Wednesday 27 February 2013


I think they’re catching. Tomorrow eve I’ll be reading with Stephen Knight at the Broadway Bookshop in Hackney and the event is billed as ‘Poetry on Broadway’ but it won’t be poetry I’ll be reading but on the other hand what to call them, these pieces? In this case I mean the pieces, single prose paragraphs appended to black-&-white photos, that make up the Days and Nights in W12 book. Some are non-fiction, some are fiction, some are speculation/reflection. It a kind of writing that, after I’d given up on poetry (or vice versa), just bubbled up. Definitely not prose poems. Not flash fiction either.

(Stephen Knight’s own ‘novel’ Mr Schnitzel, by the way, is another example of the kind of betwixt-&-between form of writing that can surface when neither poetry (I’m guessing that it seemed to be coming slowly; or that there was material which Stephen wanted to get into his writing but the poetry door was closed) nor prose fiction (all those ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’, all that bother with beginnings and endings and ‘character development’ and so on) seems right. Mr Schnitzel: autobiography, memory, retellings of magical tales: try it.)

And then this week an artist sends me a series of short pieces he wrote – one or two paragraphs each – during a spell at the British School in Rome. And from someone else, both poet and novelist, two sequences of short prose pieces, one of them tentatively described as ‘Improvisations’. Which suggests something experimental, minimalist – but those words (and certainly their associations: formal concerns drowning out character and wit) are not the right ones. The pieces feel feel entirely natural; reading them is a pleasure.

This may be because the form chimes with the usual way in which I pay attention. TV: if I come in late, the last thing I want to be told is ‘the story so far’: I watch and am held (or not) by what happens to be on the screen at the moment, and rarely stick around for the ‘ending’. Some people read novels like this: Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl is among a friend’s favourite novels, but he’s never read it straight through.

In last week’s Saturday Guardian, there’s a profile of Aleksandar Hemon in which at one point he says: ‘I went back to things I had written, many of the things I had written in the 90s, and there was only one paragraph that I really liked.’ Nods and grins of recognition. But there was at least that one good paragraph. Which might prompt another one, not necessarily in a narrative way, and another. And then how they relate to one another itself becomes interesting. And then the word collage may become applicable, and we’re into territory written about by David Shields – there are precedents and parallels and more to come.

Monday 25 February 2013

On being turned down (again) by ACE

At least, if you haven’t got any funding, you can’t have your funding cut. But this turning-down is getting tedious.

I’ve made three applications to ACE for funding support for the CBe publishing programme and all have been turned down. For the last two, the reason given was simply ‘competition for funds’: ‘your application met the criteria’ – I’ve seen the assessment report for the most recent one, and it’s wholly positive – but ‘we had to make difficult choices’.

The application which ACE responded to last week was for money to pay a part-time freelance marketing/sales person for one year. The plan was to use the expertise of this person to set up new patterns of selling which could be largely self-sustaining – that could be carried forward by someone keen but less experienced, or even just me, and not require further external funding. Amount applied for: £12,580. This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment idea. A year and a half ago I took consultancy (and paid for this myself): look at CBe, I said to the publishing consultants, and tell me how I could operate better, and in particular sell more books. They gave me a report and recommendations, the first of which was: ‘Recruit a part-time marketer.’

The chief difficulties for all small presses are: getting the books known about and getting them out into the world. I’ve tried, I still do. Amazon: they’ll list the books, but unless I join their so-called Advantage scheme for small presses (which involves them buying from me at 60% per cent discount, and me paying an annual fee to be a member of this scheme) they’ll usually list the books as ‘temporarily out of stock’. Waterstones, an example: months before publication, their Independent Publisher Co-ordinator approved proofs of a book I sent him and said he had ‘alerted the relevant buyers’; after publication, no copies in the shops, and when a customer inquired she was told that the book hadn’t been printed.

To bridge the gap between small presses and the retail outlets there is Inpress, which represents around thirty small presses to the book trade and has regular meetings with Waterstones. The presses pay an annual membership fee, and also a cut to Inpress on every book going out of the distributor’s warehouse to the shops (irrespective of whether Inpress has actually had anything to do with the sales). Inpress is ACE-funded, and in theory is a fine idea. CBe has been a member of Inpress since January 2012. But the figures for April 2012 to January 2013 show that the number of CBe books going out of the warehouse was 20% down on the previous year, when CBe had no trade representation at all.

So, the application to ACE. I did have, stupidly, some confidence that it would go through. Marketing and sales are considered important by ACE: back in 2011, when I queried the continued ACE funding to Faber of £40,000 a year (at a time when they were cutting funding to the PBS, the Poetry Trust and a number of publishers), Antonia Byatt of ACE replied that the funding was to enable new talent to benefit from Faber sales/marketing expertise. (Which is a reasonable argument; though the sales figures she gave me were hardly impressive.)

(As for the books the marketing help would be for, forgive a brief rehearsal – for the benefit of newcomers to CBe – of the track record. Start-up costs for CBe in 2007: £2,000. No external funding. For best first novel by a writer over 40, McKitterick Prize 2008. The two first collections of poetry were both PBS Recommendations, were both shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and both won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize; there’ll be a third first collection later this year. Other shortlistings include two other Forwards and the Popescu translation prize. [I’m wary of the whole prize culture; it’s a lottery; but for a publisher without publicity or marketing resources this kind of public recognition can make a big difference.] Alongside new writers, Gabriel Josipovici, David Markson, Christopher Reid. And Apollinaire, Gert Hofmann, Francis Ponge, others, in translation. Reviews, yes. A TV film adaptation, a Glyndebourne youth opera adaptation.)

Of course I don’t have a right to funding for CBe. And if I do apply, what I really want to ask for is money for a Party, a big and lavish one, because generosity and goodwill and well-lubricated social interaction are certainly more fun and may in the end be more effective than any tick-box marketing initiatives. But right now I’m thinking there’s simply no point in applying to ACE again. (Or possibly anyone else; to an initial inquiry to another funding body last year I received no reply at all.)

Meanwhile, some plans to get more books out there will probably go ahead: a partnership scheme with selected independent bookshops, whereby they commit to ordering CBe titles on a regular basis in return for a healthy discount; the circulating library notion; a pop-up shop for a week in July. But there’s only so much that one part-time person (for a liveable income, I spend most of my time doing non-CBe work) can do, and I certainly can’t carry forward this year’s level of activity into next year without help. Last year a friend sent me a postcard of the cave in Scotland where Bonnie Prince Charlie hid out – I’m tempted. I’m even in training. On the same day the ACE letter came the boiler broke down, and there’s still no heating or hot water in the house. I am in, according to the automated menu I get each time I phone the insurance company, an ‘ongoing home emergency event’.

Friday 22 February 2013

Hofmann, O’Brien, Knight, Robinson and ‘difficult choices’

It’s not easy to explain the appeal of a man whose whole manner and presence appear calculated make manifest the inherent awkwardness (‘I’m wriggling’) of a public event celebrating the written word. But it’s there. The event for The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann at the London Review Bookshop last night was sold out, standing room only. People travelled from Sheffield, Norfolk, France, for this one event on a cold night. Arturo Di Stefano brought along, for handing over to its subject, the original portrait painting that is reproduced as the book’s frontispiece. There were people who have known, worked with or read Hofmann for decades, many of whom hadn’t seen one another for a very long time. (There was no one from Faber.) After the official part, the mingling and talk continued for a long time. ‘I think I’m a bit in love with him,’ someone told me. I suggested she wasn’t the only one. She told me to get to the back of the queue.

In the US – which is Hofmann’s home country now, though it’s probably better to leave home out of it and just say the country where he lives – there is a new theatre prize: the Edward M. Kennedy Prize. A prize worth winning: $100,000. Today the joint winners were announced. One is Dan O’Brien, for The Body of an American, a play which, in the words of the announcement, ‘examines the challenges of war reporting, specifically the ethical and personal consequences of the publication of a famous photograph showing the body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993’. War Reporter, Dan O’Brien’s book of poems exploring the same material, will be published by CBe in September.

Next Thursday, 28 February, there’ll be a CBe reading at the Broadway Bookshop in Hackney. Stephen Knight will read from The Prince of Wails and I’ll be reading myself, possibly as Jack Robinson. Space limited; £3, includes wine; more info here.

For CBe, this year is big. More new titles than in any previous year. A pop-up shop has been booked for the first week of July. Emails have gone out to a large number of independent bookshops inviting them to join a partnership scheme, whereby they commit to ordering CBe titles in return for a healthy discount. A smaller initiative, the Circulating Library, was set in motion last week. To date, CBe comprises just myself, and most of my time I’m doing other work to bring in a liveable income. But the thing is now too big to be run by just me, and before Christmas I applied to ACE for money for a part-time freelance marketing/sales person. As I was writing this, the post arrived: the application has been turned down. (‘Although your application met the criteria, we had to make difficult choices …’). If I had time, I’d frame the letter and hang it somewhere.

Tuesday 19 February 2013


Copies of The Manet Girl, a book of short stories by Charles Boyle, arrived yesterday.* The last book under my own name was twelve years ago (The Age of Cardboard and String, 2001). In the meantime there has been 24 for 3 under the name Jennie Walker and Recessional and Days and Nights in W12 under the name Jack Robinson. I prefer those names.

Jennie and Jack released me from being me, who as far as writing (poems) was concerned had got stuck in certain routines, mannerisms, that I didn’t know how to, hadn’t the ability to, get out of. I was type-cast, and beginning to bore myself (and therefore, surely, the reader too). And now, in in a book with my own name on it, I worry that I’m reverting to type. In part this may have to with the form: the default mode of the short story – at least in the Anglo-American-Irish-perhaps-Russian-too tradition, which I feel to be almost my genetic inheritance – is Exquisite Doom. I mean, finely written and judged but life seen essentially as a vale of tears, in which little epiphanies of happiness or alternative possibility briefly flicker. Larkin has something of this in poetry; it’s there in many films too, good ones, photographed and paced and acted so beautifully, so persuasively, that you swallow the over-arching vale-of-tears view of life as the only one on offer.†

It is seductive. It chimes with perhaps most people’s experience of life. Religions collude (us miserable sinners). Statistically, politically, the world is a hell-hole. But there’s a part in me that, to the vale-of-tears view, doesn’t want to assent, and that’s the part I want to get into the writing. Not, obviously, in a cute happy-ending way; but not settling too easily for doominess. I don’t think I’ve done that in the stories, or not enough. (Though there are sentences, passages, that were worth the writing and I hope worth the reading. You decide.) But I’m a newcomer to the form, and I’m learning the ropes.

* After I’d seen the first copies in a bookshop, where the bookseller placed copies in front of me and suggested I sign. We looked at each other. I have never understood, I said, why anyone would want to buy or own a book with the biro-scribble of someone they’d never met defacing the title page. He nodded. The books went back on the shelf.

† Last week I watched, for the second time, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, a fine film with a deeply depressing ending. The plotting near the end was suspect, maybe manipulative. It didn’t have to end that way. In my head it has a different ending. There are both films and books that I should maybe stop watching/reading 20 minutes/pages before the end.

Friday 15 February 2013

Circulating Library (2)

Around 35 CBe books were posted off today, many to people who won’t be expecting them. (But people like getting good things in the post, don’t they?) Each has, on the endsheet, a brief note suggesting that the reader, after reading (if they choose to), pass or send the book on to another reader; and a form on which they can fill in the name of who they’re sending it to and when. Each comes in a (detachable) plastic cover. (I too don’t like these things; they’re like keeping your new sofa in its protective wrapping, or insisting your guests put down their cups/glasses on coasters with photographs of the Eiffel Tower or folkloric costumes; but it was suggested that dressing the book up like an old-fashioned library book – remember libraries? – might help to get the idea across, and I’m going along with that.) The catalogue of new 2013 titles and titles in print is enclosed with each book.

And then? Some of the books will stay stranded on a shelf or a bedside table. Some will move on, to readers who have not previously known of either them or CBe. Occasionally, those readers may be be interested enough to order a copy of the book for themselves, to keep, or one of the other CBe titles. That, of course, is the business reason for this. The whole venture is also a form of advertising, of making the books known to new potential buyers through the medium of readers who already occasionally buy, and compared to the cost of traditional advertising (for a quarter page in a single issue of the TLS, £600 + VAT) it may even be cost-efficient. We’ll see. The financial investment seems now, as the books go off, almost irrelevant. Being in a position to send these books out into the world, without having any idea of where they’ll get to, is itself a privilege, is more than worth the candle.

Thursday 7 February 2013

The CBe Circulating Library

Books posted off today included, among others, Cusp, the Shearsman book edited by Geraldine Monk on small-press ventures between WW2 and www (to someone I’d mentioned it to); and a proof copy of the new Rebecca Solnit, from Granta in June (to someone I think might like it). Then I went for a swim, and here’s today’s thought-in-the-shower: a circulating library.

Next week I’ll post ten CBe books to addresses chosen pretty much at random from the address book, along with the 2013 catalogue and stamps for forwarding the book to someone else and probably a brief note explaining the process. The idea, obviously, is to put the books into circulation – to use readers to get them to other readers who at present are not on my radar.

The hope, also obviously, is that there’ll be some spin-off: that new readers may order the book for themselves as well as sending it on (there may be a discount on these orders, refunding readers’ postage onward of the original; I haven’t thought this through in detail). At the very least, the process should introduce new readers to the CBe list.

If it works (i.e., if orders start coming in), we’ll do it again. Trust is involved – that the books keep moving, that they don’t come to rest on someone’s shelf. Trust is always involved.

If you’d like to be a founder member of the Circulating Library – that is, to receive one of the books I’ll post next week – let me know. And choose a title from the CBe list – maybe one you’ve already read that you’d like to send to someone else, maybe one that you haven’t yet bought but which you’d like a look at before deciding.

Monday 4 February 2013


Further to the ‘I’d prefer not to’ post below: I heard last week (and truly can’t remember from who) about two writers who, invited to talk to creative students, gave them what seems to have become the standard spiel: that to be a writer these days you have not just to write but to tweet, message, blog, self-publicise. And after they’d gone, the students’ tutor – bless her/him – apologised for inviting them.

I read yesterday a piece (essay? rant?) by the architect Rem Koolhaas titled Junkspace (think shopping malls, airport departure lounges, motorway junctions and service stations, etc) which is terrific. (‘Junkspace is overripe and undernourishing at the same time, a colossal security blanket that covers the earth in a stranglehold of seduction ...’) It clarifies things. Junknoise will now serve as my term for, as well as politicians spouting on Question Time, poets spouting about their new books or readings on Facebook; and all publicity guff and press releases, inclusive of those put out by awarders of prizes; and news items about books and TV programmes about books; etc.

Junknoise despite most of it being silent, on screens rather than in the airwaves. One review of Chris Ware’s recent graphic novel Building Stories praised its recognition of the ubiquity of laptop, tablet and phone screens, a standard feature of daily life that doesn’t seem to have entered the consciousness of most text fiction. Enter any café or train or Tube carriage (or even room) and you’ll find a high proportion of the occupants hunched over screens, most of which will be displaying junknoise.

Junknoise is the environment we inhabit. It happened because it became technologically possible, and because the dominant form of public expression, towards which all other forms tend, has for a long time been advertising. It sucks, and occasionally I’m tempted by the postcard I was sent last year that shows the cave in Scotland where Bonnie Prince Charlie hid out for a while. But I don’t think I’d make a good hermit. So I shrug and carry on, contributing my own share (this blog post itself, for example) to Junknoise.

Saturday 2 February 2013


Here's something I wrote several months ago for a place that, if they'd taken it, would have paid for it. They didn't take it, for reasons I did understand at the time. Anyway:

On a rainy Saturday morning in July I and my wife collected Michael, his son and his grandson from a hotel near Oxford Circus and drove north. We set off early, expecting to get lost in the maze of roundabouts around Milton Keynes, which we duly did, and arrived at the brasserie in an outlying village at the appointed time for Michael’s rendezvous with Judith. Judith and my wife are half-sisters, Michael is their half-brother; this was the first meeting between Judith and Michael.

The backstory is another maze. Friedrich, the father they have in common, was born in 1897 to Frank Wedekind and Frida Uhl; because he was conceived while Frida was still married to Strindberg, he was given that surname. Frida herself is worth a detour: she lived for a decade in Berlin, where she helped establish cabaret performances, and then in Vienna, where she persuaded Karl Kraus to put on a private performance of Pandora’s Box with Wedekind himself playing Jack the Ripper. (Tilly Newes, the nineteen-year-old who played Lulu, became Wedekind’s wife less than a year later.) She was described by a Berlin cabaret producer as being driven by ‘literary-erotic curiosity’. After firing a pistol at a high-society reception in Vienna, she fled to London, where in 1912 she opened a nightclub off Regent Street, the Cave of the Golden Calf. Her planning was chaotic and rushed – on the opening night the paint on the drop curtain was still wet – but she put on a good show: gypsy music, cabaret, fine wine, décor by Wyndham Lewis, Spencer Gore, Eric Gill and others. In Return to Yesterday (1932) Ford Madox Ford recalled nights when ‘Ezra and his gang carried me off to their nightclub which was kept by Madame Strindberg, decorated by Epstein and situated underground. London was adorable then at four in the morning . . .’ In 1914 she went to America; she returned to Europe in 1924 and died in Salzburg in 1943.

Friedrich, after after being shuttled around during his childhood and sent to boarding school, married Marie Lazar, an Austrian journalist and writer of children’s stories, in 1923. Judith was born a year later. Her parents separated; she and her mother lived in Denmark and Sweden in the 1930s and 40s, and under her bed in Northampton she has manuscripts written by her mother during that period. Judith is a very courteous, very private person. After coming to England following her mother’s death in 1948, no one could have assimilated more assiduously: she married a trades unionist in the shoe business and provided high tea on the Sunday afternoons when I and my wife and our children visited. When a diligent researcher from America found her out and asked for more information about her mother, Judith agreed to meet (in a hotel) and answer certain yes/no questions, but wasn’t going to volunteer more than the researcher had the wit to ask.

Friedrich became a roving reporter for German newspapers. He covered the Italo-Abyssinian war of 1935–6 alongside Evelyn Waugh. In Spain during the Civil War he was mistakenly accused by Arthur Koestler (in Spanish Testament, 1937) of being a Nazi informer; much later, my wife remembers, during her childhood, the two men dining and drinking together as friends. Working with Count von Moltke (who was executed by the Gestapo in 1945), Friedrich and his second wife, a Dutch woman named Utje, sheltered a number of Jews or helped them escape from Nazi Germany, for which they were posthumously honoured as ‘righteous among Gentiles’ at the Yad Vashem memorial museum in Israel. In 1943–4, by then living in Sweden, Friedrich wrote a novel based on this experience. It was published in Swedish translation and under a pseudonym by Bonniers in 1945, and reissued in 2002. The original German manuscript is lost, and no current member of the family – as far as I know: it keeps finding new extensions – has read the book. (A report I commissioned from a translator in 2008 describes it as ‘a brilliant book, with the same sense of immediacy as, for instance, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française’, but so far no UK publisher has taken the bait.)

Michael was born in Berlin in the 1930s from Friedrich’s affair with a married Jewish woman, who then left for Palestine with her husband and the child. He has lived since childhood on a kibbutz, and knew nothing of his true father until, around six years ago, his mother died; he broke off from the book he was writing – about the man he had always believed to be his father, a prominent scientist – to search through his mother’s letters and photographs, and discovered Friedrich. Using the internet, he then found my wife and through her, Judith, his half-sisters.

It was still raining in the village outside Milton Keynes and Judith’s daughter, protective of her mother, who is partly deaf and has difficulty with large gatherings, had booked a table for just four: Judith and Michael, herself and her partner. I, my wife and Michael’s son and eight-year-old grandson adjourned to a pub further down the steet. We ordered fish and chips, and a hamburger for the grandson, and talked about Friedrich. Of all his children, only my wife – who was born when Friedrich was almost sixty, and married to his third wife – spent any length of time with him: though she lived as a child with her mother in Munich, during the long summer holidays she stayed with her father in Italy in his house overlooking Lago Maggiore. He died in 1978. He was, we agreed, fond of women, to put it mildly. Michael’s son told of getting through on the phone to one of the people Friedrich had got out of Nazi Germany and who was now living in New York: oh please, she said, not him, though he had saved her life.

By the time we drove back to London the sun had come out and it was hot in the car. Michael answered his mobile phone, another of his sons calling from Israel. Yes, he had met his sister. He was happy, and he believed she was too. Acknowledgement of kinship had been instant and certain, just as it had been when my wife travelled to Israel five years ago to meet Michael for the first time. (On arriving at the kibbutz, Michael had cooked Jerusalem artichokes with a sauce that my wife recalled from her childhood, as cooked by her father.) My wife and I left Michael at his hotel and came home to have supper with our own sons and the girlfriend of one of them, who was born of a Bulgarian mother and an Iraqi father and came to London after the fall of Communism. People scatter. Judith is in her late eighties and frail; Michael is in his seventies and lives 2,000 miles away. It’s unlikely they’ll meet again.