Monday 30 October 2023


‘Every square meter is filled with so much stuff. Fruit vendors, lottery booths, blind singers, tires, scrap metal, old motorbikes, buckets filled small nuts, bananas gone a little bad, live and dead chickens, heaps of indistinguishable merchandise …’ This is from Gianni Celati’s description of a street market in Bamako in Mali, which I was reading during (rare) quiet periods behind the CBe table at the Small Publishers Fair in the Conway Hall last Friday and Saturday. ‘Everywhere people are selling things and chatting with an admirable indolence. Everything moves in discontinuous fluxes, trailing-off busyness, frequent encounters, continual deviations off the path. Movements that are busy, yet meandering, in the space that is packed with human bodies and lively colors, and merchandise heaped into piles. Nothing gives the impression of being isolated … In this continual rubbing up against people who speak as soon as they see you, without barriers that protect against approaches, I am forgetting the funereal privacy with which I live in England …’

Celati talks with his friend, a film-maker, ‘about the fact that in Europe the passion of business seems like a means to an end, and the end is only profit … Here, instead, it seems that living and doing business are the same thing, the same stuff as the hours of the day, for which the goal of profit is not separated from the chatting and the cloud of dust, and rarely are the encounters reduced to an anonymous rendering of services …’

Still, Celati does wonder ‘What is the profit of the cigarette vendor in front of the hotel who sells perhaps ten packs a day? And the profit of the woman selling ten bananas total, on a little table in the street?’ For the record: CBe sold 87 books over the two days of the fair, for an average of £8.50 per book (which is less than the cover price of any one book, which varies between £8.99 and £14, because I was offering two for £16). A few more than ten bananas. And I gave away a few, and 30 free copies of Farthings. There were discontinuous fluxes and frequent encounters and deviations off the path. Enormous thanks to Helen Mitchell for enabling the fair to happen.

And now a new banana, perfectly ripe, freshly delivered: Lara Pawson’s Spent Light, which publishes in January 2024 but is available now for pre-orders from the website.

Plenty other bananas. They keep well. Selling not from a little table but from the website, where bulk orders, also known as Season Tickets – 6 titles of your own choice for £40, 12 for £75 – are available from the home page. Think of the website as a street market.

Sunday 15 October 2023

A tale of two book fairs

1. Above: flyers for the first two years of Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair.

In 2011 the Arts Council cut funding to a number of poetry presses. It might be fun, I thought, to do something, to show what was under threat. I emailed some people. I hired a hall in Exmouth Market – £250 – and some trestle tables. I put together a pamphlet with poems and an essay by Michael Horovitz. Katy in the pub said: No readings? Where was I living, in the 1950s? There happened to be a room above the hall to hire. Chrissy Williams came in and arranged the readings.

24 September 2011: 22 publishers, a tight fit. There was a tube strike that day but people came. A woman with a lovely voice who was busking on the street came in and did a set on the stage. People bought books. It happened, and I think what took everyone by surprise was the surge of good will. Random quotes from feedback over the next days: ‘It was like a holiday … People came in droves. Really. Not only did they come, they spent money; lots of money … A book fair can be a revelation and, on Saturday, Free Verse was … With poets, publishers and, most importantly, readers brought face to face, you were reminded of what's actually important and of how much time and energy gets wasted drawing up binary or even balkanised models of the poetry world … The Free Verse fair was inaugurated in a spirit of defiance, collaboration and small-scale entrepreneurship … I am very much hoping this will become an annual event. Judging by the number of people who poured through the doors while I was there (and the number of people leaving with bags as heavy as mine was!) it should be.’

  The following year the fair hosted 50 publishers over two floors at Candid Arts. Chrissy was up and running, determined that we should make no distinction between the big publishers (with their tiny poetry lists) and the little ones, who operate far and wide. (Cape said no; they couldn’t work out whether the £40 table charge should be costed to the marketing or the publicity budget. Faber, bless them, told us how difficult it would be to get someone to sell books on a Saturday.) We got ACE funding to pay travel costs to presses from far afield and to pay the people running workshops. In 2013 the fair moved to the Conway Hall and Joey Connolly joined the gang; I dropped out the following year. 2014–17: around 80 presses participating each year; welcome assistance from enthusiastic volunteers; readings (both inside and out of doors), workshops, evening events in nearby pubs.

In 2018 Chrissy and Joey stepped back and management of the book fair was taken over by the Poetry Society. Chrissy in 2018 (quoted on the book fair’s website): ‘We know the Poetry Society will be able to give [the Poetry Book Fair] a more stable and secure future. We’re delighted that they've agreed to take it on, and look forward to seeing how it flourishes in their hands.’

The last Poetry Book Fair was in 2020. The Poetry Society – which receives more than £350,000 per year from ACE, but the book fair is not one its core activities – has no current plans to get it going again. This tends to be what happens when a very small outfit is taken over by a larger one: it disappears.

2. Above is the flyer for this year’s Small Publishers Fair, to be held at the Conway Hall on 27 and 28 October.

The Small Publishers Fair is basically run by two people: Helen Mitchell, who has organised the annual fair since 2012, and the designer and publisher Colin Sackett, who has been involved since the beginning in 2002. Advisers and close supporters are acknowledged on the website. ‘There’s a balance of geography (around 2/3 of publishers come from outside London or around the world) and of diversity of work (artists books, poetry, fine press, zines, etc).’ During Covid, instead of cancelling they ran an online ‘slow book fair’ over two months. The fair is focused, efficient, friendly, relaxed. It generates good will. They have found a recipe and it works and they don’t faff with it. If you want something done well, this – ‘independent, self-funding and not-for-profit’, and run by just two or three people – may be the only way to do it. CBe is honoured to be invited to take part.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until the end of the month to buy books. See, for example, the Season Tickets (6 books of your own choice for £40, or 12 for £75) on the CBe home page.