Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Messiah still late shock, but the band plays on

On 22/11 I wrote that this long awaited book was due, betting though that it would come still before the Messiah. Well, the Messiah may be late, but the book was early. Dropping into the office today just to check the post before going away for a few days I had to climb over mounds of Jazz Jews, with no time to do anything other than send the author a few copies. The dispatch note with the books was dated 4th January so they must have arrived by time travel as well as carrier.
If you are one of those waiting, that the book has arrived early will do you no good whatsoever, and copies will still be sent out in the second week of January. Sorry.

In that earlier blog I wrote that the earliest emails about this book were from sometime in 2003. Mike tells me that we actually started discussing it in 2001, which means we really can say this book was ten years in the making. It's big, it's heavy, it's hardback, it has 7,000 names in the index and it's £24.99.

We're happy to send it to anyone in the UK post free, but anyone wanting to order from overseas would be best to go via http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/ as it will be post free internationally from there.

Thanks to Darius Hinks, by the way, for this wonderful wrap round Blue Note inspired cover.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Books of the year

Everyone else does it, so here's ten books I read this year I would recommend... I wouldn't say they were my favourite books of the year (I published those ones) and they are in no particular order. Just ones that come to mind.
Deer Hunting with Jesus: guns, votes, debt and delusions in Redneck America by Joe Bargean (Portobello). Anyone reading this would have known the sub-prime market would collapse. See? One book could have saved the world's economy. Read this and weep. Yup, fucked over, heavily armed, anti-union... this lot will vote Palin for President if they get the chance.

Edward Carpenter: a life of liberty and love by Sheila Rowbotham (Verso). The big biography of the most interesting of sandal wearers, a socialist, a vegetarian, an adult education lecturer, a believer in “dress reform” and feminism who lived in an openly gay relationship near Chesterfield at a time when such things were considered impossible.

Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War by Daniel Gray (Luath). This is the book that told me that in my home town workers took over a knitwear factory to make clothes for Spanish people and ran it as a co-op. Didn't learn that in school.

Every Secret Thing: my family, my country by Gillian Slovo (Virago). A re-read here, in prep for interviewing the author at Lowdham Book Festival. The family in question were Joe Slovo, who became a cabinet member in Mandela's government and Ruth First, assassinated by the apartheid regime.

Who was Sophie? by Celia Robertson (Virago). Celia's search to find out what had happened to “Sophie”, her grandmother, once a poet published by the Hogarth Press, who became a bag lady on the streets of Nottingham.
Cello by Frances Thimann (Pewter Rose). A book of short stories by a new press in Nottingham. Delightful cover, elegiac short stories about old age.

Writers on Islands edited by James Knox Whittett (Iron Press). An anthology by mostly well known writers about the islands around the coast of Britain and Ireland, including Kathleen Jamie, JM Synge, George MacKay Brown and many more. Lots of good short pieces.

Cold Granite by Stuart Macbride (Harper Collins). McBride's first tartan noire book, set in Aberdeen. Mentions many of my old haunts and it is good to know that police still feel unsafe visiting the Fersands estate where I used to live!

The One That Got Away by Zoe Wicomb (The New Press, USA). Internet only for this one for the moment, short stories set in South Africa and Glasgow, mostly with South African characters. One story, “N2” is near perfect.

Hackney, that Rose-Red Empire by Iain Sinclair (Hamish Hamilton, but due out in paperback in February). A rag bag, mishmash, rattle bag of Sinclair's usual concerns featuring a cast of the missing, the eccentric, the fictional, the even more unlikely factual.

There are probably others that would have been top tenners that I've forgotten, loaned out, returned to libraries, misplaced, but this seems a good enough selection. It was a good reading year, despite the misery in the book trade. Five of the ten were written by women and (phew) six were from independent presses.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Diary dates

We have some dates for some of Five Leaves' bigger events in 2010. All we need now is a diary, but most people are better organised...

Saturday March 20: 10am-4pm. "States of Independence" - an independent publishers' fair, with events, readings, launches.
De Montfort University, Leicester

Wednesday June 16: 7.30 (time tbc). "Old City, New Rumours" - launching our major anthology of Hull related poets, in support of Larkin 25. Andrew Motion, a contributor, will be reading and talking about Hull and Larkin. University of Hull

Friday 18 June - Saturday 27 June Lowdham Book Festival - the East Midlands biggest book event, jointly organised by Five Leaves and The Bookcase in Lowdham, Nottinghamshire.

Fuller details of all of these will appear in due course, and on our events listing at http://www.fiveleaves.co.uk/.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Richard Bolt and the team organising the Tower Hamlets Festival of Reading. Five Leaves were represented by John Harvey (OK, he does have another publisher too) and John Bennett (author of E1). The Festival was conceived and organised at short notice, but worked, and will reappear in the second week of November 2010.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Editorial dilemmas

A forthcoming Five Leaves' poetry anthology has to lose some material, because of the cost of republishing rights. Famous dead writers often seem the greediest. We have often winced at paying out to a wealthy estate run by a great niece or nephew of someone long dead, at the literal expense of paying some tyro poet starving in her garret. Anybody publishing DH Lawrence in the past had to pay out to the wealthy sons of the man DHL widow married after his death. There's plenty such examples of the undeserving and unrelated benefiting from the 70 years people's work remains in copyright after their death. But if you need the material, what can you do?

In this case we had to decide from among a group of living and dead poets which included one who was an anti-Semite, a Rexist, an admirer of Italian Fascism, an elitist and, according to one of the editorial team, "a baleful influence on British poetry for too long. Also a dull poet." Another editor, Jewish, disagreed that he should be excluded because he was an anti-Semite (the poem in question was not anti-Semitic) quoting in support that Daniel Barenboim can conduct Wagner, so chuck him out for poetic or financial reasons (and we did) but not on grounds of alleged anti-Semitism.

Should we always just go by the work, not the person? And what if the poet under discussion had been living? We would never - I imagine - publish the work of a living fascist supporter, even if they could turn out the most excellent sonnet. What if they were a wife-beater? A charlatan? A vivesector? A homophobe?


The Guardian's corrections column remarked (21/12/2009) that an obituary of Leonora Kay-Kreizman said "she had worked hard as the literary secretary for the Nottingham East branch of the Young Communist League; she was the literature secretary, charged with organising the sale of Communist party and YCL publications". This is rather a shame. I rather liked the notion that a YCL branch would have a literary secretary, and, possibly, a music correspondent, an arts organiser and a theatrical commission. And why not? The old Communist Party had writers by the library load, a relationship with the Workers' Music Association, the Artists' International Association and Unity theatre.

The original obituary mentioned that the Nottingham Communist Party was one of the only places in town where you could hear jazz and where men could kiss one another. So I think the Guardian was wrong to correct, and that Leonora must have organised the branch book group, reviewed the latest fiction in the branch bulletin and was probably assistant secretary of the YCL poetry circle. After all, the current Morning Star has a weekly poetry column and a monthly round up of poetry books. As CLR James almost said "What does he or she know of politics who only knows of politics?"

Sunday, 13 December 2009

"In my mind I'm going to Catalonia"

With apologies to James Taylor for the above title.

"The identification of one state with one national language is rather like monogamy - much praised as an ideal but as often ignored in practice," starts John Payne in "Mind Your Language", a chapter in the new edition of his Catalonia: history and culture.

Catalonia has just hit the streets, or perhaps the ramblas, and is Five Leaves' last book of 2009, just squeezing into the year. In addition to the important language issue, John's book covers - as the title does more than suggest - Catalan history and culture. As well as bringing his 2004 book up to date, this new edition includes a fresh chapter on Catalunya Nord, that part of historic Catalonia within France. It has been a good year for the author as his Signal book on the West Country has also appeared. For the avoidance of doubt the West Country here is around the author's home near Bath rather than, say Galicia or Asturias.

John Payne's book could easily be read in tandem with Michael Eaude's Barcelona, which went into a new edition last year.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Stanley Middleton

This week's Times Literary Supplement includes an overview by Paul Binding of the work of Nottingham novelist Stanley Middleton, who died earlier this year shortly before his 90th birthday. An overview was overdue. Binding picks out 1972-1984 as the key period of Middleton's work, starting with Cold Gradations and ending with The Daysman, with other high points including the earlier Harris's Requiem. While Trent Editions republished the latter, a small handful only of Middleton's late period titles are available. It would be wonderful if his main publisher, Hutchinson, could release some of his best work on print on demand, the equivalent of Faber Finds.

We were lucky enough to be the publisher of Holiday, Stanley Middleton's Booker winner, until Random House took back the rights earlier this year. It was fun having a Booker Prize winner on our list, and Stanley, gentleman that he was, refused all royalties and insisted on buying any copies he wanted at the full retail. We do still have some copies of Stanley Middleton at Eighty available.

Meanwhile, for those of you organised enough to have next year's diary, Paul Binding will be one of the speakers at a bookish celebration of Stanley Middleton's life on Saturday May 8th, from 2.00-4.30 at Nottingham University.

The event will be free but places will need to be booked. Full details are not available yet, but you can email Five Leaves meantime to make sure you are sent the programme.

Anybody really, really well organised may want to put a note in their 2013 diary that we will be publishing a critical overview of the novels of Angus Wilson by Paul Binding, that year being AW's centenary.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Hurry - final weeks!

Today's Guardian usefully sums up the disastrous state of bookselling today. On page 13 Waterstone's has taken out a big advert promoting Nigella Christmas for under a tenner, less than half price. For a penny under half price the main literary bookseller in the UK will sell you the Guinness Book of Records, and for the same low retail price you can buy a volume of letters to their younger selves by Rolf Harris, Jonathan Ross, the racist bigot Alan Carr and others of that ilk.

One page 19 WH Smith offer up to 75% off another bundle of useless books that is only redeemed by the presence of Andrew Marr's book on Modern Britain. The Guinness Book of Records is a tenner though - you can save a penny by sticking with Waterstone's.

Two pages on, Borders, in their last gasp, is offering up to 60% off their stock as they are closing down. I'd never noticed their mission statement printed next to their logo before - "Let's escape" it says. And they will, as fixtures and fittings are also up for sale.

Look again at the figures.... half price at Waterstone's, up to 75% off at Smiths, up to 60% off at a chain that is closing at Xmas.

Someone trying to tell us something here?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Exiled Writers

Back to literature....
Saturday 12 December: 2.00pm
AGM of Exiled Writers Ink, home of many of the writers in Five Leaves refugee anthologies, Crossing the Border, The Bend in the Road (now out of print) and The Silver Throat of the Moon. The guest speaker is Daljit Nagra (pictured), contributor to the Anglo-Dutch pamphlet By Heart-Uit Her Hoofd (Five Leaves) though he is marginally better known for his Faber collection Look We Have Coming To Dover!, which won the Forward first collection prize in 2007.
The new issue of Exiled Ink magazine is now available, £5 cheque to Exiled Writers Ink, 31 Hallswelle Road, London NW11.
AGM venue: Universal Peace Foundation, 43 Lancaster Gate, London W2 3NA (Lancaster Gate tube)
This is a late entry, other Five Leaves events are listed on our main website.

Monday, 7 December 2009

EDL in Nottingham

Well, I never did get to the poetry reading on Saturday (see two entries ago). In case anyone was wondering why people were concerned about the EDL, check this one out:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dzvj06Ngt98. The moment around 2.20 seconds is a great one, presumably the EDL felt that a lamppost looked suspiciously Islamic.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The rise and rise of creative writing courses

The excellent Tindal Street Press from Birmingham is a well known publisher of fiction from Birmingham, whose modest output has a singularly strong record in being shortlisted or winning various literary prizes. They have just published Roads Ahead, short stories by 22 newish voices, some from the West Midlands, some from further afield. The book is edited by Catherine O’Flynn, one of their earlier big success stories. As the title suggests, the book is a marker for the future with most of the contributors being at a fairly early stage in their writing career.

Of the 22 writers, five mention that they have completed or are attending creative writing courses at university level. I know two of the others, both of whom used to live in the East Midlands and both of whom completed creative writing courses but did not mention doing so in their authors’ notes. It may be that some of the others have also completed such courses, but at least seven have certainly done so. Of the others, four currently teach creative writing at university level.. Thus at least half of the line up is involved in that world.

It takes a few seconds on google to find that there are many creative writing courses. Locally you can find them at Nottingham University, Nottingham Trent University, Derby University, University of Lincoln, De Montfort University, Loughborough University. Apologies if I have missed any. The number may well have increased since starting this article.
Creative writing courses may well have replaced the old style writing groups. They have, however, been subject to some criticism. Nottingham writer Jon McGregor, for example, as part of a most interesting article on making a living as a writer, comments “Some will find patronage within the great pyramid schemes of creative-writing courses…” as an alternative to his dressing up as a bear, handing out leaflets outside the pound shop in Barnsley, as a way of getting by as a struggling writer. (You can find the full article in Pen Pusher 12, orderable via http://www.penpushermagazine.co.uk/.)

I don’t think Jon was suggesting his ursine habit was a better option. Nor here am I criticising M.A.s in Creative Writing. Some of my best friends etc. And some of the authors I have published or have signed up have done such courses and some teach them.

But I don’t think it would be a good idea if the road ahead for any publisher has the equivalent of a bus lane for people on creative writing courses.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Spoilt for choice

This coming Saturday looks interesting. Here in Nottingham you can attend Nottingham Forest versus Leicester FC (only 1,000 tickets left) or go ice-skating in the Market Square, or pick up a present at the German Christmas Market. Cathy Grindrod is launching her excellent new Shoestring Press poetry collection, The Sky Head On at Bromley House Library. Meanwhile, elsewhere in town, the English Defence League will be showcasing the worst of England in protesting against Muslims, seig heils optional. There will of course be counter protests.

It is hard to imagine that poetry is a major debating point among the English Defence League. But on the other hand, I've only just hastily returned an unsolicited manuscript about the glories of Englishness compared to say, the beastly Scots, the unspeakable Welsh and the dreadful Europeans, which was in poetic form. It is always a good idea to look at a publisher's list before sending in material.

Not that there is anything new in groups like the English Defence League. Turning to the last posting here, Roland Camberton's Scamp, published in 1950, has a character picking up a leaflet from the fictional Association of Freemen and Yeomen of England "Britons! In times of old your forefathers knew how to draw the sword for liberty. It was they who carried the flag to the furthest corners of the globe... Alien influences dominate our native land".

No doubt there was a Pictish Defence League, demonstrating against alien Romans coming across here, stealing their woad...

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

John Minton

Five Leaves has got the go ahead to re-issue the two Roland Camberton books - Scamp and Rain on the Pavements in our New London Editions series. No date set yet, more details to follow etc. Camberton was one of the great mysteries of London literature, which meant of course that Iain Sinclair got on the case. Sinclair wrote a long piece on Camberton for the Guardian, which will be included in Scamp. We'll be using the original John Minton covers, which will gladden some hearts, and this led me to read Frances Spalding's Dance till the Stars Come Down (the title taken from an Auden poem), Minton's biography. Spalding's book is out of print, and not cheap on the net.

John Minton was a household name in his day, but died young, by his own hand, in 1957. He was part of that Soho set who would hang round The Colony Room and drink too much. Minton was part of the "homosexual freemasonry" (Spalding's phrase) and led a promiscuous life. He knew a sailor when he saw one, that's for sure, yet often fell in love with heterosexual men.

Minton inherited money, and was a successful artist. He supported many who needed his help and many who were spongers. He was never known to turn down a commission - it would be terrific to see an exhibition of all his book covers. As well as Camberton he produced covers for Martin Goff, Alan Ross and the cookery writer Elizabeth David, for John Lehmann and other publishers. A general retrospective would be good too.

Spalding has probably covered everything biographically, but her book is short on illustrations. An illustrated John Minton anyone? I'd buy one.

Friday, 27 November 2009

No Borders

The problem with Borders - see financial pages and book blogs everywhere - is that they just simply got it wrong in the UK. They thought this was America, and it isn't, yet, but rents are higher. Driving to a huge out of town bookshop was not for us. Now 45 shops and about 1,000 workers livelihoods are at risk as the company slips into administration.
Borders always bothered me, particularly since I got my hands on the Borders (USA) managers' manual for smashing unions. Some of the content was hilarious, along the lines of advising managers that if they saw workers who don't normally talk to one another speaking together, beware, they could be talking unions. Worry if managers are not invited to staff nights out - they could be talking unions. From 1996-1998 the independent union the Industrial Workers of the World started to get a toe-hold in Borders USA, which led to firings and a Boycott Borders campaign. Like so many US companies they come over as all hip (the Guardian made much of their appeal to the Friends' generation) but at heart they were an anti-union firm, keen to hire till jockeys for low wages, operating a central buying system.

Yet their bankruptcy is terrible news. Many smaller publishers can't get into Smiths, can't survive off the indies and Amazon alone, which give Waterstones immense power over certain types of books. If they use that power wisely we all gain, if badly, we are stuffed. Yet I imagine the biggest losers will be the big publishers who need volume and need - to some extent - to be able to play someone off against Waterstones.

And Borders had its strong points - it stocked, at times, a very good range of magazines, literary and political. This will impact on Central Books, the main mag distributor to shops (and our distributor). From time to time they got behind local books in a big way - the Dundee Borders ordered 100 copies of our The Lost Sister, even though the author works at Dundee Waterstones.

There is a welcome spread of good indies, and small chains and good indies may be the future, but meantime we are in for a tough ride.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

"Everything happens in Cable Street"

One of the minor frustrations of being a publisher who believes in what we publish (well, sort of, on a good day) compared to, say, making the odd dollar, is that sometimes a project comes along that makes you want to drop all the other stuff, and get stuck in straight away. Roger Mills, who bookselling archaeologists will remember as the author of A Comprehensive Education, is working on a book about Cable Street, in London, and that is just such a project. We're not publishing it until 2011, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, but I'd much prefer it to be out next Tuesday.

Roger's book - the title "Everything happens in Cable Street" is taken from Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley - covers the Battle of course, but also covers everything else that happened on the street. Isaac Rosenberg was from there, "To Sir, With Love" was based on a local school and filmed there. He covers the seedy Maltese cafes from the 60s and the current fetish night club on Cable Street now. That's just a taster of course.

I doubt there's many people alive who remember Hutchinson's, The Oldest Stewed Eel and Pie House in the District (Live Eels Always in Stock), which was going strong in 1925, but if there are, Roger Mills will find them.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Waiting for the messiah (who will be depping on drums)

I can't exactly place when Mike Gerber and Five Leaves started discussing a book on Jews and jazz, but the earliest saved email exchange was on 13/06/2003. Perhaps we were discussing it before email, or even movable type, it feels so long ago. At times it felt like the messiah would arrive before the book did. But unless the messiah gets his or her skates on, Mike's book will be out first.

Many people have been waiting for this book. Some have grown old while waiting. But it is on its way, 656 pages in all, which is about 500 pages larger than we originally planned, with an index featuring 7,000 names from all over the world as the book also became an international survey. And quite a few quid more than we'd planned, but, you know, inflation and all that.

I guess that other such books - not that there are any like this one - would be written by an academic on sabbatical, or a writer on a good advance, published by a publisher with a big editorial team. But Mike is a freelance journalist, with all the pressures that brings, and a family, which is probably living in dire poverty now because of all the CDs he had to buy and Five Leaves is only a small publisher which sometimes bites off more than it can chew.

Thanks to those who have waited. Just wait a little bit longer. This won't be the last word on Jews and jazz, just many tens of thousands of words as a contribution to a discussion.
Meantime, here's a picture of the Makabi club orchestra from Siauliai (Shavl in Yiddish) in Lithuania in 1932, courtesy of the Siauiliai Austros Museum.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The penultimate Sphinx

My fave lit mag has just arrived, Sphinx, edited by the Scottish poet and publisher Helena Nelson. This is Sphinx 11, and after 12 the mag will go completely on line, as part of the http://www.happenstance.com/ site. The mag's review already appear there. I presume that Sphinx loses more money in a print form than being put on-line for free access. But it is a nice print form, handy A5 with coloured endpapers, in keeping with its stated aim of promoting chapbooks. This edition though covers a range of small presses - primarily through interviews with the editors of Shearsman, Red Squirrel, Oystercatcher, tall-lighthouse, The Poetry Business, Gray Hen and a feature with an ex-worker from the letterpress printer Barbarian Books.

Essential reading for other nosy small press editors of course, but those who write for small presses, or wish to, should read this edition particularly. £3.50 well spent. You can buy all the back issues on the Happenstance site, though the current one is not on their shop yet so you may have to resort to good old fashioned cheques.

I would email Helena Nelson to plead with her to keep the mag in a print format, other than I did that when the decision to go on-line was first announced. She did not weaken.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Three Tyneside poets reject vodka

Never - ever - looking a gift horse in the dentures, Paul Summers, Andy Croft and Bill Herbert must have been pleased to see a big feature in the Newcastle Journal about them and their (and our) book Three Men on the Metro. We were too. You can read the full article via their own blog, http://tribrodyagi.blogspot.com/. Tribrodjagi is Russian for three vagabonds or wanderers, though the trio look more like a group of polytechnic lecturers on an away day than vagabonds to me.
Returning to the Journal article, our trio are referred to as "Tyneside poets" - which caused the Teeside member to faint. The article also says that their "vodka fueled exploits" are the "talk of the poetry world". Well, you'd have to drink one hell of a lot of vodka to keep up with some poets I know. The book is claimed as having sixty Pushkin sonnets, hmm, not really. Jerome K Jerome (an inspiration for the book) is marked as being popular from his visits to Russia, though he didn't go there. And the book is a big hit in Albania. We hope the book is selling well in downtown Tirana, but doubt it as Albania broke with Russia in 1960 and Moscow is not exactly a hot topic there. But it is a great piece otherwise.

Monday, 16 November 2009

What I did on my holidays # 2

You leave a country for just thirty years and, blimey, it changes. Here’s a few things there never used to be:
The Scottish Review of Books – a high quality quarterly newspaper given away with the Herald and through bookshops and libraries. The handful I’ve picked up led with the novelist Janice Galloway; the Canadian/Scottish diaspora writer (who happens to be my favourite short story writer) Alistair MacLeod; the new biography of Muriel Spark by the East Midlands’ writer Martin Stannard; and a feature on the deserted villages of Europe. You can subscibe via http://www.argyllpublishing.co.uk/ or track down copies when you are up there.
Northwards Now – this is the one that intrigues me, a thrice yearly literary magazine from Inverness. Again free, I picked up my copy at the arts cinema in Glasgow, but you can subscribe for a fiver via http://www.northwordsnow.co.uk/. This one has an orientation towards the north of the country, as the name suggests, so there is a bigger Gaelic content. But what interested me is that it is not have the feel of the kailyard and is quite mouthy. The current issue addresses the new round of Scottish poetry coming from Salt, admiring the look of the books but suggesting they suffer from “emporer’s new clothes” due to the absence of professinal editing.
Book Festivals – look beyond the overpriced Edinburgh Festival. How about the little one in Portobello (a town that does not even have a bookshop), Nairn, Ullapool, the biggie at Wigtown. Take it as read that Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdee also have theirs. The one I’m not overwhelmed by though is the Borders Book Festival. Overpriced, virtually nobody from the Borders, held outside of Melrose with no involvement of the local bookshop or local businesses and based on the hero worship principle. They could do better.
Bookshops – I hear great things about some of the northern shops, the bookshop/restaurant/gallery at Durness and The Ceilidh Place Bookshop in Ullapool. On my old stomping ground there is the charming and busy Masons of Melrose, Main Street Trading in St Boswells (set up by an ex-Bloomsbury worker) and, astonishingly The Forest Bookstore in the small town of Selkirk, which specialises in the build environment. All have the advantages of Scottish history and fiction for visitors (the Aberfeldy bookshop said in The Bookseller that their sales actually go down towards the Christmas period as there are less visitors) but none of the shops I have mentioned go for tartan tackiness, something so prevalent at tourist haunts. (It annoys me when crossing the border to see bagpipers – the Borders’ tradition is small pipes and no artificial highland dress.)
– Scotland’s big poetry festival, held in March (http://www.stanzapoetry.org/). Their early programme is out already with Seamus Heaney topping the bill,but there is also a St Patrick’s Night celebration and evening of poetry from Shetland as well as Vicki Feaver, Moniza Alvi and a host over others – including readers from Cuba, Italy and Croatia. Scottish literature has always been internationalist.
Even my own town of Hawick is gettng in on the act. Its second hand bookshop, Waterspode, appears to have given up the ghost – I never, ever found it open anyway – but there is a festival weekend with Kathleen Jamie (one of my favourite Scottish poets) and Janice Galloway.
Yes, there were good things happening thirty years ago. I was introduced to the work of Edward Carpenter thirty years ago in Aberdeenshire by Noel Greig, who has just died, and there were several radical bookshops. But now (most of the developments mentioned above started withing the last few years) it really does feel that literature is centre stage throughout the whole country, in all the languages of Scotland. And I’m homesick.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Wanted column

1) Anybody out there know how to contact the Estate of the illustrator Hilda T Miller? She is unknown to DACS and Watch - two good sources of such information. Her date of birth/death would help.

2) Where can I buy plastic ducks reading books? I saw a picture of them and want one (or more).

3) Who said "I have the feet of a violinist"? Most likely a film quote.

4) Has anyone a spare copy of Frank Griffin's October Day they could loan me/sell me? Originally published by Secker.

Yes, I have heard of google, but it has failed me

Monday, 9 November 2009

Peace House at 50

Housmans Bookshop - one of the main places you can find most Five Leaves' titles on permanent sale - has been going since 1945, but for the last 50 years has been part of a complex of organisations at 5 Caledonian Road, Kings Cross. These include Peace News, War Resisters International and at one time (I swear it is true) London Action for Peace and Peace Action London, as well as others which have gone on to much bigger premises such as Gay Switchboard, or some that have folded, such as the famed Porcupine Book Cellar.

Housmans is one of the few remaining radical bookshops, with a weird and wonderful selection of stock and customers. And staff too for that matter.

The shop is particularly strong on London writing, and on political magazines from the most obscure corners of left wing thought.

This Saturday (14th November) there is an open day, followed by an assortment of entertainment ranging from Leon Rosselson for the leftist traditionalists (preceded by Ian Saville, the Marxist magician) through to DJs until 2.00 in the morning. The afternoon open house starts at 3.00, the assorted entertainment starts at 6.00 and runs over a couple of nearby venues according to whether you want your ears to ache badly by the end of the night. You can find the full programme on http://www.housmans.com/.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Literary scams

My late grand-father knew a thing or two about dog racing. I found out from him that a particular way to nobble your own dog was to tape coins - threepenny bits were mentioned - into its pads leading up to the race, giving the mutt sore feet so it could not run fast. Do that a couple or three times and the odds drop, then you can back your dog at long odds. I can only have been four when I heard this, as he died the same year but it put me off gambling for life. It also told me that the punters are there to be taken for a ride. Which brings me to the National Poetry Competition.
For a fiver you can enter this major comp, whose past winners include Ian Duhig (twice), Julia Copus, Sam Gardiner, Carol Ann Duffy, Sinead Morrisey and a host of other great poets. The entries are judged without the judges knowing the names of the entrants, so it is an open competition. And good poems win. Some good poems don't win. Mediocre poems never win, and thousands of fair to middling and downright awful poems could never win.
The scam though is that the leaflets are everywhere, there are notices in the regional dailies and bad poets, fair to middling poets, mediocre poets and people who will be good poets later think that they have a chance of winning and bung off their fivers. That the prize is £5000 tells you that there are a lot of entries. And that most of the entries have no chance of winning. The organisers know that but depend on these entries to build the prize money.
Every month there are other opportunities for people to spend their fivers on other poetry prize competitions. There's more of them all the time as poetry presses and magazines use the profits to stay afloat. Afloat on the strength of bad poetry. On the strength of poets, particularly new poets, who have no idea their work is not good enough to ever win and who will eventually drop off the list of entrants, saddened, poorer and replaced by another raft of people being ripped off in the same way.
If I had grandchildren I'd sit them down at an impressionable age and encourage them never to bet on lame dogs, and never to enter poetry competitions. Better to spend the money on the PDSA and on poetry books.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Off their rocking horse

It's not looking good for the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre in Nottinghamshire. Not at all. The local Broxtowe Council wants to save £60,000 on the Centre and nobody has yet come up with a plan other than full or at best partial closure. Actually that is not quite right, Nottingham University - which has a big interest in Lawrence - tried to raise £1 million for a major development on the site but this grand scheme came to naught. Perhaps it was too grand. But Nottingham University is hardly a poor university, so did it have to be all or nothing? It would appear so.

Eastwood certainly needs the Lawrence trade. I don't mean that every business should become the Lawrence Snackery or the Phoenix Hair Salon, but the town is not doing so well and it could benefit hugely from an expansion, not contraction of one of its few attractions.

Most everyone is turning away, embarrassed or finding it not within their brief - the Arts Council, the County Council, Writing East Midlands, the Museums and Libraries Association. The local Broxtowe District Council makes the right noises but seems incapable of coming up with a plan to make the building work. A lot more, a lot more could be done to make the Heritage Centre thrive. The East Midlands has a fairly modest amount of big names in its literary heritage and Lawrence is up there.

But actually Lawrence has made some people very, very rich. When he was alive he lived a fairly financially precarious existence, but in death his literary estate became for a period one of the most valuable in the world, and he is still earning. Where did that money go? Well, Penguin did pretty well in the wake of the Lady Chatterley trial and the Lawrence Pollinger Literary Agency (now Pollinger Ltd) carefully looked after their percentage of the royalties. The royalties themselves? Lawrence effectively left his copyright to his wife Frieda, who in turn left it to her next husband, who in turn left it to his children by an earlier marriage (correct me if I am wrong!), so out there somewhere are people who have done very well indeed by nothing more than chance. Maybe they have the odd fiver going spare?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Oh no. It's discussing swear words time again. Earlier this year it was Dan Tunstall's Big and Clever - the publisher, the agent and the author sitting down at a high powered meeting discussing whether and how often we can use the word "fuck", and all the rest. The book is set among football hooligans, a group rarely known for their use of phrases like "you are a rotter" or "oh dearie me". So the dialogue had to be realistic, but not so realistic as school libraries would refuse to stock the book. Apparently the "c word" is not really acceptable, but what about the answering chant on the terraces to "KIDDerminster" - apparently opposing fans regularly reply with the "c word". What if we spelt it with a "k"?

It felt like a game of cards - I'll swap you one shagging if you take out one, well, you get the drift.

And now, working on a forthcoming young adult fiction book it is back to the same issue. With added complications - can we really have an underage driver, who is something of a hero in the book, and what about the two main characters not wearing a seatbelt?

And then there's drugs and underage drinking.

What is our responsibility here? To the author, to the integrity of the book or to a mythical school librarian poring over every word, or to an outraged parent?

Five Leaves is hardly the first publisher to be faced with these problems, but it doesn't make it any easier knowing that.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

There's never anything good on tellie these days

So why not watch Iranian TV? Or, to be more precise, Peter Mortimer talking about Camp Shatila on the Iranian station Press TV? In case your Farsi is a bit rusty, don't worry, he is being interviewed in English by George Galloway and you can find the programme on-line at http://www.presstv.ir/programs/detail.aspx?sectionid=3510520&id=109660#109660.

Peter is also getting lots of press in the north east - in the Journal and the Northern Echo in the wake of him bringing a group of Palestinian children over from Shatila refugee camp outside Beirut to tour an English language play round the north east. This was a follow up from his writer's residency described in the book. About 1,200 people attended the eight performances, culminating in a big bash at The Sage. Peter has just won the arts section of the North East Celebrating Diversity Awards. The award was presented on October, the organiser being Equality North East. This award was given for Peter Mortimer’s Shatila project, and comes soon after Peter Mortimer was shortlisted for the 2009 Arab-British Culture Award for his play RIOT, published in English and Arabic by Five Leaves.

In the TV interview - about 14.5 minutes in if you want to cut to the chase - there are also very short clips of an interview with some of the children and of them performing.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Anarchism in action

When people used to say that anarchism would never work other than on a small scale, Colin Ward used to mention (quoting Kropotkin?) that you could send a letter to any country in the world and it would be delivered. The local post office takes the money for the stamps in whichever country the letter is posted, the recipient does not have to pay and the local postal service of the recipient does not receive any of the money. This is all done regardless of differences of politics and economics, and everyone benefits.

I thought of this again at this year's Anarchist Book Fair, held at the end of October at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London. Anyone can book a room for a meeting and it goes into the programme; anyone (of libertarian bent) can have a stall; everyone helps advertise the event. This year was the biggest ever, with around ninety stalls taking part, mostly from the UK but also from Ireland, Israel and elsewhere and thousands of people attending.

Though there appears to be a history of conflict at the Fair, I've not seen any over the last three years and everyone just seems to get on with it, and if you have to go to the loo or want a break next door's stall will look after yours.

I confess that Five Leaves did pretty well, and the stall was rarely quiet. Some - like Active Distribution and Northern Herald were mobbed all day. The former is cool, trendy and modern, the latter sells old books at decent prices.

I noticed this year there were more people from other traditions attending and soaking up the friendly atmosphere.

As book fairs go the range is relatively limited, but not that limited, and I picked up a copy of John Sommerfield's 1938 novella Trouble in Porter Street that I'd been looking for. The original was priced at two old pennies but £6 did not seem so bad, being about half the price of an internet copy. And pamphlets! Rarely do you see pamphlets on sale these days.

There's a small collective running the Festival, and it is not cheap to book a massive space at Queen Mary and Westfield so they do well keeping entry free and stalls affordable.

There's smaller fairs now in Bristol, Manchester and elsewhere. They can never take the place of the old network of radical bookshops, but there's movement - and thousands of people attended the London book fair.

Well done to all concerned.

Friday, 30 October 2009

University of the ghetto

Back again to the East End, London's East End, joining in a tour. Not for the first time. Five Leaves has published a few books on the East End so it was a well beaten path. Nevertheless it was valuable to stand again outside Ikey Solomon's house (Fagin as fictionalised) and to hear again the story of Two Gun Cohen (look him up) and others. The bookish part ends up of course at Whitechapel Gallery - where Isaac Rosenberg wrote his poems, Mark Gertler and David Bomberg borrowed art books, Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man) learned English and Arnold Wesker wept over Wind in the Willows. Those were the days when Whitechapel Library was known as the University of the Ghetto. Now the building is part of the Art Gallery, complete with a hugely popular exhibition of Sophie Calle's work and a hugely empty overpriced restaurant.

The exhibition about the "Whitechapel Boys" has been taken down - shame, it would have been an important permanent exhibition with its signed copies of Rosenberg's work and other fascinating bits and pieces. But the book room at the top of the building gives a nod to the past with part of Bernard Kops' elegiac "Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East" stencilled on a window.

Together with "Shalom Bomb" this is Kops' most popular poem. Some of it is printed below. You can find both in our Bernard Kops' East End, or wait a while as David Paul is publishing a collection of new and old poetry by the man. Here's a picture of Bernard reading the poem outside the library. And here's a bit of the poem

I emerged out of childhood with nowhere to hide

when a door called my name

and pulled me inside.

And being so hungry I fell on the feast.

Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.

And Rosenberg also came to get out of the cold

to write poems of fire, but he never grew old.

And here I met Chekhov, Tolstoy, Meyerhold.

I entered their words, dark visions of gold.

And Lorca and Shelley said "Come to the feast"

Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East

Thursday, 29 October 2009

King Dido book launch

Bethnall Green Library had a pretty full house for the launch of a new edition of Alexander Baron's King Dido, the first of the Five Leaves' grand(iose) sounding New London Editions. We were pleased that Alexander Baron's widow, Dolores, was present. The evening was introduced by Nick Baron, his son (and occasionally interrupted by the author's six week old grandson, attending his first book launch) and Ken Worpole, who wrote the introduction to the book. Ken did a lot to bring attention back to Alexander Baron by writing about him in Dockers and Detectives -also now published by Five Leaves. Nick and Ken are pictured.

Ken read a short extract from King Dido, but his talk also included part of a home recording of Alexander Baron being interviewed by Ken some years back.

There is a modest renewal of interest in Baron, once one of this country's best-selling writers. Five Leaves is publishing Rosie Hogarth next year in New London Editions, with an introduction by Andrew Whitehead while Black Spring is due to republish From the City, From the Plough and The Lowlife.

Many people there were curious to see wall carvings in the library of William Morris, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and... Richard Wagner. But nobody knew why the unlikely composer was included. Maybe the chair of the then library committee was a fan?

Bethnal Green - since you ask - was the setting for King Dido, the story taking place in the criminal underworld of 1911 in "Rabbit Marsh".

The Russians are coming

Poets Andy Croft and Bill Herbert, two of Five Leaves Three Men on the Metro can be heard talking about their adventures in Moscow on the latest edition of The Strand, the daily arts bulletin on the BBC World Service.
To listen to the broadcast click on www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002vsn3. The Russian version is on www.bbc.co.uk/russian/radio/radio_5etazh/2009/10/091025_5floor_zinik_metro.shtml.
Three Men on the Metro brings together the weird and wonderful exploits of poets Andy Croft, W.N. Herbert and Paul Summers as they journey from the Newcastle Metro to its Moscow counterpart. With only a tatty copy of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – a cult classic in the Soviet Union – for company, the trio soon become the typical idealists abroad: lost underground and going in circles. The poetry that followd is inspired by their two weeks adrift in a foreign land, in a Metro system as renowned for its stunning artwork and architecture as it is for its trains.

It's not the winning that counts

Rod Madocks' No Way to Say Goodbye was shortlisted for the ITV3 Crime and Thriller Awards in the section for the John Creasey First Novels in conjunction with the Crime Writers Association. Sadly it did not win but Rod got to walk up a red carpet. He was interviewed by ITV, bankrupted himself by buying wine for his table at the glitzy venue and watched Lynda La Plante rant against crap books written by TV "personalities". Given that she was on the box and there were plenty of TV personalities in the room it was a brave act. It was a night of crime, film stars and frocks. So here's Rod - scrubbed up well - the crime writer, but sadly no frocks in this picture.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!

To the right you will see a typical view towards Dundee, just with the sea a wee bit different in colour than normal. Poetry lovers will be reminded of McGonagall's well remembered (you cannot forget how awful it is) poem. We are glad to say that McLean's Great Dundee Crime Novel volume two is now in the shops, recently reaching number eight in the Scottish Waterstone's Scottish interest top ten. The book was launched in Dundee at "Droothies". Some of you will never have attended a book launch. Those demure events where the author makes an Oscars type speech, thanks various people, before reading an accessible piece of the text then the company returns to their fare of a small glass of dry red... You can see the Dundee version of this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyMyMup5fVs&feature=player_embedded

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

What I did on my holidays # 1

After a couple of hours around Arthur’s Seat (or Arthur Seaton, as my literary Nottingham-centric companion called it) we dropped down to the Scottish Parliament, sitting in its shadow. The cost overrun and the fascinating architecture of the place have been rehearsed well enough, but it is worth a guided tour by anyone visiting Edinburgh. In its first year over around a million people, mostly Scots, went round their Parliament which probably makes Edwin Morgan’s “For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004” one of the best read poems going since every tour stops in front of it.
Edwin Morgan is the current “Makar”, the Scottish equivalent of the Poet Laureate, now in his eighties, a belatedly out gay man and a terrific poet. His Scottish Parliament poem is a celebration, but also a warning to the Members of the Scottish Parliament that it should not be a “nest of fearties” and worse of all not a place where the famous Scottish phrase “it wizny me” is used. Had more British Parliamentarians assented to his line “We give your our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away” they might not be in the mess they currently are.
A hundred yards from the Scottish Parliament lies the Scottish Poetry Library (www.spl.org.uk) which proudly boasts the new Edwin Morgan archive (www.edwinmorgan.spl.org.uk). You can pick up some free postcards of Morgan poems like my favourite “Strawberries” or some of his sound poems, so loved by children. Morgan’s archive is not small as he, more than many, contributed to broadsheets, fugitive material of all types, as well as his main publications.
The Scottish Poetry Library is a rare calm space just off the Royal Mile, with a modest events programme, an annual small press fair and a very good broadsheet magazine, Poetry Reader. The library is well laid out with material to borrow or to examine, and some on sale. There’s a children’s area and an area for magazines. Naturally the coverage is slanted towards Scottish poetry, in all the languages of that country. On my visit there was a special exhibition of Ivor Cutler’s poetry and graphics. The same weekend there was a seminar on war poetry, with some current serving soldier poets attending and reading their work.
Without overstating the case, it felt to me that poetry plays a stronger role in Scottish life than here. Burns is never far away. And nor is haggis. I could not believe it at first but it does appear to be true that in 1984, when the Poetry Library first opened (in previous premises) the haggis manufacturer Mcsweeney’s made a vegetarian version that was so popular it went into general manufacture. I’ve bought it and enjoyed it a few times – never knowing its literary origins.
The Scottish Poetry Library produces a neat little pamphlet giving a history of the Library, on its 25th anniversary. £3 well spent.
Later, walking down a footpath by the Water of Leith we stumbled on the Dean Gallery, a building previously quite unknown to me. For the first time ever my jaw really did drop when I went into the exhibition recreating the studios of the Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. You have to see it. The literary interest is in the adjacant room, the Gabrielle Keillor Library where the work of the surrealist French poet Paul √Čluard is on display, and is broadcast, backed by artists books and illustrated books from the Dada and Surrealist tradition. The Gallery as a whole specialises in Surrealism.
The final literary call was on the new Edinburgh Bookshop in Bruntsfield, a spin off from the children’s book in the same street. The shop had been open a few days when I called, with a small but carefully chosen stock of 3,000 books, mostly displayed face out in single copies. It will not replace my favourite Edinburgh bookshop Wordpower as my first port of call, but is another sign of the welcome return of confidence to independent bookselling.