Wednesday 29 June 2011

Author & actress

Tony Lurcock, the author of ‘Not So Barren or Uncultivated’: British Travellers in Finland 1760–1830, published by CBe a few months ago, with ‘British starlet’ (Daily Mail) Carey Mulligan. The occasion having something to do, Mr Lurcock tells me, and the second photo is designed to persuade me of this, with his Shakespearian expertise.

Friday 24 June 2011

Shop window

1 – new poems from Michael Glover, editor of The Bow-Wow Shop and art critic of the Independent, published by Savage Poets Collective, available here. Designed and typeset by CBe.

2 – three titles from Notting Hill Editions, available now. Five of the first seven NHE books have been typeset by CBe.

3 – three of the first four titles from And Other Stories, published this autumn. All typeset by CBe.

Any other publishers, new ones or old, needing typesetting, get in touch. Editing, typesetting, text design plus the occasional cover – this is my comfort zone. Getting out into the world and making a noise and selling books are not things in which I claim any expertise – which is why, next week, some kind consultant people at the Centre for Publishing Studies at Oxford Brookes will be giving me recommendations as to how I can Sell More Books. All the above have specialist marketing behind them; CBe, at present, doesn’t, but that needn’t stop you browsing the titles on the website and occasionally pushing the Buy Now button.

Monday 20 June 2011


There are cherries, small ones, on the wild cherry tree in front of the terraced house where I live. (I say wild because because it wasn’t planted, it just came and rooted; as did the fig tree next to it, and there are figs too. Not edible yet.) On Saturday, courtesy of a near-neighbour who had booked tickets and then couldn’t use them, I saw The Cherry Orchard at the National, and oh, I could drown in Chekhov, and it barely matters which play: the talking at cross purposes, the not listening to what’s being said, the yearnings, the truth-telling (but there are as many truths as characters), the students with their absolute beliefs in a wonderful future, the opportunities there for the taking and wilfully passed by, the vodka and the samovar and the vastness of the land. Deep, serious, tear-inducing comedy. Ranyevskaya is centre stage, a fond and foolish woman. As Lear was a fond and foolish old man: in callous youth, sixth form, striking a pose, I once wrote an essay (‘King Lear, Kid Lear’) in which I argued that this sentimental, complacent, over-privileged old man deserved all he got. As if life was a thing of measurable cause and effect and just rewards. And then somewhere, in one of the lit crit books I was mugging up for A-level (G. Wilson Knight, Dover Wilson, Bonamy Dobree, EMW Tillyard, all those names; and the Polish man, Jan Kott, Shakespeare our Contemporary, who is dead now), I read that Lear isn’t like life, it is life. That set me back a bit.

Anyway, what I wanted to say is that there’s a short but good piece by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian in which he suggests that the tendency of the big prizes (he writes about art, but it applies to the books world too) ‘is to perpetuate the establishment taste of the day’.

Tuesday 14 June 2011


Last night, a do at the British Library for the Michael Marks awards for poetry pamphlets. A pamphlet is something, anything – and that’s the joy of it – between a book and a photocopied A4 page: a dozen individual poems, a sequence, a thing that’s more artwork than text but is still poetry, a thing that’s made with passion and craft but which the lightest breeze can gust away. The awards provide, somewhat arbitrarily, which is the way of these things, some anchorage: look at these, before they vanish. And more than anchorage: £5,000 to a poet and the same to a publisher. There was a shortlist (brave faces required). The winning publisher this year is Crater Press. The winning poet is James McGonigle, whose pamphlet Cloud Pibroch is available from Mariscat and from the PBS. Cloud Pibroch is one of the best things I’ve read this year; it has the density and reach of a much longer publication; the writing, often within a single poem, is lyrical, funny, nimble, open to mystery.

I’ve been thinking about pamphlets; and about a friend’s remark that though he likes short stories he’s not too interested in book-length collections of short stories; and about doing, perhaps next year, a short series of prose pamphlets – each of which could be a single ‘story’ but need not really be a story, as that word is usually understood, at all.

Sunday 12 June 2011

‘Resignation leaves –– in turmoil’

The final round of Have I Got News for You: filling in the blanks. The correct answer (the headline is from a newspaper I tripped over on the pavement yesterday) is the Rugby Football Union. The blank, in this case, not being the Poetry Society, from which – in case you hadn’t known, but why should you? Poetry-world admin doesn’t sell newspapers – the president, the director, the finance person, have all got out in recent days and weeks. And there’s curiosity, and more than that, in the poetry world, not least because, as Matthew Cain says in a recent Channel 4 blog post, ‘of all the arts, poetry is easily the one with the strongest sense of community’ (because it’s up against the wall? Because aside from whether that is true or not, that’s how it likes to define itself?).

I have no inside info; I don’t even have gossip. But what to me is a little bit interesting is that in the absence of hard fact, the speculation that fills the vacuum can become what a thing is about and start to influence what happens next. Some of the current speculation has the old guard (people my age) being self-protective in the face of the rising tide of a new generation (at ease with a range of things that were barely within the older generation’s experience: new technology, other ways of publishing than with Faber, public performance and the skills for that, creative writing courses that offer not just knowledge and ready-made structures in which you find your exemplary people but networks in which what you do is validated just by being part of them). There is always some institutional blockage to new talent: try getting new names through the ranks of broadsheet lit eds, Waterstone’s buyers and prize judging panels, for most of whom poetry still means Faber (a word I use as shorthand for mainstream conservatism, not that they don’t publish some very good things). On the other hand, people rarely divide neatly into two distinct camps. On the third hand, as the Poetry Society thing plays out, many (journalists not least) will see it in simple binary terms.

Meanwhile, Chris Hamilton-Emery, the Salt man, is posing on Facebook the idea of a British Academy of Poets and asking what do poets want done that such an organisation might do, and who do they want to be represented by. He refers to a US model (but the US is so different: even if only 0.01% of the population read poetry, that is so many more readers than here, and so much more sustenance for small presses). Wanting to answer him, I’m as confused as everyone else. Do I want more administrators? Do I want more people to know about and perhaps even read and buy more poetry books? Do I think that anything worthwhile really happens without madcap individuals making it happen? Would I like support to be available that enables those madcaps? No yes no yes. Questions are things poets are good at; answers, not.

Meanwhile, some lines in an email attachment, out of the blue: did I want to read more? That was J.O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, which went on to win the 2009 Aldeburgh Prize, plus shortlistings for the Forward first book and others and reviews to kill for. Morgan had published nothing previously, even in the magazines, and if there’s an argument to be made for no public money to be spent on poetry at all you could start here – except that without the PBS (who gave the book a recommendation) and without the Poetry Trust (who administer the Aldeburgh), both of which have had their funding cut to zero by the Arts Council, the book would have sold 13 copies, or maybe 26. Now I’m typesetting his next book. For a tiny press, this is as good as it gets.

Meanwhile, the book fair idea is progressing. Saturday, 24 September, the market hall in Exmouth Market, London EC 1R 4QE. A dozen presses have committed; another ten or so are umming and erring. There’ll be a separate room, above where you buy books, for readings or whatever through the day. To get people in through the door, I’m going to need help – I sit at a desk, I can write and edit and design but that’s about my limit – and people have come forward. Young, with spark, and as seriously involved as anyone older with the language we use to write and wonder what we’re doing here, and I trust them absolutely. If the Russian avant-gardists turn up – I’ve heard about them: they strip off and pee on stage – we’ll cope. We might join them.

Sentence of the day, from the Observer, Tony Blair: ‘Sometimes it feels strange not to be prime minister.’ This afternoon I had this niggling feeling of dissatisfaction I couldn’t put into words, and now I can.

Saturday 11 June 2011

circa 1968

There was a party for Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue last week. Jonathan Barrow died in a car crash in 1970, very shortly after writing The Queue, aged twenty-two. The party was most generously funded by Andrew Barrow, Jonathan’s brother – who has shepherded this book through the decades, through at least a couple of almost-publications, and has written in detail about it and about Jonathan in Animal Magic – and hosted by Martin Barrow, another of the brothers, and his wife Noriko. The party was, after far too long, a celebration of this book. Among those gathered were Andrew’s children and my own and many with long memories; one came with photographs of Jonathan in the late 1960s, some of which Andrew had never seen before; two of those are above. Jonathan was as an artist as well as a writer (and hotel worker, advertising copywriter, brilliant parodist, etc); some of his drawings are in The Queue, others in Animal Magic.

Tuesday 7 June 2011 the left hand and the right hand

This was news to me: in the US offers generous grants to ‘nonprofit author and publisher groups that share our obsession with fostering the creation, discussion and publication of books’. A list of around 50 organisations they support is here. News of the most recent grant is here. And What’s stopping them?

Monday 6 June 2011

Can Dawkins teach?

‘A group of well-known academics are setting up a private college in London which will charge students £18,000 a year in tuition fees’ – the opening line of a piece by Terry Eagleton in the Guardian today – and there’s a hoo-ha about it, of course, because not only does it touch on some topical politics (student protests against the fees; what and who are universities for) but there are culture-celebs involved (i.e., the names the lit festivals all want: Dawkins, Grayling, Ricks) and there are fearsome sums of money. Add some sex and this will run.

Can Dawkins, Grayling, Ricks et al teach? A different skill entirely from writing books, from being an ‘academic’. Do they have any teaching qualifications? I’m just asking. I’m curious, but not to the tune of having to pay £18K a year to find out.

Sometime in recent decades it was decreed that tertiary education should be available to far more people than before (good). Sometime in recent decades the whole education system became so infected by business-management models that it has largely become a production line (bad). Sometime in recent decades the basic model of learning – a relationship, intimate and mutually challenging, between teacher and student – has become something that happens, if it happens at all, despite rather than because of the institution in which it takes place. The new private college is one response to this. The flak it’s attracting is largely to do with the fees, with the perception that on-the-whole generally respected and gifted leftish people are selling out; but what’s really depressing is the lack of other alternative education models being tested, ones that aren’t essentially businesses. (Plenty of other depressing things too: the continuing and largely unchallenged privileges of the public schools and faith schools; the billions spent on the Olympics, a three-week event, contrasting with the meanness towards education in a country that is still one of the richest in the world (6th out of 181 in the first GDP listing on Wiki)).

I write this because today I talked with a Royal Literary Fund man about my application to become a RLF fellow – which involves going into a college for two days a week to talk to students about their writing. You have a room; it’s one-to-one; a student knocks on the door and comes in and you talk to them about how best they can put what they want to say into the form of an essay (or poem or story or any other form, it doesn’t have to be course-work), about how they can discover through writing what they didn’t even know they wanted to say. It doesn’t cost the colleges a penny, it doesn’t cost the tax-payer a penny, it doesn’t cost the students a penny. It’s brilliant.

Saturday 4 June 2011

D Nurkse

There should, of course, be a literary journal with a vast readership that reviews every single CBe publication and tells its readers their lives are not worth living if they don’t buy these books. In the absence of that, it’s a lottery, and 99 per cent of the books I send out for review end up, I guess, propping up the wobbly desks of literary editors or on the new-&-used pages of Amazon. But today the sun is shining and the Guardian pays attention to D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water:

‘Nearly all the poems that make up this narrative collection are written in the voices of a married couple born in Estonia who, sometime after the Russian revolution, leave for a new life in an isolated region of western Canada. The opening monologues, set in Europe, explore the rhythms of a traditional life disrupted more and more brutally by wider political events. These poems frequently swerve into the frightening and mysterious; in “The Hidden Fighters” the couple lose their way travelling through heavy forest – “Then we looked and saw the carcasses of butchered deer / lashed to the treetops and painted chalk white / like clumps of snow.” Nurkse's remarkable devotion to the particular and sensitivity to place make these poems compelling. The book reaches its poignant finale through lovingly conjured attention to detail, when one of the couple’s grandchildren attempts to connect with a fragmented inheritance: “All there is from that world is a locket / showing the infant Mozart playing silence / on a tiny clavichord, behind cracked glass.”’ (Charles Bainbridge)