Friday 28 August 2009

Brian Jones

I missed this last week – an obituary of the poet Brian Jones. The above is one of his first two books, 1968, published by London Magazine Editions (which, with their brown card covers – ‘like wholemeal sandwiches’ said The Times – were and still are the role model for CBe). Before this one there was Poems (1966) – one of the most straightforward titles ever. The descriptions of the copies for sale on abebooks are apposite: strong spine and clean text throughout, edges rubbed, pages a little age-toned. The poems themselves are still fresh, strong, packed with both love and a kind of baffled anger. About the above book he wrote: ‘I am convinced that poetry can still cope with narrative . . . It need not be forced to explore exclusively personal or extreme states of mind or feeling . . . I have tried to be colloquial, and at the same time to make no sacrifices of subtlety and depth. As the poem is born out of a great admiration and respect for my own, unliterary family, I wished to make it accessible . . .’

I came across Jones’s first books in my teens: they were among those that showed me poetry is worth the candle. I’m annoyed that I’ve paid no attention to his later books (published by Carcanet). He’s not on any syllabus, I think, and he was never promoted to the premier league, but there are other ways in which minor poets can still be major.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Good eggs

In 1908 – almost exactly a century ago – Ford Madox Ford founded the English Review, in which he published Hardy, Conrad, Wells, etc, and – their first appearance in print – D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, others. (Later, in 1924, he founded the Transatlantic Review: Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, etc.) Half of it was to be devoted to current affairs: ‘To imagine that a magazine devoted to imaginative literature and technical criticism alone would find more than a hundred readers in the United Kingdom was a delusion that I in no way had.’ He persuaded a wealthy politican ‘to provide half of the capital necessary, which we agreed was to be £5,000.’

This is an astounding figure. A net machine tells me that the purchasing power of that sum in 1908 is equivalent to, in 2008 figures, £389,200 (using RPI) or (using average earnings) £2,042,500.

But money aside, and politicians willing to invest in magazines, the literary life Ford witnesses is completely familiar. The established writers guard their privacy: Conrad ‘always managed be out at tea-time, in case anyone literary should come in’; James telephoned before visiting, ‘so as to make sure of meeting no writers’. The younger writers ‘crowded my office drawing room, they quarrelled, they shouted.’ Ford describes a dinner at which ‘Mr Chesterton and Mr Belloc were one on each side of Mr Baring. They occupied themselves for some time in trying in vain to balance glasses of Rhine wine on his skull. That gentleman comes back to me as having been then only a little less bald than an egg. The floor and his shirt received the wine in about equal quantities. But he did not seem to mind.’

The politician pulls out, but Ford is persuaded to keep going when no other magazine will, ‘on the score of immorality’, print a poem by Hardy. ‘Then came Ezra . . . He threw himself alarmingly into frail chairs, devoured enormous quantities of your pastry, fixed his pince-nez firmly on his nose, drew out a manuscript . . .’ Ford, guessing ‘he must be rather hard up,’ takes a poem and pays Pound ‘not a large sum’ but enough for him to live on for six months. And then Wyndham Lewis, wearing ‘an ample black cloak of the type that villains in transpontine melodrama throw over their shoulders when they say Ha-Ha!’ ‘He must be Guy Fawkes,’ Ford thinks – ‘but his writing was of extraordinary brilliance.’

Ford was ousted as editor in 1910 – problems with money, and in his personal life. ‘I remember only one dull moment’.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Ashes to ashes

England have beaten Australia in the 5th Test – I’m talking cricket here – and won the Ashes. This is not what most of us expected. Jennie Walker, guest blogger, writes:

‘Rules, play and skill – it’s their job, for godsake. Twenty-two players and one small red ball, and there are only so many things you can do with it. (It can be more fun without skill, but at that level it tends to be slapstick.) Add in a slice of luck or, powered up by adrenaline, super-skill. Hard to tell the difference: millimetres, a fraction of a second. Given an accumulation of these moments – one tends to prompt another – one side wins, the other loses, a nation celebrates.’

If Jennie sounds less than ecstatic, it may be because Waterstone’s, this week’s bogeymen, don’t seem to be stocking the paperback of her 23 for 3 (concerning cricket and infidelity; ‘I loved it’ – Mick Jagger), and authors take these things personally.

Friday 21 August 2009

Something about ceiling fans

At the end of last month Crockatt & Powell (booksellers to the discerning) shut up shop. It’s not a death, but it causes a jolt nonetheless – a good thing in the world, and one that I’d assumed was carrying on merrily even when I wasn’t paying it attention, has gone, overnight. Early on, I took books into the Lower Marsh shop; numbers were written on a piece of paper; some time later I went back, and a sum of rounded up or rounded down pounds was offered and taken. This is a perfectly reasonable and efficient way of doing business.

Compare Waterstone’s. Wrong time of year, too many books already, they said; sometime later I went back and collected the (unopened) parcel of sample books I’d left for the manager. Now I know: they have a system, I need the nod of the Independent Publisher Co-ordinator. A publishing friend got that nod, sent flyers (along with reviews from the Independent, TLS, Telegraph, etc) to more than 200 individual Waterstone’s managers, resulting in orders for 12 books. This is not efficient. Yet C&P are gone, and W remains.

It’s to do with scale and volume and systems (see last post). But also, people simply don’t read. Not you. I mean the people who run the chain stores, and the publishers who supply the chain stores, and the lit eds who decide what gets attention and what doesn’t. They’re not illiterate; but they read only for work, or only the books they feel they should read.

Fortunately, the folk at Foyles read. And those at John Sandoe, Daunts, Broadway, Crow (all independents) read. As did, and presumably still do, Matthew and Adam of C&P. They read books that the chain stores don’t even know exist. Which shows that ways can be found of putting bread on the table without having to sacrifice the vocation of bookselling to the business of same.

There is, by the way, a fabulous premises in the Goldhawk Road, bang next to the Tube station, that used to be a café and is now vacant; split levels, bare floorboards, garden at the back, those big ceiling fans that waft around lazily. It wants to be a book place: selling, reading, writing, publishing, talking. M, A? Anyone?

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Management methodologies

If you’re moving to a new flat you probably hire a van or get a couple of friends with cars to help shift your books. If you’re moving a lot of books, things get more complicated. In the Guardian this week there’s a job ad for a ‘book move manager’ in Oxford: ‘The postholder will be responsible for the OULS Book Moving Team, together with agency staff . . . Candidates should have experience managing large scale strategic projects including budgets of over £1 million using standard project management methodologies, a good working knowledge of library storage systems, shelving methods and equipment as well as an understanding of relevant Health and Safety principles and practices.’

(The job pays up to £43,622 p.a. Go for it.)

The number of books shifted by most small presses is usually at the friend-with-a-car end of the scale. But Amazon and the chain bookstores deal in mass quantities, and they have systems and ‘management methodologies’ to cope with these – systems that interlock neatly with the big publishers’ systems but which disadvantage the small presses.

For the record, how to buy a CBe book . . . From the website (financially, best for us). From a local independent bookstore (which may have to get the book from the distributor, but these stores need support). From a chain bookstore (if it has to order the book in, this time a more elaborate system kicks in and time and money are lost). If you must buy online, instead of Amazon try – which not only is more likely to have the book in stock but offers discounts and free worldwide delivery.

Monday 17 August 2009

‘I laughed. I scowled. I cried. I loved it’

My favourite critical review of my own poems came during a phone call, when someone told me that they’d made his wife laugh in bed. To get on the cover of a book, a review line usually has to have the name of a newspaper attached to it, or come from someone you’re expected to have heard of, but for an author the most meaningful responses often come from unknown ordinary readers.

Natural Mechanical has two reader reviews on Amazon; both are 5-star. I particularly like this line from one of them: ‘I forgot for most of the time that I was even reading poetry.’ And today I had a postcard from a man who once taught me English, when I was in my teens: ‘I have just finished a second reading of Natural Mechanical. If I thought it extraordinary the first time, the second was even more stunning . . .’


We have contracts, of a sort, and account books and ISBNs and so on but especially we have authors who, when they come round with some final proof corrections, arrive with wine and Polish chocolates and books (the new Arc Mayakovsky translation, with full-colour Rodchenko photomontages, a wonder). And sunflowers. I’m chuffed.

Friday 14 August 2009

Gateway consortia

To Glyndebourne today, to talk about Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew (book in September, opera next March) with a marketing person, a press person, an education person, plus others. I’m floundering a bit here, but don’t want to hold up the conversation by asking what a gateway consortium is. Some of the assumptions and conventions I’m unfamiliar with; apparently I’ve already announced something which I shouldn’t have, at least not until December. I come home with a headache.

But Nicky herself is terrific: there’ll be at least 60 young people involved in the opera project, and she wants to get them selling the book themselves; she talks with passion about the book itself, which has to do with the potential in people that both society (because they dun wrong) and they themselves are often blind to.

And really it should be simple, no? I persuade one or two people that the book is worth a few hours of their time and more; they tell others, who tell others, who tell others. I may have to shout to get the ball rolling, a thing I’m not good at (a few people might disagree), but still. A chain letter. Consider it started. (Finished copies beginning of September; if anyone wants advance proofs or a pdf, email.)

Wednesday 12 August 2009

The pilot scheme

(Photographed this afternoon in Central London.)

Figures today show that unemployment is up to 2.4 million, the highest since 1995. And book sales are down and, they say, young people don’t read. SORT IT OUT: pay people to read. In public. Role models. Behind temporary barriers, so they’re not jostled or interrupted. Local booksellers and publishers can advertise on the barriers. Result: unemployment down, book sales up, and the whole country becomes more literate, imaginative and civilised.

Sunday 9 August 2009

Looking out

What’s going on out there? J. O. Morgan reading from Natural Mechanical at the West Port Book Festival in Edinburgh next Thursday, the 13th, is what.

Thursday 6 August 2009


It’s in Puglia, bottom right of Italy, on the east coast, a couple of hundred yards from the sea. Pretty basic: one big room (has been used as an artist’s studio), two bedrooms, a kitchen (of sorts), a bathroom (and another, better one at the back, separate door; and a shower on the roof too), a bicycle. Around 15 miles from Brindisi, 20 from Lecce. At the end of a rough road (car needed). If anyone has a liking to go there for a spell, probably for free, email me. And apparently it’s for sale, so if anyone has a liking to own this place, get in touch likewise.

Tuesday 4 August 2009

Forward Prize shortlists

J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for the best first poetry book of 2009. I’m enormously pleased for J.O. (and prouder than if I’d written the book myself), but about the next stage – the announcement of the winner in October – I’m uneasy.

These little lists . . . If these and the prizes bring some wider recognition for good books, and give a writer confidence and a sense of achievement, those are good things, but it’s an odd ritual everyone goes through to get there: a ritual that presumes there is such a thing as a ‘best book’; that involves the judges saying how difficult it has been to select a winner this year (every year)*; and that has all but one of the shortlistees turning up to the awards do only to become, at the opening of an envelope, also-rans (a nasty experience; large amounts of alcohol are often needed to recover from it). Prizes with shortlists are a form of blood sport played for the entertainment of literary hacks, and it would be good if these things could be managed in a less newspapery, more writerly/readerly way.

Shortlisted for the Forward best book category – for the oldies, as opposed to the new kids on the block – is Christopher Reid’s A Scattering, published under the imprint of the magazine AretĂ©. Christopher’s second book of this year, The Song of Lunch, was published by CBe in May. Despite the small rant above, we sincerely hope that both Morgan and Reid become considerably richer in October.

*Because, obviously, there is (except very rarely) no 'best book'. It's like being asked a nonsense question: which is better, a kangaroo or a fishing rod?