Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Alternative alternatives

There’s the way things are usually done (books published, say, or art shows put on) and there are, somewhere down the line and certainly with less money, ‘alternative’ ways. Of course the norm itself is just one possible way of going about things, itself an alternative to many other ways that got biffed to the side, an alternative which survives for reasons more to do with power and habit than reason or common sense or any other kind of sense.

Publishing good books and showing good art do not require an office or gallery in a plush part of town and a very high sum in the overheads column. But to have the work reach lots of people – that’s the tricky bit, because the ways in which new work gets known about and made available are tied into the current norm and are resistant to change.

For books, the distribution system is simply mad; and despite the increasing public profile of small presses (their inclusion on prize shortlists, etc), the system is weighted against them. The abolition of the Net Book Agreement handed all the aces to the big players, who deal in high volume. Amazon’s discounting has forced the cover price of books up (as publishers seek to protect their own margins) and led to the closure of many independent bookshops. Most of the remaining independent bookshops order from one or both of the main wholesalers, and if a title is not in stock with Gardners or Bertrams a customer will usually be told that it’s not available. When I last checked, a bare handful of CBe titles were in stock at the wholesalers (and Gardners list many titles as ‘POS – Publisher out of stock’, which is simply untrue: the titles are in stock with the distributor, Central Books, which supplies the wholesalers). And even if booksellers do have titles on their shelves, they can choose to return them and get their money back.

Any norm is, by definition, not only conservative in itself but relies for its survival on the conservatism of those who accept it as the default way of doing things. Real change won’t happen except through politics. That’s what politics is for. In the meantime, consider not buying from Amazon (there are enough reasons, god knows). Consider, even, buying direct from a publisher’s website (the CBe one is here, but the others have them too). Books are written by single people at their desks, and are read individually too, in chairs or beds or on trains or buses or boats, and though between the writing and the reading there does have to be an arrangement, and involvement with money, it really needn’t stray far from the one-to-one.

Consider also going to an art show that is not ‘sponsored’ by a bank or oil company or auction house, and that may not even be in a public gallery. Year by year, there is an increasing number of exhibitions taking place in pop-up spaces or private homes or studios, most of them free to visit. One of them – open this coming weekend, and by appointment; and, yes, there is some small CBe involvement – is here.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

A year ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post on this blog – here – to announce that CBe was going into semi-retirement. That’s an ambiguous phrase, and I have some sympathy with those who ask, with a touch of impatience, Make up your mind – are you stopping or aren’t you?

Some things – Trump, say, or the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald – I can say a definite no or yes to. Other things are not so binary. I like being able to bring new books into the world (it’s an extraordinary privilege) but not everything involved in the process: I don’t enjoy, for example, anything associated with the word marketing or applying for funding. CBe continues but at a low level, with a different rhythm: plotted as an electrocardiogram, it will look like I’m falling asleep for long periods, but with sudden peaks of excitement – the latter representing books that I simply cannot not publish.

For example: there will be, in March, Murmur, Will Eaves’s new novel. Or if not exactly ‘novel’, a book that at least will cause booksellers less headache than Will’s last book when they think about where to shelve it. There’s a page on the website for pre-orders. Go there, even click on the 'Add to cart' button if you feel inclined. All pre-ordered books will be sent out – probably in February – with a couple of free flappers. There will be events for the book at the London Buddhist Centre, Bookseller Crow Bookshop and elsewhere. Will Eaves’s previous CBe titles are The Absent Therapist (shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize) and The Inevitable Giftshop (shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award).

Many thanks for support during 2017, during which Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize, Will Eaves’s The Inevitable Giftshop was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award, and Diane Williams’s Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine was shortlisted for the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize. Jack Robinson’s An Overcoat: Scenes from the Afterlife of H.B. is currently longlisted for the next Republic of Consciousness Prize.

On Friday, 19 January Tony White will be introducing a screening of the film Wetherby at the London Review Bookshop, and then will be chatting with me about the film. Click here for more details and to book tickets. I wrote a blog post about Wetherby here; Tony's blog post about the film, dating back to 2010, is here.

This time last year I was reading Robinson Crusoe and thinking I was setting up a sort of ‘project’ that would keep me ticking over for the whole year. But it was hard to clear a space in my head from the day-by-day awfulness of what is happening in this country and, impatiently, I published the book in June, to coincide with the General Election. Robinson is still, unfortunately, topical.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Ten years, WMP & the Small Publishers' Book Fair

The first CBe books were published ten years ago this month. At the time – I’ve written about this before – I had no plans (or money) to publish more books, and no distributor and no sales agent and no social media presence, but it turned out to be more fun than any work I’d done in offices and so I stumbled on.

I was lucky in the timing. Ten years ago the small-press scene was a bit more Wild West than it is now, which meant I could make things up as I went along, trusting that everything could be held together with bits of string and packing tape. I’ve still never made a spreadsheet. Today, the good small presses do have to be a little more – well – organised. Not least because they have become an accepted part of the system; condescended to, but not as ignorable as before. They win prizes.

Another difference between now and ten years ago has been the expansion of opportunities for writers who, because of where they are coming from, even a short time ago would rarely have got a look-in. I can’t claim that CBe has a terrific record here. The list has included a fair number of foreign writers in translation, and writers who had not published before and even older writers (one year the average age of the authors was 83), but just one non-white writer.

I sometimes think that institutions in which degrees of sexism and racism have been embedded from the start can never really be ‘institutionally’ free of those elements without starting again from scratch. I sometimes feel I’m a sort of institution myself – white, male, in my mid-sixties, a life of privilege. (I write about this in Robinson, in which the character Robinson himself asks why my children do not ‘rise up and smite me’.) Traditional mainstream publishing is also an institution.

A Good Thing about the small presses over the past decade and longer is that, operating from outside the given publishing-industry structure, many of them have been able to choose to start from scratch. Not completely, because to get their books noticed and sold they are still largely dependent on the established mechanisms. But enough to loosen things up, to mix up the categories, to reach out to new readers. This is work in progress. (There is still resistance. White male privilege, bedded in for so long, isn’t going to simply say sorry and walk out the room. Earlier this year a Tory MP made a formal complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the Jhalak Prize, founded to ‘celebrate the achievements of British writers of colour’, on the grounds that it ‘unlawfully discriminated against white writers’. According to his Wiki entry, the same MP attempted in late 2016 to derail a Bill protecting women against violence on the grounds that it was ‘sexist against men’, and has declared that ‘by definition’ those with disabilities are less productive: there’s a pattern.) But the progress is worth celebrating, and taking forward. Come to the Small Publishers’ Book Fair in the Conway Hall, London WC1R 4RL, on 10/11 November.

Sunday, 22 October 2017


Now that CBe is slowing down, foot on the brake, here’s a thing I’m so, so happy to be doing less of: chasing.

I don’t mean the big things, such as love and happiness and the surefire bestseller, but all the little daily things: chasing unpaid invoices, chasing attachments that were not attached and the stuff that was promised for Wednesday but didn’t arrive, chasing reviews and quotes and potential readers (marketing is chasing) and a glimpse of a shortlisting and discounts smaller by 2% and sums of money so tiny that in the end you just shrug. Chasing myself. You know when you walk by an office and look into those open-plan spaces of infinite dread and decorum and you wonder what everyone at their desks is actually doing? They are chasing. ‘I’m wondering if you got my email of last week (month/year/century).’ ‘Just following up …’ ‘I don’t want to hassle but …’ ‘So sorry to hear that you’re ill/ engulfed by marking/ have forgotten you ever said you were interested/ your father-in-law broke his leg, but maybe we could rearrange …’

Being chased by others, not uncommonly. Chasing is circular and has somehow contrived to be the prime economic activity of our time. Big people employ little people to do their chasing for them, and then chase them, all the way down the line, because they themselves are being chased. A link to my all-time favourite piece of academic research – entitled ‘Environmental Effects on Compulsive Tail Chasing in Dogs’, based on a sample of 368 dogs and co-written by eight authors based in Finland, France and Canada – is here.

The hook on which I’ll hang this post is the Small Publishers Book Fair (we all have to be under 6 foot, seriously), taking place in the Conway Hall, London (WC1R 4RL) on 10/11 November, a Friday and a Saturday. I love this book fair. For two days I’ll be stuck behind a table, static, and I can’t chase and I can’t run away. No responsibility, except for what’s on the table. This is a humdrum form of bliss. Please come.

Friday, 22 September 2017


CBe has a new thing. It’s not a book and not a poster and not a postcard, but something of all three. Two of these new things, actually, and I’m calling them flappers. (Is there a proper name for them? Someone must have done this before.)

Flappers (besides being, as Wiki puts it, young Western women in the 1920s who ‘flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior‘) are A3 sheets (297 x 420mm), printed in colour both sides on 150gsm paper with images and text. Folded down to postcard size and closed with a peel-off sticker, they can be addressed, stamped and posted as postcards. (Or put in an envelope and posted as a letter. They come with their own envelopes – and in transparent display sleeves: see above – like greetings cards and Christmas cards do in gift shops. Very much like that. Except that these are reasonably priced, for what they are. The Inevitable Gift Shop: I’ve arrived there.)

The images in these two flappers come from early 20th-century postcard concertina booklets (also in the photo above): Genova: 15 vedute a colori and Bruxelles: 12 cartes postales en Photochrom. The texts are written in the voices of a 10-year-old child (Genova) and a confused Englishman in 1914 (Bruxelles).

The flappers are available from the website: here. Exclusively, as they say. They are not in shops.

I once wrote that CBe as a whole is ‘a little machine for reading aloud to strangers’ (I’d forgotten that, until it was quoted back to me). The flappers are themselves little machines in which the cogs of image and text interact to produce an odd new form of narrative.

The flappers came out of me staring at early colourised postcards and wondering about their slightly strange colours. Originally, I was going to do a 32-page booklet of the Genova postcards with a dual text: the child writing the postcards, me going off at a tangent, largely an autobiographical one. The latter part got left behind when I decided not to do the thing as a book and is now homeless. Here it is (you don’t have to read it) – an offcut, a companion text to that in Genova.

When we went on holiday, I wrote postcards. Back home, we went to see Granny in her hotel in Harrogate. Once, she held up the postcard I had written to her and asked, How do they get the colours in the right places?


I used to stamp and splash in puddles and now I don’t, I step around them.


The postcards arrive out of the blue: tiny people crossing wide roads between enormous buildings in muted sunlight. I never really knew my granny, nor my father, who died when I was five, but they are there, somewhere. 


‘How do they get the colours in the right places?’ 

Early colourised photographs were tinted by hand (as a child might fill in a colouring book). In the 1880s a Swiss inventor developed a printing process he called Photochrom: multiple exposures of a negative were made on a lithographic limestone tablets coated with a light-sensitive solvent (bitumen, benzene), one tablet for each colour, with solvents brushed on to adjust tones. The process was commercially licensed; by the early 1900s the Detroit Publishing Company  was producing several million colourised postcards a year. Just two decades later this process was redundant. For the colours, the printers worked from notes made by the photographer on the spot; in the absence of any notes they guessed.

A very young child might also ask, ‘How do they get the words in the right places?’ By the time children are old enough to articulate that question in language they are already getting the hang of it – words in their right places, or near enough – so they have no need to ask. But it’s still a good question, and one that might also be asked by many old people when the words start slipping away, deserting their places.


The French poet Jean Follain was sent to Leeds in England in 1919 at the age of sixteen to learn a new language. He resisted. To name un arbre ‘a tree’, for example, or to call pain ‘bread’, was to assign to them completely the wrong colours.

Two figures on a street in Leeds in 1919: Follain and my father, just two years younger. That was the year my father left school and started work in an iron foundry where his own father had married the boss’s daughter, so easing the way for my own eventual appearance as a member of the bourgeoisie. 


‘The afternoons here go on for ages.’

The same number of hours before sunset, surely. Relative to time spent on Earth, an afternoon in the life of a child is longer than an afternoon in the life of an adult – but that’s not it. Nor is boredom: boredom is a large part of childhood but is different from adult boredom. Few young children wear watches. Long-term prisoners and very old people may also experience boredom in a different way.

They look longer, those afternoons, because of the alchemy of the colourising process, the slow light and particular tints according to which the sun is fixed for ever at an exact spot above the horizon. It’s a form of embalming.


Follain has a poem in which children hold hands and pose near a statue ‘for a photographer from the postcard company’. The branch of a rosebush shaken by the wind will come out as a blur, but not the children. ‘Their faces have a modest look, suspicious, already cruel, the town cynic might say.’

My brother, roughly the same age as me, remembers that I tried to kill him by pushing him off a wall. Or so I remember him saying. I have no memory of any such incident. 


Postcards are advertisements: beggars and litter cleared off the streets as if before a visit by royalty.

Just as the colours in a colourised postcard were limited to the number of lithographic stones beyond which the process would not be commercially viable – up to fifteen, often – so too their essential vocabulary, the range of their subject matter: castles, town halls, statues, natural wonders, peasants in folkloric costume, bridges, ships, parks with flower beds. Keep off the grass.


After my father died, my mother took up gardening, and when I think of my mother now she is often in the garden, weeping, no, weeding. There was a special tool with dark red handles for clipping the edges of the lawn where it abutted a flower bed. It hung upside down on two nails in the garage. My uncle and aunt came for supper and at seven o’clock we stood in the garden under a clear blue sky and my aunt remarked how often this happens, a grey day of drizzle and then quite suddenly at seven in the evening the sun comes out.


For period of several weeks or maybe months in the late 1970s I believed that the world around me was on a lease about to expire, and the streets I walked along were a film set just waiting to be to be struck. Everyone was going to die, so there’d be no one around even to see the film. The story was over; no retakes, no director’s cut, no sequels. This was going to happen. A form of clinical depression, perhaps. To the me then there was no possibility of the me now, writing this.

Also in the 1970s – I was in my twenties – there was a day, an hour, when it occurred to me that however long I lived it was very possible that I would never be more happy than I was, right then. Over the door to the room, some fancy wrought-iron scrollwork.


Another question, this one asked by me and addressed to my other granny (she was coming down the stairs, the ones with the rust-red carpet): Is it better to be a man or a woman?

I had a notion that one’s gender was provisional up to one’s 21st (or was it 18th?) birthday, when one had to decide for keeps, and surely old people had wisdom to impart. I don’t remember her reply. (She was quite deaf, anyway, my granny. Or deaf when it suited her, my mother said.)


Dream: I am at a party in a bookshop. I am handed a letter addressed to me, c/o the bookshop, and I recognise the handwriting on the envelope. I have to push through people holding glasses of wine to find a quiet corner. The letter is from my mother, who died in 2004 – except that she didn’t: the letter explains that she had fallen in love with another woman, and because the conservative village in which she lived was unlikely to welcome this relationship she had faked her death and gone to live with Gertrud in Germany. She is happy, and she hopes that I will forgive her and she knows I must be busy but I am welcome to visit at any time. 


Wanting to dance – waiting to dance – is already one half of a dance.


Today, I walked past a house in east London where I once claimed that I had never experienced grief, and the woman I was talking to looked at me as if she had opened the front door and found a slug on the doorstep. I can remember her name. I can’t remember which number in the street, which door, which colour the door was painted.


Driving my children down to Cornwall for holidays, there was a point on the A303 where I came over the brow of a hill and spread out before me was my mother’s England – wide, smooth, endless, but also domesticated, tidy, kempt: the fields patchwork-quilted, the villages within their parish bounds, the little roads tucked in. And the traffic was swishing, swishing past me, the big lorries rocking the car.


Follain spoke about writing poems in terms of making paintings: ‘I may say to myself, looking at a text: I need some red there, or some grey . . .’ Not a bowl of raspberries, not blood, but rather ‘a pronoun or some syllable of a word which, for me, is a stroke of red’. 

Jean Follain was born in 1903 in a village in Normandy. His childhood coincided with the last decade of a way of life that was obliterated by the 1914–18 war, and his poems are a coalescence of memory and imagination. A boy bends to tie his shoelaces on a country road at sunset, a widow leads a red-haired child to school, a man slices off two fingers to avoid military service, a drunk mumbles to a hedgerow, a wasp buzzes in a curtain’s fold, a daughter sews by a window, ‘nimbée à la couleur du jour’: a largely pre-industrial world, framed by wars past and to come, but there is nothing either innocent or antiquarian here. The poetry is analogous, perhaps, to the early photographic process of salt printing in which a negative is pressed against paper coated with light-sensitive substances (memory, imagination) and exposed to sunlight – today’s sunlight, the light that pours from the sky at the time that the writer writes (and the reader reads). Follain’s true concern, his translator W. S. Merwin insists, is ‘the mystery of the present – the mystery which gives the recalled concrete details their form, at once luminous and removed, when they are seen at last in their places.’

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Photography (3)

The credits for this book cover include a picture library and then someone else for ‘photo colorizing’.

Here’s a colourised postcard I bought (50p) in a market last week:

Just as the range of colour in painting was for centuries limited to the particular pigments available to artists, so also colour in photography and film was determined by the available technologies. The birth of photography is generally dated to 1839, when the daguerreotype process was introduced; colour photography wasn’t commercially introduced until 1907 (the Autochrome process, developed by the Lumière brothers); Photochrom, a printing process developed by a Swiss inventor in the 1880s and then commercially licensed, allowed the mass-production of many millions of colourised postcards in the early 1900s; but colour wasn’t generally available to amateur photographers until the mid-20th century. Colour was largely ignored by fine-art photographers (but not commercial ones: fashion, advertising) until the 1970s; it took until William Eggleston and Saul Leiter (both of whose photos are now often used on book covers) and certain others arrived.

The charm of early colour photographs and colourised postcards has to do with the lack of glare and oppressive shadows and the softness of the colours. Ian Jeffrey (in Photography: A Concise History; 1981, but still a lovely book) notes that the Autochrome process allowed Lartigue ‘to make photographs of great serenity. This seems to have been the strength of colour and also its flaw. Polychrome worlds are both radiant and genial. They easily imply atmosphere and suggest ready access to the place and its weather.’ Feeding on this – life used to be more simple, surely – are nostalgia and its seductions, which include the temptation to believe that the ways in which a past era represented itself to itself, ways determined by the available technology, actually showed how it was.

The past is a different country, but chiefly in its mindsets; its sunlight was no less bright, its skies no less blue and its fire engines and blood no less red than they are now. To reproduce the look of early colour photography – a look achieved by technology now redundant, a look that sways into fashion – involves effortful reconstruction (and in film the use of filters, I guess, after watching a 2008 film last night that is set in the 1920s and had its colour tones very managed), but is frequently used as a form of shorthand – because of its seductions, and because of claims to something that gets called authenticity. A colourised photograph on a book cover indicates that the book is set in the early 20th century. A book about the First World War will have a black-and-white or a colourised photograph, as above (unless there has been a recent film of the book, in which case there may be a still from the film, itself colour-manipulated). (Sepia and similar – those effects you can get at a click on the cheapest photo-editing programs – are used for the same purpose; the cover of a 2007 Penguin edition of Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party has a sepia photograph and a brownish-yellow sticker: ‘The book that inspired Downton Abbey’.) In fact, the subject matter of colourised photographs is shown not as the people of the time saw it but more as the cats, dogs and rabbits saw it (the picture below is from a website explaining colour to children). Our visual understanding of the past is cat-eyed.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Photography (2)

Henri Le Secq (1818–82) doesn’t feature in concise histories of photography because he wasn’t a game-changing artist. Possibly his best-known photograph is that of men (and one woman?) in a public baths in Paris:

It is monumental, informal, theatrical, narrative, and plays on binaries (light, no light; dress, undress; above, below; stillness, movement). This is not ‘typical’ Le Secq; he very rarely includes human figures. It’s a wonderful photograph, but it’s not the one that haunts me.

Le Secq was one of five photographers commissioned (by Prosper Mérimée) to compile a documentary record of French architecture; Le Secq covered the north and east. His churches and ecclesiastical statuary are dull (rightly so; it wasn’t part of his commission to be anything more). His bridges hold me for longer, the water beneath them as solid as the stone of the arches. Also dutiful, but to today’s eye moving out from the mere documentary, are his photographs of Paris buildings in the process of demolition in the early 1850s, making way for expansion and modernisation: their ruination – exposed chimneys, gaps, piles of rubble – appears as a form of deliberate architecture, the buildings and their destruction in complete harmony.

He moves out of the city. This:

Three massive waves tumbling forward: the bleak escarpments of quarries on the north-eastern outskirts of Paris; the buildings of the city are relegated to the upper left corner, in a dusty haze. This unregulated edge-land, neither urban nor rural, turns up often in literature and films, and maybe dreams too. Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 film Taste of Cherry follows a man driving around all day in a very similar landscape (outside Tehran), asking people to bury him. He’s going to take a stack of pills and lie down in a hole beside a tree, and he needs someone to come at dawn and call his name and fill in the hole if he doesn’t reply. He is offering good money for just twenty spadefuls of earth, but the labourer threatens to smash his face in. The soldier runs away. The theology student listens but is bound to refuse. The Turkish man who works as a taxidermist agrees, but not before he has told the story of how he once climbed a tree with a rope to hang himself but the mulberries were in season and they tasted delicious.

For several centuries on the site photographed by Le Secq there was a gibbet on which the bodies of executed criminals were placed on public view. After 1760 the site became a dump for refuse and sewage, and a place for butchering horses. Limestone and gypsum from the quarries were exported to America. In the 1860s, after the 19th arrondissement was annexed to Paris, the area was transformed (gentrified) into a public park with terraces, a lake and a mock-Roman temple. Then they started making postcards.

Le Secq moved out further. Photographing trees, he’s interested in tangles and knots and limbs at odd angles; and just as he was drawn to buildings in the process of demolition, so too in his studies of terrain he looked to muddle and obstruction, disarray, things coming loose. This – below – is the one that haunts me. Below a cropped-off row of spindly trees, the champ des Cosaques in the forest of Montmirail has suffered flooding or subsidence: beneath a gash in its smooth, taut surface, the land has excavated itself, exposing a jumble of roots, soil and stone. I think this is what memory is: a hollowing out, a collapse. It’s not pretty.