Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fergus Allen, 1921–2017



Fergus Allen – CBe's most senior author – died on 22 July, aged 95. His funeral was today.

‘To Be Read Before Being Born’:

No time is allowed for practice or rehearsal.
There are no retakes and there isn’t a prompter.
There’s only moving water, dimpled by turbulence –
And no clambering out on to the bank
To think things over, as there is no bank.

Fergus Allen: born 1921; father Irish, mother English; of a generation that largely subscribed to the view that the primary responsibility of a man, if that man chose to have family, was to work for the security and future of that family. (I may be assuming things here; but even if I am, I don’t think it’s a bad view.) He worked as a civil engineer, and when he retired from employment he was a first civil service commissioner; I too have difficulty in knowing from job titles what people actually do, but google it and you’ll find that no one gets to this job without a track record of long experience and deep integrity.

A perennial reader of others, he waited until his retirement to give his own writing the time and attention that it required. Fergus published his first poetry collection at the age of 72 with Faber; two more Faber collections followed before he was made, as he put it, to ‘walk the plank’; his next collection was published by Dedalus in Ireland, and then, from CBe, Before Troy (2010) and New & Selected Poems (2013). The latter has a foreword by Christopher Reid, who took on Fergus at Faber:

“… each new poem, each succeeding book, a fresh adventure. The vocabulary and diction have uncommon breadth, from the elaborately mandarin to the colloquial and slangy, and the range of voices extends from what we may – sometimes riskily – assume is the poet’s own voice to those of surprising personae.”

He liked Auden. He wasn’t far off being a contemporary of Auden. He spoke on Auden at the 2011 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and read his own poems (photo above) and was interviewed: they worked you hard at Aldeburgh, even if you were their first 90-year-old poet. In 2013 he read from his New & Selected to a packed audience in a café/bar in Brighton. Among others, he read the poem that begins ‘Annie’s pubic hair was beyond a joke’, and he read the early poem that retells the Fall as the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Guinness brewery in Dublin.

He was a poet acutely aware of pleasure and menace and mystery; a bracing tone, yes, but he laughed easily and well. Why is he not more widely known? Perhaps in part because he didn’t make a career out of literature; and when he did get noticed, there was too much attention to his age at the expense of the sheer excellence of the poetry.

Properly, 'Fergus Allen, CB, FRSL'. Establishment? He came to London for a lunch to celebrate his New & Selected; after the lunch, he and Joan, his wife, both in their nineties, scoffed at the idea of getting a taxi to the train station and insisted on getting the Tube.

Recordings of Fergus reading his poems are at the Poetry Archive.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Nicholas Lezard, October 4004 BC – July 2017



Bishop Ussher calculated that the world began on 23 October 4004 BC. Somewhere between 5 billion years ago and then, anyway.

As I understand it, Nicholas Lezard is out of contract with the Guardian from the end of this month. Lezard has written a ‘paperback of the week’ column in the Guardian Review for the past, what? – 20? – 25 years? Neither his Guardian profile (‘Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian’) nor his (perfunctory) Wiki entry mentions the start date and this feels right, because for those of us who have been reading regularly, or just dipping in and out, it has just been there, a part of the world as we know it.

It’s very simple: allow an intelligent, widely-read, cricket-loving person to choose from among the books that thud through their door and enthuse about their choices regularly, weekly. (I do mean enthuse: Lezard doesn’t do hatchet-jobs, though god knows he must have been tempted.) No meetings, no marketing, no form-filling for grants. No faff about whether a book comes from Big People publishing or small presses, no faff at all. I have no idea why other journals haven’t copied. Except for the brain you need to start with, it’s a no-brainer: the newspaper has benefited (from a steadily increasing number of readers attracted to this column because they have learned to trust it); the sales of good writing have benefited; a good man has had enough cash in his pocket to buy his round.

And it has worked. Lezard’s last paperback-of-the-week column (here) has 70+ comments (it is now 'closed for comments'), many of those with multiple recommendations. There’s been something Reithian about the whole enterprise: people should be informed as well as entertained. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that this column has changed lives.

(A woman I knew who died last year aged 101, mother ‘in service’, father illiterate, could recite whole poems. I’m fairly convinced that the most influential, life-enhancing book in the last century in the UK was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury – first published 1861 and then on and on, into the lives of people who might never otherwise have encountered the writing it celebrated. Week by week, without any pretension, without any dire ‘literature is good for you’ agenda, Lezard’s column has been performing a similar job.)

Disclosure of interest: Lezard has written about and recommended at least seven of the roughly 50 books I’ve published during the last decade. In 2011 I made a little shrine (above) to the patron saint of small presses in the street where he once lived. He has been the only broadsheet reviewer whose say-so has made any difference to sales. Without Lezard, I wouldn’t have continued to publish. I guess now that I’ll have to add an R.I.P. plaque.

Last week, the BBC reversed its decision to axe the Radio 4 Saturday Review programme (without which I would not be publishing J. O. Morgan). Can the Guardian do likewise for the Lezard column? If not, more fule they.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Robinson: appendix 2 – Graham Greene



[These appendices add Robinsons to those already in the book (Robinson) or glance again at Crusoe. See also previous post, 'Robinson: appendix 1'.]

‘Gloom was apt to descend on all of them as soon as the taxi entered the deep shade of the laurel drive which led to the high-gabled Edwardian house that his father had bought for his retirement because it was near a golf course.’ Well, yes.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor (recommended for its Robinson link by TH: thank you) is to me a disappointment, all the more so because I remember a time when I enjoyed reading Greene. Maurice Castle is a low-level member of the intelligence services working in a London office. He has a black South African wife and a son; his wife worries about the son going to prep school but Castle reassures her: ‘He’s a good runner. In England there’s no trouble if you are good at any sort of games.’ So many stereotypes are in play here that I can't be bothered to begin. Games-playing is how Castle’s colleagues think of their intelligence work: ‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it.’

(How important is it not to take games ‘too seriously’? Seriously important. Careers and livelihoods depend upon just the right degree of non-seriousness. It’s a British code.)

Women in The Human Factor are off to the side: secretaries, ‘tarts’, wives who are remote. Even Sarah, Castle’s wife, a character essential to the book, which has to do with how love rather than ideology can be reason for betrayal, is a blank. Much alcohol is drunk in these pages, mainly whisky and port. Lunch at the Reform Club is steak-and-kidney pudding followed by treacle tart. At the Travellers Club, roast beef (‘Perhaps a little overdone?’). The English stodginess is compounded, for most of the book, by the clunky, writing-by-numbers way the plot is advanced.

At the end of the novel Castle – whose interpretation of the rules of the game has been naïve – is alone, marooned in a bleak apartment in Moscow. ‘In the evening he would warm some soup and sit huddled near the radiator, with the dusty disconnected telephone at his elbow, and read Robinson Crusoe.’ Another marooned Englishman comes across Castle reading Crusoe: ‘Ah ha, the great Daniel. He was one of us.’ ‘One of us?’ ‘Well, Defoe perhaps was more an MI5 type.’

Castle’s reading matter is appropriate. The other books available to Castle include ‘school editions’ of Shakespeare and a couple of Dickens novels: these school editions are what he grew up with (along with Rider Haggard: Allan Quatermain was his ‘childhood hero’). Throughout Greene’s novel, all the men playing the game of running the world and sworn to an official Secrets Act, married or not, are lonely and have difficulty in relating to others. Robinson argues that this state of affairs is the inevitable result of elevating Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to the status of a kind of national set text. And though in obvious ways Greene's novel feels dated (it’s pre-internet), the gloom of the high-gabled Edwardian house and the adjacent golf course feels horribly familiar.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Robinson: appendix 1 – Elizabeth Bowen



As Tom Sabine suggests in his kind note on Robinson (here; and then here), once Robinson is on the radar he keeps cropping up.

Following up Tom Sabine’s suggestion, here’s Robinson in Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Summer Night’, the final story in her 1941 collection Look at All the Roses: ‘Robinson did not frequent drawing rooms … When he was met, his imperturbable male personality stood out to the women unpleasingly, and stood out most of all in that married society in which women aspire to break the male in a man … When Robinson showed up, late, at the tennis club, his manner with women was easy and teasing, but abstract and perfectly automatic. From this had probably come the legend that he liked women “only in one way” … Robinson had on him the touch of some foreign sun.’

Did Bowen name this character knowingly? I doubt it. Still, he is in the club (whose other members, as surveyed in Robinson, include the Robinsons of Céline, Kafka, Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit, Sherwood Anderson, Muriel Spark, et al), even if less for his own awkwardness than for the disconcerting effect he has on others. Justin, in company with Robinson, becomes ‘prone, like a perverse person in love, to expose all his own piques, crotchets and weaknesses’. The woman who at the start of the story is driving to Robinson to spend the night with him becomes, when at last she is alone with him, stranded: ‘The adventure (even, the pilgrimage) died at its root, in the childish part of her mind.’ Only Justin’s sister, completely deaf, is at ease with him (‘She does not hear with her ears, he does not hear with his mind. No wonder they can communicate.’).

It’s a fine story: a late summer light, three generations (including a child dancing naked on her parents’ bed with snakes chalked on her skin), inconvenient guests, urgency and ennui, wartime (‘Now that there’s enough death to challenge being alive we’re facing it that, anyhow, we don’t live. We’re confronted by the impossibility of living’). Nothing, really, happens. Elizabeth Bowen is to me a touchstone, but I hadn’t read this story before: thank you for the cue.

Robinson in this story is the outsider. He’s a ‘factory manager’. He has been in this town for three years, which sounds a reasonable length of time but, in a small town, isn’t. He ‘had at first been taken to be a bachelor’ but he’s not; he’s living apart from his wife and children (three, one dead). The woman who is driving to him is also married, also has children. Victoria Glendinning, in her biography of Bowen (which I’d forgotten I had; I found it while perched on a stool looking for another book entirely), says that ‘the starting point’ for Robinson was a man named Jim Gates, ‘the manager of a creamery in Kildorrey’: ‘completely non-intellectual, genial, a life-and-souller’. With Jim Gates, Glendinning writes, Bowen ‘had, simply, a good time, with lots of drinks and lots of cigarettes and easy laughter … His company was a liberation not only from the excessive sensibility of others but from her own – that sensibility which was at the centre of her talent and also, some have thought, its limitation’. Bowen, Glendinning writes, ‘needed men like Jim Gates: extrovert, practical, a little coarse.’ I’m very uncomfortable with literary biographers telling me what their subjects needed, or didn’t need, but I think I know a Robinson when he turns up.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Robinson: an update

A nice note on Robinson’s Robinson is here (courtesy The Brooknerian). The book itself is here. Thank you to those who have alerted me to other members of the family.

I’m not sure that Robinson even voted in the EU referendum in June last year, and I haven’t asked. Sometimes a dank torpor seems to settle over him. If he didn't vote, it may well have been because the referendum campaigns were a shoddy advertisement for democracy: ill-prepared, poorly delivered, cheap rhetoric displacing valid information. Very few people – including the politicians – had any realistic notion of the consequences of a vote to leave the EU. Many still don't. Robinson believes that many who voted to leave were not voting specifically about the EU; rather, they were sticking up a finger to a political establishment that didn’t appear to listen to anyone outside the London, the media and its own woodworm-infested corridors. They were saying: we exist, and we’re fed up with being taken for granted, a plague on both your houses, and we’re not going to vote X just because you tell us we should.

There is no clear mandate for Brexit. The difference between the leave vote (51.9%) and the remain vote (48.1%) was just over 1.25 million. Nearly 13 million of the electorate chose not to vote at all. Out of a total electorate of 46.5 million, just 17.4 million voted to leave. Anyone declaring that Brexit is ‘the people’s will’ is unfit for office. Anyone declaring that ‘getting on with the job’ of Brexit is ‘in the national interest’ – as May does, May who herself believed before the referendum that Brexit was not in the national interest at all – needs their head looking at.

Robinson once hated rhubarb, now he likes it. Robinson once married an heiress, thinking it would solve all his problems, and it didn’t, and now he is not married. The whole point of having a mind is that one can change it. In general, British democracy allows for this: we vote a government in and if we decide we’ve made a mistake, we can vote it out. Brexit is different. To press ahead with a decision recklessly based on such a narrow vote, with consequences that will affect people's lives for generations, without a fail-safe mechanism – whoops, we may have pressed the wrong button there – maybe rhubarb isn’t so bad after all – is just daft. Even Robinson can see that.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The word ‘funny’

The prizes tend to go to books about grief, or dystopias. Or oppression. Or sexual abuse, or any kind of sexual dysfunction.

‘Light verse’ – about as dispiriting a two-word combination as, for example, ‘conference centre’ or ‘sanitary solutions’ (the latter a sign on a local factory that made toilets, now demolished, making way for luxury flats, add that in, 'luxury flats').

Can I send you my book, please? It will, I promise, be (quote from a recent submission, standing in for many) ‘bleak, confused, disturbing, harrowing’.

I’ll pass. I’ll also pass, of course, on submissions that promise to be uplifting, redeeming, or (another quote) ‘celebrating our common humanity’. Or funny.

‘Funny’ is a word that on the dating sites might well be algorithmically matched up with ‘silly’. There’s a vocab problem here. Funny = makes you laugh. Funny = comedy. And there’s an obvious problem with writers who get labelled, or marketed, as ‘comic’ writers, which is this: I feel I’m being manipulated, I feel buttons are being pushed to make me laugh. So I resist. I’ll decide what I find funny, thank you. Don’t tell me when to laugh.

Pitching a book is one of the more absurd activities that humans engage in. It requires a skill that has nothing to do with the writing of the book and an impossible degree of tact and is almost bound to fail, even though the book itself may not, and awareness of this engenders a kind of daft desperation which often ends up as being, yes, funny.

For the record: misery, dystopia, ‘bleak’, no. Don’t even try. I’m in my sixties, not my twenties. I prefer Shakespeare’s comedies to his tragedies. Tragedy can include comedy but only as a bit part; comedy relishes tragedy because comedy is more inclusive, more generous, more silly, and is about life going on, not ending, and comedy, so far, is winning out, though it knows it’s as doomed as any other way of taking on the world, it takes no pride in this, it despairs, and that is its essence, as comedy. Comedy is stupid heroism.

Writers who do make me laugh include, obviously, Chekhov, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, Beckett, Cioran, Pinter. They make me laugh, out loud, but how to say this without using the word ‘funny’. Adding in ‘deeply’ or ‘seriously’ gestures, but doesn’t do it. Is there a word in another language – I’m asking translators here – for this? To describe the way in which, for example, the above writers manage being true to human fatuity and at the same time hilarious? Because in English we are not capable. Is an English Hrabal impossible? (There are English Hrabals, but no one attends.)

Bleak. A badge: we’re doomed. A whole aesthetic of this, a very pretty aesthetic, lovely composition, an aesthetic of doom and desolation and decay and ruins and rust and rot. Decomposition. Failure: of, not least, how males and females relate to each other, who populate this planet roughly equally but who very few of them of them have any idea how to sort this.

Failure: authentic. Doom, apocalypse, misery: click-bait, reinforcing.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Pollsters, hucksters

After starting as the most boring ever, this election has become seriously interesting, not least because of the polls. The Cameron-led Conservatives (Tories, from here on) were pretty sure, largely because of the polls, they were going to win the Brexit vote (I mean, so sure that the UK would vote to remain, as was in the manifesto, he won on that, and the polls) and they lost. The May-led Tories (May herself a remainer, now U-turned, and the U-turning become her signature) were then sure, because of the polls, that calling this coming election would deliver a surefire landslide victory, barely any need (again) to campaign, certainly no need for the PM to bother debating one-to-one with the leader of the opposition, and now no one is so pretty pretty sure. Long before this, the polls had it so wrong on Corbyn getting Labour leadership.

There’s a fun article on the BBC website titled ‘How do opinion polls work?’, January 2016, which begins, hilariously: ‘The 2015 general election result took political pollsters by surprise and a of experts panel has now said that, put simply, their predictions were wrong because they spoke to the wrong people.’(I wasn’t among the wrong people, by the way; I’ve never been polled in my life. Maybe they just make it all up and take the money.) Which implies that the pollsters just got in with the wrong crowd, as any intelligent teenager does. And implies that the pollsters, though they may be experts – people pay them, they make a living from this – are always going to be ?smaller experts than the bigger experts, this other ‘panel of experts’: who they, and who pays them?

It’s fun, that BBC article, because it includes sentences such as: ‘Tory voters in general are also said by pollsters to be more likely to put the phone down [Ed: but how do they know the phone-slammers are Tory if they can’t even ask them?] or be ex-directory, and less likely to answer the door.’ Because the person knocking on the door might be one of those ex-offenders who want sell you severely overpriced tea-towels? But the knocking-on-the-door may be delivery of that thing you’ve ordered off the net, that thing that will make your life a little smarter ... And you sign with a scriggle on their pad. Dilemma. Tory dilemma.

Just open the door, ffs.

Polls are not cheap; someone is paying; who?; there’s very little transparency on this, or on their methodology. Meanwhile, the polls (‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ A pollster?) do influence how people vote. People, on the whole, follow other people. That's the only reason why polls are even vaguely interesting, and then not. They were why Cameron took in the EU referendum to get elected, and then had to resign. They were why May called this election. The polls work in mysterious ways.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Fierce and beautiful world

I wrote most of this post last night, shortly before the unspeakable mass murder in Manchester of young people “without any protection against all the sudden, hostile forces loose in our fierce and beautiful world” (Andrei Platonov), and today I couldn’t decide whether to post it. The juxtaposition of joy and horror is not to be borne. I’m posting it.

On the wall in Ken Garland’s house there’s a black-and-white photograph of some people sitting around a table in the middle of a field on a summer day – I’ve no idea who the people are or how they or the food and the wine and the tablecloth came to the table, or how the table itself got to the middle of the field, but when I first happened to glance at that photo I immediately recognised what it was showing. It’s a picture of heaven.

Last Sunday, something too close for comfort. I went into town to meet David Collard in Holborn, where we were going to pick up his wife and go back to his home for lunch. David called his wife: she’d finished her work early, we’d meet her in the pub. The pub was the Seven Stars, also known as Roxy’s, in Carey Street, and there – no? really? – was Christopher Reid. Well, Christopher likes a good pub, so not a total surprise. An hour before, on the Tube on the way into town from Shepherds Bush, I’d been sitting next to the one vacant seat in the carriage and Nicholas Lezard had dropped into that seat – these things happen. Oh, hold on – there is Lezard again, in the pub. And Lara Pawson. And Will Eaves. And Patrick Mackie and Nancy Gaffield and Nicky Singer and Julian Stannard and Tony Lurcock and Tony White and Gabriel Josipovici and Alba Arikha and Stephen Knight and David Henningham and who … this is Paulette Jonguitud, who I have not met before but who has come from Mexico to be here today. As one might catch a bus to see a friend down the road. And it was a sunny day in May and there was a feast, plate upon plate of home-cooked food, and wine, and though it said 'No pudding' on the proper printed menu (with its list of all CBe titles and its quotation from Stendhal) there was of course a cake, a Lara-cake. And over the course of the afternoon, Cécile, Natalia, Michael, Houman, others …

In the New Statesman this week, which happens to feature a poem by Patrick Mackie ('A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,/ and the new one will be bitter, tired,/ opaque'), there’s a photo of a unicorn. Very, very rare, and bringing all the elements together in conditions of secrecy takes months of planning, but they do exist.

Two years ago Matthew Siegel (San Francisco) came over from the US and he and I and May-Lan Tan (born Hong Kong, then US before London, currently Berlin) took a bus to Oxford, where Matthew was going to read, and we walked around and went to a pub before the reading and he pretty well wept for strange joy, then me too. And here’s a photo from a few years back of Miha Mazzini (Slovenia) and Beverley Bie Brahic (California/Paris) in that tiny bookshop-in-a-greenhouse that used to be in Wapping:



A number of other CBe writers were unable to gather round the table on Sunday – Fergus Allen, Nina Bogin, Andrew Elliott, Todd McEwen, J. O. Morgan, D. Nurkse (but he’ll be over from Brooklyn at the end of this week and reading at the Troubadour on Monday), Dan O’Brien, Wiesiek Powaga, Marjorie-Ann Watts, Diane Williams – but actually they were there (and others too who, though not published by CBe, are part of the gang) in the form of words or drawings assembled in a box-of-a-book (like a custom-made Anne Carson) designed and made by the Henningham Family Press:



What’s been going on for the past few years has been partly to do with books but mainly to do with a group of people finding one another out and bringing one another to the table. Christopher (who is a very good finder indeed) found Beverley who found Paulette; Gabriel and Nina found Kristof, who was also found by May-Lan, a finding which led to me finding her, and May-Lan found Matthew and Diane, or was that the other way round, and there are many more of these links. I understand this, and I don’t understand it at all. There was Sunday, and then there was Monday.

If you haven’t had enough of CBe, come to Vout-O-Reenees (30 Prescot Steet, E1 8BB) this Thursday, the 25th, from 6.30, to hear Will Eaves, M John Harrison, Lara Pawson and Jack Robinson (launching his book Robinson). I was at Vouts last July on the night 86 people were killed by a truck driver in Nice, and we will go to Vouts again and again and again.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Robinson diptych



About the two CBe titles this year, both by me under a previously established pen-name, here’s a little background.

1
An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. was several years in the making. I read Stendhal’s The Red and the Black in my teens, but it wasn’t until I bought a copy of an English translation of Memoirs of an Egotist in a second-hand bookshop (long gone) in Hammersmith in, I think, the 1980s, that a switch clicked fully on. There are poems featuring Stendhal in the collections I published between around 1990 and 2001. That translation of Memoirs of an Egotist, by the way, was published by D. J. Enright at Chatto. In Cairo in the late 1970s I bought a copy of Enright’s first poetry collection, published in Alexandria in 1948, for the original cover price, 5 piastres, and I wrote to him; and then I met him regularly on the Tube – he travelling in daily from Wimbledon to Chatto, me on the same line from Fulham Broadway to a job near Green Park. We talked, strap-hanging, awkwardly. I also met him on a train from Kings Cross to Leeds; I’d just bought his OUP Collected Poems, 1981, and as I was unpacking it to read I noticed Enright himself in the seat behind me, lighting his pipe. This is one of the few books I possess that’s signed by the author (a convention I don’t really understand). Enright wrote to me that the Stendhal book and another were the end of his ‘career as a whizz-kid publisher’: co-publishers went bankrupt, warehouses burnt down. He – Enright – quotes my son’s school homework in one of the riffs on quasi-literary matters that featured in his last three books, this one in Injury Time: What’s the name we give to the period between the ages of around 11 and 14 when the body rapidly develops and the mind too gets a little excited and confused? ‘Purgatory.’

I seem to have wandered. (But I miss Enright. He was a very fine writer, enormously well-read and often funny, without selling anything short.) Digression is a part of what An Overcoat is about. To get back to Stendhal, you’ll need the book. Review here.

2
Having stuck with Jack Robinson as a pen-name, and having re-watched one of the Patrick Keiller Robinson films, I thought I’d send Robinson into the family archives: Defoe, obviously, but then a whole mad sequence of offspring, interestingly dysfunctional. (Having a new project was of course also a way of putting Stendhal finally, perhaps, to bed.) I thought this little hobby might keep me occupied for a year at least, ticking along in the background – like one of those unfinishable PhDs that people embark on and I can see why – but given that I started on this soon after the Brexit vote in June of last year, and given that in June this year the UK is being asked make a decision (though only a part of the electorate will bother) about what kind of country it is, or wants to be, the book began to feel more foreground than background.

Bits of Robinson are cooked, bits are raw. If the book had an index, its entries would include (along with Céline, Coetzee, Defoe, Kafka, Keiller, Rimbaud, et al): author’s mother; books read by author at age 12; Colonel Fawcett; English public schools; First World War; housing crisis; male duos (Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Wooster, Vladimir and Estragon, a host of others); migrants; the Sixties; smoking; time-share apartments; trees; Trump; Uxbridge Road; Volkswagen camper vans.

3
You – or I – may well ask, what am I doing self-publishing these books. The basic answer is simply, because I can. (I have an imprint, I have a cache of available ISBNs.) And because of a degree of megalomania: for better or worse, I enjoy having complete control over design, cover, the setting, etc. Though of course if any other publisher I respected wanted the rights to publish the books and offered me a large sum of money to do that, I’d say yes. I did send An Overcoat to three other publishers; all declined. Robinson is a little different: it feels, to me, topical, of its moment. And in general, the publishing trade works very slowly; the gap between a publisher taking on a book and putting it out into the world is usually nine months or longer. (It doesn’t have to be this way. In 1992 I worked on a Faber book about the general election campaigns that was printed and in the shops 24 hours after the results were declared. But that was an exception; as a rule, the lighter, more flexible small presses are better at getting things done fast.)

Robinson will be launched on Thursday of next week, 25 May, at Vout-O-Reenees, 30 Prescot Street, London E1 8BB, from 6.30 pm. There will be other writers with something to say, directly or indirectly, about the coming election: Will Eaves, M. John Harrison, Lara Pawson. All are welcome. (Is that a sentence anyone has ever heard spoken by Theresa May?)

Monday, 1 May 2017

1997

Sometime in March 1950, I was conceived. For various reasons, my parents’ sense of timing was pretty wonderful. Here’s a brief quote from Robinson (to be published on 8 June) – Robinson has just asked a question (‘Why are there not more crazy people running amok with machetes or second-hand Kalashnikovs?’) and now he wants to ask another:

‘And here is Robinson’s supplementary question; or rather, it’s the same question but framed more specifically. To get the frame in place, he needs me to confirm certain data. Yes, I own the house that I live in, and it was bought for a fraction of the price it’s now supposedly worth. Yes, I am white male. Yes, I went to university on a grant, the government actually paid me to go to university. Yes, I have had a number of not-bad jobs and a couple of them had the kind of pension schemes that are now pie in the sky and my health has been well attended to by the NHS – who only this week have sent me a fun-looking bowel-cancer screening kit – and I now have a state pension and a free bus pass. No, I have never had to fight in a war. That is not a small thing. And then his question: why do my children not rise up and smite me?’

May 1st 1997 – twenty years ago today – was a sunny day in London. Our children’s birthday party was held in the back garden. It was polling day in the general election; the atmosphere was expectant and became celebratory as what began in the afternoon as a children’s party continued into the night and the early hours of the following day as a party for the grown-ups. Some of the other parents stayed very late, barely believing what we were seeing on the TV screen as the election results came in. Children were sprawled asleep on cushions around the room. They were going to be safe, they were going to live in a good place. Everything was going to be hunky-dory.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Arrigo Beyle



‘Semi-retired’ is like that crop-rotation thing that farmers do: no harm in leaving a field fallow for a year, not forcing it.

This year, zero + 2. Two by me, under the Jack pen-name and riding upon the privilege of having under another hat an imprint to publish them with. The first is available now, from the website and from Central Books, the second in the autumn.

Today I posted off 50 copies of the first book to friends and it took a little time, because the post office has reconfigured the software: before, I was able to say this envelope and ten the same, please, and they’d rattle out the labels, but now they have to record the postcode for every label. Early afternoon, no one fuming behind me in the queue, it was OK, but we do, we Brits, at least 52% of us, insist on making life difficult for ourselves.

Out of those 50 I posted off to friends maybe two or three were to people in the trade, who write reviews or are similarly engaged. No more. And I have not solicited quotes for the covers, and I have sent them to no literary editors on the newspapers, the magazines, and they are not in any catalogues and there is no sales agent or publicist and I will not be entering these books for any prizes. (I don’t think they’re eligible for any, but that’s by the by, and makes it easier.)

A form of arrogance, yes. It’s also publishing lite, cutting out the tedious stuff. I can do this with myself, I couldn’t do it – this refusenik thing – with any other writer I’d taken on.

The first Robinson book puts to bed, perhaps, an obsession with Stendhal, and above is a photo of his tomb in Montmartre in Paris taken last week on the anniversary of his death, 23 March. Below is a nice 1940s edition of Le Rouge et le Noir picked up on the same day for 5 euros, and the Robinson book.

Monday, 27 March 2017

David Storey, 1933–2017

I've been neglecting this blog. Only one post this year, before this. I've been busy (how did I ever find time to publish books?), but that's a poor excuse.

David Storey died today. His early novels, more than the plays, were formative for me. I mean that for a certain time they were the most important books in the world. When I was at university, and the exam system allowed me to write an extended essay, I wanted to do this on Storey, and I wrote to him and he wrote back saying, basically, good luck, but you're on your own.

Here's a paragraph from a blog post I wrote back in 2012:

"David Storey’s first three novels – This Sporting Life (1960), Flight into Camden (1961), Radcliffe (1963) – didn’t so much speak to me as grab me by the goolies. Northern, father a miner, wrestling with the inner life and the social codes, he was, in a rough way, Lawrence, but alive and writing now (then). After those, plays, and other, cooler novels (he won the Booker in 1976), and long silences. Sometime while I was working at Faber they published a book by his daughter, the fashion designer Helen Storey; there was a party at some extravagant venue to which I didn’t go, and when someone told me there was an older man there, on his own, not mixing, I wished I had."

From a newspaper interview in 1970, almost half a century ago: "I dislike the whole social context of the novel, and where it is, the conventional apparatus which has featured so largely for so long. The novel in England in this kind of society is passed art. The tradition wanders on in a desultory fashion ... The novel is no longer a reliable metaphor for what’s going on."

After that first surge of early novels, there was a backing away. Every so often, I've thought about Storey's silences. And now there is just one silence. If I had gone to that Faber party, what would I have said to him? Embarrassment all round. But still, I should have gone, if only to say thank you.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

2007–2016



Since 2007 CBe has been a one-person freelance activity, easily the most enjoyable one I’ve ever had. But fifty-odd books in print is as far as that model can stretch, and I appear to be unsuited to any other, so CBe is going into semi-retirement. No new titles have been taken on for 2017.

In practice: the website stays up and all books in print will continue to be sold, both from the website and (for ‘the trade’) through the distributor, Central Books. Please do carry on buying. By semi-retirement, I mean that CBe is retreating into ‘hobbyist’ mode: I may well publish the occasional book (there’ll be a new Jack Robinson book this year, and maybe two), but without committing to the marketing and publicity that are necessary if the books are to reach as wide a readership as possible.

A part of the fun has been proving – to myself as much as anyone – what can be done with little money and no funding. Extracurricular activities have included a London book fair for poetry presses in 2011 (now an annual event, independent of CBe: website here) and a pop-up shop in Portobello Road for a week in 2013. Should I mention the gongs? CBe titles have won the McKitterick Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize and the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (three times), and have been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, the Guardian First Book Award, the Forward main prize (twice) and the Forward first collection Prize (four times) and more. Well, I have done now, but the risk here is that it turns the whole thing into one of those feel-good small-press stories which reek of worthiness. That was never the point. Quite simply, I’ve had a ball, and met extraordinary people, and for every single purchase of every book I am truly grateful to readers.

I did suggest a couple of years ago that I was stopping, but on that occasion found that (as with smoking) stopping was actually harder than carrying on. This time it’s different.

For the record: 57 titles, rough count. Heinz Means Beans. Placed in a pile on the floor, the total run of these books comes to around 64 cm, just over 2 feet, not much above my knees. Around 30 authors. Some titles are now out of print, others may follow. Two titles first published by CBe are now with other UK publishers, and half a dozen are now available from publishers in other countries. Three of the authors have died since I published their books, one at the age of 37. The oldest author on the list is 95. I have stood in line at the post office 1,147 times.


2007
Erik Houston, The White Room
Jennie Walker, 24 for 3
Stefan Grabinski, In Sarah’s House, trans. Wiesiek Powaga
Jack Robinson, Days and Nights in W12

2008
Gert Hofmann, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl, trans Michael Hofmann
Greg Loftin, Saxon
Francis Ponge,
Unfinished Ode to Mud, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic
Elise Valmorbida, The TV President

2009
Andrzej Bursa, Killing Auntie and other work, trans. Wiesiek Powaga
Christopher Reid, The Song of Lunch
J. O. Morgan, Natural Mechanical
Nicky Singer, Knight Crew
Jack Robinson, Recessional

2010
Fergus Allen, Before Troy
Gabriel Josipovici, Only Joking
David Markson, This Is Not a Novel
Marjorie Ann Watts, Are they funny, are they dead?
Tony Lurcock, Not So Barren or Uncultivated

2011
D. Nurkse, Voices over Water
Nancy Gaffield, Tokaido Road
J. O. Morgan, Long Cuts
Jonathan Barrow, The Queue
Jack Robinson, Days and Nights in W12 (new edn)

2012
Apollinaire, The Little Auto, trans. Beverley Bie Brahic
Beverley Bie Brahic, White Sheets
Joaquin Giannuzzi, A Complicated Mammal, trans. Richard Gwyn
Stephen Knight, The Prince of Wails
Miha Mazzini, The German Lottery, trans. Urska Zupanec
Dai Vaughan, Sister of the artist

2013
Todd McEwen, The Five Simple Machines
Dan O’Brien, War Reporter
Fergus Allen, New & Selected Poems
Alba Arikha, Soon
Andrew Elliott, Mortality Rate
J. O. Morgan, At Maldon
D. Nurkse, A Night in Brooklyn
André Naffis Sahely and Julian Stannard, eds, The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann
Tony Lurcock, No Particular Hurry

2014
Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist
May-Lan Tan, Things to Make and Break
Agota Kristof, The Notebook, trans. Alan Sheridan
Agota Kristof, The Illiterate, trans. Nina Bogin
Dan O’Brien, Scarsdale

2015
Matthew Siegel, Blood Work
Agota Kristof, 2 Novels: The Proof, The Third Lie, trans. David Watson and Marc Romano
Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew
Dan O’Brien, New Life
Tony Lurcock, A Life of Extremes

2016
Beverley Bie Brahic, Hunting the Boar
Will Eaves, The Inevitable Gift Shop
Patrick Mackie, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints
Julian Stannard, What were you thinking?
Jack Robinson, by the same author
David Collard, About a Girl: A Reader’s Guide to Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine
Lara Pawson, This Is the Place to Be
Ananda Devi, Eve out of Her Ruins, trans. Jeffey Zuckerman (co-published with Les Fugitives)