Sunday 28 March 2010


Prince Philip Speaks: the title of a book of his selected speeches from the 1950s that I stumbled across in a second-hand bookshop this weekend. The blurb, of course, declared him to be one of the finest speech-writers of the century. This is part of the joy and poignancy of second-hand bookshops: the topsyturvydom of reputations and rankings. Charles Morgan, Richard Aldington, Storm Jameson, Angus Wilson, William Cooper: where are they now? Some of them, doubtless, in the print-on-demand Faber Finds list, surrendering to its ‘unfortunately hideous’ (quote from Asylum: absolutely right) design. Second-hand bookshops do have this graveyard aspect, prompting a wondering about the reputations of many current writers grandiloquently acclaimed.

Philip, of course, is still alive and reasonably well, though any new book of his utterances is likely to be collection of his off-the-cuff remarks rather than his speeches. ‘If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed,’ he told British students in Beijing in 1986. He breathes life into the tradition of royal visits. And this, from 1981: ‘Everybody was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed.’

Any writer feeling insecure about their current reputation, or considering grounding it in a regular salary, might consider this current job ad in the Guardian, also spotted this weekend: Mid-weight writer. Nobel winners (heavy) and chick-lit authors (light) need not apply. ‘You will need to have experience of writing for corporate clients, project managing your own work and dealing with clients face to face . . . This role is best suited to an enthusiastic, energised self starter with plenty of common sense and a forward thinking approach to problem solving. A passion for writing is essential.’

Thursday 25 March 2010

‘Literally fabulous’

Big-name fiction tends to get reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement fairly promptly, but everyone else usually has to wait. Is this a deliberate policy – not to treat books as ‘news’? I can see that if it’s your book you want attention for, this could get irritating, but for most readers I think it’s fine; this is a coach-and-horses, surface-mail journal, not an e-zine. A year and a month after the publication of J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, the book is reviewed in this week’s issue of the TLS. Wordsworth drops by, as he has done before, but also, for the first time, the Beano: ‘. . . And it is precisely this ability to occupy the overlap between Thomson comics and The Prelude that makes the poem such a literally fabulous achievement, shaking off labels as skilfully as Rocky ducks out of school: “down the empty corridor/ then out/ then off”.’

Saturday 20 March 2010

Cut along the dotted line

As an ex-ship-bottler, I’m intrigued. Diffusion has a list of texts (and other things) you can download as A4 pages and then, following IKEA-like instructions, assemble into small-format books. I tried William Firebrace’s Specious Spacious, one of a series of essays on Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces. The pagination seems a little awry, but that’s because I wasn’t paying attention properly. As well as contemporary titles (including several by Tony White), the list of works available includes texts by Gertrude Stein and Edgar Allan Poe (translated by Mallarmé); lots of pictures too, as in George Stubbs’ The Anatomy of a Horse.

Thursday 18 March 2010


J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical has been shortlisted in the First Book category of the 2010 Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (henceforward, SMIT; but I’m not sure that’s much better)/ Scottish Arts Council book awards. Details here.

This week’s TLS reviews The Letters of Sylvia Beach, who founded the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and was ‘editor, publisher, distributor and seller’ of the first edition of Ulysses. In November – the 15th, it’s looking like – three CBe authors will be reading at the current incarnation of Shakespeare and Company: a school trip, a family outing.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Beauty and the beast

Spring, at last, and you get some nice reflections in shop windows. The DNA of gorillas and humans is pretty much the same.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

And another thing

Recommended before, the Guardian Books Blog series A Brief Survey of the Short Story is getting less brief by the month. The new post, number 25, is on Tolstoy; the previous one was on Lydia Davis, the two before that on JF Powers and Julio Cortázar. Such a good series.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Still life with books

CBe needs a new website. Not because I don’t like the one we have, and not just because I get restless for distraction activity, but because there needs to be more information about each of the books, and excerpts you can download, and . . . Not too much, but a bit more. (Because I need, and the authors need, to sell more books. Sales in the current financial year are more than double last year’s figures; but that’s no more than saying 5 is more than 2 x 2, and it ain’t enough.)

I’ve been talking to web folk. Most want to dress me in a business suit, which doesn’t feel comfortable. So what I think I have to do, in my humdrum megalomaniac way, is work out exactly what I want and then find someone friendly, cheap and with know-how.

I hate stock photos. And books are not, in general, photogenic, unless they’re old and scruffy; new books tend to look like product; until they’re well thumbed and have coffee stains on them, they’re not properly worn in. A photograph like the one above does a job, but really it’s just a filler. So I’ve been talking with Martina Geccelli, who photographs books in the way Morandi painted jugs. And then thinking, how about, on this hypothetical new site, a gallery page? Showing photography, drawings, other visual work; which would change its content every few months, like an exhibition programme; and would be related to books, strongly or tenuously (and the artists would pay for their work to be displayed, or a commission on sales: but this bit’s in brackets, or the small print). It’s publishing, a continuation of. Comments welcome.

Friday 5 March 2010

Glyndebourne, Wapping

This week, the Knight Crew opera at Glyndebourne. Around 60 young chorus singers, chosen from open auditions, plus half a dozen professional singers. I went on Wednesday, sitting in a £6 stalls seat (which for the summer Glyndebourne Festival would cost £195). It’s a huge achievement. There’ve been articles on this in the Financial Times and Spectator, etc, and there’ll be others, but for now here’s the editor of Gramophone : ‘What a happy surprise. What an inspiring evening . . . Where I had rather expected something energetic and willing but creatively box-ticking, Knight Crew delivered a genuinely superb theatrical experience . . . It goes beyond learning unfamiliar ways of performing, as does the entire show. By any standards, this is moving, entertaining, and really rather riveting. If everyone can take enough time away from school and work, it deserves some kind of tour, even a West End transfer. This or Mamma Mia? No competition.’

Now we have to sell more books off the back of this.

On Thursday Christopher Reid read from The Song of Lunch and A Scattering at the Wapping Project bookshop, a venue at the opposite end of the scale: a greenhouse that can hold an audience of sixteen at a pinch. Adjacent to the massive old pumping-house with its heavy industrial machinery still in place, its underground gallery, its restaurant lit by a hundred candles. It’s one of those rare combinations of place and people that makes wonderful things happen. Queuing to buy a book after the reading, someone turned to me and said, ‘This is one of the best places in London.’ She’s right.