Friday, 30 July 2010

Back in the Borders # 3

Having just seen Rory Bremner award the winner's rosette to a snail in the miscellaneous section of the children's pet competition at the Borders Union Agricultural Show, followed by a sheep shearing demonstration (though not by Bremner), I began to remember the differences between inner city life and the Scottish Borders. But developments in the book business continue here apace. In the two previous blogs I talked about the newish bookshops, Mainstreet and Latimers, which have joined the existing shops The Forest Bookstore (Selkirk) and Talisman Books (Melrose). Now Jedburgh is getting in on the act with the Abbey View Cafe and Bookshop. No website, but the Abbey in Jedburgh is kinda hard to ignore so the attractive Cafe is easy to find, not least because of the wonderful floral decorations outside. The book section comprises one wall of well chosen popular books (I didn't even try selling them Five Leaves' titles) in keeping with the well chosen and popular food. It's not Foyles but a great addition to the town for locals and visitors.
There is an existing Borders Book Festival, which is very big, and which I have criticised elsewhere for its cost and its lack of relationship with the Borders and local bookselling, but I am very pleased to see the programme for the "Books, Borders and Bikes" two day literary festival in Traquair House near Innerleithen, to be held over the weekend of 14-15 August. The theme is "Small Nations, Big Cultures". The event features writers from Palestine, Zimbabwe, Kurdistan and elsewhere. Scottish PEN is involved. I hope it succeeds, as it is a serious and exciting initiative - see I wish I'd known about it earlier.
Back to Nottingham tomorrow...

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Back in the Borders #2

Tucked away down the Mill Wynd off the attractive cobbled market square in Kelso is Latimer Books, one of the other recently opened Border bookshops (see last posting). If I knew how to use the word eponymous it might fit here as the shop is run by Jane and Norman Latimer. And the tucked away point is important, with Norman's blog on noting that they are looking for more noticeable premises. But if you are within striking distance of Kelso it is worth a call. Again no Tartan tourist tat on offer, which does not mean the absence of local or Scottish history. Indeed, my purchase was the Spirit of Jura anthology published by Polygon, nestling close on its shelf to one of my favourite books, Findings by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books). The shop is well stocked and I noticed our local writer Eve Makis on the shelves. Like so many small shops Latimer offers a fast order service, with Jane Latimer mentioning that on Mondays people pour in with clippings from the weekend broadsheets. This is a busy weekend for them, with a big stall at the Borders Union Agricultural Show, such is the nature of rural bookselling. A good opportunity to buy a new combine harvester and the new Helen Dunmore.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Back in the Borders # 1

Probably not many publishers turn up on the bus to flog their wares at bookshops, after an hour and a half country walk in the rain, but that was the quickest way from where I am on holiday to reach the exquisite bookshop in St Boswells in the Scottish Borders. As I trudged along I was needing it be a good shop, and it was, with an excellent in store cafe. The shop was started a couple of years ago by Rosamund and Bill de la Hay. Rosamund used to work for Bloomsbury, but opening a very large shop in a very small town that is not even on a train line must have seemed like madness to some people. The name, The Mainstreet Trading Company, suggests more than a bookshop, which is the case, but books are at the heart of the business. The stock is excellent with no concessions to that dreadful Tartan tourism which so many small Scottish indies find so attractive. Lots of hardbacks, lots of the books currently under review in the broadsheets, lots of face out on tables, lots and lots of children's books. To use the jargon, Mainstreet is a "destination bookshop". In fact the shop publicity brochure uses the phrase in case we don't get it. And the shop has become, according to Rosamund, a destination for people from Northumberland to Edinburgh and from across the Borders. Mainstreet is one of four bookshops in the Scottish Borders, of which more anon, three opening in the last few years, the fourth had a recent change of management. Having grown up in the Borders, this leaves me in a state of shock. 100% recommended. My own purchase was The Bookman's Tale by Ronald Blythe (Canterbury Press), two scones and two coffees. You'll find a few Five Leaves' books there soon too.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Back in the USSR

Andy Croft, a Five Leaves' regular, is also a publisher. Over at Smokestack he publishes thin volumes of verse by lefties from this country, from Eastern Europe and "the other America". Now we have a thick volume, 312 pages of poetry and a 313th page listing leftie poets and the like who made it possible. The volume is Common Cause by Francis Combes, ably translated from French by Alan Dent of Penniless Press. Massive in size, massive in scope, a study of communism the idea, over two millennia, and Communism in practice. Among those listed on page 313 is the Northern Region of the Communist Party of Britain which is nice of them as the book does not hold back in criticising what went wrong. Just as Rabbi Hillel could shorten the Torah to something like don't do to others what you find hateful for people to do to you, Rabbi Bradshaw could shorten this book to the slogan painted on a statue of Marx in Berlin after the Wall came down "We'll do better next time". The slogan appears in the poem "Berlin '89". As a set of very short essays on ideas, people, places and events the book works wonderfully. Some purists might argue with the work as poetry, but some purists wouldn't know a trade union banner if it came up and bit them. Anyone who likes Bert Brecht (who makes a cameo appearance) will like this book. You can order copies from

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Always the bridesmaid...

Our Big and Clever by Dan Tunstall did not manage to win the Banford Boase Award last night at Walker Books. It was one of seven on the shortlist for this important trade award for "the most outstanding work of fiction for children by a first time novelist", previously won by Meg Rosoff, Kevin Brooks and Mal Peet among others. But it was great to be on the shortlist and Dan, his wife Carey, agent Penny Luithlen and I had a great time at the event. It was Penny's wedding anniversary so she wins the gold star for putting work first. The winner was Stolen by Lucy Christopher, mostly set in the Australian Outback.
Being on the shortlist has already added some hundreds of copies to sales and was good for Five Leaves, the only small press with a book on the shortlist. And we got to talk to Jaqueline Wilson.We are currently working on the edit for Dan's next book, Out of Towners, due next May.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

New John Lucas poetry collection

This is my 100th blog entry, the system tells me. And a good way to celebrate is by announcing John Lucas' new poetry collection. Copies are available now via the long website address at the bottom. Don't be confused about the different cover currently on the Inpress website, that was our first, draft cover, before we used the one you see here. John Lucas is a great friend of Five Leaves but this is his first solo collection with us. John is one of the few modern poets who combines politics, class, love and art in his work, combining them all with great technical skill. His fans will be pleased to know that his alter ego, Thorn Gruin, makes an appearance. Many of these poems reflect issues taken up at more length in his Next Year Will Be Better: a memoir of England in the 1950s, due later in the summer.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Don't put your daughter on the bookshop staff, Mrs Worthington... Noel Coward almost said. Why not? Well in last week's trade paper, The Bookseller, Langton's Bookshop in Twickenham advertised for a bookseller with 2-5 years bookselling experience, with a relevant degree offering pay "to" £11,000. The last time I worked in bookselling - in 1995 - the radical bookshop I worked in paid around that sum, and we did not demand degrees, but rents were cheaper back then. So what would you get elsewhere? Statistics vary but it appears that employers of freshly qualified graduates offer on average £23,000, £25,ooo in London. Of course graduates going into investment banking can expect to earn about £38,000, but who wants to be universally loathed? Retail pays on average £22,000. In other words Langton's is paying half the going rate for graduate first jobbers, but wanting second jobbers. That's bookselling. Indeed Five Leaves will shortly be appointing a sales and marketing assistant at £14,000, pro-rata, and that is publishing. I'd rather spend my time doing something useful than getting rich, but even booksellers and publishers need to feed their hungry children. Still, our government tells us we are all in this together, so that's all right then.

Colin Ward again

The challenge to the right, mentioned in my last posting, is that while Colin Ward may have advocated slimming down the state's role in our lives this has no connection to that of the current coalition as they wish to hand life over to an unregulated market, putting profit at the centre of our lives rather than community. Colin described mutual aid as the central point in political change. Many of his points echo Richard Titmuss's social policy classic The Gift Relationship, which focuses on blood donors, the ultimate in people offering something of themselves ("an armful" as Tony Hancock pointed out) for no gain, and outside of any notion of trade or profit. I was reminded of this the day after the memorial meeting when, on the tube, having been hopelessly lost near Wembley we faced being hopelessly lost in Kilburn as our badly photocopied maps had all the relevant streets themselves lost on the overlap between pages. Someone elsewhere in the carriage, listening in, offered us her A-Z, not to borrow, but to have as she "had another one at home", and maybe we would do the same to some other lost stranger sometime. Random acts of kindness may never appear in a party political manifesto but it saved us an hour on a hot day, and linked neatly back to Colin Ward the day before.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Colin Ward memorial meeting

About 200 people attended the Colin Ward memorial/celebration meeting at Conway Hall last Saturday. The audience comprised a mixture of grizzled activists (but enough about me), former New Society hacks, professional colleagues of Colin's from his assorted planning and environmental education jobs and people once press-ganged into writing articles for Anarchy. There were even some young people.
Ken Worpole - organiser in chief - ran things smoothly, subtly dropping a note on the podium when speakers began to go on a bit. Worpole himself described Colin's message as a challenge for the political right and the left, and all described his positive thinking, his humour, his knowledge across so many disciplines and his ability to be the first to write about issues before the public even realised they were issues. An example here might be his writing on the international water crisis of which we are now all aware. Not bad for someone who left school at 15 with no qualifications.
The star of the show was Harriet Ward, wittily describing how she set out to win Colin's affections some 45 years ago, including offering him lifts home since she was "going that way", while noting that she lived in the exact opposite direction. Strangely she also happened to pass his door when he was coming out in the mornings to offer a lift again (having, she confessed, parked up the road waiting on him to appear).
The other star of the show was Colin himself, an extract from a two hour interview with the late Roger Deakin being shown. Colin talked about the early days of his involvement with the Freedom group. The whole DVD is available from Housmans bookshop.
Five Leaves - opportunists that we are - brought forward the release of a new edition of Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy's Goodnight Campers! A History of the British Holiday Camp and we made good inroads into the copies on sale. Copies are available from
Thanks to all who spoke, attended, or donated to cover the cost of hiring Conway Hall for the afternoon.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Welcome to the New Hull...

...says the hoarding at the train station. What can it mean? "We now have arcades with the same shops that you have at home, even Greggs?" "Hull Pride is on July 31st"? Still, this cafe has wifi, and a croissant, fresh orange juice and excellent coffee for £3.60. My Hull friends say that Hull people do like a bargain (see also Larkin's phrase in his poem "Here" about the "cut price crowd"). Actually it is the old Hull I wanted to see. The Wilberforce House and Museum for starters (though I hope that when Desmond Tutu dropped by he was not on his lonesome, as I was), which also contained a small but fascinating exhibition on Philip Larkin. I wanted also to find the spot on the river Hull where James Booth took the photograph gracing the cover of our Old City, New Rumours. Rather than make a call I wandered until I found the spot, in fact just behind the Wilberforce House, though it took me three hours to find it. I also wandered to find the street called The Land of Green Ginger, the best street name in the world.
Last night saw an event linked to the book, part of the Humber Mouth Book Festival, with Andrew Motion reading from his new poems (some of which feature in the collection). The tickets described him as ex-Poet Laureate, while "former" sounds kinder, but he does seem to have been liberated by leaving the Laureateship behind him, and it was a good reading. Various other contributors to the book were around, Ian Parks, Tony Griffin, Douglas Houston and others, and it was good to finally make it to Hull and to meet some of them. I'd been unable to attend the launch due to a family crisis. Sorry not to meet Maurice Rutherford though, but pleased to hear that his New and Selected will be out from Shoestring soon. Maurice is in his 90s. Is he the oldest poet still publishing?
Good also to meet Maggie Hannan, who's been involved with Humber Mouth these past twenty years or so. She said she was a poet herself until about fifteen years ago, but was cured..

Saturday, 3 July 2010


If you read this early enough you'll just have time to scoot along to some of the last events of the inaugural Manchester Children's Book Festival, A couple of us went up last night to join Sherry Ashworth's table at the gala dinner. Sherry - whose recent book with Five Leaves is Revolution - was pretty high profile over the Festival, today chairing a discussion on teenage fiction with Kevin Brooks and Keith Grey, and Adele Geras depping for Jenny Valentine. Tomorrow she will be hosting an afternoon tea with Frank Cottrell Boyce. Keith was phlegmatic about sales of good young adult books not being brilliant right now, but excited about the amount of good material out there. Kevin put the blame on publishers (we always get it in the neck) because teenage books should be where teenagers go, in Topshop for example. Good point, anyone got a contact for them? He also referred to the current fashion for twiglet books. Everyone else knew what he meant, and laughed. 34 minutes later I did too.
Carol Ann Duffy was pretty much in evidence, the Festival being one of her products, and organised by Manchester Met University Creative Writing team, where she is based. At the gala dinner a couple of her new handwritten poems, one called "Shirt" (Wayne Rooney's England shirt) was particularly good, were auctioned off for about £800 each for the NSPCC, though attention began to wonder when the auction got on to an old copy of the Hello, Hello annual.
Jeanette Winterson, in her after dinner speech, told us about her battle with her adopted mother to read, Mrs Winterson believing that "books are bad for you because by the time you have found out how they end it is too late" (that may not be an exact quote). Her mother burnt Jeanette's hidden book collection. As Keith Grey said today, "books are dangerous". But then he also said that the "twiglet" books are all about how to avoid having sex, so they are not written for the likes of him, because he is a bloke...
Finally, Mary Hoffman was encouraging us all to read the great American young adult writer John Green, who is all but unknown here. Disconcertingly, since he is an American, his website is awash with stuff on the World Cup. Is there no escape?