Monday 25 April 2016

The shape of things

Don Paterson’s introduction to his little Faber anthology (part of their 101 series) of sonnets gave a lot of space (I can’t quote because I don’t have the book to hand) to the shape of the sonnet, proportion of width to height. The sonnet shape is roughly exemplified by Malevich’s 1932 Red House (which was on the cover of the original edition, 1990s I think; later editions dropped it, a shame). The Malevich, above.

The sheer shape of it has to do with the sonnet’s persistence. Portrait, not landscape. It’s roughly the shape of the notebook you carry around and write in, and of the A4 paper you print your poems and stories on when when you send them out (for those places that still don’t take online submissions) and of the magazine (except for Stand) or book that they may, god willing, get printed in.

I’ve been wondering (as one does) why the standard delivery system for poems in my lifetime has been the roughly sonnet-shaped book of 64 pages, in which so many of the poems have occupied a single page. The 64 (or 48, or 80, etc) has had to do with with a certain period of printing technology, which required a page extent divisible by 16, and needn’t apply to digital printing, but the basic shape? There’ve been other delivery systems in the past, but even the scroll was portrait not landscape.

Television and cinema screens are landscape. So are computer (but not tablet or smartphone, unless you swivel) screens – yet almost certainly, the window on the computer in which you do your writing is portrait.

About a decade ago an exact contemporary of mine (we were in the 6th form at school together; then he sailed off on a fishing boat to Iceland; much later, he had twin girls in Scotland, I had twin boys in England, all born within the space of about a year, a Shakespearian comedy in the making, and we met up; and then he died) published an online translation of Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune with links, artwork, video things, innovatory for its time, and I got a little excited: if online rather than printed book becomes the regular delivery system, the shape of a poem (or page) that I’m used to becomes just one of a possible many?

So far, it seems not. There are writers whose default medium is the screen rather than the A4 or printed-book page, but nothing (or very little) to date whose format simply has to be something other than portrait. (Correct me; I live a sheltered life; I may be wrong, often am.) The interaction between traditional publishing and online is generally dull. Ebooks are convenient, but reproducing print in an online form that mimics that of printed books is hardly an innovative use of the medium.

It’s possible – no? – that just as a wheel has to be round – a square wheel wouldn’t function as a wheel – a poem has to be portrait rather than landscape. For various human reasons. There are only so many words that a reader can take in per line before getting befuddled (text design kicks in here: type size and leading and line measure, to make the reading experience as reader-friendly as possible). For the length that one breathes out before needing to breathe in. In, out.

All kinds writing and reading key in. The lovely kerching when, writing on a typewriter, you have reached the end of a line and have to lever the carriage back to the left again and the page jerks up a little. Watching on the Tube someone opposite reading a book: the way their eyes move from left to right and back to left, and again, and again, the rhythm of it. It’s how people watch tennis. The shape of the buildings in which we, many of us, live, and do our reading and writing and all the other things we do. (I’ve spent a good proportion of my life going up or down stairs.) Further, some kind of predisposition to vertical hierarchy: upper-middle-lower. The ‘conscious’ and the ‘subconscious’ – as though these things were arranged in layers, levels, vertically.*

* ‘If we are trained well, we can do three or four things together at the same time: ride in a car, cry, and look through a window; eat, love, think. And all the time consciousness passes like an elevator among the floors.’ – Yehuda Amichai, ‘Nina of Ashkelon’

PS: The title of this post is cribbed from a 1999 book published by Reaktion (and designed by, guess who, Ron Costley): Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things. He’s sharp and witty. ‘Umbrellas are relatively complicated contraptions which refuse to work just when they are needed (when it is windy, for instance).’ ‘Why do machines stutter? The answer is, because everything in the world (and the whole world itself) stutters.’ ‘Roofs are devices to make us subservient.’ ‘Until recently our world consisted of things: houses and furniture, machines and motor vehicles, clothing and underwear, books and pictures, tins and cigarettes.’

Thursday 14 April 2016

The new brown

From 2007 to now, all (well, almost all) CBe books have had brown card covers. These, as the website puts it, ‘allude with respect and thanks to the paperback London Magazine editions published by Alan Ross in the late 1960s and early 70s’ – a series designed by Ron Costley, who I’ve written about here before and who died last year. For a number of reasons – a main one being that I don’t want to be limited to printing with a printer who carries the brown card as regular stock – I want to change.

Alan Ross also published a hardback series. Here are three off the shelves: Bernard Spencer (1965), Tony Harrison (1970; ‘Loiners’, by the way, are people from Leeds, as I am); Tomas Transtromer (1972; translated by Robert Bly).

Keeping the Alan Ross and Ron Costley link, here (below) is what I’m thinking of for the new look. As before, usually no cover image (but yes if appropriate). First print runs of a new title will have flaps, reprints probably not. All new titles like this; and any existing titles that run out of stock and that I’d like to keep in print will move into this design. Any thoughts?

Saturday 9 April 2016

'No flair but he plods on'

In the interests of accountability and full disclosure, here are quotes (all genuine) from my school reports between 1959 and 1964 (which I found last night while looking for something else):

1959 He is a neat, reliable worker.

1960 Rather slow progress.

1961 With more practice he should improve.
Moderate. He does not think fast enough.
He tries hard but is sometimes disappointingly inaccurate.
Rather slow. A more incisive approach would help.

1962 There are signs of improvement.
Trying hard but finds the work difficult. Never really shows his ability in exams. Working under stress seems to worry him.
Quality at the moment not impressive.
He finds advanced work difficult but has time on his side.

1963 No flair but he plods on.
Slow progress.
Rather pedestrian pace so far.
Elementary mistakes mar his compositions. Much ground remains to be covered.
Moderate standard but time is still on his side.
He plods on but finds none of the work easy.

1964 Works hard but the syllabus has become a tall order.
He has made progress but much of his work is below the standard required.
He is doing good work though a little slow.
Less confused but still not readily capable with grammar.
He is an excellent Scout, Secretary both of Library and Bird Club. He has played good rugger. His reading at the Carol Service was quite splendid.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

On the afterlife of deceased books

One of the books that meant the world to me and still does is Leila Berg’s Flickerbook – a memoir in fragments, telling her life from birth in 1917 (Manchester working-class Jewish background) up to the moment when, on a bus, she hears of the outbreak of the Second World War. Granta published it in 1997. It went out of print. I went to see Leila Berg in around 2008, wanting to re-issue the book with CBe. That didn’t happen (long story). Leila died in 2012. Not one of her books (she published around 50) is currently in print.

Some more books that have meant the world to me and that are now out of print (or in print but only just, to the point where they may as well not be; or in print, just, in the US but not here): Alfred Hayes, In Love; James Kennaway, Silence; James Buchan, Slide; Gianni Celati, Voices from the Plains; Denis Johnson, The Name of the World; Aleksander Wat, Selected Poems; Hanna Krall, The Woman from Hamburg. I could go on, of course I could.

What happens to books when they die?

If they are very, very lucky, they get get re-issued by NYRB – a completely superb publisher whose list I could live off, whose re-issues are well designed and carry expert and passionate introductions from contemporary writers. Less lucky, they get re-issued by Faber Finds – which is, compared to NYRB, tacky: no introductions, badly designed, print-on-demand, over-priced. Barely lucky, they have an afterlife on abebooks or amazon ‘used & new’ (Flickerbook is there for a penny; I’ve bought so many copies myself and then given them or ‘lent’ them that I’m happy to see it still flickering). Or on a trestle table at a primary school summer fair, which was where I picked up Nina Fitzpatrick’s Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia, another book I’d go to the wall for. Or they get a post on one of those blogs that specialise in dead books. No luck, then no afterlife at all.

Earlier this year, someone I was talking to about my vain attempt to bring Flickerbook back into print used the F-word. ‘Oh, no point in fetishising books’ – something like that. I’m thinking that he’s maybe right. Books can die, vanish. Almost all of them do just that. Survival is pretty random. Ars longa, vita brevis is just one of those things your granny tells you.

Friday 1 April 2016

On the BBC

The BBC is embedded in my life. The first TV we ever had coming into the house: 1950s, black and white. I remember it being delivered, and where to put it. I remember Andy Pandy, and Bill and Ben. I have no memory of the switch to colour. I was allowed to stay up an extra half hour to watch Tonight, presented by Cliff Michelmore, who died last month. The Wednesday Play: David Mercer, Dennis Potter, David Rudkin, Cathy Come Home. I remember watching these with my mum and feeling awkward, I think both of us, when there was sex.

A lot of people still do watch TV. Occasionally, I do too: some sport, some films. And then, recently, an episode of the BBC’s costume-drama adaptation of War and Peace, and most episodes of The Night Manager, which was awful for so many reasons: sexist in its treatment of the female characters, racist in its treatment of the Middle Eastern characters; almost no acting, because of the poverty of the script (does anyone seriously think that looking serious and quizzical at the same time is good acting?); plot-heavy, while whizzing by so many holes in that; sex and violence input at quota percentages. All-star posh cast. Lavish scenery. £18 million, I’m guessing, from the mention on the BBC’s own website that it cost around £3 million per episode.

(There was a Guardian piece in the past day or so about a number of the male lead actors having a particular Oxford private school background in common: the continuing triumph of rich white males.)

The BBC is publicly funded through the licence fee, and is independent of political control. Good. But it is not independent of market control: most of the money we give it goes into fancy things that can sell to foreign networks. When they have to make cuts, they cut the bits that show on their minority channels, the bits that are surely the whole point of public broadcasting – that it doesn’t have to be dependent on the market. I have never really understood why the BBC has to be engaged in a ratings/numbers battle with the commercial channels: the latter depend on advertising revenue, so of course they have to appeal to as many viewers as possible; the whole point of the publicly funded BBC is that it bypasses that, so why can’t it just be good? BBC is currently not, by any stretch, a ‘jewel in the crown’ of anything. I’m not sure what the point of it is.