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 cafĂ© 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.