Saturday 31 October 2009


Today I went to see Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry, 3 metres by 15 metres, at Victoria Miro, and works by Keith Tyson next door, lots of them and most very big. Afterwards, to M who was with me, I said: Did he make that all by himself? She laughed. And Keith Tyson? Oh, he has ‘assistants’ too.

I think I kind of knew this, but I still paused before moving on. Isn’t the point of pretty well most artistic activity that you discover what you’re doing by doing it? That it’s your engagement with the making of it that turns your original idea, impulse, whatever, into the finished piece it becomes?

‘You are old, Father William, and your hair has become very white.’ Guess so. And I decided to be mellow about this. One of the funny things about the Walthamstow Tapestry is that the words, hundreds of them, stitched into the tapestry are all brand names (the work, says the press release, ‘explores the emotional resonance of brand names in our lives and our quasi-religious relationship to . . .’: yes). It’s not black-and-white, anyway. There are parts (the boring bits) of many paintings by the Old Masters that were done by others in the studio. And everyone knows that Katie Price’s books aren’t actually written by Katie Price.

And then I thought, Heaney is a busy man, and Ashbery is over eighty, and Martin Amis has two books coming out early next year, and all those folk on creative writing courses at the very time when publishers are closing doors, where do they go when they graduate? . . . No, no. It's Halloween.

(Meanwhile, some of the reviews are saying the paintings done by D. Hirst himself now at the Wallace Collection show he can’t paint. Which suggests that if you see a painting by ‘Damien Hirst’ that is well executed, it’s not by him.)

Monday 26 October 2009

Small Publishers Book Fair 2009

Advance warning: this will be on Friday 13th and Saturday 14th November at the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. both days. CBe will have a table. I’ll post a reminder nearer the time, but meanwhile . . .

‘Small’ is relative. Is Hesperus small? Alma? Pushkin? Salt? Tindall Street? Yes, relative to Random House (but none of this band are showing at the fair); no, relative to Reality Street Editions or, say, Tufnell Art Press. The word ‘publisher’ here is also slippery, as the great majority of the exhibitors at this fair are not producing the kind of books you’ll find in Waterstone’s (or indeed on amazon). RGAP, who organise the fair, is an ‘artist-led organisation’, and in most of the work on show the visual interest trumps the literary.*

So CBe, whose books (except for the Jack Robinsons**) are text and not image, will be odd man out. (Not entirely: Shearsman will be there too, and among the visual extravaganza you’ll occasionally find some very fine text: the poetry of Thomas A. Clark, for example, published by Moschatel Press.) But I won’t feel that way, because the common factor uniting all the exhibitors is that they are vocational publishers – publishing, that is, not in the expectation of making a profit or even a living out of it, but for the difficult pleasure of the activity itself.

That said, a living does need to be made, by hook or by crook or by book, so bring money.

* Is it just me that finds it odd that, while there are book fairs for artists’ books and comic books, etc, there’s no national UK book fair for non-mainstream literary publishers? (Not even a fringe event at the London Book Fair, or as an add-on to one of the major literary festivals. I’m sure other countries have these things.)

** Yesterday morning my local (Labour) councillor knocked on the door, and then along came my (Labour) MP. Did I have any ‘issues’ I wanted to discuss? They went off with copies of Jack’s Recessional and the W12 book.

Thursday 22 October 2009

me/not me

‘Charles Boyle’s career as an owner, breeder and trainer of champion horses both in the U.S. and Canada was a long, colourful and distinguished tableau . . . Mr Charles Boyle began his Taekwondo training aged 17 under then Master Hee Il Cho . . . Charles Boyle was charged with the murder of his mother and the two young children of a neighbour on 31st May, 1924.’

This is the kind of thing you find when you google yourself. A name by itself is never enough (which is why, when I go to collect an undelivered parcel, I have to remember to take along my Taekwondo diploma); while more than one name may be too many. Some sorting out and narrowing down is needed, and in this week’s TLS J.C. performs a useful service: ‘CB editions now has a list that includes people who are not Mr Boyle: Christopher Reid (The Song of Lunch) is not he, nor is Francis Ponge (Unfinished Ode to Mud, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic), nor the German novelist Gert Hofmann (Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl, translated by Michael Hofmann) . . .’

Sunday 18 October 2009


These are the carrier pigeons of Shepherd’s Bush, waiting for private hire to deliver post. Many of them make half a dozen deliveries daily within the London area; rates for deliveries beyond the M25 are negotiable. They’ve been busy these past few weeks, and next week they’ll be even busier.

Either my local postman is the mild-mannered, friendly, hardworking man I know him to be or he’s the lazy, stick-in-the-mud, recalcitrant, hard-line union activist that the Royal Mail and most newspapers are telling me he is. For an insight into the conditions he’s working under, read this piece, written by a postman, from the LRB of last month. It rings true to me, and probably to anyone who has worked in a large organisation. People don’t go on strike, thereby risking their own jobs, without a good reason, and there are plenty here: poor management, low morale, dodgy statistics, private companies piggybacking on Royal Mail labour and creaming off profits, office chiefs ‘who aren’t all that bright’ . . .

In today’s Observer there’s another good piece, by Victoria Coren. There used to be, in some places still is, a custom of slipping your postie a thankyou present at Christmas; this year I’ll be baking early and taking cake to the picket lines.

Friday 16 October 2009

Hanging, smoking, etc

The poster for the new Terry Gilliam film is classified 12A: ‘contains infrequent strong language, scenes of threat, hanging and smoking’. My italics (I kill, or am killed by, a pack a day). I sold a copy of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew this week to a woman for her 14-year-old son and, because this book is a very different book from Nicky’s Feather Boy, felt a need – why? – to mention that, hmm, people get knifed in this book, and people make love, and . . . The woman: ‘Oh, he knows all about that. [infinitesimal pause] He reads a lot.’ He’s currently reading Thomas Hardy.

Don’t, please, print recommended age bands on children’s books. Not just because it’s bossy, not just because this scheme is designed chiefly to help booksellers rather than readers (if booksellers don’t know what they’re selling, they’re in the wrong job), but mainly because any such banding is anti-book. Literature – reading – is freedom. Any attempt to enclose or partition it is ignorant and doomed.

Do, please, fix the gents toilet in Borders in Charing X Road.

Other thing: go to John Self’s Asylum for a review of In Sarah’s House, W’s translation of stories by Stefan Grabinski, and a puff for CBe in general (‘thank heavens for CB Editions and their like: perhaps these are the places where everything worthwhile, however long forgotten, is preserved and recorded’). This attention is nice. But as for translating that into actual sales of books, I’ve a feeling I’m missing something, some magic phrase I should be intoning every morning as soon as I wake up, a phrase that they whisper to you on a sales-&-marketing course, but only after you’ve signed up to the rest of the mumbo-jumbo, and that’s the catch.

Tuesday 13 October 2009


Here’s Kate Bingham on Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch in the new Poetry London:

‘Slick with wit and pace and verbal panache, and as quaffable as the two bottles of wine the unnamed protagonist single-handedly “kills” in as many courses, The Song of Lunch slips down the page without giving its reader pause to wonder where he or she is headed. If the opening reference to Captain Oates’s famous last words hints at the self-destruction to come, the early sections bounce along as, full of the “rare joy of truancy”, the hero skips and darts his way across town for lunch with an old flame. The writing is breezy and supple, with Reid’s masterful interior monologue effortlessly shifting gear . . . Reid has a scriptwriter’s ear for the cut and thrust of table talk, and the dialogue crackles with subtext as the hero’s defences are lowered and raised. Sulky, bitter and leering by turns, he thoroughly disgraces himself, but we sympathise . . .’

This is not a dutiful review – she’s enjoying the book. A good lunch companion.

Sunday 11 October 2009


Another prize? Here is a new prize of £25,000 for a single short story. You could pay a nurse’s annual salary with that, or a couple of ‘clinical support workers nursing’, or publish several books or keep an independent bookstore alive or set up a whole new publishing company. The prize has six judges, all with fine mainstream credentials; there’ll be some excellent writers looking at that list of names and wondering whether it’s really worth their entering.

The short story is not, despite the received wisdom to the contrary, neglected. There are writing courses galore; far more mainstream publishers have story collections on their lists than, say, poetry; there are more opportunities for short-story publication in magazines, both printed and online, than ever before (probably more opportunities than good stories); and there are many prizes too, the biggest of these (until now) being the BBC National Short Story Award, which declares itself ‘the largest award in the world for a single short story’ – now trumped by the new Sunday Times one, offering ‘the largest prize for a single short story in the world’.

This is a mine-is-bigger-than-yours shoot-out between heavyweight sponsors eager to show off their cultural credentials. Money from banks and other wealthy institutions, yes please, but there are more interesting and imaginative ways in which they could be doling it out.

PS: Another example of non-neglect: the display stand at Foyles in Charing X Road that’s currently showcasing the recent Harper Perennial books of classic short fiction: Melville, Wilde, Stephen Crane, Dostoyevsky, Willa Cather, Tolstoy. Each book includes stories that are not in the standard Penguin collections. And the covers are lovely and so is the text design. And each book contains a ‘bonus’ story by a contemporary writer from a collection of stories newly published – slightly corny, perhaps, but as a way of promoting new short stories, and of getting them into the hands of readers, this is a far more imaginative and practical idea than another thumping prize. Has the Sunday Times even noticed this series? I think not.


More praise for J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical:

‘A single, book-length poem telling the story of Rocky, a dyslexic boy who grows up on the Isle of Skye, dropping out of school and learning his lessons from the land. Sounds old-fashioned and Wordsworthian when you sum it up like that, but it’s an amazingly fresh, assured piece of work, full of memorable episodes, all beautifully told. On a first reading, you can enjoy it purely as a great story (perfect for film adaptation). But then you can revisit it time and again just to savour the music of the language. Best thing I’ve read in a long while.’ – Nick Asbury

This is from the website of 26 – which seems to be a kind of networking site for marketing copywriters, brand consultants and the like, founded ‘to inspire a greater love of words, in business and in life’. There’s a page on which members recommend ‘anything that hits the spot’ (Nat Mech falls between the Museum of London and a Jonathan Meades DVD set). I’m thinking it all looks a bit too mission-statementy for me but then, oh, look, Elise V is a member and Simon Armitage too and they do some odd and interesting things.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Nobel Prize for Embarrassment

Annually, both funny and shameful, and I think we win it every year – none of the literary eds knows what to say about the Nobel Prizewinner for Literature (unless they’re Brit or American). Robert McCrum, ex-Observer lit ed and still general panjandrum, admits on a Guardian podcast that he’s ‘never read a word she’s written’, and has been ‘frantically searching the web to find out things’. He says this from the comfort of knowing that he’s not alone.

Which is no excuse. For starters, Michael Hofmann’s translation of Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums (‘currently unavailable’ on amazon, hah) won the 1998 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, which is arguably the major literary award in these English-speaking isles.

Being lazy by habit and temperament myself, I’m in no position to opinionate on Herta Muller. But I do think that the EU Lisbon Treaty, another trans-national thing which seems to embarrass anyone in a position of authority, should include a clause to this basic effect: that if you have no idea what’s going on in writing and publishing in the nearby European countries at the very least, that if you have no contacts or indeed any interest out there, you should be disqualified from any position of national literary influence (e.g., lit ed of a national newspaper, or senior editor at a mainstream publisher).

My friend Alan D shames me: if you are seriously interested in any writer writing in one of the major European languages, he tells me, then read them in the language they write in. It’s not difficult. He sends me obscure works of Stendhal in French editions. Recently he was learning Chinese; his hallway was decorated with gorgeous Chinese script. Sack McCrum and give Alan a decent wage.

(I’m writing this after visiting this afternoon West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane, London NW6. They stock, their website claims, ‘over 1,000 imported titles’, and their poetry shelves in particular are brilliant. Liberating.)

Friday 9 October 2009


So I was in Borders, deciding whether to spend £7.95 on the new Poetry Review so I could report here on a brief review of Christopher Reid’s A Song of Lunch – which because of the author’s story-telling skills is, according to the reviewer, not so much like Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, which she was initially put in mind of, but more like a Philip Roth novel; and she likes it – but there, I can remember that, so did they have a copy of the TLS? No, not stocked.

A magazine they do stock is The Expatriate, and it’s frightening. (I'm sending my copy to Tracey Emin.) Not the travel articles (Bali, where ‘Heppy and Sudani helped us dress’; South Africa, where a guide is ‘prepared to leap from the truck to bring samples of elephant and rhino dung for comparison’); and not the tax advice for non-doms, which thankfully is so ill written that no one could possibly understand it. But the ‘security’ feature. ‘Polo shirts that can take the impact of a 9mm revolver’ – from £4,300. And ‘how about a bullet-proof handkerchief for your evening jacket? The Bullet-Proof Gentleman’s Pocket Square measures 270 by 270 mm and is made from military grade ballistic protective aramid to protect your heart.’

Heartbreak? Our servants can do that for us.

Thursday 8 October 2009

The Forward

The Forward Gold Cup was won by Rain, ridden by Don Paterson, owned by Faber; the Silver Cup for yearlings by The Striped World, ridden by Emma Jones, owned by Faber; best individual horse, Robin Robertson.

I was, obviously, favouring Christopher Reid for the Gold Cup and J. O. Morgan for the Silver, and though I’ve packed away certain emotions in a box and sealed it up, some sense of waste lingers.

The Forward defines its job thus: ‘to bring contemporary poetry to a wider audience’. Small-press books have little opportunity to reach a readership of any size. Some of the poetry magazines take note of them, but to reach beyond that tight circle the small presses need another platform. The books pages of the national newspapers are hardly going to provide that: the lit eds, busy folk, take short cuts, judging by covers – do they recognise the author’s name? Are they familiar with the imprint? No. Then it can’t be much good, can it, because if it was it would have been published by one of the big imprints. There was a chance last night that the Forward could have recognised the worth of small-press poetry, could have given it the platform it needs far more than the big publishers, and the chance went begging.

Nice to see J. O. Morgan’s name mentioned by one of the judges in the Guardian today as one of three of the also-rans ‘who would have graced the winners enclosure in another year’. Still, if I’m told again I should be proud to have published a book that got on the shortlist I shall hit someone.

Another race starts today: J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical is on a shortlist of five books, from an entry of 92, for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. Also on that shortlist, books published by Salt, Yew Tree Press and Templar. No Faber, no Cape, no Picador.

I was steered home to West London last night, by the way, by Michael Horovitz, who has been in this game for decades longer than myself, and I salute him.

Sunday 4 October 2009

On second thoughts

Two pages of proof corrections from a book I worked on several years ago. (The book, the first of three volumes, was over a thousand pages long, and the corrections here were typical rather than exceptional. I quit before vols 2 & 3 arrived.)

Lawrence twice rewrote Lady Chatterley from scratch. Balzac famously rewrote at proof stage. Infuriating for the desk editors, but understandable: in life you generally get only one chance, but in writing you can revise endlessly (or until the publisher’s patience snaps) in the attempt to get it right. My mum once heard it said of a writer that she delivered her manuscripts letter-perfect and would allow not a comma to be changed – and for my mum, this showed what a wonderful writer she was. Me, I’m suspicious. Arrogance, just as much as indecisiveness, can be a sign of insecurity.

‘Getting it right’ suggests there’s a rightness to be had. I doubt there is, in any absolute sense. (Which are more right, the original, mostly unpublished versions of Raymond Carver’s early stories or those edited by his editor?) Still, it’s worth going for. Both writer and editor would agree on that, and it’s in their disagreements en route that a provisional rightness may emerge. This piece on editing by Barbara Epler of New Directions seems to me so wise there’s little more to be said (except that there always is): ‘Editing doesn’t seem to be a process of knowing but of asking. You just do the best you can. (And hope the book goes into a second printing to fix typos and add the right portrait to the frontispiece or turn the Japanese family crest upside up.)’

Thursday 1 October 2009

On size

A Close Look at: The Tall Windows of Mexico . . . Fire Hydrants . . . Rickshas of Bangladesh. (And a gratuitous pirate.) With the arrival of these books (each approx. 4 by 6 inches) yesterday, my desk became an altogether more colourful place.

The books (which follow last year’s books of Trinkets, Pebbles and Fallen Leaves) are the work of Ken Garland, legendary designer – books, posters, toys, games, many other things besides – and impresario of Ken Garland & Associates for forty years: ‘Those who worked with me between 1962 and 2002 have always been designers designing – no secretaries, no typists, no donkey-workers. There were never more than three of them at any one time. I intend no criticism of larger, probably more illustrious design groups when I say that, for me, an increase in size would have meant fruitless to-ing and fro-ing, more unexplained and unacceptable overheads, and less fun.’

Fun – is that why we do it? Producing small books, he his, I mine. Well, it helps. Serious fun, not fun-lite. Watch children at play: the absolute engagement, the surrender to the activity. And as any organisation (though obviously I’m thinking here of publishers and bookshops) increases in size, so too the to-ing & fro-ing and the overheads, and the joy diminishes.

Also yesterday, I went over to the Central Books warehouse, where the woman who’d packed a package of books I was collecting told me her boyfriend had four poetry books of mine and here they were and could I sign them, please. Golly. Usually when I go over I have coffee and gossip with Bill. Central aren’t one of the big distributors, but this feels right.

At some point I’d like to live by the sea, in a town where no building is higher than the trees.