Sunday 29 March 2020

Non-essential books

Above, a CBe works outing in happier times, 2016. This year’s works outing has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. This year we – I mean those of us still lucky enough not to be in hospital and whose work turns out to be not essential – are spending a lot of time indoors.

CBe is offering a Lockdown Subscription: for £65, a book posted weekly for 10 weeks. Free delivery; UK addresses only (for reasons of postage costs). How it works: go to the website Home page and click the PayPal button; send me an email ( to tell me which CBe titles (if any) you already have and whether you are basically a poetry person or a fiction person, or are happy with either; once a week, receive a new book through the letterbox.

If you hanker after any particular titles, do say so in the email, but supply will be dependent on the stock I happen to have at home. I have enough stock of around 30 titles on the list to sustain this little operation for a limited number of subscribers; if you want, I can email you a list of those titles and you can choose which 10 books you’d like to receive. Included in the subscription will be the new title published in May and, if the printer is still printing over the next couple of weeks, the new title published in June.

Cover price of most of the books is £8.99; for a few, £10, or even £12. If you’re into numbers, £6.50 per book is a saving of 28% or 35% or 46% on their cover price. And sometimes I’ll throw in an extra book or a pamphlet or an issue of the ill-fated magazine Sonofabook magazine (just two issues, back in 2015).

All of this is dependent on my local post office staying open and the posties delivering, door by possibly risky door. If the postal system does close, the subscription will of course be honoured when it restarts.

Books are not ventilators, not even hand sanitisers. What’s offered here is a luxury, but I hope a tempting one. Self-interest is involved, obviously: with bookshops and the distributor’s warehouse closed down, I’d still like to shift some books.

To offset the self-interest, a shout-out for Irmgard Keun (1905–82), whose After Midnight and The Artificial Silk Girl I’ve just reread. From the latter: if a woman ‘from money’ marries into her own class and ‘has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman’, but if a woman without money sleeps with a man without money ‘because he has a smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch’. Keun’s female protagonists are in the latter category, without money; being working class, they tend to have no education also (‘Heavenly Father, perform a miracle and give me an education – I can do the rest myself with make-up’). They like men, despite all the usual problems (‘There’s that moment when you want to – but they want to just a minute too soon, and that ruins everything’), and they are naturally intelligent and funny (‘He has this gentle smile on his face like a pediatrician’). Meanwhile, it’s the 1930s, and the Nazis are tightening their grip. Penguin published Michael Hofmann’s translation of Keun’s Child of All Nations a decade ago; they are now bringing three more titles back into print, plus a new Hofmann translation later this year. Keun knocks your socks off.

Thank you. Thank you even more to those whose work is essential.

Tuesday 17 March 2020


A civil society is a very fragile thing. It doesn’t take much to knock it: any smeary fear-mongering power-crazy guy can do that, if he’s rich enough. Any inhalation of a respiratory droplet.

The economy, Johnson says, will come ‘roaring back’. Meanwhile he wants industry to make more ventilators. The manufacturers who have been contributing to the economy by making bombs to sell to the air forces which drive millions into the refugee camps among which the virus will be uncontainable? Go for it. Let’s make ventilators. And then go back to bombs?

The UK is the fifth richest country in the world. It has the resources to afford housing and healthcare to every one of its citizens, but has chosen not to. And has responded today to thousands losing their jobs, losing their already strained capacity to pay for food and rent, by offering LOANS to businesses. The no-longer waiters, cleaners of offices, shelf stackers, shop people, etc, as well as the much much smaller number of people working in assistant roles in the arts, now know their place; they did already, but now they are being told it, officially. They are being told, go hang.

My Twitter feed (I’m a booky guy) has folk offering online poems and home delivery of books for the self-isolating, and that’s kind, and kindness we need. Kindness is often a response to difficulty. Without downplaying the kindness, we could try tackling the difficulty? Vulnerability to COVID-19 has been unknowingly and also deliberately – yes, you can do both together, if you are stupid, which is what this system delivers – created, and I’m fucking furious.