Saturday 29 January 2011

Jonathan Barrow

‘Tragic early deaths, even double deaths, are alas not rare, but Jonathan’s case is stranger than most. Days, even hours, before he and Anita Fielding crashed into another car at Olney in Buckinghamshire, my brother had finished writing a short novel in which accidents, especially head-on collisions, feature often and in which he had predicted and described his own sudden, violent death in excruciating, semi-comic detail.’

Over four pages in today’s Telegraph magazine Andrew Barrow remembers his brother Jonathan, who died aged 22, along with his girlfriend, in 1970. Jonathan, a ‘genuine dunce’ at school, had worked in hotels, then in advertising; he had published stories in the London Magazine and exhibited drawings at the Redfern Gallery. Andrew’s piece coincides with the publication of Animal Magic (Jonathan Cape), his memoir of his brother. The short novel referred to above, titled The Queue, will be published by CBe in May.

Cairo, present days

I’ve been watching, compulsively, the live coverage on Al Jazeera. A long time ago I lived in Cairo for three years, three formative years. I taught in a language school (everyone accepted that in many of the classes there’d be an undercover policeman, keeping an eye on his fellow students, keeping an eye on me). The Egyptian people were welcoming, generous, inventive, open, interested, fun-loving. I hardly slept. (My first poetry pamphlet I Letrasetted there and had copied and stapled by a back-street Armenian printer.) Now, on my computer screen, so many of the details are familiar: faces, clothes (it’s winter now in Egypt too), the gimcrack modern buildings and the gorgeous run-down old ones, the litter in the streets, the sheer press of people, people everywhere. (A discussion one day on the meaning of the English word ‘alone’, me claiming it was possible to be content, even happy when alone and they seeing only the meaning ‘lonely’.) Of course I worry that the outcome of the current events will be hijacked by hard-line religious or ideological factions, but in as much as it is possible to trust such an abstract entity as ‘the people’, I do trust the Egyptian people, whom I’ve known as enormously resourceful and fair-minded, and wish them every success.

Late and early

Fergus Allen’s Before Troy, published by CBe in October, has at last been paid attention to. From a review by Keith Richmond in Tribune:

‘Fergus Allen [born 1921] doesn’t write like an old man. When he talks of “the bad-tempered geese in St Stephen’s Green”; “the treacherous stone steps down to the well/ being slippery as the smile of Morgan le Fay” and of how “a seagull sniggered overhead” he writes with the fresh eye of a younger man, although elsewhere he writes, with a smile, from experience: “flying ants came at us out of the sun,/ Sweeping inside our shirts, biting our midriffs/ And tangling in our hair like semen.” He can be gloriously colloquial, too, as when, in “Some Days Later”, he suddenly stops: “Sorry, that was a false start,/ A mixing up of cycles./ Let me take another run at it”, and then he’s off again. In his best pieces – “The Women on the Islands”, “Southern Ocean” (“And still alive with leopard seals and creatures,/ Eternally eating and being eaten”), “Lovers”, “A Note from the Superman” and the title poem – he is subtle, amusing and, above all, deeply human.’

Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road, which CBe will publish in April, is a Poetry Book Society recommendation for the summer quarter. Following J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, this is the second first poetry book from CBe; neither poet had a stand-out track record of magazine publicaton (J.O. nothing, Nancy Magma and Stand); both got PBS recommendations. (And J.O. went on to get a Forward shortlisting and win the Aldeburgh prize.) There’s no point in making much of this, because in all such accolades the luck of the draw counts for a lot; in a different season, with different selectors, the result might have been different too. (‘Where there is judging,’ remarks a minor character somewhere in War and Peace, ‘there is always injustice.’) But still, this is good. Congratulations to Nancy.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

The morning after

24 lengths of the swimming pool this morning aided recovery from plentiful wine at the T S Eliot prize event last night, at which a good time was had. Two observations.

Firstly, these prizegivings are rituals, with etiquette and due process. And while the two speech-givers last night, George Szirtes and Anne Stevenson, were wholly admirable, I find the slow build-up to the naming of the winner excruciating. (And if I find it thus, the poor shortlistees, on parade at the front of the crowd, must find it even worse.) Yesterday I (not a patient man) went outside for a cigarette and returned after the announcement.

Secondly, I was there with James Tennant of Dalkey Archive Press (‘one of the best little publishers in the world’: Guardian, December 2010), and the number of poetry-world folk who had never heard of DA was, to me, surprising. I’m pretty sure that poetry for breakfast, lunch and supper is not a healthy diet; a nutritionist would advise more variety.

Monday 17 January 2011


So much rain. The caryatids at St Pancras Parish Church, Jack Robinson noted on a trip into town last week, have given up trying to look pretty all day and night and have put on their waterproofs.

Meanwhile, there is a long review of Tony Lurcock’s Not So Barren or Uncultivated in Huvudstatsbladet, Finland’s principal Swedish-language newspaper. Att det är fråga om helt olika förhållningssätt övertygar Lurcock en skichligt om. I have no idea what this means, but this could soon change: in March I’m off to a writers’/translators’ retreat on a Swedish island in the Baltic.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Three nice things

Ian Jack, in mellow mood in his column in last Saturday’s Guardian, mentions some of the things about which in his column ‘recently I have been wrong’: ‘… Wrong to suggest the writer Gabriel Josipovici wouldn’t be easy to enjoy because he was a modernist, when I hadn’t in fact read very much Josipovici; his publishers then sent me his new novel, Only Joking, which I’m happy to say is short, witty and intensely enjoyable.’ Buy the book here.

There’s an interview with Fergus Allen and three poems by him in the new PN Review (197). The poems are all included in his new collection, Before Troy, published by CBe last October. Buy that book here.

You know the little picture of the crown (with, underneath, ‘By appointment to . . .’) that graces the packaging of an odd assortment of things? And that enables us to build up a picture of the Queen’s daily routine – what cereal she has for breakfast, where she has her robes dry-cleaned after an unfortunate spill? Well, the CBe books (the ones with brown covers) are printed down the road by Blissetts, and Gary Blissett first set up as a bookbinder, adding the printing and other bits along the way, and today there came an unexpected email: ‘I am delighted to inform you that Blissetts have been granted a Royal Warrant as Bookbinders to Her Majesty The Queen . . . We are the first Bookbinding company to be recognised in this way.’ (I do wonder, of course, what exactly she’s having bound. I’ll ask.)

Saturday 1 January 2011

Patron saint of small presses

Here is a roadside shrine in W12 to St Nicholas Lezard, patron saint of small presses.

The ‘Nicholas Lezard’s Choice’ column in today’s Guardian praises Jack Robinson’s Days and Nights in W12: ‘This isn't just about W12 – it's about every urban space, including the one in your head’ (full review here; the online version attributes the book to myself, which is accurate if confusing, as it’s Jack’s name on the cover). This is the fourth CBe title to be featured in Lezard’s column in the past three-and-a-bit years. For the record, they are: Jennie Walker, 24 for 3 (now published by Bloomsbury); Gert Hofmann, Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl; Gabriel Josipovici, Only Joking; and now Days and Nights. This has made a difference. For a press too small to get a handle on Amazon and Waterstone’s, too small to have a voice that can be heard above the general marketplace hubbub, it has made a BIG difference.

Lezard’s column is not a small-press ghetto, but in the past year alone, in addition to books from Penguin, Bloomsbury, OUP, etc, it has featured books published by: Dalkey Archive (‘one of the best little publishers in the world’: 4 December), Pushkin Press, Melville House, Peirene Press, Book Works, Serpent’s Tail, Short Books, Hesperus Press, Verso, Oneworld Classics, CB editions.

Why so many small publishers? Well, if you give an intelligent, open-minded (Lezard’s choices range across fiction, science, history, poetry . . .) critic a regular space to write about books they like enough to want to recommend to others; and put them under no pressure to review books because of the author’s fame or the publisher’s hype; and they have no special agenda (other than favouring good writing) and guard their independence (‘I demurred,’ Lezard wrote last June in the New Statesman about a certain temptation put his way, ‘not least on the grounds that accepting gifts – however unusual – and even getting to know authors before the review is published, is a big no-no as far as I am concerned’) – then this is what you get. No need for any ‘small is good’ special pleading. Because, as we know (but most lit eds seem not to), the number of good books coming from small, sometimes tiny, publishers is out of all proportion to their place in the established hierarchy.

Why aren’t there more spaces like this? It’s not a complicated recipe, and it works. For years before I started CBe I was buying books on Lezard’s say-so – many of them books I wouldn’t have known about otherwise – and I’ve never been disappointed.

I’m not at all sure that canonisation is something Lezard would welcome. But libations, yes. Maybe a goat. Vestal virgins have been ordered from Amazon but there are none in stock.