Wednesday 29 December 2010

Ashes to ashes

‘For all the time I have lived in England, during my so-called adult life, it seems that the English have been losing. Yet they go into each game with such gleeful enthusiasm, wagging their tails.’ – Jennie Walker, 24 for 3.

That was written in 2007. Time for a new edition? Trouble is, it’s the underdogs she tends to go for; there’s no fun in supporting a team that’s expected to win. Bangladesh, maybe. Tamim Iqbal.

Thursday 23 December 2010

A seasonal tradition

Put some logs on the fire, sit yourself down with paper and pencil and ‘your nine drinks lined up on the side table in soldierly array’ (Donald Barthelme, ‘Critique de la Vie Quotidienne’), and turn to page 27 of this week’s TLS – where you’ll find the annual TLS Christmas quiz, compiled by ‘Tony Lurcock of Oxford’ (author of Not So Barren or Uncultivated, published by CBe this month).

Who received seventeen gentleman callers on one Sunday afternoon? Who ‘almost always killed his game, but now and then he killed his dog’? ‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ – the first line of which book? Only 97 more questions to answer.

Saturday 18 December 2010

This is not a blog

Yesterday’s The Review Show on BBC2, in which an assembly of horse-racing correspondents – sorry: erudite authorities – sprinted through the whole cultural year, included a shot lasting 1.5 seconds of Andrew Motion turning the pages of the CBe edition of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel – there it goes, above, flashing by; quick, press the pause button, or buy the book – and also a firm thumbs-up for Markson from Paul Morley. This Is Not a Novel was chosen by Geoff Dyer in the Guardian Books of the Year issue: ‘It felt like a book one had unconsciously been waiting to discover.’

The winter issue of The Author, the Society of Authors’ journal, is out. It answers many questions you might have been wondering about, including: How do authors avoid headlice when doing school visits? Which are the most popular titles in the prison library at Guantanamo Bay? What was the asking price on eBay for J. D. Salinger’s toilet (‘uncleaned and in it’s [sic] condition when it was removed from Salinger’s old home’)? In case you’re also wondering why CBe books are usually listed on Amazon as ‘out of stock’, that too is answered, in a piece by me on CBe.

The cricket. Jennie is more relaxed. The men of England have less of a swagger about them and are reverting to type: sweaty palms, bitten fingernails, a glumness in the eyes.

Thursday 9 December 2010


To Oxford yesterday, for coffee with the man who runs the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Walton Street and wine at a gathering for Tony Lurcock’s ‘Not So Barren or Uncultivated’ – which is not, as he pointed out, about his allotment – and more of the same at the pub afterwards.

Most mainstream publishers would consider the potential readership for a book about 18th-century British travellers in Finland (or, say, new translations of the prose poems of Francis Ponge) too small to bother with. Which is why a small press might want to publish these books. There’s little point in me publishing a novel, children’s book, etc, of the kind that bigger places publish; there are already so many of these for readers to choose from, and the bigger places have better distribution and marketing. But for a book that may be of interest to only 150 readers in the UK, I’m your man; all 150 will want a copy; my only problem is finding them.

It’s quite possible that Tony knows personally most of the potential buyers of the Finland book, or at least knows of them. Five arrived on the website today. I wish they didn’t all live in the Finland or the US; or rather, I wish people ordering from afar would notice the thing on the website suggesting the use of the Donate button for contributions to postage.

The solution to that may be – as the Albion Beatnik man suggested yesterday – to increase the price of the books. If the 150 people interested in Finland or Ponge or an experimental US novelist really do feel they need the book, they’re going to buy it whether it’s priced at £7.99 or £12.99. But that would put off the unconverted, and ideally I want some of them too, not just the already converted.

Tuesday 7 December 2010


Jennie (Jennie Walker, that is) is in a state of mild shock. We met over the road, in the Queen Adelaide, this evening. And what happened in the early hours of this morning in the other Adelaide, over in Australia, she has yet to come to terms with. This is not how the men of England, as she’s come to know them, go about things. The odd flash of genius or luck, yes; even the occasional victory, when it doesn’t count because the whole thing’s been settled already; but to roll over Australia in such a comprehensive, professional manner was simply not on the cards.

Muddle, administrative incompetence, a lot of running around and shaking of heads – this is what she’s used to. The World Cup exit in the summer she found wholly unsurprising. To date, it’s been the gap between the hype, the possibility, and how things actually play out that has held her interest. Now she looks at the men walking into the pub with a cock-of-the-walk swagger and she’s not sure about this at all. Don’t panic, I tell her, there are still three games to come. But I can see why she’s worried.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Saying no

Such a good book, the one I said no to at the weekend (I can’t do everything). A novel, a finely written one, of a kind I like, in which the relationships between a small group of characters are teased out and explored with a great deal of skill and wit and humanity; by a writer who's been published before, mainstream, and has won this award and been on that shortlist, and now no one wants to publish her . . .

Once upon a time they told you that if you want to be published you’d be better off writing fiction rather than fiction, because few publishers bother with poetry and the ones that do put out only so many titles a year and most of those places are booked up by the backlist poets they’re staying loyal to so the chances of getting onto their lists are minimal and, well, end of story.

I don’t believe in that story any more. I think that now, given the number of magazines and small presses dedicated to poetry rather than prose, and the subculture they’re part of, you have a better chance of seeing your work in print as a poet than as a fiction writer. It’s the novelists who are finding times hard.

I wonder how many months, years, it took to write that novel I said no to (and if they sent it to me, think of how many other people have said no to it before me). Poetry collections at least tend to be slimmer than novels, for which today I’m grateful, having toothache and a hangover and having just picked up the boxes of Voices over Water by D. Nurkse from the printer. This means that all the books listed on the website are now available to buy.

Friday 19 November 2010

Paris (2): Shakespeare and Company

It’s a few steps back from the left bank of the Seine, a couple of stone’s throws from Notre Dame. The present Shakespeare & Company was founded in 1951 by George Whitman (now aged 96, and living adjacent to the store); it’s named after the bookshop opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach (the original publisher of Ulysses, when it was banned in the US and the UK) and closed in 1941 during the German occupation of Paris. Sylvia is also, and not by accident, the name of George Whitman’s daughter, who now runs the store.

The photos above, taken (by Lauren Goldenberg) last Monday evening, show Sylvia and then, in the order they read, Beverley Bie Brahic (translator of the CBe edition of Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud), Gabriel Josipovici (Only Joking) and Wiesiek Powaga (translator of Grabinski and Bursa).

There are some nights when, prompted by the mix of books, fellowship, wine, you think (next year Budapest/ Prague/ San Francisco? and what is going to happen to that vacant premises in the Goldhawk Road, the one with the split levels and the big slow ceiling fans that would make a great bookshop?): why not?

More photos here.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Paris (1)

Paris: they do things differently over there. On the very first metro I caught, the man standing next to me was reading Les Fleurs du Mal. There are more accordion-players (Alphonse, in Gabriel J’s Only Joking, would have company). There are a lot more independent bookshops: a thousand in Paris, and around 150 just in the district where Shakespeare & Co (above, with some tap-dancing going on in front of of the store) is located. (Compared to how many in London?) Which in turn enable small presses to get their books to more readers.

This doesn’t happen by accident. There are state subsidies; there are laws restricting discounting (to a maximum of something like 5%). The EU has a Common Agricultural Policy (whose aim, in the words of Wikipedia, is ‘to provide farmers with a reasonable standard of living, consumers with quality food at fair prices and to preserve rural heritage’). Please can we have a Common Bookstore Policy too?

I’ll post photos of the CBe reading at Sh & Co in the next day or so.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Local: a moveable feast

I wandered into The Travel Bookshop off Portobello Road yesterday with a copy of Days and Nights in W12 and they reckoned on taking three copies until a passing customer seized on the sample book and enthused – it brings to book the streets she walks every day – and they revised the order to ten copies.

Neither I nor Jack Robinson usually ventures far from W12. Except for the seaside, most of life is already here. The second photo shows a green parrot at my neighbour’s bird-feeder this morning. (And you don’t have to live in W12, or even W11 or any other postcode, to get something from this book; a cover quote from Gabriel Josipovici manages to include references to Sebald, Bernhard and Walter Benjamin in a single sentence). But tomorrow I and two, possibly three, of the CBe writers are off to experience a few days and nights in Paris, starting with a reading at the Shakespeare & Company bookstore.

Monday 8 November 2010

CBe: the next books

Let me tell you about:

1 – Jack Robinson, Days and Nights in W12. Not officially published until early next year, but copies are printed and can be bought from the site – here. Déjà vu? This title was, yes, one of the first CBe titles three years ago. Here it is again, but with some of the original contents revised and more than 60 new pieces, so more than double the length. With a non-brown cover (110 pages have b/w photos, and the cover wanted one too). And a cover quote from Geoff Dyer: ‘Ingeniously observed, elliptical and funny. It’s like the best moments from a novel – minus the padding.’

2 – Tony Lurcock, Not So Barren or Uncultivated. This doesn’t fit the profile – for a start it’s non-fiction, a compilation of accounts of Finland written by British travellers between 1760 and 1830 – but there were never really any rules, and I can’t but warm to an author who admits in his acknowledgements that some of those who helped along the way have probably by now forgotten that they ever did so. Finland was hardly part of the Grand Tour, but to some was more interesting because of that. For more details and to buy, see here.

3 – D. Nurkse, Voices over Water. ‘A world-class poet,’ says Craig Raine, and he’s right, and if UK publishing was up to scratch you’d be buying his New & Selected, at the very least, from Faber or whoever. Meanwhile, here is the record of an archetypal passage from the Old World to the New, spoken by a woman and her husband who emigrate from Estonia to Canada in the early 20th century. Pascale Petit: ‘I can’t praise D. Nurkse’s poems enough. I go to them to hear “the still sad music of humanity” and to celebrate it. Voices over Water has haunting cadences; the silences are heart-stopping. The couple’s journey . . . is a mesmerising page-turner but I make myself slow down to savour each tender, precise pleasure.’ Officially published in January, but available from the website later this month.

Coming along, next April/May:

4 – Nancy Gaffield, Tokaido Road: a sequence of poems that respond to Hiroshige’s woodcut prints entitled Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. From the draft blurb: ‘Submitting to the road and its relentless succession of departures and arrivals, the poems discover a freedom to move through and beyond the frames of time and location established by Hiroshige, not least in their voicing of moments of regret and longing, grief and desire.’ Todd McEwen: ‘The project deals most satisfyingly with a question raised by its own design: what happens to us when we look at art? The answer is, we start to make art.’

5 – Jonathan Barrow, The Queue. In February Cape will publish Andrew Barrow’s Animal Magic, a memoir of his brother Jonathan, who died aged 22 with his girlfriend in a car crash three days before their wedding. Behind that book is another one, a short novel written by Jonathan Barrow in the months before his death: the odyssey of one man and his dog through the strip clubs, prison cells, abattoirs, lunatic asylums and sewers of England, it’s a children’s book turned inside out that both offends every canon of good taste (from the draft blurb: ‘Bodily fluids flow profusely. Sexual malpractice is never more than a page away’) and remains, somehow, innocent. The Queue is that book.

Friday 29 October 2010

One writer, three publishers

A slightly Halloweenish picture of Gabriel Josipovici’s Heart’s Wings (Carcanet: clearly gloss-laminated), Only Joking (CBe: matt) and the Yale Modernism book in the window of Daunts, Holland Park, where the Carcanet and CBe books were launched last night, with glee and wine and fondness.

Sunday 24 October 2010


I forgive people a lot if they can turn a good sentence. Conversely, if someone can’t write, I tend to lose respect, even if they’re on the same side.

This is from a piece on what’s happening to the universities, written by a British academic who teaches History at Berkeley UC: ‘Inevitably these auditing systems produced not only greatly increased the amount of time academics spent talking or writing about the research or teaching they would do if they only had the time to do it. It also catalyzed the staggering growth of management personnel. New Labour only made things worse. Faced with the systematic under-funding of the universities, the expansion of student numbers (funding per student fell 40% from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, and the decline in real terms of academic salaries they answered the call of the last official review of higher education funding . . .’

Would I be happy for my children’s essays to be marked by this man? Would I really want to borrow a heap of money in order to be taught by him?

A few months ago I was shown a university magazine dedicated to explaining the research undertaken by the staff. It was jargon-ridden, un-edited, illiterate.

I do have a prejudice against academics. It’s based on the experience of copy-editing their books: many of them can’t write an interesting sentence, many of them can’t even transcribe accurately from a printed text in front of them. (This prejudice is aggravated by their excuses for returning their page proofs late – they are on sabbatical, or they have exam papers to mark – and the fact that they get paid much more than me.)

The mess that the universities are in – students too: a 17-year-old about to enter college is likely to graduate ‘with debts of at least £50,000 and were he to study in London that could rise to £90,000’ (figures from the Berkeley UC academic) – hardly bears thinking about. By which I mean, of course, that it needs a lot of thinking about, and writing about too. But the kind of writing that many academics put out (there are, of course, wonderful exceptions) helps no one.

I’m guessing that, as third-level educational institutions start to fall apart, smaller, more informal centres of learning may emerge. (I’m holding back on the publishing analogy.) No reason why they shouldn’t have charitable status, and so not be just for the rich. Many of the English so-called public schools were originally founded for, as Wikipedia puts it, ‘scholars from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds’.

Monday 18 October 2010

Cuts & slashes

& belt-tightening, for those who haven’t already sold their belts on Ebay and are making do with bits of string. And the novel is dead (Philip Roth: ‘I think always people will be reading them, but it’ll be a small group of people – maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range’). And here are some scary numbers (admittedly US ones, but still): 42% of college graduates never read another book after college; 80% of families did not buy or read a book last year; 70% of adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

Yet in the past few weeks I’ve heard of four new small-scale publishing ventures set to start up in the coming months, and all of them focusing on books rather than ebooks (when is a book not a book?) or online publishing.

Cutbacks as the mothers and fathers of invention? Accident and coincidence? Or are these people simply perverse?

If you think of publishing as first of all a business – which is what the money-men insisted it was, when they moved in a couple of decades ago and demanded profit margins that publishing had never, as a rule, previously delivered, then yes, perverse. If you think of publishing as a vocation (an addictive one), in the way that writing is and maybe reading too, no. Publishers have as much right to starve in a garret as writers. This right is being asserted.

Saturday 9 October 2010

‘As good a place as any to start’

Nick Lezard in today’s Guardian on Josipovici’s Only Joking: ‘it is a complete pleasure’. Full review here.

Amazon, of course, list the book as ‘not in stock’. The relationship between them and ‘the idiosyncratic genius of CB editions’ (Lezard) was forged somewhere very far from heaven. The good people of The Book Depository do stock it. Or, of course, you can buy from the CBe website, here.

Wednesday 6 October 2010


The CBe edition of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch is now officially an ex. Out of print. But we did have a lot of fun while it lasted. This was the agreed plan when Faber took it over; but as they never troubled to tell me the publication date of their edition I’ve been sauntering on, until yesterday, when I got a stern message to stop selling the CBe edition.

Also yesterday, the post included two copies of Vanitas, a US ‘journal of poetry, writings by artists, criticism, and essays’. I met the editor, Vincent Katz, two years ago. The new issue starts with a two-page email I sent him in November 2008. It now feels dated to me, and boring, except for maybe two sentences. ‘Seems to me that public funding can distort the literary scene just as much as the commercial pressures we all criticise the big publishers for bowing to.’ And: ‘I’m still amazed by what can be done with tiny amounts of money and one small contact leading to another.’

If you have a tiny amount of money going spare, consider (after buying a CBe book) this: And Other Stories. A coming together of various people, with various languages, deciding what it would be good to publish, and doing so.

A random Twitter encountered on the net, by someone unknown to me: ‘I’m currently reading a beautifully written, intelligent, crafty and deliciously readable book, called Only Joking, by Gabriel Josipovici.’ The 140-character limit didn’t stretch to a link, so here it is: Only Joking.

Thursday 30 September 2010


Get a dog, my sons insisted when I quit the 9-to-5 office routine some time ago. They cajoled, tempted, made rash promises, and I resisted. Now there is the blue dog of The Bow-Shop, which is boisterous and inquisitive and straining to be let off the lead. (And you don’t even have to feed it: it’s free.)

The new issue asks whether Dante is really about to be banned in Italy and whether poetry competitions are a scam; it discusses Empresses of Ice Cream and the factory-farming of poetry; it has writing by Christopher Middleton, John Hartley Williams and many more. It also happens to include new work by two CBe writers (Beverley Bie Brahic – translations of Yves Bonnefoy and of work by Francis Ponge not included in the CBe selection – and Christopher Reid) and extensive selections from two books that CBe will be publishing in the coming months.

Friday 24 September 2010

‘one dicey London lunchdate’

There’s a piece in this week’s Spectator by Ariane Banks on how Christopher Reid’s ‘slim and diffident volume [The Song of Lunch], published by the tiny literary press CB Editions, will be transposed to prime-time TV on National Poetry Day (7 October), with a cast that most writers would kill for.’ Tom Sutcliffe and his crew will will chatting about the BBC adaptation of Lunch at 7.15 tomorrow, Saturday, on Radio 4. There’s an item on the back page of the TLS mentioning the publication of Gabriel Josipovici’s Only Joking by ‘the enterprising Shepherd’s Bush publishing firm CB editions’ and giving my address – if I’m out when you ring the bell, I’ll be back after lunch.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Lunch times 2

Choose. On the right is the cover of the forthcoming Faber edition of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch, taken from amazon, and it features Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson looking – well, looking as if they are staring at a man with a camera and getting rather bored while he fiddles with his settings. That’s the one you’ll be stuck with if you don’t order the CBe edition within the next couple of weeks or so.

Preferably from the website. Other selling avenues are more of an obstacle course. I sent 50 copies of Lunch up to Edinburgh for Christopher’s reading at the festival last month; then they couldn’t find them – no, wait, they did find them, and rushed them to the venue, but only after most of the audience had gone home. The books are now stuck in an Edinburgh warehouse; a man will let me know ‘when they surface’ and send them back, but most likely not until after the Faber edition comes out and I’m not allowed to sell them. And today I got an email from someone who had ordered the CBe edition from her library – the library told her it hadn’t been published.

The same correspondent told me to look in the current Vogue. A tiny mention: ‘Highbrow affairs of the heart . . . a dramatic re-enactment of Christopher Reid’s nostalgic break-up poem, The Song of Lunch (BBC2 October)’. Browsing in the local newsagent’s, I had to look hard for that. It’s buried among hundreds of glossy women with wonderful bodies in expensive clothes ('Cheryl wears silk chiffon dress, £5,100, Dior'), nearly all of them looking not just bored but sulky. Come on, I kept muttering. Say cheese.

Monday 13 September 2010

Wondrous strange

More column-inches on Josipovici: see, for example, Mark Thwaite on ReadySteadyBook, or the New Statesman review of What Ever Happened to Modernism? In several of the other pieces, two things strike me as odd. The first is trivial: while Josipovici is routinely described as a ‘professor’, Martin Amis isn’t – even though he is a professor, at Manchester University. The second thing is the number of literary journalists who make a rhetorical point of admitting that they’ve never read any of Josipovici’s books. Philip Hensher, novelist and critic (and creative-writing teacher) in the Telegraph: ‘Josipovici has written fiction himself, though I confess I had not heard of any of it.’ Ian Jack, author and former editor of Granta, in the Guardian: ‘Before this summer I had never heard of him. Had you?’

Well, yes, I had. And another man, not a dedicated reader of contemporary fiction, who came round here a couple of weeks ago; he asked what CBe was publishing next and I mentioned Josipovici, and he immediately remembered the first Josipovici story he’d read (in Penguin Modern Stories 12, 1972), and then others; him too.

There seems to be a cosy assumption here that because these writers, at the heart of the literary/publishing world, have never heard of Josipovici, no one else can can possibly know about him either. (I’m reminded of Robert McCrum last year, when Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize, admitting that he had ‘never read a word she’s written’ and had been ‘frantically searching the web to find out things’.) Fortunately the world is bigger and more various than most folk in the lit establishment imagine. It includes people whose reading choices are not determined by what the Sunday papers recommend; it may even include people who haven’t heard of Philip Hensher or Ian Jack.

Sunday 12 September 2010


Cows at the farm where the Dovedale arts festival was held over the weekend. Well-nourished, happy cows. Like them, I’m not too interested in choice (99 TV channels, this school/hospital or that one or another, lit festivals that feel like Clapham Junction at rush hour), I simply want what’s on offer to be good of its kind. Before Christopher Reid’s reading there was, for example, a talk on the city of Stoke that was funny, eloquent, knowledgeable, passionate, and when I’m chopped up for kebab meat and eaten I’ll taste all the better for it.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Cooked books

Here they are, the two autumn CBe books, Gabriel Josipovici’s Only Joking and Fergus Allen’s Before Troy. Not officially published until late next month, a date picked out of a hat, but they can be bought from the website NOW.

And – reminder – if you want Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch in its original CBe edition, which will go out of print when Faber take over the book next month, click on that one too.

Sales pitch over. Maybe it’s the weather (damp), maybe it’s that I’m tired – no, it isn’t those things, this happens every time – but when I collected the finished books there was a sense of anticlimax. All that thrill, work, fun, talk, could-do-this-or-could-do-that, for this? This small brown thing in a box, this one of a multitude in an age of digital reproduction? The journey not the arrival, I know. And because I’ve tasted the text so often while helping to cook these books it’s hard now to taste them afresh, with innocence. That is your privilege. Over to you.

That said, and having just come back from taking the above photo in the kitchen, I’m still indecently proud to be publishing these books. Josipovici, often type-cast as an ‘academic’, a word with derogatory overtones of cerebral dryness, is in fact as intelligently playful as you can get; he’s a liberating writer. The poems of Fergus Allen, who is 89 this year, marry an openness to experience, wonder, distress, to an uncanny precision of diction and form.

Thursday 2 September 2010


for late posting of a few books ordered: I'm in the middle of nowhere right now, calling by a net cafe. Back in the queue at the post office next week.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Erik Ballantyne Houston

Erik’s funeral, or memorial service, was yesterday. The last chapter of his novel was read; it’s both a part of the narrative and a dying, in words on a page. It can’t be read without choking. Snow is falling; if I were to come over all literary about this, and having read a few books I can’t not, there’s Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ in there. And Chekhov’s ‘Ward Six’: ‘A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, of which he had been reading the day before, ran by him; then a peasant woman stretched out her hand to him, with a registered letter . . . Mihail Averyanitch said something to him, then it all vanished.’

Had Erik read Joyce, read Chekhov? I’ve no idea. Very few of his students or professional colleagues, possibly none of them, knew that he was a writer as well as a musician. I hadn’t known myself that he fished, and fished seriously, had won prizes, as well as doing this for the sheer pleasure. There was a man yesterday who had spent a day fishing with him on the River Avon less than a month ago, and who was struggling to understand that there’d be no more fishing days with Erik.

No conclusions from this, no arguments to be made. But I do love this example of a man writing, and writing as a serious (and playful) endeavour, with ambition and continual revision and his whole heart, as a complete aside to his professional career. Erik was a musician. He was a star, and then, ill, he shrugged that off and taught others. He didn’t need to write. Except that he did.

I tried, yesterday, when talking about that last page, to emphasise that much of the book is very funny. Wrong word; I was overbalancing. Erik would have laughed. He was 37. He had found someone he loved, and in that I believe he was happy, and his life was out of all proportion.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Erik Houston, 1972–2010 and beyond

Erik has died. He was 37. The White Room was CBe01, in November 2007.

I first read that book in early 2006, when it was sent me by The Literary Consultancy – I ‘read’ for them, by which I mean I wrote reports on manuscripts under headings such as Structure, Characterisation, etc. The work was numbing. Apart from the earnest no-hopers, the work (I’m simplifying, but only a bit) divided into these two categories: the stuff that was competently written but knowingly aimed for a particular spot on the Waterstone’s shelves and deeply boring; and the writing that was raw, interesting, with flashes of genius, which stood not a hope in hell of being taken on by a mainstream publisher. So I wrote my report, which included some tentative suggestions; and Erik sent a revised manuscript back to me, through TLC, and I reported again and asked TLC for his contact details, which normally they don’t give out, but somehow I got them and we met. In a Caffe Nero in Notting Hill, near where he taught. The book of course was still unpublishable in mainstream terms. I loved it. And when, on the spur of a particular moment, I decided to publish four books, I emailed Erik.

Erik was ill when I met him. How many people in Europe, the world, had this particular strain of this particular illness? I can’t remember; it was something like two, maybe three. He was given so long to live, and lived on; another deadline, he passed that too. In Hammersmith hospital he was clinically dead for a terrible number of seconds, and came through. He cheated death. I blindly supposed he could go on doing this.

Erik was a violinist. This is from the Facebook memorial page: ‘Erik has played as a soloist and chamber musician throughout Europe, in the United States, Japan and Russia. Recommended by Yehudi Menuhin, he toured as soloist with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Saulius Sondeckis. This included concerts at the Vilnius Opera House, and at the Lucerne International Festival where he played Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso in the presence of the composer who praised the performance as ‘wonderful’. Erik has also appeared as soloist at St John’s Smith Square, London, and the Rachmaninov Hall in Moscow. He has played chamber music at the Purcell Room, London, at the Schleswig Holstein Festival, and in Japan with the Menuhin Ensemble.’ And more. But he was ill, and there are other things in life beside hotel rooms, the itinerary of a professional musician, and he stopped that; he married, became a father, became a teacher at the Royal College of Music.

‘Settled down’ is not the right phrase.

The White Room hardly has a ‘structure’. It’s a river; it meanders, and tributaries flow into it, and in places it putters and in other places it surges. It barely knows where it’s headed. The current in midstream is strong. There are two main men (one of whom sneaks a look at his medical records: ‘“Inexorable progress towards death.” A note added: “A year, tops.” “Damn, it’s Thursday, and I didn’t put out the bins,” thought Paul, with the bit of his brain that still worked.’); and there are two main women. Others too. I think Erik liked women, which is not a difficult thing to do, and I think he knew how to love, which is a different thing altogether and makes for confusion and difficulty as well as joy and a kind of, if you write about about it well, extreme comedy which he was completely up to.

We met for more coffees, and a lunch in Wapping. He came round to a friend’s flat for supper, someone who knows far more about music than I do. I know nothing about music. But I learned things from Erik, and I miss him terribly.

Monday 16 August 2010


Still the silly season, still slow. One book sold through the website so far this month. Been away? asked the man at the post office. I’m as guilty as anyone: I tend to buy from second-hand shops, both books and clothes. But here’s a thing, recorded on the blog (now apparently defunct) of a small press founded in 2002 (and also apparently extinct): if every person who submitted a manuscript to the press had actually bought just one of the books published by that press, they’d still be in business. The economics are a perpetual silly season: there are folk spending more money on creative writing classes than on buying books from publishers who won’t be around to publish what they write.

Sunday 8 August 2010


It’s slow, it’s the silly season, people are away. And what is it with these single shoes that I come across, in the gutter, in the park, by the kerb on the Westway when I’m stalled in a gridlock? Passion or despair mostly, I’d guess, but could be abduction by aliens.

Friday 6 August 2010

‘It was about celebrity’

The ruckus that resulted from the Guardian’s phone interview with Gabriel Josipovici last week is summarised nicely by JC on the back page of this week’s TLS: ‘Anyone reading this report would quickly realise that the story was not about literary criticism at all; it was about celebrity, the category into which the named authors are increasingly slotted . . .’

The Guardian got a story out of nothing and nowhere; and the publicity department of the publisher of the book on which the story was tenuously hung is, I assume, pleased with the column inches. The other story is about how, for an ideas book to get mainstream media attention, its ideas have to be ignored in favour of personality guff and the setting up of an artificial tableau of conflict.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Red lorry, yellow lorry

Dovegreyreader, whose book blog has a whole community of followers, has read Marjorie Ann Watt’s Are they funny, are they dead? – ‘this remarkable collection of short stories which I have been reading slowly over the last few weeks’:

‘. . . the insensitivities of others laid bare with refreshing candour, those miscommunications, the innocent observations of children so frequently misunderstood by adults, and there's something about revenge being a dish best served cold that is meted out here too . . . Mrs Calder wickedly determined to go out in her own style despite her daughter’s best and more socially acceptable intentions . . . the deliciously and much-deserved retribution awaiting the blase and cynical psychiatrist, or the philandering husband . . . the struggles with conscience . . . the unlikely combinations of characters, the immigrant and the vagrant – all beautifully observed from that unique vantage point of age and experience; ageing seen through the eyes, with respect, of the “aged”, and then that retrospective analysis of childhood that it’s impossible to make when you are younger.’

Meanwhile, today I have been proofreading a Christmas book (I suppose), Answer Me This!, for the esteemed literary house of Faber & Faber. (Sample Q, from a page in front of me as I write: ‘Do snakes have arseholes? And if so, where?’ A: ‘First of all, Neale, you should really stop ogling snakes . . .’) The last sentence of the acknowledgements, page v: ‘Seriously, Faber, what the hell were you thinking?’ A rhetorical question. The co-authors both read English at Oxford.

While in the other half of the living room (no one thinks this is run from an office, do they?), one (of two) of my 19-year-old sons has been replacing the wheels of his second-hand bike with a yellow one and a red one, acquired off eBay.

Sunday 1 August 2010

24 for 3 times 6

There was a moment this morning in the 10th over of the Pakistan second innings at Trent Bridge when Pakistan were 24 for 3. The other five instances are shameless puffery: Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3: top row, original CBe edition and current Bloomsbury paperback; bottom row, Italian, German and US (retitled) editions. Cricket, especially women’s cricket, in Italy, Germany and the US is going from strength to strength. A July recommendation on the 26 site describes the dialogue as ‘crisp and dreamy at the same time’.

Friday 30 July 2010

‘A, B and C are limited, self-satisfied and arrogant, says D’

It could be Rooney, Terry and Ferdinand, says Fabregas. It could very easily be that. But it happens to be McEwan, Barnes and Rushdie (et al), says Josipovici. Yesterday the Guardian, after talking to Gabriel Josipovici about his forthcoming book from Yale, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, printed the result as a news story; it was followed up by two pieces on a news page in the Evening Standard.

Josipovici’s thinking about the novel is not news. It has developed over decades of engagement with the form and can be tracked through his own novels and critical work over that period. It has contributed to a way of thinking about fiction, and books that are worth the writing and worth the reading, that goes back a long way, but happens to differ from the ways in which fiction is usually reviewed, ranked and even recognised at all by the mainstream media.

The Guardian knows this. But its only way of ‘covering’ books outside the review pages is to translate them into news, which involves the reduction of any variation of ideas to a playground conflict between named names. Other staple set pieces in this books-as-news genre are prizes (the myth of the ‘best’ book); accusations of plagiarism; insult and gossip (as in Ruth Padel’s candidacy for the Oxford professorship of poetry). All of these trade on the cult of personality – of which Josipovici is deeply critical, but of which, in becoming ‘news’, he has now himself become a victim.

Publishers, who need publicity for their books, collude in this process. I collude in it: by writing this, and by not neglecting to mention that Josipovici’s novel Only Joking will be published by CBe in October. So am I pleased with the publicity now attending to Josipovici? I fear that the reception of his new work (as well as the Yale book and the CBe book, there’s a new and selected stories from Carcanet in October) will be coloured by certain phrases (‘embittered academic’, for godsake; there are worse terms for the sub-ed who conjured that, but he/she won’t have to face the music) printed yesterday. I hope that people will read the books and respond directly to those.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Markson’s books

David Markson’s bookshelves, as anyone who’s read This Is Not a Novel will know, must have been well-stocked – decades of reading, of eclectic hunting-and-gathering, of turned-down corners and underlinings and ecstatic or pugnacious marginal comments. He died in early June. What happened to those books? See here.

Monday 26 July 2010

Where are the toilets?

Prodded, cajoled, etc, I’ve stumbled into Facebook. It’s like starting a new school: what happens down that corridor / behind that door? Where are the toilets? Can I go home now? Some of the rules I don’t understand (why is the email address for CBe ‘invalid’?). To make a CBe page , I first have to sign in as me; there do seem to be ways of inviting folk directly to become ‘members’ of the CBe page, but the method the system appears to like best is for me first to invite a load of ‘friends’ over to my place (which is going to suffer from neglect and dust) and then to suggest they move across to the CBe place (which may be a little busier and tidier). As in all systems, assumptions are being made.

But oh, look, there is Jane, and there is Michael, and it may be OK after all.

Sunday 25 July 2010


The top photo is of an old window frame I found on the pavement yesterday, now on the wall. The lower one is an old drawer I found a few years ago, also on the pavement, now with ships added and also on the wall. I seem to have a thing (a typesetter’s thing?) about grids.

Not crosswords or sudoku, which I can’t manage at all. With those, what you enter into the grid is either right or it’s wrong; the content is predetermined. The window frame and the drawer are more like traditional forms of poetry, a sonnet or a ballad; the structure is a given, you don’t have to worry about that, but as for how you fill them in – and how you make the content play with or against the structure – the possibilities are infinite.

Two years ago I went to the house of an art collector in north London. Except that he didn’t collect paintings, he collected frames – hundreds of them, all over the house, carefully hung, empty. Well, yes; but they were lifeless things, waiting for something to happen inside them.


Someone used this word in an email to me on Friday night, and then there it was again on Saturday in a brief review in the Financial Times of Marjorie Ann Watts’s ‘slightly left-field stories’ in Are they funny, are they dead? (‘The feistiness of her heroines . . . would surely have pleased the late Angela Carter.’)

I naturally lean to that side, I’m left-handed. Not really relevant, but so was Morandi, of whom John Berger wrote: ‘That he was left-handed is, I feel, important, but I do not know why.’

Thursday 22 July 2010

The same but better

The re-jigged website is live today. Not wholly new: that’s still my father in the rear-view mirror, still driving along in the 1940s, still with a packet of Gauloises in the glove compartment and still before he met my mother (and he could so easily have turned right instead of left or gone straight on but he didn’t). But a lot of tinkering: for each of the books there’s more information and review quotes, and excerpts you can download. They’re grouped in two and threes; economy, but there’s also the suggestion that if you’re buying this, you may want to buy that as well. Like browsing along a shelf.

The standard price for all the books is now £7.99 – which is up from £7.50 for many of them but still cheaper than equivalent books from just about any other publisher you can name, big or little. And see this: FREE DELIVERY for all books ordered from the site. So for most orders, despite the book price going up, you get them for less than before.

(The system to date, which has loaded a P&P charge onto all orders, has been swings-and-roundabouts: those in the UK ordering a single slim book have usually been paying more than the actual postage, those ordering from abroad have been paying less. The somewhat basic paying package doesn’t allow much fine tuning; setting different P&P rates for different regions in the world would have meant adding a hideous number of buttons; so let’s just scrap P&P altogether. Simpler. Easier.)

Whether it makes it makes any kind of financial sense I’ll find out. I’m hoping, of course, that more kind people will buy books from the site, now that they don’t have to pay an extra 20 per cent for me to send them off. I’m hoping too that those buying from Texas and Timbuktu will think of how far the books are travelling and maybe feel moved to press the DONATE button. There it is, on the About & News page. A little thing, adding a voluntary element to the whole process.

First dozen people to use that Donate button and enter a a fiver or more get sent a copy of the US edition of Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 (‘I loved it,’ said Mick Jagger of the CBe edition, which is now out of print).

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Czy nas znaja?

I can’t tell you much about this, other than that it’s a Polish website page about ‘Polish books that conquered the world’, and the UK section has three books and two of those are CBe books, Bursa and Grabinski, both translated by Wiesiek Powaga.

(Yellow covers on that page, I’m afraid, veering on bilious. For the rejigged CBe website, due later this month, there’ll be proper scans of the true brown.)

Thursday 1 July 2010

Suspicion, disbelief, trust: Knight Crew

Let’s go back a few steps.

Tonight on BBC2 is the final programme in the Gareth Malone series about the making of the opera Knight Crew at Glyndebourne (and you know, you just know, it will have a triumphal ending: that’s the genre). Before the TV series was the opera, before the opera was the book, and before the book became a book there was a writer who went into a prison.

The piece by Nicky Singer that I’m linking to here isn’t really about writing at all, and though it says a lot about prisons it’s not really about them either; it’s more about the things that writing can and sometimes should be about. Don’t go there unless you’ve got 20 minutes to spare. (Which really isn’t long, compared to a prison sentence of five and a half years.) But if you do have the time, go.

(And then you might care to buy the book. ‘Out of stock’ at Amazon, as usual, but over the next two weeks I’ll match their price if you buy it from the CBe website.)

Wednesday 30 June 2010

Lunch date

It’s official: the Guardian and other places announce today the BBC adaptation of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch, starring Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, to be broadcast in October. Janice Hadlow, controller at BBC Two, is quoted as saying: ‘We hope that audiences will enjoy this dramatisation of Christopher Reid’s touching and witty poem and maybe feel inspired to indulge in a little more poetry themselves.’ And a little more buying of books, I hope. And another bottle of wine over lunch, Juliano (above) hopes.

Tuesday 22 June 2010


Matthew Welton’s poem ‘South Korea and Japan 2002’ (in ‘We needed coffee but . . .’), structured according to the World Cup timetable of fixtures in that year, offers itself as a kind of I Ching for anyone interested in the result of the game tomorrow and and the ones thereafter. Here’s a couple of the final group-stage games:

‘As we idle out the evening in this overcrowded den of iniquity, there’s this feeling we get in the belly like something being offered for franchise.’

‘Trying to describe the parakeets in the trees at the zoological park, we begin to see something slovenly and sad in the leaves drying out in the grass.’

Also bought yesterday, a second-hand ancient Penguin whose author, according to the mini-biog, ‘specialised in derailing trains’ for the Resistance in France and wrote his first book while ‘cut off in an isolated house from all outside contacts and armed to the teeth’. On page 23 one of the characters, a poet, says this: ‘I seldom read what people generally call novels these days. When I do, it isn’t for the plot (thrillers are better), or for the characters (those in the newspapers have more depth to them), but for the author, his reflections, his style, what his book tells me about him.’

Friday 18 June 2010

Amazon doesn’t make it to Glyndebourne

Gareth Goes to Glyndebourne – shown on BBC2 last night; the first of three programmes about the making of the Glyndebourne opera from Nicky Singer’s novel Knight Crew – is a feel-good production focusing exclusively on Gareth Malone’s heroic task of transforming a bunch of unlikely teenagers ‘who wouldn’t normally be seen dead going to an opera, let alone singing in one’ (as the Guardian puts it) into an opera chorus of professional standard.

He’s a good man. But in making this the Gareth Malone show, a lot gets left out. We see the delight of those who get through the auditions; we don’t see the disappointment of those who don’t. Nor do we learn anything about the novel on which this whole project was based, let alone the extraordinary individual stories of the people Nicky Singer met while writing the book.

Still, the book’s there, isn’t it, for anyone following the TV programme who is curious enough to look for it? And there’ll be a few of those. According to Digital Spy, who track ratings, 1.82 million people watched last night’s programme; which is not bad for a World Cup night on which other programmes included a documentary on Tiger Woods (1.21 million) and one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films (1.07 million). The Arts Desk review of the programme even includes a helpful link to the book on Amazon.

Follow that link and you get to a page telling you the book is ‘out of stock’. (Same message on the page for the Marjorie Ann Watts book.) What is Amazon for?

Buy the book from the CBe website. Write Not Amazon in the instructions-to-merchant box on the PayPal ‘review your payment’ page and I’ll make a refund so you get it at the same price as Amazon charge, if ever they can be bothered to stock it.

Monday 14 June 2010

Summer in the city

The market in Portobello Road on Saturday.

Sunday 13 June 2010

A rare quality

In a feature in the Camden New Journal about both the book Are they funny, are they dead? and its author, Marjorie Ann Watts recalls how she was told by a publisher that she could only have her stories published after she’d written a novel; so she did so, and the publisher liked it, but then ‘told me I was too old – I didn’t have a three-book deal in me’.

The article continues: ‘Breathtaking ageism, which is their loss. Her writing is both beautiful and spare, immediately gripping, and has the rare quality of revealing a character in a few words. “How Things Turn Out”, the story of a tycoon’s flawed relationship with his children, starts: “Lord Porter had married young and then forgotten about it. He supposed he had loved his wife, he had never given it much thought.” In “Birthdays” (which won a literary prize), the entire tragedy of one woman’s life is there in a few domestic exchanges over the breakfast table . . .’

Buy the book here. Or order from your local bookshop.

Saturday 12 June 2010

An interruption

Way back in the 70s I was driving north on the M1 when the radio programme I was listening to in the car was interrupted for the announcement of the death of an American poet. (Would they make that interruption now? For the death of a writer?)

A cloud scuds across the sun. The landscape changes. This year, recently, Peter Porter, Alan Sillitoe, and now David Markson. You don’t have to have met them, known them personally; if you’ve read their work and taken something from it, it hits. Here’s Coleridge: ‘The great works of past ages seem to a young man things of another race in respect to which his faculties must remain passive and submiss, even as to stars and mountains. But the writings of a contemporary, perhaps not many years older than himself, surrounded by the same circumstances and disciplined by the same manners, possess a reality for him and inspire an actual friendship as of a man for man . . . The poems themselves assume the properties of flesh and blood.’ A contemporary writer is someone who is alive while you are alive; listening to the same news, being moved to anger or splendour by the same currents, and writing, present continuous, practically in the same room; and then they’re not, and it’s different.

Friday 11 June 2010

Not the World Cup

J. O. Morgan is reading from Natural Mechanical at the Bridlington Poetry Festival tomorrow, Saturday the 12th. Marjorie Ann Watts (Are they funny, are they dead?) writes about Cornwall in the Sunday Telegraph on the 13th. Next week, on Thursday the 17th the first of three programmes on the making of the Glyndebourne opera from Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew is presented by Gareth Malone on BBC2 at 9 p.m.

The BBC has commissioned a film adaptation of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch, starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, to be broadcast later this year.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Michael Wojas, 1956–2010

Michael Wojas of the Colony Room has died. After school and university, ‘the rest of his life he gave to Soho’ ( Telegraph obituary ). Courtesy of Michael, Wiesiek read from his Grabinski book at the Colony Room back in early 2008; the drinking, chat, gossip and general to-ing and fro-ing were not exactly interrupted by reverent silence, nor should they have been; it wasn’t that kind of place.

Monday 7 June 2010

David Markson, 1927–2010

David Markson, whose This Is Not a Novel was published by CBe in February this year, has died in New York. The end of that book: Then I go out at night to paint the stars. / Says a van Gogh letter. // Farewell and be kind.

And the opening of Wittgenstein’s Mistress: In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.

Sunday 6 June 2010


Devon: trees in a field with buttercups. There aren’t many fields left in England in summertime without tents in them in which authors are debating the future of the book and being politely applauded. This one was nice.

Friday 28 May 2010


Christopher Reid and Jerry Hall – last seen in public together at the Costa prize do in January, an event recorded in a very nice photograph of them in OK magazine – are being re-united at the Hay Festival. Jerry will be choosing passages to read from The Song of Lunch, and the event will be broadcast tomorrow night on Sky Arts1 at 7 p.m. Those without Sky (me neither) may catch a fleeting glimpse on the Sky Arts website.

PS (Sunday): I'm not getting far with the website. Only as far as a photo of Mariella F above an ad asking if I'm worried about dying unexpectedly and offering to sell me peace of mind for as little as a fiver a month. I think that may be far enough.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Fünf Tage. Ein Spiel

The first Test match of the summer started this morning at Lords, and in the post came a German publisher’s catalogue featuring Jennie’s book (published over there in July). Shoes are a less culture-bound visual image than a cricket ball, and Mick Jagger has more international clout than Nick Lezard: this is unarguable, and Jennie is pleased. (For those who haven’t been following – and cricket is a long game, in which much of what happens seems to happen when you’re looking away – the English title is 24 for 3 and it’s published here by Bloomsbury.)

Wednesday 26 May 2010


Amazon’s position on Are they funny, are they dead? today is that it is ‘temporarily out of stock’, which at least rings true, compared with yesterday’s ‘not yet released’, which wasn’t true. Possibly they have ordered in a couple of copies. Possibly this is in response to the above, which is what I sent on the form linked from the site which publishers can fill in with blurbs and reviews and the like. Of course I was hoping that this might be uploaded directly onto the book’s page, but possibly Amazon’s automated system isn’t completely automated and there’s a person who reads things. Possibly. Not that he/she’s going to talk to me. Anyway, I’ve got better things to do.

Monday 24 May 2010

The Dunbar Number

I have, as readers of the most recent posts will know, a bruised forehead after beating my head against Waterstones (who say that Funny/dead is not yet printed) and Amazon (who say it is not yet released) and Facebook (who say my email address is ‘not valid’) and BT (who cut me off for a couple of days last week) and the Arts Council (whose number, given to me to discuss my failed application, appears to be the number only of an answerphone) and . . .

In a Facebook conversation last night – I mean an across-the-supper-table conversation about Facebook, not one on Facebook – a friend (who has a friend who in turn has over 3,000 Facebook ‘friends’) mentioned Robin Dunbar. Ah yes (I once copy-edited one of his books). There is a Dunbar Number, not an exact one but hovering around 150: ‘The way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation . . .’ (For more, see here; and then his books.)

Go above that number and the bonds of trust and obligation fray, loosen, break up. And I have a hunch that once an organisation (social, commercial, whatever) increases over a certain size, many of its operations (and their attendant bureaucracy) tend to work against the aims for which it was originally set up; and measures to increase ‘efficiency’ can result in the whole thing becoming unfit-for-purpose. (The education system comes to mind.)

The Dunbar Number happens to be a sort of default number for CBe: for most of the titles, if I sell around 150 I haven’t lost money. The problem here is that to find those 150 readers, and certainly to find more, I have to engage with institutions (the aforementioned Amazon and Waterstones among them) for whom the Dunbar Number is so piddling it’s hardly worth their bothering about, and nothing to do with trust and obligation.

Stendhal claimed he wrote for ‘the Happy Few’ – very possibly the Dunbar Number.

Sunny review weather

My suggestion on Friday that you take Marjorie Ann Watts’s Are they funny, are they dead? outdoors and read it in the sunshine seems to have been taken up by Hannah Stoneham in France, and the result is this review on her blog: ‘There is a clear-sighted surrealism and a willingness to ask questions at the heart of this collection. It contains shrewd observations about everyday life, and much humour as well. My favourite story is “A Vivid Imagination” . . . This story is a wonderful piece of whimsy and an exercise in incredulity and imagination. Watts satirises the pompous and celebrates the freethinking . . .’

Also in the past few days, a review on another blog of In Sarah’s House by Stefan Grabinski: ‘Each of the six tales in this collection translated by Wiesiek Powaga are satisfying in the way you might expect from a man known as “the Polish Poe” . . . Dreams, memories, history; the past is reaching out to grab the protagonists in these tales and, in much the same way as Steven Moffat kicked of his tenure at the helm of Doctor Who, the danger lurks in the corner of your eye, or, even worse, at that moment when you choose to close them. Don't blink.’

(According to Amazon this morning, Funny/dead ‘has not yet been released’; according to Waterstones last Friday, it’s not yet printed. In fact it’s been available from the distributor for six weeks. It’s in stock at certain independents – Sandoe’s, Bookseller Crow, LR Bookshop, others – but if those are not local then, until the giants wake up, your best chance of getting hold of a copy is the CBe website.)

Friday 21 May 2010

Brick wall

Today a would-be purchaser of Marjorie Ann Watts’s Are they funny, are they dead? went into the Hampstead Waterstones to buy a copy and was told it’s not yet in print.

That shop is Marjorie Ann’s local bookshop. She is known to the staff; she has even been in there with variant roughs of the cover, asking – and taking – their advice, and everyone was very friendly. The book has been available from the distributor, Central Books, since early April. In January the Waterstones ‘independent publishers coordinator’ told me he had ‘alerted the relevant buyers’.

The Waterstones children’s fiction buyer has said encouraging things about Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which was staged at Glyndebourne as a youth opera with great reviews in March, and there’ll be three BBC TV programmes about that in June, presented by Gareth Malone; whether you’ll be able to buy the book in Waterstones I cannot tell.

Selling the books – no, just making them available – is damn hard. And it’s not just the chainstores. Last year I sent catalogues and personal covering letters to around a hundred independent bookshops; not a single order resulted.

Worth the candle? (See last post, below.) Yes. These are good books. But my forehead is deeply bruised.

Gambling by candlelight

There are times – yesterday’s party for Marjorie Ann Watts’s book was one – when I think this whole thing (I mean CBe) is a bonny wee babe well worth all the nurturing she demands. There are others – when I look at my bank statements, which show that because of the amount of time CBe devours my freelance income has halved in the last couple of years – when I think it’s not worth the candle.

This morning was one of the latter. I need to sell more books. Because CBe does not mesh well with the business models of the major online retailers and the chainstores, which assume a volume of sales beyond the reach of small presses, I’d put in an application to the Arts Council for some funding to invest in a new website (more information about the books, downloadable excerpts, integrated blog, etc) and a spot of e-marketing (newsletters, that stuff) to increase direct sales. And today I got the reply: ‘I am sorry to tell you . . .’ The application ‘met the criteria’ but there was ‘competition for funds’ and ‘we had to make difficult choices’.

The track record, I still believe, is persuasive: fifteen titles (fiction, poetry, a screenplay, a couple of books that refuse to be categorised; four translations) published since November 2007; a fiction prize, a poetry prize, three shortlistings; review coverage in the TLS, Guardian, Independent, Irish Times, Scotsman, etc, as well as the poetry magazines and a number of literary blogs; and a reaching out to new audiences (‘If those who never touch poetry tried a few pages of [Natural Mechanical], they might become converts’, Glasgow Herald; Knight Crew produced as a youth opera at Glyndebourne in March this year, with three BBC TV programmes to follow in June; a BBC film adaptation of another of the books – more on this later – scheduled for October). All this has been achieved from a start-up cost of just £2,000, and with no external funding.

There are some good things about having little or no money. A launch party at the Foundling Hospital would be nice, but I don’t have to worry about that because it’s out of the question. And when I offer an advance or payment for rights, I can simply say this is what’s on the table, puny though it is, take it or leave it. Still, any introductions to the Earl of Southampton will be welcome. Any mention of the Olympics will not.

Of course I’m disappointed, but it’s not the end (there are five, maybe six more titles lined up; two in October, the others next year) and no publisher has any ‘right’ to public money. The expression ‘the game is not worth the candle’ seems to derive from something written by Michel de Montaigne in 1580 and alludes to gambling by candlelight, which involved the expense of illumination. A game is what publishing is. There are more important things: the ability to love for one, and to write, to write well, another. Publishing is about fiddling around, getting this thing done and then the next, and it can be done well or badly but it’s a long way secondary to the above. Gambling by candlelight seems right. Trouble is, it’s addictive.

What May is for

Sitting out late at pavement cafés. Being less in a hurry, wearing fewer clothes, lying out on the grass with a book and watching a fly crawl across the page, thinking of the whole of summer ahead.

And having a party for a book, such as last night’s for Marjorie Ann Watts’s Are they funny, are they dead? at the London Review bookshop, which has a courtyard outside and chairs inside. You start talking to X, who turns out to know Y, and there is Z, who has travelled from Moscow this morning to be here, and you become so interested and involved that you completely forget about the camera in your pocket which you’d brought to record this event, and by the time you remember it the pile of books that would have featured in this record has diminished considerably and you think never mind about the record, the important thing is that it happened and was enjoyed.

There’ll be a piece by Marjorie Ann in the Telegraph magazine in June. I’d like to say there’ll be reviews too, but can’t promise. Meanwhile the weather continues fine, and if you’re looking for a book to take out on the grass and read, Are they funny, are they dead? won’t disappoint.

Sunday 9 May 2010

BYO chaise longue

Work in Progress: next Sunday, the 16th May, 12 to 6 p.m. at The Lexington, 96–98 Pentonville Road, N1 9JB – ‘An informal gathering for writers, readers and underground publishers. From fiction zines to esoteric essays, new translations to art writing.’ CBe will be there, with books (if the volcano so wills: I have to take a brief trip during the week, but in theory will be back in time). And many others. Come.

The flyer for Work in Progress includes the word ‘salon’ – this is the current word for these things. On Saturday I was at a gathering that really did deserve the word: an evening in a private, domestic setting that included a reading, good wine, gossip, mad ideas, chance encounters, everything except a chaise longue. It was organised by Meike Ziervogel (who would look just fine on a chaise longue, and maybe the Arts Council could step in here) of Peirene Press, which, like CBe, got off to a running start with Nicholas Lezard’s Guardian review of its first book.

There are more good publishers in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of by Amazon and the chainstores and the Sunday broadsheets. Take a look at Peirene. And at Lenz.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Tactical voting

My mum, who was definitely not Tory but lived in a solid Tory constituency, once joined the local Conservative Party in order to at least have a say in which candidate they put up. In the circumstances, this seems a neat manoeuvre.

By the way, I don’t know whether this has been officially adopted yet as Conservative policy, but according to the website of Eton College, where Cameron went to school, ‘the Fourth of June will be on Wednesday 2nd June’. You have been warned.

Monday 3 May 2010

Faber at the V&A

At the V&A until the end of May there’s a select display entitled Art and Design at Faber and Faber (or abe and aber, as the first wall caption has it), spanning 80 years and curated by Ron Costley. There are book jackets and covers (some of them period pieces, others – such as Adrian Stokes’s Stones of Rimini – looking as if they had been commissioned yesterday); and page designs too (of books by visual artists – Klee, Le Corbusier – as well as the literary great and good). But probably of most interest are the original artwork, the sketches, the things we don’t usually get to see.

Here is is Lawrence Durrell writing (in capital letters, using a red typewriter ribbon) in November 1956 in response to the cover design he’s been shown for Justine, attempting both to stay on good terms and to express his strong opinions: ‘Thank you so much for the trouble you have so obviously taken ... My idea was something much cruder on a cancer-livid Gollancz yellow. This is more artistic than I meant ... The scribbles on the spine don’t make any sense to me ... Please don’t swear at me ...’

Almost every author has written such a letter/email to their publisher. Cover designs are holy wars, with the author and publisher (and art director, designer, sales department, etc) each believing they are right and the others are wrong. Who wins? Here is Berthold Wolpe replying to Durrell’s letter, ‘which unfortunately did not reach me until Tuesday’: ‘The printer had started printing the jacket and I am sorry to say it was impossible to make any alterations.’ The last person to see the cover before it goes to the printer, that’s who wins.