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.