Monday, 1 June 2020

Johanneson

In the late 1960s, early 70s, I went to Leeds Utd games. Albert Johanneson, the first black footballer to play in an FA Cup final, was a regular, and got monkey chants every game. He died alone in a Leeds council flat in 1995, his body not discovered for a week.

Same period, 1960s, I was at school and being taught history to A-level: Henry VIII and his plenty wives, Empire, maybe a mention of William Wilberforce but no mention at all of Britain’s complicity in and profits from slavery. I got an A-star. It helped get me into Cambridge.

The UK voted in an Eton and Oxford-educated buffoon PM with no intelligence or expertise in anything, not even Latin, who is very deliberately promoting unnecessary deaths of people whose protection is his job, and the US has a perfect idiot who is responding with blind violence to protest. Same story.

Todd McEwen’s Who Sleeps with Katz, deeply humane and funny and angry, is actually not published today, there’s a mistake out there, but on the 18th of this month. Two publication dates, why not. This book, every day: Who Sleeps with Katz.

Monday, 18 May 2020

'Unhappy the land that needs heroes'



Re-boot the economy or save more lives? If you find yourself having to ask that question, you know you’ve got something very, very wrong.

The way this economy is currently run – and the Tory party’s deep investment in this way of running it – deems some lives more worth saving than others. Coming to the UK with a spare £200K? Or just £50K accessible from a registered venture capital firm? Here’s your visa and we can fast-track citizenship. Coming to the UK with no savings but a strong desire for work and security? Sorry, no vacancies. As for animals (unless they happen to be champion race-horses), forget it.

The UK has more Covid-19 deaths than any other country in Europe. Incompetence on the part of government, or the result of deliberate policy?

Both. You don’t need to be particularly competent if you have power – just the minimal amount required to hold on to power will do. The system is designed to promote idiots. Every parent, carer, scientist, doctor, nurse, shop assistant and delivery guy that I’ve listened to in the past weeks has been more intelligent than Johnson, Raab, Hancock, Patel. And better at the jobs they are doing. Which is not to say every person in those jobs is a ‘hero’ – there are doubtless idiots in the NHS just as there are in politics or farming or small-press publishing, obviously. The cult of heroism is a problem. Brecht: ‘Unhappy the land that needs heroes.’

The spirit-of-Blitz is looking threadbare – it was always a bit wispy: Churchill was booed on the streets of London as well as cheered in the 1940s – and Johnson’s ‘personal magnetism’ too (attributed to him by a host of journalists, not all of them from the Daily Mail). Can magnets be threadbare? Probably not, but magnets can repel as strongly as they can attract, and ‘personal magnetism’ has been another problem. ‘First impression: restless, almost intolerably so … egotistical, bumptious, shallow minded and reactionary but with a certain personal magnetism.’ Johnson? No: Beatrice Webb on Churchill. ‘Those who have met [X] face to face in public business or on social terms have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.’ – Churchill on Hitler, 1937.

Meanwhile, on the doorstep … A couple of new CBe books. Stephen Knight’s Drizzle Mizzle Downpour Deluge, which swipes at any idea that what poetry is for is to offer comfort or consolation, is officially published on Thursday this week, 21 May – which happens to be the third anniversary (I didn’t plan it this way) of one of the very best days in CBe’s history, and possibly mine too – and this a not a bad time to be publishing because neither author nor I are hung up on launch parties. It’s simply out there, and good.

And Todd McEwen’s Who Sleeps with Katz (originally from Granta in 2003), a novel that pitches perfectly the elegaic against the celebratory and which is officially published in June but available now. (Official publication dates are just numbers filled in on a form, not unlike the government’s Covid numbers: so precise that they are almost persuasive.) Touch, laughter, exasperation, seafood, interesting strangers, fast wit, flirting, surly waiters and others who are great – remember those? In this era of enforced puritanism, MacK and Isidor would be 2 metres apart and having to talk louder, or stage-whisper. Who Sleeps with Katz honours the city at its best, the mingling and mess of it, how lives get lived and learned. I think McEwen felt that the New York he was writing about was already historical; boy does it feel historical now.

The CBe Lockdown Subscription – see the website Home page: 10 books posted over 10 weeks for £65, you choose which books – is still running. The first subscribers have only a week/book or so to go. I’d like to keep it running.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

On lockdown time & money



‘Time is money,’ wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1748, just as the Industrial Revolution was gearing up, and ever since then those human activities that don’t directly generate money – sitting around, listening to music, reading books, pottering in the garden, making love, looking after others – have been widely regarded as peripheral to what we’re here for. Signing up to the time-equals-money equation has resulted in this: the labour of childcare, still largely carried out by women, not valued as work at all; the ‘caring professions’ underpaid; and in these strange days a 99-year-old man walking round his garden, not on the face of it a money-generating activity, becoming a hero for our times because his garden-walking has raised more than £20 million for NHS charities.

‘Time is money’ messed up what had been the relationship between time and money for all of human history until then – just for a certain part of the globe at the time, but that part proceeded to grab the other parts.

Captain Tom is heroic. Because he walked round his garden a hundred times? Because he raised money for a cause that should have been properly funded in the first place by our taxes? I’m confused.

I have a confused and illogical relationship with both time and money. Show me anyone who doesn’t. I can’t watch daytime TV, still: TV is for when you’ve earned time off and come home from your shitty job in the evening. I’ve published a superb poet (he was with Faber, three books, before they asked him politely to walk the plank because his poems weren’t making money) who published his first book at the age of 72; before that, he understood that the purpose of his life was to earn 9-to-5 money to put bread on the table for his family. I completely get that mindset. I’ve written around a dozen books but none of them were written between the hours of 9 and 5. CB editions was started when my kids were in the 6th form, I’d pretty much seen them through, and the house was paid for – given my mindset, I couldn’t have done it otherwise. No right in this, no wrong.

A few stray airborne droplets have changed everything. Are all it took to take down the world economy. Are all it took to expose what we’ve taken for granted as normal as just a version of normal that has suited those who have profited from it. Meanwhile, us non-essential workers are richer than we’ve ever been in time; and time for many of us is now moneylessness.* Bankruptcies, suicide and domestic violence will soar.

Two months ago, taking time out of the time=money economy would have been unthinkable. It’s thinkable now. It’s compulsory. We are all going to die anyway, apparently. Life is very, very short. We have exactly that time to start getting things right.



* Not me, as it happens. I have a pension, I’m being sent typesetting work, I’m selling books from the website, I’m sending autumn books to print early because the printer is still in there, wanting a thing or two to do, and I’m mending a broken giraffe. I have a back garden. Luxury. Don’t waste sympathy. Channel that, please, into rage at our Tory government whose policies have fuelled the death figures.

Monday, 13 April 2020

On British exceptionalism

Last Saturday Fintan O’Toole wrote a piece for the Irish Times (it was also printed in the Guardian) in which he argued that Johnson’s remarks when the UK lockdown was imposed – ‘We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the UK to go to the pub … I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people’ – evoked ‘a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity’.

Almost exactly a year ago – on 23 April 2019, the 300th anniversary of the first publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – CBe published Good Morning, Mr Crusoe, which looked at the legacy of Defoe’s book in British culture. Wrapped up in this legacy has been the British sense of exceptionalism. From a passage in the book in which I argue there is no essential difference between the mindsets of Tommy Robinson and David Cameron:

The patriotism button pressed by both Cameron and Tommy Robinson is adjacent to the one labelled ‘British values’. Robinson refers to ‘simple patriotism and a respect for our heritage, values and tradition’ without any spelling out – and without feeling any need to spell out, as if those things were just givens and automatically good. In a 2014 article for the Mail on Sunday to mark the 799th anniversary of Magna Carta, Cameron defined ‘British values’ as ‘a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law’ – ‘To me they’re as British as the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips.’ These values are ‘vital to people in other countries’ too, Cameron concedes, ‘but what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors [sic] them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop’. Ah, ‘traditions and history’ – from which every political party has selectively drawn to bolster their agenda, and mostly from the very long one-bloody-war-after-another strand (‘this sceptred isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars’).

In the Magna Carta speech Cameron declared that his favourite book was Our Island Story, a history of Britain written for children and first published in 1905, at the height of empire.

This exceptionalism has infected every aspect of British culture, not least literature. The first professor of Eng Lit at Oxford University: ‘We have spread ourselves over the surface of the habitable globe, and have established our methods of government in new countries. But the poets are still ahead of us, pointing the way. It was they, and no others, who first conceived the greatness of England’s destinies, and delivered the doctrine that was to inspire her’ – the assumption that ‘our methods of government’ are better than any others, and that our poets are better than yours: the assumption of superiority. And consequently, immunity.

And here is more. From another Guardian article on Saturday, on Johnson’s illness: ‘Friends and others who have known him for many years are well aware that he had always – and certainly in his younger days – been rather dismissive of the idea of getting ill.’ A former Tory MP is quoted: ‘I remember he always seemed to regard being ill as a form of moral weakness.’

There is also the exceptionalism of the still very exclusive pot from which our political leaders are drawn: Johnson: Eton, Oxford, journalism (after acquiring a graduate traineeship at The Times ‘through family connections’); Raab: Oxford, Cambridge, the law; Hancock: Oxford, Cambridge, Bank of England …

As many people across the world have known for two centuries, the consequences of British exceptionalism have been murderous. In its response to Covid-19, the blinkered incompetence of the current Tory government is not an exception.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Non-essential books



Above, a CBe works outing in happier times, 2016. This year’s works outing has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. This year we – I mean those of us still lucky enough not to be in hospital and whose work turns out to be not essential – are spending a lot of time indoors.

CBe is offering a Lockdown Subscription: for £65, a book posted weekly for 10 weeks. Free delivery; UK addresses only (for reasons of postage costs). How it works: go to the website Home page and click the PayPal button; send me an email (info@cbeditions.com) to tell me which CBe titles (if any) you already have and whether you are basically a poetry person or a fiction person, or are happy with either; once a week, receive a new book through the letterbox.

If you hanker after any particular titles, do say so in the email, but supply will be dependent on the stock I happen to have at home. I have enough stock of around 30 titles on the list to sustain this little operation for a limited number of subscribers; if you want, I can email you a list of those titles and you can choose which 10 books you’d like to receive. Included in the subscription will be the new title published in May and, if the printer is still printing over the next couple of weeks, the new title published in June.

Cover price of most of the books is £8.99; for a few, £10, or even £12. If you’re into numbers, £6.50 per book is a saving of 28% or 35% or 46% on their cover price. And sometimes I’ll throw in an extra book or a pamphlet or an issue of the ill-fated magazine Sonofabook magazine (just two issues, back in 2015).

All of this is dependent on my local post office staying open and the posties delivering, door by possibly risky door. If the postal system does close, the subscription will of course be honoured when it restarts.

Books are not ventilators, not even hand sanitisers. What’s offered here is a luxury, but I hope a tempting one. Self-interest is involved, obviously: with bookshops and the distributor’s warehouse closed down, I’d still like to shift some books.

To offset the self-interest, a shout-out for Irmgard Keun (1905–82), whose After Midnight and The Artificial Silk Girl I’ve just reread. From the latter: if a woman ‘from money’ marries into her own class and ‘has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman’, but if a woman without money sleeps with a man without money ‘because he has a smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch’. Keun’s female protagonists are in the latter category, without money; being working class, they tend to have no education also (‘Heavenly Father, perform a miracle and give me an education – I can do the rest myself with make-up’). They like men, despite all the usual problems (‘There’s that moment when you want to – but they want to just a minute too soon, and that ruins everything’), and they are naturally intelligent and funny (‘He has this gentle smile on his face like a pediatrician’). Meanwhile, it’s the 1930s, and the Nazis are tightening their grip. Penguin published Michael Hofmann’s translation of Keun’s Child of All Nations a decade ago; they are now bringing three more titles back into print, plus a new Hofmann translation later this year. Keun knocks your socks off.

Thank you. Thank you even more to those whose work is essential.


Tuesday, 17 March 2020

COVID-19



A civil society is a very fragile thing. It doesn’t take much to knock it: any smeary fear-mongering power-crazy guy can do that, if he’s rich enough. Any inhalation of a respiratory droplet.

The economy, Johnson says, will come ‘roaring back’. Meanwhile he wants industry to make more ventilators. The manufacturers who have been contributing to the economy by making bombs to sell to the air forces which drive millions into the refugee camps among which the virus will be uncontainable? Go for it. Let’s make ventilators. And then go back to bombs?

The UK is the fifth richest country in the world. It has the resources to afford housing and healthcare to every one of its citizens, but has chosen not to. And has responded today to thousands losing their jobs, losing their already strained capacity to pay for food and rent, by offering LOANS to businesses. The no-longer waiters, cleaners of offices, shelf stackers, shop people, etc, as well as the much much smaller number of people working in assistant roles in the arts, now know their place; they did already, but now they are being told it, officially. They are being told, go hang.

My Twitter feed (I’m a booky guy) has folk offering online poems and home delivery of books for the self-isolating, and that’s kind, and kindness we need. Kindness is often a response to difficulty. Without downplaying the kindness, we could try tackling the difficulty? Vulnerability to COVID-19 has been unknowingly and also deliberately – yes, you can do both together, if you are stupid, which is what this system delivers – created, and I’m fucking furious.