Sunday 31 July 2011

The Book Machine

From Kenneth Patchen, Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer (1945):

‘Would you like to see my laboratory?’
‘I’d like to very much,’ I said.
He led me into a room which I’d like you to look up a description of in some treatise on the scientific.
‘This is a machine that writes books,’ the Inventor said. ‘See these buttons – Description, Characters, Setting, Plot, Type – Well, first you press the Type key – that’s type of book – All right, you want a Light Novel. Set where? New England, OK. “Light Novel” under Type. “New England” under Setting. You like nice characters or meanies? Meanies, eh? We push down Characters . . . “Sophisticated.” Description - Let’s make it, “Not too well done.” OK. Plot – “Mama Don’t Love Papa No More.” We’re all set now. [. . .] It’s really a simple matter of ascending progressions; until we get back to one set of people out of the millions of possibles, one house, one chair, one particular incest, adultery, rape, or talk around a cocktail table about them . . .’
‘And what do you do with it?’ I asked him.
‘Why, write books of course,’ Mr Wan answered. ‘Would you be surprised to know that about ninety percent of the stuff you see reviewed was written by this machine?’
‘Even in the Times!’
‘Over there I've got a machine that writes the reviews for the Times –’
‘For the Times Book Section?’
‘Sure. Why, before long I’ll invent something that will even read them.’

Saturday 30 July 2011

Reach – Boris; OBO

Reach being a term used by the Arts Council – something to do with getting the books out there, finding new readers. Boris being Boris. OBO – oh come now, even Virginia Woolf would have known this one: ‘But cricket was no mere game. Cricket was important. He could never help reading about cricket’ (Peter Walsh in Mrs Dalloway). Over By Over: the continuous online live commentary on the Test match on the Guardian website, consistently the most-viewed item on the site during the daytime when the cricket’s on.

Boris: as noted in previous post, the Mayor of London spent his Tube journey between Shepherd’s Bush and Chancery Lane on Thursday engrossed in the CBe edition of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel. (Will he have to declare it as a gift on some public register? Hope so.)

OBO: Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 is no longer a CBe book, it’s now published by Bloomsbury, but still, it takes place over the five days of a home Test between England and India that starts on a Friday, so I sent a copy to the OBO team and it got some chat (‘seems to be a bodice-ripper set at a Test match . . . essential summer reading for all OBO fans’) and Nick Lezard popped by during over 17 with a link to his original review and business was done on Amazon.

Next: Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl to Interflora. Only Joking to the British Association of Accordion-players.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Boris reads Markson

Walking down the escalator this morning at Shepherd’s Bush tube station, I overheard the words ‘beautiful woman’ and ‘Shepherd’s Bush’, turned, and there was Boris Johnson with a couple of aides. Down on the platform I cursed myself for not having a copy of Days and Nights in W12 with me – and today there’s a new review of that on John Self’s Asylum – but I did have a box of Marksons and another of Nurkses, which I was taking over to Hackney Wick. I pressed a copy of This Is Not a Novel upon Boris. He asked me if I was Markson; I told him that Markson died last year. We travelled on, he engrossed in Markson, me in my book (James Salter, since you ask). At Chancery Lane he got off. As he fumbled with his backpack and his bike helmet, another man began talking with him – some other nutter, some other book.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Not the Poetry Society

‘Small publishers are the backbone of our creative body and now there is a great need for them to come together to consider survival strategies.’ – Benjamin Zephanaiah, June 2011

Let’s have some good news. Let’s gather 20-plus of the smaller poetry presses in one place and have readings through the day and get anyone even slightly interested to come and buy the books. It will happen: Saturday, 24 September, Exmouth Market Hall, EC1R 4QE. Draft flyer above.

I talked yesterday with the Poetry Book Society, who nearer the time will use their mailing lists to help publicise the event. They suggested that we need a short, snappy TITLE for the event. (‘Poetry book fair’ being hardly the most thrilling come-on line.) I thought of Book Now some time ago, but that just led to confusion so it’s dropped. All suggestions welcome.

Monday 25 July 2011

Cricket and infidelity

Well, that was good. A day with the manuscript of Faber’s forthcoming Beckett: Collected Poems on my desk, and the Guardian’s OBO commentary on the final day of the first Test against India on my screen. It all fits. Result.

The next Test starts on Friday. If you need to bone up (is that really the right phrase?) – but really, no cricket knowledge is necessary – start with this: Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3: the five days of a home Test against India, starting on a Friday, as background to a woman between two men, each of whom knows more about the game than her. (‘Cricket and infidelity,’ said a complete stranger when I told him about the book: ‘two of my favourite pastimes.’)

This was one of the first CBe titles in November 2007; review to kill for from Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian; McKitterick Prize 2008 (best first novel by a writer over 40); now published by Bloomsbury.

Order from your friendly local independent bookshop. Or buy one of the present CBe titles from the website, write ‘24 for 3’ in the ‘instructions to merchant’ box that appears as you check through, and I’ll add in a copy of the US edition (of which I seem to have a bag-load) for free.

Saturday 23 July 2011

1913: Ho Chi Minh, Mae West, Madame Strindberg

‘We rang for room service and the year 1913 answered.’– Khlebnikov

I first saw the above plaque years ago, and today came across it again. In my memory it’s on a different building, and the date is different, but still: Ho Chi Minh working in London at the Carlton Hotel in 1913.

(The Carlton, by the way, was founded by Cesar Ritz and the chef Auguste Escoffier with cash they’d skimmed off while working at the Savoy. ‘Ritz was implicated in the disappearance of over £3,400 of wine and spirits,’ says Wiki, quoting the DNB; in 1897 that was a lot of bottles. Ritz went on to open the Ritz hotels in Paris and then London.)

In 1968 the writer Gavin Young interviewed Mae West, who claimed that she stayed at the Carlton while starring in a show called Sex at the Haymarket Theatre, and while there she came across a kitchen porter called ‘Ho . . . Ho . . . Ho something . . . I know he had the slinkiest eyes though. We met in the corridor. We – well . . .’ Her voice, wrote Young, ‘trailed off in a husky sigh’.

The biographies state that Mae West’s Sex didn’t open on Broadway until 1926, by which time Ho was in China; and her first visit to Britain wasn’t until 1947. But I’m not letting that spoil a great story. If only the run of Sex had been a bit longer all capitalist/communist quarrels could have been settled in bed and the course of the 20th century might have been different.

Back to 1913: while Ho Chi Minh was kitchen-portering, a few streets away, in a basement just off Regent Street, a nightclub called The Cave of the Golden Calf was flourishing. Established in 1912 by Frida Strindberg (divorced from August in 1895), it had murals inspired by the Russian ballet, other art by Epstein and Wyndham Lewis, and a phallic motif designed by Eric Gill. Here’s Ford Madox Ford recalling that period: ‘There would be dinner, a theatre or a party, a dance. Usually a breakfast at four after that. Or Ezra and his gang carried me off to their night-club which was kept by Madame Strindberg, decorated by Epstein and situated underground . . . London was adorable then at four in the morning after a good dance. You walked along the south side of the park in the lovely pearl-grey coolness of the dawn . . . Then, as like as not, you turned into the house of someone who had gone before you from the dance to grill sausages and make coffee . . .’

1914: the club went bankrupt, war broke out and the century began in earnest.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Of the making of books

I spent a couple of hours yesterday with a man who sent me some writing from prison a few months ago; he has been locked up for over two decades but will, if things go well, later this year re-enter the world as a free man. This is not a simple thing. There is the reason why he was put away; there is also his writing and his present way of dealing with the disaster of his life with a maturity I can only respect.

And on Friday I met in the street, by chance, Ken Garland, whom I haven’t seen for maybe a year. If you’re in the graphic design world, you may already know about him. If you’re not, start now: his website is here. I don’t think I know anyone who marries better, more seamlessly, seriousness about the things that matter and a sense of play. He designed the posters for the first CND Aldermaston march in 1962; in the late 60s and early 70s he designed wooden toys and board games for Galt Toys. He once told me of a speech he gave to a conference on play in education at the ICA: he took his children with him, and on the way there they gathered fallen leaves in bags, which during his speech were released and tossed around among the assembled academics.

For the past three years Ken has been putting out a continuing series of small books (three a year) of photographs: leaves (again), the stuff that washes up on beaches, graffiti in Brighton, fire hydrants, Mexican windows, Bangladeshi rickshaws . . . This year’s books will be mostly work by others, and there’ll be text as well as images. So far, these books have been sold from flyers mailed to his personal address list. I think something more can be done.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Go, little books

The above CBe titles have been shortlisted for the 2011 Forward prizes – D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water for the best collection, Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road for the best first collection. Huge congratulations to both authors. Both titles available direct from the website here. The shortlist game is hardly the main point, and anyone punching above their weight is liable at some point to get hit in a way that will hurt, but for today – well, this form of recognition for a tiny press operating from a desk in the living room, with no Arts Council support, feels no bad thing.

And this morning Yorkshire have just won against Worcestershire, only their second win in the county championship since the start of the season. Peter Walsh in Mrs Dalloway (which I’ve been reading this week: how could I have never read it before?): ‘. . . this interminable life. But cricket was no mere game. Cricket was important. He could never help reading about cricket.’

Friday 1 July 2011

Parish news

Yesterday was the day when I went to Oxford Brookes in the morning to receive recommendations on how CBe can Sell More Books. And I felt pretty happy: change! evolution! better & better! Today I’ve sobered up, and am thinking how much work.

I spent much of the afternoon chatting with Heathcote Williams, on the lame excuse of enticing a free poem out of him for the printed programme for the September book fair. If the name is not familiar, it should be: look him up. He has views; one of his recent poems has Obama and Hilary Clinton wanking to a video of Bin Laden being shot. A sunny afternoon, a kitchen that felt like home (books, heaps, every surface – covered with cards, drawings, messages – a palimspest), a leafy garden, and talk. I may have no income right now, but this was better.

The Slovenian writer and film-maker Miha Mazzini has won a Pushcart Prize for his first story to be published in a US magazine. He has written 23 books (including the all-time bestselling novel in the former Yugoslavia) and directed and written screenplays for films. His first book to be published in the UK, The German Lottery, will be published by CBe in February next year.

Meanwhile there are excerpts from Days and Nights in W12 currently being featured on the London Column. Go there. Buy.