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.