Saturday, 20 April 2013

Dropping acid with RD Laing

This is Phil Cohen, which, if the heading is correct, indicates that ingesting a lot of LSD in your younger years keeps you youthful-looking but leaves you with an inability to keep your desk tidy. Actually, Phil - who is I think 69 - is very young looking, but the desk (what are all those bits of paper?) was where he was signing copies of his new Five Leaves book, Reading Room Only: memoir of a radical bibliophile and his new Lawrence & Wishart book, On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics at the book launch last night.
Both publishers are grateful to Jagdish Gundara of the International Centre for Intercultural Education and Toby Butler of the Raphael Samuel History Centre for hosting the launch and to the many people who attended.
It was something of an achievement for both small publishers to produce the books in time for the launch. The memoir was a complicated book, involving some changes in direction and emphases as we went along while Sally Davidson at L & W was dealing with the addition, at a late stage, of a 43,000 word chapter. Chapter! Fortunately, as Phil remarked, Sally is good at filleting but not gutting.
Reading Room Only will be in shops shortly - copies are still being bound, and we only had enough for the launch, but it is worth waiting for.
The book is in two, or perhaps, three parts. The shorter part is an account of Phil Cohen's bookish but lonely Bloomsbury childhood leading to an unsuccessful time at university, followed by him running away to sea. The second - eyecatching - section is of his involvement in the counterculture of the 1960s. He was "Dr John", the leader of the mass (1,000+) squat of 144 Piccadilly, meeting Allen Ginsburg and Michael X, taking LSD with RD Laing - his therapist, setting up Street Aid, a counterculture support system and - as a result of writing about the street scene - a gradual move into academia. Phil's eventual academic career is covered, though in highlight only, as the book turns into a memoir of reading.
The Reading Room at the British Museum had been his escape from the pressures of activism, and the remainder of the book is devoted to an exploration of the culture of the Reading Room, reading in general, the private library and the world of the book collector. The book runs to a close with a discussion of the ten books that changed the author's life.
In keeping with the subject, this is one book we are not turning into an ebook, and Reading Room Only is hardback only, but at an affordable, £14.99 price.
At the event, introducing Phil Cohen, I talked about how - until the third rewrite of the book, which introduced a discussion of the name - Cohen - and his namesake Phil Cohen I'd thought he was the other Phil Cohen, with whom I'd been discussing book projects by email but had never met. The two Phil Cohens lives and careers have overlapped, though they have never met. I said that this book was only published because I thought he was the other one, as we'd continued to discuss book projects. There were a few cheap laughs at my and Phil's expense about this confusion. Only afterwards did I find that my fellow publisher L & W was well into publishing the other Phil Cohen's Children of the Revolution when they found out he was not this one. As a result of the Olympics book (naturally, both Cohens have had an involvement in the Olympics, even if this one was in critiquing it) L & W have two Phil Cohens on their list, and I almost did at Five Leaves, and hope one day that I will.
If there is a third Phil Cohen out there writing books of interest to either publisher, please change your name.

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