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.