Friday 29 March 2013

The new Forward Prize requirement

For the Forward Prizes this year, submissions have to be accompanied by author photos. At the risk of sounding like UKIP, this is another pointless and wholly unnecessary little rule.

Most writers, I think, are perfectly happy to supply event and prize organisers, and newspapers too, with photos. A few are not. This is fine; there’s no problem here. A problem only arises when someone makes a rule requiring all writers to supply photos. For the Forward the organisers presumably want photos for publicity purposes (any other reasons?); but if, say, out of a shortlist of six writers one doesn’t want to supply a photo, why does this matter? Who does this hurt?

The reason that photos are required at submission stage, Susannah Herbert of the Forward Arts Foundation says, is to minimise ‘admin, aggro and to-and-fro at the shortlist stage’. How so? Most publishers will, I think, paste a photo into a Word document with the author’s mini-biography (also required), print out, and send this with the books. There’s no mention of sending electronic files. At the shortlist stage, the Forward will then have to ask publishers to re-send the photos as jpegs. Rather than minimising admin, this process increases it.

There happens to be a CBe author who is not keen to supply a photo. Susannah Herbert suggests that surely the author and I ‘are ingenious enough to figure out a way through this little challenge’. Maybe we are. But we are not in primary school.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

CBe 2013 4/ Todd McEwen, The Five Simple Machines

The epigraph page of The Five Simple Machines offers a definition (‘Machine: any device or apparatus for the application or modification of force to a specific purpose’) and (for anyone who wasn't paying attention in class) a helpful piece of information: ‘The term “simple machines” is applied to the six so-called mechanical powers – the lever, wedge, wheel and axle, pulley, screw and inclined plane.’ Thus far, it could be an physics textbook (except I doubt many of those are dedicated ‘To the Champagne Girls’). Then comes the opening sentence: ‘As in Archimedes’ case, there was nowhere to stand – I was like those wooden statuettes you get in Africa, the little guys with the big diks. They’re always rearing back, the dik jutting out, waving their arms as if they’re thanking the moon for giving them such a braying donkey of a hard-on.’

So: it’s about sex. But I publish books for their writing, not for their subject matter, don’t I?, and here is the same headlong exuberance and wit with an undertow of time passing that won me in Todd McEwen’s Who Sleeps with Katz (2003), a storm of a book, both elegaic and celebratory, about New York. If anyone had told me, when I first read Katz, that I’d sometime be publishing this man myself, I’d have said sure, and pigs can fly and bankers will surrender their bonuses. I’m privileged. If it was by Todd McEwen, I’d publish a book on mechanical engineering. This is not that book.

The cover is miminalist, as per usual, but the picture below, Parade amoureuse (1917) by Picabia, is included as the book’s frontispiece.

Sunday 10 March 2013

CBe 2013 3 / Tony Lurcock, No Particular Hurry

Tony Lurcock, who lived for some years in Finland and has a deep affection for the country, and who over a decade or two or three has read widely in the travel literature of that country, sent me in 2010 the manuscript of Not So Barren or Uncultivated, an anthology of writing by British travellers in Finland between 1760 and 1830 – and though this seemed not, at first glance, a natural CBe title, it won me over. In the Preface Lurcock explained the method: extracts from ‘a score or more of accounts, with a short introduction to each writer’, with a commentary within each chapter linking the chosen passages from each writer and an Introduction in which ‘I have presented the writers against the background of their times, describing some of the cultural, social and literary ideas which they reflect’. He added: ‘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.’ And thereby hooked me.

Here is the second book: No Particular Hurry: British Travellers in Finland 1830–1917. Reading these compilations is like travelling through Finland in a coach with Mr Lurcock and assorted other passengers who enter and exit along the way; the scenery is stunning, the road bumpy, the food and accommodation variable, the conversation continuously engaging – not least because, as one of the reviews of the earlier books remarked, ‘Lurcock’s own commentary is often at least as worth reading as the texts themselves’. He manages to be both scholarly and entertaining, a rare feat that other reviews of the previous picked up on (‘a valuable work of scholarship and also very readable’; ‘a gem of a book which will delight the scholar and the general reader alike’). Of some of his writers he is clearly fond; with others, his comments on their writing style give the game away: ‘This mixture of sub-Wordsworthian and evangelical response to Finnish nature is not matched by any other British traveller, which is just as well, since her feelings seem to be beyond the reach of grammar’; ‘Reading the dull slabs of Hill’s prose (“The hills of Finland are not of any considerable elevation ...”) prompts some belated condonation of Atkinson’s verbal excesses.’ There is praise too: ‘Travers has the ability to describe the unspoiled countryside without either idealising or sentimentalising it.’

In the period covered by No Particular Hurry, the transport and accommodation have improved, so that what is recorded here is, overall, ‘The mutation of explorers into travellers into tourists.’ But the travellers remain individuals, fussing about their tea-time or impatient for adventure. They include Bartholomew Sulivan, who sailed with Darwin on the Beagle; Arthur Evans, the Knossos man; and a much larger number of women writers than the previous book. They have difficulties with bedbugs and mosquitoes (‘we passed that night in a condition bordering on frenzy’) and with food: ‘With regard to that brown rye-cake of Lapland, I brought a piece home to England, which my dog saw and annexed. He is a fox-terrier of lusty appetite, and he tried to eat it. He tried for a whole afternoon, and finally left the cake alone on a lawn, very little the worse for the experience.’ And sometimes they have difficulty with the locals: ‘They were all able-bodied Finns, though one (and he was the strongest) had a hump like a Brahmin cow, another had a hare-lip, and the headman possessed a most virulent squint’; a guide had ‘about as much sense of humour as a crayfish’.

But many are also deeply impressed by what they see. The high level of literacy and education: ‘It is certainly not creditable to us as a nation that we should be so behind in education those we have previously considered half-barbarous Finns. They can hardly believe that numbers of people in England cannot read.’ The relaxed attitudes to nakedness, and not just in the saunas: ‘In the rural districts mixed bathing is frequently indulged in by the peasants. And yet there is practically none of that “Peeping-Tom”ism which the elaborate toilets of the fair bathers in more sophisticated lands seem to attract.’ The position of women (Finland was the first nation to allow women to vote, and the first in which they entered parliament): ‘In no other country was such equal opportunity for every kind of knowledge, livelihood, and work given to women.’

In the 1850s there was a war – part of what we now know as the Crimean War, but this was a significant part of that, as the British (and French) attempted to keep the Russian fleet blockaded in the Baltic and divert their resources – and it was complicated: the enemy was Russia, the overlords of Finland, not the Finnish people, and to get the Finns on board ship for parties and dancing the Brits had to pretend they were taking them prisoner, so that the Russians wouldn’t see them as collaborators. And because it wasn’t really so far away, aristocrats who fancied a bit of action cruised out for a spot of war-tourism.

Travel writing of the old school is a genre contemporary writers can play with: see, for example, Ellis Sharp’s Intolerable Tongues, in which Donald Ebenezer McCollum, PhD, a buttoned-up son of the manse, treks off to the Holy Land in 1939 with a pith helmet and a sun umbrella and a publisher’s commission to write ‘an uplifting tale of travel to a region both divine and colourful’ and becomes monstrous; or Lydia Davis’s ‘Lord Royston’s Tour’. But, skilfully presented, it needs no such tweaking. Lurcock is also the author of a history of an amateur cricket club, and somehow he manages to include six references to cricket in this book about Finland. In around 1881 ‘Rae arranged a cricket match against an all-Lapland XI, captained by “the Doctor”, and bowled out Lapland for 0 in their second innings’.