Sunday 29 September 2013

Book-buying: my own habits, for better or worse

Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves is opening a new bookshop in Nottingham. Brave, foolhardy, generous man: I wish him all the good fortune going. Here, a brief and incomplete survey of my own book-buying habits.

Hardbacks (new ones), no. They are not of my social class; they probably have servants. They are like SUVs or top-of-the-range Audis or BMWs and prompt a similar mild form of class hatred: if I am in slow-moving traffic and one of those cars is trying to filter in from the left, I will not let them in; an old car, on the other hand – I have a particular soft spot for 1980s (I think) Saabs – I will invariably wave in. (I am, by the way, the cause of accidents waiting to happen: I will happily stop and wave through a 1980s Saab that wants to turn right in front of me, thereby placing it on a collision course with a motorbike speeding up on my outside or a bike on my inside.)

A slightly odd consequence of not buying hardbacks is that when, for example, a new James Salter novel comes out, I know what what I will be reading a year from now. (The gap between hardback and paperback is now rarely as long as that, but the point still holds.)

I buy more from second-hand bookshops than I do from shops selling new books. One reason is that by the time I get round to wanting to read certain books, they are no longer in stock in the regular shops: try looking for a book published a year ago, less, in Waterstones. (One of the joys of John Sandoe’s, by contrast, is that they do keep in stock many titles that other shops will have returned to make way for the new ones. Even better news: John Sandoe’s is expanding into the next-door premises.)

The range of books on the shelves of a decent second-hand bookshop is also more eclectic, eccentric even, than the range in regular bookshops, which is essential for making discoveries (e.g., on my Desert Island bookshelf, Gianni Celati, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Lê Thi Diem Thúy, many others; and Lydia Davis years before she became flavour of the month).

The other reason I favour second-hand shops, of course, is that the books are cheaper. But this is not always an economy: I’ll often buy three books from a second-hand shop because I’m quite interested in them (and end up not reading two of them) rather than one new book that I’m really interested in.

Obligation. If I’ve had a merry conversation with a bookseller, I do feel under some obligation to buy something before leaving. Otherwise he/she has given up half an hour of their working day for no financial recompense at all. A token of respect for the place and for the trade.

A sense of being put under obligation may be behind my not attending many readings (the other reason, as mentioned in a recent post, being that I don’t generally enjoy readings anyway). At readings, books are usually for sale. Buying a copy may be considered a second – in addition to simply turning up – means of expressing support for the author, especially if I’ve had a free glass of wine or two … But there is this frequent difficulty, that liking a person doesn’t necessarily correlate with liking what they write.

I don’t – though there are exceptions to this, there must be – buy a book because I’ve read a good review it. Does anyone? Apparently yes. I do buy because of word-of-mouth, personal recommendations.

Impulse buying. I do this quite often. (See second-hand bookshops, above.) Browsing, I’ll pick a book from the poetry shelves, for example, and buy on the strength of the most wonderful poem on page 57. This invariably (I exaggerate) turns out to be only poem I like in the whole book. If I’m in a buoyant and relaxed mood, I’ll buy a book that in a more humdrum mood I’d have passed on. I’ll buy a book that puts me in mind of someone I like, and give it to them. I also buy magazines on impulse: because there are one-and-a-half items on the contents page I want to read, or because it contains a stunning photograph of some yaks in Mongolia I suddenly decide I cannot live without.

Online: Amazon no, Abe Books and the Book Depository yes. I know this doesn’t make watertight sense, given that the two latter are in fact owned by the former, but still.

Given the choice between a US and a British edition of a book, I’ll usually buy the US edition, even if it costs a bit more. Because they’re nicer.

I don’t think I’d ever buy a book with a film tie-in cover. Or with a cover featuring a swastika, a leprechaun, a very cute animal, etc; or with a sticker that I can’t peel off. Nor any of the Faber Finds books (first series; they have now moved on, thank god, from that hideous design and font). Nor a book with a foreword by the Duke of Edinburgh, Jeremy Clarkson or Theresa May. Nor any book published by the Church of Scientology (even though it might be very finely designed; but it wouldn’t be). Nor a book whose text is too black, smudged, cramped or otherwise wholly reader-unfriendly (even if I actually want to read that book). I’m picky. I’m sensitive.

Swapping – not exactly book buying, but maybe here’s the place to say that if you want one of the books I publish, or even have written, please do not offer to swap one of your own books for it rather than buying outright. A refusal may cause offence. I may even prefer to give you the book. Though I'd rather you bought it.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Vikings: the boat, the battle, the book, the show

The above shows the 1,000-year-old remains of a Viking ship fitted to a steel frame that recreates the ship’s original length of 37 metres. It will be coming to the British Museum’s forthcoming Vikings exhibition. The ship was a ‘troop carrier’, says Gareth Williams, curator at the BM; it carried 100 warriors, and ‘there are records in the annals of fleets of hundreds of ships, so you could be talking about an army of up to 10,000 men suddenly landing on your coast, highly trained, fit, capable of moving very fast on water or land.’

Mr Williams is excited. ‘It's essentially an enormous Meccano set which can be put together … As you might expect of a Scandinavian-designed ship, it comes flat-packed.’ The exhibition will also include skeletons excavated from a mass grave in Dorset and coins, arm bands, etc, found in a field near Harrogate in 2007. The Vikings’ ‘most favourite means of expressing power and wealth and status was basically bling,’ says Mr Williams in a BBC report.

I’ve a feeling that Gareth Williams might enjoy At Maldon, J. O. Morgan’s version of the Anglo-Saxon poem recording a 10th-century battle between a Viking raiding party and a rag-tag army of Anglo-Saxons. Morgan’s poem retains the narrative structure of the surviving section of the poem but doesn’t shy away from present-day imagery and vocabulary. A Viking spokesman attempts negotiation: ‘Our land expands, we’d like/ to cut you in upon the deal. This is/ a great investment opportunity’. After diplomacy fails, both sides prepare for conflict: ‘It begins with crows,/ black flecks against the blue,/ like bits of bin-liner flapping in the wind … It begins with an increase in noise,/ as at the start of an orchesteral interval:/ the slow surge of coughing and audience chatter …’ Battle is engaged, weapons find their targets: ‘How grapeskin splits/ with such little force;/ its dark flesh bulging/ outward through the tears.’ There are changes of perspective: a survivor of the battle is questioned by his grandchildren years later (‘And the nurse brings his food tray,/ empties the bedpan, changes the sheets’); a farm boy wanders alone at low tide (‘washing the whelks, wetting the bag,/ rubbing out the crust of mud built up between his toes’).

Click here to order the book from the website. Morgan will be reading from At Maldon at Looking Glass Books, Edinburgh EH3 9GG, on Tuesday, 8 October at 6.30 p.m.: all welcome. For the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum you’ll have to wait until March next year.

Saturday 21 September 2013

A walk in east London

Today I was reading Robert Walser, The Walk and other stories, and I went for a walk in east London. I took my camera – last week I started taking photos of words fading, breaking up, which is what they do if they’re not constantly written and read afresh. The ones here, a small selection, are of company names and shop fascia boards.

People spent their working lives in these places; many probably spent more time in these places than they did with their families. The disappearing words on the walls and fascia boards are like eroded names on gravestones. I thought of my father, who worked from the age of fourteen for Sloan & Davidson, ‘architectural ironfounders’. His father, or perhaps grandfather – I’m groping about in the mist here – founded the company. My father became a director; there’s a photo of him on page 34 of Recessional (out of print, but you can download a pdf of the whole book from this page of the CBe website) presenting a clock to a foundry worker for 25 years’ loyal service, clocking in, clocking out. (The man in the driving mirror on the home page of the website is also my father, by the way.) He died at the age of 51 of lung cancer, probably brought on by the stuff in the air that he breathed every day in the foundry.

I finished my walk at Old Street and got on the tube and carried on reading Walser (‘What kind of people am I thinking of, as I say this? Of me, of you, of all our theatrical little dominations, of the freedoms that are none, of the unfreedoms that are not taken seriously, of these destroyers who never pass up a chance for a joke, of the people who are desolate?’). Walser spent the last two decades of his life in a mental hospital; he died in 1956, the same year as my father.

When I got home I googled Sloan & Davidson. They made, among other things, cast iron drainpipes; then plastic arrived, and the company eventually vanished. But not quite: it is still an an active but ‘non-trading’ company; its last reported accounts, submitted to Companies House on 31/3/2012, report ‘assets’ and ‘net worth’ of £2. Below is a photo of a Sloan & Davidson pavement grating, followed by a a photo taken in 1968 that shows the foundry in the background. For sale on Amazon is a 1925 hardback Sloan & Davidson catalogue – ‘237 pages of detailed line drawings of sanitaryware of the time (cast iron pipes, gutters, rain-water heads, manhole covers); enclosed price-list pamphlets dated 1937 with enclosed letters dated 1949’ – and I am sorely tempted.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

I don’t enjoy poetry readings

That sounds like an arrogant generalisation, and it’s true there have been exceptions (though the only one that comes immediately to mind is Brodsky reading in Russian – no, reciting – at the ICA some decades back, when Nicky Singer – author, incidentally, of a woefully underselling CBe book – was running the events programme there), but on the whole it holds good. I become impatient with even the short readings that are often a feature of book launches: they’re the necessary bit of suffering I must endure in order to enjoy all the more the drink and the chat. To look, listen and get a fix on the words, all at the same time, I find impossible. I much prefer the printed page, where the roles are clear: the writer writes and I read, at my own pace.

Given that perfomance poetry and public readings of page poetry are far more prominent features of the poetry scene than they used to be, and that it’s generally accepted that for a poetry book to sell the poet needs to do readings, then as a publisher my lack of interest in readings would seem to be a disadvantage. Availability for readings hasn’t, I now notice, been a factor in choosing who to publish. Of the twelve poets published by CBe, three are both dead and foreign; three are based in the US; one is aged 92; one will read in public if pressed but is hardly keen; one not only refuses all invitations to read but won’t even be photographed.* That leaves Alba Arikha, who may or not read at the party for her book at Daunts in Holland Park next Tuesday, the 17th; Nancy Gaffield, who will be reading in Canterbury next Saturday; and J. O. Morgan.

Morgan reads well, I’m told by those who’ve heard him. But not often: the only readings I know of were at the West Port festival in Edinburgh, in Bridlington, and at Aldeburgh (his Natural Mechanical won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize). (I actually set off to hear him read at Aldeburgh myself, but got distracted by a Bonfire Night party en route.) CBe is about to publish Morgan’s new book, At Maldon, a version/account/reinterpretation of the surviving fragment of the Anglo-Saxon poem known as ‘The Battle of Maldon’. There’ll be an event for the book at the Looking Glass bookshop in Edinburgh on 8 October, and for that occasion he’s planning to put on, with an actor, ‘a shared reading, or voiced performance, or staged split-narration, or whatever it is; that idea came out during composition, due to how the narrative lines would often seem to vie with each other’. I’m intrigued; I’ll be going up to Edinburgh myself for this.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, offering a generous recommendation for At Maldon, referred to Christopher Logue. I know Morgan admires Logue’s renderings (in War Music and other books) of Homer, and it’s possible that At Maldon wouldn’t have been written as it is without Logue having written as he did, but Morgan is entirely his own man: the book is very far from being sub-Logue. And now of course I remember one more poetry reading that I did enjoy: Logue reading from Kings with the actor Alan Howard.

Logue and Howard performed War Music and Kings around fifty times. The spell of their ‘readings’ was cast not just by the words but by contrast of their voices and temperaments. This morning I found a fine piece on the net in which they talk about each other. Howard on Logue: ‘Christopher really hates moving; he’s happy sitting behind the table. But he can never understand why I should be nervous. I say, all actors are nervous. He's very good if I lose the lines, which sometimes I’ve been known to do – I knit away in the same rhythm until I get back on line again. Christopher follows the text in his book. But sometimes he gets so caught up in it that he loses his way and forgets what page he’s on. I notice sometimes he has to knit as well, even though it's his own text … He has this amazing ebulliance and is quite loud – which I like because it can free me up a bit. His enthusiasm is very catching, but he can get terribly down as well. He has a mercurial temperament: he goes wild very quickly if he decides something is wrong and can be extremely rebarbative. But he’s also got that rare quality of being able to be extremely rude, coruscatingly rude, without an ounce of malice. I find it funny. And if he’s proven wrong, he’ll always write letters of apology to everybody.’ Logue on Howard: ‘Mild disagreements have occurred all the time – if they didn't there would be something wrong. I always want the untheatrical thing, the news-reporter-weather-forecaster voice; Alan’s tendency is to give it the rhetorical Shakespearian voice. He gets rather nervous about putting over another point of view. He starts to pace around, lighting cigarettes. Or else he’ll insist upon something completely irrelevant, like a certain kind of coat he must have on.’ I think I might have enjoyed the rehearsals even more than the actual performance.

* This Bartleby-ishness has been, I think, a bar to sales. Reviews: a few paragraphs in a group review in Poetry London, and an online review promised in the Boston Review (US). One short poem (odd choice) among the ‘Highly Commended Poems’ in the about-to-be-published Forward Book of Poetry 2014. But I’m still deeply pleased to have published Andrew Elliott’s Mortality Rate, and I’ll defend to the limits of CBe’s overdraft the poet’s right to remain invisible.

Monday 9 September 2013

The Poetry Book Fair: the day after the day after

It was good. (This is a personal post and not the official line: I’m in there, one of the people responsible, but the main nitty-gritty is by now being done by Chrissy Williams, with this year Joey Connolly picking up the slack and more; and we haven’t yet met up for retrospect. Not that there is an official line anyway, which would imply an unofficial one. Though we don’t have to, we tend to agree.)

Here are some photos of last Saturday: the hall overall and closer in, the pub afterwards.

Most importantly, the number of people who came in through the door was up on last year. I think 697 was the number on the clicker at the end of the day – an exact number but I wouldn’t claim absolute accuracy. Last year’s figure (around 400) was compromised by the fact that there were two entrances to the main fair: through the front and through the café at the side. This year, though we had a volunteer with the clicker on the main entrance to the building throughout the day, there were changeovers, there were probably people going out and coming back in, there is (a saving grace) human error.

There are more photos on the Free Verse Facebook page, but I’m posting the above ones here because there are some people who read this blog but have nothing to do with Facebook, and vice versa – just as there are people who follow performance poetry but not page poetry, and vice versa, and trying to reach or cater for everyone isn’t easy. Even within the main hall of the book fair, I’m sure that some of the poetry on display appealed (or didn’t) to different groups of readers. Some of the enthusiastic responses to the book fair, online and in person, have used the word ‘community’ – but it’s a very diverse one, made up of groups that differ widely in their interests and loyalties.

This year the extension of the readings programme into the nearby pub, after the fair itself had closed, reflected, I think, the increased emphasis on performance and live readings in recent years. At the talking-about stage, I was sceptical – would anyone turn up? People did; it worked. Because the pub doesn’t usually open on Saturdays, we had to pay a deposit in case the bar takings were below what they required; I needn’t have worried about that one either. Though I do still think that the point of the whole thing is to be a book fair, with readings as an add-on (rather than, say, a readings festival with some books for sale).

The new venue for this year accommodated all the presses in a single ground-floor hall (which was what many people said they wanted, after last year’s event on two floors). The downside was that no one had room to stretch their legs. (And those proliferating roller banners were a nuisance.) But the relation between size of place and number of people largely determines the atmosphere of any event: it’s important that the event feels busy, even if actual numbers are not high. And jostle encourages intimacy.

Meeting and talking were as important elements as buying and selling. This is why, I think (from anecdotal evidence; we’ll get some hard figures later), sales from many of the small presses were higher than from the two tables displaying Faber, Bloodaxe and Carcanet books. The latter tables were heroically manned by Ian West of Faber Factory Plus, which is essentially a sales outfit; behind every other table were the people who had chosen, edited, designed, lived with the books they were presenting.

Ron Costley – retired text-design maestro at Faber, designer of Alan Ross’s London Magzine in the 1960s and of the London Magazine Editions on which CBe is modelled – travelled into the fair from Suffolk, his first time in London for many months. And there was Jeremy Robson, who decades ago knew well and published Vernon Scannell, about whom we talked; Robson’s own new collection will be published by Andy Croft’s Smokestack. The show goes on. If you came to the book fair and have any comments or suggestions, clicking here will take you to a brief online visitor survey.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Heaney and Syria

Yeats, ‘Among School Children’, first stanza: ‘I walk through the long schoolroom questioning; / A kind old nun in a white hood replies; […] the children’s eyes / In momentary wonder stare upon / A sixty-year-old smiling public man.’ In the following stanzas, wildness, beauty, rage, lust, hurt and the consolations of ageing that do not console.

Heaney in latter years made frequent appearances as a smiling public man, to the extent that he’s been criticised for cosying up to the establishment; criticised, I suspect, by many of the same people who complain (or delight?) that poetry is no longer central to even the literary bit of the general culture. Which it isn’t. But for a time Heaney almost single-handedly reversed that trend. The amount of commentary on Heaney’s passing from not just writers but those who don’t read poetry at all, and who don’t need to do that to recognise decency and value, has been remarkable. To respond in kind to the public recognition he had been given must at times have been both a bore and a burden; to do this with such grace – this son of a cattle-dealer donning a penguin suit for the high table and remaining at all times his own man, never compromising the talent that had got him there – was a huge thing. I doubt we’ll see it happening again, in the West.

His place at the high table – not to opinionate, not to argue; but to be there, to represent what otherwise is talked over – is a part of what is now missed. In the same week as Heaney’s dying, the same pages on which that was announced reported not the continuing nightmare of Syria (let alone Egypt, the Central African Republic, plenty more) but the fractious politicking about whether Britain should militarily ‘intervene’: party positioning, retired generals trotted out, conspiracy theories, legal consultants, cost predictions. This is hideous. It feels like a primary school playground, and we’re being bullied into taking sides simply on the grounds on who’s most likely (or is in our best short-term interests) to win. It isn’t that Heaney could have told us all what to do; but his engagement in public life, or even at times the terms of his disengagement, carried weight. I want him back.

Click here, by the way, for the 1994 Paris Review interview (‘He had traveled extensively in recent weeks, and though his brown eyes were heavy-lidded, his mind was alert and mischievous. After each session, we had a glass of Jack Daniels’).