendhal poem or two in a poetry collection I published in 1993, and more in a 1996 collection, and a whole sequence in a 2001 collection. He won’t go away, still. This is a job for Jack. The book Jack is proposing is about Stendhal and death, loosely, and it’s taking longer than usual because each time Jack finds what he thinks is an appropriate form it collapses in on him.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Two-tone



The first reprinted batches of CBe books in the new look are now in – shown above, alongside the pebbles from Brighton beach that cued the colours for the Ponge. Apt, given that the longest (prose) poem in the book is ‘The Pebble’: ‘a pebble is a stone at the precise moment when its life as a person, an individual, begins, I mean at the stage of speech.’

The reason for the new look is in a previous post. A retro look. Not-too-happy memories of academic paperbacks of, say, the 1990s. Happier memories of the two-tone mobile library van that came round to the village in Yorkshire where I grew up in the 1950s. The below is a 1968 Orkney Islands library van – the one I remember was brown and cream, a swooshing curve dividing them, and that I can’t find an image of it – or even something like it – on the net is a reminder that the net is not a repository of ‘everything’, in fact most things are not there at all.



Some of the first books I read came out of the library van. I didn’t know that I was supposed to start a book on page 1 and then read through the pages in consecutive order – I thought I could start with the chapters that sounded most exciting (‘The Pirates Attack’) and then get round to the others if I was still interested. This still seems a valid and perfectly reasonable way of reading a book.

For any new orders of J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, the above is what you’ll get. For Francis Ponge’s Unfinished Ode to Mud, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic, there are still a few old-style copies left (so, for a while, you have a choice). The insides are the same. That you may have already got these books is of course no bar on ordering them again.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Writers' mini-biographies

I mean, those little single-para biogs that usually appear on the very first page of a book, or on the back flap if it has flaps. They are introductions: reader, meet X, who lives in Gothenburg. There’s not room for much more info, but often they list an author’s previous titles (which are listed again on the second page, in case your memory is seriously short-term), and if relevant a prize or two (many of these with strange names: the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust award, the Ballygowrie Prize for Irrelevance). Plus, optionally, something on marital status, children, pets; previous jobs (fur trapper, peanut vendor); and a surprising number of writers still divide their time between one place and another.

CBe tends to be relaxed about these. ‘Patrick Mackie lives in Gloucestershire’ is all you get at the start of The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints (launch party at Daunts in Holland Park this Tuesday, 3 May, 6.30: if you’re curious to know more, come along). There are no author photos on any of the books. Two of the books carry no biographical information at all. In the case of Andrew Elliott, when someone requested life info and a photo I simply sent a photocopy of his poem ‘Self-portrait in Shades #2’ (from Mortality Rate). It has been rumoured that I am Andrew Elliott. I am not. On the other hand, I am Jack Robinson and Jennie Walker (‘has published, under a different name, several collections of poetry’).

I don’t think a lack of information need be confusing. I don’t think it really matters. I’m aware that many people do sometimes want some cut-and-dried hard facts about the author of the book they are reading. In the interests of clarity, here’s a screenshot of a website’s reply to a request for information about the CBe (and now HappenStance and Cape) writer J. O. Morgan:



PS: a fine review of Julian Stannard’s What were you thinking? is published in the Herald today, this bright May morning: http://bit.ly/1UphbbM

Monday, 25 April 2016

The shape of things



Don Paterson’s introduction to his little Faber anthology (part of their 101 series) of sonnets gave a lot of space (I can’t quote because I don’t have the book to hand) to the shape of the sonnet, proportion of width to height. The sonnet shape is roughly exemplified by Malevich’s 1932 Red House (which was on the cover of the original edition, 1990s I think; later editions dropped it, a shame). The Malevich, above.

The sheer shape of it has to do with the sonnet’s persistence. Portrait, not landscape. It’s roughly the shape of the notebook you carry around and write in, and of the A4 paper you print your poems and stories on when when you send them out (for those places that still don’t take online submissions) and of the magazine (except for Stand) or book that they may, god willing, get printed in.

I’ve been wondering (as one does) why the standard delivery system for poems in my lifetime has been the roughly sonnet-shaped book of 64 pages, in which so many of the poems have occupied a single page. The 64 (or 48, or 80, etc) has had to do with with a certain period of printing technology, which required a page extent divisible by 16, and needn’t apply to digital printing, but the basic shape? There’ve been other delivery systems in the past, but even the scroll was portrait not landscape.

Television and cinema screens are landscape. So are computer (but not tablet or smartphone, unless you swivel) screens – yet almost certainly, the window on the computer in which you do your writing is portrait.

About a decade ago an exact contemporary of mine (we were in the 6th form at school together; then he sailed off on a fishing boat to Iceland; much later, he had twin girls in Scotland, I had twin boys in England, all born within the space of about a year, a Shakespearian comedy in the making, and we met up; and then he died) published an online translation of Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune with links, artwork, video things, innovatory for its time, and I got a little excited: if online rather than printed book becomes the regular delivery system, the shape of a poem (or page) that I’m used to becomes just one of a possible many?

So far, it seems not. There are writers whose default medium is the screen rather than the A4 or printed-book page, but nothing (or very little) to date whose format simply has to be something other than portrait. (Correct me; I live a sheltered life; I may be wrong, often am.) The interaction between traditional publishing and online is generally dull. Ebooks are convenient, but reproducing print in an online form that mimics that of printed books is hardly an innovative use of the medium.

It’s possible – no? – that just as a wheel has to be round – a square wheel wouldn’t function as a wheel – a poem has to be portrait rather than landscape. For various human reasons. There are only so many words that a reader can take in per line before getting befuddled (text design kicks in here: type size and leading and line measure, to make the reading experience as reader-friendly as possible). For the length that one breathes out before needing to breathe in. In, out.

All kinds writing and reading key in. The lovely kerching when, writing on a typewriter, you have reached the end of a line and have to lever the carriage back to the left again and the page jerks up a little. Watching on the Tube someone opposite reading a book: the way their eyes move from left to right and back to left, and again, and again, the rhythm of it. It’s how people watch tennis. The shape of the buildings in which we, many of us, live, and do our reading and writing and all the other things we do. (I’ve spent a good proportion of my life going up or down stairs.) Further, some kind of predisposition to vertical hierarchy: upper-middle-lower. The ‘conscious’ and the ‘subconscious’ – as though these things were arranged in layers, levels, vertically.*

* ‘If we are trained well, we can do three or four things together at the same time: ride in a car, cry, and look through a window; eat, love, think. And all the time consciousness passes like an elevator among the floors.’ – Yehuda Amichai, ‘Nina of Ashkelon’

PS: The title of this post is cribbed from a 1999 book published by Reaktion (and designed by, guess who, Ron Costley): Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things. He’s sharp and witty. ‘Umbrellas are relatively complicated contraptions which refuse to work just when they are needed (when it is windy, for instance).’ ‘Why do machines stutter? The answer is, because everything in the world (and the whole world itself) stutters.’ ‘Roofs are devices to make us subservient.’ ‘Until recently our world consisted of things: houses and furniture, machines and motor vehicles, clothing and underwear, books and pictures, tins and cigarettes.’


Thursday, 14 April 2016

The new brown

From 2007 to now, all (well, almost all) CBe books have had brown card covers. These, as the website puts it, ‘allude with respect and thanks to the paperback London Magazine editions published by Alan Ross in the late 1960s and early 70s’ – a series designed by Ron Costley, who I’ve written about here before and who died last year. For a number of reasons – a main one being that I don’t want to be limited to printing with a printer who carries the brown card as regular stock – I want to change.

Alan Ross also published a hardback series. Here are three off the shelves: Bernard Spencer (1965), Tony Harrison (1970; ‘Loiners’, by the way, are people from Leeds, as I am); Tomas Transtromer (1972; translated by Robert Bly).



Keeping the Alan Ross and Ron Costley link, here (below) is what I’m thinking of for the new look. As before, usually no cover image (but yes if appropriate). First print runs of a new title will have flaps, reprints probably not. All new titles like this; and any existing titles that run out of stock and that I’d like to keep in print will move into this design. Any thoughts?

Saturday, 9 April 2016

'No flair but he plods on'

In the interests of accountability and full disclosure, here are quotes (all genuine) from my school reports between 1959 and 1964 (which I found last night while looking for something else):

1959 He is a neat, reliable worker.

1960 Rather slow progress.

1961 With more practice he should improve.
Moderate. He does not think fast enough.
He tries hard but is sometimes disappointingly inaccurate.
Rather slow. A more incisive approach would help.

1962 There are signs of improvement.
Trying hard but finds the work difficult. Never really shows his ability in exams. Working under stress seems to worry him.
Quality at the moment not impressive.
He finds advanced work difficult but has time on his side.

1963 No flair but he plods on.
Slow progress.
Rather pedestrian pace so far.
Elementary mistakes mar his compositions. Much ground remains to be covered.
Moderate standard but time is still on his side.
He plods on but finds none of the work easy.

1964 Works hard but the syllabus has become a tall order.
He has made progress but much of his work is below the standard required.
He is doing good work though a little slow.
Less confused but still not readily capable with grammar.
He is an excellent Scout, Secretary both of Library and Bird Club. He has played good rugger. His reading at the Carol Service was quite splendid.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

On the afterlife of deceased books

One of the books that meant the world to me and still does is Leila Berg’s Flickerbook – a memoir in fragments, telling her life from birth in 1917 (Manchester working-class Jewish background) up to the moment when, on a bus, she hears of the outbreak of the Second World War. Granta published it in 1997. It went out of print. I went to see Leila Berg in around 2008, wanting to re-issue the book with CBe. That didn’t happen (long story). Leila died in 2012. Not one of her books (she published around 50) is currently in print.

Some more books that have meant the world to me and that are now out of print (or in print but only just, to the point where they may as well not be; or in print, just, in the US but not here): Alfred Hayes, In Love; James Kennaway, Silence; James Buchan, Slide; Gianni Celati, Voices from the Plains; Denis Johnson, The Name of the World; Aleksander Wat, Selected Poems; Hanna Krall, The Woman from Hamburg. I could go on, of course I could.

What happens to books when they die?

If they are very, very lucky, they get get re-issued by NYRB – a completely superb publisher whose list I could live off, whose re-issues are well designed and carry expert and passionate introductions from contemporary writers. Less lucky, they get re-issued by Faber Finds – which is, compared to NYRB, tacky: no introductions, badly designed, print-on-demand, over-priced. Barely lucky, they have an afterlife on abebooks or amazon ‘used & new’ (Flickerbook is there for a penny; I’ve bought so many copies myself and then given them or ‘lent’ them that I’m happy to see it still flickering). Or on a trestle table at a primary school summer fair, which was where I picked up Nina Fitzpatrick’s Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia, another book I’d go to the wall for. Or they get a post on one of those blogs that specialise in dead books. No luck, then no afterlife at all.

Earlier this year, someone I was talking to about my vain attempt to bring Flickerbook back into print used the F-word. ‘Oh, no point in fetishising books’ – something like that. I’m thinking that he’s maybe right. Books can die, vanish. Almost all of them do just that. Survival is pretty random. Ars longa, vita brevis is just one of those things your granny tells you.

Friday, 1 April 2016

On the BBC

The BBC is embedded in my life. The first TV we ever had coming into the house: 1950s, black and white. I remember it being delivered, and where to put it. I remember Andy Pandy, and Bill and Ben. I have no memory of the switch to colour. I was allowed to stay up an extra half hour to watch Tonight, presented by Cliff Michelmore, who died last month. The Wednesday Play: David Mercer, Dennis Potter, David Rudkin, Cathy Come Home. I remember watching these with my mum and feeling awkward, I think both of us, when there was sex.

A lot of people still do watch TV. Occasionally, I do too: some sport, some films. And then, recently, an episode of the BBC’s costume-drama adaptation of War and Peace, and most episodes of The Night Manager, which was awful for so many reasons: sexist in its treatment of the female characters, racist in its treatment of the Middle Eastern characters; almost no acting, because of the poverty of the script (does anyone seriously think that looking serious and quizzical at the same time is good acting?); plot-heavy, while whizzing by so many holes in that; sex and violence input at quota percentages. All-star posh cast. Lavish scenery. £18 million, I’m guessing, from the mention on the BBC’s own website that it cost around £3 million per episode.

(There was a Guardian piece in the past day or so about a number of the male lead actors having a particular Oxford private school background in common: the continuing triumph of rich white males.)

The BBC is publicly funded through the licence fee, and is independent of political control. Good. But it is not independent of market control: most of the money we give it goes into fancy things that can sell to foreign networks. When they have to make cuts, they cut the bits that show on their minority channels, the bits that are surely the whole point of public broadcasting – that it doesn’t have to be dependent on the market. I have never really understood why the BBC has to be engaged in a ratings/numbers battle with the commercial channels: the latter depend on advertising revenue, so of course they have to appeal to as many viewers as possible; the whole point of the publicly funded BBC is that it bypasses that, so why can’t it just be good? BBC is currently not, by any stretch, a ‘jewel in the crown’ of anything. I’m not sure what the point of it is.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Bite-size CBe, part 2 (42–64)

Bites 1–41, written in 2014, are in the previous post.

42 February 2016: the new people at the post office are at the counter and the queues are long this week. Farewell to Jay and his wife (below), after 43 years’ service. Every single CBe book ordered from the website since 2007 – a number in the thousands – has been taken by me to their counter for weighing and posting. I’ve seen them at least three times a week, often more. Unwittingly, they have been by far my most regular co-workers in this little venture.


43 A rough audit of how the writers I’ve published have come to me. Author recommended to me by a writer already on the CBe list or by a close friend: 13. Me knowing an author’s work or coming across it and chasing it: 11. Unsolicited submissions: 6. Submission through an agent: 3. Can’t remember: 1.

44 Submissions: despite the huge amount of time and effort that they have put into their writing – and in many cases money too, in fees for CW courses – the great majority of people sending me work skip the 30 seconds of online research it would need to find out who, actually, they are sending to.

45 Number of titles (not including those published this year) published by CBe that have sold fewer than 100 copies through the distributor, Central Books: 15. Number of titles that have sold more than 1,000 copies through the same route: 4.

46 Money is necessary and also embarrasses me. Here is Anne Carson’s theory of money: ‘It’s just the inverse of the usual theory, which is that all money, indeed all numbers in life, should get to be bigger. But it doesn’t make sense that they should get bigger – why bigger? – so if you just switch it around and think all numbers should get smaller, it makes life better.’

47 I’ve hardly evolved from the times when ‘debt’ carried a lingering stigma and the purpose of a man was to be a ‘breadwinner’. As a writer (and especially as a writer who wanted to start a family), either I had to write books whose sales made me a living (which was never going to happen), or I took jobs and wrote on the side. (The oldest writer on the CBe list, Fergus Allen, 94, had a similar outlook: a working career, then publishing his first book at the age of 72.) I don’t claim this attitude is ‘right’; fear is involved, and playing safe. But I do take a perverse pride in CBe’s record of publishing more than 40 books over 9 years without any ACE money.

48 2014 was the glitzy year: Beverley Bie Brahic winning the Scott Moncrieff Prize for her translations of Apollinaire; May-Lan Tan on the Guardian First Book Award shortlist; Will Eaves on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist; a re-issue of Agota Kristof’s The Notebook selling well and being on several ‘books of the year’ lists. I wore a tie.

49 This: different writers I’ve published meeting one another – at a reading, an event, a party, or just online – and clicking. Readers too. I could very easily get sentimental about this. Family. (Despite families being, in media-speak, either ‘hard-working’ or ‘dysfunctional’.) This kind of by-play has been the richest thing.

50 Social media. Facebook aggravates, and I aggravate in return and get in a mess. Twitter’s lighter, funner. CBe has, I think, a low-level, intermittent core following, some of whom do one platform but not the others, some of whom read the irregular newsletter but nothing else, and a least a couple of whom never go online at all, so I probably do need to keep all the channels open, a way of reminding that I’m still around. That’s all.

51 Ebooks. The books about Finland are available as ebooks because there may be English-speaking potential readers in Finland who are keen to buy but baulk at the postage costs for a printed book. Two of my own poetry collections, first published by Faber, are now available exclusively (as they say) as CBe ebooks. Take-up has been less than tiny.

52 Printed books are the CBe thing, but I’m not 100 per cent Luddite. I read a lot of things – poems, prose – online. Online writing doesn’t need to bow to the design restrictions of the printed page, and this can get interesting; to publish a 64-page poetry book (the standard delivery system for poetry over my lifetime) and then issue it as a 64-page ebook doesn’t feel interesting at all.

53 UK orders from the website are free of any postage or packing costs. For orders from Europe (and yes, that does include Ireland) and ‘rest of the world’, there’s a little clickable menu on every book page that adds on a postage cost. It’s surprising – but maybe not – how many people ordering from outside the UK don’t see this. Do I send them a school-teacherly email asking them to send postage? Do I just shrug and send the book anyway? It depends on my mood.

54 I’ve done this twice: taken on an ‘intern’ and paid them a sum of money and then been stumped as to what to ask them to do.

55 Oh, yes: I got one of them to teach me how to make spreadsheets. But then I never followed through. The old system – writing numbers down in columns in a ledger – isn’t broken so doesn’t need fixing.


56 My dad (who died 60 years ago) had a ledger in which he kept track of the business of a farm he ran: wages, cattle bought/sold, tractor repairs, etc. I remember it, and have lost it. It seems pretty clear that I am trying to re-create that ledger. It also seems clear that the way in which CBe publishes – printed books; the lugging around of heavy boxes; the queuing at the post office; the tiny sums of money and the small-scale-ness of it all – is essentially a 1950s way, with a couple of technological advances (the internet, digital printing) added on.

57 The price of a new book of poetry should, surely, be index-linked to the cost of a packet of cigarettes. On the whole this seems to be the case. (Except for Faber: £10.99 for 64 paperback pages?)

58 I made a half-hearted attempt, about two years ago, to stop publishing. And then realised that, as with smoking, stopping is a lot more difficult than simply carrying on. But I can cut down.

59 The course of Sonofabook magazine, whose first issue was published in spring 2015, has not run smoothly: delays, illnesses. I came to believe that there was a curse on it. Someone suggested I rename it The Accursed.

60 In the agent’s office there is a cricket bat, and we talk about cricket as well as books. That this agent has poets on his list, and also the son of the teacher who got me through Eng Lit O-level at school, feels good. Minutes after leaving, I buy a bunch of Victorian lantern slides from an antiquarian bookshop. Two of them show watercolours of worms. I come home and read Darwin on worms: ‘Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.’

61 Helpful tips. CBe author Dai Vaughan’s advice to ‘aspiring writers’: ‘Be sure that a life of humiliation and disappointment is what you really want.’ Me on lesser things: for editing you need to be awake and alert; typesetting can be done while reasonably hungover.

62 Burger vans (below). The left one is outside the printer in Acton, the right one is outside Central Books in Hackney Wick, the distributor. Snap. I collect boxes from the former, bring home and re-pack, and deliver them to the latter (17 trips in the past year). If just 2 or 3 boxes, by Overground; if more, by car. (Central’s building is perhaps my favourite in London: see photo in previous post.)


63 Inpress are asking me what my ‘targets’ are for the sales of the new titles. I have a feeling this is going to end badly.

64 Ron Costley, text designer at Faber while I was there, died in February 2015. Guardian obituary here. Anything I know about design, I have from him. When I wasn’t sure, when I had about six different ways in play of putting text to page or cover and had succeeded only in confusing myself, I’d email Ron and we’d go to Pizza Express. House red, extra chili flakes. He was a great supporter of small presses in general. It’s not the same without him.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Bite-size, part 1 (1–41), déjà vu

I posted the below in February two years ago and re-post today because I'll add another few bites in the next few days and this is the back-story:

Off-cuts, paper cuts, 2007 to now:

1 After months of batting cover try-outs back and forth, one of the books still had a name spelt wrong on the cover. The mis-spelt editor had noticed this on the proofs but had assumed it was a joke. My fault.

2 Natural Mechanical by J. O. Morgan was an editor’s dream: 40 lines arriving out of the blue as an attachment to an email asking if I’d like to read more, from an author who had never before had anything published, and the book going on to win a literary prize. The title tells it true: this is Rocky’s workshop when I visited him in 2009 in Inverness-shire, during the early stages of his complete restoration of a 1929 Brooklands Riley from a rusted chassis:


3 I did a short print run of J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts with a colour cover for a shop which said that trying to sell the standard edition was like trying to sell a brown paper bag. Some of those are still in a box – free to anyone who orders any other title from the website and asks for one.

4 Naive early error: to assume that a fair few of the people I’d worked with in publishing would buy a book or two. In fact most people who work in the trade expect to get books for free. There have been honourable exceptions.

5 Best CBe-related headline (relates to Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3, McKitterick Prize 2008, one of the first four CBe books in 2007 and now published by Bloomsbury):


6 Number of trips to Blissetts in Acton, who print most of the books, in 2013: not logged, but around 20 at a guess. Chris the printer once house-sat my cats; during that period he was side-swiped by a fork-lift truck and sent to hospital; bandaged, patched up, he bypassed the queue for painkillers at the hospital pharmacy and instead came back to the house, fed the cats, drank the malt whisky I’d left him and went back to work.

7 Speediest printing turnarounds: ordering a reprint from Blissetts one afternoon and collecting the books the next day. Sending files of a new book to the other printer, ImprintDigital in Devon, and receiving a proof copy for approval next day in the post.

8 Number of trips over to the distributor Central Books in Hackney Wick with boxes of books in 2013: 16. Regine in the upstairs office once asked me to sign copies of my own old poetry books; a warehouseman in the downstairs delivery space comments on my very occasional TLS pieces. These people read books and they care. Below, Central Books, a very fine building:


9 A box of a given size holds more slim books of poetry than 200-page novels; the slim books are also cheaper to post. On the other hand, all boxes of books, whether containing poetry or fiction, are heavy. A large proportion of peasants’ work used to consist of carrying things; this manual-labour aspect of the job is something I enjoy (which explains in part my dilly-dallying about ebooks).

10 It’s pouring with rain as I lug boxes of books from a Tube station for a book launch at Waterstones Piccadilly (it was going to be in an art college, but the author had been having a hard time and she really did need a place where she could wear a dress), and I’m running late and I’m thinking, this is OK, this is publishing, and I’m saving money. At another book launch I’m drinking in the Colony Room in Soho and because I’m happy I sign a fat cheque for membership and the club closes a few months later and this is OK too. But I could have saved a little money there.

11 Number of trips to the post office in 2013: 139. Best conversation overheard while standing with CBe book packages in the queue: woman in front of me, very loudly, to man standing in doorway: ‘And you shagged that bitch down the Askew Road and you didn’t even wear a rubber.’ Man moves forward, I think he’s going to hit her to I step between them. Man to me, quietly: ‘Fuck off. I’m having a private conversation with my wife.’

12 Highest sales out of Central Books to date (i.e., not counting sales from the website, and people/bookshops I’ve talked into buying direct) for titles published before the end of 2013: just under 1,000. Lowest: just over 10. I look at these numbers, look hard, as if they’re trying to tell me something. It’s a kind of staring competition, who blinks first.

13 Is there any other trade in which shops can order the wares and then, if they can’t sell them, return them and get their money back? With books this is standard. Except on the occasion on which I sold several hundred copies of a title to a chain of bookshops, which several months later wanted to return most of them and have their money refunded. No, I said. And because I’d sold them direct, and there was nothing about returns on my basic invoice, they were stumped. A tiny and incidental victory.

14 Most over-qualified book-carrier: Anthony Thwaite, OBE, born 1930, carrying bundles of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew on his trial shift as a warehouseman in 2009:


15 I’m not sure that Shakespeare & Co in Paris, where the CBe authors Beverley Bie Brahic, Gabriel Josipovici and Wiesiek Powaga read on an evening in November 2010, ever paid for the books sold but it was fun. This is Sylvia Whitman, brandishing:


16 Built in 2011, a roadside shrine to St Nicholas Lezard, patron saint of small presses, whose ‘paperback of the week’ columns in the Guardian have featured seven CBe books:


17 The man in the rear-view driving mirror on the website home page is my father, 1940s I think. (He wasn’t a reader. When he was courting my mum he took her to a wrestling match; she, then working as a librarian at the Brotherton in Leeds, took him to the first play he’d seen. He died aged 51.) The children on page 70 of Nights and Days in W12 are my own, many years ago; the writer in the café on page 107 of the same book is a man I’m vaguely related to (son of a cousin) and he wasn’t just idling: his first novel will be published this year.

18 The man who was in prison for 22 years and sent me his writing from there, and then we met in a café in Shepherds Bush market. The woman who called round with her portfolio of poems and modelling photos: this one, she said, pausing at a photo in which she’s lying on a sofa and wearing about 3 millimetres of clothing, would be good for the cover? Her mother had doubts. What did I think?

19 The manuscript of Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue really was found in a drawer of his office desk on the day after his death: this is not a literary conceit.

20 Two things that give Gabriel Josipovici’s Only Joking a slight period feel: you can’t now smoke in restaurants and cafés, and the classified football results on radio at five o’clock on Saturdays are no longer spoken by James Alexander Gordon.

21 The average age of the authors published by CBe in 2010 was 80-something. I tried and failed to sell a story on this to The Oldie and Saga magazine.

22 The causes of death of over 500 writers, composers, etc, are listed in This Is Not a Novel by David Markson, who himself is one of three authors who have died since their books were published by CBe. (The youngest was Erik Houston, at the age of 37. His novel The White Room was one of the first four titles; it’s now out of print but I still stand by it. He was a concert violinist who played around the world, then teacher. He had one of those very rare afflictions. In hospital, there was a day when he was technically dead for something ridiculous like ten minutes, and then was alive again. And then, later, not. I think about Erik a lot.)

23 In the flat of Dai Vaughan – who died in June 2012; whose Sister of the artist CBe published in February 2012, a month and a bit after he’d sent me the manuscript – there were tiny sculptures that he’d made out of Edam cheese. Last year I made things out of crushed beer cans; before all this started there was a period when I made ships (and a mermaid) in bottles.

24 The CB of CBe was not intended to be just me. Long story. (Nor, at the time of the first four books, were there any plans to do more.)

25 There is a customer who has bought one copy of every single CBe book direct from the website and I have no idea who this person is.

26 Entering a book for a prize that required an author photo, I sent a photograph of the author’s poem titled ‘Self-Portrait in Shades’ because I had no other visual evidence to offer, and nor did he and nor did the internet. Offered readings, the author responded: ‘I’d prefer not to.’ I can understand this. I can understand it very well.

27 When one of the books wins a prize – to date, a fiction prize (McKitterick, best first novel by a writer aged over 40), a translation prize (Scott Moncrieff), and the really freaky thing of each of the three first poetry collections from CBe winning the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (and each of them also being Forward shortlisted) – I feel like a parent watching their child in the school nativity play: pride, even though one knows it’s just a play, and next year there’ll be a different Mary and Joseph.

28 That some agents are willing to accept my minuscule offers for rights to publish fiction is due to the extreme generosity of larger publishers who wish to buy rights to cookery books and the memoirs of footballers.

29 The agent who accepted my offer for UK rights and then spent what must surely have been more than my offer on getting the contract checked by their legal department, which suggested I add in something about second serial rights, which I did, though I still don’t know what second serial rights are.

30 The big-name agents who simply don’t reply to emails, and the mainstream publishers too, and others. It may be company policy. More likely, in any company over a certain size there’s an assumption that receiving and opening an email or envelope is a sufficient task in itself. If anything else needs to be done, there are servants for that.

31 Or if they do reply, they do so with same degree of attention as a former literary editor of the Observer who, after I’d sent him the first four books, all prose fiction, and then followed up by sending again, assured me that he’d passed on the books to the poetry editor.

32 There is a clause in the standard contract that basically states that if after signing the author gets an offer from someone richer and better-looking, altogether more eligible, then the author is free to go off with them, as long as I can have the first four months. It’s a sort of prenuptial.

33 I’ve turned down books and seen them published elsewhere and thought, good for them, I was wrong. On the other hand, I’ve turned down books and seen them published elsewhere, by publishers posher than me, and thought, I was still right. On the third hand, I’ve turned down a book and two years later changed my mind and emailed the author at 5 a.m. in the morning to ask whether it has been placed elsewhere and by lunchtime the book was on track.

34 February 2013, letter from Arts Council England: ‘I am sorry to tell you …’ Three in a row. Ho-hum. (Can one apply to the Arts Council for cigarette money, for alcohol money? Without those two legal drugs there’d have been nothing.) The three stages of reaction: (1) slump; (2) shrug; (3) a light-headed sense of freedom.

35 What continues to surprise is how much can be done without any funding at all, and with small amounts of money. Back in 2007, £2,500 covered the printing & binding of 250 copies each of the first four books, author advances, a basic one-page website and a couple of lunches for proofreaders. CBe has been, roughly, self-sustaining ever since but only because editing, design, typesetting, time, etc, are not costed in.

36 Letters addressed to ‘The Accounts Department’ or to ‘The Reviews Manager’ or ‘The Art Director’ or ‘To whom it may concern’: the cat (one of five) who resides on my desk stirs, stretches, yawns, curls back on the low heap of manuscripts.

37 The emails asking for my ‘submission guidelines’. I honestly don’t care: email attachment or hard copy, double-spaced or single, margins wide or narrow, name on every page or not, whatever. If you write and want to send, then just do. It’s not for me to tell you how.

38 The Circulating Library – the idea was to send off a bunch of free books, asking the recipients to pass on to others after reading, and so on (and thereby expand awareness of CBe and maybe generate a few sales from the curious) – was a drowned duck: no emails from happy strangers, not one (as far as I know) extra sale.

39 This desk in the living room, but also the in-town office: the café on the first floor of Foyles, Charing Cross Road. (Deals have been done there, on backs of envelopes. And all praise to that shop, which actually asked to stock the books, rather than me having to make the first move.) If it’s too busy, the Pillars of Hercules. Once, the place around the corner where you can get a bottle of wine for a fiver.

40 The two points in time at which I knew the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair was worth the effort: (1) when in 2011 I was being shown a church hall in Exmouth Market by the woman who was in charge of hiring it out and her labrador dog, chasing a ball, went skittering and scrabbling across the recently polished floor; (2) lunchtime on the day of the first fair when, out for a cigarette, I said to the busker in the street, Brooke Sharkey, there was a book fair going on, and she said she’d move on, and I suggested she come in and do a set onstage instead and she did. (The book fair was repeated in 2012 and 2013, with over fifty presses participating; from 2014 CBe is ducking out, leaving it in the more than capable hands of Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly.)

41 The stuffed gorilla that sat outside the CBe/Eyewear pop-up shop in Portobello Road in July last year appears to be one of a limited edition made for the California zoo where Koko (born 1971) lives. How it came to a junk shop in the Askew Road, Shepherds Bush, I have no idea. (Below, Koko on the right; on the left, seated, Wiesiek Powaga, translator from the Polish of Stefan Grabinski’s In Sarah’s House and Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie and other work.)