Sunday 28 February 2010

Reid, Wapping, this Thursday

Christopher Reid will be reading from The Song of Lunch, A Scattering and perhaps others at the Wapping Project bookshop, E1W 3SG, this Thursday, 4 March, at 7.30. The space is small; to ensure a place, email

Saturday 27 February 2010

‘Mechanical as well as natural’

Natural Mechanical again, and no apologies for returning to it. Two more reviews this week.

The first is on the Undiscovered Scotland website, not a place where you’d usually look for a poetry review. In fact the reviewer seems almost surprised by the form the book takes: ‘Natural Mechanical is a beautiful, lyrical book . . . Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the book is that although the content is biographical and the storyline like a short novel, it is actually told as a narrative poem . . . Natural Mechanical is very likely to increase significantly the number of people who regard themselves as readers of poetry.’

Hannah Salt in Magma (the March issue, not yet up on the site) attends to the prosody, and more. ‘Natural Mechanical is a higher achievement than Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, with which it has some similarities, because it is more finely written. The verse is spare, clear, almost without simile or metaphor, building its effects and narrative thrust by noting details precisely and moving on. Rhythmically it moves constantly toward and away from iambic pentameter . . . There is restraint of language and also restraint as regard for truth . . . The book’s other achievement is that it treats Rocky not as a figure of pathos like Billy Caspar nor as a romantic hero, but as a boy who makes his way in the real world of social and economic relationships. His father works for the AA, Mr Ogilvie starts a chain of sandwich bars in Edinburgh, Rocky must get his rabbits to the butcher before they turn maggoty and must eventually teach himself a trade, in his case repairing machines. He is mechanical as well as natural.’

Which is where the above photos come in. As well as repairing others’ machines, Rocky has his own projects. The first photo shows the rusted chassis of a Brooklands Riley, circa 1929, as it was in his workshop when I visited Rocky last April. The second photo, from a book, shows what he’s aiming to achieve, the Brooklands Riley as good as new. And he’ll get there, as long as he doesn’t run out of money. All of us – engineers, poets, publishers – live in this so-called real world. Buy the book.

(Two editions – plain CBe-style cover, colour cover – available: see previous post.)

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Ivy: an update

‘There was something brutal about its fecundity’ (Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’). Above top is the ivy as shown here last April, finding its way through a gap at the top of the sash window. And then the ivy today, grazing the top of my desk, wondering which way next.

Next, from CBe, is this: in May, Are they funny, are they dead?, stories by Marjorie Ann Watts. (‘I love these stories – shrewdly observed and wickedly funny’ – Salley Vickers.) She told me this week that her grandmother didn’t write thirty-six novels, it was only twenty; but she did also found PEN, in 1921.

And then, in the autumn, Before Troy, poems by Fergus Allen; and Only Joking, a short novel by Gabriel Josipovici (alongside the publication of his new and selected stories from Carcanet). I’ll write more about each of these books later. I am, to put it mildly, proud to be publishing them.

Tuesday 23 February 2010


Not a cricket club, but Caustic Cover Critic, a knowledgeable, opinionated and sometimes very funny blog about book covers. And what’s inside the covers too – oh look, that’s an endpaper. Go here for a post on CBe that somehow manages to include more hard information about the whole set-up than you’ll find anywhere else, including here.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Oh yes it is

Well, is it or isn’t it? You decide. I only publish the book, I don’t write the dictionary and so don’t have to define ‘novel’. Here’s Rick Moody, from something I read yesterday: ‘The larger issue . . . is whether genre exists at all. I tend to think that genre exists so that bookstores will have a shelf on which to put things. Otherwise, it’s not terribly useful, especially if you recognize that both “fiction” and “non-fiction” are true and untrue in, relative speaking, equal measure.’

(I’m not being very helpful here to booksellers, I know. Where will they stock this book? While they're scratching their heads they might consider abolishing the categories altogether and shelving fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoirs, etc in a seamless flow of well-chosen titles.)

Rick Moody was commenting below a discussion of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which Coetzee calls ‘an all-out assault on tired generic conventions, particularly those that define the well-made novel’. Published in the UK this month, Reality Hunger, which has already cued a Zadie Smith essay reprinted in the Guardian, will probably occupy a few acres of review space. So it’s good timing (of the lucky rather than premeditated kind) that CBe’s edition of This Is Not a Novel is also published this month, because Shields gives a firm thumbs-up to David Markson: ‘I think that, at the very least, essays and poems more directly and more urgently [than the novel] attempt to figure something out about the world. Which is why I can’t read novels anymore, with very few exceptions, the exceptions being those novels so meditative they’re barely disguised essays. David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel . . .’

In case you’re not too keen on barely disguised essays, and in case you find the label ‘experimental’ off-putting (I sympathise; though I’m even more put off when someone’s prose is described as ‘poetic’), I should add here that the book is compulsively readable and enjoyable, and in its structural echoes and correspondences it takes at least as much from fiction as any other genre, and if you start browsing it in a bookshop you’ll likely end up buying it. (Or, of course, you could simply order it online from the website.)

Porosity between the genres I’m in favour of. (In some other fields, athletics being one of them, they’re having problems about how to define gender.) Uncertainty, instability even, in reading as in life, is a fine thing. Days and Nights in W12, one of the first CBe books, was a mix of fact and fiction and maybe a few other things too; though it had a handful of keen readers, its existence has been largely invisible, with not a single print review, and maybe the time’s now right for a new and expanded edition.

Thursday 11 February 2010

IKEA: books furnish a room

After a hard day making Volvos Lars comes home to his house filled with functional, value-for-money furniture. Sorry everyone, calls Inga from the place in the kitchen where the new fridge is meant to go, the cat’s eaten all the herring. And someone appears to have stolen large parts of the ceiling. Lars sits on the sofa-bed and stares with a northern melancholy at the six glasses on the coffee table in front of him, rinsed and sparkling but empty of schnapps. But never mind, Bjorn has just found 23 copies of the new André Brink on the bookshelves.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Knight Crew countdown

The Knight Crew opera at Glyndebourne is on next month, 4–6 March. Composer Julian Philips, librettist Nicky Singer; the cast comprises six professional singers and 60 young singers directed by chorus master Gareth Malone. You can book on the Glyndebourne website or by phoning the box office on 01273 81500.

Or you can win tickets to the opera or gift vouchers by writing a review (250 words max) of Nicky Singer’s novel Knight Crew. Two age-group categories: 12 to 14, 15 to 18. Hand in entries to one of the 39 branches of British Bookshops & Stationers, or email them direct to Nicky. Closing date Saturday, 27 February. Full details on Nicky’s website.

This is a huge event – for Glyndebourne, for the book, and not least for those taking part. One of the chorus members, who had to get through three rounds of auditions, writes: ‘As the rehearsals went on, I would get more and more excited . . . We have had a few rehearsals now, and we saw the set for the first time two weeks ago. The set is incredible! Being part of this opera so far has been amazing. I have loved every second of it.’

Between now and the first schools’ performance on 3 March, you can order the book from the CBe website at a discount of 25% off the cover price: click through as normal, write ‘Glyndebourne’ in the ‘instructions to merchant’ box, and the discount will be refunded.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Spinal deformities

The above is Middlemarch after being left out overnight. Severe curvature of the spine, but still perfectly readable. E-books, and their plus-factor that you can take 200 books on holiday without paying excess baggage: quite apart from the whole holiday thing, I would really like to know what happens to them if you leave them out overnight, or spill wine over them. Will they even still be there?

Actually, that can wait. More immediate is this. There should be some pick-up, shouldn’t there?, for Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch (CBe) following his Costa Book-of-the-Year triumph with A Scattering (Areté)? I’ve just been on Amazon: A Scattering is sales-ranked way below 100, The Song of Lunch at some abstract six-figure number, with ‘2 new’ available from £48.95 from ‘other sellers’.

Godsake. Stronger than that. I am not going to sign up with Amazon’s deal with small publishers (they buy at 60% discount, they pay me only after they’ve sold, months after, and I pay delivery plus an annual fee for the privilege). Because the work of writing and publishing these books is worth more than that. They can get the books from the CBe distributor, Central, as they’ve done for the other books and for this book too, previously. But right now they are choosing not to bother. Amazon, the chainstores too, are geared to deal in volume, in mass; small publishers are an irritation. You can buy from the website – and if you send me a nice email, we can talk a discount – or from your local bookseller, preferably an independent, at a fraction of the current Amazon price. I may, I do, need some help here; advice welcome.

Monday 1 February 2010

WVM and the e-reader

This morning I took a carload of books to an ex-tank-factory on the outskirts of Brighton, and on the way back picked up a couple of boxes from the printer in Chiswick; tomorrow I’ll take more boxes to the Central warehouse in East London. I’m getting used to this. Just by looking at a book I can tell how many will fit in a box (a number usually between 30 and 80). I bend my knees before lifting. Books are heavy. Today I am publisher as White Van Man.*

Will our e-readers, our iPads and Kindles, make White Van Man redundant? I haven’t got one myself; but I probably will, at some stage, when they move up a gear. At present, because new technologies, like new religions, have to win converts, have to prove that they are more fit-for-purpose than what went before, and because most of the older-generation wariness about about e-books is based chiefly on the fear of losing the book as aesthetic object, the text on an e-reader usually mimics a printed page, and you turn the page with a swipe of your finger, and I just don’t see the point. This way of presenting the text turns its back on the possibilities offered by the technology, doesn't even recognise that it may have other purposes too: ‘It is like saying you will buy a car, but only if it looks like a horse and is limited to four miles an hour. And it’s not like we shot all the horses.’ (Quote from an excellent blog post here.)

Wrapped up in the fear of losing the book-as-object are, of course, nostalgia, fetishism, questions of taste and class and all the rest. None of them new. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), had some cutting things to say about William Morris and the fashion for finely designed, hand-printed books at a time when mass-production technologies were coming, as he might have put it, online. ‘The claims to excellence put forward by the later products of the book-maker’s industry rest in some measure on the degree of its approximation to the crudities of the time when the work of book-making was a doubtful struggle with refractory materials carried on by means of insufficient appliances . . . The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity – by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spelling, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic which fixes the economic place of artistic book-making, there is the fact that these more elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee . . . that this book is scarce and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer.’

Me, I’m not scared (‘We’re going on a bear hunt, We’re going to catch a big one’). This isn’t an either/or thing. From that blog post I linked to above: ‘This period is a massive opportunity for small presses. Without the confusion of the paperback as primary text-delivery platform, people are grasping that there is a particular place for a well-made paper book with original content; they are actually seeing what a book is for the first time. This is the opposite of nostalgia, it is the grasping of the relevant place for a technology in our time.’ White Van Man will stay on the road; which keeps me happy, because what I missed when I was filling in databases all day while working in a publisher’s office was not just the responsibility for how books look but the manual labour, the blue-collar stuff, their weight and bulk, the bending of the knees.

* In fact not white and not a van, but a purple car, with bruised fenders and an almighty dent on the side (dating from the day around four years ago when a woman in a 4x4 merged a little too fast and close on Shepherd’s Bush Green; let’s skip the insurance, she suggested, and offered me £250 cash). But it does the job.