Wednesday 28 January 2009

Otherwise engaged

Few posts at present because Jack is head-down in his recession book. And getting angrier by the day. At the weekend I watched a video record of a talk given by a fierce and witty Marxist academic in California, and read a good essay by Dan Hind (available on his page on the Verso website) called ‘Jump! You fuckers!’ And started reading James Buchan’s Frozen Desire, about money – which sounds a chore but isn’t, because he reads economists as literature and Dostoyevsky as an economist. It’s blindingly clear that many of the ‘experts’ had no idea what the convoluted financial products they were using our money to buy actually were. (And it’s been going on for years. James Buchan, in the late 1980s: ‘In London and New York I met people who invested fortunes in financial enterprises they simply could not describe or explain. No doubt quite soon, a bank would discover it had lost its capital in those obscure speculations; other banks would fail in sympathy . . .’) The politicians didn’t know either. It’s as if we’ve been going with our tummy-aches to doctors who don’t know the difference between the liver and the kidneys. No wonder we’re ill.

Wednesday 21 January 2009


Thinking about Jack’s recession book reminded me – and why the connection took so long, god knows – of one of the great books of the last century, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

How to describe it? Not fiction, nor non-fiction as it’s commonly understood, and definitely not journalism (which Agee despised: ‘The very blood and semen of journalism is a broad and successful form of lying’). Agee and the photographer Walker Evans were commissioned by a magazine in the 1930s to write a piece on sharecroppers – white tenant farmers – in the southern US. Aged 27, diffident, idealistic, rebellious, Agee was deeply uncomfortable with the whole project: ‘It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of “honest journalism” (whatever that paradox may mean) . . .’

My edition (Picador, 1988) runs to around 500 pages and includes some 60 photographs by Walker Evans. In a 1961 preface Evans says that it was ‘largely night-written’, and ‘some of the sections read best at night, far into the night’. It is a book, Agee says, ‘only by necessity’: ‘The effort is to recognise the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis and defense.’ There are intimate and intricate catalogues (of buildings, furniture, clothes, materials, and the effects on these of time and light and work); there are prayers and poems and impassioned riffs on beauty, symmetry, language and writing, education, land and geology and ownership and justice. The language moves between the deadpan plain and an Elizabethan baroque. It’s a deeply personal but reverberating act of solidarity and rebellion. Does the recent Penguin edition include the Evans preface? I’ll assume it doesn’t, which will excuse more quoting. Evans remarks on Agee’s Christianity: ‘a punctured and residual element, but it was still a naked, root emotion. It was an ex-Church, or non-Church matter . . . All you saw of it was an ingrained courtesy, an uncourtly courtesy that emanated from him towards everyone, perhaps excepting the smugly rich, the pretentiously genteel, and the police. After a while, in a round-about way, you discovered that, to him, human beings were at least possibly immortal and literally sacred souls . . . Agee’s rebellion was unquenchable, self-damaging, deeply principled, infinitely costly, and ultimately priceless.’ One particular section of the book I swore to myself ages ago that I would re-read every year, and most years I do.

Saturday 17 January 2009

Treasure house

This is Central Books in East London, the trade distributor for CBe, where I took a carload of books yesterday. It’s a grand building, and lends a bit of industrial/manufacturing gravitas to the otherwise rather effete business of book-making. From the top floor you can look out over the site for the Olympics: a flat, grim, muddy wasteland (though when it gets dark the twinkly lights of the vehicles are quite pretty), and I hope that somewhere out there Iain Sinclair is walking round the site and making notes for a learned and scathing book.

Thursday 15 January 2009


I spoke this week with a couple of writers who haven’t been reading the pieces about the publishing highlights of 2009 with much glee. The next book of one (who’s been publishing successfully for decades), scheduled for later this year, has been postponed and no, the publishers can’t say when they’ll get round to it. The next book of the other author (prizes, mega sales) has been adapted for a stage performance, very high profile, and there’ll be a series of TV programmes about this production, but no publisher wants the book.

These are just two of a number of similar current tales. What, I continue to wonder, are publishers for? Suddenly they seem to have become much kinder to trees.

Meanwhile, here is another good online review of Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl. Please buy the book. It’s not much to ask. And Anthony Rudolf names BBB's translations of Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, as one his Books of 2008 on the RSB site.

Monday 12 January 2009

Land of opportunity

For anyone thinking of setting up an alternative UN, Eurovision Song Contest or Miss World competition, here’s a fine collection of second-hand flagpoles.

Jack Robinson – the Days and Nights in W12 man – has a new photo-cum-text book in mind, this one documenting the coming months of recession. Contributions of relevant photographs (bankers scurrying for cover with boxes of their desk toys and Anglepoises, and absolutely anything for sale – from Woolworths and Newcastle United to flagpoles, churches, City wine bars and old boots) are welcome. Send to No payment. Acknowledgement and a couple of free books if and when.

Saturday 10 January 2009


Early in the 20th century, during that brief window when it seemed possible that if everyone thought along the right (socialist) lines the good society could be created on earth, the Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov published a series of ‘proposals’. Among them, this: ‘Set aside a special uninhabited island for a never-ending war between anybody from any country who wants to fight now. (For people who want to die like heroes.)’

Quick, now, send Hamas and the Israeli military there. And if uninhabited islands are in short supply, send them to 3112 Velimir, the minor planet discovered in 1977 and named after Khlebnikov. Just get them out of those crowded streets where children, women and men want only shelter, food, work, love.

Friday 9 January 2009

Endings (and modest proposal no. 134)

A slow start to the year, the gears rusty, because it’s cold and maybe because I’ve been thinking about endings rather than beginnings (I often turn to the last page of a book before I’ve read my way there, sometimes before I’ve even begun, a habit that enrages many but if the book’s any good it doesn’t spoil my reading at all). Endings and blogs – because I’ve been thinking about how a book might evolve from a blog (not this one, oh no), which is far from straightforward as the forms are so different (books with first and last pages, blogs present continuous), and also because it’s a year ago that the regular posts on a blog I was following stopped, and a few weeks later readers were informed in the comment box that the writer had died, and the rawness and shock of this news were somehow amplified by the (present continuous, public but intimate) medium. There are now around 90 comments from many different countries in that comment box, an invisible community coming together.

Something else: given that the exchange rates seem good for export right now, how about cash-strapped credit-crunched UK selling off the monarchy? – to one of those many countries that seem fonder of the royals than we do. It’d get my vote.