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 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, 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 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 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 ( 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

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

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.