Thursday 22 December 2011

Alfred Hayes

1911–85; born in London, worked in the US and Italy. He was in the US army in Italy in WW2, and stayed on as a screenwriter for Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica. Later, scriptwriting in Hollywood, and for TV. Not much seems to be known about him. Three books of poetry and half a dozen short novels. If he’d happened to be female some of those would have been reissued by Persephone Books by now, though their decorative endpapers wouldn’t have sat comfortably with the contents.

In The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949; reissued a few years ago by Europa, a Brooklyn-based publisher) an American soldier in Rome near the end of the war takes a room with an Italian girl; the deal, he thinks, is straightforward – he gets sex, she gets chocolate and cigarettes and a roof over her head and sex too – but it isn’t, and when the woman running the house is denounced, the police issue the girl with an official prostitute’s license. It’s just possible, near the end, that the couple’s barely articulated feelings for each other will enable them to rise above this mess, but the book isn’t saying.

In Love (1954; in print with Peter Owen; my copy a 1961 Penguin, £1.99 from an Oxfam shop): a girl in a convenient (to them both) relationship with a man is offered a thousand dollars by a rich businessman for one night. (Familiar scenario? Frederic Raphael: ‘To measure the difference between a work of art and its degradation, compare In Love with Adrian Lyne’s 1993 film, Indecent Proposal, in which Robert Redford offers Demi Moore a million dollars to sleep with him and you don’t believe a word of it, or give a damn whether she does or not, because the whole thing is famous-people confectionery.’) The story is recounted by the boyfriend to another girl in a bar, the story of an affair in which the needs and capacities for love of himself and the girlfriend intersect and then don’t and then maybe do again and then maybe don’t, and in which neither behaves in ways that would would win them a medal of honour.

My Face for the World to See (1958; my copy a 1960 Arrow Books paperback, also courtesy Oxfam): a jobbing Hollywood screenwriter pulls a drunk girl out of the sea at a party and starts a desultory affair that ends in melodrama (‘Had I thought once there were acts of which I was incapable?’).

Elizabeth Bowen called In Love a masterpiece; John Lehman and Antonia White reckoned pretty much the same. Echoed by The Times and the Independent on its reissue in 2007. Paul Bailey, who wrote an introduction for the reissue of of The Girl on the Via Flaminia: ‘Hayes has done for bruised men what Jean Rhys does for bruised women, and they both write heartbreakingly beautiful sentences.’

The sentences are what win me, of course. Plain but exact, one after another. Hayes has become one of the writers I’m liable to bore people about. The story-lines above are hardly original, and each time there’s something a little dated in their setting-up, as if you’re watching a black-and-white film, but once he gets the he and the she together he’s electric. The restaurant/nightclub scene in My Face for the World to See, after he’s told her he’ll be meeting his wife off a plane the following Monday, is not only lacerating, hilarious, drunken (‘She was very articulate when she was drunk; hadn’t I noticed? Martinis improved her vocabulary’), but done with a control – direct speech (you can see why he was a screenwriter), a kind of indirect reported speech I don’t know the technical term for, observation – that amounts to wizardry.

For Christmas, please can someone find me a cheap copy of Hayes’ The End of Me.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Whitman & Co.

Mortality kicks in. My mum once told me she’d been to three funerals in a week, and I’m starting to know how she was feeling. In the past weeks, and limiting this to the Anglo bookworld, Peter Reading, Christopher Logue, Gilbert Adair, Russell Hoban, George Whitman – have died. It’s bloody.

Logue and Adair I’ve mentioned. Russell Hoban I first met in the 80s; I was living round the corner, and asked if I could show him some stories for children I’d written, which were crap, and he said so in the kindest possible way, by praising the illustrations done by my wife. George Whitman I met in November of last year, when three of the CBe writers read at the Shakespeare & Co bookshop in Paris. It was a little late for me to have done so. The NY Times obituary quotes his own estimate of 40,000 writerly wanderers having been put up – been given bed and pancakes, in return for a few hours work and talk and a promise to read – in that shop over the years. Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian: ‘The shop was open from midday till midnight and, if you needed a place to stay, you could sleep in one of the beds hidden under the bookshelves . . . I found a second home at Shakespeare and Company. George always gave special privileges to writers – he lent me his dog to keep me company. He was an affront to modern capitalism, because he ran a successful business that put people, culture and books before money. He made his own world, and that is the best that anyone can do.’

Founded in 1951, a port in a storm for Durrell & Burroughs & Ginsberg & Ferlinghetti and countless others since, Shakespeare & Co has become ‘heritage’, a place to tick off on the tourist map. It can’t help but. Is it just that? Because of George Whitman, and because of Sylvia his daughter, no. They still take in the tumbleweeds. They still have a whole floor of books that are there not for selling but for reading, that’s a library from which you can borrow for free. Saara Marchadour, ex the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill, now works there. If not exactly your own home, it’s like your best friend’s home: a place more interesting, more exciting, than your own, and you wish it was yours, and though you’ll leave or it will kick you out, because that’s the other thing homes are for, it will still be there.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

For the record

I was asked today for a photo of my mum, so I went into the albums, and here is not my mum but the first school I went to, in a village in Yorkshire. ‘Village’ romanticises it, it was really a dormitory suburb of Leeds, but it wasn’t big and this was the complete local school. That’s Miss Williams at the back, who taught everything: reading, writing, maths up to long division. The school was not a building, it was this gathering of children that took up space where space was offered. The church was welcoming, offering its adjacent hall, outside which the second picture is posed. Circa 1960. Have you ever seen so many little white cotton socks in a row? My brother is in there, on Miss W’s left, peeking from behind the girl in front. The punishment for badness was this: to have to stand in the corner, facing the wall, with a blackboard duster on your head.

I don’t remember much. Maths: a number on the doorstep, to be carried over and knock on the next door. I do remember that I wasn’t good at bowing my head at the name of Jesus, during prayers. I think (all this thinking) I was thinking about it too much, and came in a bit early or late. I had to have private lessons in the cloakroom, where everyone hung up their wet coats. (Did Miss W speak some random speech, with the name of Jesus thrown in at random?) I did try. The whole thing was not about trouble-making but about being over-conscientious, which made me physically inhibited. I was the older brother. (Later, at an appalling minor public school, I was hopeless at marching, at getting the left arm forward at the same time as the right foot, and I had to have private lessons in that too. In the end they gave up and made me a lance-corporal, so I could stand to the side and shout.)

I had left the village school by the time of the second photo, but I’m in the top one, taken a year or two earlier, when the children were fewer and Miss W is looking a little less weary. For the record: back row, left to right: Stephen Nettle, Jeremy Willis, me, Jane Kirby, Keith Wallace, Howard Cliff, Michael Yeadon. Front row: Diana Macintosh, Alastair Cliff, Richard Ginever(?), Marta Watson, Philip Sinclair.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Thief in the night

I was tired, and I left three boxes of books, collected from the printer, in the car overnight. Someone got into the car (I have difficulty with always remembering to lock doors and to turn off the gas ring after cooking scrambled eggs). I know this because my reserve pack of cigarettes had gone and one of the boxes had been torn open – but none of the books had been taken, not one. (This appears to be supporting evidence for the statement by James Sutherland-Smith in a review in the new issue of The Bow-Wow Shop that 'CB editions has established a reputation for publishing what it likes rather than what everybody else likes'.)

Last week Christopher Logue died – whom I worked with at Faber, of whom I was very fond. This week, Gilbert Adair – whom I also worked with, whom I also was very fond of. Patient, funny, tireless; for the paperback editions of his books, following the hardbacks, he’d make many revisions, tiny and perfectionist, and because nothing was ever done until it was seen to be done he insisted on sitting next to me and watching as I took in those corrections onscreen. I told him that I’d started CBe not for the money but for the pleasure, the fun; ah, he said, une petite danseuse.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Camden / Cecil Sharp / Pudkin

I went to Cecil Sharp House in Camden, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, to look at the main hall as a possible venue for a book fair next year, and there’s a readings room downstairs and through the café and it’s all magnificent. Except that it costs (but we can find ways), and except that it’s asking a lot of people to trek up Parkway and then cross a road or two, and except that for almost every Saturday next year they’re already booked. To be continued.

Meanwhile, Cecil Sharp: who early in the last century travelled around the West Country collecting folk songs. The very first he collected, in 1903, he took from the gardener of a vicar he happened to be staying with – a man (the gardener) called (you couldn’t make this up) John England: ‘Sharp whipped out out his notebook, took down the tune, and afterwards persuaded John to give him the words.’ The words, yes. I’m not a song man, and anyway the original tune, once it has been re-whatevered and re-presented from a stage, has surely been gentrified, but the words can stand alone (though robbed in print of the dialect voice), and they do so in a book I bought second-hand in York a week ago: The Idiom of the People, 1958, edited by James Reeves from Cecil Sharp’s manuscripts. ‘Clean wantonness’. Wonderful book. (Re-issued in the print-on-demand Faber Finds list, which normally I wouldn’t be advertising at all – badly designed, expensive editions of out-of-print books, most of which you can still find on – but in this case I’ll make an exception.)

And after Cecil Sharp House, on to Ken Garland, on the way back to the tube. To call him a designer (he designed the banners for the first CND Aldermaston marches, and Galt toys in the 1960s and early 70s, and onwards and onwards, with lots of digressions) is woefully short of the mark. His website is here; you’ll need walking boots and willingness to keep changing direction. Late each year he publishes three small-format books of photographs (leaves, fire hydrants, Bangladeshi rickshaws, Mexican windows: eclectic). I swapped two CBe books for two of his new ones: drawings of children playing in the street made by his daughter when she was 14 (decades ago), and photographs by Lana Durovic of those things the eye usually glides over but which may in fact be central: they train you how to look. Pudkin Books, available direct from Ken Garland.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Lists, presents, that time of year

In the Observer last Sunday Daljit Nagra wrote that J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts ‘would be an ideal gift as I loved his first collection, Natural Mechanical, and reviews suggest this one is even better’. Anyone wanting to take the hint and send him a copy for Christmas, order a copy here. (If you decide not to keep to keep it for yourself, address it to Daljit Nagra, c/o Faber, London WC1B 3DA, and it will get to him.)

In this week’s TLS Books of the Year, Beverley Bie Brahic finds Morgan’s Long Cuts ‘every bit as startling in its originality as Natural Mechanical’, and Andrew Motion chooses, as one of ‘the two most impressive books of poetry I’ve read this year', D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water – ‘an ambitious saga (broken into fragments) of emigration and re-settling’.

In the Glasgow Herald, Todd McEwan promises that ‘Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road, based on a series of prints by Ando Hiroshige, by turns antique and modern, elegiac and dazzlingly clear, will surprise you at every turn.’ (For an online review by Mike Loveday from last week go here.)

For a bargain offer of all three 2011 CBe poetry titles – J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts, Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road (winner of the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize) and D. Nurkse’s Forward-shortlisted Voices over Water – for £20, go to Special Offer 2 at the foot of the Books page of the website. Free postage within UK.

On the same page, Special Offer 1 has Fergus Allen’s Before Troy and Marjorie Ann Watts’s Are they funny, are they dead? for £13.50. Fergus Allen is 90; Marjorie Ann Watts is 80-something. This is the Prolong Active Life offer. These books may be for yourself, your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents; they’re a lot more inspiriting than chocolates or socks.

The above offers are only available until Christmas. Or thereabouts.

Something for someone younger? Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which updates the King Arthur legend to contemporary gangland. Staged at Glyndebourne last year. Benjamin Zephaniah: ‘A story for this generation . . . written with love, passion and intelligence’. Perhaps her best book, this is still woefully undersold by me. Put ‘2 copies please’ or similar in the ‘instructions to merchant’ box as you check through when ordering a single copy and I’ll send exactly that. (And if anyone thinks that writing for ‘young adults’, or whatever they may now be termed, is a soft option, read Nicky Singer’s account of prison-visiting during her writing of this book here. I’ve linked there before, but it’s worth it again. The prison service is not charged with Christmas spirit.)

Bursa, 195?

Andrzej Bursa on the left. Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1932, he had a brief publishing opportunity between Stalin’s death in 1953 and his own death at the age of 25. I had lost this photo, then found it tonight. He's neither writing nor posing, and how I come to have this photo is one of several mysteries. The child in the centre, pirate’s cutlass in his lap; the old woman already fading to the right, as if just waiting to be cropped out; something off-stage, to the left, they are looking at. It’s not how author photos usually come. Buy the book.

Boyd Tonkin in the Independent: ‘Dead at 25 in 1957, the Polish postwar firebrand Andrzej Bursa acquired a reputation as a quick-burning, existentially tormented rebel: a literary James Dean of the Stalinist era. This selection of his quirky, darkly witty work – poems, fables, above all the titular novella – does indeed summon the shades of Beckett or Kafka from time to time. Everyday life slips into scenes of fantasy or horror, as when the local Party secretary sacrifices children to a dragon, “an old, blind, mouldy beast” that still tears them apart. Yet Bursa’s dark humour and deadpan satire – finely captured here by translator Wiesiek Powaga – keep utter bleakness at bay. Some will think of Dostoyevsky when it comes to the snuffed-out relative in the novella; read to the end and you hear something like Joe Orton’s wicked cackle too.’

Saturday 26 November 2011

‘A world of shadows and decoys’

Yesterday was the annual get-together of the small presses who are members of Inpress, an organisation which in principle is a wholly good thing: given the lack of conversation between, say, Waterstone’s and any individual small press – they big and corporate, we in our back-bedrooms: the gears don’t mesh – Inpress steps in with the combined clout of several presses joined together and starts talking.

Patrick McGuinness gave an opening talk that hit the right note: both encouraging – his writing has been enabled by several small presses (Smith/Doorstop, then Carcanet for his poetry, Seren for his fiction, others too) – and realistic, demonstrating how at every stage of the process the odds are stacked against small presses. For example: it wasn’t until his recent novel, The Last Hundred Days, published by Seren, was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, that it was deemed worth reviewing. Please send us review copies, asked the broadsheets et al. You’ve already got them, said Seren, who had logged their sending-out. But they had somehow gone astray. Please send again.

Patrick McG’s novel – now shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize – charts the final period of Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. It depicts ‘a world of shadows and decoys, double and triple bluffs’; in which the lies ‘eat away at you until you believe nothing’, until the very capacity for belief dies away ‘into irony and cynicism’; in which offices are peopled by ‘regional secretaries, vice-ministers, provincial chiefs . . . they looked as if they both felt and provoked fear in equal measure. Another of the system’s equalising mechanisms.’

The system of the British book world is not the Ceausescu one, but it’s still dispiriting. I’ve banged on before about how heavy discounting actually forces up the cover price of books, and has been a major cause of hundreds of independent bookshops closing down (‘independent bookshop numbers have fallen by more than a quarter since 2006,’ the Guardian reported last month, using figures from the Booksellers Association). Very few bookshops stock titles outside the predictable range; very few newspapers review outside that range. And to get more CBe books into shops – which is what Inpress set out to do – is a process both strange (involving buyers and sellers talking about books which in most cases neither of them has read) and expensive. If Waterstone’s do stock a CBe £7.99 book I get – after the wholesaler’s discount and the distributor’s cut and the Inpress cut and VAT on those – under £3; deduct from that the author’s royalty and the cost of printing-&-binding and we’re down into the pennies. (And if I costed in editing, design, typesetting, etc, I’d be into sub-zero.)

We can change the system (bring back the Net Book Agreement, or at least legislate – as France and Germany do – to restrict discounting). Unlikely, that. We can work around rather than within the system (book fairs, mobile bookshops). I never set out to be a dissident, but it seems it comes with the job.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

A vague impression of urine

Some days not so good. There is A with his infected wisdom tooth and grumpy, there is the long wait in hospital (and though I've brought a book I've managed not to bring my glasses) with B, whose broken metatarsal will mean crutches for weeks, possibly months. There is me who should be sacked as a salesman: despite Andrew Barrow’s fine talk on The Queue for the Sohemian Society last night, no expletives deleted, in a room so packed that at least one latecomer left a note instead of forcing his way in, I managed not only to sell just 5 copies but somehow – it all got a bit confused – at less than half price. (Plus online today becoming offline, and attempts to pay a bill fading into ‘timed out’, devolving into hour-long phone calls to try to find out where now is the money, with them or still with me.)

And the cover for the Apollinaire book needs to be rejigged: when it comes to the printing, that off-white colour for his name on the front and the panel on the back refuses to sit proud, it soaks so far into the manilla board as to leave just a vague impression of urine.

One of those days. But two good things. The NHS doctor, when eventually we got to him, was excellent: he'd actually read the notes, so we didn't have to recite the whole long history yet again, and he tailored treatment as much to the person as the injury.

And this notice in the new PBS Bulletin for J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts: ‘A sequel equal to the seemingly matchless Natural Mechanical, a former PBS Recommendation and Aldeburgh Poetry Prize winner, Long Cuts depicts “further wanderings in the life of Iain Seoras Rockcliffe”, as Nature Boy turns man, striking his native wit on the edge of the wider world, sparking like flint on stone. A bravura performance of poetic ventriloquism, Morgan transcribes Rocky’s hard-won voice into hard-spun verse as vital and varied as the hero’s own freewheeling adventures.’

Whoever wrote that is welcome to the job of CBe blurb-writer. And sales person too.

Sunday 20 November 2011


I was browsing in my favourite bookshop yesterday and talking in a dilatory kind of way with the woman who runs it when a man and woman came in and the conversation expanded – always in these bookshop conversations there’s a point at which someone remembers a book but not the author’s name, or a name but not a title, and someone else tentatively supplies the missing information and the current moves on – and after the couple had left the bookshop woman referred to the man by name. That was David Attenborough? Yes, it was. I’d been talking to him unknowingly.

Of course the world, and more particularly the media, is full of famous names I can’t put faces to or faces I can’t put names to, and of people who are presented as famous – their names are checked – but I have not the slightest idea, except for what might be suggested by the context of the name-checking, what they are famous for. The published faces that irritate me most just now – even more than politicians attempting to look statesmanlike or writers attempting to look mature and thoughtful – are those of comedians: there they are, on the posters for their shows and their DVDs, pulling a face, often with a kind of quizzical or ‘it wasn’t me, guv, honest’ expression that seems to be the current code for ‘comic’, and already I feel I’m being manipulated.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Dear sir or madam

The BBC film adaptation (starry: Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman) of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch was broadcast this week in the US. The book was first published by CBe in 2009; it’s now with Faber. But any US TV-viewers interested in buying the book and going to are stalled: it has no US publisher; the Faber print edition is not listed there; there’s a single used CBe edition for $221. The Faber kindle edition (which you can see a sample of by clicking the CBe cover, and the setting is a mockery of the original) is available, but what if they want the book, the thing with pages between covers? I’ve been getting emails from the US from would-be buyers who’ve done some research on the net and found me. Some of them want to send me their poems. I compose replies. Officially I am not allowed to sell them one of the very few remaining CBe copies, as I am no longer the publisher, but if they want to send me money, inclusive of postage . . .

Why does buying a book have to be so complicated? And buying a train ticket, and phoning your bank, and going to see your GP? TfL have been sending emails telling people they can now get now ‘get real-time bus information on your phone, Smartphone or online’, which ‘gives control of your journey’: why do they think that telling people the bus is running late is something helpful and positive, something that makes life easier?

Monday 7 November 2011

Aldeburgh: floating your boat

I could have made a rash and silly promise: have said, for example, that if Nancy Gaffield won the Aldeburgh 2011 First Collection Prize I’d go there and swim in the sea (the North Sea, in November). I didn’t. But her book Tokaido Road did win the prize. And I did swim in the sea. Congratulations to Nancy. And a thank you to Anna Selby, despite her telling me – a bare-faced lie – that the water was warmer than it looked.

The word is, for when you come out of the sea, ‘invigorated’. But sometimes you don’t need to go into the sea to feel that.

On Friday evening in Aldeburgh Fergus Allen, now aged 90, gave a short talk on a poem by Auden (that’s Fergus doing exactly that, above; photo courtesy the Poetry Trust). By the time I arrived, about 10 minutes before the start of this talk by a little-known poet on a little-known poem, all seats were taken, so it was standing-room only. On Saturday evening Fergus Allen read his own poems (mostly from his recent CBe book, Before Troy), alongside Amjad Nasser and Kay Ryan; none of these are household names, but the reading was sold out in advance. As one-off events in London, these would have attracted a fraction of those audiences. But Aldeburgh is accumulative. Each year its several official parts include readings, talks, workshops, interview/conversations, panel discussions, Q-&-As; add in the sea, fish and chips, Adnams beer, random encounters not just with poets read but never met before but also with unread poets, and unmet readers, and the place becomes more than the sum of its parts. And it’s accumulative year-upon-year too, which is why it feels important that the Arts Council’s withdrawal of secure funding for this festival must somehow be remedied.

In Fergus Allen’s third appearance at the festival he talked with Peter Blegvad, part of a series of conversations titled Floating Boat. Which is the excuse for this post’s title, and for the photos, all taken in Aldeburgh at the weekend.

Two last random comments. As Katy Evans-Bush points out in her own post on the festival, and despite the sprinkling of free events, there aren’t many poetry-world folk who, once they’ve got there, can afford tickets to all the events they’d like to go to. Some kind of 3-for-2 might be offered? And it’s a devil of a place to get to (and from). A minibus service from London? A boat from London? (There seem to be plenty around, in need of refloating.) (And another from Scotland, from where this year a large number of people made the long trek down.)

Wednesday 2 November 2011

White van men

That’s a Luton, above. Most of them look a bit more battered, but you can fit a lot into a Luton. Much of today was spent loading up a Luton with a 70-odd-year-old poet’s boxes (of books, of papers) and some bookcases and other furniture too and moving them from one part of London to storage in another part. Two recent days have been spent doing the same with twenty years’ accumulation of paintings by an artist (who is being evicted from her charity-controlled studio on the grounds she doesn’t use it enough), and tomorrow the same. The drivers – Hungarian and Romanian – have been a joy: cheerful, helpful, gsoh, and – even allowing for the cigarette breaks – amazingly fast and efficient.

A few years ago we regularly used a Luton driver who was German, had a philosophy degree, and whose conversation made the time (some of the journeys were to or from far outside London) speed by. He asked us to supper. The meal – cooked by his French wife, and eaten outside in summertime on a cracked patio overlooking a unkempt garden somewhere in Harrow; three courses at least, with a different wine for each course – was one of the best I’ve had. Then he moved on. He told us to go to his abandoned house and take what furniture we liked. My desk chair, the one I’m sitting on, was his chair. I’m privileged.

Sunday 30 October 2011

799 miles

Here is Rocky (see Natural Mechanical, then see Long Cuts, now available) at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh last Thursday. A library isn’t his natural habitat – he’s happier out of doors, or when the weather’s foul in the workshop with his vintage motorbikes – but he’s not going to be daunted by that.

Back home tonight from Edinburgh: 799 miles on the mileometer, and all of them worth it. The book fair at the Scottish Poetry Library, the company, the morning swims followed by porridge, the whisky, all good. (The one thing I’d happily erase from my memory was the film I stumbled into on Friday afternoon, We Need to Talk about Kevin; the lead review on IMDB gives it 9 out 10 and calls it ‘poetry’; I walked out.)

Sunday 23 October 2011

Points north and others

The Anarchist Book Fair in London on Saturday was well-attended and perversely well-organised: there was even a crèche for tiny anarchists. Plus film, discussions, etc., and a lot more tattoos and piercings on show than at the poetry book fair.

Chris Power’s continuing online-Guardian ‘Brief Survey of the Short Story’ looks at Denis Johnson this month. This is such a good series.

During this coming week I head up to Scotland for the launch of J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on Thursday – from 6.30, and Rocky himself will be there – and then the book fair at the same place on Saturday. Everyone welcome. (Though obviously, those within striking distance of Edinburgh will find it easier.)

A rare trip out of London, and about time. I’m driving, because books are heavy and it gives me an excuse to digress on the way up or down. The car radio is bust, and it doesn’t have a CD-player, but it does have a tape thing and I’ve stocked up on cassettes from an Oxfam shop. And on the whole – meaning, dodgy generalisation coming – I’ve found out-of-London publishing folk not just friendlier and more open and interested but also more downright efficient than the London lot. (I’m not talking the London small-press people here, so maybe it’s a small press/big publisher divide rather than a London/‘the regions’ one, but still.) In London there’s so often a we-are-the-universe assumption, attitude, reinforced by the media, that needs to be negotiated before you can properly start talking. It’s patronising and it’s silly and any truth to it is surely long outdated.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Further to the below

Clare Conville, who teaches on the Faber Academy two-day course titled ‘Getting Your Novel Published’ (9 hours, £199), says in the Guardian supplement that her agency ‘receives 4,000-5,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year and on average take on a maximum of five a year’. Francis Bickmore, the other teacher on that course, says that Canongate receive around 3,000 submissions a year, from which ‘we are looking to find around 30 new books a year. Perhaps only five are going to be from a debut voice.’

(I’ll mention, why not, that CBe has published one of Clare Conville’s authors whose novel, despite the author’s excellent sales and prize-winning record, and despite this novel being already scheduled for a Glyndebourne opera adaptation, and despite it being a fine book – so very fine that I was more than happy interrupt the regular, as it seems, CBe profile to welcome it in – was turned down by all major publishers. See Knight Crew.)

It’s a lottery. £199 well spent? The desire to have your work in print, as another concrete object in the world, detached from yourself, seems entirely reasonable to me. (Online and downloadable is not, from the perspective of many writers, the same thing. And while music, most of it, is online, and except for dedicated concert-goers no one is objecting, art is not: to see three major contemporary artists now showing in London – Richter, Dumas, Sasnal – you have to go to the galleries, and no one is suggesting otherwise.) This desire, hunger, while being catered for by public sector courses in a decent way – though god knows who’s going to publish all those BAs and MAs – is being exploited by Faber and the Guardian, most conspicuously, for financial gain above all other reasons. (And Faber still get ACE money, public money, to publish new poets.) No reason why they shouldn’t: they are businesses, no less so than any other publisher or newspaper, all with their target audiences. It’s a free market. A controlled (by who?) market wouldn’t be any less messy, but still.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

‘Describe cancer. Describe calico.’

I’ve never done a writing course (as either student or teacher). I’d feel hugely self-conscious if I signed up to one. Not sure why; no one else seems to have this hang-up, and nor did the wannabe artists who went to art college decades ago, before ‘creative writing’ was on any syllabus. I tend to be cynical about them.

But today, there on the kitchen table was a 40-page Guardian supplement entitled ‘How to Write Fiction’ – a thing I occasionally try and usually fail to do – and it looks, after a quick skim, pretty impressive: non-prescriptive (‘feel free to dispute or ignore everything in this introduction or in the articles that follow,’ writes Geoff Dyer), and enough text written by enough authors for readers to cherry-pick the bits that look juiciest and ignore the others. (The authors – Rachel Cusk, Adam Foulds, M. J. Hyland, Andrew Miller among them – teach a new range of ‘UEA/Guardian Masterclasses’. Cost of the first one I checked out: £4,000. Which for weekly 3-hour class sessions over 24 weeks works out at £55 an hour. Which is probably no more than the rate you’d pay a plumber to mend a dripping tap, but still enough for my cynicism to click back on. Even if they get taken on by one of the big publishers, most first-time novelists are, I believe, getting advances of far less than that course fee.)

For someone who has written previously as a poet and who is switching to prose, there’s a lot to learn. Hugo Williams once did a good column on this: all those ‘he said’s and ‘she said’s, all that getting people into and out of rooms. All that description.

Description. Geoff Dyer in his introduction licenses me to dispense with it and just get on with the stuff I’m better at (= enjoy more?). Depends how it’s done and what it’s done for, of course, but here’s Virginia Woolf on the subject, after quoting (in ‘Character in Fiction’) a passage from an Arnold Bennett novel describing the view from a window: ‘One line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description; but let them pass as the necessary drudgery of the novelist.’ Her essay goes on to talk about ‘how serious a matter it is when the tools of one generation are useless for the next’, and about the difficulty of putting into words even the simplest experience or observation (‘this vivid, this overmastering impression’), in this case of an old woman she happened to have shared a railway carriage with: ‘To tell you the truth, I was . . . strongly tempted to manufacture a three-volume novel about the old lady’s son, and his adventures crossing the Atlantic, and her daughter, and how she kept a milliner’s shop in Westminster, the past life of Smith himself, and his house at Sheffield, though such stories seem to me the most dreary, irrelevant, and humbugging affairs in the world but if I had done that I should have escaped the appalling effort of saying what I meant. And to have got at what I meant, I should have had to go back and back and back; to experiment with one thing and another; to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision matching it as exactly as possible . . . I admit that I shirked that arduous undertaking. I let my Mrs Brown slip through my fingers . . . But that is partly the great Edwardians’ fault. I asked them – they are my elders and betters – How shall I begin to describe this woman’s character? And they said, “Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate. Ascertain the rent. Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878. Discover what her mother died of. Describe cancer. Describe calico. Describe –” But I cried, “Stop! Stop!” and I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico my Mrs Brown, that vision to which I cling though I know no way of imparting it to you, would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.’

From which, two things. Writing involves at least as much arguing with your ‘elders and betters’, shutting your eyes and ears to them even, as it does learning from them. And if it’s about ‘the appalling effort of saying what I meant’, there has to be something you mean to say. Even if you only discover what that is through writing – which is where, I guess, the writing courses come back in.

Oh, a last thing. The Faber Academy course titled ‘Becoming a poet’ (£3,500, working out at just under £40 an hour class time, a snip). Roland Barthes would have had fun with that, in his Mythologies. Not writing poetry: becoming ‘a poet’.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Aldeburgh: 1989–2011(?)

Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, was the place we used to go to for our summer holidays when I was a child. And stay in a boarding house run by a Mrs Turner. Year after year after year. Every time, the suspense on the way there: would the car get stuck on Sutton Bank? Every time, a trip to the café in Goathland where there was a talking mynah bird. Every time, some unplanned, unexpected event (a plane crashing into the sea, after the pilot had ejected, was a star turn). What possible reason could there be to go anywhere else?

Aldeburgh (above), on the Suffolk coast, is where an annual poetry festival is held. Year after year after year, on the first weekend after the clocks go back, this is what happens: people go to the seaside to hear poets read and talk and discuss, eat fish & chips, walk by the sea. I read there myself in, I think, 1995, as one of three readers for the London Magazine (Peter Bland and Deryn Rees-Jones being the others), then run by Alan Ross. In the evening we gathered for drinks at the house of Herbert Lomas and then Alan blew the whole reading fee on a meal for us all at one of the restaurants.

Alan died ten years ago. Bertie Lomas died last month. Aldeburgh, astoundingly, renews itself each year: it has a policy of not inviting poets back (however well they’ve behaved), so has a new line-up each time you go, including poets from outside the UK (this year, from Albania, America, Australia, the Bahamas, Ireland, Jordan and New Zealand). Among those who go to listen to the poets there are, I suspect, regulars: they go to Aldeburgh as I was taken to Filey in the 1950s. And the place itself doesn’t change, much. But as well as new poets there are new visitors each year. And the mix of continuity and change creates a place from which you can expect both the familiar and the unexpected. (In around 2007 one poet at Aldeburgh happened to mention to another poet the name Francis Ponge; and the conversation continued; and the result was the CBe bilingual edition of Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, the only UK edition of this writer. Each year there are many other such encounters.)

The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is organised by the Poetry Trust – ‘one of the UK’s flagship poetry organisations, delivering a year-round live and digital programme, creative education opportunities, courses, prizes and publications’, which is website-speak, but they do in fact deliver. And they are remarkably inclusive: witness the constantly renewed programme; witness the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, the history of whose winners and shortlists shows a far more open-minded outlook (in terms of gender, publisher, etc) than, most conspicuously, the Forward Prize.

But as far as I know (and please god there are, as they say, ‘continuing discussions’), this could be the last Aldeburgh. In March this year the Arts Council cut all secure funding to the Poetry Trust. Given the year-upon-year accumulation, the connections already made and there to be built on, the blend of discrimination and openness to the new, the continuity, this is vandalism.

I find it hard to believe this. It’s like my mother telling me no, from now on there is no Mrs Turner, no talking mynah bird, no Filey, no summer. She’s testing me. It cannot be right. Aldeburgh is simply there, each year, an essential part of the calendar. You don’t have to go, of course; you could give it a miss this year and go next year or the next. Except now, maybe not. 4th to the 6th November: see you there.

Spot the author

J. O. Morgan at the West Port Book Festival in Edinburgh last night (photo courtesy Peggy Hughes). Next sighting will be at the launch of Long Cuts (now available from the CBe website) at the Scottish Poetry Library on 27 October: all welcome.

Friday 14 October 2011

Trust the trustees?

Chisenhale Art Place (CAP) is the name of the registered charity that runs Chisenhale Studios in east London. Its website lists 37 artist members. Until very recently there were 40, but during the summer the board of trustees gave notice to three members that their licenses were being revoked and that they had to quit their studios. One of those three happens to be Madeleine Strindberg, my wife.

Madeleine has been a member of CAP for 25 years. During that time she has used her studio to produce work that has been shown in numerous exhibitions and that won her the Jerwood Painting Prize. In recent years her work has been made at home as well as in her Chisenhale studio, which has also been used for storage of earlier work and for showing this work to interested galleries. The reasons given for Madeleine’s eviction are that she is not contributing sufficiently to the aims of CAP and that her studio is not an essential part of her practice. Eviction means that Madeleine has to find alternative space for several hundred paintings; many are over 6 foot; they weigh, I’d guess, several tons.

There is no appeals procedure. Nor has there been any opportunity to even talk with the trustees about their decision: all communication has been via the administrator, appointed by the board, who refuse to talk directly with Madeleine. And even if the board has reason to argue that Madeleine’s studio at Chisenhale is not being used as actively as they’d like, there are still things to talk about. Such as the infrequent use of studios by many members other than the three being evicted (yesterday morning only one studio in the whole building was being used by its licensee, and a glance through the signing in/out book showed that there are very few days when even half the studios are being used). Such as the fact that one artist member (who also happens to be on the board of trustees) doesn’t even live in England. Such as the regulations about subletting and the use of studios as business premises and whether a blind eye is sometimes being turned. Such as the rumours about the planned redevelopment of the building.

The decision to evict Madeleine and the two others appears to be arbitrary. The board’s attitude has been bullying. (One of the other members being evicted recently wrote to the board informing them of the concerns of the chair of the National Federation of Artists Studio Providers about the way the evictions were being handled; a trustee replied that those concerns ‘are of no interest to us’ and that ‘The Board has had quite enough correspondence and email about all of this already. Please do not bother us any more with this’; this reply was the only direct communication from any of the trustees that the member has had.) The refusal of the trustees to discuss the situation (I’ve seen an email from the chair of the board in which he says he has ‘more pressing issues’ to deal with) betrays the whole spirit of the place, which was established to give artists ‘secure premises’ to get on with their art in a cooperative manner.

‘Board of trustees’ is of course a term that’s recently become familiar to many in the poetry world, where the Poetry Society has had to deal with the fall-out from some clumsy decisions by its own board. You wander along for years without paying attention to the machinery of these places, then a gear slips and you have to make sense of it all. I think at least some of the artist members of Chisenhale are concerned about their board’s behaviour, but are also worried that if they speak out they may be next in line for eviction.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Apollinaire: the back issue

Dodgy photos, but the first above is the cover of a 1968 issue of the London Magazine that I found in a crate outside a bookshop today. That’s Apollinaire with his friend André Rouveyre in a sequence of stills from a movie made in a coin-operated street booth in Paris in 1914 on the day the two of the them arrived in the city from Deauville, which happened also to be the day that general mobilisation was announced. Apollinaire signed on the dotted line and went to war and wrote the poems that will be in the CBe book early next next year, the French on the left and BB Brahic’s translations (she who translated the Ponge) on the right, and if your idea of ‘war poetry’ is over-conditioned by Wilfred Owen etc you may have to reconfigure. This is not, of course, an either/or thing; but mud-brown was not the only colour available, even in the trenches.

Apollinaire took a shrapnel wound in the head and died in 1918. 1968 is roughly halfway between then and where we are now.

These back-issues are always disorientating. There’s a heart-felt review of a poet whose ‘achievement is in being able to use domestic detail as a liberating symbolism’ and whose book ‘is the product of of a poet concerned with the most difficult and intransigent areas of experience’ and whose name is now forgotten. In the August 1968 London Magazine, also picked up from that crate, Kingsley Amis and Michael Holroyd and William Trevor and Peter Porter and many others reply to a questionnaire about political engagement; and Christopher Logue is interviewed about his poster poems; and not only are there are seven poems by Douglas Dunn from his Terry Street, which would be published by Faber the next year, but also six pages on good gloss paper of photographs (the second above) of Terry Street by Bob Whitaker.

There’s a flyer included offering me 12 issues for a annual subscription of 60 shillings (£3): bargain.

You won’t get any of those Bob Whitaker photographs of Terry Street by googling him (I’ve tried). Nor do you get me on my circa 1970 bicycle pilgrimage from Leeds to Hull (it’s flat land, easy cycling) to park the bike in Terry Street and just look. There’s a fair amount you don’t get on google.

Monday 10 October 2011


An oblique response to George Szirtes’ recent post on, with or without quote marks, Englishness:

1) 19-12 to France, and thank god England are out of the rugby world cup. Too much money, too much bureaucracy, too much strutting. But I’m English, and once upon a time I played the game. Now Wales, with great relief and with both head and heart.

2) I am English, male, white, middle-class, through-and-through, ineradicable, and if I have a habit of saying ‘sorry’ and stepping aside that’s all part of it. I know the codes, or some of them, and I’ve benefited from this. While also being someone who, in any neutral contest, naturally supports the underdog; someone whose favourite writers are either non-English or English-at-a-curious-angle (a conspicuous exception is Ford Madox Ford, but look at the writers he championed: Conrad, Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, James …); someone whose most important loves and friendships happen to have always been with non-English people; someone who feels them to be my countryfolk.

3) No sympathy required or expected or wanted. If I’m uneasy with the label English in any way that current labellers would define it, and certainly in any nationalistic way, clearly none of the other easy labels – minority, outsider, from-the-margins – will stick. What’s left is discomfort, conflictedness, under a camouflage of full-on Englishness, and I couldn’t ask for more.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Red sky at night, the mice will play

The Forward poetry prizes are over for another year. Congratulations to John Burnside and Rachael Boast. The two CBe shortlistees, D. Nurkse and Nancy Gaffield, came, saw and left by the back door. One takes this philosophically, of course. A gift horse is always on the other side of the fence. A miss is as good as a silver lining. What goes up is better than no bread. Sleeping dogs wait for no man. Too many cooks spoil the dwarf. (And other such perverbs from Harry Mathews’ Selected Declarations of Dependence.)

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Next: the travelling circus

Above: a mobile library for sale. (One careful lady owner.) There are others.

One of the many enthusiastic online responses to last Saturday’s book fair ends thus: ‘Here’s hoping CB Editions will take their fair around the UK.’

Well. Given this: that in recent years hundreds of independent bookshops across the UK have closed; that in many towns a bricks-&-mortar bookshop is not now sustainable; that most (there are valiant exceptions) of the bookshops that do survive stock little other than the usual tedious and predictable titles –

Then why not this: a mobile bookshop. With a core stock of good books, which can be supplemented with books from local presses according to where the bookshop parks itself (Inverness, Aberystwyth, Land’s End, wherever). Doesn’t have to be a van like the above: a bus, a caravan, something smaller with a yurt packed in (I’ve always wanted a yurt). Its arrival would be a publicity event in itself. Can do the festivals as well as the bookless towns.

It takes just five days (I’ve checked) to train for an HGV license.

Seems to me a flippin’ obvious idea. So did the book fair, honestly, but no one was doing it. Comments?

Tuesday 27 September 2011

More post-bookfair: ‘Health is infectious’*

Whether by accident or not, and it hardly matters, we got some things right:

The timing. This has been, since the ACE cuts in late March, a mess of a year for the public profile of poetry: the cuts themselves; the Poetry Society fiasco (and it’s not put to bed yet); the rolling-of-eyes at the shortlists for the Forward prize, in some quarters now termed the Backward prize. If people needed to feel better about themselves, to come together in a cooperative way rather than with an adversarial agenda, to be assured that what they’re doing is worth the doing, the occasion may have enabled this.

The work on display.
(1) When judged by the amount of new poetry they put out each year, the poetry publishers no one ever calls ‘small’ – Faber, Cape, Picador – are, in fact, small; and most of their publishing slots are taken up by new work from writers already on their list.
(2) Whatever you think of creative writing courses and the professionalisation of writing, they’ve contributed to an increasing amount of quality writing seeking publication.
(3) It’s the presses that people do call ‘small’ who publish most of this work.
(4) There is no gap in quality between much of the work published by the small presses and the work put out by the Big People. There is no gap in the dedication and professional skill with which the books are produced; if anything, the small presses, in their attention to the design of each specific book, score more highly here. There is a gap between the marketing and publicity resources of the Big People and those of the small presses; that is, in their ability to get their books to readers. Which is why a book fair ain’t such a daft idea.**

And then, the selling. Mostly only anecdotal evidence so far, but there was more actual buying going on than I – or, I guess, many of the presses – had dared to expect. It’s possible this was influenced by the way in which the fair was presented in the publicity: as something put on without public funding, and needing support. More likely, I think, it was an infectious thing: if you’re standing next to someone who’s shelling out, you think, hey, so it’s OK to buy, I can do this too (and if I don’t get that book that’s teasing me now, it may be gone when I come back). Special thanks to the buyers who set this going.

* Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–99); quoted in the programme to the book fair.
** This isn’t brain surgery. But it does seem, as Chris Hamilton-Emery argues in his post on the book fair, to be beyond the Arts Council.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Post-bookfair: I spy something beginning with . . .

My sons turned up to the Free Verse poetry book fair in Exmouth Market on Saturday, and did shifts on the table outside with the programmes. A decade ago, maybe longer, we were sitting in a pizza restaurant in Cornwall and during the fidgety wait between ordering and the arrival of food we were playing I-Spy. ‘Something beginning with C,’ said one son. We gave up when the food arrived. Smugly, he gave us the answer: civilisation.

Something of the sort was happening on Saturday. Put together on a wing and a prayer, the event became what it was because of the support and good humour and generosity of everyone who turned up: the publishers, many of whom I’d guess were expecting a bit more space to display their books, shifting along a bit and making the best of what space they had; people saying yes, no problem, to an unscheduled reader getting time; and the visitors, whether friends of friends or just curious passers-by, not just mingling and talking but getting out their cash. (A few months ago one of the publishers had been doubtful whether the effort and time put into into book fairs were ever repaid in sales; late on Saturday, after selling far more than he’d expected, he said he took that all back.) Especial thanks to Chrissy Williams, Anna Selby, Michael Horovitz. Three early blog reports are here and here and here.

All planned events need an injection of the unplanned, the unpredictable. For me on Saturday this was the woman who happened to be busking nearby on the street outside. We’ve got a book fair going on in the hall, I said, and – Oh, she said, sorry, am I too loud?, I’ll move along. No, I didn’t mean that; would she like to step up on stage? She came in about halfway through the day and did a set of three songs. I loved them. Her website (from which you can buy her music) is here.

Sometime soon Chrissy and I will go to a pizza place, not necessarily in Cornwall, and discuss the future of civilisation. We’ll get some feedback from the publishers who took part on Saturday but anyone else who wants to chip in – visitors, presses we didn’t have room for on Saturday, whoever – please do. Things can be different. That’s the point.

Friday 23 September 2011

Eve of the book fair

There are now a few more trestle tables in the hall, and some books and string and miscellaneous. My son, delivering the tables with me, approved the street; a few doors along there’s a café/bar with three full size table-football tables. The only tricky bit tomorrow will be the setting up: there are now easily enough tables to fill the space, but not necessarily enough to accommodate all the presses in comfort. Meanwhile, the man who rented the trestle tables to me told me I looked like Lee Marvin (first pic). I still think more like Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There (second pic, with James Gandolfini). Just in case you arrive and are trying to work out which one is me.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

The book fair: reasons to delight

Selected reasons for coming along on Saturday to Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE: the poetry book fair, from 10 a.m.

1: It’s free, and the cricket season is over so what else are you going to do on a Saturday? The shopping?

13: There hasn’t been such a gathering of poetry presses in London for too long, and without your presence to show that it’s a worthwhile assembly there won’t be another for another long time.

14: Exmouth Market itself: cafés, bars, outdoor stalls and a fine independent bookshop (Clerkenwell Tales) next door to the book fair. Joseph Grimaldi, celebrated English clown, lived here between 1818 and 1828.

29: Madame Rosa, after reading your palm, has foreseen that at the book fair you will meet someone ‘who could be important in your life, / the future tells me / he could be the one.’ Or she. (I’m quoting from a Bill Manhire poem, so it must be true.)

33: There’ll be poets there from planet mainstream and poets from planets that do exist but whose discovery has never been recognised by the Royal Astronomical Society. The Poetry Wars: think of this event as the equivalent of that Christmas 1914 occasion when when the Tommies and the Boches clambered out of their trenches, dropped their rifles and played football.

34: There is no VAT on books. Yet.

41: To hear an early-autumn chorus of 30 poets reading from their work throughout the day.

57: If you think any event larger than than a one-off book launch has to have corporate resources and/or Arts Council money behind it but would like to believe otherwise, then come and believe.

99, 100 and 101: Michael Horovitz. From even before the 1965 Albert Hall reading (Ferlinghetti, Corso, Burroughs, Logue, Horovitz et al, and an audience of 7,000), he has carried the New Departures and Poetry Olympics torch through to today. Legend. On stage at 11 a.m.

293, 408 and 666: Because there’ll be books at the fair you won’t come across elsewhere. Because a book in the hand at the fair is worth six in the post from a rainforest in South America. Because you’re worth it.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Twinkle, twinkle

This week the online Guardian carried a review not of one of the books, but of CBe – here. ‘A brilliantly idiosyncratic operation . . . some truly dazzling books’ – that, from the come-on line at the top, may have been written by the sub-ed rather than John Self, who wrote the piece itself, but you get the flavour. Do I read reviews of my own work? Of course I don’t. Do I let them go to my head? Of course I do.

A new online review of D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water – ‘this excellent book, being full of startling images and crisp language . . . one of the most consistently satisfying collections I have read this year’.

Thursday 15 September 2011

On editing (or not)

‘Impeccably researched, written in an accessible, lively and lucid style, with useful appendices, notes, and bibliography, this is a gem of a book which will delight the scholar and the general reader alike’ – that’s from the most recent review of the book by Tony Lurcock that CBe published late last year.

CBe doesn’t, as a rule, publish non-fiction. The main reason why this one got through is because I like Tony Lurcock’s writing: lucid, yes, and with wit. A large number of non-fiction books aren’t written nearly so well, because their authors are not, primarily, writers – they are, first, academics, or TV presenters or whatever. And they need editing. Not just the line-by-line stuff but the major structural work too.

Once upon a time (the 1980s) I worked for Time-Life Books, which published up-market, heavily illustrated non-fiction. Each chapter in each book was commissioned from a freelance writer (and generously paid for: more money for a few thousand words than many novelists now get paid as an advance for a whole book), whose research was guided by a specialist academic consultant. When the copy came in, it was edited by the volume editor; and then by the series editor; and then by the European editor-in-chief; and then by an editor in America. Each of those editors could, and often did, ask for re-writes. The final text may have been a bit flattened out, but editing, however expensive, was a clearly recognised priority (there were others; I had a drinks cabinet in my office, restocked every week).

That amount of editing doesn’t exist now, anywhere. There are exceptions, there are fine editors who work with authors through draft after draft, but there are many books from whose opening paragraphs you can deduce the background scenario: the book is announced to the trade with a fixed publication date, the manuscript comes in late and the time factor reduces editing to a cosmetic process, not an organic part of the making of the book. (On my desk I have a book, not a CBe one, whose Word file came in on 7 September and that has to be copy-edited, typeset, proofread, corrected and sent to the printer on 20 September. It will happen.)

And the point? Not nostalgia for any golden age. (The Time-Life routine was over-egged, a bureaucracy, each editor editing for the next one above.) But no sympathy for publishers complaining about poor sales unless they’ve put everything they can not just into the packaging but into the words too.

Tuesday 13 September 2011


All over London there are rooms with tottering piles of boxes of books (a revolution waiting to happen). A fair proportion of the books are by Michael Horovitz. Today he, I and Tuesday – that’s her with Michael in the picture –contribruted to this distribution of poetry, loading up the car first at the Barbican and then at Central Books (where the photo was taken, at the delivery door) in Hackney Wick and and offloading boxes at various points on the journey back west. Many of the rooms piled high with boxes are up four flights of stairs. This publishing game isn’t just deskwork, oh no. It was a good day, a day that had started with me waking late in the middle of dream in which I wasn’t just looking after a herd of cows but teaching them for GCSE Drama, and before I left (but who would then milk them?) we had to perform in front of the examiners.

Sunday 11 September 2011

‘He’s still alive, I think’

Lucian Freud died in July this year.

‘It’s just a picture, really it’s of a leaf or a few leaves, nothing more. It’s kept here in the Allan Ramsay School of Drawing and it’s by one of your English artists, by a man called Lucian Freud. And it gets me . . . There’s no tricks about it. No shit, d’you know? It’s just a few leaves, and it fascinates me because when you’ve seen it you feel you’ve never looked at a leaf before.’
‘You mean it’s realistic?’
‘No. I mean it’s true . . . I know nothing about the man, but he’s still alive, I think. And someone once said of him, “He’s got a long, unblinking stare.” If I were an artist I’d like them to say that about me.’

The above is from James Kennaway’s The Cost of Living Like This, which I’m re-reading. That novel was published in 1969, the year after Kennaway died at the age of forty. Of course it’s out of print now; Canongate have an omnibus edition of three of Kennaway’s short novels, but really they should be doing more than that. There are many things this post could be about, but first, Kennaway. From Frederick Raphael’s introduction to The Cost: ‘He refused to to make mere literature out of living experience (not his necessarily, but his time’s). He forced life into the page; savour his dialogue and you will feel the barbs still in it, the poison no less than the poise. Watch his characters and you would swear that they were struggling to get off the page.’ Later: ‘The reader may, if he can remain aloof (which I doubt), amuse himself by trying to make cuts in The Cost of Living Like This. I doubt if it’s possible to excise more than, say, a dozen lines.’ Kennaway – ex-soldier, professional (he also wrote screenplays) – could write.

The quoted conversation takes place in Glasgow and is between Mozart (underpaid clarinet-playing football referee) and Christabel, wife of the dying Julian, who is having a tortuous affair with a 19-year-old swimmer (Kennaway specialised in triangles). They never see the Freud painting because the Allan Ramsay college is being occupied by protesting students; the protest turns violent, and someone dies in a fire. I’ve tried to find out which Freud painting Mozart is talking about, but I don’t know. It’s not the one above. (I did discover that after a tiny portrait of Francis Bacon was stolen in Berlin in 1988, Freud allowed its reproduction only in black-and-white; and that another Freud portrait of Bacon sold earlier this year for £23 million.)

I first saw Lucian Freud’s paintings around the time Kennaway was writing, in the city art gallery in Leeds, and I felt like Mozart does. Late teens. Reading rather than looking at art, but these connected. The stark, focused intensity. Always there’s the matter of timing in the reception of art, both historical (a couple of years earlier or later, Osborne’s Look Back in Anger wouldn’t have been the same thing) and personal. Freud went on to become celebrated above all as the painter of flesh, the naked body, but for me this wasn’t it at all, it didn’t matter whether the bodies were clothed or unclothed, it was more to do with isolation and that ‘long, unblinking stare’, and the later Freuds, though I admire them deeply, never had the same impact on me as those early ones in Leeds.

I, and the times – I in the times – have moved on. I still occasionally respond to art, writing, with the same shock of recognition (not necessarily of something I know) as I did in Leeds, but it takes something different: connection rather than isolation, perhaps; blinking, not unblinking. But Kennaway still does it. The opening lines of The Cost of Living Like This: ‘They were painting the gothic corridors of railway hotel when the economist arrived. It was about six o’clock in the evening, early in May, which is no time to die, and it had been raining heavily.’ The first chapter – 42 pages – is a wonder. The other 15 chapters take up just 150-odd pages. It’s one of those novels that, when you stand back, looks to have been artfully constructed, but while you’re reading it makes itself up as it goes along.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Aldeburgh prize shortlist

Autumn, season of lists. Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road, already shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize, has been shortlisted for the 2011 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize.

CBe is not a poetry press. It’s a small press that publishes some poetry alongside other books, mostly fiction. Since November 2007, when the first books were published, the list has included just six poetry titles, and just two of those were first collections. But both those two first collections – J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical and Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road – can boast the following: Poetry Book Society recommendations, shortlistings for the Forward First Collection Prize, shortlistings for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (Morgan’s book won that prize in 2009).

Nothing there to generalise from, but (allow me) two observations. First, the convention whereby a poet proceeds to first collection through an accumulation of poems in magazines (a convention backed up by the advice given on many writing courses and by the submissions guidelines of many publishers) is just that, a convention. It’s not a rule. Morgan had published nothing prior to Natural Mechanical; nor, at the time I first read her collection, had Gaffield (she’s since had poems in a Children in Need anthology, in the online magazine The Bow-Wow Shop and in the print magazines Fourteen and Magma).

Second, the decision earlier this year by Arts Council England to cut regular funding to the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Trust (who administer the Aldeburgh prize) is a disaster. CBe and similar small presses do not have the resources to make new work widely known; both the PBS and the PT do perform this role, and by cutting their funding ACE is preventing good new work from finding the readers it deserves.

As a PS, see here for a new blog review of CBe’s bilingual edition of Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, translated by Beverley Bie Brahic.

Monday 5 September 2011

Jacques Robinson

‘Less filling’ – weight-watchers’ edition.

‘A man walked into a bank . . .’

At the weekend I wandered around town a bit, leaving flyers and the occasional poster for the book fair in what seemed appropriate places. Lord knows if it’ll do any good. I’ve noticed that people – well, not all people – tend not to see what’s in front of them; they see instead what they expect to see. But I stumbled across a tiny second-hand bookshop in which I found a proof copy of George Barker’s In Memory of David Archer, copyright 1973 but, printed on the cover, ‘publication date not settled’. Lunch in a café where there was notice promising 10 per cent off if I told the man behind the counter a joke (not rude, not racist) which made him laugh. I told him one that was in the JC column on the back page of the TLS a week or so back, and got a salt beef sandwich for around £2. In another second-hand shop I bought a purple, more aubergine really, velvet jacket, I’ve no idea why, except that it fitted and the mood was on me. And in another café I bumped into the man who turns up once or twice a year on my doorstep selling his poetry pamphlets. I told him the joke from the TLS and he laughed too but he didn’t offer me a discount. I’ve always meant to ask him how many he sells, and have felt awkward about it: asking about sales figures, like asking about someone’s salary or sexual history, feels intrusive, because numbers alone are stark without some surrounding context to take the edge off them. Today I asked, in a roundabout way. He told me he’s heard of publishers who print a run of as few as 350 copies, and he grinned. Though what he saves on postage he probably spends on shoe leather, I don’t think he does badly.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Fergus Allen at 90

Congratulations and the very best wishes to Fergus Allen, who is 90 today.

There’s an interview with Fergus Allen in PN Review earlier this year in which Joanna Blachnio cannot resist a brief description of the man himself – ‘scintillating with wit, dressed in canary-yellow corduroy trousers and white trainers’ – and opening with talk about peacocks: ‘The first one just strayed down our garden path one day,’ her host explains. ‘A neighbour thought it was sad he didn’t have a mate, got him a white pea-hen – and the pair soon began to hatch young ones all over the place. Now we have only one, simultaneously the son and grandson of the first peacock.’

Fergus Allen’s first collection was published by Faber in 1993, when he was seventy-two; two more Faber collections followed, then one with Dedalus, and most recently Before Troy from CBe in 2010. ‘Allen writes poetry that is limpid, very subtle and marvellously wise,’ says William Boyd, and if that makes him sound too much like a venerable elder I’ll add that the poetry is written with, and offers, enormous fine-tuned pleasure. From Before Troy, here’s ‘Musselburgh’:

I think it was Musselburgh where I confronted,
Or was confronted by, that girl with the long hair,
Soft brown and waving gently to her shoulders.
She stood behind the counter, hidden to breast height
By glass cases displaying soaps and toiletries,
The air scented with synthetic attar of roses.
When I asked for aspirin or something like,
She restated the question in a local accent,
Looking at me as she did so with a gaze
So unwavering, calm and disregarding
Of the niceties of social intercourse
That my headache or whatever it was
Ceased to exist or at any rate to matter,
And that day’s issue of my soul was soaked up
By the absorbent blotting paper of her retinas.

There’s a line, a line and a half, that was batted back and forth so often during proofs that I couldn’t swear on – on what? why not this very book – that the printed version accords with Fergus’s final decision; I believe it does, but I believe that he believes it doesn’t, but I also believe that his recall of the final decision reverts to a version previously discarded (though of course there’s no reason why he shouldn’t go back to it). So much artfulness to make the thing seem artless. To settle the matter, please buy a copy from the website, to edge us towards a reprint in which we can print exactly, or a little more exactly, what he intended.

A poem from Before Troy is included in the 2011 Forward Book of Poetry. Fergus Allen will be reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival at the start of November.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Add to cart

The revised CBe website is now up. It’s not singing-and-dancing, but there are tweaks: each book has its own page, special offers, that stuff. I’d like to sell more of these books; I am not, by temperament, a salesman; the site feels to me OK.

I am, of course, inordinately proud of the books. (I hadn’t realised, before starting this thing, that a publisher can be more simply proud than an author; the author is always dogged by that ‘but it could have been even better’ feeling.) In the past year CBe has published three poetry books: one is on the Forward Prize shortlist, one is on the Forward First Collection Prize shortlist and has a PBS Recommendation, a poem from the third is in the Forward anthology and the author is reading at Aldeburgh in November. Previous: McKitterick Prize (best first novel by a writer aged over 40) in 2008; Aldeburgh Poetry Prize 2009; shortlisting for a European poetry in translation prize; other shortlistings. Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch was broadcast by the BBC as a TV film with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman; Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew was staged as a youth opera at Glyndebourne, with a BBC series of programmes about that.

Some good breaks as well as books. But given that I had no expectation that this adventure would continue beyond its first four books in late 2007, and that I don’t publish to win prizes, the above paragraph is bizarre.

There are occasions when prizes can be helpful to a small publisher but as a reader and writer I shy away. (CBe publishes mainly fiction, but I don’t think I’ve read a single novel even shortlisted for the Booker, never mind the winners, since Coetzee’s Disgrace.) Likewise many other aspects of the present book culture. Books as show business (the Edinburgh Book Festival is a cattle market, not even an efficient one; I sent some books up last year for a reading by a CBe writer and they lost them). Writing as a professional career (with courses and qualifications and all that grooming). The idea (lurking behind the funding mechanisms of the Arts Council and the mission-statement business-speak of public arts organisations) of literature as being ‘good for you’. [Insert Bolaño quote here.*] Not to mention the bland indifference – it’s not active dislike and it’s nothing personal, it’s just the standard behaviour of institutions grown too big for their roots – to small presses shown by the big retailers, the broadsheets and other arbiters of what gets attention.

None of those things has anything to do with my personal reading and writing – of which CBe is an extension by other means. Some engagement with the mad world is of course necessary, if the books aren’t just going to moulder in boxes, but CBe will stay small. (The entire team consists of printer Chris, down the road; distributor Bill, at Central Books; web-man Alan; and me. No designers (except for two of the covers), no typesetters, no publicity or marketing folk, no envelope-stuffers. No receptionist, no nightwatchman. No water cooler. No spreadsheets. And no external funding; I’ve applied twice to the Arts Council for sums of under £5K and twice been refused.)

Fortunately, books are not expensive to produce. Compared to films, obviously, but compared to pretty well all the other arts too. (I used to wish I was an artist, mainly because I wanted a studio – a den, a playroom – and now I’m glad I escaped that.) But to keep the show on the road, I do need to sell them too. Off you go to the website. Press the ‘Add to cart’ button more times than you really want to, and give me a good reason to get away from this desk and join the queue at the post office.

* Bolaño: ‘Writers today . . . are no longer young men of means unafraid to inveigh against the norms of respectable society, much less a bunch of misfits, but products of the middle and working classes determined to scale the Everest of respectability, hungry for respectability . . . They pursue it desperately. And in order to attain it they really have to sweat. They have to sign books, smile, travel to unfamiliar places, smile, make fools of themselves on celebrity talk shows, keep on smiling, never, never bite the hand that feeds them, participate in literary festivals and reply good-humoredly to the most moronic questions, smile in the most appalling situations, look intelligent, control population growth, and always say thank you.’

Monday 29 August 2011

‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’

See here for a new blog review of Markson’s This Is Not a Novel. But don’t go there for just that. In January the blog-writer announced that ‘Over the next year I’m going to explore the world of experimental fiction. Some of the writers will be well known, and others more obscure. Hopefully some new names will surface. While I intend to read many of the “classic” experimental novels, I have no intention of attempting to be exhaustive . . . At times it will be difficult, but – who knows? – I might enjoy it.’

He/she (I have no idea who 1streader is) has been busy, and the enjoyment level has been pretty high. In the past two months alone there are reviews of books by Enrique Vita-Matas, Robert Coover, Quim Monzo, Jean Echenzo, G-O Chateaureynard and others. Many of these reviews are Lezardish, in the sense that they make me want to read those books myself, and soon.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Mrs Dalloway

Earlier this summer I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, for the first time. It is – well, during the days I was reading it the world was a slightly different place, experienced more acutely; it’s right up there. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, which is structured around three women – VW during the early stages of writing Mrs D, a modern-day (1998) Mrs D, a woman in the late 1940s who is reading Mrs D. Early in the novel there’s a glimpse of a film star who may or may not be Meryl Streep. Yesterday, passing a rental store, I took out the film of The Hours (with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore).

Layer upon layer. The Hours (the novel; also the original working title of Mrs D) is good, without reaching the heights of Mrs D, but that would be expecting too much. The Hours (the film) is also good, in a number of ways better than the novel. The extras on the DVD included something called ‘commentary’; usually I don’t bother with the extras, but this one was more than worthwhile: the director Stephen Daldry and the novelist Michael Cunningham talk over what feels to be almost a complete re-screening of the film, much of it with the volume off but with the sound brought up when they want to point to a particular scene. There was some engaging talk about the incidentals: about the visual leitmotifs (the blue cloth of a dressing gown, the breaking of eggs in a bowl); about the reaction shots of a very young child actor (some of them captured by Daldry telling him the story of Jack and the Beanstalk); about the 1920s steam train which appears briefly in a scene with Virginia and Leonard Woolf on the platform of Richmond station (the train was brought over from the Isle of Man; the scene was filmed at Loughborough). More interestingly, there was discussion of the changes the screenwriter (David Hare) had made in bringing the novel into a different medium: a scene added, a scene dropped, dialogue cut when it was found that action or expression could convey the point better, a scene between A and B in which in the novel A breaks down but in which in the film it’s B who breaks down.

Mrs Dalloway is a desert island book. Neither the novel The Hours nor the film The Hours for me make that rank, possibly because of their deference to the original Mrs D, neither being wholly its own thing; and because, for all the intelligence with which they are made, the structural seams show through, you can see how they’ve been put together. But the whole sequence – from Mrs D to contemporary novel to film – is enthralling. And the several versions of Mrs D are of course entirely appropriate to Virginia Woolf’s conception of character as a fluid, unstable thing. (Two sentences from a Yehuda Amichai short story on the stream-of-consciousness thing: ‘If we are trained well, we can do three or four things at the same time: ride in a car, cry, and look through a window; eat, love, think. And all the time consciousness passes like an elevator among the floors.’)