Wednesday 24 December 2014


The photograph I’m looking at, which has been reproduced as a postcard – on the back there are lines printed for an address and the word ‘Wellington’ in italic where the stamp should go, with the left side left blank for a message, though there is no message – shows fourteen men in a simple laboratory. Seven are wearing white lab coats. Two of the men appear to be older than the others – one standing on the right, with glasses and white hair, the other towards the back – and are perhaps the teachers, or supervisors, of the others, who are students. None is facing the camera; all have their heads down; the atmosphere couldn’t possibly be more studious. The students are sitting on stools and are working at benches equipped with those little nipples for attaching Bunsen burners; some are looking into microscopes; there is also some electrical equipment, and perhaps flasks, and the man at the very back may be observing or adjusting a kind of gauge. The room is lit through tall windows to the left, and there are also overhead electric lamps; the floor is bare wooden boards. They are studying what happens when you put this in contact with that; how gases and liquids and electric currents behave, how light behaves, how cells behave; what makes us tick. This is progress. I doubt their professors make many jokes in their lectures. There are no women in the room, and I believe that even if a woman did enter the room – in a long black skirt and white blouse, with her hair pinned up – it’s possible that none of the students would look up, so focused are they on their work. But a woman could do worse than find her husband among these men, because they are serious and conscientious and after their studies are completed many will acquire secure and well-paid jobs. They will wash their hands before meals, be moderate in their drinking and keep strict accounts. Some of the students will become village pharmacists but one will go on to make an important new discovery that will change how in the future a disease is treated or miners work more safely or murderers be put to death more humanely or babies born prematurely may have better chances of survival. A number of them will be killed in the next war. They may fight on different sides, according to circumstances or their beliefs, which need have little to do with the work they doing. Suicide and madness will also feature. Meanwhile, some will return in a few years’ time for their professor’s retirement dinner, at which speeches will be made and comic incidents will be remembered. All of this is already known in outline to the student at the back who looks to be the youngest in the room and who is standing up while one of the two teachers inspects his work and who I will call Jan, but this is an important time in his life and he cannot afford to let it distract him.

Saturday 20 December 2014


In Gap yesterday there were some OK jumpers, except that were so many of them they were nothing. Second-hand shops and charity shops, on the other hand: there’s only one of each item, and often that’s one too many but one is exactly the number I’m looking for.

Portobello Road, this afternoon. Paprika from Garcia, and then the stall with those disposable plastic black pepper (& pepper-&-chilli, & ‘Himalayan salt’) grinders, a quid each. (Why, other than those, do you have spend an avalanche of money to get a pepper grinder that actually carries on working after a refill or two? Or am I doing something wrong?) Then the Oxfam bookshop. A Gerald Murnane novel (previous owner, a library in Massachusetts). A 1957 New Directions edition of Kenneth Patchen selected poems. Above, one of the poems. Previous owner, according to the fly-leaf: ‘George Buchanan, September 1959’. This was surely the Irish-born poet, 1904–89. His daughter lives opposite me; she and her husband host excellent parties.

£4 for both. Here’s another from the Patchen:

Back to Buchanan. The opening lines of his book Minute-Book of a City (Carcanet, 1972), pure shopping: ‘Does multiplicity undermine / the story? Does an overbreeding / in fiction make cardboard figures?’ Much of it is angry, and brilliant. ‘Absence of ideas in the Cabinet. Dust fell / from the ceiling in slow shower. They rang and sent / for another basket of statistics. Could no one find / the document which would increase the amount of hope?’

‘The number of the killed / was a minor consideration. They were thoughts / in the thinking of a High Command / accustomed to shoots on the moors.’

‘No doffing of the cap and saying “sir” to the universe. / The state of mind in which we pray is both / the prayer and the answer to the prayer.’

‘A suitable marriage. They speak about problems / of the State at breakfast. He does well at the office, / is sure of promotion. They laugh at the wit / of a neighbour who comes to dine. Afterwards / they lie asleep in twin beds. Occasionally / flushed with wine they speak of a thing / called “personal relationship”.’

‘The animals are herded slowly from green fields / to be eaten by gentlemen in restaurants.’ Here’s a last Kenneth Patchen scan, a vegetarian gentleman one (but not before remarking that Rosemary Tonks is not the only good poet from the 60s, 70s who went AWOL; she managed her own disappearance, others have had that done to them):

Friday 19 December 2014

A big quiz and a little one

Here is this year’s TLS Christmas quiz – compiled, as it has been for many years, ‘by Tony Lurcock of Oxford’, who happens to be a CBe author. A while back he sent me a manuscript whose preface hooked me with this sentence: ‘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 so we embarked on a series of compilations of writing by British travellers in Finland, introduced and with linking commentary by Tony Lurcock: Not So Barren or Uncultivated, 1760–1830 (‘Impeccably researched, written in an accessible, lively and lucid style, with useful appendices, notes, and bibliography, this is a gem of a book which will delight the scholar and the general reader alike’: Mara Kalnins, Notes and Queries), No Particular Hurry, 1830–1917 (‘[Lurcock’s] occasional rather caustic observations make his commentary at least as entertaining as the travellers he quotes’: Yvonne Hoffmann, Vasabladet), and a 1917–1941 book to follow.

Among the answers to the TLS quiz is one CBe book. No further clues.

I read last week that Wallace Stevens’s notebooks contain around 350 titles (‘Still Life with Aspirin’, ‘All about the Bride’s Grandparents’, ‘The Alp at the End of the Street’ …) for poems that he never got round to writing. Here are the titles of three books that fictional characters consider writing but don’t. Name the character, the the title of the actual book/story they are in, and author of that book.
1) History of the Suburbs
2) A Short Wait for the Butcher
3) This Is Piccadilly

And (relatively easy one) which dog declared: ‘I simply have to knock off that essay on Sassoon’?

Monday 15 December 2014

'when I put it down I couldn't stop wondering how a person could kill it so hard'

Four writers nominating three CBe titles (The Notebook, The Absent Therapist, At Maldon) in the TLS ‘Books of the Year’ issue was, to put it mildly, a nice surprise.

May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, has been gathering mentions on end-of-year lists in more fugitive places, so here’s a round-up of some links with thanks to, in the UK, Claire Trevien (scroll down) and Kirsten Irving; and, in the US, Tobias Carroll and Sean H. Doyle at Volume 1 Brooklyn and Rachael Lee Nelson on the Shabby Doll House blog; and Time Out New York for listing May-Lan Tan’s chapbook Girly.

Update: plus the London Review Bookshop's 'Pick of the Year'. Plus Joanna Walsh (@readwomen2014) on le blog of Shakespeare and Company ('a transglobal, and very contemporary, neon scream of slick limbs in illicit embraces'). Plus 'Best books of 2014' in Civilian.

Update (6 January 2015): a couple more bloggers: So what now?, which includes scans of 3 pages of the text; and 'Best Books of 2014' on Never Stop Reading: 'Fabulous language, melancholy tone. Like a demented, more emotional Miranda July. Summarizing the plots feels like a disservice–characters fall in love with stunt doubles, listen to Iron Maiden, participate in bizarre crucifixion rituals in the woods, have filthily rude hot sex, stalk a boyfriend’s exes based on nude photos, go on dates with couples dying of cancer. Ehh, see? I can’t do it justice. But this is definitely one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve read.' Plus one from Italy, Sul Romanzo.

Wednesday 10 December 2014


There’s something horrible – crime scene-ish – about the CIA-related memos with bits blacked out. Someone with something to hide has violated the text. Here’s a page from Tony White’s Shackleton’s Man Goes South (Science Museum, 2013) in which he reworks this kind of thing as part of a novel:

Text that would allow us the full import is concealed, and the result is a piece of writing that suggests, teases, frustrates. The reader has to work hard, without getting anywhere. The same thing happens with ancient texts that survive only as fragments: with these, the concealment is not deliberate, but the reading experience can be similar. Earlier this year I bought a book of translations of Ancient Egyptian texts in translation (The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptian poems, Oxford World Classics) precisely because I found the layout of text on some of the pages – half-lines, phrases, single words, separated by white spaces – both visually and mentally compelling.

What will survive of us is fragments, if that. Here’s a piece of Sappho discovered in 2005:

For the text written clearly in Greek, and for Anne Carson’s translation of fragment 58 – both previous and new fragments – and her comments, see here. A reworking – translation into Greek? – by Anne Carson of some of the redacted CIA stuff would be something.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Finsbury Park

Last night Dan O’Brien won the Troubadour International Poetry Prize for a new poem from the continuing War Reporter series. Back home, emails included one from a website buyer to whom I’d managed to send the WRONG BOOKS (3 x May-Lan Tan, instead of 3 x Marjorie Ann Watts); and another from someone wondering if I could edit, design, set, proofread, and have printed and delivered a playscript/threatre programme in time for the opening of the production in two weeks. The wrong-books problem needed acting on: the May-Lan Tan books are out at the warehouse, I have only a handful here (but it’s well in stock at Foyles, Charing X Road), and the printer told me last week he had RUN OUT OF PAPER. The play thing: well, I’m busy, and I’d never heard of the play or the theatre, but the email made the whole project sound impossible enough to be worth a go.

This morning, to somewhere near Finsbury Park to swap the right books for the wrong books. Close to the Tube station I found myself standing outside the theatre I’d never heard of, the one where the play opens in two weeks’ time; and taking a call from the printer, who tells me the new printing of the May-Lan Tan book will be ready tomorrow morning.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Guardian First Book Award: the morning after

How can you possibly enjoy not winning something so much? (Is it allowed?) Several reasons, these among them. May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break being on the shortlist in the first place, exceeding all realistic expectations by far. The winner, Colin Barrett, for Young Skins, being himself such a terrific writer. The company, the people in the room, and in particular the presence among them of so many readers – members of the reading groups from around the country who had read, discussed, taken to heart, all of the books on the shortlist, and whose meetings with the authors were, I think, something special for both parties.

And the morning after – today – the TLS, the Books of the Year issue, in which four critics choose three CBe titles:

Thomas Adès: ‘I was gripped and awed by Will Eaves's The Absent Therapist (CB editions), touching, addictive and unlike any other book.’

Beverley Bie Brahic: ‘Agota Kristof's The Notebook (translated by Alan Sheridan, CB editions). It embarrasses me to say I’d never heard of The Notebook until its reissue, along with Nina Bogin's translation of The Illiterate, Kristof's memoir. The Notebook is a great book, in the absolute.’

Eimear McBride: ‘CB editions’ reissue of the much neglected The Notebook by Agota Kristof is the book I have not been able to stop thinking about all year.’

Ferdinand Mount: ‘At Maldon (CB editions), J. O. Morgan's version of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, has all the clash and clang of War Music, and the same odd modernism to bring you up short – bin-liners, cricket balls, umbrellas. My ears are still singing with the gurgle of Saxon blood. Morgan is a worthy inheritor of Logue’s broadsword.’

Oh, and David Collard’s review of Things to Make and Break. You’ll have to buy the issue for the whole review, because I’m too tired to tap it out, but this bit for free: ‘That May-Lan Tan was recently shortlisted for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award is surprising. She does not write badly about sex – she writes very well about bad sex, which is not the same thing. And not only bad sex – it’s sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny, always refreshingly explicit and, in one episode, spell-bindingly weird and transgressive. And she writes in character, often with quite dazzling ventriloquial skill.’

Friday 21 November 2014

Covers that got away

A little problem with information is how it gets channelled. Saying something on one of the social media sites is making that something public – but not to everyone. Some people learn about CBe news here; some on Facebook, some on Twitter, some from the newsletters; there is overlap, but less than you might think. And X and Y, bless them, never go online at all, so I still write the occasional letter or postcard.

Apologies if you’ve already seen this – and I do know, oh yes, how irritating it is to be told the same thing again and again – but for the very specific blog readership a link to an Independent blog piece posted today about CBe book covers, with reference to May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, is here. With pictures of how the book might have looked but doesn’t.

(By the way, both the Jennie Walker who wrote 24 for 3, first published by CBe and the only book I know of that has a puff quote from Mick Jagger ('Very original ... I loved it'; which itself is hardly original, but we can live with this), and the Jack Robinson who wrote Days and Nights in W12 are me. I lost track of who knew this and who didn’t; I started assuming this was common knowledge, and I was wrong. Everyone knows different things, or knows the same things differently; or doesn’t know, and that’s fine too.)

Wednesday 19 November 2014

The magazine: update

The website page for the CBe magazine is now up: here. (Plus a little simplifying of the site: no pamphlets page but look, there they still are, now on the 'About & News' page at £6 for all three.)

Magazines and books are such different species. There is work that I might not choose to bring to book, but here seems right. Putting the first issue together is like compiling a guest list for a party: X and Y and Z may not like each other but I like them all and they’ll just have to muck along or avoid eye contact. It’s also like doing a jigsaw but with the pieces changing size and shape as I move to put them in place.

Sonofabook 1 is an indulgence: new, or previously untranslated, work by writers on the CBe list. Thereafter, the whole thing will put into the hands of guest editors. No book reviews because no print magazine, not even one coming out every month or so, can hope to attend to good new books without its choice of what to review appearing selective in the extreme. (Good long overviews of particular writers, live or dead, may be welcome.)

Because, after the first issue, I’m putting each issue in the hands of a different editor, I can’t hold anything over from issue 1 to the next, so anything I seriously want in but have run out of space for will vanish over the edge of the cliff. (I can, of course, forward such things to the next editor, but they will have their own ideas.)

Friday 14 November 2014

Lists, canapés, congratulations

This afternoon, someone glanced up at me strap-hanging and offered me their seat on the Tube. It’s been a long week.

The photo is from Snape, where I spent last weekend at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. Dan O’Brien was, as always, tireless and generous in his reading and in his talking through the background to his Fenton-Aldeburgh prize-winning War Reporter, which he has now done so many times but it never feels that way; he was also launching his new book Scarsdale. Julian Stannard was memorable and funny; I have no complaint at all about his new poems, from Worple Press, outselling the CBe book on Michael Hofmann that he co-edited. I’ve been to Aldeburgh for the last five consecutive years (plus one or two before that); first Michael Laskey and then Naomi Jaffa – who is standing down this year: standing ovation – have created something that is far, far more than the sum of its parts.

On Tuesday J. O. Morgan’s shortlisted At Maldon didn’t win the Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Award – which went to Alexander Hutchison’s Bones & Breath, and all praise. On Wednesday Will Eaves’s shortlisted The Absent Therapist didn’t win the Goldsmiths Prize – congratulations to Ali Smith for How to be Both.

Also this week, May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break has made the cut from the longlist to the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award (across all genres). May-Lan Tan’s book is one of two short story collections (the other is Colin Barrett’s terrific Young Skins) on the shortlist of five; there is one novel. May-Lan Tan’s book is also on the shortlist for the Bad Sex prize. If both final events are on the same night I may need to upgrade to a taxi.

Thursday 23 October 2014

The threesome ones

Above, a completely gorgeous short poetry book, At Thurgarton Church (a single poem in 29 five-line stanzas) by George Barker, with drawings by Barker too. Trigram Press, 1969. I bought it in the summer of 1970, when I was working on a farm in north Norfolk, planting potatoes in a field that surrounded the church at Thurgarton, so at least one of the names on the cover I recognised. I asked the farmer if he knew of a poet living in the area, and found my way to Bintry House, where Barker had got the lawnmower out: our first lines were shouted above its noise, while Barker made up his mind whether I was worth switching the thing off for. Barker was the first ‘real poet’ I met. He made, to put it mildly, an impression. A year or so later, on a weekend when I went back to see him, there was an evening involving wine, fire, argument erupting into violence, flight and return.

Other poetry books I bought around that time, or slightly earlier: crucially, Michael Roberts’s The Faber Book of Modern Verse, either 2nd edition (1951) or 3rd (1965); which I stumbled through, teaching myself how to read (there was nothing of this sort at school) and usually coming up short, but there must have been something in there I was curious about; the Penguin Modern Poets, the threesome ones, and some Penguin Modern European poets; Roy Fisher’s Collected Poems, the Fulcrum edition with the street-party photo on the front. I wasn’t a very social person at the time; I had anorexia in my teens. I can’t now recall whether I was writing poems myself (I may have been starting; I published a first and forgettable collection in 1977). It, a lot of it, was the geeky equivalent of behind-the-bicycle-sheds.

Cut to today, when the TSE Prize shortlist is announced. And last year’s list, and the list before: people on there whose work has been part of my life, but in most cases I’m not going to get round to reading their new books, I know this, because of this feeling I have that I’ve already read them and there is so much new work that interests me coming through and time is short and anyway I’m more interested these days in fiction. Unfair, yes. I think I’d like to tease this out in something longer. People coming through harder and faster; the shortening of writers’ career spans, unless they’re among the blessed; the vanishing of the ‘midlist’; the mediation (mediafication, mediafiction?) of poetry in the marketplace, tending to favour the safe bet, the serious white males. (I’m one of those myself: it’s an observation, not a complaint.) I thought the Forward Prizes this year represented a shift, a kind of catching-up (a difference from what prizes often do: stick with what you know, leave it to the next year), and still think this, there’s been a shift, and the TSE list is, well, dull; it is hampered by the logistics of 40 per cent on the list being automatic, as PBS seasonal choices chosen by an old guard. (Might they be freed up by having another category, a lifetime-achievement thing? Even, given the acceleration, a decade-achievement thing?) In my sixties, I’m now old guard myself. It’s not a bad place to be: too late to worry about making a career of any kind. Meanwhile, I trust there’s still space for people working on farms and liking books.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Something for the weekend

On Sunday J. O. Morgan will be performing/reciting the whole text of At Maldon in company with the actor Ishbel McFarlane at the Dundee Literary Festival. If Dundee is reachable, I think you should go. Here is Helena Nelson of HappenStance Press on Morgan’s delivery of the poem at this year’s StAnza festival: ‘I have never heard anything like it. I had heard him read before but I have never heard anything like this. For the first time in my life I grasped the living concept of the epic – I inhabited it. J O Morgan took us inside that terrible, beautiful, ancient story of what men do, and held us there. Time stopped.’

Also on Sunday, a new poem by Dan O’Brien derived from his continuing collaboration with the war reporter Paul Watson will be in the Sunday Times. More new War Reporter poems will be in the first issue of Sonofabook, CBe’s magazine (website page up next month). Dan O’Brien’s new book Scarsdale is available now from the website; official publication day will be 7 November, when he is reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival as last year’s winner of the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for War Reporter.

On 11 November, Armistice Day, Morgan and O’Brien will again be running parallel. Morgan’s At Maldon is shortlisted for the Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Award, announced on that day. O’Brien will be reading from War Reporter and Scarsdale at The Round Church, Cambridge, CB2 1UB (free admission).

Friday 3 October 2014


There are times when you wouldn’t want to be known as a collaborator: you could get strung up from a lamp post. Sleeping with the enemy carries risks: think of the mess that undercover police operatives can get into when infiltrating activist groups, or of Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution.

Even in literature, the transgression of boundaries that collaboration involves – the notion of the ‘individual author’ becoming unstable – makes critics uneasy. But it happens: Pound’s involvement in Eliot’s Waste Land was crucial; Conrad and Ford collaborated on three novels, Stevenson collaborated on plays with W. E. Henley and on fiction with Lloyd Osbourne. In contemporary poetry, the movement from page to stage has prompted new collaborative work (such as The Debris Field, ‘devised, written and performed by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe’). And on the page too, I think collaborations are becoming more frequent. (Writing is – or can be if you want it to be – so much more a social activity than it was pre-internet.) An example of an extreme form of collaboration between Elizabeth Mikesch and May-Lan Tan – in which the writers ‘vandalise each other’s sentences until it’s no longer clear who has written what’, even to themselves – is here, in The Quietus.

The first issue of the Sonofabook magazine will contain work by two pairs of collaborators.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist: stickers!

For a publisher the size of CBe, that Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist is on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist, announced today, is BIG. Even if it doesn’t send sales rocketing, even if it may mean nothing financially. (Ken Edwards of Reality Street may have felt similar when Philip Terry’s Tapestry was shortlisted last year.)

Last year’s shortlist was almost universally (well, in the little universe I inhabit: a universe that was tired, tired, tired of the Booker) applauded. That the eventual and deserved winner was Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – a novel that had spent a decade being turned down by every major publisher in the land; a novel that did what it had to, irrespective of the rules of the game, and went on to win a clutch of other prizes and is now garnering reviews-to-kill-for in the US – confirmed the Goldsmiths as necessary. The timing was immaculate: book and prize, in its inaugural year, seemed made for each other.

This year the first-day responses to the Goldsmiths shortlist have been more subdued. The overlap between certain books on the Goldsmiths and the Booker lists (long, short, it’s not worth checking, it’s not important) was noted. One blogger has asked for a clearer definition of terms: Booker ‘the best novel’, Goldsmiths ‘to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. ‘Best’ is huh, is meaningless. ‘Breaks the mould’, you can see what they’re getting at, even if not exactly, which is the whole point. Prizes, definitions. The books come first, and then a little catching up (a little scurrying around, a little re-alignment) of how to notice them.

Yesterday night, the Forward Prizes for poetry were awarded; poetry is another camp, in which one of my feet is planted, and the Forward things are top (or go head-to-head with the TS Eliot, slugging it out year on year) in that camp, and I think they made good choices (Kei Miller, Liz Berry). I say I think because I haven’t actually read either of the books. I say good choices because of the relief of knowing that it’s not John Burnside, Sharon Olds, Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Robin Robertson, again.

Which is deeply unfair, because those named names are excellent poets. (Not that I’d guarantee to publish them, if they were reduced to coming my way: there’s the feeling, not just mine, that I’ve read them already.) (Same goes for a number of submissions that ping in the in-box: wonderful writing, but in a mode I already know.)

There’s a demographic problem (people living longer), and literary careers going on and on while the next and then the next generation come to the party, and mainstream publishers having tight little lists, and the pressure building and ground opening up for the smaller publishers, not to mention online, and the ways in which people write also opening up, and one of the most interesting things about the Goldsmiths prize is the expectations put upon it.

Meanwhile, you can buy Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist here and I’ll post it tomorrow, free delivery in UK. (I collected a new print run at 7 a.m. yesterday from the printer, stickered them and then lugged boxes over to the warehouse. I can’t think that there’s ever been a more interesting time to be publishing.)

Monday 29 September 2014

Free advertising for independent bookshops

When I collected the first four CBe titles from the printer back in the autumn of 2007 I had no distributor, no trade representation, no mailing list, and the authors were all unknowns. I put sample copies in a bag and trekked around some of the independent bookshops in London. One bookseller read one of the books overnight and phoned next day with an order for 40 copies. Crockatt & Powell (remember them?) enthused about the books on their blog and also ordered. We were in business, almost.

The good will, experience and enthusiasm of independent booksellers are undervalued and underused by most publishers.

The new magazine being started by CBe – more details here – will be carrying paid-for adverts. Almost no independent bookseller has a budget for advertising. For the first issue of the magazine (and maybe others: we’ll see) I’m therefore offering a limited number of free quarter-page ads to independent bookshops. Two or three or four pages of adverts for good bookshops will be a good thing in itself; and maybe, even, the bookshops will stock the magazine. Any bookshop that is interested, please contact me on Files (82 x 53 mm; high-res pdf or jpeg) will be needed before the end of October; or a bookshop could simply send me the information they’d like the ad to carry, plus a logo if available or other artwork, and CBe will make up the ad.

Monday 15 September 2014

New Dan O’Brien; and ‘the necessary drudgery of the novelist’

Dan O’Brien’s new poetry collection Scarsdale will be launched at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in early November, where he’s reading as the winner of the 2013 Aldeburgh Fenton First Collection Prize for War Reporter. You can do these things by the book – which involves having blurb and cover and proofs in place many months before publication (and in time for the submission deadlines for the PBS recommendations, etc) – or you can think, a few weeks from now the author will be over from Los Angeles and reading in front of a large and generous audience, so let’s wing it. Scarsdale is a very different book from War Reporter: it’s home-grown, for a start, though of course home can be as conflicted a place as any war zone.

On Friday of this week, I and May-Lan Tan will be reading at the Cork International Short Story Festival. I haven’t been to Ireland for a couple of decades, at least. I’m excited about this.

May-Lan will be reading, I assume, from her CBe book Things to Make and Break and maybe from her chapbook Girly. I might be reading from The Manet Girl, published by Salt last year. More likely, the pages in front of me will be from what is resulting from finding my failure to write a particular story more interesting than the story itself.

As a lapsed poet, I’m still finding my way in fiction. I remember an agent’s note, handwritten in the margins of the printout of my first attempt: ‘Where are they? The reader needs to see them.’ They – the characters – were in the Golborne Road, as it happens, which is at the tag end of Portobello Road and is probably worth describing (junk stalls, cafés, Moroccan street food) but I got no enjoyment at all from this kind of writing (and if I’m bored, then God help the reader). I’m aware that good descriptive writing isn’t just scene-setting, but it still felt more duty than play.

Virginia Woolf in her 1924 essay ‘Character in Fiction’ has fun with Arnold Bennett’s descriptive writing, of which she quotes a chunk and adds: ‘One line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description; but let them pass as the necessary drudgery of the novelist … he is trying to hypnotise us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there.’ Into the category of necessary drudgery I’d add ‘characterisation’ and ‘plot’ and most of the other chapter titles in the how-to-write-a-novel books – but a lovely thing about the novel is that these things aren’t really necessary at all. Short-cutting, I’ll point to Gabriel Josipovici’s ‘Writing, Reading and the Study of Literature’, his inaugural lecture at the University of Sussex in 1986 (included in his The Singer on the Shore, Carcanet, 2006), in which he recalls writing his first novel: ‘It was not that that I didn’t like the forms of description I was using; I didn’t like any form of description. What’s more, I suddenly realised, I didn’t need it. What had happened was that I had adopted not just the tone and mannners of every book I had ever read, I had also adopted their assumptions … I had made a fantastic discovery, you see. I had discovered that I did not have to do do what I didn’t want to do to, and at the same time that I could do something which a moment before I had had no idea I could do.’ This is liberating, in the way that is characteristic of my own favourite novels: oh, so you don’t have to do all the high-cheekbones, blustery-weather stuff, you can do it another way.

Ninety years on from VW’s essay, the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair 2014

Top pic, near top right, the CBe table – no one behind it because I was, uh, at the opposite side of the room taking this photo. It took time to get back to it. Bottom pic, view from the CBe table. All those people. One person mentioned in passing, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to do, that she’d travelled from County Cork to London just for this event. Someone else I’d never met before offered to buy me lunch. There were readings, continuous through the day, both in a separate room in the venue and in the square outside, and then in a pub in the evening, but no speeches telling us what we were here for and why, no need. It felt like a good deed in a naughty world.

Monday 1 September 2014

Robinson: the answers

– to the quiz posted on 21 August: here. Prize for competition with least entries: this one. I missed an obvious one (thank you, J.O.): Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Little Pig Robinson, the story of the pig in Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.

1(a) Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; (b) Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Crusoe in England’; (c) J. M. Coetzee, Foe; (d) Michel Tournier, The Other Island; (e) Robinson Crusoe on Mars, 1964 film, dir. Byron Haskins; (f) Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands; (g) Eric Maltaite, Robinsonia (graphic novel)

2 Chris Petit, Robinson; 3 Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night; 4 Simon Armitage, ‘Robinson’s Resignation’; 5 Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son; 6 Muriel Spark, Robinson; 7 Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim; 8 Weldon Kees, ‘Aspects of Robinson’; 9 Henry Fielding, Amelia; 10 Charles Webb, The Graduate; 11 Franz Kafka, Amerika; 12 Henry James, The Princess Casamassima; 13 Robinson in Space, 1996 film by Patrick Keiller (or maybe it was London); 14 Jack Robinson, Days and Nights in W12.

If you like this kind of thing, go here; and check out his other riffs on zebra, joke, nail, lemon, mutt, etc.

Sunday 31 August 2014

Next thing: Sonofabook, the magazine

‘What! another literary journal?’ – Stendhal, 1822. (He was writing about a magazine started up by two people who ‘found it would it would be less boring for them to found a literary journal than anything else’.)

Magazines: why, who for, when and how and what? They’re not books; no magazine is going to be in your desert island luggage. They are secondary. But they have their place and their time: lunchtime, café time, between-times. They tease, they flirt, they make rash promises, all good things to do. They are a kind of foreplay. Through time – think Alan Ross’s London Magazine (the associated book list, London Magazine Editions, was the model for CBe at start-up), not to mention all the little magazines with odd names that everyone in the book world grows up with – they become a kind of of backplay. Either way, fore or back, they’re a form of intelligent play.

So: Sonofabook, a magazine/journal from CBe, first issue next March. Spring and autumn; prose (fiction, non-fiction), poetry. (No reviews, not least because if I open that door I will drown.) ACE have granted funding for the first three issues, so it’s for real, and I’m grateful and yes, excited, and daunted. ‘This one will be different from all the others,’ said Stendhal in 1822. They all say that but, first, none of that send-six-poems-max or one-short-story-under-3K-words: either the work is good enough to hold ten or twenty pages or more or it’s not. Second, and this is the defining feature: after the first issue, the contents of each issue will be chosen by guest editors (CBe backing off to a purely hosting role). The first guest editors will be invited from among the usual suspects – writers, critics, editors from other small presses – but if the thing gets going we can move out a bit: booksellers, bloggers, readers. As Hamlet in effect said to Horatio, there is far more literary intelligence and curiosity out there than is adequately represented by those professionally engaged within the book industry.

Each issue of Sonofabook will therefore bear the distinctive character of its editor’s interests, preferences, prejudices. (Nobody can read everything, let alone like everything; this is the point of having the magazine guest-edited.) Collaborative editorships – two or more people – will of course be fine. If the magazine continues beyond the first three issues (and the set-up can change: e.g., more issues per year if that can be made to work) it could become an occasional focus and record of what the mainstream deems not worth publishing but actually is, and here is one place where. (Mainstream is welcome too, but it will have to fight for its place.)

(Submissions. This is all a little bit different from how magazines usually work. Most of the contents of each issue are going to be determined by invitation from that issue’s editor. Very rarely will anything be held over from one issue for consideration for the next issue. Anyone can submit, of course they can, to the address, but best to inquire first and don’t even think of submitting unless you’ve got some idea of what CBe is about and of what the issue editor might be looking for.)

Print, because I like putting physical objects into the world: things that weigh a bit, that involve a bit of manual labour. As each new print issue comes out, the previous issue will become available free online. Because the ACE money will guarantee the first three issues only (including payment for contributors), I’m going to have to work at getting other revenue; invitations to take advertising space (at bargain start-up rates) will be going out this week, and anyone interested in that do please get in touch. Website page up sometime soon.

Sonofabook 1 will include new work by a number of CBe writers, plus others. Issue 2 will be edited by Nicholas Lezard, author and Guardian reviewer. Issue 3 will be edited by Sophie Lewis, translator and editor-at-large for And Other Stories. Editors of future issues will be announced several months in advance.

I think this is such an obvious idea – setting up the form, inviting some of your literary heroes to fill it with content – that I’m surprised it doesn’t already exist. (Why, for example, does the Nicholas Lezard weekly Guardian paperback column work? Both as a guide to good books arriving under the radar and as a lever for sales. Because whoever gives him that space trusts him and just allows him to get on with it. It’s one model for how the magazine may work.)

One Friday eve in early 2011 the idea of a poetry book fair in London at which the full range of contemporary poetry publishers could display and sell to everyone, anyone, also seemed an obvious idea; the first book fair, initiated by CBe and with no funding, was held the following September; then 2012, 2013, bigger each time; the fourth (I’ve now ducked out, it has its own momentum and is more than brilliantly run by Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly) will be at the Conway Hall, London, next Saturday, 6 September, from 10 a.m. Come.

Thursday 28 August 2014


Classified Revision Exercises in Spanish (George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 182 High Holborn, London WC1; 1932)

Exercise 1 (Definite and indefinite articles)

He said that truth was the most important thing.
He gave me such a look that I went into another room.
More than a hundred friends went to meet Mr Lopez.

The curious thing is that he himself did everything.
The children who understood raised their hands.
He put on his gloves and went out.

Exercise 2 (Adjectives)

His younger sister is very inquisitive.
The climb (la subida) is very long and very difficult.
A very important thing has just happened.

The third speaker spoke seriously and sadly.
He showed me a hundred jewels, all of great value.
None of the other speeches equalled the first.

Exercise 3 (Times, dates, etc)

I saw him at a quarter to four.
What time was it when he left? It must have been about 5 a.m.
I want to go away at twenty past seven.

Philip the Second died on September 13th, 1598.
He did it on Monday, August 1st.
He goes to Madrid on Thursdays.

Exercise 4 (Time, weather, etc)

I wrote to him a little time ago.
It’s a long time ago that it happened.
He’d been ill for three days before they sent for the doctor.

He said it was very hot, but I was cold.
In windy weather, one may lose one’s hat.
Owing to the fact that they had worked hard, they were hotter than we.

Exercise 5 (Negatives)

Haven’t I already done it?
My sister didn’t buy any flowers yesterday.
Nothing new has happened.

He swore he would never do anything of the sort.
I have no books; nor do I want any.
He doesn’t like it; nor I either.

Exercise 5 (Correlatives, etc)

He was not so ugly as his brother.
We need as many knives as forks.
It isn’t as hot as it was last summer.

The task is becoming more and more difficult.
More than three of my books are missing.
The black horse has won more races than it won last year.

Exercise 6 (Ser and Estar)

His house was of brick (el ladrillo) and was very high.
The streets are dirty because it has rained a lot.
Everybody is tired tonight.

Where is he now? He is still in the same house where he has always been.
Who is it that is calling us? It is we.
Most dogs are faithful animals.

Excerise 8 (Pronouns: objective)

Don’t do it now; do it later, please.
He went to meet me at the station, but I did not see him.
Don’t talk so fast, my son; I can’t understand what you say.

I didn’t tell them, because they knew it already.
Don’t speak to me in that way; speak to me more politely.
I have told it to your father, but not to your mother.

Exercise 9 (Pronouns: relative and interrogative)

I spoke to the doctor’s wife, whom I had already seen often.
Our neighbour, whose son you liked so much, has gone away.
He lost the sword with which he has killed so many enemies.

What did he give you when he came in?
What book do you mean? He didn’t give me any.
Which of the sailors came with you?

Exercise 10 (Pronouns: possessive and demonstrative)

I have found your handkerchief, but now I have lost mine.
A cousin of his has broken his leg.
His translation is worse than yours.

He washed his hands and put on his gloves.
His house is bigger than this one, and mine is bigger still.
The man with the black beard did this.

Exercise 11 (Subjunctive: general use)

Let them try to do this, if they think they can.
Do it at once, and don’t tell me it’s impossible.
Come here: don’t sit down on the chair.

I am sorry that he was not able to come.
I advise you not to come back too early.
Has anyone ever done a thing that seems so stupid?

Exercise 12 (Sequence of tenses)

I don’t think he will arrive tomorrow, nor the day after either.
Ask him to go off a little way off from the window.
My friends do not believe I am capable of doing it alone.

I was looking for a child who could read and write.
They all denied that they had seen the deed.
Their father did not want them to stay away from home too long.

Exercise 13 (Subjunctive and infinitive contrasted)

I hoped I would find them in the dining room.
I fear I shall be the first to arrive at the party this afternoon.
Everyone was afraid of not arriving in time.

I wanted them to finish it at once.
They were unwilling to speak to the others, or for the others to speak to them.
I want you to write to me every week.

Execrise 14 (Subjunctive: conditions)

If he stays there no more than a week, we shall not see him.
If you will open the window, it will be cooler.
If there is no snow in the mountains, it almost always rains.

If they had both gone together, it would have been easier.
I would have written to you, had there been another post.
If I told you I had done it, would you believe me?

Exercise 15 (Subjunctive: impersonal exptessions)

It is possible that my brother is the author.
It is doubtful if he means to marry.
It was important that they should do it at once, wasn’t it?
It is a pity that there has been so much rain.

It was not yet certain that there had been a revolution.
It seemed probable that there had been an accident.
It was obvious that no one was paying any attention to him.

Exercise 16 (Subjunctive: conjunction)

He passed without seeing us, and without our seeing him.
Provided he does this, he can take everything.
In order that his army might escape, the general sacrificed himself.

As soon as he saw me, he asked when I would go.
Tell him when he comes, that I knew he had lied to me.
We ought not to go until he comes back.

Exercise 17 (Subjunctive: whoever, whatever, etc)

Wherever you may be, don’t forget to take money with you.
However you travel, you must go quickly.
Whoever he may be, speak to him politely.

However cold the water may be, I am going to bathe.
Whatever shoes you wear, they must be strong.
However many mistakes you make, I shall not be angry.

Exercise 18 (May, might, etc)

Ask her: she may know.
It may be true; perhaps he did it.
Go now; maybe it will rain later.

He said they might do it at once.
May they take two apples each?
Each man may do as he likes.

Exercise 19 (Must, ought, should, etc)

I never thought I should have to do that.
According to the papers, he had to tell them everything.
I shall have to light the lamp as soon as I return.

Instead of playing, you ought to work a little.
He would not do it, and said we should have done it ourselves.
Please look for my stick: I should be sorry to lose it.

Exercise 20 (The passive, etc)

All the officers were killed by the enemy.
It is to be feared such things will be seen again.
What he had written was still to be seen on the blackboard.

They were in the act of doing this when I came in.
She is tired of always being surrounded by servants.
The platform was deserted when I arrived.

Exercise 21 (Reflexives)

As a rule, the word is spelt in this way.
He was much surprised, so they say, on hearing this.
They did not think it could be done so easily.

When their aunt entered the room, she was told the news.
The horses were heard in the stable.
The dog was seen wandering alone though the town.

Exercise 21 (Reflexives and reciprocals)

We don’t love one another, do we?
She did it herself, without my helping her.
I prepared dinner myself, while he was dressing.

He was sitting in an armchair, and soon went to sleep.
It was getting darker and darker, and finally we turned round.
I don’t dare stand up while he is sitting down.

Exercise 23 (Adverbs and conjunctions)

It would be something to know where we are going to.
He received me most kindly, and invited me to dinner.
He ran as hard as he could.

I spent the afternoon not sleeping, but writing letters.
I can see nothing on this map except a few rivers and islands.
Call them petals (el pétalo) or leaves, it’s all the same to me.

Exercise 24 (Prepositions, etc)

Look for him outside; he’s not likely to be under the table.
He was standing in front of the blackboard at the time.
He was upstairs when I saw him last.

I will go with you as far as the village, if you will will dine with me first.
He was always very good to the unfortunate.
I am tired of working without achieving anything.

Exercise 25 (Para and Por)

He went to meet them so that they might not lose their way.
She got up early so as to milk (ordeñar) the cows and goats.
Come and see me in order that I may tell you what to do.

I believe he bought this for me, but it will be useless.
There will be no prize for those who can’t swim.
As for me, I have not even playing cards for the party (la tertulia).

Exercise 28 (Measurements, etc)

These woollen stockings are eighteen inches long.
It is more than a thousand kilometres from Paris to Madrid.
They have built a wall seventy yards long and twenty feet high.

There is only half an hour left, and I have not done half my task.
Three-quarters of an hour later the play finished.
He lost half his money in the shipwreck.

Exercise 27 (Exclamations)

How splendid it would be to able to do that!
How much I meant to do, and how little I have done!
How badly your brother writes!

Would that we had already arrived!
Unfortunate people! They got wet to the skin.
I wish to goodness that man would stop talking!

Exercise 28 (Special verbs)

I didn’t think my bag would hold so much.
Tell him to bring it up; I don’t want to come down now.
Go up and tell them breakfast is ready.

It will be your turn when I get back.
Having dropped my pen, I can’t write any more.
He won’t miss you so much now that he can speak Spanish.

Exercise 29 (Some important words)

He was sitting in an armchair near the fire.
He was already seated when I was just sitting down.
A complete stranger asked me for a cigarette.

You can walk if you like, but I am going by car.
I have heard they are going to be married next week.
I did not realise what subject was going to be discussed.

Exercise 30 (Miscellaneous notes)

He found more books than he had lost.
I agree to their doing this when we’re gone.
I insist on this lesson ending now.

He complained little, but he didn’t seem well.
I have seen them all, and they all want to come.
He welcomed most politely all who came.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Robinson: the quiz (again)

Slack days, and I’ve been neglecting this blog. So in honour of Jack Robinson, and because when I first put this up last summer no one, despite the wondrous powers of Google, got all the answers, here’s the quiz again (slightly enlarged). First to email me before 31 August with author and title of each work from which the below are extracted can choose a couple of free CBe books.

June 21. – Very ill; frighted almost to death with the apprehensions of my sad condition—to be sick, and no help. Prayed to God, for the first time since the storm off Hull, but scarce knew what I said, or why, my thoughts being all confused. June 22. – A little better; but under dreadful apprehensions of sickness. June 23. – Very bad again; cold and shivering, and then a violent headache. June 24. – Much better. June 25. – An ague very violent; the fit held me seven hours; cold fit and hot, with faint sweats after it. June 26. – Better; and having no victuals to eat, took my gun, but found myself very weak. However, I killed a she-goat, and with much difficulty got it home, and broiled some of it, and ate, I would fain have stewed it, and made some broth, but had no pot.

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
– And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

We are now settled in lodgings in Clock Lane off Long Acre. I go by the name of Mrs Cruso, which you should bear in mind. I have a room on the second floor. Friday has a bed in the cellar, where I bring him his meals. By no means could I have abandoned him on the island. Nevertheless, a great city is no place him. His confusion when I conducted him through the streets this last Saturday wrenched my heartstrings.
Our lodging is together five shillings a week. Whatever you send I shall be grateful for.

It happened one night that Robinson could not sleep. A pool of moonlight shone on the floor of the Residence. An owl called in the darkness, and he seemed to hear the very earth groan with a plaint of love deprived. His mattress of dried grass felt incongruously soft and unreal. He lay for a while thinking of Tenn’s mad, erotic dance round that open furrow, the body offered after being violated by Friday’s spade. It was a long time since he had visited the combe. His daughters, the mandrakes, must have grown big by now! He sat up with his feet in the moonlight and smelt the scent of sap rising in his big body, white as a root. He rose silently, stepped over the entwined bodies of Friday and Tenn, and set out for the copse of gum-trees and sandalwood.


The published confection has as much imagination as truth in it: Alexander becomes Robinson; the Scottish son of a cobbler becomes a merchant’s son from York who ignores the advice of his father; four years and four months becomes twenty-eight years, half a lifetime.


[Click on image to enlarge]

Usually Robinson reserved the same large table in a fashionable restaurant where a dozen or more of us sat down to dinner. He went out of his way to be charming and intriguing (answering a question with a question), his deliberate reticence about himself calculated to provoke speculation. Everyone had a different angle on Robinson, who was at his most Gatsby-like during this period, mixing high and low life at the same table, seating rebellious young aristocrats next to a former criminal associate of the Krays who explained how to saw off the barrel of a shotgun. ‘Dangerous thing to do, now looking back on it,’ he told me. ‘But they were available, yeah, and they were usable.’ He fixed me with a dead stare perfected in the course of thousands of protection money collections.

The vocation for murder that had suddenly come over Robinson struck me in a way as an improvement over what I’d observed up until then in others, always half hateful, half benevolent, always boring with their vagueness, their indirection. I had definitely learned a thing or two by following Robinson in the night.
But there was a danger: the Law. ‘The Law is dangerous,’ I told him. ‘If you’re caught, you with the state of your health, you’ll be sunk … You’ll never leave prison alive … It’ll kill you …’
‘That’s just too bad,’ he said. ‘I’m fed up with honest work … I’m getting old … still waiting my turn to have some fun, and when it comes ... if it does, with plenty of patience … I’ll have been dead and buried long ago … Honest work is for suckers … You know that as well as I do …’

Because I am done with this thing called work,
the paper-clips and staples of it all.
The customers and their huge excuses,
their incredulous lies and their beautiful
foul-mouthed daughters. I am swimming with it,
right up to here with it. And I am bored,
bored like the man who married a mermaid.

Recent occurrences to which he need not more particularly allude, but which have not been altogether without notice in some Sunday Papers, and in a daily paper which he need not name (here every other member of the company names it in an audible murmur), have caused him to reflect; and he feels that for him and Robinson to have any personal differences at such a moment, would be for ever to deny that good feeling in the general cause, for which he has reason to think and hope that the gentlemen in […] have always been distinguished.

‘Robinson is not a man for the ladies.’
That, too, I knew already. There is easily discernible in some men a certain indifference, not to woman precisely but to the feminine element in women, which might be interpreted in a number of ways. In Robinson I had detected something more than indifference: a kind of armed neutrality. So much for his attitude to me. And I thought it likely that he could be positively hostile to the idea of women in general.
‘Look here,’ I said to Jimmie, ‘I wasn’t born yesterday.’
‘Is so?’ said Jimmie gallantly.
‘And in any case,’ I said, ‘Robinson is not my style.’

‘Know my partner? Old Robinson. Yes; the Robinson. Don’t you know? The notorious Robinson. The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose Johnny now alive. They say he used to board the sealing-schooners up Alaska way when the fog was so thick that the Lord God, He alone, could tell one man from another. Holy-Terror Robinson. That’s the man. He is with me in that guano thing. The best chance he ever came across in his life.’

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminol? Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

Robinson hesitated a moment, and then said, with a smile, ‘I am going to make you, sir, a very odd proposal after your last declaration; but what say you to a game at cards? it will serve to pass a tedious hour, and may divert your thoughts from more unpleasant speculations.’ I do not imagine Booth would have agreed to this; for, though some love of gaming had been formerly amongst his faults, yet he was not so egregiously addicted to that vice as to be tempted by the shabby plight of Robinson, who had, if I may so express myself, no charms for a gamester. If he had, however, any such inclinations, he had no opportunity to follow them, for, before he could make any answer to Robinson’s proposal, a strapping wench came up to Booth, and, taking hold of his arm, asked him to walk aside with her; saying, ‘What a pox, are you such a fresh cull that you do not know this fellow? why, he is a gambler, and committed for cheating at play. There is not such a pickpocket in the whole quad.’ A scene of altercation now ensued between Robinson and the lady, which ended in a bout at fisticuffs, in which the lady was greatly superior to the philosopher.

‘Let’s go for a spin,’ Mr Robinson said.
Benjamin reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys. ‘Can you work a foreign gearshift?’ he said, holding them out.
‘Do you know how to operate a foreign gearshift?’
‘Well sure,’ Mr Robinson said. ‘But I thought you’d take me for a spin yourself.’

‘You ask that,’ groaned Robinson, ‘and yet you can see what I look like. Just think of it, they’ve very likely made me a cripple for life. I have frightful pains from here right to here’ – and he pointed first to his head and then to his toes – ‘I only wish you had seen how much my nose bled. My waistcoat is completely ruined, and I had to leave it behind me too; my trousers are in tatters, I’m in my drawers’.

He had determined to remain calm, so that, on turning round at the quick advent of the little woman of the house, who had hurried up, white, scared, staring, at the sound of the crashing door, he was able to say, very quietly and gravely, ‘Mr Robinson has shot himself through the heart. He must have done it while you were fetching the milk.’


Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows (1908) – in which Toad is bailed out from various scrapes by kindly others who have a soft spot for this feckless, conceited toff – while working at the Bank of England. Several of Grahame’s colleagues kept dogs in the basement and organised dog-fights in the lavatories. In 1903 he was shot at by an intruder named Robinson, whom the press referred to as a ‘Socialist Lunatic’.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

May-Lan Tan

I’m indecently proud that May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break is included, as readers’ nomination, on the Guardian First Book Award longlist.

Huge thanks to everyone who has helped keep the boat afloat, and not least to Claire Trévien, who nominated Things to Make and Break and whose own first book took this same slot on the list last year. Any purchase from the website gets more money directly to CBe. I suggest you buy now rather wait till later (a used CBe edition of Christopher Reid’s A Song of Lunch is currently on ebay at £100).

The photo above is © Brian Carroll and was taken, I think, when May-Lan read earlier this year in Cardiff for Bare Fiction magazine - click here for a podcast of that reading. May-Lan is currently in the US; her website lists the places/dates of her readings there. In September she (and I) will be at the Cork International Short Story Festival.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Home & away

Just as CBe starts to make some kind of financial sense (sales last year were more than double the previous year’s), I wander off. If it was anyone else, I’d see a certain style in this.

CBe hasn’t shut up shop; I haven’t wandered off very far; but the landscape looks a little different. There is this: that the four most recent titles, published earlier this year – Agota Kristof’s The Notebook and The Illiterate, May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist – will be a hard act to follow. And now there is this: the unexpected (I mean that) consequence of taking time out (the Czech Republic in May, Sardinia in June/July; now home) is that I’ve started messing around with writing again – Jack is back, and I think Jennie too – after a long period of no writing at all, and writing takes time, and so does publishing, and so does finding and doing work that actually brings in money, and besides, the weather is fine.

Meanwhile, here is John Greening in this week’s Times Literary Supplement on Fergus Allen’s New & Selected Poems: ‘The pleasure that Fergus Allen takes in the “superior amusement” of making poems is evident throughout this handsome volume … Allen has learnt his trade well enough to shift from the playful to the erudite, from the grand style to the plain, without any loss of authority. The number of good opening lines alone is enviable: “The purpose of nettles is to make more nettles”, “Annie’s pubic hair was beyond a joke”, “Dark roles, my agent says they’re me”, “A solo glutton or wolverine”, “After the earthquake we decided to redecorate Hell”. The poems introduced by such lines are witty, humane, erotic, worldly-wise, sardonic, amiable, and overflowing with a true poet’s delight in language.’

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Lives of poets

This is Perseus Adams. He was born in South Africa in 1933; he won the South Africa State Prize for Poetry in 1963 and took the name Perseus at the advice of his hitch-hiking friend Athol Fugard, who suggested that if he wanted to publish there were too many Peters around already.

An old friend of Perseus who lost touch with him a while back, an artist now living in Jerusalem who happens to be a Facebook friend of my wife, asked if we could trace him. The Internet has a page from a local newspaper dated 2009 that mentioned his poetry and gave his address as Hadyn Park Road, which leads off the street in which we live. (It also mentioned that his grandmother was Van Gogh’s sister.) On Saturday we knocked on doors, and found some sheltered housing but there was no one at the reception desk. Going there again today, I was told that yes, Perseus had lived there, but had recently moved to a care home and they couldn’t tell me which. This afternoon I found him. He showed me his poetry books (including a 1970s competition anthology: Perseus won second prize, Derek Mahon was one of the runners up); a Selected Poems was published in South Africa in 1996. He talked non-stop: about his grandfather who died at 45 in Scotland, about meeting Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, about teaching English in India and Hong Kong, about being a stowaway on the Queen Mary, about a brief spell in Wormwood Scrubs, about a woman with coloured lights in her dress, about the newly discovered planet Kepler-186, about the end of the world … He happens to be in the same care home as Sheila, the ex-bookseller I’ve written about before who ran a tiny bookshop in Notting Hill for 44 years. If I visit again, he wouldn’t mind some croissants.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Czech-land (2): Prague

Kafka’s grave in Prague on the morning of last Tuesday, the 90th anniversary of his death, and the overgrown Jewish cemetery where it is. While I was away I read his America for the first time: an affectionate, comic novel in which our hero stumbles into a series of messes and then has to get out of them. Kafka-esque doesn’t have to mean nightmarish. By chance, I also re-read Peter Handke’s Short Letter, Long Farewell, which is another German-speaking writer’s take on the land of America and which I liked even better than I remembered. And on my last night in Prague I heard Ales Machacek and Jane Kirwan read from their book Second Exile (Rockingham Press, 2010), which is a book CBe would have lunged for: memoir of silent cinema, reading, arrest and re-arrest, prison, odd-job jobs, no Velvet Revolution panacea, told bluntly and with a gorgeous turn of phrase, punctuated by Jane's slanting-off poems and a goose-woman, plus photographs.

An empty yellow house I could live happily in:

My hotel was near a park on a hill, and here late last Sunday afternoon, early evening, are people sitting around on the west-facing slope of that hill: talking, meeting, drinking beer, with dogs and small children and guitars, watching the sun set over their city. The Italian tradition of the passegiata - the evening stroll, dressed up, ambling, pausing for iced drinks - I find stifling. This, by comparison, was Langland's 'fair field full of folk', by accident of geography and weather and size of city, and to say I'm glad to have been there is the least of it.

Czech-land (1)

The Freelance column in today's Times Lit Supplement is me writing from my 'retreat' in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Here are some photos to go with that (the next post will show Prague). I hadn’t been out of the UK, and rarely out of London, for more than three years.

Krumlov is almost too picturesque for its own good, but doesn’t insist on it. A photo of the apartment I was in is in the previous post; below is Egon Schiele's painting of the building, from a century ago:

Frequent rain, and once a hailstorm. Japanese tourists with colourful umbrellas and pac-a-macs:

Walk for less than 20 minutes and I was into the forest. Walk through the forest and I’d find a small village. En route, hidden by trees, the occasional tiny chapel, often with candles left burning by an invisible pilgrim:

Time passed. Reading was done, sleeping was done, I began to take even the bears for granted.

On one of the rare hot days I took a bus to a lake to go swimming: an hour to get there in a bus that took detours, then two buses on the way back. All the buses were driven by the same driver.

I came home last night. Last Saturday, while I was away, May-Lan Tan's Things to Make and Break was named runner-up in the short story collection category in the Saboteur Awards. I'm feeling mellow and still a little detached.

Friday 23 May 2014

May days

You have just two days left to vote for May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break in the short-story collection of the Saboteur Awards: the voting page is here. May-Lan will be reading at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford on 31 May, when the awards will be announced.

In the last couple of weeks Agota Kristof’s The Notebook and The Illiteratehave been reviewed in the New Statesman and have been written about more extensively here, on the website of the US magazine Music & Literature.

I’m still away: the apartment I’m in is on the top floor of one of the two houses with terraces overlooking the river just down from the steeple in the photo above. There are (below) bears in the castle moat, and riverside walks, and forests, and an hour away a lake for swimming. Being a tourist is hard work. On 3 June I’ll visit the grave of Kafka in Prague on the 90th anniversary of his death.

Thursday 15 May 2014

If I look up from my desk ...*

Above is the view from the window above my desk, early evening, overlooking a river in a small town in the south of the Czech Republic. There’s a passage in Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage where he lists some of the lovely places he’s been in order to get some writing done and then adds: ‘What they all had in common, these ideal places for working, was that I never got any work done in them. I would sit down at my desk and think to myself What perfect conditions for working, then I would look out at the sun smouldering over the wheat, or at the trees gathering the Tuscan light around themselves …’

This is basically to say: I am away. Until sometime in June, at which time I will relearn basic communication skills.

Meanwhile, the category shortlists for the Saboteur Awards are up for public vote to decide the winners, and you have until 25 May to go to this page and vote. For May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break in the short story collection category, perhaps. You choose.

*Geoff Dyer: ‘of the many varieties of sentence I dislike there is none that I despise more than ones that proceed along the lines of “If I look up from my desk …”’

Tuesday 29 April 2014


This week’s poem on the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre website is D. Nurkse’s ‘The North Side’ from his collection A Night in Brooklyn, published by CBe last year. (I read that poem first in a US magazine; it was one of those poems I had to buy the whole magazine for, just to have it; I never guessed, at the time, I’d eventually publish the book that includes it.)

That US publishing rights for Jonathan Barrow’s The Queue (‘A wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous ... with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals’ – Independent on Sunday), published by CBe in 2011, have been sold is a happy surprise.

Update (non-update) on the tedious saga of Faber partially remaindering their poetry books – see this previous post. To my email to the sales director accepting his offer to sell me copies of my own book at 27p each (the price at which they were sold to a remainder merchant), no reply. To my email of over a month ago asking whether the same offer would be made to other Faber poets whose books are subject to ‘modest stock reductions’ (i.e., they are being partially remaindered), no reply.

I don’t think this is anything personal. (Well, it probably is, by now.) Earlier this year, after rereading work by an author I knew and admired, I emailed both his editor (at Faber, as it happens) and his agent to ask if they knew of any writing by him left unpublished at the time of his death in 2011. No reply from either. Alexei Sayle once wrote that the switch for the indicator light in taxis is located in the rear boot; for many in publishing, the email ‘reply’ button is similarly located.

From next week I’ll be away for a month (the Czech Republic, since you ask) and during that time I too may find the ‘reply’ button hard to find. Apologies in advance for erratic service.

Friday 25 April 2014

Two posts before going AWOL for a while: (2)

Early in May I'm going away for a while; back in June. Being in two places at the same time is something I've tried but am not good at, and while I'm away I can't see that there'll be more than one trip a week to the post office. Therefore: if you want to order books from the website and expect prompt delivery, please order in the next week.

Monday 21 April 2014

Two posts before going AWOL for a while: (1)

1 It may well not happen, but the hum that’s been humming at the back of my head for some time still translates as in the previous blog post of 14 March and is: a magazine; prose, poetry; twice a year; 160 pages, say; no more than around six contributors per issue (so on average around 25 pages per contributor). Reviews, no. Print-based, but as each issue comes out the previous becomes available free online (on Issuu?). A single initial print run, and no faffing with reprints.

2 A little late-night discussion, above. About many things, but this is one of them.

3 Funding. Is not, I think, an issue. CB editions has run since 2007 with no funding. I don’t want to make a point of this. On the other hand, and at the risk of being co-opted into some right-wing anti-arts-funding agenda, and at the lesser risk of being accounted grumpy-old-man, I do: 2007–14, CBe has shown that it is possible to publish books by the kind of writers the mainstream won’t touch, and have those books reviewed here-there-&-everywhere, and pick up a few prizes along the way, and not lose financially, without any funding at all. (And have more fun – seriously, playfully – than I ever had in a salaried publishing job.)

4 (If you check the annals of ACE, and you’ll need to be a certain mood to do this – the page from which you can download the figures is here – you’ll see that CBe was granted £2,450 in 2012 and £4,160 in 2013 for the Free Verse Book Fair; the first book fair in 2011 had zero funding; for 2012 and 13 the contributions of both I and Chrissy were calculated as ‘support in kind’, and neither of us profited by a cent; and this is fine. Last year we managed to underspend; we had a supper; the rest has been put into the 2014 budget. But repeated applications to ACE for the CBe publishing programme have been turned down.)

5 Money. Is not the point, is nowhere near the point, distracts from the point. Writing is not a ‘business’. Reading neither. Publishing, ditto.

6 Costs for the magazine: printing of 550 copies of one issue of 160 pages, slightly larger than the standard book B-format: £1,000. (Punch some numbers into the online calculator of this printer – which is excellent, and is used by many of the smaller presses – and you get under that.) Contributors’ fees (and rights for work in translation): allow £750. So £1,750. Income: sales of 460 copies at a cover price of £8.99 = £4,135. Assuming just 40% of that actually comes in (i.e., after the big discounts on copies going out through the distributor, and post-&-packing on copies sold through the website, etc), then £1,654. The margin of error seems OK.

7 If you have work, or want to suggest someone else’s work, that may fit the magazine – long form; I’m not interested at all in, say, a batch of six poems out of which I may like one – then say.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

April is the kindest month

A post largely made up of other people’s words. Review coverage in the past couple of weeks of CBe’s new titles includes:

In Bare Fiction (issue 2) Lucy Jeynes reviews May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break:
‘These are bold, sensual stories of love and loss … Tan plays with form and convention in a confident, interesting way: “Candy Glass”, about a Hollywood actress, is written in a form where the dialogue is presented as a script, raising a question mark over the authenticity of self in a world where a girl who was once a boy drives a driverless car and crashes through a windscreen made of sugar into a new life.
We dive headlong into a Technicolor world populated with a lapdancer; two triplets (with a dead third brother) sleeping with the same woman; a boy and girl with the same name; a stunt double. There is sex, and drugs, and rock’n’roll – as well as murder and quite the nastiest game of hide and seek … There is an unshrinking nakedness in the depiction of self-destructive behaviour that is almost painfully honest. This is not a book to be read with a cool, objective view. Gulp it down, smear yourself with the luscious prose, inhale it.
The narrative voices of each of these eleven pieces are distinctively characterised, wonderfully subjective and opinionated in their self-reflection, telling their own self in the telling of their stories; sassy, witty, modern, international … There is a lot of sex in this book: straight, gay, loving, nasty, sensual, strange and all very explicit … But the sexiest writing in this book is not the sex, it’s the writing itself.’

– and Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist:
‘It is always a joy to find a book that demands an intelligent engagement of the reader, and there is no spoon-feeding here … There is no obvious narrative thread or arc and the stories are all the more pleasing for that. Instead there is a drawing out of themes and motifs as each new personality arrives on the page … This collection would be a superb desert island choice – you would not get lonely with all those people to keep you company. Small enough to fit in your pocket, with enough food for thought to sustain you for weeks, and filled with the seeds of stories that you could grow into your very own forest.’

In the Times Literary Supplement, Eimear McBride reviews Agota Kristof’s The Notebook:
‘Louring over Agota Kristof’s entire narrative is the shadow of war, occupoation and the ambivalent experience of liberation for the “liberated”. The twins survive by rejecting traditional notions of identity and social order. Like a pair of self-realised Nietzchean Supermen, they make themselves of the earth, driven by the need to preserve rather than service the flesh, uninterested in abstract or unquantifiable concepts such as love or the divine. With survival as their guiding principle, they become monsters of distilled, unsentimental humanity and, by the shocking climax, invulnerable even to what has hitherto seemed their own impregnable bond.’

– and The Illiterate:
‘The security and relative material comfort of her new life cannot make up for the glaring absences inherent in the refugee experience. Her descriptions – of those with whom she escaped and whose sense of isolation eventually leads them back to Hungary even at the cost of their lives, as well as those whose sense of despair brings them to suicide – offers an uncomfortable insight into the extreme vulnerability of those obliged to seek asylum abroad. Fortunately this experience did not prevent Kristof from creating works of uncompromising intensity, which forbid the reader to overlook the terrible price her liberty to do so paid.’

Another review of Kristof's The Notebook and The Illiterate will be in the New Statesman in May.

Meanwhile, Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist has reached New Zealand – first, from the blog Off the Tracks: ‘I’ve never read a book like it … the accumulative power of this book – of taking it all in, seeing not a hair out of place, sensing a strange and powerful madness within and around the writing and selecting of these pieces, the placement – is when you really see the magic. The writing is technically flawless, vivid, cruel and wonderful. It’s so often as good as it gets.
Whatever this is – whether novel/anti-novel or just a twisted stop-start journey of nearly short-stories – it’s a mini-masterpiece. And it contains – or is barely able to contain and control – multitudes.’

And from Page Blackmore Booksellers: ‘… a kaleidophone of voices, first-person narrative fragments, tiny stories bearing the impress of larger, untold stories; wry observations unknowingly made by unobservant people, anecdotes with perfectly deflating punch-lines, almost-jokes that meticulously leave off at being almost-jokes without aspiring to be jokes; gauche quips, mundane miseries treated with both sympathy and humour; small lives writ small and at once satirised and celebrated for their smallness; an encyclopedic accumulation of human experiences of the kind that usually evanesce without being recorded even in the experiencers’ memories let alone on paper. All these thousands of voices are captured pitch-perfectly by Eaves … with a cold eye and a warm heart, and with an unbelievably sensitive ear for what all sorts of people say and how they say it (or, what they think and how they think it)’

And Francis Ponge’s Unfinished Ode to Mud in Beverley Bie Brahic’s translation gets to the US – from LunaLuna: ‘No one before or since has managed Francis Ponge’s quintessentially French style, balancing documentary narration with classic encyclopedistism with bemused koans with grandfatherly humor. “The Crate” (page 9 in Beverley Bie Brahic’s translation) we get his special brand of Objectivism with such a pleasurable command of diction/telling: “…it is not used twice. Which makes it even less durable than the melting or cloudlike produce within.” I have no compunction about calling him magic.’