Sunday, 13 June 2021

Writing on death row

In James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice Frank Chambers gets away with one murder but is convicted of another that he didn’t commit. In the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There Ed Crane gets away with one murder but is convicted of another that he didn’t commit. While they are on death row, both characters write down their versions of what has happened – Ed for a magazine that’s paying him 5 cents a word, Frank writing the book the reader is reading. Writing is not going to save either of them from the noose or the electric chair, so why?

Every so often – sometimes not for weeks, sometimes every hour of the day – I do wonder about the trust that is placed in the written word, a trust at least as widespread among those who don’t regularly read or write as among literary folk.

Both Cain’s novel and the Coen Brothers’ film echo the ‘True Confessions’ of prisoners awaiting execution in the early 18th century that jump-started the English novel. Jack Sheppard’s first-person account (‘as told’ to Daniel Defoe) of his robberies and his several escapes from prison has everything that many readers expect of modern fiction: crime, Houdini-like breakouts from chains and manacles, love interest, betrayals, kindness to an elderly mother and an abiding concern with ‘justice’. He is telling his tale, he insists, ‘to satisfy the curious, and do justice to the innocent’. Sheppard’s words gained authority from being spoken ‘on the brink of eternity’. Aged 22, Sheppard was hanged in November 1724; a third of the population of London followed his progress from Newgate in an open cart to the gallows at Tyburn. 

Frank, Ed and Jack Sheppard – none of them is exactly innocent, but they all want to get their stories out into the world and they trust the written word to do them justice. Not legal justice, which is hit-or-miss: except in books, most rapists, murderers and corrupt politicians aren’t even brought to court. The very basic justice they want – like most of us, and we are all on death row – is to be paid attention to. Which doesn’t sound much to ask but in fact is huge.

To trust something (or someone) is a wager, a gamble. There’s a thrill in that; it’s a large part of why we do it. There are no guarantees. It could be a stupid mistake. It’s probably rash to trust in things made from the ordinary stuff we use to order coffee, say hello and goodbye, curse, praise, grumble, get through the day with others – language is implicated in the confusion of the world, language is not innocent. (But what else have we got that could do the job any better? Set a thief to catch a thief.) It’s probably also rash and it is certainly vain to trust that our written words will outlast us: posterity is a tease, most books have a very short shelf-life.

To believe that one is worth being paid attention to is itself vanity. Some people don’t have this, or recoil from it – Jonas Milk in Simenon’s The Little Man from Archangel, for example, who is suspected of the murder of his wife, who has disappeared. He didn’t do it; in fact he loves her, in his way, but it’s not a way that either his neighbours or the police can get their heads around: ‘They hadn’t understood him, or else he hadn’t understood the others, and this latest misunderstanding was beyond all hope of being cleared up.’ There’s a tree, a clothes line, a chair, and a brief pause before Jonas hangs himself: ‘He had a momentary impulse to explain everything in a letter, but it was a last vanity of which he was ashamed, and he rejected the idea.’ Luckily – not for Jonas, who was destroyed, but for readers – Simenon had the necessary vanity to do the job on behalf of his character.

I’m vain too and I’ve written a book about books, mostly, titled The Other Jack. I have a surely not uncommon awkward relationship with the whole matter of books. Justice is in the index but also jokes and happiness and self-loathing and privilege and umbrellas. The book can be ordered here. Or it can be part of a Lockdown Subscription, available on the home page. We may be coming out of lockdown but the cost – £70 for 10 books, post free – is still locked down, and it’s a bargain.

Monday, 10 May 2021


This is more than just another new CBe book, it’s a new/old one and it’s been waiting for over a decade to happen. When I decided, back in 2008, that there were going to be more books than the first four, I wanted Leila Berg’s Flickerbook – first published in 1997 by Granta, and out of print within a few years despite wonderful reviews – to be one of them. It felt definitive: superb writing appearing out of left field. I wrote to Leila Berg c/o Granta, and somehow that letter got through (many don’t) and she replied:

I went to see her. Leila was in her 90s. She was gracious and kind. For various reasons the reissue of Flickerbook didn’t happen then, but now it has. Leila died in 2012.

Flickerbook told me things: things specific to the life recounted – that of a girl growing up in a Jewish family in Salford in the 1920s and 30s – and things about England and about writing. Although subtitled ‘An autobiography’ the book ends when Leila Berg is aged just 22. It is written – in the words of the website dedicated to Berg’s life and work – ‘in the subjective voice of the author as her childhood self at the specific age being revisited’. It’s a re-living, largely in the present tense (and in this it has elements in common with another new CBe title, Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals).

The website I’ve just mentioned ( is worth exploring. It includes a link to an article by Leila Berg about her life in London during the war, after Flickerbook ends. Anyone who thinks wartime London was bathed in a warm, pulling-together, mutually-supportive ‘spirit of the Blitz’ probably needs to read it.

Two incidental reflections on Flickerbook. One: given Berg’s absolute commitment to the infinite potential of children, and her anger at the way institutional education denies them agency and corrals them onto the consumer belt, she had to write the book in the way she did, from the child’s perspective. (Which is often, on the page, to the adult reader, funny, but it is not at all cute; it is chastening.) Two: Berg, growing up in a Jewish family, constantly notices differences between her own family and others: ‘Christians say Granny. Or they say Nan. They don’t say Bobbie.’ ‘Christians beat boys and girls. Jewish people only beat boys. That is because they think only boys are important. But Christians think girls are important enough to beat too.’ An awareness of being other is a part of who she is. Because the narrative of Flickerbook ends in September 1939 there is no mention of the Holocaust but the conditions for the scapegoating of the Other – in England just as much as in any other country – are witnessed.

This new CBe edition includes an introduction by Ruth Fainlight and, as an afterword, a reprinted review of the original edition in the London Review of Books (where reviews have room to say something) by Hilary Mantel. Here are the endpapers from the original 1997 edition:

Flickerbook, officially published next month, is available now from the website. And can be one of the 10-books-for-£70 Lockdown Subscription if you want it to be. The subscription offer has kept CBe going over the past year and it must taste OK because there are people coming back for second helpings. Meanwhile, Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens, published in April by CBe, has an excerpt published by the Washington Post and a feature on the book in the Los Angeles Times and other US acclaim. In the UK to date, silence. It’s quite hard to sell books.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Working the numbers at night

The gradual release on lockdown has allowed the reopening of not just pubs with gardens and Primark but bookshops too. Good. But I’m not sure that this is going to make much difference to sales of CBe books.

In theory, independent bookshops are almost by definition supportive of small presses. In practice, very, very few independent bookshops (with three or four honourable exceptions) have ever stocked CBe titles on a regular basis. When a customer asks a bookshop for a particular title, often the bookshop will check if it’s in stock at Gardners, the main wholesaler, and if not they will tell the customer the title is not available; they will choose not to order from CBe’s trade distributor. When I take books into bookshops myself, they may agree to take one or two copies on a sale-or-return basis – agreeing to pay for those copies (less trade discount) in three months’ time if they have sold, and requiring me to chase them for that. I know bookshops have to pay rent but those are not supportive practices.

CBe’s trade distributor, fielding orders from bookshops and online retailers, is Central Books. I also sell books through the website – but in a usual year, around five times as many books are sold through Central Books. The past year has not been usual. In fact, the sales pattern has been reversed. April 2020 to March 2021, the numbers of books sold through Central Books was 73% less than the previous year; in the same period, the number of books sold through website orders was 135% more than the previous year. Gross sales income (before deduction of costs) from all sales for 2020/21 was just 11% lower than the 2019/20 figure.

I’m writing here about CBe; other presses will have other tales to tell. The actual numbers involved (as opposed to percentages) are small. Of the 68 titles published since 2007, 22 have sold fewer than 100 copies through Central Books; two titles have sold more than 3000 copies through Central; six others have topped 1000. How to increase those numbers? I could ditch Central Books and try another distributor, or I could ditch the present sales agent (who promotes the list to bookshops) and try another … but publishers complaining about sales agents is as traditional as authors complaining about publishers, and I’m not persuaded that swapping x for y would make a significant difference. I could – in fact I should: I owe it the authors – scale up (adding in marketing know-how and applying for ACE funding to do this), but there’d be no guarantee of extra sales to support the extra costs, and worry about taking on books that I wasn’t confident would sell in numbers would play a much larger part in decision-making than it currently does.

What’s kept CBe going over the past year has largely been the Lockdown Subscription – 10 books of your choice over 10 weeks for £70, with extras thrown in. Thank you to all who have pressed the button. It’s still available. Three new 2021 CBe titles (by Roy Watkins, Dan O’Brien, Nuzhat Bukhari) are now in print, and another two (by Leila Berg, Charles Boyle) are up on the website for pre-orders; any or all of these can be included in a subscription.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Books, beard, soup

Clocks have gone forward, the year already a quarter gone, and here’s a little stock-taking of recent and about-to-be books:

Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, an urgent, angry account of the early months of Covid that borrows the form of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and is approved by the TLS: ‘Aiming somewhere halfway between cheap pastiche and serious homage, Gibbs hits his mark. He nails Autumn Journal’s casual, yawning metres and late-to-the-party rhymes, its balance of didacticism and doubt.’

Simple Annals by Roy Watkins. Comments emailed from early readers: ‘This book is a masterpiece’; ‘Simple Annals is quietly devastating’; ‘The intimacy and the perfectly targeted and delineated images are just very moving. Wonderful’ ; ‘What a find! It's so vivid and gripping’; ‘I have not been so affected by a book in a long time.’ Someone please write a review in a proper public space.

A Story that Happens: on playwriting, childhood and other traumas by Dan O’Brien: four essays written during the four years that Trump was occupying the White House, and during the aftermath of cancer, cannot be about just the craft of writing. If you order this from the website and would like a copy of O’Brien’s poetry collection Scarsdale added in free, write ‘Scarsdale’ under ‘instructions to merchant’ as you check through the PayPal; or send me an email.

Brilliant Corners by Nuzhat Bukhari (not published until May – printout of cover in the above photo, because finished copies not yet in – but copies available in April if you order from the website). A Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Abigail Parry: ‘A collection that is abstract and adamant, sparkling, ruthlessly sharp.’

I have grown a lockdown beard and I have cooked and eaten 22 recipes sent by CBe writers (documented on previous posts on this blog, January to March). Here is the 23rd: from Todd McEwen (The Five Simple Machines; Who Sleeps with Katz), ‘a smoked fish soup I invented myself’: smoked haddock, potatoes (waxy), celery, onion, turmeric, saffron, paprika, stock and wine and milk. This is a very fine soup. CBe has no ‘submission guidelines’ but if it did, here’s how they might begin: send me a recipe first, so I’ll know how your writing will taste.

Note: for technical reasons (wrong kind of leaves on the track?), neither Agota Kristof’s The Notebook nor Will Eaves’s Murmur are available from the website. But they are available to anyone who takes out a Lockdown Subscription.

Monday, 1 March 2021

More books, less food

From April 2020 to February 2021 sales of CBe books out of Central Books, the distributor, were 75% down on the same period last year. I imagine that if CBe was a very big publisher, dependent on volume of sales, this would be disastrous. Given that the actual numbers are pretty small we’ll muddle through, but during Covid selling books direct from the website has been the main means of survival – especially the Lockdown Subscription offer of 10 books (plus extras) for £70 (UK only, free postage). This is still available: see the website home page. Some subscribers come back for second helpings.

The new books so far this year are Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals, a memoir (or re-living) of childhood in Lancashire in the 1940s; and Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens: On playwriting, childhood, and other traumas, four essays written (one per year) during the Trump presidency, with an introduction written during the US elections last November.

A few days before the first UK lockdown took effect in March last year, Jonathan Gibbs began writing what became Spring Journal, a week-by-week record (based on Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal) of a bad, exhausting year. We are still looking for ways in which to articulate the experience of living with Covid: this fluent, urgent, angry book helps.

All the new books can be included in the Lockdown Subscription: you choose.

The last several newsletters have featured recipes from CBe writers. With this, just one plate of food, below. This is the 22nd recipe; previous ones are still available on this Sonofabook blog.

22 Sort-of Tagine from Patrick McGuinness (essays next year from CBe). ‘This is from the place of my birth and first childhood, Tunisia … The recipe was never written down, and was always more of a freeform around three fixed motifs: ras el hanout powder, harissa powder or paste, and preserved lemons (the ones in jars are better than the home-made hipster-shop ones because of the large amounts of sour juice which goes into the tagine and tastes delicious in a cocktail too – add it to gin or vodka martini).’ I overdid the lemons but do not regret it.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 6

Series 1, episode 6. There are books too. The official publication date of Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals, a memoir of early childhood in Lancashire, 1940s, is this week: ‘There isn’t an iota of sentiment or nostalgia in his recollection partly because the past isn’t embalmed but seen as an ecstatic and traumatic living root and presence in the writer’s being ... Watkins is entirely original and this book is a masterpiece.’ And printed copies of Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens are in: a book that doesn’t so much teach about writing but learns, alongside the reader. Passing on knowledge from experience is not a thing we seem be good at; this book does precisely that. Meanwhile …

18 Kozinaki from Caroline Clark (Sovetica forthcoming from CBe). From Georgia; made by the author in Canada and Moscow in winter. Pan-roast nuts and seeds, traditionally walnuts but any kind; melt some sugar in honey, pour the nuts into the syrup and stir until all are well coated; spread out on a baking tray lined with baking paper, use another sheet of baking paper to press down and flatten, cover and leave outside in the garden or on the balcony to let the kind of temperatures we’ve been having this month harden it. Break off pieces, eat.
19 Aloo and Baingan Salan (Aubergine and Potato Curry) from Nuzhat Bukhari (Brilliant Corners coming in May). Aubergine, potatoes, tomatoes; onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, green chilli pepper, garam masala. Serve with yogurt into which you’ve stirred chopped mint, and naan bread. Eat with your fingers. Feel very warm.
20 Squirrel from Lara Pawson (This Is the Place to Be). This was one of the first recipes sent to me in early January, but squirrels don’t just fall out of trees (or if they do, it’s usually onto a branch of the next tree along). Two possible scenarios were worrying me: (a) I wouldn’t like it; (b) I’d like it so much I’d want squirrels every week. Fortunately for everyone, including squirrels, the first prevailed: there’s wine and rosemary and plenty of garlic in here, but despite long slow cooking the meat still clung to the bones. I doubt the hazelnuts I forgot to add – despite having them ready – would have changed things. Lara is encouraging me to try again with a squirrel her dog caught today, not a frozen one.

21 Stuffed Monkey from Lesley Levene (who has copy-edited or proofread more books, including many of the CBe titles, than I’ve had hot dinners). One layer of dough (flour, butter, cinnamon, egg, sugar), then filling (candied peel, ground almonds, butter, sugar, egg yolk), then another layer of dough; bake for half an hour. Lesley: ‘My great-aunt used to say it’s called Stuffed Monkey because it was sold in a cake shop in the East End called Monnickendam.’ Or the monkey is myself, because it is very, very more-ish.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 5

First, something I prepared earlier: The Disguise: Poems 1977–2001, selected by Christopher Reid, comprises poems by myself from six collections originally published by Carcanet and Faber before the seam ran dry 20 years ago. If you order direct from the Carcanet website before the official publication date, 25 February, and enter the discount code DISGUISE25 you can get it for 25% off the cover price. Moving on …

14 Matso Balls with Coconut Soup from May-Lan Tan (Things to Make and Break from CBe in 2014, now reissued by Sceptre). High fusion: ‘This recipe combines my two favourite soups, Jewish matzo ball and Thai tom kha.’ The matzo balls are made with chickpea flour, ‘which seems to combine better with the flavours of the soup’. The soup – ah, the soup – is a killer, a gentle one, and for this I really need to spell out the ingredients (stock, shallot, galangal or ginger, lemongrass, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, birds-eye chillis, coconut milk, spring onion, lime juice) and their precise quantities, but that’s not how we’re doing things here (so you’ll have to email me for the full recipe). Completely delicious.

15 Rabbit, from Beverley Bie Brahic (White Sheets; Hunting the Boar; translator of Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, and of Apollinaire, The Little Auto. Beverley offered two rabbit recipes; in the first one you slather the rabbit (whole or jointed) with French mustard, roast, then deglaze the roasting pan with cream, which gives you the sauce. Because this was my lockdown birthday supper I opted for the second recipe, which involves dousing the lightly browned meat (and carrots and bacon or pancetta) with brandy and flambĂ©-ing, which is more fun than blowing out any number of candles on a cake; then cook in cider (plus bouquet garni) for around 45 mins, add mushrooms and caramelised little onions and pour yourself another glass of wine or two before remembering to eat. There’s no hurry. It’s worth waiting for.

16 Apple Betty and Baked Custard from Ruth Fainlight (despite having no CBe title to her name, Ruth is officially an honorary CBe author). Apples baked with some form of crumble – here, mostly breadcrumbs, no flour, with orange zest – cannot lose. The new delight for me, because I’ve been too lazy to bother before, was the baked custard (milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, a dusting of nutmeg). Cooked on a day when it was snowing; leftovers for breakfast next day (above).

17 Spaghetti aglio olio con pepperoncini from Julian Stannard (What were you thinking?). This is the man who ends a poem called ‘The Recipe’ thus: ‘I put one in the pantry/ and the other in the small / room along the corridor / and I said to myself, / not without a feeling of / triumph, I have separated / the eggs.’ Can we trust him in the kitchen? No eggs to separate here. Almost nothing: spaghetti cooked al dente and swirled into gently fried garlic and chilli pepper. ‘I don't bother with anchovies and all that shit but hey it might be nice too,’ says Stannard. Definitely anchovies. Optional: add a couple of cowboys to turn this into a Spaghetti Western.