Wednesday, 9 September 2020

New titles, and some ridiculous numbers

Two new titles this month. Veilchenfeld, the first English translation of a novel by Gert Hofmann (Germany, 1930s: ‘It has happened little by little, as many things simply happen little by little, Mother said, and told us everything about Herr Veilchenfeld, as far as it was known to her’). Broken Consort, essays (on many different things under the sun) and reviews by Will Eaves, characterised by inquiry and generosity (‘We are taught by what we find … And what we find, we have to give away’).

These books will be noticed, god willing, and find readers. Sales of CBe books out of the distributor, Central Books, April to July 2018: 1,358 books. Same period, 2019: 1,472 books. Same period, 2020: 46 books. Between last year and this, that’s a drop of 97%.

Veilchenfeld will be a slow burner, perhaps: staying around, finding a few new readers year by year. Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa has been this: one of the very early CBe books, the original print run picked off over a decade in single figures. Some of the early CBe titles are now out of print, but this one is currently reprinting (re-set and with new cover, because the original files have given up the ghost). Sample spread here (the book also includes a short novel):
In the 1950s Bursa worked in Krakow with Tadeusz Kantor – who provides the epigraph (‘An object exists between eternity and the rubbish heap’) for Present Tense, an exhibition opening this week at Studio Expurgamento, with whom CBe co-published Blush – free entry but for social-distancing reasons you need to book a time.

One Good Thing over the past few months – both for me and, I hope, for those who have taken up the offer – has been the Lockdown Subscription: 10 books for £65, posted over 10 weeks. The first books were posted off on 31 March; anyone who subscribed in July is still receiving. New subscribers welcome – because lockdown isn’t really over until the fat lady sings, and that ain’t happening yet. Details on the website home page (you can specify which books you’d like; new titles included in the offer; UK only).

Next year’s programme is looking like this: poetry, memoir, memoir, essays. A novel will turn up, I’m betting on it. Thank you for your support.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Out of Lockdown: new titles



The two CBe September titles – the first English translation of Veilchenfeld by Gert Hofmann, published in Germany in 1986, and Will Eaves’s Broken Consort, subtitled Essays, reviews, and other writings – are now available for pre-order on the website.

‘People don’t read books of essays.’ Oh no? Along with ‘No one reads short stories’, that’s one of those pronouncements carved into the tablet of Publishing Wisdom that get muttered at high table as the port is passed round. Of course no one reads them if no one publishes them. On the other hand, aren’t we living through a new Golden Age of the Essay? I’m as suspicious of Golden Age declarations as of ‘People don’t read …’ statements. It’s not as if good essays haven’t been written continually, all the time. The Contents page of Will Eaves’s book – which is similar in length to the Contents page of many poetry collections: another genre subject to the ‘no one reads’/Golden Age, whore/Madonna split, as if readers can’t be trusted to take books on their merit, whatever their genre – can be viewed from the book’s page on the website.

‘People don’t read Gert Hofmann these days’ – there’s some truth in that, because most of the English translations of his work are now out of print. During lockdown I re-read his The Parable of the Blind and Balzac’s Horse and Other Stories and have decided that he is an even funnier, more lugubrious, more essential writer than I remembered. I’d love to be able to bring some of the vanished editions back into print with CBe.

I won’t be doing that, because CBe isn’t big enough: just two books last year, four this year (and another four, maybe even five, coming along next year). And it’s not as if I’m a wizard at selling them. Many of the titles are listed on Amazon as ‘out of stock’. Your best bet is still the website – where the Lockdown Subscription, 10 books + extras posted over 10 weeks for £65, is still available (and can include the new September titles, if you wish).

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Bunk as history: 'Our Island Story'

‘People’. ‘People had been in the habit’. ‘People had been in the habit of stealing black people’. ‘People had been in the habit of stealing black people from their homes in Africa, and selling them as slaves in the colonies.’

David Cameron – remember him? The man so desperate for the followers of Nigel Farage to vote Tory that he promised them a referendum on the EU. And when that didn’t go the way he wanted, he ran off to a ‘shepherd’s hut’ in the back garden of his Cotswolds home to write a self-justifying memoir while buoyed by ‘a portfolio career of charitable positions, business roles and lucrative speaking engagements’ (Guardian, 17 January 2019).

I discussed Cameron in Good Morning, Mr Crusoe (2019), in particular his kinship with the far-right activist Tommy Robinson: both members of gangs distinguished by a dress code, much alcohol and formulaic violence; both contemptuous of migrants (Cameron: ‘a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’); both cultivating a ‘man of the people’ image; both pressing the patriotism button and both pointing to a toxic, white-supremacist version of UK history.

In 2014 Cameron wrote an article for the Mail on Sunday on ‘British values’, which he defined as ‘a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law’. These values are also ‘vital to other people in other countries’, he concedes, ‘But what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop.’

Cameron’s favourite book, he declared in the ‘British values’ article, was – and presumably still is – Our Island Story. The book was first published in 1905. From the back cover of a recent re-issue: ‘The book was a bestseller, was printed in numerous editions, and for fifty years was the standard and much-loved book by which children learned the history of England … In 2005, an alliance of the Civitas think-tank and various national newspapers brought the book back into print, with the aim of sending a free copy to each of the UK's primary schools. Readers of The Daily Telegraph contributed £25,000 to the cost of the reprint.’

Here is Our Island Story on Captain Cook: ‘It was in April 1770 A.D. that Captain Cook first landed in Australia, in a bay which he called Botany Bay, because there were so many plants of all kinds there. At that time the island was inhabited only by wild, black savages, and Captain Cook took possession of the whole eastern coast in the name of King George.’ Here is the sum total of Our Island Story’s discussion of slavery:

Another great thing which happened during the reign of William IV was the freeing of slaves.

For many years people had been in the habit of stealing black people from their homes in Africa, and selling them as slaves in the colonies. People had grown so used to it that they did not see how wicked and cruel this was. These poor black people were taken to market and sold like cattle, they were branded like cattle, and beaten like cattle. They had to work very hard, were paid no wages, and were often very cruelly treated. All masters, of course, were not cruel, some of them were even kind to their poor slaves, but still they had very unhappy lives. They had no rights whatever, their children might be taken from them and sold, sometimes even husbands and wives were sold to different masters, and never saw each other again. A master might treat his slaves as badly as he chose, and no one could punish him.

In the old, rough, wild days no one cared about the sufferings of these poor black people. They were only niggers, and made for work and suffering, and nothing was thought about it. But, as time went on, people became less rough and more kind-hearted, and good men began to try to make people see the wickedness of slavery. For some years, a man called Wilberforce had been doing his best, and now he was joined by others, among whom was Macaulay, the father of the great writer. Mr. Macaulay had himself been a manager of a sugar plantation in the West Indies where slaves worked. But he gave up his post because he could not bear to see the misery and unhappiness of the slaves, and came home to try to do something for them.

It was not a very easy thing to do, because all the work on the sugar and coffee plantations in the West Indies was done by slaves. The planters said they would be ruined if the slaves were made free, as the black people would not work unless they were forced to do so. Besides, they had paid a great deal of money for their slaves, and it seemed unfair that they should be made to lose it all.

But, at last, all difficulties were smoothed away. The British Parliament said they would give twenty millions of money to the planters to make up for what they would lose in freeing their slaves, and, in the year 1834 A.D., most of them were set free.


‘People’? ‘People had been in the habit’? White people. British white people.

This is the version of history that I (aged 69) was taught at school and that is embedded in the worldviews of Cameron, Johnson, et al: slavery is a bad thing; some masters were kind; ‘a man called Wilberforce’ and the noble and generous British Parliament abolished slavery; zero acknowledgement of Britain’s active participation in the slave trade or that the whole enterprise of empire was built upon slavery.

The Our Island Story version of history has produced a bizarre British sense of exceptionalism ('what sets Britain apart ...'): Brexit, and now the muddle and murderous incompetence of this government’s response to Covid-19. It has also embedded beliefs in white supremacy. ‘This seems very absurd,’ Our Island Story notes of the electoral system in Britain before the 1832 Reform Bill, but those whose power and privilege depended on the absurdity ‘were pleased with things as they were, and very angry with those who tried to alter them.’

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.