Sunday, 1 August 2021

On selling books


[Drawing by Nick Wadley]

In July 2013 I and another small-press publisher took a pop-up shop in Portobello Road to sell our books. He, Tweedledum, strode out into the street and attempted to press-gang passers-by in to the shop. I, Tweedledee, stood behind my table and occasionally, if someone was standing in front of my books for a suspicious length of time, offered some chat about them. Neither of us was cut out for this.

I began CB editions in 2007 after a lifetime of reading books but with no experience of attempting to sell them. I am not a natural salesperson. (I am writing this while reading Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart by Irmgard Keun, trans. Michael Hofmann: ‘I have no aptitude for business. I don’t think I could even go bankrupt successfully.’) I worry that that if someone buys a book they won’t like it, and they’ll have a lingering distaste for me ever afterwards. I tell this someone about other books than the one in their hands that they are about to pay for, but now maybe not. I give people every opportunity to have second thoughts. If they insist on buying, I’m so stupidly grateful that they are offering me money they could otherwise spend on wine or food or cigarettes that I offer them a discount. I’ve had tables at book fairs where I’ve been so just part of the furniture that I’ve basically said, I can ignore you too, don’t even dare to buy a book from me.

To an extent, I’m offering here a caricature of myself that is not dissimilar to the publicity-shy image promoted by certain writers who turn out, on closer inspection, to have been very good at publicity: dedicated aversion worked in their favour. Somehow, I have managed to sell a few books: a few thousand of a couple of the titles, before another publisher pounced or my license to publish closed or I just ran out of steam. But I’m still better at not selling them: fewer than a hundred copies of several titles that were no less worth the publishing than the ones that touched a sweet spot.

A sweet spot is what everyone working in publishing is employed to reach. There are a lot of books and very few sweet spots on offer. The consequence is a level of hype – in press releases, in the puff quotes on book covers, on Twitter and other social media – that smacks of desperation. How many most-eagerly-awaited-books-of the-year can there be? (At the time of writing, I feel for Sally Rooney as well as for Simone Biles: the publishing business treats its sweet-spot authors as the sports business treats its athletes.) Another consequence, at an individual level: you work in publishing and that’s good – you’re selling books, as you might be selling dog kennels or cutlery or porn or liver sausage, but books are different, aren’t they? – but it gets tricky when your job description includes the promotion of books you may have some difficulty with (Jordan Peterson, for example). It might be cleaner to be selling dog kennels.

Selling books also involves, of course, the logistics of how a book gets to a reader, a medieval process that involves distributors, wholesalers, sales agents and reps, all of whom take their cut before a book even gets on a shelf of a bookshop – which down the line, if it’s just taking up shelf space, can return the book and get their money back (in which case I will have not only not sold the book but paid a number of people for the privilege). Because of all the little cuts along the way, no one gets rich unless they are involved with a book that sells in high volume – and the system is geared more to those books than to the ones that sell in single copies to very occasional buyers. (Capitalism: we can tinker at the edges, with grants and bursaries, but this is the bed we’ve made and now we have to lie in it.) All the people involved in this process tend to be nice, book-loving people; but life is short and it’s rare for them to actually read the books they are selling. They are selling from the puff-quotes; they are selling blind. Another twist is that aggressive discounting by Amazon serves to force the cover price of a book up.

But the biggest twist in the tale is that by and large – on the whole, more or less, give or take, for better for worse – the distribution system does (creakily, and with hiccups) work. Because it is so stretched out, breakdowns between the various players are not uncommon, and at these points it’s up to me to chase and bang heads together. That I’m not cut out for this (see above) is not an excuse. I publish books; a part of publishing is selling. Here’s a sentence from Some Gorgeous Accident by James Kennaway tracking Fiddes, a doctor, a decent man who does good work (and is eventually struck off and disgraced; but that’s another story), wondering ‘why he’d chosen to be the kind of doctor who makes no money’: ‘There was such awful, English arrogance in that.’ There absolutely is.

Monday, 28 June 2021

A song-and-dance man


‘So who was ever going to remember Jack Robinson? Especially as that summer, Jack Robinson simply ceased to be, simply sidled away, his time was up, never to return. Who was going to remember? Except himself of course, publicly but cryptically, every time he said, “Oh just an old song-and-dance man.”’That’s from Graham Swift’s Here We Are, one of whose main characters has the stage name Jack Robinson. I’ve used the pen name Jack Robinson myself over the past dozen years but in The Other Jack I’ve let him sidle away, his time was up. Readers have commented on Twitter that the book is variously ‘a marvellous romp’ and ‘faintly nihilistic’. The book is available here.

From the back cover: ‘My granny used to say, when she saw me getting teary over a film we were watching on TV, “It’s only a story.” When Robyn’s bike was stolen and I offered sympathy, she responded, “It’s only money.” A woman once said to me, grinning from ear to ear, “It’s only sex.” To someone despairing of the judges’ decision, I want to say, “It’s only a book.” But it is never only anything.'


Another finishing off, this time with Finland. Tony Lurcock’s Not So Barren and Uncultivated: British travellers in Finland 1760–1830 was published by CBe in 2010. It grew into a trilogy: two more volumes followed, each of extracts from British observers of Finland with introductions and linking commentaries by Tony Lurcock. And now there are four: the final, wrapping-up volume is published this week. It include Finns in England as well as Brits in Finland and perspectives on the sauna and Finnish education. Finish Off with Finland: A Miscellany is available here.

The Lockdown Subscription continues: 10 books for £70, post free in the UK. Available from the website. It’s not a vaccination but it’s still worth having.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Writing on death row


In James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice Frank Chambers gets away with one murder but is convicted of another that he didn’t commit. In the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There Ed Crane gets away with one murder but is convicted of another that he didn’t commit. While they are on death row, both characters write down their versions of what has happened – Ed for a magazine that’s paying him 5 cents a word, Frank writing the book the reader is reading. Writing is not going to save either of them from the noose or the electric chair, so why?

Every so often – sometimes not for weeks, sometimes every hour of the day – I do wonder about the trust that is placed in the written word, a trust at least as widespread among those who don’t regularly read or write as among literary folk.

Both Cain’s novel and the Coen Brothers’ film echo the ‘True Confessions’ of prisoners awaiting execution in the early 18th century that jump-started the English novel. Jack Sheppard’s first-person account (‘as told’ to Daniel Defoe) of his robberies and his several escapes from prison has everything that many readers expect of modern fiction: crime, Houdini-like breakouts from chains and manacles, love interest, betrayals, kindness to an elderly mother and an abiding concern with ‘justice’. He is telling his tale, he insists, ‘to satisfy the curious, and do justice to the innocent’. Sheppard’s words gained authority from being spoken ‘on the brink of eternity’. Aged 22, Sheppard was hanged in November 1724; a third of the population of London followed his progress from Newgate in an open cart to the gallows at Tyburn. 

Frank, Ed and Jack Sheppard – none of them is exactly innocent, but they all want to get their stories out into the world and they trust the written word to do them justice. Not legal justice, which is hit-or-miss: except in books, most rapists, murderers and corrupt politicians aren’t even brought to court. The very basic justice they want – like most of us, and we are all on death row – is to be paid attention to. Which doesn’t sound much to ask but in fact is huge.

To trust something (or someone) is a wager, a gamble. There’s a thrill in that; it’s a large part of why we do it. There are no guarantees. It could be a stupid mistake. It’s probably rash to trust in things made from the ordinary stuff we use to order coffee, say hello and goodbye, curse, praise, grumble, get through the day with others – language is implicated in the confusion of the world, language is not innocent. (But what else have we got that could do the job any better? Set a thief to catch a thief.) It’s probably also rash and it is certainly vain to trust that our written words will outlast us: posterity is a tease, most books have a very short shelf-life.

To believe that one is worth being paid attention to is itself vanity. Some people don’t have this, or recoil from it – Jonas Milk in Simenon’s The Little Man from Archangel, for example, who is suspected of the murder of his wife, who has disappeared. He didn’t do it; in fact he loves her, in his way, but it’s not a way that either his neighbours or the police can get their heads around: ‘They hadn’t understood him, or else he hadn’t understood the others, and this latest misunderstanding was beyond all hope of being cleared up.’ There’s a tree, a clothes line, a chair, and a brief pause before Jonas hangs himself: ‘He had a momentary impulse to explain everything in a letter, but it was a last vanity of which he was ashamed, and he rejected the idea.’ Luckily – not for Jonas, who was destroyed, but for readers – Simenon had the necessary vanity to do the job on behalf of his character.

I’m vain too and I’ve written a book about books, mostly, titled The Other Jack. I have a surely not uncommon awkward relationship with the whole matter of books. Justice is in the index but also jokes and happiness and self-loathing and privilege and umbrellas. The book can be ordered here. Or it can be part of a Lockdown Subscription, available on the home page. We may be coming out of lockdown but the cost – £70 for 10 books, post free – is still locked down, and it’s a bargain.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Flickerbook


This is more than just another new CBe book, it’s a new/old one and it’s been waiting for over a decade to happen. When I decided, back in 2008, that there were going to be more books than the first four, I wanted Leila Berg’s Flickerbook – first published in 1997 by Granta, and out of print within a few years despite wonderful reviews – to be one of them. It felt definitive: superb writing appearing out of left field. I wrote to Leila Berg c/o Granta, and somehow that letter got through (many don’t) and she replied:



I went to see her. Leila was in her 90s. She was gracious and kind. For various reasons the reissue of Flickerbook didn’t happen then, but now it has. Leila died in 2012.

Flickerbook told me things: things specific to the life recounted – that of a girl growing up in a Jewish family in Salford in the 1920s and 30s – and things about England and about writing. Although subtitled ‘An autobiography’ the book ends when Leila Berg is aged just 22. It is written – in the words of the website dedicated to Berg’s life and work – ‘in the subjective voice of the author as her childhood self at the specific age being revisited’. It’s a re-living, largely in the present tense (and in this it has elements in common with another new CBe title, Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals).

The website I’ve just mentioned (www.leilaberg.com) is worth exploring. It includes a link to an article by Leila Berg about her life in London during the war, after Flickerbook ends. Anyone who thinks wartime London was bathed in a warm, pulling-together, mutually-supportive ‘spirit of the Blitz’ probably needs to read it.

Two incidental reflections on Flickerbook. One: given Berg’s absolute commitment to the infinite potential of children, and her anger at the way institutional education denies them agency and corrals them onto the consumer belt, she had to write the book in the way she did, from the child’s perspective. (Which is often, on the page, to the adult reader, funny, but it is not at all cute; it is chastening.) Two: Berg, growing up in a Jewish family, constantly notices differences between her own family and others: ‘Christians say Granny. Or they say Nan. They don’t say Bobbie.’ ‘Christians beat boys and girls. Jewish people only beat boys. That is because they think only boys are important. But Christians think girls are important enough to beat too.’ An awareness of being other is a part of who she is. Because the narrative of Flickerbook ends in September 1939 there is no mention of the Holocaust but the conditions for the scapegoating of the Other – in England just as much as in any other country – are witnessed.

This new CBe edition includes an introduction by Ruth Fainlight and, as an afterword, a reprinted review of the original edition in the London Review of Books (where reviews have room to say something) by Hilary Mantel. Here are the endpapers from the original 1997 edition:



Flickerbook, officially published next month, is available now from the website. And can be one of the 10-books-for-£70 Lockdown Subscription if you want it to be. The subscription offer has kept CBe going over the past year and it must taste OK because there are people coming back for second helpings. Meanwhile, Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens, published in April by CBe, has an excerpt published by the Washington Post and a feature on the book in the Los Angeles Times and other US acclaim. In the UK to date, silence. It’s quite hard to sell books.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Working the numbers at night



The gradual release on lockdown has allowed the reopening of not just pubs with gardens and Primark but bookshops too. Good. But I’m not sure that this is going to make much difference to sales of CBe books.

In theory, independent bookshops are almost by definition supportive of small presses. In practice, very, very few independent bookshops (with three or four honourable exceptions) have ever stocked CBe titles on a regular basis. When a customer asks a bookshop for a particular title, often the bookshop will check if it’s in stock at Gardners, the main wholesaler, and if not they will tell the customer the title is not available; they will choose not to order from CBe’s trade distributor. When I take books into bookshops myself, they may agree to take one or two copies on a sale-or-return basis – agreeing to pay for those copies (less trade discount) in three months’ time if they have sold, and requiring me to chase them for that. I know bookshops have to pay rent but those are not supportive practices.

CBe’s trade distributor, fielding orders from bookshops and online retailers, is Central Books. I also sell books through the website – but in a usual year, around five times as many books are sold through Central Books. The past year has not been usual. In fact, the sales pattern has been reversed. April 2020 to March 2021, the numbers of books sold through Central Books was 73% less than the previous year; in the same period, the number of books sold through website orders was 135% more than the previous year. Gross sales income (before deduction of costs) from all sales for 2020/21 was just 11% lower than the 2019/20 figure.

I’m writing here about CBe; other presses will have other tales to tell. The actual numbers involved (as opposed to percentages) are small. Of the 68 titles published since 2007, 22 have sold fewer than 100 copies through Central Books; two titles have sold more than 3000 copies through Central; six others have topped 1000. How to increase those numbers? I could ditch Central Books and try another distributor, or I could ditch the present sales agent (who promotes the list to bookshops) and try another … but publishers complaining about sales agents is as traditional as authors complaining about publishers, and I’m not persuaded that swapping x for y would make a significant difference. I could – in fact I should: I owe it the authors – scale up (adding in marketing know-how and applying for ACE funding to do this), but there’d be no guarantee of extra sales to support the extra costs, and worry about taking on books that I wasn’t confident would sell in numbers would play a much larger part in decision-making than it currently does.

What’s kept CBe going over the past year has largely been the Lockdown Subscription – 10 books of your choice over 10 weeks for £70, with extras thrown in. Thank you to all who have pressed the button. It’s still available. Three new 2021 CBe titles (by Roy Watkins, Dan O’Brien, Nuzhat Bukhari) are now in print, and another two (by Leila Berg, Charles Boyle) are up on the website for pre-orders; any or all of these can be included in a subscription.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

Books, beard, soup


Clocks have gone forward, the year already a quarter gone, and here’s a little stock-taking of recent and about-to-be books:

Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, an urgent, angry account of the early months of Covid that borrows the form of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and is approved by the TLS: ‘Aiming somewhere halfway between cheap pastiche and serious homage, Gibbs hits his mark. He nails Autumn Journal’s casual, yawning metres and late-to-the-party rhymes, its balance of didacticism and doubt.’

Simple Annals by Roy Watkins. Comments emailed from early readers: ‘This book is a masterpiece’; ‘Simple Annals is quietly devastating’; ‘The intimacy and the perfectly targeted and delineated images are just very moving. Wonderful’ ; ‘What a find! It's so vivid and gripping’; ‘I have not been so affected by a book in a long time.’ Someone please write a review in a proper public space.

A Story that Happens: on playwriting, childhood and other traumas by Dan O’Brien: four essays written during the four years that Trump was occupying the White House, and during the aftermath of cancer, cannot be about just the craft of writing. If you order this from the website and would like a copy of O’Brien’s poetry collection Scarsdale added in free, write ‘Scarsdale’ under ‘instructions to merchant’ as you check through the PayPal; or send me an email.

Brilliant Corners by Nuzhat Bukhari (not published until May – printout of cover in the above photo, because finished copies not yet in – but copies available in April if you order from the website). A Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Abigail Parry: ‘A collection that is abstract and adamant, sparkling, ruthlessly sharp.’


I have grown a lockdown beard and I have cooked and eaten 22 recipes sent by CBe writers (documented on previous posts on this blog, January to March). Here is the 23rd: from Todd McEwen (The Five Simple Machines; Who Sleeps with Katz), ‘a smoked fish soup I invented myself’: smoked haddock, potatoes (waxy), celery, onion, turmeric, saffron, paprika, stock and wine and milk. This is a very fine soup. CBe has no ‘submission guidelines’ but if it did, here’s how they might begin: send me a recipe first, so I’ll know how your writing will taste.

Note: for technical reasons (wrong kind of leaves on the track?), neither Agota Kristof’s The Notebook nor Will Eaves’s Murmur are available from the website. But they are available to anyone who takes out a Lockdown Subscription.

Monday, 1 March 2021

More books, less food

From April 2020 to February 2021 sales of CBe books out of Central Books, the distributor, were 75% down on the same period last year. I imagine that if CBe was a very big publisher, dependent on volume of sales, this would be disastrous. Given that the actual numbers are pretty small we’ll muddle through, but during Covid selling books direct from the website has been the main means of survival – especially the Lockdown Subscription offer of 10 books (plus extras) for £70 (UK only, free postage). This is still available: see the website home page. Some subscribers come back for second helpings.

The new books so far this year are Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals, a memoir (or re-living) of childhood in Lancashire in the 1940s; and Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens: On playwriting, childhood, and other traumas, four essays written (one per year) during the Trump presidency, with an introduction written during the US elections last November.

A few days before the first UK lockdown took effect in March last year, Jonathan Gibbs began writing what became Spring Journal, a week-by-week record (based on Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal) of a bad, exhausting year. We are still looking for ways in which to articulate the experience of living with Covid: this fluent, urgent, angry book helps.

All the new books can be included in the Lockdown Subscription: you choose.

The last several newsletters have featured recipes from CBe writers. With this, just one plate of food, below. This is the 22nd recipe; previous ones are still available on this Sonofabook blog.

22 Sort-of Tagine from Patrick McGuinness (essays next year from CBe). ‘This is from the place of my birth and first childhood, Tunisia … The recipe was never written down, and was always more of a freeform around three fixed motifs: ras el hanout powder, harissa powder or paste, and preserved lemons (the ones in jars are better than the home-made hipster-shop ones because of the large amounts of sour juice which goes into the tagine and tastes delicious in a cocktail too – add it to gin or vodka martini).’ I overdid the lemons but do not regret it.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 6

Series 1, episode 6. There are books too. The official publication date of Roy Watkins’s Simple Annals, a memoir of early childhood in Lancashire, 1940s, is this week: ‘There isn’t an iota of sentiment or nostalgia in his recollection partly because the past isn’t embalmed but seen as an ecstatic and traumatic living root and presence in the writer’s being ... Watkins is entirely original and this book is a masterpiece.’ And printed copies of Dan O’Brien’s A Story that Happens are in: a book that doesn’t so much teach about writing but learns, alongside the reader. Passing on knowledge from experience is not a thing we seem be good at; this book does precisely that. Meanwhile …

18 Kozinaki from Caroline Clark (Sovetica forthcoming from CBe). From Georgia; made by the author in Canada and Moscow in winter. Pan-roast nuts and seeds, traditionally walnuts but any kind; melt some sugar in honey, pour the nuts into the syrup and stir until all are well coated; spread out on a baking tray lined with baking paper, use another sheet of baking paper to press down and flatten, cover and leave outside in the garden or on the balcony to let the kind of temperatures we’ve been having this month harden it. Break off pieces, eat.
19 Aloo and Baingan Salan (Aubergine and Potato Curry) from Nuzhat Bukhari (Brilliant Corners coming in May). Aubergine, potatoes, tomatoes; onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, green chilli pepper, garam masala. Serve with yogurt into which you’ve stirred chopped mint, and naan bread. Eat with your fingers. Feel very warm.
20 Squirrel from Lara Pawson (This Is the Place to Be). This was one of the first recipes sent to me in early January, but squirrels don’t just fall out of trees (or if they do, it’s usually onto a branch of the next tree along). Two possible scenarios were worrying me: (a) I wouldn’t like it; (b) I’d like it so much I’d want squirrels every week. Fortunately for everyone, including squirrels, the first prevailed: there’s wine and rosemary and plenty of garlic in here, but despite long slow cooking the meat still clung to the bones. I doubt the hazelnuts I forgot to add – despite having them ready – would have changed things. Lara is encouraging me to try again with a squirrel her dog caught today, not a frozen one.

21 Stuffed Monkey from Lesley Levene (who has copy-edited or proofread more books, including many of the CBe titles, than I’ve had hot dinners). One layer of dough (flour, butter, cinnamon, egg, sugar), then filling (candied peel, ground almonds, butter, sugar, egg yolk), then another layer of dough; bake for half an hour. Lesley: ‘My great-aunt used to say it’s called Stuffed Monkey because it was sold in a cake shop in the East End called Monnickendam.’ Or the monkey is myself, because it is very, very more-ish.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 5

First, something I prepared earlier: The Disguise: Poems 1977–2001, selected by Christopher Reid, comprises poems by myself from six collections originally published by Carcanet and Faber before the seam ran dry 20 years ago. If you order direct from the Carcanet website before the official publication date, 25 February, and enter the discount code DISGUISE25 you can get it for 25% off the cover price. Moving on …

14 Matso Balls with Coconut Soup from May-Lan Tan (Things to Make and Break from CBe in 2014, now reissued by Sceptre). High fusion: ‘This recipe combines my two favourite soups, Jewish matzo ball and Thai tom kha.’ The matzo balls are made with chickpea flour, ‘which seems to combine better with the flavours of the soup’. The soup – ah, the soup – is a killer, a gentle one, and for this I really need to spell out the ingredients (stock, shallot, galangal or ginger, lemongrass, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, birds-eye chillis, coconut milk, spring onion, lime juice) and their precise quantities, but that’s not how we’re doing things here (so you’ll have to email me for the full recipe). Completely delicious.

15 Rabbit, from Beverley Bie Brahic (White Sheets; Hunting the Boar; translator of Francis Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, and of Apollinaire, The Little Auto. Beverley offered two rabbit recipes; in the first one you slather the rabbit (whole or jointed) with French mustard, roast, then deglaze the roasting pan with cream, which gives you the sauce. Because this was my lockdown birthday supper I opted for the second recipe, which involves dousing the lightly browned meat (and carrots and bacon or pancetta) with brandy and flambé-ing, which is more fun than blowing out any number of candles on a cake; then cook in cider (plus bouquet garni) for around 45 mins, add mushrooms and caramelised little onions and pour yourself another glass of wine or two before remembering to eat. There’s no hurry. It’s worth waiting for.

16 Apple Betty and Baked Custard from Ruth Fainlight (despite having no CBe title to her name, Ruth is officially an honorary CBe author). Apples baked with some form of crumble – here, mostly breadcrumbs, no flour, with orange zest – cannot lose. The new delight for me, because I’ve been too lazy to bother before, was the baked custard (milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, a dusting of nutmeg). Cooked on a day when it was snowing; leftovers for breakfast next day (above).

17 Spaghetti aglio olio con pepperoncini from Julian Stannard (What were you thinking?). This is the man who ends a poem called ‘The Recipe’ thus: ‘I put one in the pantry/ and the other in the small / room along the corridor / and I said to myself, / not without a feeling of / triumph, I have separated / the eggs.’ Can we trust him in the kitchen? No eggs to separate here. Almost nothing: spaghetti cooked al dente and swirled into gently fried garlic and chilli pepper. ‘I don't bother with anchovies and all that shit but hey it might be nice too,’ says Stannard. Definitely anchovies. Optional: add a couple of cowboys to turn this into a Spaghetti Western.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 4


A pause between the food in the three previous posts and whatever’s coming next.

So I asked writers published by CBe writers to send me recipes, and almost without exception the ones they sent could have come in anonymously and I’d have still known who sent them. Everyone’s cooking has their fingerprint. Food is class and sex and history and childhood and heredity and politics and everything else.

Most of what I cook tastes same-ish, because it’s me cooking it. The versions I’ve cooked of the recipes I’ve been sent have often been a bit sloppy. (See the previous posts for the results so far.) That’s fine; your versions will be even more sloppy, or neater.

In the house I grew up in, food was mostly functional: eat to live, not live to eat. When I moved out of home, aged 17, my mum taught me how to cook an omelette. Roughly around then, an exotic place opened in the local market town in Yorkshire that served spaghetti. In my early 20s, someone asked me to chop garlic and I’d never done this before.

I didn’t really learn anything about food until I had people to cook for. Nor did my mother: when she married in 1948, her own mother gave her a book titled Essentials of Modern Cookery, which includes instructions on how to roast a heart (above). Jump a generation and I have photos of my sons at work on the cakes for their second birthday. This is so important. They know how to make things and not just for themselves.

(The great thing about baking, by the way, is that it usually doesn’t have to be timed for a particular point in a meal, and you can do it at 3 in the morning if that’s what you feel like doing. I have big anxiety about when to take cakes out of the oven, and err on the side of leaving them in too long. Black crusts and apologies and everyone says it’s lovely but it’s not.)

Most of the recipes that have come in are simple fare. In literature, plain cooking (like Orwell’s ‘plain style’) has a perceived moral value – you can tell the goodies from the baddies by what they eat. Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina make jam and pick mushrooms while Oblonsky in Moscow swills down oysters from Germany with French champagne. On the other hand there’s Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, in which an austere Puritanical community in Jutland come to experience the joy, both physical and spiritual, that cooking as a form of art can bring.

The point being made in Anna Karenina about food is not just about keeping it simple but about its production and its sharing. Since March last year a Lockdown Subscription has been offered from the home page of the website – 10 books of your choice (actually I send at least a dozen, plus extras) for £65, post-free in the UK – and because of Covid restrictions this has been a main means of getting the books to readers. New (and repeat) subscribers are very welcome. Help me along here.

The mulberry tree in the photo below is in the back garden of Wiesiek Powaga, translator of Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa, in a village in Hungary. Each village in that region has its own distillery, in the way many villages had (and in many places still have) communal ovens, and Wiesiek translated the mulberries gathered in that net into palinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy. The photographs I don’t want to show are those of the food parcels sent out by catering companies in the UK to families whose children qualify for free school meals, because those photos are obscene: tinned baked beans for the poor despatched in one of the richest countries in the world by a political class (it includes me) that pores over the inventive and often very wonderful recipes in cookery books and magazine supplements. We can do better.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 3

Recipes from CBe authors, part 3 of a series. Parts 1 and 2 are the previous posts.

9 Crêpes filled with Spinach and Goat’s Cheese from Wiesiek Powaga (translator of Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa and In Sarah’s House by Stefan Grabinski, the latter out of print). Make the crêpes (flour, eggs, milk, water; or you can buy them ready-made, I’m told). The filling: spinach (lots of it, the big-leafed kind, not ‘baby’ spinach) blanched and chopped, goat’s cheese mixed with yogurt, garlic. Roll the crêpes into ‘pipes’ and fry gently in olive oil and butter. Adjustments: I put mine in the oven rather than re-frying. And, stupidly, I forgot all about the yogurt (but was generous with the goat’s cheese). (People do forget things in the kitchen, where it’s easy to get distracted. I once went to a supper where the host forgot to serve the soup; we eventually had it after the pudding.)

10< Highland Pie from J. O. Morgan (Natural Mechanical; Long Cuts; At Maldon; other titles from Cape). A version of shepherd’s pie or cottage pie but the shepherd and his cottage are Scottish so the meat element is haggis. Shop-bought haggis (vegetarian versions available), microwaved as the label tells you (10 minutes-ish), topped with mashed veg (here, potatoes, carrots, parsnips), plus optional grated cheese, then into the oven ‘for an unspecified time’, maybe half an hour. Haggis is fine but I still suspect that as with any food that insists on a certain day of the year (haggis on Burns Night, 25 January; turkey on Christmas Day), most people don’t much bother with it otherwise.

11 Lemon Pudding from Jack Robinson (An Overcoat; Robinson; Good Morning, Mr Crusoe). At last, a pudding. The recipe for this in Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries (page 353: ‘Aunt Daisy’s Lemon Pudding’) is exactly as cooked by my mother; I was surprised to see my mother’s recipe in a novel, then realised that this has been cooked for generations by all mothers in the Western world, and this was Shields’s point. Butter, sugar, eggs, flour, lemon zest and juice, milk. In the oven for 40 minutes, during which it which it separates into cake-ish on top and something much more slippery underneath. Plus single cream to serve.


12 Polenta from Elise Valmorbida (whose novel The TV President was published by CBe in 2008, now out of print, and who introduced the screenplay Saxon, CBe, 2008; Faber published her novel The Madonna of the Mountains in 2018). Polenta: ‘The smell is nostalgia, so it is the past, but it is also hunger, so it is the future.’ A bit of a fudge here: Elise uses coarse-ground cornmeal, slowly raining it into a very big pan of boiling roiling water until the consistency feels right, stirring all the time over low heat until the polenta starts detaching from the sides of the pan, ‘usually in 40 minutes to an hour’. Elise has strong arms. Pour ‘with an energetic shove’ onto a large wooden board and let settle ‘into a nice soft round form, ready to cut’. I’m lazier: fine-ground polenta so less stirring; I mix in milk and/or cream and parmesan and a few chili flakes, and I’m happy with a sludge (think lava flow) rather than anything cut-able. Elise’s grandmother won’t speak to me. Here, with a sauce of broccoli and mushrooms; olive oil drizzled over, and lots of lemon juice.

Can we pack in another one? Remember rush hour on the Tube when passengers were packed in like sardines?

13 Sardine Butter from Paul Bailey (Inheritance). From a writer who at Christmas cooked a partridge inside a pheasant inside a duck inside a capon, layered with two kinds of stuffing, this may appear a little ridiculous. But it has pedigree: included in a book of recipes by Marcel Boulestin in the 1930s, it was thoroughly approved by Elizabeth David. It’s probably not original to Boulestin: for as long as sardines have been sold in cans people have likely been doing this to them – mashing them to a paste with an equivalent weight of good unsalted butter, adding a little seasoning, keeping them in a jar in the fridge and spreading them on hot bread when hungry. Before mashing, take off the skin (if you want to) and pick out the bones (unless you are Scott, the boy I sat next to at school in the 1960s who ate his breakfast kippers bones and all, not just the tiny ones but the thick one down the middle).

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 2

Lockdown recipes (not for mass gatherings) from CBe authors. For Part 1, see here; further episodes will follow. Exact weights and timings not given: most writers appear to cook ‘by eye’.

Here again (see recipe 8), after Stephen Knight’s Schnitzel in the previous post, is a handed-down recipe, this one not from a mother but a grandmother. What survives of us are recipes? Food is a form of love. Or can be, and should be. The photographs circulating this week of school-meal parcels sent out by catering companies express nothing but contempt for those in need: they speak not just of incompetence but of arrogance, greed, corruption, the complete opposite of love. A grace to be said before every meal: Lord, help rid us of this awful, awful government.

Commercial break: the CBe Lockdown Subscription, running since last March, is still available from the website home page. 10 books (+ extras: pamphlets, extra books) for £65 (post free, UK only). In an email today from a subscriber approaching book 10: ‘It’s been one of the best £60s I’ve spent.’


5 Northern Polish Fish and Chips from Natalia Zagorska-Thomas (co-author of Blush): ‘We had this at a fish stand on the side of the road in a small coastal town and it has a life-changing effect. We settled on this version after several tries.’ White fish (haddock as here, or cod or monkfish), oven-cooked potato cubes, boczek wedony (or if you’re not lucky enough to live near a Polish supermarket, pancetta ‘will do at a stretch’), girolle mushrooms fried with half an onion, single cream. Other than a light touch with salt and pepper, no spices. You know when the guard comes into your cell and takes your order for your last meal? This.


6 Rosemary and Sea-salt Flapjacks, a light-bulb idea that came to Carmel Doohan (whose novel Seesaw will be coming from CBe later in the year) as she was ‘walking down Church Street, Stoke Newington, and absently picking a sprig of rosemary as I ate a flapjack’. Oats, butter, brown sugar, golden syrup, sea salt and ‘at least a dozen large sprigs of rosemary’. I think I last ate a flapjack when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister – I get the concept of ‘snacks’, like I get the concept of science fiction, I just haven’t been around them much. I like that these are semi-savoury. Serving suggestion 1: cut in narrow slices and use for a game of Jenga (each player keeps the pieces they successfully remove, but surrenders their loot to the others if they bring the tower down). Serving suggestion 2: on your permitted daily outing for exercise, take a thermos of mulled wine and these.


7 Inauthentic Linguine from Christopher Reid (whose The Song of Lunch was first published by CBe in 2009, before it was filmed and went to Faber) – ‘inauthentic’ because for many Italians your choice of pasta determines your choice of sauce, and any skipping around or fancy stuff can have you ostracised from polite society. Avocado and tomato have long been boon companions in salads, so there’s nothing especially fancy here, but having them cohabit in a hot sauce was new to me. The tomatoes are oven-roasted before being added with the avocado to sizzled spring onions, garlic, ginger, plus chili flakes and fresh oregano. Plus grated pecorino or parmegiano. Simple and carefree and summery – oh I wish, I wish.


8 Grated Potato Pancakes from Roy Watkins (Simple Annals), whose grandma made these in the 1940s: ‘I would be enlisted to gather necessities together and even to join in the hard work of gratering the potatoes. The result was always delicious.’ (Back then, grandma used egg powder from a tin, eggs being severely rationed. Watkins recalls his Uncle Hugh finding a duck egg on the farm where he worked and swapping it for 10 Woodbines on the bus back home; Aunt Mary wasn’t best pleased, ‘and she drove him out to smoke his Woodbines in the back garden’.)

Potatoes, onion, egg, flour, salt and pepper. Wring out excess liquid after grating the potatoes. Watkins: ‘Checking this recipe, we have found that one and a quarter pounds of potatoes gave 5 medium pancakes, all very good. We ate them as a side dish with a duck breast and a cabbage and apple accompaniment.’ I ate mine with a poached egg and Polish sausage, above.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Lockdown CBe food, part 1

The story so far: on the first day of Lockdown 3, I received in the post a notebook for recipes along with an author’s corrected proofs. So, Lockdown project: I invited all CBe writers to send recipes. More will follow: squirrels, haggis, flapjacks … I’ll probably blog two or three at a time.

It’s fascinating, how could it not be. I’m getting recipes invented on the street – ‘absently picking on a sprig of rosemary as I ate a flapjack’ – and recipes as cooked by granny in the 1940s, using powdered egg. You could email to ask for the exact recipes and I’ll happily send those but in most cases you’re going to be none the wiser: most people are not calculating in teaspoons or precise timings (‘Put into the oven for an unspecified amount of time’). Except in the foundational sense that it is – how this thing reacts to that thing at a given temperature and for a given time – this isn’t science. It’s pleasure, and play.


1 Will Eaves (The Absent Therapist; The Inevitable Giftshop; Broken Consort; and Murmur, first from CBe but now with Canongate): Haddock and Cannellini Cassoulet. Leek, mushrooms, courgette, beans, veg stock, and haddock; paprika, turmeric, ‘a blast of Worcestershire sauce, a shake of balsamic vinegar and a splodge of tomato concentrate’. This is my regular kind of cooking, so an easy way in, but delicious, I’ll go here again. New to me, about the tin of beans: ‘Don’t bother draining them, or only drain them a little: the salty sludge is good’ – a line Nigella would be proud of.


2 Eric Mace-Tessler (translator of Gert Hofmann, Veilchenfeld): I’m out of my comfort zone here, not just because I’m not vegan but also because I don’t have a thing his recipe calls a ‘pressure cooker’. I have pans. (During the last lockdown, or was it the one before, I did acquire a skillet, for hob and oven both, but I’ve only used it once.) So this is a ‘version’, as free-wheeling translators sometimes say, of the original. My expectations were not high: how can bully-boy chickpeas be, as Eric promises, ‘subtle’? Turns out they can. A little salt, no other spices. Onion, chickpeas, ‘scallions’, buckwheat noodles, and the green bits are roasted nori.


3 and 4 Schnitzel from Stephen Knight (The Prince of Wails; Drizzle Mizzle Downpour Deluge), pork not veal. Here, with red cabbage and from David Collard (About a Girl: a Reader’s Guide to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing), Leftover Roast Potatoes, as served (for free) by Rose in The George, Parkholme Road, Hackney, in the 1980s. Potatoes get the regular treatment (but the oil mustn’t be olive, ‘which smokes’, or goose fat, ‘which is an ostentation’); the only ‘difficult part’ is leaving them in a bowl (not in the fridge) for 24 hours: ‘They're best eaten cold the following day as leftovers, sprinkled with sea salt.’

The recipe for Stephen Knight’s Schnitzel is printed in the form of a letter from his mother at the end of his superb novel Mr Schnitzel (2000; long out of print but try AbeBooks). ‘PS If not clear please ring.’ The centrepiece of Knight’s Drizzle Mizzle Downpour Deluge is an elegy of sorts for his mother, who died in 2019; it’s a poem of contained fury at the kind of poetry that offers itself as consolatory – ‘faced with this pabulum / who wouldn’t look glum’. Pabulum: ‘pap,’ says my online dictionary, adding: ‘mid 17th century (in the sense “food”): from Latin, from the stem of pascere “to feed”.’ This business of writing and food and mothers is complicated.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Bad weather, good books



1st January, late afternoon, cold sleety weather, the UK now un-moored from Europe and Covid rampant and the ship run by incompetent bastards and I overhear a drunk woman in the street ask a stranger if he knows someone called Mohammed and he replies: ‘Everyone does, don’t they?’ I love this city. This country too – which is not easy right now, but it needs love most when the times are hard.

Meanwhile, here’s a book, Spring Journal, that took on 2020 on directly, week by week, and was published in December: ‘The virus reveals the flaw / In our way of living: the rich fly it around the planet / And dump it on the doorsteps of the poor.’ Responding fast and honestly to the times we live in is one of the things writing and publishing are for.

Slow works too: Simple Annals by Roy Watkins, the first title from CBe in 2021, a memoir of childhood in Lancashire in the 1940s and early 50s, is short (around 120 pages) but was many years in the writing: the author remembers hearing an early version read aloud by Ted Hughes. The writing has an immediacy that belies the decades.

The Lockdown Subscription – 10 books (plus extras) for £65 – is still available: see the Home page of the website. It is a complete bargain (especially now that postage has just gone up by 10%). This Lockdown Subscription was first offered in late March last year; it is now even more relevant than it was then.