Sunday 28 December 2008

One guinea

Year’s end – and in another of those filler-lists I’ve got the J. T. Leroy Award for Gender-Bending in Fiction (The Times alternative book awards, which seems about right) – and it’s a year and a month (a temporal guinea) since CBe started, and I’ve had about as much fun as you can have while sitting at a desk. Sincere thanks to those who’ve trusted me blindly with their work, who have stocked the books or bought them, and for the good will that’s been shown.

Someone who’d been in publishing much longer than me once told me that if he was starting up from scratch he wouldn’t bother with an office because you only really need two people: one to choose the books and do the editorial stuff, the other for publicity, to make sure that people know about the books and that they are worth shelling out for. I and the books have been missing that other person, half brother/sister. Not that I’m about to hire a ‘publicist’, because (a) though I could feed them the occasional bowl of soup I couldn’t offer them actual money, and (b) I’m not sure they’re much use: unless the person is either supremely pretty or intelligent or both, when someone starts talking publicity to me I switch off. But I'll need to do more to kick-start word of mouth (the best form of publicity anyway), and be even more shameless in talking up the books.

What will happen next year is that the books will create their own momentum. Beginning in February with Natural Mechanical by J. O. Morgan, a book that’s a Poetry Book Society recommendation and that’s by an author who’s never published before, a book that will be read by many people who normally wouldn’t come within a barge-pole’s length of poetry. Continuing in May with Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch, a mock-elegy for old-time Soho, a book that’s been waiting to be written until it found the right author. Later, a ghost story, in a setting not remote from Lamb House. And one of the books will win a prize, and I will write a novel called ‘The noise made by reversing lorries’ (the yard at the back of my house has been a building site for the past six months). And some people will decide that John Pilger is right about Obama but in fact simply by being a channel for so much hope and need he’ll make some new and unexpected things happen. And I will give up smoking and week later take up something equally life-shortening. And there’ll be two small-press books on the Booker shortlist (and the Booker’s anti-small-press bias will be debated: the condition, for example, that submitting publishers must hand over £5,000 towards publicity if the book is shortlisted, and another £5,000 if it wins). And England will lose the Ashes but make a damn good fist of it. And the Olympics will be a sorry mess (all that win, win stuff being a hollow echo of the same mentality that did for the City). Some of these things will happen. I am, as you see, making the whole thing up as I go along (though soon I may need a little help).

Sunday 21 December 2008

The road north

This one’s for J.O., who is driving up to Scotland today, and it’s for Rocky too, who (natural mechanical) would be able to get it back on the road. It’s an Austin A35, found abandoned in a Hammersmith multi-storey car park this afternoon, and in the late 1950s this is the car that my brother and I went up to Scotland in from Yorkshire, with my mum driving and sometimes a basset hound called Roly folded up on the back seat. It’s probably why I still think of the journey to Scotland as being up-hill all the way.

Sheep farming

At the same time as many publishers are reducing the number of books they publish, more creative writing courses are being offered, some of them by the publishers themselves. (Faber offers a six-month course – weekly evening workshops plus six Saturdays – beginning in February for £3,500; or for £500 you can get a four-day course in Dublin inclusive of ‘a complimentary Moleskine notebook’.)

This is part of the professionalisation, even the industrialisation, of literature. Forgive the long words: I’ve been reading (in translation) an essay by Hannes Bohringer entitled ‘The Late Bourgeois Art Industry’: ‘Art is today what science has already been for a long time: it is big business . . . The business makes up a closed, autonomous circuit . . . The business can manage controversial, incompatible definitions at the same time, and switch between them. This is its strength . . . Big business tends to become bureaucratic, to manage what is already in place. Perspectives on the outside world disappear. Specialisation leads to institutional blindness.’ (Bohringer, by the way: I’ve been lent a number of his short books in German; they’re not for CBe, but if anyone has ideas about how his work might be published here, tell.)

Do they work, these courses? Can you teach someone how to write? I think the jury’s still out, and they’ll probably deliver an open verdict. They’ve been out for longer than you’d think. This from Henry James’s notebooks, 1879: ‘Anthony Trollope had a theory that a boy might be brought up to be a novelist as to any other trade. He brought up – or attempted to bring up – his own son on this principle, and the young man became a sheep farmer, in Australia.’

Friday 19 December 2008


Elise’s novel, The TV President, was described in last week’s TLS as a ‘strange and timely novel . . . most concerned to show how far people will go in a bid to run away from themselves, and how skilfully this desire is courted by corporations . . . luridly entertaining fiction.’ Elise also wrote the introduction to, and worked as producer on, Saxon, and today she was interviewed by a professor of gender studies who’s going to be teaching Saxon at a university in Guam – ‘island in the North Pacific Ocean, about three-quarters of the way from Hawaii to the Philippines’ says the helpful CIA World Factbook, in case you’re thinking of swimming there. Which may be quicker than surface mail, which takes ‘from 56 days’.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Like there's no recession

The pub at the end of the street, in which my friend Brian once sheltered under a table with the bride at a wedding party while an uninvited guest attempted to settle a few scores with a gun, has just re-opened as a gastro pub: the ‘caramelised pear, walnut blue cheese salad’ for starters, maybe, followed by the wild mushroom and spinach crepe.

My friend with the beard who lives in – on – this street (and who appears on page 27 of Days and Nights in W12) has gone: he’s moved out of his local hostel for homeless men and into a brand new flat at Imperial Wharf in Fulham. I guess the council must have made the provision of some social housing a condition for the permission they gave to the developer. Last week I found an estate agent’s ad for flats at Imperial Wharf at between £1.3 and £5.5 million each.

And publishing? Having listened for some thirty years to their sorry excuses (‘difficult trading conditions’, etc) during annual pay negotiations, now, when those pleas actually might mean something, I’ll find it hard to believe them. ‘Hard to begrudge Stephen Page, Faber’s CEO, a pay rise of almost £100,000,’ wrote the Independent earlier this year. If they start using the recession as an excuse to publish fewer books of the kind I want to read, and pay the authors less, I’ll find it very easy to begrudge.

Monday 15 December 2008

Berg again

More on Leila Berg, because last week I read her Look at Kids, published by Penguin in 1972. She looks (there are lots of photographs) and she listens and she tells true stories. ‘Through anecdote and impression,’ says the blurb, ‘with compassion, anger and lyricism, she enters into the world of the city child.’ It’s not a sentimental book at all; and sometimes Berg herself, who isn’t always a passive observer, gets it wrong (‘At that time I was pursuing another fantasy in which it was vital for me to be omnipotent . . .’).

I’m shocked that I didn’t come across this book when it came out, that no one pressed it on me, because it was around that time I was doing post-grad teacher-training (at Nottingham, because Lawrence went there). I knew of A. S. Neill, I was reading Ivan Illich on de-schooling, but I was an over-educated idiot with no actual experience of children and the course, with its heavy theoretical bias, never bumped me out of that cocoon. My tutor, a decent and sensitive but academic man who’d written on Wordsworth, was doing research on children’s use of language: he’d wire up children with electrodes, show them short films (including some Ken Russell shorts), then get them to write, and he’d plot their vocabulary against the readings given by the electrodes. I helped him, ‘marking’ those children’s writing. Did this in any way help me to become a good teacher? Did this in any way help the children? No. I was as lost in the classroom as the kids.

One of the chapters in Look at Kids begins, provocatively: ‘London hates kids.’ (‘Children are the bottom of the pile . . . And London creates harassed adults, and, by its ever-increasing impossible demands, inadequate ones.’) The book ends with a plea: ‘Is it really so much that a child needs . . . Is it really so much? It is indeed. Ask our society that sets each creative child on the conveyor belt . . . till it becomes the anonymous mass component that the state needs.’

This isn’t just Sixties-speak, though it may come out of that decade. Since 1972 some things for children have perhaps lightened up but other things have got heavier, and it’s obvious – I read the news (one in ten schoolkids in the UK has carried a knife: that averages at around three in every classroom), and I’ve watched over the past few years my children get rigorously schooled towards their exam grades – that Berg’s book is far from out of date. Some of what she says chimes with the David Foster Wallace speech to Ohio graduates that the Guardian printed in September (‘The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us . . .’).

The book’s been out of print for years so until something is done about this, you’ll have to go to abebooks.

Sunday 7 December 2008

A riverbank

There are some women writers whose writing has been marked down in the literary stakes not (or not just) because they were women but because so much of their time and attention was devoted to work that wasn’t ‘pure’ literature. Martha Gellhorn. Arguably, Grace Paley. Leila Berg.

Probably Leila Berg’s best-known book is the one she wrote about a progressive comprehensive school in the 1960s. She wrote about children (Look at Kids, Reading and Loving) and for them; she still gets letters from people who discovered her children’s books when they were children themselves, and who now read them to their own children and grandchildren. In the late 1990s she published Flickerbook, an autobiographical book that takes her up to the late 1930s. I don’t press many books on other people, but I’ve given away half a dozen copies of this.

She’s 91, and on Saturday I went to see her. She is bright and alert and spoke of a new book she'd like to start work on. I took my camera, but in the end asking to take her photograph just seemed too crass a thing to do, so here instead is the estuary at the foot of the road where she lives. Her daughter and son were there too. Not one of Leila Berg’s books is currently in print. Something, we agreed, must be done.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

A hiccup

Oh, a not-so-good review. Of the Hofmann/Lichtenberg book, in today’s Independent. ‘It’s a curious peek into his bedchamber, when we’d rather gaze down the abyss of his soul.’ Would we? ‘None of the voices synthesise into a whole.’ Odd sentence: does that mean not one of the individual voices synthesises, or the voices together don’t synthesise?

The book is wonderful: funny, wise, deeply affectionate. The reviewer’s loss. I’ve just realised that what really annoys me is not so much bad reviews of good books (there'll always be one), but starry-eyed reviews of pretentious dross. Which this is not.

Half a horse

The gratuitous image above is there because I seem to be involved in a book about Faber jackets and cover designs. (With 2,000 illustrations, said the person who handed me the text; no, said a nearby designer, far fewer, it has to fit into 192 pages; I think it’s one of those books whose authors, editors and designers set off in different directions.) Why me? Because, I suspect, in the way that there are people who know who scored the second goal in the 1937 cup final, I happen to know how to spell Amos Tutuola’s name without googling him, and that the drunkard in one of his titles is in fact a drinkard. (And that Kureishi’s beautiful laundrette is exactly that, despite the variant spelling. And that although many people spell his name all in lower-case letters to show that they’ve read his poems, E. E. Cummings is in fact a grown-up and prefers his initial caps like the rest of us. Oh I could bore you to tears.) Rarefied knowledge, and much good it does me. Still, lots of opportunities in this book for creative mis-titles of the type mentioned somewhere earlier.

The above cover is not in the book, but it’s my all-time favourite Faber cover. Usually when you look at an image on a cover you can tell without difficulty which bit of the market the designer, or more likely the sales department, is aiming at. But with this, the back end of a horse, no. Unless I’m missing something obvious.

Monday 1 December 2008

Good things

In the current TLS Karl Miller chooses Jennie’s 24 for 3 as one of his Books of the Year (‘a flying start’). In Saturday’s Guardian Nicholas Lezard wrote about Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl (‘wonder and innocence, attributes which are necessary if one is going to describe, as this novel does, the romance between a 35-year-old man and a 13-year-old girl’).

CBe is largely a one-man band, and often I have the feeling there’s no one else in the room. In contrast, I spent this past weekend in Buxton among 70 people from the National Theatre put up in an eerie, dimly lit palatial hotel in swirling mist, plus around 200 school and youth directors and a busload of actors from the National Youth Theatre. Workshops, talk, more alcohol than my ration for the whole of December and into the new year (and the coincidence of an Abba tribute night being held at the hotel on the Saturday night). Theatre is collaborative, very different from solitary fiction/poetry writing, and on this scale it was a culture shock. By the end of March twelve brand new plays will have been staged in many productions involving several thousand teenagers (oh all right, young people). All productions will be seen at regional theatres; one production of each play will show at the South Bank in the summer. This is the NT New Connections programme; it’s been running for over ten years, it seems to receive criminally little attention, and it’s absolutely heroic.

Sunday 23 November 2008

The good, the bad

Last year a friend met someone at a party who recommended a book and said he’d send her a copy and she didn’t really expect it to arrive, this was just one of those things people say at parties, but the book came – sent by Bill Samuel, vice chair of Foyles.

The above photo was taken in Foyles Charing Cross Road last week. When Foyles say they’ll order books, they mean it. And then they sell them, because that’s their job.

We like Foyles. And one or two others, who also follow through. John Sandoe’s, obviously; the Broadway Bookshop in Hackney; Daunts in Holland Park.

The link between what people say and what they actually do is rarely so straightforward. I used to work at Faber (whose CEO, Stephen Page, is described in the Guardian as ‘a cheerleader for an independent sector that has been buffeted by the increasing dominance of large rivals’). Last year, out of the 20 or 30 people there I worked with, drank with, gossiped with, two people bought CBe books. This year they still say nice things but not one has bought a book.

Thursday 20 November 2008

A nosh: replay

Remember Giles Coren's OTT letter to The Times subs of a few months ago? (They'd removed an indefinite article.) If you don't, it's here.

Now this. Brilliant. Oscars all round.

Wednesday 12 November 2008


I’ve seen the future, and it sucks. Westfield, the biggest in-city shopping mall in Europe, half a mile down the road, thanks. 265 shops, 50 places to eat. In the words of its website: ‘You’ve never seen anything like this in London before. A central Atrium the size of a football pitch, 16-metre wide malls fashioned from marble with decorative swirls of granite and an exclusive, boutique-style enclave devoted to luxury brands all combine to create a truly captivating experience. Once you’re here, you’ll never want to leave . . .’

For leave, read live. I went there today (because there’s a Foyles, and maybe they’d like to stock the locally produced CBe books) with an open mind, honest, because Hamish, my friend down the road who used to run a wine bar and then became a maths teacher, went there a week ago to buy a pair of socks and came back surprisingly even-tempered, not ranting at all. But it’s hideous. It’s cheap, it’s nasty, it’s almost as bad as Heathrow (it may be worse, I haven’t decided), it has that deadening over-warm used-air smell, and H&M (according to my son, who has a friend who works there) took in a quarter of a million on the opening day.

I’ve already done, in a column in my local paper, my grumpy-old-man piece about Westfield as a temple of consumerism, whose ruins will in a few thousand years inspire wacky theories about the civilisation that built it: liberty defined as the freedom to buy what you want, etc. So today no arguments, just horror.

And then, recovering (wine, cigarettes), I think of that American journalist who went to the Soviet Union in 1921 and said ‘I’ve seen the future and it works.’ He was wrong. That particular future killed its own people, millions of them. There are others.

Tuesday 11 November 2008


Another online review of Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl here. Good. There are at least a couple of online reviewers I trust and respect more than almost anyone writing in print, but it’s hard to overturn the quaint convention whereby newspaper reviews are considered of higher status than online reviews.

We need column inches to get booksellers interested in stocking the books. Should we publish novels by former New Labour spin doctors? But if one such came along, quite apart from not being able to afford the required advance I doubt I’d think it worth publishing anyway.

Friendly fire

Feeling picky today, and as nothing’s off-limits I’ll go for the websites of small independent publishers. It’s nice to see The Celestial Omnibus, a little-known collection of stories by E. M. Forster, published by Snowbooks, but to categorise it as ‘Crafts’ is barmy and the sales blurb (‘Great for gift’) has been written by the person who translates manuals for cheap washing machines from the Japanese. Have they actually read the book? There’s a video on the site showing you how to create ‘a 20 page, 60 title catalogue in under a minute’, so you’d think they’d have time to. The same writer turns up on the website of Social Disease: ‘Established as an antidote to publishers who slavishly pander to so-called market forces and therefore rejecting great books as a corollary, Social Disease began as a monthly Literary Mini-zine publishing incredible short stories.’ This can only mean that it's the deliberate policy of Social Disease to reject great books. Which may be true, but it’s not the only thing odd about that sentence. Both the above publishers have received Arts Council funding.

Monday 3 November 2008

Paris Ponge

Here is Beverley Bie Brahic, showing off her CBe Ponge selection and her own book of poems in the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore in Paris. (Which looks nice: vertical books, horizontal books, teetering piles of books. Is there a word, by the way, for that ache in your neck you get after you’ve been reading the spines on the shelves – keeping your head titled to the right – for some time? The French, I think, print their spines the opposite way round, so in a French-English store it would even out.)

If you happen to be in Paris on 25 November you can hear BBB reading at the Red Wheelbarrow. If you happen to be San Francisco on 25 January you can hear her reading at the City Lights bookstore. If you’re stuck in the UK you’ll just have to buy the book and read it here.

Friday 31 October 2008


Yesterday in the post office there was a full-volume row going on between a man and a woman about who slept with who and whether rubbers were used or not and I and the rest of the queue were listening in passive silence until the whole thing seemed about to escalate and I said something like Whoah, which is what you say to a horse, and the man told me to fuck off, he was having a private conversation with his wife, so I shrugged and got on with buying my stamps.

What I really wanted to say was that CBe’s first book of new poetry, Natural Mechanical by J. O. Morgan, published next February, is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, which is no mega deal but golly it’s something, it’s peer-group recognition and more than a pat on the back, it’s something that poets can write and publish half a dozen slim vols without getting, and not only is the book good but it’s one of the few that should find readers outside the usual tight little poetry circles, and tomorrow I think I will go to the post office and start shouting about it.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

The view from the 6th floor

I was wrong. (It happens.) Last night we had a launch party for Elise’s book, The TV President, in Waterstones Piccadilly, and I’d feared that this was over-reaching, way above (the 6th floor) my station, and that a room more like a company boardroom than a hugger-mugger bookshop would hardly be conducive to loosening up. But, well, I had a good time, met good people, drank good wine, and we sold over a hundred books. Today I washed 119 glasses, god knows what happened to the 120th, and though I’m sure real publishing outfits have people to do this for them it felt pretty real to me.

Sunday 26 October 2008


I regret, a bit, not wearing my red shirt yesterday at the book fair in the Conway Hall (I put it on, but then changed it for a black jumper before leaving home) because the man behind the adjacent table – Vincent Katz, New York poet, translator, editor, publisher, writer on art (Twombly, Clemente, et al), video producer/director and all-round necessary person – did wear a red shirt and the twin-effect would have been fitting: he has boy twins, I have boy twins. Such coincidences, odd angles of recognition, abounded. The lady who had been culling her books at home and had just placed Ponge’s Soap in the to-keep pile, then came to the fair and saw the CBe Ponge – whose very existence derives from another such happy concatenation, in this case the translator Beverley Bie Brahic happening to talk with a poet friend at last year’s Aldeburgh poetry festival. (We sold 12 copies of Ponge; and there’s a nice mention of the book, by the way, here.) These encounters made for two good days; the hours passed quickly, I have names and email addresses scribbled on bits of paper, and if by next year money will have been replaced by a barter economy the whole event will still be more than worth putting on.

Monday 20 October 2008

Spreading the word

There’s a review of Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl on Asylum – which I mention here not just because it’s good to see the book being praised ('a beauty and a fancy . . . a breath of air, a carefully chaotic representation of real life through the prism of a fictionalised historical character') but because Asylum is a place worth bookmarking by anyone who reads new (and not-so-new) fiction: sane, intelligent, helpful reviews of a kind you don’t often find in the newspapers, and the follow-up agreements/disagreements are worth a look too.

Saturday 18 October 2008

Small Publishers Fair

Gordon Brown can print money, and so can you and I. Print off a copy of the above and get a fiver off a purchase of three CBe books at the Small Publishers Fair, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL, next Friday and Saturday, 24th and 25th October, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free entry. One voucher per purchase, the usual small-print stuff.

The CBe table will have, in addition to the CBe books, Ondt & Gracehoper books by Christopher Reid and books produced by Ron Costley and Ken Garland. And amaretti. And if anyone wants to come along and hold the table while I go for a cigarette break, they are more than welcome.

Friday 10 October 2008

Small and predictable rant

For the record . . . Over the past few months I’ve written a diary column for a website, a full-page piece for Time Out, another piece about how CBe got started (by accident) and four columns for my local newspaper; I’ve read and talked at two bookshops, a writers’ group and a literary festival. Sum total of payments: £20, two bottles of liquor and supper in Bath. I’m not, I think, complaining – it’s been fun, and it’s more important that this yattering about books goes on than that anyone gets paid for it – but with what do they think I pay the broadband and catfood bills? Punctuation marks?

Other thing: this money-market meltdown mess, why are they all so taken by surprise, so rushing-around-trying-to-think-what-to-do-next? Over the last few years you only had to look at the photos of the City boys with their Xmas bonuses, and then take note of what was happening in the rest of the world, to know it was coming. I sound like my granny (‘It’ll all end in tears’). And when I die there’ll be no one more surprised than myself (‘Golly, this is happening to me?’). But still.

Nervous systematics

In case anyone stops sending me copy-editing work because of what I wrote somewhere not far below (‘there are more interesting things than correctness’), I should add that I do get bothered by punctuation and grammar that’s plain wrong, silly or misleading. I can argue all day about commas. (I’m currently having a rather boring argument with an author who wants to use both en-rules and em-rules for dashes; he has his reasons, but the result on the page will look to the innocent reader like a mistake.)

A tool for clarity and precision, good punctuation is essentially good manners; it’s about being courteous to readers, saving them from confusion and having to read your sentences again to work out what you’re trying to say. But ‘good’ doesn’t always mean it has to obey the school rules. The zero-tolerance but muddled approach of Lynne Truss is no help at all. (For a sensible take on Truss – ‘Why should a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?’ – see Louis Menand in The New Yorker.) For good read appropriate. There are writers who use no quote marks for speech, who sometimes don’t bother with punctuation at all, who ignore the usage guides, and if they’re clever enough – a big if, but it happens – that’s fine.

Earlier this week Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947–80 fell into my lap, and I read this in his introduction: ‘Syntax punctuation Capitalization remain idiosyncratic, retaining the variable measure of nervous systematics.’

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Table, chair, paper

Those pictures in the Guardian Saturday Review of the rooms where writers write – I don’t see the point. They’ve been tidied up for the photographer. There’s little of dramatic visual interest (compared to, say, the pictures of artists’ studios). Most aren’t really any different from the rooms in which non-writers do their accounts or play online games. The whole column is just a sub-category of those World-of-Interiors-type features that invite you to gawp at other people’s cushions and curtains.

Most conspicuously missing in the pictures is the writer writing. So what you’re presented with is a fenced-off desk like those in museums – and telling readers that this is where the writer sits is like telling them to switch on religious awe, but without any helpful past-century detail or stunning church architecture.

A flaw in the whole concept is that the rooms are irrelevant to the whole process of writing anyway. Writers don’t need rooms in the way that artists need studios (OK, not all of them; there are artists who live and work against the whole studio-based tradition; but the ones with stretchers and gallons of paint do need somewhere to put them). Books can be written on trains, in cafes, in hotels and other public spaces, and having a special room to do it in doesn’t necessarily help. Hell, wrote Louis MacNeice, is a soundproof room. Geoff Dyer in his book on Lawrence has a great riff on looking for the perfect room in which to write, the writing of which is a way of postponing writing what he’s supposed to be writing, just as the search for the room is a way of putting off getting down to writing.

The woman is the photo above is Grace Metalious. She may be posed (The Writer Thinking, with her half-smoked cigarette), and the photo of Gipsy Rose Lee on the CBe website (and here) is certainly posed, but both say more about the writers, and how and where they worked, than the Guardian fillers.

A modest proposal

. . . concerning the nation’s health.

I’ve been away for some days in Devon. I’ve been staying in non-smoking households, and the drastic reduction in my cigarette ration has affected my normal body rhythm (of ingestion, digestion, excretion) and left me feeling gummed up and bloated. To combat the national obesity problem, the government might consider encouraging more people to smoke.

Friday 3 October 2008

Black and white

I’d thought the Book of Bursa, to be published early next year, was going to have three parts: novella, prose bits, poems. Oh no, says W the translator, it should be jumbled up. And the Intro should go at the end.

Who knows best, author/translator or editor? Both, often. And in disputed matters, the former have the last word; it’s their book. There’s a nice (short) piece on editing by Barbara Epler here.

I’ve worked with some authors who are happy for me to rewrite their every sentence, and barely trouble to read the proofs. And others who (noli me tangere) won’t allow one comma to be changed – which is sometimes seen as sign of a ‘good’ writer, but I doubt that. I’m generalising here, but it’s usually the young and the ambitious and the insecure who are most hostile to suggestions from others and who keep on sending in their own changes right down to and beyond the deadline; the great and the good, the ones who’ve been writing for decades and who know their own business far better than anyone else involved with the text, tend to respond to suggestions (from copy-editors, proofreaders) courteously, promptly, efficiently. I once got proofs back from a reader with pencilled suggestions for punctuation changes on every page; I phoned the author (big name, world fame) to suggest I send him these proofs; there was a pause (I imagined him looking out of the window, balancing a day spent going over the proofs yet again against a day out fishing), and then he said no, I should just make any changes myself that I thought best.

We could, of course, have spent hours, days, discussing those punctuation changes. The style guides have their uses but often there’s no absolute right or wrong, and anyway there are more interesting things than correctness. Meanwhile, buy a few of the new books out of those boxes above, take that cat down a peg or two.

Friday 26 September 2008

Decorative swirls of granite

33 days, 10 hours, 19 minutes to go until the opening of the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush, and the site is swarming with construction workers like a Cecil B DeMille film about building the Pyramids and I know how they feel but I’ve beaten them: the new CBe books are all printed, I took boxes and boxes of them earlier this week to the lovely old warehouse building in East London that is Central Books, and today the website was updated with pay buttons so you can now BUY THE BOOKS.

Yesterday and today I went round some local independent bookshops to gently harass a few folk who stocked last year’s books. One person had moved to another shop, another was out at lunch, another was on holiday, and one of the shops was closed for the afternoon. I browsed. I asked for a book someone told me about, Death in Danzig, and was told not just that it wasn’t in stock but it wasn’t available from the supplier; and it was published only two years ago. Still, I found other books I coveted, and (perhaps because the persons I’d come to chat to were not there) the brightness and, yes, visual attractiveness of their covers worried me. Adjectives that could be applied to the CBe covers include wholesome, puritan, old-fashioned. And brown. One of the CBe authors has been pleading with me to move away from brown, to lighten up.

The Westfield shopping centre will have, its website tells me, ‘16-metre-wide malls fashioned from marble with decorative swirls of granite and an exclusive, boutique-style enclave devoted to luxury brands’. Granite swirls. Maybe.

Friday 12 September 2008

The Arabic for hat-trick

You want to get to the cash machine. But there’s someone standing in the way. He’s perfectly polite, but this is his job, it’s what he’s paid for.

Waterstones cannot order the new CBe books because they are not on the System. They are on the central book data thing, they are in boxes around me, they exist, but in Waterstones’ eyes they don’t. Yet. Today I discover the reason: the book data place, although they were told that that the distributor of the books is Central Books, did not enter this in their own System. So sorted now, almost.

Some of the poems in the Ponge book couldn’t be included, said the French publisher, because people in America had English-language rights in them. But these are different translations, completely new, not the same as the Americans printed. Gallic shrug. Of course you can print the new translations, said the Americans. Oh no you can’t, said the French. (This too was sorted, eventually. They’re in.)

Yeserday afternoon I had a hankering to see highlights of the England game, and Walcott’s goals. But because there was someone standing in the way – he was mumbling about rights deals – they’d been taken off YouTube and pretty well everywhere else, except for sites that showed them with Arabic commentary. The Arabic for hat-trick appears to be hat-trick.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Exit Zamyatin

He was there on Monday – Harry saw him – but yesterday morning, around lunchtime, he was gone. In place of the blurb for We some vandal had scrawled: ‘Off-peak travel cards start at 9.30.’

Perhaps because I’d taken my camera with me. Cameras, I find, get in the way of what you’re looking at and can make things vanish.

While on public notices, I saw today in Waterstones a new (to me) shelving category, sited between Celebrities and True Crime: ‘Painful Lives’. No one, happily, was browsing.

Friday 5 September 2008

Slight delays on the Circle Line

A maligned institution, London Underground, but here’s spot of a low-cost innovation. Today, Friday 5th September, on the Service Information board at Kings Cross / St Pancras there is (and I wish I’d had my camera, because not everyone will believe me here) a blurb for We by Zamyatin: ‘. . . an epic and disjointed poem written by the “number” D-503. He contracts a soul in the perfect world of Onestate and D-503 must choose whether to cure this sickness or choose freedom over happiness, love over control.’

Written casually with a felt-tip but perfectly legible. Freedom or happiness? – this is serious stuff. Normal service, I assume, on all other Lines.

More, please. Public information . . . Switch on the weather forecast and get a plot summary of Women in Love. In the slot for the FTSE index at the end of the news, a Lydia Davies short story. A bibliography of Isak Dinesen's works on the departures board at Heathrow. It begins here.

Friday 29 August 2008

Back; and a hero

I’m back, straggling behind the Olympic lot, having managed to see not a single tape being breasted, shot being put, though I did manage a game or two of chess and table football and I learned a lot about artesian wells, and now I’m dazed, culture-shocked, by re-entry into the civilisation of deadlines and pay-&-display.

Two of the October CBe books will go to the printer next week. One is being written. But the other two, surprisingly, are done – printed, bound, in boxes. Despite the printer man being side-swiped by a forklift truck, and being told at the hospital he had a collapsed lung and how lucky it wasn’t two inches to the left otherwise that would have been his spine and he wouldn’t have walked again, and being kept in for three days and then discharged with a prescription for heavy painkillers and instructions to take ten days’ bed-rest – the queue at the pharmacy was an hour-and-a-half long so he came home, killed the pain with whisky, went straight back to work. True Brit grit. Give the man a medal.

Monday 11 August 2008

Faciendi plures libros . . .

. . . nullus est finis; frequensque meditatio, carnis afflictio est.

Ecclesiastes speaking, and the man has a point: Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Ecclesiastes it was who also said there’s a time for this and a time for that (‘A time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together’). It’s time for the other: I’m off to the Middle of Nowhere for a couple of weeks. Among others, the printer will be house-sitting and feeding the cats, all part of the service.

Saturday 9 August 2008

Saying no

‘He had the look on his face – inspiration.
There was no arguing with it –
the look he had when he signed the contract
for the cookbook that sold a million.

‘It was also the look that had turned down
Cards of Identity and Go Tell It on the Mountain.’

I talked briefly the other week with one of the publisher’s editors who turned down, a year ago, Jennie’s book. We didn’t mention it. I remembered the lines above, from a Louis Simpson poem. But really there was no cause for any social trickiness, because neither of us had done anything to feel awkward about. Editors edit, and choose, by their own lights; and they should go on doing so, rather than feeling there’s an accountant, or a policeman of literary taste, watching their every move. Any decent book being turned down means neither that the book is bad nor that the editor is an idiot. All it shows is that, in the dating game the placing of books resembles, the chemistry wasn’t right.

I turn down books myself, these days. Some of them good ones. But not my type.

Louis Simpson has several poems about publishing. ‘Sitting at a desk with my feet up / on the bottom drawer, reading manuscripts . . .’ No wonder that, according to the most recent Bookseller survey of people working in publishing, when asked how they got into their jobs nearly 40% of respondents said they had just drifted there. Despite the word with which Simpson closes the first section of his poem: ‘underpaid’.

Monday 4 August 2008

Supply & demand

Abebooks, bless them, are listing a signed CBe edition of 24 for 3 on sale from a Shropshire bookseller for £110. Jennie can recall signing no more than two or three copies of the CBe edition, so it is indeed, as the bookseller describes it, 'quite scarce'. As are the unsold and unsigned CBe editions: I have just two on my selves, and could get hold of perhaps a couple more. In the interests of creating havoc in the rare book market, and helping towards funding the printing of the October books, Jennie will sign and send these remaining copies to anyone who sends a cheque to CB editions for exactly half the price the Shropshire bookseller is charging.

Happy birthday, Mr Thornton.

Sunday 3 August 2008

Off to the country

Today in the Sunday Times there is a photo of the-man-who-sold-Jennie’s-book-to-Mick-Jagger in a precarious position. (It’s true that to work in John Sandoe’s you need to have trained as a sardine-canner, but you can usually reach the book you want without quite such a daring leap.) His own novel, Dreaming Iris, is officially published tomorrow. It’s good, and deserves to sell in shedloads.

On Tuesday Jennie goes to a bookshop in Woodstock that is next door, she’s told, to a shop called Silken Dalliance. If there’s a decent wine shop in the same street she may be away for a couple of months. Feeling it’s time they had some attention too, the other CBe authors probably won’t miss her too badly.

(By the way, chasing 307 to win, Sri Lanka were 24 for 3 at lunch today, the fourth day of the Test against India.)

Monday 28 July 2008

Next Monday

Here is BBT/me again, having just said or done something that doesn’t entirely meet with James Gandolfini’s approval. There’s a difference, though: Billy Bob Thornton holds his cigarette in his right hand, I hold mine in my left. A detail, but it counts. It’s how you can tell us apart. As the wonderful John Berger wrote about Morandi: ‘That he was left-handed is, I feel, important, but I do not know why.’ If BBT was left-handed perhaps he’d still be together with Angelina.

Anyway . . . Next Monday, 4 August, is the official publication date of the Bloomsbury edition of Jennie’s 24 for 3, and though exact dates of publication are pretty meaningless (the book is already on sale, has been reviewed on radio), in this case it will be worth opening a bottle because – as well as being the anniversary of the day Britain entered the First World War, and of the last day alive of Marilyn Monroe, and an oddly significant date in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Leonora’s birth, marriage, suicide) – it is BBT’s birthday.

Saturday 19 July 2008


There’s been a gap, I know, and I’m sorry (says he, apologising to his non-existent readership of several thousand). I’ve been busy, not in a writerly way (which involves very long pauses) but in a journalistic sort of way. I have written, in the past week or so, a ‘My Week’ piece for, a piece on CBe (for a magazine), a piece on the Uxbridge Road (for another), a piece on pseudonymity (for nowhere in particular, but someone says he’ll try to place it), a piece on something called ‘guerrilla publishing’, two columns for the Shep Bush & Hammersmith Gazette (Jennie has been offered a monthly column), a publishing proposal for a book that’s far too big for CBe, and the draft of a proposal for the Arts Council. I got in a rhythm, but it may be ending. So if anyone wants my views on 9/11 or global warming, or some advertising copy for catfood, get in quick.

Sunday 29 June 2008

Alkyd, epoxy, polyurethane

Here are Janos and his son-in-law, who came over from Hungary a week or so back to help Wiesiek put to rights his south London flat which tenants had trashed. Janos and helper had never before been out of Hungary; they are perfectionists but they are used to dealing with Cement and with Paint, and were perplexed and ultimately frustrated by the range of materials available here – one type of filler for this and another for that and another for the other; emulsion, undercoat, eggshell, non-drip . . . I’m seeing, as Wiesiek describes the state of his carpets to me this morning, Jackson Pollock. I feel for them, J and his son-in-law. Me, I want simple books with plain covers and decent paper, and I want readers to be able to get hold of them reasonably fast. Now a range of printers are sending me samples and telling me I can have this with that but not that with this, and suggesting special deals on this but not the other; and as for selling the books, the route through wholesalers and distributors with percentage discounts at all the stop-offs sounds more complicated to me, right now, than getting from west London to the outer reaches of east London on three buses, two Tubes and some legwork between the stops. I’ll get there, but I may be a bit late.

Friday 27 June 2008


The V&A was once advertised as a good café with a museum attached; Jennie’s 24 for 3 is becoming a ‘story’ with a book attached.

A little perspective on this: a man writes a book (a short one; whether it’s any good is not for him to say) and self-publishes it, though he disguises this process by using a pseudonym; when the book receives some public attention in the form of a prize, it becomes the subject of a ‘news’ story. (We’re not talking global here, we’re talking the Standard and the local Gazette – which this week describes me as a ‘prankster’: fine old newspaper word, does anyone use it real life? But it’s not scale that interests me, it’s why anyone is taking any notice at all.)

Confusion, I think, is what it’s about. Firstly, no one (even – especially – booksellers) seems to be sure whether a self-published book is a ‘proper’ book at all. (Despite the Hogarth Press, Eliot at Faber, all that.) Secondly, people expect authors to be who they say they are on the title page. Thirdly, a male writer taking a female pseudonym (or vice versa) introduces the whole tangle of gender, a word which quickly translates on newspaper placards into ‘sex’ – and about that we’re in as much of a muddle as we ever were. (Without that third element I doubt the story would have got into print.)

I’m in favour of confusion, which is why I’m enjoying all this. (Though sometimes clarification would help. I’m thinking of using a distributor for the new CBe books but still can’t really figure out the difference between a wholesaler and distributor; all explanations welcome.)

This afternoon, wanting to show someone why I’m looking at other printers for the CBe books – flaps! I want flaps! – I picked one of the lovely Pushkin Press books off the shelves in Foyles; putting it back I saw its title: Confusion (Stefan Zweig). On the way home I got off the Tube, went up the steps, realised I’d got off a stop early, went down again, got on a train going back in the direction I’d come from. I was reading a novel by David Markson called This Is Not a Novel, and had reached the page on which there is this (from Tristram Shandy):

‘–And who are you? said he. –Don’t puzzle me; said I.’

Sunday 22 June 2008

C(leo) B(irdwell)

‘They wrote about my honey blond hair flying in the breeze, my silver skate blades flashing, my plucky work in the corners, my style, my stamina, my milky blue eyes, my taut ass and firm breasts, the nightmarish bruises on my downy white thighs . . .’

This men-writing-as-women business is hardly new. The above is from the original dust-jacket copy, quoting from the book itself, of Amazons, 1980, by Cleo Birdwell. First-person narration by a female ice-hockey player. That particular CB – there are lots – was Don DeLillo.

Friday 20 June 2008

Thursday 19 June 2008

Old people crossing

I did something nasty to my back on Monday while manhandling four bikes into and onto a car, so when, at the Society of Authors’ awards do last night, Jennie Walker was asked to step up to receive the McKitterick Prize, which is for a first novel written by an author aged over 40, it must have looked to the audience as if the prize was this year won by a cross-dressing author aged over 85.

Some people were confused. I was – and have been for some time – a little confused myself. This is a perfectly natural state to be in.

PS – Journalists, of course, are more confused – and cause more confusion – than anyone. The Guardian website today has Jennie as a poet, and notes that her name is a pseudonym of the ‘novelist’ CB. This is straightforward inability-to-read-a-press-release. Usually they get it wrong by exaggeration. There was lovely headline in the Hammersmith & Fulham Gazette earlier this year: ‘New Bus Stops Cause Mild Confusion’ – yet in the accompanying picture none of the people at the bus stop looked in the slightest confused, they knew exactly where they were going and how to get there.

Sunday 8 June 2008

Jennie: something for the weekend?

Jennie has been asked for a photograph. Well, there was a piece in The Bookseller a week or so back about Bloomsbury’s publishing of 24 for 3 and the bag, which was never very tightly tied in the first place, is now open, and the cat is out: Jennie Walker, author of 24 for 3, is me (male, 57). (Sincere apologies to anyone who has become fond of her; the disguise was donned for practical reasons that seemed good at the time, and its intention – unlike, say, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s dressing as a servant girl after the battle of Culloden, and wasn’t there some French aristocrat, even if only in The Scarlet Pimpernel, who escaped from the Bastille dressed as a woman? – was not to deceive.)

Anyway, a photograph. I don’t photograph well, or happily. Fortunately, I have an exact lookalike: Billy Bob Thornton, as the barber in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. So here, above, is BBT/Jennie/me.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

I cut my finger

Lowest number of posts per month: my hours are filled. Today I found myself talking with – by email, phone or on Skype – an editor in the US, a rights manager in Paris, another one in Germany, another one at a university press in the US, two agents in London, two translators, an author and an accountant; and briefing the man who’s doing the new CBe website for next month; and designing and typesetting a screenplay. And postponing yet again the regular freelance hackwork I rely on for an income. This was supposed to be a hobby, not a job. There are warning signs: fewer books being read; and cutting myself on the lid of a tin of coconut milk when I was hurrying to make a Thai curry for supper.

Why? I mean, beyond enjoyment, which it still is, because it’s new and the people I do this conversing with are nice. This, for one thing: Michael Hofmann’s translation of his father’s last novel, Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl, which CBe will be publishing in the UK in the autumn. ‘Europe’s belated answer to Lolita’ – Gabriel Josipovici, TLS (International Books of the Year 2004). ‘Probably the zaniest, gloomiest, and funniest thing you’ve read in a long time, if not ever’ – MH, in the Afterword. It came out in the US in 2004; I can only assume that other UK publishers have been busy on the phone for the past four years talking to their accountants and website designers.

Friday 16 May 2008


Annual Book Industry Awards this week, apparently. I wonder what they actually win (book tokens?). I don’t understand these things; though I did notice, on the website, that one of the people shortlisted for the ‘Award for Industry Achievement’ was also one of the judges. But the bookseller of the year is Foyles, and they are also the chain bookselling company of the year (with five branches, compared with the several hundred of, say, Waterstones), and I’m not arguing. They are big and ancient but they seem to operate like your local friendly independent, and this is a neat thing to do. A few months ago a man at Foyles actually contacted CBe and ASKED for books, and made an initial order for ten of each title, and sold them all, and paid us.

A (publisher) to B (bookseller) to C (customer): not a complicated route, you might think, hard to get lost on the way. But when the big systems come into play . . . Neilsen’s ‘BookNet services are used widely by thousands of companies in the industry to send or receive orders, ensuring that the supply chain runs with speed, efficiency and accuracy.’ I should have known. When CBe started and I registered the books with Neilsen BookData they put me onto a system that would alert me by email to book orders. No emails came; then, by post, some cancellations of orders I’d never received; then someone phoned from a distributor to ask where were the books they’d ordered several weeks before. I called Nielsen, was put through to someone, was put through to someone else. I had, it turns out, been ‘set up incorrectly’. They were very sorry about this.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Modern business practices no. 374

People will ‘get back’ to me, and don’t. This is normal. Ditto things not being posted, information not being passed on, the dead not being resurrected.

I blame two things. One is those encyclopaedic databases in which, if you add one piece of information, everything else magically recalculates itself. They have a knock-on effect on the people who use them: now, if someone in an office takes a phone call or opens an email, they believe that everything consequent on that message will happen automatically, so they don’t actually have to do anything themselves. The second thing is ‘effective communication’, which promises to mend broken marriages, increase your profit margins and solve all your other problems too: there’s a point at which the actual content begins to erase itself. Those meetings, which are often about other meetings: everyone has a turn to talk, but on listening they pass. So words become abstract sounds, a form of ambient music. (Brian Eno: ‘Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.’)

Thursday 24 April 2008

Poetry, page 68

Most people walk by on the other side of the road. Some run for the hills. A few are interested (and then tend to divide into cliques and not speak to one another). And for a few of those few, life is insupportable without it. Although during the past thirty years poetry has become increasingly peripheral to the general cultural life, ‘the noise made by poems’, as Peter Levi called it, is still a sound that no other literary form can make; and most so-called serious publishers still pay it some form of lip service, even if only in the form of anthologies for children.

Yesterday I picked up the Faber July-to-December 2008 catalogue – Faber, the most renowned publisher of poetry in the business, so many of the greats of the past century on its list that you wonder why it hasn't been investigated by the monopolies commission, and the website chirps that ‘Faber continues to be at the vanguard of poetry publishing’. Anyway: ‘Original Poetry’, says the catalogue's contents list, and you turn to page 68 and there’s a book of interviews with Heaney. That is the ONLY book. There is not a single book of poetry.

There is, on the other hand, a 16-page section of ‘Seasonal Books’. Sample titles: The Complete Book of Mothers-in-Law, Is This Bottle Corked?, What is Mr Darcy’s First Name?

CBe will be publishing in the autumn new translations of poems by Francis Ponge, one of the finest French poets of the 20th century. Calvino called him ‘a peerless master’; Picasso once lent him his hat. Faber published a book of Ponge translations a few years ago, but it’s unavailable now.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

White blossom

The apple tree at the back of W’s house in Hungary, between storms – it’s a beauty. The picture was taken on Sunday. On the same day, driving the local roads in pouring rain, W saw a strange building on the horizon and went to explore. The rain stopped, sunshine broke through. At the end of a pot-holed lane he found an abandoned railway station: crumbling walls, ticket desk, cellar, a dark wild garden.

Trains, railway stations, disused tracks – these are recurring motifs in the stories of Stefan Grabinski, which W translated for CBe. Surrender to a writer, and the writer translates the world.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Q & A

Jennie, rashly, asks me for advice. She’s been given a questionnaire by her new publisher’s publicity people which, after the standard biog details, shoots off into colour-supplement-filler stuff: name your top five books of all time, worst book ever read, favourite word, etc. It’s like, If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be? And she wants to know how seriously she should take this, how seriously will her answers be taken? This one, for example: ‘Is there any particular ritual involved in your writing process?’ She lowers her voice and she tells me . . . No, I say, I don’t think so. It could put people off.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Not the London Book Fair

Damn, I missed it. I emailed someone in New York today at around 4 o’clock and got an auto-response saying she was at the LBF, a couple of miles down the road from here, but it closed today at six and that’s that. I did think about going, up to last Friday when they were still offering discounted tickets, but then remembered the one time I did go, a couple of years ago, when it was in east London: the next-door emporium was hosting a trade fair involving cosmetics, and though I did go through the right (books) door I’m not sure there was much difference – catalogues, clashing colours, flimsy stalls and partitions, meetings involving calculators, the men in suits and the women with lots of make-up. Plus a few books, but no one reading them.

Anyway, I’ve already exceeded my book-sociability limit for the month. Last Wednesday night a poetry reading: one of the readers I’ve known for donkey’s years and the space (the Calder bookshop) was small and the organisation improvised and the poems, many of them, clear and piercing. Thursday the launch(?) of a book on the St Ives artists, where I got stuck, and then realised very happily stuck, with a tiny 80-odd-year-old woman in an ancient coat and brand-new running shoes: we talked about an artist she’d once known (Harry? Terry, we eventually worked out, Terry Frost), the casualties (60,000) on the first day of the Somme in 1916 and how much Cherie Blair pays for her handbags. I doubt I’d have met her at the LBF.

Friday 4 April 2008

How long does it take?

Once upon a time I was regular contributor to the London Magazine. I’d send a batch of half a dozen poems, and by return of post, or at most within a day or two, Alan Ross, then the editor, would reply – a handwritten postcard, saying which ones he was taking (and when he hoped to print them) and which not, and why.

Today I had an email from an editorial assistant at the London Magazine thanking me for sending 24 for 3 for review and stating that the LM ‘is always on the look out for material to review and welcome you to send us new publications regularly [sic]’. Actually I sent all four CBe books, along with a note pointing out that their design was modelled on the old London Magazine editions of the early 1970s, and I sent them over four and half months ago, in mid-November of last year.

What do people do in offices? Rhetorical question: I worked in several myself, and I know. In one of them I read Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Nowadays those years of solitude are a sentence imposed by many publishers, magazines and agents on writers who have the cheek to send them manuscripts.

Recently I talked with a woman who sent some chapters to an agent, who liked them and asked her to send the complete manuscript, so she did; that was a year last February; last Christmas she got in touch with him: the manuscript was on his desk, he said, and he was still looking forward to reading it. It seems to be quite normal now for publishers to take months to get back to writers about books they’ve submitted; I’ve heard of periods of over a year. Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 was submitted to another publisher before CBe; by the time the first publisher got back to her she’d given up on him and the CBe book was already in print.

(And still there’s the etiquette that requires a writer to submit to one place at a time, and wait for a response before sending somewhere else. Ditch that rule. Sending work to several places simultaneously requires a degree of self-confidence that many new writers don’t have; but there’s no good reason why they shouldn’t.)

Oh, and even after a book is in proof, the writer’s sentence of solitude isn’t necessarily over. I’ve come across two instances in the past year of publishers putting back a publication date, in one case by over a year, without bothering to tell the author.

What prompted Alan Ross’s fast responses was not, I’m sure, any idea of ‘efficiency’. The speed of his replies expressed confidence in his own judgement; an impatience with things piling up; and basic courtesy to the writer. Maybe someone could put in place an Alan Ross Award, to be given not to the editor whose books sell most copies, but to the one who best encourages new writers and shows them understanding and courtesy. Except that Ross wouldn’t like that; if there are to be awards, he’d want them all to go to writers.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

More TV moments

Prompted by The English Surgeon, subject of the last post . . . I remember watching – late, late – a passage in a documentary in which an Arab man was sitting at a table with a boy, who was eating a boiled egg, and the Arab man was steadily becoming uncontrollably angry while the boy ignored him, concentrating entirely on his egg. And one of what was apparently a series about the treatment of immigrants: Christmas carols being sung in a detention centre. Aeons ago, a documentary about the Sweetwater Canal in Egypt (I think John Arden was involved in the making of this), with British ex-servicemen reminiscing to camera about the 1950s: how they got a prize in the mess if their dogs savaged an Egyptian, how they picked up a 14-year-old girl by the roadside and gang-raped her in the truck. (Any occupying army: this is what happens.) A scene in a Dennis Potter play where a boy gets locked in the Harrods toy department overnight. A film, Italian I think (please, somebody, tell me the title), in which the girlfriend of a boy who has died comes to the house of his parents, they feed her, then give her a lift towards where she’s going, drop her off at the border, wander at dawn on a beach.

The film doesn’t count, but the rest of the above could be cue for a sermon about dumbing down. And I’m the right age to do it (57: Heinz varieties). Bring in films, books. But no, it’s the wrong argument. (Please, please don’t give me Melvyn Bragg interviewing Harold Pinter or Seamus Heaney.) Because, (1), the phrase ‘dumbing down’ implies a hierarchy and it’s the old highbrow/lowbrow, private-school/state-school, middle-class/working-class thing, a model that never worked from the start when applied to culture and certainly doesn’t now, so junk it; (2), 95 per cent of ‘culture’ has always been crap; that’s how it works: a hundred seeds, one or two may flower (and automatic deference to anyone claiming to be an artist helps no one; nor of course does automatic ridicule); and (3), there was no Golden Age. The difference between then and now is scale: more acres of newsprint, more channels and airtime to be filled, more levels of management and bureaucracy and therefore more built-in conservatism and conformity. Money and celebrity link in, reinforcing. But the essential 5 per cent – though it may be harder to be find, and yours is undoubtedly different from mine – is still there.

Monday 31 March 2008

Brain surgery

Did you see The English Surgeon last night on TV? Sorry about this, but we don’t have a water cooler here to have these chats around; and apart from sport I watch about one TV programme per year, which is plenty (I tried some Poliakoff drama last year, and its turgid ponderousness put me off for another six months), so I tend to get excited when I chance on something (I missed the beginning) good.

Anyway: an old-style English neurosurgeon called Henry goes off to the Ukraine to do some brain surgery; his host is a buttoned-up medic whose favourite painting shows Cossacks rampaging; he uses a battery-powered drill and some none-too-sharp looking bits bought off a market stall; and he’s been doing this for fifteen years – going off to the Ukraine with a suitcase full of used NHS hi-tec stuff that would otherwise be binned. He has to tell a grandmother that her grandson is going to die within months and there’s nothing he can do about it; there’s a gorgeous 23-year-old woman who is going to go blind first, and then die; and sometimes he wins, he enables someone to start living again, he makes a difference.

At the end of it Henry stalks across a muddy field in his big black hat in front of some stark and spindly trees and a piercingly blue sky and mumbles something so obvious and true it shouldn’t need saying but it does, again and again, and you cry.

Meanwhile, while we’re into foreign fields, I’m still waiting for words from Oliver, who is living what I hope he can make a CBe book out of: Portrait of the Artist as a Night-Watchman in a Factory in a Provincial City in China. This isn’t brain surgery, but good things however small are welcome.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

Book rage

Books are dangerous. Each year 10,683 people in America and 2,707 people in Britain are seriously injured by books (I read this on the net so it must be true). A year or so back I wasn’t allowed to take a book with me as hand luggage on a flight from Italy (and had to be dragged away before I physically assaulted the check-in lady).

Sometimes it’s the other way round, with books as the victims. Book rage. There’s a scene in an early Alan Sillitoe novel where the main character feels a sudden urge to chuck all the books on his shelves out of the window; reading this in my late teens, I identified – the wish to strip away all the swaddling layers of culture, to confront the world naked. (Of course it can’t be done: the books you’ve read are as much inside you as on the shelves: you’re infected, simply by reading, and possibly contagious too.)

The woman in the photos is Susana Medina. She writes stories, poems, essays, filmscripts . . . ‘To be coherent art must fire in every direction.’ No conventional beginning-middle-and-ending novels there. Her books don’t sit quietly on the shelves.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Best European Dramatic Feature

It’s a mouthful – let’s call it BEDF for short – and it’s also the top award at the European Independent Film Festival, which was held in Paris over last weekend, and it’s just been won by SAXON: ‘an offbeat thriller/ urban western/ social surrealism drama that combines elements of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, David Lynch and Ken Loach to winning effect’ (

It stars Sean Harris, who played Ian Curtis in 24-Hour Party People. Short synopsis from the film’s website (hell, I still can’t do the links – – go there): ‘London, the present. Soon after leaving prison, Eddie has his eye cut out by a loan shark chasing an old debt. Eddie’s other eye will only be spared upon repayment. Desperate for cash, Eddie phones Linda, a childhood sweetheart. She lives in Saxon – a ghost town of grim flats run by a corrupt council. Linda is very wealthy. Her husband Kevin won a million pounds on a TV quiz show. But Kevin has gone missing, feared dead. Eddie offers his services as an amateur sleuth, and so embarks on a comically gruesome journey . . .’

Why am I telling you this? Because a couple of people who’ve never made a feature film before – Greg Loftin, Elise Valmorbida – somehow putting it all together (the money, the cast, the crew, the backers, the locations, the post-production, the other stuff – I’m going dizzy: publishing books is EASY) and getting it shown at the Edinburgh Festival, and another festival in Israel, and then winning BEDF in Paris, is a story worth the telling in itself.

And because the screenplay – along with the story of how this came about, against all the odds – will be published by CBe in the summer, to coincide with the film’s first London screening. Be there. Join in.

Monday 17 March 2008

‘The pump was red’

Looking through old letters, old diaries, it’s the sentences that simply state facts baldly that are the most poignant. ‘It rained today. I didn’t go out.’ ‘We watched a film. It was about a dog.’ ‘My dad bought a new hat.’

They are especially poignant if the words are those of someone who is dead, or someone you loved, or both. And if they are handwritten rather than typed. They can have the haunting impact of an old black-and-white or sepia photograph: this person was once alive on this day, in this weather, in these clothes. The eyes have an innocence; what they are innocent of is everything that comes after, everything that comes between them then and us now, looking at them.

‘The pump was red.’

– a sentence, in fact a paragraph, from a story by Hanna Krall. Born 1937, lives in Warsaw. The cool plain style is exactly appropriate to the intense heat of much of her material – Jewish-Polish-German relations during World War Two and afterwards. She worked as a journalist and takes the (true) facts of her stories from research, interviews; she then, as far as I can work out, recomposes the material as stories, which results in a kind of fictionalised reportage. There are lists, gaps in the record, occasional self-reflective notes (‘If this was a story by Singer …’). The result is not a bastard form (those TV docu-dramas) but one which really does convincingly marry historical truth to the truth of storytelling.

W showed me his versions of some of her stories last week. Some years ago he and the author made a selection of her work with which they attempted to interest UK and US publishers; the Other Press in New York took the selection but substituted another translator. The Woman from Hamburg is a wonderful book (I’m still reading it, slowly), and it would be good to conjure another one.

Monday 10 March 2008

Size doesn’t matter

What is it about the novel? How come it’s the default size and shape for people writing fiction? I’ve ranted about this before (8 January), but this time it’s urgent.

Because people send me novels, 300 pages, and some of them are very good (and if I like the first few pages, like them enough to TRUST this writer, then, if they’ve been sent as email attachments, I forward them to Lee or Barry at the local printshop to print out, because my own printer is slow and noisy, and this costs; but that’s another story), and CBe will be doing at least one of these things called novels in the next set of books, but NO ONE has sent me a novella, and only one person – OK, two – has sent me short stories. And though I don’t want to get prescriptive about this, novellas and stories and any other odd thing that automatically disqualifies itself from the mainstream publishers is one of the things that CBe is supposed to be about.

So if you’re out there and have something that’s betwixt and between, that maybe doesn’t even know what to call itself, send. You have a head start on my attention. And among the several ideas I have no need to agree with is the one that holds that a book of stories has to be, roughly, the length of a novel. Two or three fantastic stories can make, for me, a book.

I won’t rehearse the names again, the names of those writers who do what good writing can do for you without ever writing a novel, because I did that before (8 Jan, again). Just one: Grace Paley. Her publisher wanted her to write a novel and she tried, she tried, but she never did, and her stories are more than enough. She didn’t flinch from the bad stuff but, reading her, life is richer. I’ve just been sent her last book, published posthumously: poems, a kind of reckoning. (There are spaces in some of the lines below that the blogspot machinery isn't showing; if no one else does, I may have to publish this book in the UK myself.) She’s sly:

believe me I am
an unreliable
narrator no story
I’ve ever told
was true many people
have said this before
but they were lying

And she’s glorious:

then the sunshine implores
and up all of us go

we are like any
greengrowing machinery

riding the daylight route
to darkness

Thursday 6 March 2008

24 for 3: the intermission

Grisham, Schlink, Carey, Meek, Walker. Walker? Jennie, that is. On Monday her 24 for 3 was in the Evening Standard’s list of the five fiction bestsellers in London during the previous week. These newspaper lists are hardly scientific evidence, but she’s liking being in there with the boys, the big boys.

She’s also picked up a 5-star reader review on Amazon, even though you can’t buy the book directly from them, and the company she keeps there is very different: if you search by title, Jennie’s book is followed by something called National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Report 1386 Investigation of the Drag of Various Axially Symmetric Nose Shapes of Fineness Ratio 3 for Mach Numbers from 1.24 to 7.4; and next comes Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America.

However . . .

Very soon there’s going to be an interval, during which you’ll be able to buy ice creams but not 24 for 3 – because Bloomsbury have bought the book and will be publishing a new, revised and slightly longer edition, and the CBe edition is winding down and won’t have any more printings. Has Jennie sold her soul for glamour? Will she spend all her money on taxis and drugs? What will she be wearing for the launch party? We’ll keep in touch and let you know. Meanwhile, first come, first served for the last few copies of the CBe edition.

Thursday 28 February 2008

Showing them off

It really wasn’t that long ago that Foyles had a payment system ‘apparently designed by a Victorian lunatic’ (John Walsh): to buy a book you first had to decode the shelving system, then queue to get an invoice, then take the invoice to someone in a zoo cage and pay your money, then take the receipt back to the person at the first desk (who in the meantime had been sacked).

These days, the people there like books, and know about them and how to sell them too. This isn’t a cosy place, in the way the smaller independents can be; any retail space over a certain size now aspires to the condition of an airport departure lounge (swivel that stand and you expect to pick up a pair of sunglasses, before moving on to the duty fee); but the shelves hold surprises and indicate that the buyers are free to choose what they buy (the CBe books, for example, are just in the Charing Cross Road shop; and yesterday I noticed some Dalkey Archive titles in the South Bank shop that are not in Charing Cross Road).

If publishing is about choice and making good writing available to readers, then the independent stores that take books from small presses, and bring in books from abroad, are effectively publishing as well as selling. One step further would be this: independent stores with their own imprints, editing and designing and printing their own choice of books. (City Lights is the obvious precedent.) The only reason why I can’t point to present examples of this (beyond the occasional one-off book) is, perhaps, because the folk who run the independent stores already work all hours of the day and are up to and beyond their borrowing limits. But it will happen.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Spot the review

Two new reviews of CBe books. Not in the Telegraph, Times, Independent, Time Out, LRB, Literary Review, none of those places I sent the books out to, and I doubt you’ll find them unless I give you a clue. (Unusual books get reviewed in unusual places.)

Erik Houston’s The White Room is noticed in Monocle magazine (with the above photo), deep among the ads for slinky dresses and shoes and handbags (there’s even a full-page ad for one of those cases on wheels that air hostesses trot around with): ‘a beautifully crafted tale of interlocking lives in London and Norway, imbued with a Scandinavian melancholy’. Which is nice, but this is not a mellow book, oh no (and it’s also absurdly funny).

‘Great approach, gentle rhythm, perfect pitch’ – Jennie’s 24 for 3. ‘Making fun of cricket is easy work, but only rarely has the game been so gently and generously played with as here.’ In the Canberra Times, Australia.

Saturday 23 February 2008

Naming names

An ex-colleague writes (someone I used to send freelance work to, proofreading and the like, when I worked in a publisher’s office, which wasn’t all that long ago but feels like ancient history): she’s starting up a new bookshop in May, in Woodstock in Oxfordshire. The space, she says, is tiny; but there’ll be room for lots of children’s books, and books from the small publishers that excite her (Eland and Telegram are two of those she mentions), and her enthusiasm is huge. May she thrive.

This seems a cue to name a few names: John Sandoe, the London Review Bookshop, Crockatt & Powell, Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace, Daunts in Holland Park, Foyles in Charing Cross Road, Heywood Hill, the Broadway Bookshop in Hackney, the Calder Bookshop. Some of these places I’ve wandered into with a bag of CBe books and started talking; with others, more recently, the approach has been from them to me. All have taken books, and started selling them. Not one has queried the lack, on the books, of a printed barcode.

(In contrast, my local Waterstones – which I believe has licence from on high to stock a few locally sourced books at the manager’s discretion – mumbled about lack of space, not the right time of year, no barcodes, the near impossibility of taking the books unless I go through the main distributor they deal with. And Amazon? A joke. I’d have to pay an annual fee; books would be sent to them at my cost, they’d pay me no more than £2.40 per book and only after they’d sold the books at whatever price they choose, and – I know this from the experience of others – I wouldn’t see any money at all until after months of repeated requests. There’s a way of getting the books into Amazon’s ‘used & new’ subsection but there are copies already there, presumably the ones sent out for review that vanished.)

Some obvious things get said about independent bookstores whenever there’s a newspaper article about them: the staff know about the books they sell, because they read them themselves; they often know their customers too, because the shops are embedded in the local community. But the main point is this: there’s an art (doubtless a science too) to bookselling – it has to with knowledge and choice (what to leave out as well as what to put in) and enthusiasm and lots of personal relationship stuff – and the independent stores have the conditions in which this art can best flourish. The chainstores may make more money but their bureaucracy and hierarchy obstruct the art. Given the size of the book market, the scale of it, the chainstores and Amazon are probably reasonably efficient mechanisms for shifting product from warehouse to punter; but for anyone for whom either buying or selling a book is more a interesting activity than paying your electricity bill, the independent stores are the only places.

Some of them have a dog, or similar. And unless you’re in a hurry, you often come out with something – other book, new knowledge, phone number of someone nice – you didn’t actually go in for.

Sunday 17 February 2008


Over on Bookseller Crow’s blog there’s a mention of Joyce Carol Dates (as a Picador cover once spelt her). Easily done. Orphan Pamuk didn’t quite make it into the shops. Lovely mess when the back cover of the filmscript of Trainspotting, referring to the ‘heroin-addicted’ character of Mark Renton, mistakenly printed him as the journalist Alex Renton.

My copy of Cozarinsky’s The Moldavian Pimp lists his previous book as ‘The Bridge from Odessa’. Less transportable, I’d have thought, than the original ‘Bride’. Ted Hughes once published a book titled ‘A Dancer to God’; in one of his later books, this is listed as ‘A Danger to God’. These are the sort of errors that a proofreader corrects only reluctantly. I can imagine others: Dostoevsky, Grime and Punishment; Dickens, Great Expectorations; Elizabeth Bowen, The Horse in Paris.

I once let pass without query (in a biography of Liszt, since you ask) a sentence in which someone was described as feeling ‘as if they were clamped between a mermaid’s legs’ – unimprovably ridiculous. But just occasionally, I know that feeling.

Monday 11 February 2008

Mamet in a box

No page-one CB headlines. W was last seen wrapped in a Polish flag, after the Colony Room reading. Jennie wants me to engineer her a contract to do the authorised biography of Dimitri Mascarenhas (who hits sixes, and ‘is energetic in the field, with a good arm’ – Jonathan Agnew). And you can now buy the books in Foyles (Charing Cross Road), which has over the past few years become one of those shops you go into thinking they can’t possibly stock what I’m looking for and they do, and have a great café too.

So, a digression on David Mamet. His London revivals are, I gather, being praised, his New York new plays being panned, and I’m guessing the man himself is shrugging, and chuckling. (I warmed to this man some time ago, when I read his reply to an interviewer’s solemn question about his motives for directing the film of The Browning Version: he went into a long story about a dog that he loved, and the dog was kidnapped, and eventually the kidnappers got in touch to say that he could have the dog back only if he promised to make a film of The Browning Version.)

In 2000 he published Wilson, a novel of sorts, composed of fragments, made-up epigrams, quotes and misquotes, arguments, red herrings and other fish, and footnotes of various kinds and footnotes to those footnotes – much pleasure was had in the design (Ron Costley) and typesetting (Jill Burrows). It’s either a masterpiece or so wilful and indulgent as to be unreadable (from a UK review: ‘The whole thing flew so far over my head, I didn’t even hear it pass. In fact I didn’t even understand the blurb’). (In the book itself a footnote quotes a review of a book titled The Life History of Civilization: ‘either a work of overwhelming invention or a vast pile of shit’.) Or, more likely, it’s neither, but simply one of those books you disappear into for periods of relaxed bamboozlement (taking it lightly: academic seriousness is what it feeds off, chews up and spits out). I lent out my own copy years ago. But today I found another, in a box of free books in a basement corridor: shop-soiled books, or books printed upside down, or books that have nothing wrong with them at all except that – despite the blurbs: tour de force, witty and insightful, coruscating analysis of the moral vacuum at the heart of contemporary society, heartbreaking account of a young girl's coming-of-age – no one wants to read them. Some of life’s good things are still free.

Saturday 2 February 2008

The review lottery

Sending out books for review? A waste of time, advised an acquaintance who self-publishes. It’s like buying a lottery ticket: the chance of catching the eye of the right person in the right mood at the right time of day is minimal.

We did send the CBe books out, and we managed to buy a winning ticket: the Lezard review in the Guardian was a breakthrough, not just for that particular book but because it gives the whole venture some credibility. But there are certain assumptions standing in the way of getting these books noticed (that print-on-demand books are bad; that small-press books are niche, and aimed for a tiny readership), and on the whole that friend was right: 99 per cent of the books sent out for review just vanish.

They are busy people, literary editors. They have little time to actually look at what’s in front of them. I wrote a personal note to one of the broadsheet literary editors, because I used to work with him and there was a time when we talked about the lunacies of the publishing world. I got a friendly reply: he was pleased to note that I ‘have some really good titles forthcoming’ (we have not announced any forthcoming titles) and he would make sure that ‘our poetry editor knows all about CBe' (none of the books is poetry).

Monday 28 January 2008

Glasgow. Brodsky. Babel

15,000 free copies of a selection of 50 poems by Edwin Morgan will be distributed free throughout Glasgow in March (reported the Guardian on Saturday). What a bloody fantastic way to honour the man, and the people of Glasgow.

In 1991 Joseph Brodsky made what he called an immodest proposal. He noted that ‘the standard number of copies of a first or second collection by any poet in this country [the US] is something between 2,000 and 10,000 (and I speak of the commercial houses only). The latest census that I've seen gives the population of the United States as approximately 250 million. This means that a standard commercial publishing house, printing this or that author’s first or second volume, aims at only 0.001 percent of the entire population. To me, this is absurd.’ On the basis that ‘throughout what we call recorded history, the audience for poetry does not appear to have exceeded 1 per cent of the entire population’, he proposed that poetry be published in editions of 2.5 million – and argued that far from being childish idealism, this would make good economic sense: ‘A book of poetry printed in 2.5 million copies and priced at, say, $2, will in the end bring in more than 10,000 copies of the same edition priced at $20. You may encounter, of course, a problem of storage, but then you’ll be compelled to distribute as far and wide as the country. Moreover, if the government would recognize that the construction of your library is as essential to your inner vocation as business lunches are to your outer vocation, tax breaks could be made available to those who read, write, or publish poetry. The main loser, of course, would be the Brazilian rain forest. But I believe that a tree facing the choice between becoming a book of poems or a bunch of memos may well opt for the former.’

Poetry and readers: he believed in both. ‘Fifty million copies of an anthology of American poetry for $2 a copy can be sold in a country of 250 million. Perhaps not at once, but gradually, over a decade or so, they will sell. Books find their readers. And if they will not sell, well, let them lie around, absorb dust, rot, and disintegrate. There is always going to be a child who will fish a book out of the garbage heap. I was such a child, for what it’s worth; so, perhaps, were some of you.’

In 1993 the American Poetry and Literacy Project – a non-profit organisation, run by volunteers – was set up by a young writer, Andrew Carroll, with Brodsky’s support. To date it has distributed more than a million free poetry books in schools, subways, bus stations, supermarkets, day-care centres, etc.

In the UK we have the outfits who put poetry on buses and the Tube. And now we have the councillors of Glasgow. All hail.

PS – yesterday was the anniversary of the deathday of Isaac Babel, which the CBe authors (those still alive) and I marked with Polish stew and black vodka. Today is the anniversary of the deathday (in 1996) of Brodsky. Read a poem. Pour another vodka.