Wednesday 26 December 2012

Ten Parties

Update, 2 January 2013: competition over. Answers now added at the foot of this post. Five female authors and five male: this wasn't deliberate, it's just how it happened, but it works nicely and ideally I'd like to invite them all to an eleventh party. Congratulations to the winner, Averill Buchanan, who got every one correct. It's reassuring to know that there is someone in the world who has read everything.

First correct naming of author & novel/story from which all the following extracts are taken wins £50 of CBe books. Email to

Actually I think I’m pretty safe here. One or two are obvious but several are well off the beaten track. So a couple of free CBe books to the highest score over five received by 2 January.

The Prime Minister was coming, Agnes said: so she had heard them say in the dining-room, she said, coming in with a tray of glasses. Did it matter, did it matter in the least, one Prime Minister more or less? It made no difference at this hour of the night to Mrs Walker among the plates, saucepans, cullenders, frying-pans, chicken in aspic, ice-cream freezers, pared crusts of bread, lemons, soup tureens, and pudding basins which, however hard they washed up in the scullery, seemed to be all on top of her, on the kitchen table, on chairs, while the fire blared and roared, the electric lights glared, and still supper to be laid. All she felt was, one Prime Minister more or less made not a scrap of difference to Mrs Walker.

Mary smoothed the skirt of her party frock and taking short steps crossed swiftly to the table on which rested sandwiches, glasses, soft drinks and a bottle of Gloag’s Old Grouse Malt Whisky. She said, very quickly:
‘It’s rather smelly, but never mind. They seem to have organised the eats.’
Vaguely, Pink looked round at the pine panelling, the scrubbed floorboards, the glassy blackboard and the narrow gothic windows set safely above boys’ eye-level. He tried to define the missing ingredient.
‘Sex?’ he suggested, sniffing once or twice and looking up at the dark space between the overhead lights and the high vaulted roof. Mary, grabbing a sandwich, shook her head, then spoke with her mouth full.
‘We’re jolly lucky to have it.’
Pink put his thumbs in his pockets. He was still sniffing the air. He made a further suggestion.
‘Sex cruelly denied?’

On this blue night, this starry night, the best of our contraband, everything for which our region is celebrated far and wide, plied its seductive, destructive craft. Wine from afar heated stomachs, sweetly numbed legs, dulled brains, and summoned belches as resonant as the call of battle horns. The black cook from the Plutarch, which had pulled in three days before from Port Said, had smuggled in big-bellied bottles of Jamaican rum, oily Madeira, cigars from the plantation of Pierpont Morgan, and oranges from the groves of Jerusalem. This is what the foamy waves of the Odessan Sea throw onto the shore, and this is what Odessan beggars sometimes get at Jewish weddings. They got Jamaican rum at Dvoira Krik’s wedding, and that’s why the Jewish beggars got as drunk as unkosher pigs and began loudly banging their crutches. Eichbaum unbuttoned his vest, mustered the raging crowd with a squinting eye, and hiccuped affectionately.

What – ?!’ I gasped. Naomi’s bottom reared above me, seeming to watch me with a suspicious one-eyed stare, pink mouth agape below as though in astonished disbelief.
‘A bidet. It’s what they’re for, you know, washing bottoms.’
‘Yes, sure, but oddly I was just thinking about –’
‘Can you beat that,’ said Dickie, tossing the towel over Naomi’s bent back. ‘I always thought they were for cooling beer in.’ He leaned close to the mirror, scraped at a fleck of blood in front of his golden sideburns. ‘Oh, by the way, Ger, I don’t know if you saw what’s left of the poor bastard on the way up, but Roger’s no longer with us, you know.’
Roger – ?!’ It was like a series of heavy gates crashing shut, locks closing like meshing gears. I stumbled to my feet.
‘I knew it!’ gasped Tania, clutching her arms with wet hands.
Dickie unzipped his trousers and tucked his shirttails in, frowning at the bloodstains on his vest. I braced myself on the cupboard shelves. ‘But … but who – ?’
He raised his eyebrows at me in the mirror as though to say I already knew. And I did. ‘They used croquet mallets,’ he said with a grimace, zipping up.

General Lowenhielm, who was to dominate the conversation of the dinner table, related how the Dean’s collection of sermons was a favourite book of the Queen’s. But as a new dish was served he was silenced. ‘Incredible,' he told himself. ‘It is Blinis Demidoff.’ He looked around at his fellow diners. They were all quietly eating their Blinis Demidoff, without any sign of either surprise or approval, as if they had been doing so every day for thirty years.

She was working for the caterer of this affair, helping in the kitchen and bringing around the food. She wore a gray-and-white uniform and had her hair bunched under a black net and she looked very plain. But that only accentuated the aura of her mischief. She moved among us with a tray like the secret queen of some criminal enclave, casing the joint. As I reached for one of her hors d'oeuvres, she smiled and said, ‘Hello, Michael Reed.’
It had been a month or so since we’d met at Ted MacKey’s, and then only briefly. Tonight I’d noticed her right away, but I hadn’t expected to be remembered. I was astonished. I probably looked it. She smiled and passed by.
Before we all sat down to eat, I made sure to find out her name. This was a nerve-racking endeavor, not entirely to my surprise. Less than two weeks earlier, I’d been staring at her naked privates. I tried to intersect her path as if by accident.

Houda was simultaneously aware that she was in a room full of creaking chairs and hot bodies. Toby, pawing at a dish of cold leavings, looked ugly; his lips were greasy. Those people who sat nearest the guitar had already begun rocking their heads and bouncing their knees like marionettes; while others suffered a certain milky washing of the eyeball, undeniable symptom of that condition when being bored to death is synonymous with being moved to tears, since the second is the natural outcome of the first. ‘And I had been turning over in my mind the benefit to be gained from knowing these people, and whether it might be possible for me to lead a “normal” (Good God, “normal”!) life!’
It was necessary to leave at once, if she was to show Eugene the full extent of her contempt.

She could accept his going away. These things happened to women. It was something else that bothered her. At first glance he seemed all of a piece and in complete control. But then, if you were a woman and looked a little closer, you saw that he was little vague, a little careless, a little scattered. Why was one of his silver cufflinks missing? Why hadn’t he brushed the dandruff from his shoulders? Why was it that the colour of his socks didn’t quite match? There was something odd too about his behaviour. While chatting away with Imelda, Boniface was simultaneously smiling at the Cardinal and being stern with the American Ambassador. It was as if different bits of him were going off in different directions. This was what perturbed Zuna as they stood in the Nuncio’s garden ablaze with orchids, smiling, sweet-faced Monsignori and beautiful bra-less women.

Gerda’s line as a hostess was of adorable inefficiency; with the air of a lost child she tottered among her guests, in one hand a glass dripping sherry, in the other a semi-opaque yellow drink in which the skewered cherry appeared as a threatening shadow. Wherever a glass was put down a small sticky ring stamped itself: she pounced on these rings with her handkerchief with little reproachful cries (no one advised her to wipe the underneaths of the glasses). She bewailed the quality of the cigerettes, the heat of the room, the (so far) absence of Gilbert; she upset a saucer of olives. She was followed around by a young man she had known in the Navy, who each time she succeeded in placing a drink with a guest smiled proudly, as though she had sold a raffle ticket.

Finally, she vomited. It all came up, the salt water and the gin and the food she’d had, a mess. She wasn’t pretty at all. It was a nuisance, and ugly. Of course, the dogs had to come over and smell it.
But at least she could breathe now; or rather, wheeze.
They wrapped her in blankets and took her into the house and gave her a cup of hot coffee. Nobody seemed too intensely upset. I got the impression they more or less expected climaxes like these at the parties they gave.
‘Who brought her?’
‘Benson, wasn’t it? She’s going to taste salty for a week.’
‘Somebody ought to put a picket fence around that ocean. It’s a public menace.’

Answers (added 2 January 2013):

1. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
2. James Kennaway, Household Ghosts
3. Isaac Babel, 'The King'
4. Robert Coover, Gerald's Party
5. Isak Dinesen, Babette's Feast
6. Denis Johnson, The Name of the World
7. Rosemary Tonks, Emir
8. Nina Fitzpatrick, Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia
9. Elizabeth Bowen, To the North
10. Alfred Hayes, My Face for the World to See

Friday 21 December 2012

Some prose in 2012

(or, ‘Couldn’t something temporary be done with a teapot?’)

For starters, a sentence, a question, from the early pages of The Uprising by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, a book a friend sent me I think because of the subtitle, ‘Poetry and Finance’, which suggests something useful to my predicament (or one of them): ‘How can we think of a process of subjectivation when precarity is jeopardizing social solidarity and when the social body is wired by techno-linguistic automatisms which reduce its activity to a repetition of embedded patterns of behaviour?’

I haven’t got much further. I like the deep orangey-yellow cover. I keep thinking I should go further – I suspect there’s an intelligence operating here on a range of topical matters that interest me – but it’s an effort. I may just give up, because the end does not justify the means, ever.

I hadn’t fully realised what a sensitive and sheltered soul I am, how allergic to bad prose, until my past few months as a novice RLF Fellow – that is, as a writer embedded in an academic institution whose role is to advise students on their written work. There are exceptions – the Swedish History MA student whose prose lightens my mood for the whole day – but most of what’s offered across the desk makes me flinch. We find a level, the student and I, at which we can talk, and this can be fun and enlightening, but when we look again at the prose we’re back to hard labour and soon reach a point at which I suggest that I don’t think I offer any more help. Sometimes I ask: What writers do you read for pleasure? They look at me as if I’m mad.

Here’s the rub, of course. I’m of the last generation in Western history which, as children, when there wasn’t much going on and it was raining outside, picked up a book. What else was there to do? Television barely existed; some card games; no internet, no games consoles. No one cooks well until they’ve eaten good food; no one writes good sentences until they’ve read those of others. The reading lists given to the students I encounter don’t make up for that. The research for many of their essays is focused on papers in academic journals whose main message is that reading neither is nor can be a pleasure.

(In the given conditions, I doubt that the written essay, a thing culturally specific to the UK and US education systems and wholly alien to students arriving out of many other systems, even within Europe, is in most subjects an appropriate main means of assessing a student’s intelligence and potential. But that’s an aside.)

Obvious statement: if reading isn’t central to the culture – I mean reading freestyle, reading beyond anything one is required to read for specific purposes – then there’s no hope that good writing will be. And even before, well before, the library closures, it was clear that reading isn’t central. So-called literary fiction gets column inches, but Philip Roth’s 2009 prediction that its reading will soon become ‘cultic’ – ‘Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range’ – may already have come about. Poetry, poetry written for the page, hasn’t been even near central for decades, and never will be again. (So why – obvious question – am I a book publisher? You might as well ask how can we think of subjectivation when precarity is jeopardizing social solidarity. I did mention pleasure, I think.)

To set against the above, three writers read this year, and none of their books exactly new. Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, first published in the UK in 2012 but first read by me in a 2005 Paris Review anthology; it’s been reviewed, but no one seems to have noticed that it’s a kind of companion piece to Johnson’s equally concise and wonderful The Name of the World (2000), whose main character also has to deal with – but in this book in a contemporary academic setting – the violent deaths of his wife and daughter. A re-read of Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1977) and a first read of her Pitch Dark (1984): bliss. A late-arrival read – courtesy of the gift of the book by Helena Nelson: deep bows and salutations – of The End of Me (1968) by Alfred Hayes, who to me is a god.

Others too; the above are just those coming to mind this evening. Petrol by Martina Evans. Essays by Eliot Weinberger. I do tend to read off the side and behind the back of the prize shortlists, but not deliberately. The difference between what I can like and what I wholly surrender to seems to be this, whatever the genre: with former I have the feeling I’m being asked to admire – look at me, I’m writing a writing a novel/poem, see what I’m doing here – and with the latter that feeling evaporates.

Here is a link to this year’s TLS Christmas Quiz, set (as in past years) by Tony Lurcock. One review of Lurcock’s compilation of writing by British travellers in Finland, 1760–1830, published by CBe in 2010, mentioned that his own commentary is ‘at least as worth reading as the texts themselves’. A second book, covering the years 1830 to 1917, will be published by CBe in April.

The photo above is by Abelardo Morell. While the bird cooks, hours of pleasure may be spent exploring his photographs.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Peppermint green

X came round this morning – early, before I was dressed – to buy four of the David Wheatley pamphlets for Christmas presents. Earlier this week I went up to north London to take three of the Nick Wadley pamphlets to Y, who doesn’t do email. Coffee is made, gossip is swapped. This is pleasant, in an olde worlde way. I am a purveyor of quality literature to the gentry. The books should be priced in guineas.

Whether the practice is sustainable in its present form I doubt. This week was another of those (many) weeks in which more submissions pinged into my in-box than orders from the website. If CBe is known about at all it’s as a personal, idiosyncratic venture, and that’s fine, because that’s what it is, but somehow the books have to be sold – therefore today’s application to ACE for support for paying someone with a bit of marketing and sales know-how to come into the frame. Next year will be, I hope, a little different. More professional, you might say; while not doing without the coffee and the gossip.

It’s easy to start feeling old. The first CBe book for next year is a book of essays, anecdotal memoirs, poems, in celebration of Michael Hofmann, and the first piece, by James Lasdun, begins thus: ‘In the early eighties I was employed as one of half a dozen in-house readers at Jonathan Cape, in their old Bedford Square offices. We were all writers and it seemed to be understood that we would spend as much time keeping up with our literary pals as we did reading manuscripts. Poets and novelists would drop in for coffee, or we’d spend hours nattering with them on the phone …’ There’s that coffee again. Not just a job, and as an ‘in-house reader’ at that, but a job in which you got paid to sit around and chat.

In the bibliography in the Hofmann book, this is conspicuous: that he has published just four collections of poetry in thirty years. The first was 48 pages: slim is the usual adjective. (That’s it up above, with a review-copy slip: publication date 7 November 1983 and typed, remember typewriters? The cover colour background to the ffs is pink; the spine has faded to, as one of the contributors to the book says, peppermint green.) Nor did the other collections really test your shelf-space. Compare and contrast today: poem-writing as an academic growth industry, the Facebook groups where you sign up to writing a poem per day for a month. Is it too late to – as well as disinventing the database – start a slow poetry movement?

The mention of Christmas presents above was intended as a hint: three pamphlets for a tenner, send them as cards, they’re barely more expensive. The Nick Wadley drawings one for those who have read either everything or nothing. The Dai Vaughan poems one: love, hardly an exclusively seasonal activity but don’t rule it out. The David Wheatley one: slow drinking. The pamphlets page; or you could buy a book, a whole book.

Wednesday 21 November 2012


Why they’re looking demonic – above, the entire staff of CBe – is because they’re overworked, tired, down to focusing on one thing, which is not what I need from them.

Meanwhile, there was the small-press event at the London Review bookshop last week, packed out: see Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press on this.

Meanwhile, though I broadcast a need for paid sales/marketing help here and on Facebook a week or so back, and that thing was variously tweeted and re-tweeted, not a single response. Which kind of proves the point. But moves are afoot.

Meanwhile, CBe books will be in a pop-shop off Portobello Road from 10 December organised by Julian Rothenstein of the Redstone Press (you know, the diaries; but more than that). More on this in a newsletter when I get round to it.

‘Meanwhile’ used to be a word that Mark Ford used a little too often – a back-stop, a stop-gap – in his poems that rightly refused to rely on narrative or the other obvious ways of moving from here to there, but now less so.

Meanwhile, yesterday I was in Oxford for a reading at the Albion Beatnik bookshop – which has put on a readings programme that puts far bigger places to shame – by one writer (Richard Gwyn) CBe has published this year, one (Patrick Guinness) CBe will publish next year, and one (Philip Morre) whose book CBe has designed and typeset.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I seem to have committed to a 2-hour workshop on academic writing, a genre which, the more I’ve come into contact with (over the past couple of months, as an RLF Fellow), the more I flinch from. We shall start with a couple of poems.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Cusp, published by Shearsman and edited by Geraldine Monk. From the blurb: ‘a collective autobiography’ of ‘a brief era which, in retrospect, was exceptional in its momentum towards the democratisation and dissemination of poetry’; that era being located ‘between World War II and the advent of the World Wide Web’. The North, the Midlands, Wales, the South-west (not London/Oxbridge). I haven’t finished it. There’s some sloppy writing and there’s some good writing (a fine essay by Peter Riley). That’s not quite the point. The point is to do with a number of people from a dun-coloured background (the 11-plus, engrained sexism, not an aubergine in sight) finding a way through (exceptional teachers, independent bookshops, libraries) into the excitement of reading and writing. They meet by chance, form groups and start magazines and presses and split apart (‘the difference is still the same: the old versus the new, the safe versus the experimental, the formal versus the expansive. The strain finally breaks the group …’: Tim Allen) and start from base again. Pound and W. C. Williams score heavily in the index. The avant-garde, as is pointed out more than once, can be as conservative as the mainstream, but there was a collective energy here, veering between abrasive and comfy in its oppositional stance, that makes for an instructional read. Fun, too.

Meanwhile, the TSE shortlist and the Costa shortlist and no comment. For starters, Armitage’s Death of King Arthur is billed as a translation on the title page and shouldn’t be there for that reason alone, it’s taking up someone else’s place, even besides that for all the Armitage brio it’s a dull, dull, archaic poem, leave it to the scholars. And the Poetry Book Society really does need a shake-up. For example, the idea of a book fair bringing together, inclusively, poetry publishers from across the UK – a no-brainer, and their remit, and they have an office and staff – why did they leave it to unpaid amateurs? Just saying. Why – it’s theirs on a plate if they want it – have they shown no interest at all in pulling it into what they do? And playing with it. Doesn’t have to be London: Norwich next year, then Birmingham, then X and then Y. It’s how it used to be done. No comment.

Meanwhile, I forgot to say in my record of the first dream in the last post that my children were constantly barging in during the phone call, and when I told them to clear out they went downstairs and hammered on the piano directly underneath my desk. There is no piano.

Meanwhile. The things that are happening off-stage, in the dark.

Sunday 18 November 2012

The dream life of an editor

3 a.m. – this was real time, I think, because when I woke up (someone in the house coming home late) I looked at the clock and it was 3.30 a.m. A man standing outside WH Smiths in York (he must be cold, I think) phones to tell me that he’s disappointed in my editing of his book. A word misspelt (‘sanatorium’) and a misleading sentence involving a mathematical formula (nothing wrong with the formula itself, which involved square roots and brackets and xs and ys, but the way the sentence was phrased). I remember this man, a bit: we talked, around three years ago, about his book. I didn’t copy-edit it. What I did recently was a simple typesetting job, re-running the text of the hardback edition for the new A-format paperback, and editing was not involved. I explain that I haven’t even read the book, except for for checking for bad word breaks and the like, and besides, the mistakes must have been there in the original text. But it is still my fault, apparently. And now he won’t be able to get me teaching work at Morley College of Education. I tell him even if he did, I’m so busy at present that I wouldn’t be able to do that job, which takes some of the wind out his sails (this is first time, I think, that I have ever used that expression, in either writing or speech), but he still maintains that I am in the wrong and he is the right.

Later, after I go back to sleep, another dream, a much nicer one this time, in which I become more than intimate with a woman I used to work with in the early 1980s in the copy-editing department at Time-Life. Where has she suddenly arrived from?

Saturday 10 November 2012


I went to bookartbookshop in Pitfield Street, just off Old Street tube station, because they’d asked to stock three copies of the Nick Wadley pamphlet, and they also took two copies – no, three, because someone bought one before I’d left the shop – of Days and Nights in W12, because it has images as well as text and so sneaks in. But they’re not averse to text: lots of, for example, Atlas Press books, Oulipo, Alfred Jarry, Raymond Roussel, etc. It’s a lovely shop, not least because everything’s displayed according to more arbitrary/inventive codes than basic alphabetical order. It’s hard to get out of that shop without buying. I failed. In other words, expenses exceeded income.

Which is generally the case. Twos and threes? Some double figures wouldn’t come amiss. Someone steer me out of this? See the last post, Vacancy. I’m serious.

Meanwhile: they still had, on the shelves at bookartbookshop, a couple of copies of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch from when I last trekked in there. First edition, CBe, 2009. I brought them home. Buy five books from the website and write Lunch in the ‘instructions to merchant’ box in the check-through and I’ll add in one of these copies – a hike, I know, but these books are worth something: rare, very, and anyway I’m not officially allowed to sell them because Faber now have rights.

Meanwhile: CBe has committed to more titles for 2013 than in any previous year, and is about to agree on another that will be one of those books that define what the whole thing’s about.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Vacancy (or, teach me how to sell books)

Those who buy CBe books (Stendhal’s ‘happy few’?) know that they’re not buying from Random House. For good or ill, these words apply: niche, reticent (the brown card covers), amateurish (all the numbers are written down in a big red book, I’ve never made a spreadsheet in my life). A reason that CBe has survived for five years is that it is not a business: editing, design, typesetting and general running around are done on a voluntary basis, i.e. not costed against income. (On the other hand, the authors do get advances: pocket money, not enough to keep wolves from the door, but some recognition of an author’s dignity. I mention this only because the practice of not paying any advance at all seems to be spreading.) Another reason for survival is that a number of the books have had a good press. But you’d never guess that from the sales figures.

Sales, marketing and publicity are fields in which I’ve had zero experience. So, given that next year CBe will be publishing more titles than in any previous year, and I owe it to the authors, I’m intending to apply for funding to pay a part-time freelance Person in the coming year – a Person, ideally, who has kept track of the musical chairs of lit eds and knows without checking who is currently sitting in which seat; who knows how to bend their ears, and the ears of festival managers too; who can knock down the price for a decent reading venue, and then pull in enough people to fill it; who has a proven knack of getting books to new readers and persuading them they can’t not buy. A Person, in other words, who is not just enthusiastic about this form of publishing but who has experience (yet doesn’t mind operating out of kitchens and cafés, not an office). A Person who can set up contact networks and procedures that a less experienced other person may then be able to follow up and develop at a cost more sustainable by CBe itself.

If anyone happening to read this knows of such a Person, or has a friend of a friend who may know, give them the CBe email: Inquiries from retired bankers with literary interests and a willingness to fund parties will also be welcome.

Monday 5 November 2012


There’s a sign outside the café at Snape Maltings, which is where the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was held this year, that tells you not to climb on the benches because you might fall off. There are a LOT of signs. It’s an arts centre, encompassing an array of different halls and studios and cafés and shops and car parks. The halls and the studios are lovely. The whole thing is six miles inland from Aldeburgh.

In its first year the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was attended by a few hundred people; now in its 24th year, the attendance is around 5,000. (I’m not sure if that is number of people attending or number of ticket sales, which are very different things, but that’s still a big achievement.) This growth is itself the reason for the move from Aldeburgh to Snape – where the venues are more comfortable and can accommodate bigger audiences, where the whole thing has a more ‘professional’ sheen. No longer need the organisers apologise to the invited poets (a number of whom have travelled half the world to be here) for the buckets on the floor catching rainwater.

The move: good thing or bad? Me, I think they should have stayed in Aldeburgh, and fixed the roof. Among the things lost: after a reading, strolling directly onto the beach, or into the nearest pub or chip shop. The trestle tables stacked with books that were part of the set in the main reading hall, where you browsed as you chatted. The hugger-mugger of everyone being in one location (as opposed to, this year, swinging back and forth on the shuttle bus between Snape and Aldeburgh, where almost everyone staying for the weekend still lodged). Not least, and especially for townies, the SEA. But I’m not representative of the main audience the festival now attracts: regular lit&music-festival-goers, with cars, and with incomes that seem not to be severely dented by the price of tickets (£15 for a three-person reading, £7.50 for the half-hour slots, and these on top of travel and accommodation). It’s this audience that is growing, and that is quantifiable – in terms of numbers in columns on applications for funding. Neither the sea nor the old huggermuggerness can be counted in the same way.

Absolutely no criticism is implied here of those who put on the festival – who remain, as ever, wonderfully welcoming, friendly, adventurous and inventive in their programming, committed with all their hearts to the work they present, non-corporate. They themselves are a big part of the joy. There is at least this continuity. (In its 24 years, the festival has had just two directors, Michael Laskey and Naomi Jaffa.)

Little waves of idealism or contrariness are what small presses arise on, and probably festivals too, and if they’re to stay true to their roots most have a lifespan of no more than a decade. Aldeburgh has had an amazing and glorious run of over two decades. The tricky thing is the momentum of success, that it can – but doesn't have to? – put at risk the essential character of the enterprise.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Chocolate (and publishing)

The JC column in this week’s Times Lit Supplement gives a nice, and I hope helpful, mention to the new pamphlets. Five years ago I mentioned to JC that the design, indeed the whole mini-venture (inclusive of poetry, prose, whatever took my fancy), was modelled on Alan Ross’s London Magazine Editions of the late 1960s, early 1970s. But Ross, he said, did have this advantage: he married a chocolate heiress. (Have they all been snapped up?) I admit that the books might benefit from a push, the kind of push some chocolate money might facilitate, but I’ll admit too to a stubborn, even perverse satisfaction that the thing has survived for five years without any external funding.

Despite the presence of small-press books on the Forward and Booker shortlists this year, I don’t think anyone, rightly, has got round to defining what a small press IS: you just know one when you come across one. But talking about them, and what they are for, is fun, and anyone who wants to join in, please come to this event at the London Review Bookshop on Thrusday, 15 November at 7 p.m.: the panel has David Lea of the LR shop, Nicholas Lezard, Patrick McGuinness, Nicholas Murray of Rack Press, and me.

(I read a piece this week on James Laughlin, whose New Directions press, founded in 1936, published – in most cases for the first time in the US – Apollinaire, Djuna Barnes, Borges, Paul Bowles, Brecht, Camus, Céline, Lorca, Hesse, Jarry, Joyce, Kafka, Michaux, Henry Miller, Montale, Nabokov, Neruda, Pasternak, Paz, Queneau, Rilke, Sartre, Svevo, Valéry, etc. And brought back into print Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, E. M. Forster, Faulkner, etc. Plus poetry by Pound, Williams, Rexroth, Patchen, Oppen, Reznikoff, Olsen, Duncan, Creeley, Snyder, Levertov, etc. He didn’t turn a profit for ten years. He had steel money rather than chocolate money, but who’s fussing. As the writer points out, ‘Money is usually wasted on the rich’, but in this case not.)

Friday 12 October 2012

Poet browsing, and a birthday

Beverley Bie Brahic in the Broadway Bookshop in Hackney last week; her own White Sheets – reviewed in this week’s TLS (‘Each poem reveals a glowing core underneath the tired formulas …’) lurks unnoticed on the shelf beside her. I hope Beverley doesn’t expect to find the book in every bookshop she might wander into, but this was a nice coincidence, and thank you to the Broadway Bookshop for stocking it.

There is, just about – otherwise they wouldn’t be still be happening – a niche readership for CBe books. I don’t especially like the word niche – it’s on a par with boutique – and readership neither, but, sticking with it for just this sentence, there are niches within niches, ever receding, and they can be hard to find. A few people discover the books while browsing in a flesh-and-blood bookshop, such as the Broadway. Some I can perhaps reach via Facebook, and a precious few through here. The categories don’t often overlap.

A new page on the website offers the three pamphlets – poems, prose, drawings – published this month to mark CBe’s fifth birthday (see below). For the incorrigibly curious, a couple of my own stories can be read online – here and here.

Saturday 6 October 2012

The Puritan ethic

The things you want to do and the things you think you should be doing . . . I’m English, my mother was a Methodist, and there’s this Puritan strain I subscribed to for a very long time: that pleasure is something to be earned, that work comes before play. But it doesn’t work like that: you do the work, and then there’s more work, and the pleasure gets deferred, squeezed out.

I’m getting better at this, a lot better, but this week I had a relapse: as well as sitting for two days ten-to-five in a very dull office (something I seem to have to signed up to), and paying some bills, and blah, I’ve typeset (and done a rough copy-edit on) four books (with footnotes, running heads, the works) that are not CBe books, and still, past midnight on Friday, I haven’t got round to the things I want to do. And now of course I’m too tired to do those things, so instead I go looking for a particular Hugo Williams poem.

I’ve found it. It’s called ‘Everyone Knows This’. He has at least two poems with that title, but this is the one I was looking for: ‘You get to your feet, having accumulated / one nice and one nasty thing to do / and do the nice thing first.’ Yes.

Monday 24 September 2012

Getting dressed

Years ago I photocopied this poem from a magazine. I still like it very much. ‘Half-Sized Violin’ by Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch:

I sat in the playgound where I played as a child.
The child went on playing in the sand. His hands went on
making pat-pat, then dig then destroy,
then pat-pat again.

Between the trees that little house is still standing
where the high voltage hums and threatens.
On the iron door a skull and crossbones: another
old childhood acquaintance.

When I was nine they gave me
a half-sized violin and half-sized feelings.

Sometimes I’m still overcome by pride
and a great joy: I already know
how to dress and undress
all by myself.

Today I received a letter from a local company (someone must have tipped them off) that begins: ‘Dear Mr Boyle, Imagine having someone available to help you with day-to-day tasks you struggle with such as cooking, cleaning or getting dressed . . .’

PS – There’s a new review of Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie on the Book Sbob blog. The word missed out in line 3 of the short poem she quotes is ‘bladder’.

Friday 14 September 2012

Reviews of Brahic and Gaffield

An online review this week of Berverly Bie Brahic’s White Sheets (shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize): ‘Brahic’s poems are lyrics of various residences. Shifts of place in White Sheets follow her trajectory of living abroad, through French, Italian, American, and Irish locales. Her shifts are more thorough than that, though . . . In addition to poetic shape-shifting, subtle confrontations often lurk deceptively behind the ordinary. The title poem “White Sheets” opens Brahic’s collection, and its epigram, Airstrike hits wedding party, creates tension in what appears to be the everyday – a domestic scene troubled only by the anxiety of one line against the ominous instinctive movements of the woman collecting laundry . . . In some poems, such as “The Annunciations”, a change in point of view may result in intrusion, but Brahic rejoices, as Bellini does, in what is divulged . . . The rhythms of her lines are disturbed almost imperceptibly with dashes, parentheticals, and lacunae as object (or subject) resists. Here as elsewhere, Brahic scrutinizes, offers us a language of post-exposure reparation.’

This week’s TLS has a belated review of Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road, which won last year’s Aldeburgh First Collection Prize: ‘Employing a variety of stanza forms and the prose poem, Tokaido Road invites the reader, poem by delicately delineated poem, to enter the old scenes as well as the poet’s mind and if, at first reading, the poems feel quiet and meditative, we learn to spot each slight ripple of emotion . . . Gaffield’s collection is a fascinating fusion of Western and Eastern art by someone who is respectful of both.’

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Who’d’ve thought?

Congratulations to Salt for the Booker shortlisting of Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse. Half the books on that shortlist are from small independent publishers. Half the books on the Forward Prize shortlists are from ditto.

Cue some generalising statement about the increasing prominence of small presses on the big stages, but I’ll resist that temptation. The joy/frustration of the whole business is its unpredictability. Among the feedback comments on last Saturday’s Free Verse book fair are some pointing out that those publishers with tables on the upper floor were at a disadvantage, as a number of potential buyers never made it upstairs – yet the highest sales so far reported were from an upstairs table. There are comments too about styles of selling, suggesting that it’s not enough for publishers to just lay out the books and then sit behind the table and wait – yet the CBe table, staffed through the whole day by volunteers who hadn’t read the books and couldn’t answer questions, sold far more than last year.

Brooke Sharkey (above), who at last year’s book fair sang to a listening, attentive audience, this year could hardly be heard above the continuing talk and movement. She didn’t mind, she’s used to this. There’ve been times, she says, when she’s sung to an appreciative audience of several hundred, who’ve then bought the music, and then the next day she’s busking and everyone walks straight past.

Q: Which title is third in the rankings of CBe books sold to date in this financial year? A: ‘Not So Barren or Uncultivated’: British Travellers in Finland 1760–1830. Another volume, covering 1830 to 1917, is planned for later this year.

Monday 10 September 2012

After the book fair

For me, the joy of last year’s event was that no one knew what to expect, and the consequent surprise when it all seemed to work – something that couldn’t be replicated for a repeat show. Does this explain my slight feeling of anticlimax, dissatisfaction? Something of that, something to do with how lousy I am at organising myself – far too much bell-ringing, and checking of watch for the half-hours, with result that I hardly got to graze, even to see, many of the tables, let alone the people behind them. There were particular tables I’d been looking forward to – Like This Press, for one – but I never got round to. Apologies to those people. My loss.

Among the things that worked, I think:

- The volunteers: brilliant, they just sensed what needed doing and got on and did it. It was hugely important that the publishers who made the effort – in many cases a long-range effort, involving hours and hours of travel – weren’t stuck behind their tables all day: a main thing the volunteers were there for was to take up the reins, let the publishers wander. This happened, and could happen more, could be pushed further. (It’s the books that matter, not who’s behind the table; I wasn’t once behind the CBe table myself, not even for a few minutes, but 40 books were sold.) One of the volunteers, unprompted, took a wadge of programmes and went out onto the street to lure strangers: necessary, and brave.

- The venue: the space afforded much better display room for the publishers than last year; on a hot day, the courtyard café space was perfect; the readings room – right size, not blandly functional.

- The range of publishers: as Ross Bradshaw says on his own Five Leaves blog, ACE support enabled us to ‘pay the fares of out of London presses. And this meant many presses that could not have afforded a train fare and stall hire were represented. So as well as being the biggest gathering of presses, this was probably the most representative, with people from Manchester, Norwich, Edinburgh, Hastings, Bristol, Bridgend - everywhere, really, including three from Nottingham.’ And one from Belgium. And A Midsummer Night’s Press, from (I think) New York via Spain, and selling another 40 books.

(Parenthesis: the point was, and still is, the full range. ((Sub-parenthesis: introducing Christopher Reid to open the day, I did manage to stutter the word inimitable, but on the way lost the word I’d wanted: indivisible. Reid has published with OUP, Faber, and with Arete, Rack, Prospero, Ondt & Gracehoper, etc. One world.)) We invited Picador, and got enthusiasm, and they came. We invited Cape: prevarication over whether the table hire should come out of the sales or the marketing budget, and that’s where it stuck. We invited Faber, since before last Christmas: unanswered emails and phone messages, and twice when we got through were told they’d have a meeting and would ‘get back’. Huh. Someone finally phones in late August from one of their branded offshoots, Faber Factory, which represents Bloodaxe and Carcanet as well as Faber, and wants a table, but there’s going to be some difficulty staffing that table, I should understand, because the fair is on a Saturday. Bless.)

Among the things that didn’t work:

- Too much bell-ringing, as I’ve mentioned. We can sort this.

- More people came than last year, many more, but still more would have been good. The more publishers participating, the more there is, as Ross Bradshaw neatly puts it in his blog post, ‘competition for sales’. At the very least, every single person from the growth industry of creative-writing courses has to feel it necessary to come. Has to want to come. (Unless books are bought, publishers kept alive, their work won’t see daylight.)

- The workshops, run by the Poetry School and taking place in the upstairs cafe, were sold out long before the day and though those taking part also called by downstairs, I hope, the workshops were not integrated into the main event.

We’ll be sending out forms asking for feedback from the presses who took part: what was bad, what was good, how much sales, how better, etc.

The photos above are courtesy of Véronique Dubois – see more on Flickr and contact her if you want to use any of them. I’ve an inkling to make the second one the signature photo: for the infant clinging, for the fine red dress, for the lovely Donut Press books in the foreground. Beneath that one, Eddie Linden. The last one shows a buyer getting out her cash while the seller looks bashfully away - many of us are embarrassed by money, while at the same time in desperate need of it.

There are more photos – of wine & ham as well as books & poets – on Helena Nelson’s HappensStance blog. There’s another report on Todd Swift’s Eyewear blog. The latter needs this essential correction: while I’ve been humming old tunes in the background, it was Chrissy Williams who took the lead on organising this year’s book fair, single-handedly battling the railway networks and spurring the whole thing on. She could run the whole country. She has better things to do.

Friday 7 September 2012

Free Verse 2012: why?

IF independent bookshops were thriving up and down the land; and if Amazon et el – rather than mashing smaller presses in their systems and charging them the earth for the privilege – had some fine-toothed gears to help get their books to readers; and if the internet had an add-on that enabled you browse books in your hands before committing; and if the Net Book Agreement was still in force; and if everyone who sent poems to a press actually bought a book from that press . . .

THEN the book fair might not be needed at all and we could all have a long lie-in tomorrow.

Candid Arts, EC1V 1NQ, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free, the readings too.

Did I mention that there’ll be Spanish ham, and clothespegs, and that Brooke Sharkey, the busker who stepped into last year’s fair and onto the stage, will be back again? And cards too, of drawings including the one above, by Nick Wadley.

They organise these matters better in France and Germany, where laws limiting the discounting of books both restrict the power of companies that deal in mass volumes of sales to overwhelm the smaller fry and also help sustain a wide variety of independent bookshops. In America, doles out grants every year to a large number of small presses and literary groups. In the UK we had Jeremy Hunt, and now we have Maria Miller.

Other things that might help the smaller presses survive:
- book tokens valid for buying from a range of small presses (probably an online venture: you have an account into which money is gifted and from which you buy from the websites of the participating presses);
- local bookshops hosting small presses on a couple of tables on occasional Saturdays, with all sales through the bookshop’s till;
- partner bookshops, which commit to ordering all a press’s new titles, and probably some backlist too, in return for a negotiated discount.

At tomorrow’s book fair there’ll be a book on the welcome desk in which you can write comments and add your name to the mailing list. Do feel free to go on a bit. Should the book fair last longer than one day? Is London the right place for it? Should it include all publishers, irrespective of size? Should it include fiction as well as poetry? Etc.

Monday 3 September 2012

Exit stage right, enter stage left

The desk has an abandoned look about it. It’s no longer mine, not that it ever was mine to begin with: I was sitting in, I was a temp. That bundle is the printer’s proofs of the autumn issue of Poetry Review, with a few yellow stickies peeping out – there’s always some of those (imagine being Arthur Fry, inventor of the Post-It note) – and the magazine has now gone to press.

Coming home, as I was going down the long escalator at Holborn tube, I saw a poet I haven’t seen for months ascending on the up-escalator. We went for coffee. Why hadn’t I asked him for a poem? A poem of his, a good one, would have fitted this issue fine. Too late. But overall, no regrets. It’s out of my hands now, and in a couple of weeks’ time will belong to its readers.

Meanwhile, next Saturday, the 8th: the Free Verse 2012 Poetry Book Fair at Candid Arts, London EC1V 1NQ – another thing about to be put into the world, and that will belong on Saturday to whoever comes. Please do.

Grace Paley (1922–2007): ‘Then the flowers became very wild / because it was early September / and they had nothing to lose’

Monday 27 August 2012


More from Colloquial Persian, 1941: I’ve just noticed that there are ‘exercises’ at the end of each chapter. (Homework, perhaps, in the same way that in the early 60s I had to translate sentences into Latin: ‘O Labienus, I have been wounded by an arrow.’)

‘Sit down here; now tell me, what did you see on the road?’
‘Sir, I was asleep in the back of the car; I saw nothing.’
‘You always tell lies; the road has many holes – how could you sleep?’

‘The sale of cigarettes in Iran is in the hands of a monopoly.’
‘Which of these houses do you prefer?’
‘I have no choice, sir; whichever you order.’
‘I am surprised that no one has seen this mistake.’

‘I hope the weather will be better tomorrow; it is not usually like this in spring.’
‘If I had known that it would be like this, I would never have come here.’

Sunday 26 August 2012

‘Good heavens, what has happened to this meat?’

When I was teaching English in Egypt in the 1970s there were taxi-drivers who spoke a perfectly preserved 1940s/1950s English – which they’d learned as batmen to officers in the British army, before Nasser arrived and kicked out the British. Above is a scan from ‘Conversations’ section of Colloquial Persian by L. P. Elwell-Sutton, first published in 1941 (‘… there is a growing realisation among careful students of foreign affairs that the new Iran is a portent of some significance in the Middle East of today. In part this is due to its strategic importance, in part to its importance as an oil producer …’) and picked up in a second-hand bookshop. Below are bits of some of the Conversations (‘intended to improve the student’s command of vocabulary and colloquial expressions’).

(At the end of his preface, by the way, L. P. Elwell-Sutton thanks his wife, ‘who patiently undertook many of the more arduous duties involved’. When I worked at Faber only a few years ago, it was not at all uncommon for male authors to thank their wives for doing the indexing, the filing, the permissions letters, etc.)

‘What is the matter with this house-boy? Why is he shouting?’
‘He is fighting with the cook; I don’t know what is the matter.’
‘Then tell him to come and do his work; there is a lot of dust on this table.’
‘Would you like anything, sir?’
‘Yes, bring me a glass of beer.’

At work
‘How many workmen are here?’
‘Only twenty-five have come; those other three have not arrived in time.’
‘All right, put these pipes on the lorry.’
‘What are you doing? Do you need eight men for one pipe?’
‘Driver, take this lorry to the top of the hill. Ten men go with it.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘What is wrong? I have done nothing.’
‘You are right, but here you must work or go.’
‘Look out! Get out of the way! That pipe is falling!’

‘I want to go to Isfahan: how can it be done?’
‘Do you want to go by taxi or by charabanc?’
‘What is the hire of a taxi?’
‘A taxi is going this afternoon in which there is room.’
‘The hire of one seat is 75 rials.’
‘But I cannot start today.’
‘Then, if you want a whole taxi to yourself, the hire will be 300 rials.’
‘Isn’t there a charabanc tomorrow?’
‘Yes, there is a charabanc; the cost of one seat is only 20 rials. But it is not comfortable.’

In camp
‘Sir, this stove was in the lorry and has got broken. What shall we do for supper?’
‘Sir, however much we have searched, we have not found the spades.’
‘The sky is very cloudy; I think it will rain directly.’
‘Then go and pitch the tents quickly. Why are you standing there?’
‘Sir, we don’t know where our kit has gone; perhaps we left it in the town.’
‘Sir, I am feeling very ill; please give me a little medicine.’
‘Now all of you go to sleep, and be ready for work at seven in the morning.’
‘Supper is ready, sir.’
‘Thank goodness. Good heavens, what has happened to this meat?’

Friday 24 August 2012

Triangular thing with flanges

Above is what holds the shelves together / fixes them to the sides / allows the tilt. The thing I was trying to tell Ken Edwards about in the comments to the post below the one below.

When I was around ten I had a French teacher who, having given us certain vocab, asked us to describe - orally, and in French - something three-dimensional - a spiral staircase, say - without using our hands. This is, I think, a fine teaching technique. It's a tricky thing to do. (Almost as tricky as writing a blurb, which I'm trying and failing to do today.) One of the reasons I enjoy my local hardware shop is overhearing customers trying to describe to Clare, wonderfully patient behind the counter, the specific fixture or fitting they want, and which they don't have the technical name for. I'd like to be in the hardware shop in Hastings when Ken goes in (for two shelves you'll need four of these). Copying and printing out the above photo is cheating.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Feet up

‘Sitting at a desk with my feet up / on the bottom drawer, reading manuscripts’ – the opening lines of Louis Simpson’s poem ‘Publishing Days’. This is still my default position. Sometimes with the feet a bit higher (above, this morning). Sometimes my toenails need a trim.

(Remember the notion of the ‘paperless office’? Wikipedia cites a journal using this phrase in 1975, then another journal reporting that worldwide use of office paper more than doubled between 1980 and 2000. Bookless publishers? Unlikely. It’s not as if books are going to just go away.)

The CBe website has no submission guidelines, so what comes in is a mix of email attachments and hard copy, sample pages and whole books, which is fine, but if I’m going read anything – as opposed to skim onscreen to decide whether or not I do want to read it – then I need it on paper. Resting your feet on is what bottom drawers, windowsills too, are for.

Thursday 16 August 2012


A holding post, a thing of bits and pieces.

Above is a bookfair display shelf I knocked up the other day. One hour, pretty much, inclusive of the trip to the hardware shop, and a tenner for all materials. It comes apart and folds flat, almost. I should market these. One of the delights of running a press, a tiny one, is that, in addition to the text, there is manual labour involved – lifting, carrying, lugging boxes from one place to another, the envelope-stuffing and the trips to the post office, with the above as an optional extra. This may be why I have no interest in ebooks. (I’m not against them. That would be plain silly. Everyone please enjoy them. It’s just that I can’t see I’m going to get any pleasure at all from producing them.)

(The increasing absence of physical labour in most people’s lives – it’s why sport has taken the place it has in the culture, no? Why we pay the footballers millions. Sweat, physical exhaustion – Villiers de L’Isle Adam: ‘As for living, our servants will do that for us.’ Now the athletes. Yeats quoted that in an essay from which here’s another quote: ‘We have grown jealous of the body.’ The stereotypical English suspicion of ‘intellectuals’ is not something I laugh at: why aren’t they carrying things, making things?)

The autumn issue of Poetry Review is almost to bed – some proof queries to be resolved, the cover to be approved – and the Poetry Society has started Facebook come-on posts. It’s by no means perfect, and it’s certainly not a revolution, but I’m pleased with it. To say that editing it has been a form a journalism – deadlines, frustrations with time and wordcounts – is not to put it down at all. All jobs (prime minister, roadsweeper) are there to be done well, or not. I’ll just mention here that the lead poem – a spot traditionally given to X or Y, some known name – is in this issue by someone I’d never heard of before I opened his envelope, and who is not primarily a poet. This is not a conspicuous thing, and I don’t want it to be, but it pleases me.

Free Verse 2012: the poetry book fair. Countdown is now in weeks, days. Those who’ve been following will know that this got started last year: a late-night hunch that it would be nice to get the presses affected by the Arts Council cuts together in a room, to show what they were doing, and which ended up with 22 presses crammed into a church hall with an impromptu set by a busker from the street outside and a readings programme put together by Chrissy Williams. Somehow – not by deliberate intention – this year’s event is set to be biggest of its kind in London for some time, perhaps ever. 50 publishers, the national poetry organisations, readings, workshops. Chrissy has been magnificent. We have some ACE funding, most of which has gone on travel costs for the presses travelling from afar. (Neither Chrissy nor I are taking a cent: no nobility here, it’s simply that this is how most of the presses themselves operate, and to have the event run by paid administrators would be counter to the spirit.) The fearsome thing is this: because we don’t have previous access to the venue, at 9 a.m. on the 8 September there will be nothing, not even tables or chairs, no posters or signs, and by 10 a.m. there will have to be everything. Whether this works or not will depend on, first, volunteer helpers (we have some wonderful ones committed, but more welcome; email; £10 expenses paid); and, second, whether folk come along and stick around and chat and buy.

CB editions. A poem from Stephen Knight’s new book, The Prince of Wails, will be in Saturday’s Guardian. In November there will be three pamphlets, exclusive from the website, to mark the odd fact that CBe will have been alive for five years – again, not by deliberate intention: there was never a business plan, and there still isn’t. Given a fair wind, six manuscripts now on my desk will make it to book next year. No more, please.

Last year I sent a short story to a friend for comment. The last line was a character saying, ‘I have other things to do.’ He told me to cut that line. I have done. But I do have other things to do, such as earning a living. Or writing. Or reading, or listening to music, or staring at the ceiling. Much of the above – CBe, the book fair – is distraction activity; this is a luxury position, I know, but much of what I do to earn money feels also, even while being financially necessary, like distraction activity. Jobs, ‘work’, need some redefining, way beyond the unemployment statistics. I keep meaning to read more Richard Sennett.

Monday 13 August 2012


Robinson, above, in the men’s changing area of the pools on Hampstead Heath on Saturday. He went in the water, he puttered about, he didn’t win any medals but he felt good.

The so-called feel-good factor has been around in plenty these past weeks. Medals help, but the main thing has been the smiles, not least on the faces of those who’ve won the medals: people dedicated to their chosen sports to a fanatical degree but who, put in front of the camera, turn out to be the girl-next-door, the boy-next-door. The £9.3 billion, the corporate sponsorship, the blanking-out of dissent, are one thing, the expressions on the faces another. And the smiles are infectious.

This is what they – those with the billions to spend – were gambling on. And they won. The competitors, and the volunteers, swung it. In fact as long as they kept drugs out of it, and ensured the money was going into structural support rather than directly into the pockets of the athletes, they couldn’t lose. The faces, but the bodies too: gorgeous ones, bodies at their peak, showing what extreme and sometimes bizarre things they are capable of. The Olympics are a celebration of the body, and there’s nothing unlovely in that (next time they’re in London, can there please be a poet-in-residence in the Olympic village, and can Robinson apply?). And I have no problem at all with government (my, your) money going into the promotion of beautiful bodies, especially in a culture where a joke in the early days of the Games seemed valid: that the Brits won medals only in sports where they were sitting down. As long as someone up there – someone at the table where they talk about the 'legacy' – remembers that there are also such things as beautiful minds, which are not less lovely but not as tele-genic as beautiful bodies, and which therefore, for their development, to enable them to get even near what they may be capable of, may need even more structural support.

Thursday 2 August 2012

The Gaberbocchus Press

This afternoon, invited by Jasia Reichardt and Nick Wadley, I went round to the Themerson Archive to talk about what books might be on the Gaberbocchus Press table at the Free Verse book fair on 8 September. If the name’s unfamiliar, the draft of a note about Gaberbocchus, to go into the book-fair programme, is below. I have a list of around 30 books – all rare, out-of-print editions – plus cards and catalogues, which will be not just on display but for sale. This is a piece of history; for book addicts, it’s a pretty exciting piece of history.

The Gaberbocchus Press – named after a Latin translation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ – was founded by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson in 1948 in London and ran until 1979. All publications were individually designed, on the principle that design should be an expression of content. Their titles, many of them illustrated by Franciszka, included work by Kurt Schwitters, Raymond Queneau, C. H. Sisson, Bertrand Russell, Anatol Stern, Stevie Smith, novels by Stefan Themerson and drawings by Franciszka, and the first English translation (1951) of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi by Barbara Wright – who wrote the text directly onto litho plates, on which Franciszka then drew 204 illustrations. Franciszka Themerson’s continuing involvement with Ubu Roi culminated in a comic-strip version (1967–70) comprising 90 one-metre-long drawings.

The Themersons’ films included a 10-minute anti-war film denouncing the destruction of Polish national culture under the Nazis, and a translation of sound into images based on four songs by Szymanowski. Both Stefan and Franciszka Themerson died in 1988.

The Themerson Archive, maintained by Jasia Reichardt and Nick Wadley, comprises books, manuscripts, drawings, paintings, films, photographs, audio tapes, cards, posters and memorabilia. For anyone interested in the history of small-press achievements, it is one of the richest resources in the UK.

Flyers, press release, readings programme, etc, for the book fair will be available next week.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

Robinson: a rare photo

Here is Robinson doing exactly what the second Weldon Kees quote in the post below says he is doing, admiring the elephant.


The pages in the books are blank,
The books that Robinson has read. That is his favorite chair,
Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.

All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson
Calling. It never rings when he is here.

(Weldon Kees, ‘Robinson’)

Jack Robinson, author of Days and Nights in W12 and Recessional, didn’t come out of just nowhere. Robinson is in Céline’s Journey to the End of Night (1932), a sort of alter-ego of Bardamu, the main autobiographical character. He returns, also alter-ego-ish, in the poems of Weldon Kees (1914–55), who himself didn’t so much die as disappear: his car was found abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and there have been reported sightings. Kees’s Robinson reappears in poems by Simon Armitage. In Chris Petit’s 1993 novel Robinson he’s a a Soho fixer, dealer and pornographer. He’s back again in three films by Patrick Keiller, London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997; the above image from this film) and Robinson in Ruins (2010), in which – quote from the Tate website on a current exhibition at Tate Britain entitled ‘The Robinson Institute’ – ‘a fictional, unseen scholar Robinson undertakes exploratory journeys around England’. (An LRB piece on that exhibition describes Keiller’s practice as combining ‘extremely laconic imagery … with more or less ironised, more or less fictional, increasingly erudite voiceovers’ – which could also apply to Days and Nights in W12.) I doubt we’ve seen the last of Robinson. From Kees, ‘Aspects of Robinson’:

Robinson walking in the Park, admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times. Robinson
Saying, “Hello. Yes, this is Robinson. Sunday
At five? I’d love to. Pretty well. And you?”

Friday 27 July 2012

Publishing days

About time I praised the postman, and the whole UK postal service behind him. On Wednesday afternoon I posted a copy of BBB’s White Sheets to an address in Wales, on Thursday morning I got an email from the addressee: ‘It’s very good and I’m ½ way through it.’ For various reasons Royal Mail – like the NHS, the schools, you name it – seems to be generally viewed as in crisis. But it works. And my postman is friendly and so are the folk at the post office and as far as I know the system has never, ever, lost anything I’ve sent or been sent. And of course it’s responsible, in an earlier incarnation, for arguably the best poetry commission of the last century, Auden’s 1936 ‘Night Mail’ – link to YouTube here.

Reviews. There’ll be many people who’ll be disappointed that their book isn’t reviewed in the autumn issue of Poetry Review. It’s odd how most authors assume a review will be a good one. The one review to date, in the The Warwick Review, of Miha Mazzini’s The German Lottery, isn’t going to sell many copies: ‘. . . an interesting comic novel. And it will make an excellent film.’ It’s worth more than that.

More than a year and a half after its publication, J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts has a review in this week’s TLS, concluding thus: ‘Long Cuts is a book of human connections and missed opportunities, of love and missed opportunities to show love, and is as compressed, free-flowing, rambunctious, tender and at times unapologetically unrefined as its predecessor.’ (The predecessor being, of course, Natural Mechanical.) Much better. Thank you, Rory Waterman.

Will that review help to sell the book? What does sell copies? What is the meaning of life? I’m ticking the don’t-know box. Prize shortlistings? Last year, when D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water was shortlisted for the main Forward prize along with some well-known names, Waterstones immediately phoned the warehouse and ordered the 90 in stock and I was scurrying around. This year, when Beverley Bie Brahic’s White Sheets was also shortlisted for the main Forward prize, but among (apart from Geoffrey Hill) some far less-known names, no phone call, no surge in sales. Booksellers (whose job is to sell, not read) tend to like lists of familiar names, maybe spiced with the occasional unknown.

This morning I took two boxes of books to the Central warehouse in Hackney Wick, across a canal from the Olympics site. A couple of police cars were cruising the empty streets, a man drunk at 8 a.m. was looking for someone to argue with. Quiet days.

I arrived back home as the postman was delivering the programme for the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November, which will feature CBe poets Nancy Gaffield (winner of last year’s Aldeburgh First Collection Prize) and, over from the US, D. Nurkse. Also Christopher Reid and a screening of the film of The Song of Lunch, first published in book form by CBe. Aldeburgh, like the post, works. White Sheets on the Forward shortlist comes out of Christopher Reid and Beverley Bie Brahic happening to have breakfast together in Aldeburgh a few years ago, and the name Francis Ponge coming up in conversation, which led to BBB’s CBe Ponge book and then her Apollinaire book and then . . .

Friday 20 July 2012

‘We’ll get back to you’

Things are bubbling along. The autumn issue of Poetry Review is pretty well sealed up: a tight fit, more than tight, even after cuts and slashes. Flyers etc for the Free Verse bookfair will be done next week, as also the sorting out of the readings programme for that day – and here again, because there is no possible way that all the proposals for readings put forward by the presses can possibly be fitted in, there will have to be – as I’m sure Cameron has said, and Brown before him, and Blair too – tough choices. A lot of people will be disappointed.

Extras at the book fair (none of these will eat into the time available for the readings) will include workshops run by Daljit Nagra and Nancy Campbell, put on in association with the Poetry School and held in the sublime setting of the upstairs café at Candid Arts, the bookfair venue. Links to those here and here. Also (not finally confirmed, but hoping) a set by Brooke Sharkey, who at last year’s book fair in Exmouth Market came in from busking on the street to go up on the stage.

CBe is pleased and proud this week to learn that Beverley Bie Brahic’s White Sheets is shortlisted for the 2012 Forward Prize. If you go to the foot of the Books page on the CBe website, you can buy White Sheets and Brahic’s translations of Francis Ponge and of Apollinaire all for £20.

The Forward shortlists, both for the main prize and the first-collection prize, have been greeted with some delight and surprise. One Faber book on the first-collection list; nothing from Cape or Picador. This may be timely. There’s an arrogance in certain places that could do with taking a knock. Wanting the Free Verse book fair to be inclusive, to show the whole range, we invited Picador, Cape and Faber. Picador eventually replied, and it looks like they’ll be there. Emails to Cape were not replied to; eventually I got through to someone in sales who was interested but said the table hire would have to come out of the marketing and not the sales budget, and gave me another number; despite messages left on an answerphone, the trail went dead. With Faber, more unanswered emails; I’ve been asking them since before Christmas; they’d need to have a ‘meeting’, they eventually said, before they could decide; that meeting still hasn’t taken place, or if it has they haven’t bothered to tell me.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Status report (Poetry Review, autumn issue)

You start a new job and to begin with you’re a little befuddled because the where, how, who and when (now) cloud the what, never mind the why, and maybe you force things a bit and in doing so make mistakes, of course you do, but in time the wheres & the hows etc recede and the what begins to reveal itself, the thing you had been stumbling towards without it ever being clearly in view, with the why in tow.

That’s where I am. There’s a schedule for this thing and the first date on it is today, 10 July: ‘handover poems’. Poems have been handed over. Reviews and essays have been handed over too (well, most of them). With the result that I’ve spent much of this afternoon doing things I haven’t done, digging down into the layers that for weeks and weeks have been covered by poems and finding (on the desk) bills that should have been paid ages ago, and (on the window sill) books that have been eaten by snails.

Pains: saying no to certain poems. There is only so much room; there may in fact be not enough room for everything I’ve said yes too, but we’ll deal with that little crisis when it announces itself. Joys: asking for material (mainly for the reviews/essays, but for the poetry pages too) and receiving what I hadn’t quite expected to receive. I tend to want to do everything, and therefore for this magazine to do everything too, while knowing it can’t, and one of the incoming contributions unwittingly gave me a perspective on how to resolve that in my own head, so that I’m happy now with both the what and the why.

Meanwhile, up above is a photo (of Brighton graffiti) by Ken Garland of which I recently bought a print. I floated this as an image for the flyers for the Free Verse book fair but was told it was too scary, it would put people off. I’m not so sure; I think she may be having a very good time indeed. But more attention to the book fair is now needed. As for the Poetry Review issue, an awful lot of trust is involved (others of me, me of me too) and some of it will turn out to have been misplaced, but it will be fine, will be more than fine.

Thursday 5 July 2012


I’ve just had my eyes washed by some emotional joy at the wit & grit & skill & passion of some teenage poets from Leeds – in the film We Are Poets, which focuses on a made trip by a group of them to poetry slam event in the US. For the pre-title slow-motion sequence with voice-over, see here.

Meanwhile, back in the polite little, tight little world of books, this: someone went into a branch of Blackwells, seeking J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical. It wasn’t on the shelves, even though the system said it was. And the second book, Long Cuts? They explained that they don’t order a second book unless the first book has sold a certain numbers of copies in a year. The search for the first continued; it was found; it had fallen off the back of the shelf, so was invisible to any browser. Moral: persist, insist. What you’re looking for may not be visible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

On Dai Vaughan, and editing

An obituary of Dai Vaughan – author of Sister of the Artist, published by CBe in February – is in today’s Independent: see here. Another piece, mainly on Dai’s work as a film editor, here.

Meanwhile, I might warm a little – doubtful, but who knows – to Alan Sugar if just occasionally, after firing one of his would-be apprentices, he’d admit that on a different day he might have fired a different one, with just as good/bad reasons. This week I’m making the final selection of poems for the autumn Poetry Review. Wobbly heaps; return envelopes coming un-paperclipped and falling off the back of the desk. That’s the least of it.

There’s a yes pile and a no pile, and there were two maybe piles, now amalgamated into one but it still keeps changing shape and size. Poems call across to one another. One from the maybe pile veers towards the no, then suddenly switches direction and heads for the yes. They are laughing at me. The maybe pile is deeply interesting; sometimes, out of pure curiosity, I google a name I’m not familiar with and discover more.

To have the riches of the internet at my fingertips makes the messy process of hard-copy submissions (with covering letters and stamped addressed envelopes for return) seem even more antiquated than it actually is – and also, of course, raises the question of what a slim quarterly print magazine is for, what it can even begin to attempt to do. When photography arrived, some folk thought painting was dead, and they were wrong. Neither is online/print an either/or. The internet doesn’t make Poetry Review redundant; it does require it to think about its function, about what things it can do that the net can’t, and having this transitional phase of a series of guest-editors may be timely.

Dai V, incidentally, was (as well as a novelist and poet) a film editor. Among several tributes quoted in the Independent obituary, there is this: ‘No matter how hard I studied just how he had achieved such a perfectly natural flow, rhythm and emotional development in a sequence, it remained somehow beyond precise comprehension – it was always so simple, unostentatious and yet so perfect.’

Monday 25 June 2012

On modesty

The job of writers, it seems now to be accepted, includes promoting themselves and their wonderfulness on Facebook and blogs and in all other possible ways. No: the job of a writer is simply to write.

On the day in February when I took round to Dai Vaughan the printed copies of Sister of the artist, he suggested I call by his local bookshop, where he’d been a regular customer over a long time and which might take a couple of copies for the shop. I went there and mentioned his name and they were clearly fond of him. I showed the book. ‘He’s a writer?’ They hadn’t known.

From Tony Lurcock’s introduction to his book ‘Not So Barren or Uncultivated’: British Travellers in Finland 1760–1830, published by CBe in 2010: ‘It is by no means necessary to read the introduction to enjoy the contents of the book, nor need the book be read chronologically, in full, or indeed at all.’

Modesty is not the same as reticence, can still partake of a flourish. Tony Lurcock pointed me to this, from a travel book published in 1848: ‘In thus presenting to you what you are likely to meet with on the road, this unpretending volume may afford some little guidance, and therefore to you, indulgent reader, I dedicate it. Conscious that brighter and more lasting constellations dazzle around with superior radiance, I nevertheless venture to launch it – like some tiny fire-balloon, into the wide world of starry night, feeling assured that the blast of criticism would be its destruction; but, if favoured with approving zephyrs, it may be wafted on for a brief season, affording some glimmer of light to the passing traveller on his way.’

Friday 15 June 2012

Poetry Olympics, the Horovitz version

Yesterday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London Michael Horovitz put on one of the events that have been running for many years under the title Poetry Olympics (Horovitz’s title, not anyone else’s, and nothing to with the poetry events coming up soon on the South Bank that form part of the cultural add-on to the Olympic Games). Poets and musicians of all stripes and colours and ages. I’m not going to list them here, partly because it’s too late now to use those names to make you interested enough to buy a ticket, mainly because in the end the sum was greater than the parts: the whole thing cohered, and was seamless while also offering huge variety. Timing was relaxed but controlled: each participant finished leaving you wanting more. Those contributing included a 32-piece band with a wild mix of instruments; as they played, sometimes one of the musicians would come forward and do a solo, and then he/she would merge back into the group and another would step forward. All the performers yesterday were part of one band.

What I’ve just described is very similar to what Terry Eagleton offers as ‘an image of the good life’ in his book (in the Oxford ‘Very Short Introduction’ series) The Meaning of Life: an improvising jazz group, in which ‘the collective harmony they fashion comes not from playing a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member acting as the basis for the free expression of the others. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this . . . There is no conflict here between freedom and the “good of the whole”, yet the image is the reverse of totalitarian . . . One could do worse, surely, than propose such a situation as the meaning of life – both in the sense that it is what makes life meaningful, and – more controversially – in the sense that when we act in this way, we realise our natures at our finest.’

Eagleton goes on: ‘Is jazz, then, the meaning of life? Not exactly. The goal would be to construct this kind of community on a wider scale, which is a problem of politics. It is, to be sure, a utopian aspiration, but it is none the worse for that. The point of such aspirations is to indicate a direction, however lamentably we are bound to fall short of the goal . . .’ I think this is what Horovitz is about. Seriously and playfully (the two go together; if they don't, something has gone wrong). I don't think he's naive or sentimental in the slightest. At the beginning of yesterday evening’s event he tripped over trailing cables and fell spectacularly, but he’s not going to be put off by a few bruises, and watching him perform and enabling others to perform – both – is inspiring.

PS. In the audience yesterday was Emily, a neighbour, whose father was a poet. Here’s a verse from George Buchanan’s Minute-Book of a City, published 40 years ago:

Absence of ideas in the Cabinet. Dust fell
from the ceiling in a slow shower. They rang and sent
for another basket of statistics. Could no one find
the document that would increase the amount of hope?
The poets’ message read: ‘If we’re to avoid disaster
it may be enough to make existence attractive.’
The Prime Minister walked crossly to the window.
‘Pleasure? Are they cuckoo?’ He smacked one
clenched hand into another. ‘We must be tough!’

Sunday 10 June 2012

Wiki editing

There’s also online editing, or more specifically the editing of Wikipedia. Someone with editing privileges doctored the short entry on myself last week: I am now, within the article, ‘A42’, and I published the novel 24 for 3 ‘under the pseudonym Bill Nye’.

As if two pen-names were not enough. Checking this out, I find that the same person who edited my entry also edited, on the same day, Wiki articles on ‘Islam’s response to contemporary issues’, on 'Killing Addiction' (a ‘death metal-grindcore band’), and on ‘Nyotaimori’ (which is – but you knew this? – the practice of serving sushi on the body of a naked woman).

PS: A couple of hours after I posted the above, the Wiki entry was re-edited, with A42 reverting to me and Bill Nye reverting to Jennie Walker. The real Bill Nye, by the way (or at least a Bill Nye, the one who pops up first on a google search) - I mean not the one who is not a pseudonym of me - appears to be a science journalist/ comedian/ TV-show host. He married in 2006; seven weeks later the marriage was declared invalid; he later took out a restraining order on his ex-wife (or ex-not-wife) after she entered his property and poured weedkiller on his rose bushes. All the above is true; I got it from Wiki.

Editing again (books)

Why the post before last strayed off-track was because I got wandered into a long quote on book editing, as opposed to magazine editing . . .

On the one hand, Gordon Lish edited Raymond Carver almost to the point of creating a writer, the one we thought we knew, until the un-Lished work was posthumously published. On the other hand, here is Barbara Epler, chief editor at New Directions: ‘Actual editing consists so much of petting and patting beautiful writing . . . With the poets, that means allowing for differences. One poet, alive like the inside of a light bulb, requires five or six sets of proofs: allow time. One might need a suggested re-jigging of the order of contents: allow possible irritation. Allow “grey”and “gray” in the same volume (the former greenish and the latter more blue: the opposite of what I'd guessed). Also allow the fact that many poets don’t need you at all, except to run interference with the designers for fonts and cover art . . . Translations allow and need the most tinkering. The one thing I know for sure is that the better the translators, the more they enjoy editing. They like the queries and the complicity: the turning their new fabric to the light together, looking at its play, showing the gorgeous weave and colors and also maybe a few snags here and there. The best translators love pouncing on that snag: they might not pull it then in the direction you suggest, but they carefully undertake a new phrase. You fiddle with long, multi-clausal snakes of sentences, questioning colons and semi-colons and dashes, or eliminating serial commas between multiple adjectives when the sentence winds more than a half a page. You allow the utter twigginess of Robert Walser or the multiplicities of Bolaño but ask about this “saw-in-the-pants” (and the translator from the Hebrew says, “Ah yes, I thought you'd ask about that – the author doesn't know”). You might suggest monkeying with the verb tense or the tone or atmosphere or dialogue – how it might sound more idiomatic – but in the end a lot boils down to six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other; your name’s not on the book, you did your job by mentioning those spots . . . Your job is just to worry, to check and double-check. One study pointed out that the difference between competent people and incompetent people is that competent people know they might be wrong and double- and triple-check; incompetent people know they’re right. (Or, as a Brazilian publisher joked, What’s the difference between ignorance and arrogance? “I don’t know and I don’t care.”) Editing doesn’t seem to be a process of knowing but of asking. You just do the best you can . . . And after you do the best you can, you enjoy the beautiful book and people’s pleasure in it.’

I like that. I’m in the Epler camp. (Though I can veer wildly, when in the mood.) But magazine editing, and more specifically the Poetry Review issue, is a different thing. More on that next month, perhaps.