Tuesday 21 July 2009


Now that there’s someone else in place for the cats to boss around, I’ll be away for some days, to the very same place in Italy where I walked into the sea with my wallet in my swimming trunks two years ago and then came home and within 24 hours had decided, well, if money flows out of my possession so fast, it would be more fun to publish a few books than simply hand it over to the crabs.

I don’t think hordes of online buyers will be inconvenienced by delays in the posting of books; this seems to be one of those periods when I get more enquiries about submitting work than actual purchases. (Are there more writers out there than readers? I’m not the first to wonder about this.) But I’m looking forward to being back. Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew will be published in the same week in September as the new Dan Brown. Mainstream publishers are bringing their big names forward in a desperate attempt to get shelf space. Dan who? We will stick with mid-September.

Saturday 18 July 2009

‘Seductive, amusing’ – a round-up

Over on Asylum, a review of Christopher Reid’s ‘seductive, amusing and even touching’ The Song of Lunch which takes pleasure in quoting from the book a ‘vigorous rant on the current state of the publishing industry’. (The review also notes that the CBe books ‘are much more handsome in person than they appear on their website’. It’s true: on the site the books all appear to have jaundice. The yellowness will be corrected when we update in September.)

In today’s Guardian, Nicholas Lezard reviews Simon Rae’s Unplayable (typeset and designed by CBe): ‘young boys (and, let us hope, some young girls) will read this book, and like it, a lot. They will be given it by their fathers (for the most part); but their fathers will read it first . . . Simon Rae, who has written two grown-up books about cricket (one of them an enormous biography of WG Grace), seems to have acquired . . . the knack of writing fast-paced, entirely plausible and gripping narrative for children of a certain age . . . Plus you have the bonus of a brief but winning introduction by Gatting, where, as he is condemned to do for the rest of his life, he has to talk about That Ball from Shane Warne. And it's come out at just the right time. Maybe the England team should read it.’ The book is available here, or can be ordered from bookshops.

On Thursday there was a launch party for Unplayable down the road from Lord’s, on the evening of the first day of the current Test. Instead of drinking free wine and making small talk with poets I could have been drinking free wine and making small talk with Mike Gatting and other cricketers, but I wasn’t there, dammit, because that day I went in for some minor day surgery and when L arrived home and saw me slumped in my dressing gown with a patch over one eye and the other eye half closed beneath a bruised, swollen and stitched eyelid he said I looked like a character in No Country for Old Men.

Also worth recording: I sent some advance proofs of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew to Benjamin Zephaniah, in the hope that that he might like the book and say so in words that could be used on the cover. This was a big ask; it takes time to read a book, time to think about it, time to put thoughts into words, and BZ is a busy man. (Also, I feel uneasy about the whole business of writers’ puffs for other writers, some of them being not what they seem; I’ve seen letters go out from publishers with the words of praise already written by the publisher and asking simply for the recipient’s yes/no.) Many writers to whom books are sent simply don’t reply.

Zephaniah read the book. He liked it, and wrote a letter to tell me why. He doesn’t always say yes – in 2003 he said no to an OBE. I have a lot of respect for Benjamin Zephaniah.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Unlikely bedfellows

– or at least, sharers of the same paragraph.

One likes – it isn’t just me, is it? – to hear of, speculate about, unlikely but possible encounters. Did Chaucer, while briefly in Florence, meet Boccaccio? (David Markson, in This Is Not a Novel, to be published by CBe early next year, wonders about that one. And in his next paragraph mentions that Charlotte Corday, who stabbed Marat in his bath, and read Plutarch on the morning she did this, was a great grand-niece of Corneille. And elsewhere mentions that Wallace Stevens, while working briefly as a newspaper reporter, covered the funeral of Stephen Crane. The book is full of such random but true links.)

Somewhere in Soho there’s a blue plaque commemorating the fact that Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong leader, worked briefly in his early twenties as a kitchen porter at the Carlton Hotel in London. Mae West (I’m No Angel: ‘When I'm good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better’) stayed at the Carlton while performing at the nearby Haymarket theatre and, decades later, told Gavin Young in an interview of an encounter there with ‘Ho . . . Ho . . . Ho something’: ‘There was this waiter, cook, I don’t know what he was. I know he had the slinkiest eyes though. We met in the corridor. We – well . . .’

So very nearly, a whole different history between America and Vietnam. Accidental encounters, coincidences: these may have more to do with the way history plays out, literature too (Robert Frost meeting Edward Thomas in a bookshop in 1913), than the interminable hindsight essays on the causes of the First World War etc allow for. Put them in a novel, though, and they’ll likely be criticised as implausible, not true to life.

Saturday 4 July 2009

‘A shower, a veritable downpour’

George Szirtes reviews J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical in the new issue of Poetry London. He brings in Wordsworth – The Prelude, and the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads (‘a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’) – and he attends to the prosody and he discusses ‘the empty opposition’ of poetry and prose. At this point I was reminded of my wife’s impatience with some of the reviews she reads in art magazines: she ponders, throws it to me, asks ‘But does he like it?’ He does:

‘Though the language is plain, almost rugged, the verse is rhythmically supple . . . None of this is dry-as-dust prosody. It is the very life of the poem: sure-footed, complete with transitions, the eye sharp, the poetry not in the description but in the noting of brute, luminous fact. Subtle verse and a feeling for precision of detail lie at the heart of the poem’s success . . . The remarkable thing about Natural Mechanical is that it is not in the slightest bit quaint or sentimental. It is a shower, a veritable downpour, of fine particulars in a single, robust life . . . It is one vivid gathering sensation in skilfully calibrated real language. It is itself natural-mechanical.’

Yes, I do know there’s a typo on the back cover. My eye wasn’t as sharp as the poem’s. But as soon as we sell out of the present print-run we can correct it, and those who have already bought will have something whose flaw only increases its value. In the words of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, ‘Whoever has two pairs of pants, sell one and buy this book.’

Three pieces of string

The culmination, last night, of the theatre thing (New Connections, commissioned new plays being performed by youth groups all over the country, an initiative I’ve said before that has me awestruck and I’ll say it again). The Things She Sees, adapted by Ben Power from a short novel I wrote some six years ago, was performed by a group from Lancaster at the Cottesloe at the NT. The play was chosen largely because it offered opportunities for audio-visual stuff and all kinds of hi-tec fandango, and the groups who chose the play were encouraged down that route. And the production at the Cottesloe was good, more than good, to my mind not least because it ignored all that: a few boxes, a couple of screens, three pieces of string, and actors who spoke and moved with feeling proved entirely sufficient for a play that involved staging, among other things, breaking into a house, a motorbike ride, a massacre of French soldiers in Morocco in 1924, a hut set on fire and, crucially, a series of drawings in a notebook. An overload of story, and back-story too, was what might have decided them to simplify the means of telling it. They were brilliant.

The Murray-Roddick match ended ten minutes before the performance started, one-on-one giving way to a team performance. For Murray to have prolonged the match into a fifth set would have been disrespectful.

PS: there’s a (short) piece about Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew with a (postage-stamp) preview of the cover in the new issue of The Bookseller. CBe is referred to as an ‘indie’.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Nothing to do with anything

A cricket? A critic? Taking advantage of the cats being too hot and flaked out this morning to bother, a moth called in at my desk. We discussed a dream I had at the weekend: I was writing a book, but the book I was writing in was printed on every page, and my writing was a continuous erasing, so that what I’d end up with would be a book of white pages. The moth mentioned Flaubert’s ambition to write a novel about nothing, composed of pure style. Or was this happiness writing, literally, white? The moth didn’t stay. But it was, I think, a learnèd moth.