Sunday, 27 January 2013

A class act

On Saturday in Nottingham there was a Five Leaves' event in support of the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning photographic exhibition in Nottingham. Over 100 people attended the half day discussion on "Alan Sillitoe, then and now" which focussed on issues of class. Six locally born working class writers - Peter Mortimer, Derrick Buttress, Elain Harwood, Nicola Monaghan, Alan Fletcher and Matthew Welton - discussed issues raised by the exhibition, working class culture in Nottingham, Alan Sillitoe's legacy and the influence of Alan's work, and Nottingham, on their own writing. Peter Mortimer set the scene in describing his own upbringing, among other things describing how his father tried to modify his accent as he moved from factory floor to golf club membership, trying to become middle-class. Derrick Buttress, now in his eighties, talked primarily about the first twenty-five years of his adult life during which he worked in a total of twenty factories, turning up at WEA evening classes in his boiler suit to find he was the only Worker there. Until then class gradations were within his class - those who had cars, those who worked in the pits - not between the working class and  middle class people ("We didn't know any - apart from teachers, doctors and factory owners - who we had nothing to with"). At school he'd been told that he'd never make anything of himself as was the case with Nicola, brought up on the same Broxtowe Estate. Except in her case this was in the 70s and 80s. She took great pleasure in sending the teacher who told her this a signed copy of her first novel. More astonishing was the story of Elain Harwood. Though she was there to show architectural slides about places of working class culture - football grounds, pubs, cinemas - she said that at her workplace (English Heritage) someone had suggested she take elocution lessons.
Returning to Sillitoe, Alan Fletcher drew out the similarities between Arthur Seaton and Mod culture, the subject of his three novels, when there was full employment and young people had money in their pocket, to be spent on dressing up well and on having a good time at the weekends. Alan and Peter Mortimer both have two pictures in the exhibition - Alan of Mods, of course, and Peter of a lads' day out in the Nottingham-on-sea resort of Skegness.
Matthew Welton concentrated on Alan Sillitoe's poetry and in the subsequent discussion began to raise issues of how the publishing industry is changing, allowing more and more people to write, in different ways, without the filter of publishers. He remarked that writers might get much smaller advances, but more people can now be writers.
A speaker from the audience - in discussing the future of working class writing - said that it was not working class writing that has vanished, but writing from the point of view of the industrial working class. Nicola agreed, saying that we still live in a world where some people control the means of production and others work for them and there is no reason why there can't be a great call centre novel. Peter Mortimer - ultimately agreeing with Alan Sillitoe's view that there is no working class writing, there is simply writing - argued that the writing that is important, and any subject can provide material.
The Saturday Night and Sunday Morning exhibition continues until February 10th. So far over 80,000 people have attended, a fantastic achievement for the Lakeside gallery.
I was pleased to organise this event, and to chair it. For me class - and the discussions around it - sit at the heart of my politics, my response to my reading and much of my thinking yet I rarely hear issues of class debated at book festivals and the like, but when the issue does arise it is rare to see a line up entirely made up of working class writers. Not that people all agreed with each other, but it was good to feel on home territory. 

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Chris Searle on Mixed Messages: American Jazz Stories

Mixed Messages: American Jazz StoriesEvery note a jazz artist plays is an endless story and Peter Vacher's collection of interviews with US jazz musicians is ample testimony of this. He's been posing questions to star names of the music along with its journeymen and women since the 1950s. With tape recorder and camera at the ready he'd seek them out - often in seedy London hotels on Sunday mornings - and his dedicated labours have resulted in this precious work of social and cultural history.
The 21 musicians who tell their story in these pages range from veteran New Orleans trombonist Louis Nelson, with his memories of Mississippi steamboat bands, to bassist Norman "Dewey" Keenan who played with Count Basie. He remembers boyhood beatings by his churchgoing mother for playing the "sacrilegious" Saint Louis Blues on a Sunday. Bandleader Gerald Wilson describes Louis Armstrong's case full of laundered handkerchiefs to mop up the saliva that poured from the side of his moth as he blew his horn using the "skeet" technique.
There are stories too of a people's constant struggle for racial justice. Tenor saxophonist Houston Person recalls that "we woke up every day and survived and still managed to get our education and fight for equality."
But the longest and most powerful story in this collection is the life of tenor saxophonist John Stubblefield, renowned for his huge tone, who died in 2005. A sideman of Charles Mingus and, after the great bassist's death, a stellar soloist in the Mingus Big Band, he was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1945. He remembers his father warning him when he approached a water fountain that he shouldn't drink from it because it's "for whites only."
His experiences with Miles Davis, Mary Lou Williams and Gil Evans among many others make for riveting reading and show again how much the history of jazz reflects the mainstream story of the US. Vacher's fine book portrays all this with humour, drama and a cogent sense of realism throughout.
This review by Chris Searle first appeared in the Morning Star on 24/1/13

Sunday, 20 January 2013

On the need for a poetry bookshop

Every Saturday afternoon from the early 1960s onwards, the diminutive, genial [Bernard] Stone would dispense free glasses of wine to a boozy, bohemian crowd. This included not only Horowitz, but also Alan Brownjohn, Christopher Logue, Lawrence Durrell, Alan Sillitoe and Sir John Waller, the last invariably squiring a tough-looking, semi-literate, gay pick-up whom he would introduce as "a wonderful new poet". Another colourful regular at these Saturday afternoon parties was the hellraising, drug-addicted novelist, Alexander Trocchi.
Stone went on to create Cafe Books, which specialised in pamphlets by young poets such as Roger McGough and Brian Patten. The Turret Bookshop also provided the base for both Turret Books and the Steam Press, which was run in partnership with Stone's friend, the cartoonist Ralph Steadman, whose illustrations adorned two of Stone's children's books. Under the Steam Press and Turret Books imprints, a range of publications by the likes of Alan Brownjohn and Ted Hughes were released in limited editions.
Obituary of Bernard Stone in the Guardian
As the 1980s moved into the 1990s, Camden became a magnet for the world's teenagers and Compendium underwent a facelift. Mike [Hart] formalised its literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, something of an innovation at the time. Visiting Americans, from old beat heroes like Lawrence Ferlinghetti to new literary lions like Walter Mosley, read there; so too did the London writers Iain Sinclair, Martin Millar and Derek Raymond.
Obituary of Mike Hart in the Guardian
And I’d love to see a modern version of the late Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop, a poetry bookshop that ran from the 50s to the 70s in London. But that is a job for someone else. And what a great use of Arts Council funding that would be.
Ross Bradshaw in Staple
After writing the above coda to an article about bookselling in Staple (where, by the way, I under-represented the longevity of Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop) several people mentioned the absence of a dedicated poetry bookshop in London.
The Turret will never be built again, the rise of the internet cut away Compendium’s base of imported books but their absence – together with the much missed Poetry Society’s book room – has meant there is no dedicated place selling poetry over the counter in Britain, by which I mean London, the only place a poetry bookshop would be economic.
Not long after these specialist outlets ran out of steam or moved on, the main chain in the UK, Waterstones, took a much harder approach to what they stocked and what they returned. Now, in many major towns and cities, the only poetry books actually on sale are the popular anthologies, books by long dead poets and books by a handful of popular writers. It is near impossible to browse through the next level of poets beyond Cope, Duffy, Heaney… and to find who is on the up, who’s new. All poetry publishers have been affected by this. Of the major bookshops perhaps only Foyles has a good poetry section and one where a book sold to the shop remains sold.
The most significant outlets are Festivals, Ledbury, Stanza, Aldeburgh; the regular rounds of readings; the Poetry Book Society. None of these allow an easy way in to the casual buyer, the person who wants a present, the school librarian that wants to build up a section from books they have touched or seen. There is nowhere for the newly interested to browse, nowhere for the obscure to nestle next to the popular, nowhere that brings the wide range of magazines together (for sale), nowhere to provide the most natural background to launches and readings where one book leads to another, nowhere that displays a range of critical work next to material in translation, next to poetry cards, next to Candlestick’s poetry pamphlets, next to old and important anthologies, next to CDs of poetry being read, next to limited editions while behind the counter there is someone who knows what the customer is talking about. Digital has its limitations (though any poetry bookshop could also sell on line).
I emphasise for sale, as the Poetry Library and the Scottish Poetry Library does this for researchers and browsers, but poetry needs to sell. And by sale I mean over the counter to the passing stranger – not by subscription. The PBS does, but has a naturally limited constituency and the Scottish Poetry Library does, better, but with only a limited range of books.
The Arts Council provides funding for authors, for residencies, for training courses, for Festivals, for publishers, for Inpress to distribute publishers, for the Poetry Library, but not a bookshop…
Why not?

One, two, many Phil Cohens

Phil Cohen is the editor of a book that came out in the 90s called Children of the Revolution which comprises essays  by long-since-grown-up people who were children of Communist Party parents during the Cold War. Among those writing in the book were Jackie Kaye, Michael Rosen and Alexi Sayle (all of whom have mined that period for material elsewhere, and all of whom are still on the left). I've read the book more than once over the years and, though I've never met the author, I have met his sister Norma Cohen a few times - and heard her speak about her period in Unity Theatre. Two or three years ago I was in email discussion with Phil about a book marking a particular world anniversary. We discussed the format at some length but unfortunately work commitments at his end made the book impossible in time for the anniversary. We parted amicably, perhaps with a tacit agreement that at some stage it would be nice to work together on another project. I was vaguely aware of Phil's interest in East London, and had read some copies of the former print journal Rising East which he wrote for. In due course Phil approached me with a very different book, a memoir of reading, provisionally titled "Reading Room Only". The timescale wasn't ideal as he was working on a book about the impact of the Olympics on the East End (due out next month) from Lawrence & Wishart, which happened to be the publisher of Children of the Revolution, but we coped with that and his Reading Room Only comes out later this year. It is a memoir of all sorts of things, including his time as "Dr John" the squatters' leader, being the son of a Marxist, becoming an academic and his lonely bookish childhood. Lonely? Only in the third rewrite of the book - in a meditation on the implications of his very Jewish name - did Phil mention that he had a namesake working in a similar field... Ah. Bloody hell. I thought I was publishing the other Phil Cohen. There were so many things they had in common, and so many things not in common - not least one being a sole child and the other having a sister who I'd met - but somehow their areas in common had excluded their differences in my mind. I'll have to reread their email archive, but I can only assume I never said, for example "Give my love to Norma", which the second Phil Cohen might have thought a bit odd (though I do remember once sending out a mail-merged email to all the members of the Labour Party in Nottingham East which included a sentence congratulating the recipient on their new baby - and not one person later mentioned it).
What would have been stranger still if the first Phil Cohen had been able to write the book we discussed but had to abandon. I could easily have had the two Phil Cohens on my list thinking they were one... though I imagine at some stage it would have been obvious they were different (not least in crediting their past writing on the book covers). I do like the idea that we'd only have found out at the book launches when I met them both for the first time.

At which point he clenched his jaw

What is it with jaws? I don't mean jaw-jaw is better than war-war. I mean with people trying to write fiction, and, sometimes, being published. There are always problems for new writers in trying to use dialogue - two people having a conversation, like playing tennis. After you say he said/she said a couple of times you feel nervous so in come the he stammered, he averred, he blurted, he agreed, he smiled, he hissed, she snapped, she shrugged, she nodded... and if you go back to Victorian times, he ejaculated. The latter is not recommended for modern usage in dialogue unless, of course, someone did. Most of the others should be avoided too. He said is usually enough, and if two people are in dialogue it is easy enough to work out which one is which, with the occasional "Tracey said" if you feel the reader is getting lost. And, besides, the words used should carry the sense. If I were to write "I hope you die" the sense should be clear, and you do not need to say ..."I hope you die," he shouted angrily. For an object lesson in how to write bad dialogue, try any Harry Potter book at random. OK, they sold a copy or two but I'm talking art here not dollars.
But back to jaws. Now, go to the mirror. Clench your jaw. Then try firming your jaw line. Then you will probably think, "I am unable to do this. I have no idea how to achieve a firm jaw line." (I'm assuming you don't normally stand with your jaw dropped open.) So why, why, do writers wishing to write fiction have an obsession with this otherwise unheralded part of one's anatomy. I have read it so many times, and, I confess, read it in two of my late and much loved cousin's published novels. I wish I'd seen the manuscripts before publication. I'm currently reading it, in a book not being published by Five Leaves. It is jaw-dropping.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Left on the shelf

I am not and have never been a member of the Socialist Workers Party. The Party is currently in difficulties following a botched attempt to resolve an accusation of rape against a leading member of the Party. Grim stuff, and for those who like grim the best place to start is, with the posting on Friday 11 July. The blog is run by SWP member (well, for the next few minutes anyway) and author, Richard Seymour. Though there are many good people in that party it is hard to be too sympathetic to them organisationally (there is a "but" coming along if you want to wait). Here's one small example of why not... In 1994 the Nottingham bookshop I then worked in was turned over by about 50 Nazis. Their action made the news internationally. The SWP - through their front organisation the Anti-Nazi League - immediately set up street stalls "in support" of the bookshop. They collected signatures on a petition of support and donations. Nobody at the bookshop ever saw the petitions and, well, it would be interesting to know what happened to the donations. The SWP/ANL called a press conference without talking to anyone at the bookshop, though they did invite the staff to send a representative - their kind offer was declined - at which they announced a street demonstration the next Saturday and, again, the staff could send a representative to speak if we wished. Again the offer was declined and the demonstration was poorly supported. There was no discussion with the staff about the SWP plans, nor was any other organisation consulted. In the immediate aftermath of the attack we were pretty busy putting the shop back together again, but we were also busy talking to many groups about organising what turned out to be the biggest anti-fascist demonstration against fascism in Nottingham since the 1930s, involving dozens of groups, a week or two after the SWP's damp squib. This small, largely forgotten piece of SWP sectariana or self-importance is one of the reasons I find it hard to get too upset about their party problems. Anyone else who has been around the left could come up with similar tales.

But they do run a bloody good bookshop, and have done for decades. Bookshop staff, ranging from Fergus Nicol, who also ran the Radical Bookseller from 1980-1992, through to the recently departed Sarah Ensor were all great to work with. Five Leaves has had a number of events in their shop, Bookmarks, over the years and we and our audience have always been welcome. Every time I have been there I have found a very attractive range of books. And the Party has produced some excellent authors. I don't read SF but most people really reckon on China Mieville (though his remarks about the current crisis, quoted in the New Statesman might indicate he is not long for the SWP world). Going further back, there was Paul Foot. Foot's book Why You Should Be a Socialist drew many people to the left and his Red Shelley remains an important read. My own favourite SWP writer was the late David Widgery, whose 1989 set of essays, Preserving Disorder, is an essential book for anyone interested in left and alternative culture during the previous two decades but it is also a moving description of Widgery's day job as GP in one of the poorest parts of London. That book was published by Pluto, a major left publisher which originated in the SWP milieu while Red Shelley is published by the Party publisher Bookmarks, which has produced some excellent material over the years. It would be a terrible shame if these good babies were thrown out with the rather grubby bathwater currently engulfing the Party as a whole.

Alexander Baron goes electric and Leaves two Alexander Baron books are now available as ebooks, details below: and

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Latest ebook from Five Leaves, The Open Door by Alan Sillitoe

The Open Door (Seaton Series)

The Open Door follows Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as the final volume in the Seaton series. 

Returning on a troopship from Malaya in 1949, Brian Seaton (Arthur's brother) comes back to a Nottingham world of rationing, the black market, a wife he no longer loves and a child who does not recognise him. He is full of life and lust, but he has tuberculosis, forcing a long stay in a military hospital where he falls for first one nurse, then a second, while carrying on a relationship with another TB sufferer back in Nottingham. In the background, this partially autobiographical novel reveals that Seaton is starting to write, meeting others like him as he realises there is a wider world than the back streets of his Midlands home.
The book is available as a £12.99, published by Five Leaves/Bromley House Editions or in our Kindle edition at £5.99 on Available on other platforms soon if not already.
Dunno what Alan would have thought of ebooks, though I can imagine.

The price of fish

Monday, 7 January 2013

Douglas Houston

I was sorry to hear of the death, earlier this week, of the poet Douglas Houston. Douglas was Welsh but also spent time in Scotland and Hull. It was Hull where he researched poetry and became one of the contributors to the influential book 1982 Bloodaxe book A Rumoured City which included so many important Hull poets or poets from Hull who would later become important. Douglas's last collection was Beyond the Playing Field: Selected Poems (Shoestring). He appeared in the Five Leaves successor book of Hull poets, Old City, New Rumours (2010) and is of course included in our forthcoming 2013 book of Yorkshire poets edited by Ian Parks. His 'Sunday on the Cuillin' in Old City ends 'Better for knowing you, poised on the sense / That we'll never meet again, / Though tracks and chances might allow we will, / Some other day, some other hill.' Our condolences to his family.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

In memory of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, by Adrian Buckner

It started for me in '71: rumours
of an Indian with a withered arm
running through England at the Oval -
"Chandra" , the conjuring, chantable
abstract of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar.
The following June,
my ear to a radio with batteries wearing down -
Boycott taking Lillee's first over after rain delay.
I ran back to school, wondering
about bad light, an early lunch, a seamer's paradise.
From that moment, it was all epic to me.
You confirmed it on the page:
England Expects you wrote
when Boycott stepped out again
to open at Port of Spain
and when he mis-hooked Boyce
with only six on the board
the ball hung in the air for half a page.

"The book I refer to in line 13 is Testing Time which CMJ published in 1974 after England's tour of the West Indies. I was 12 at the time and read that book at least a dozen times." AB

'For CMJ' was published in Adrian Buckner's Contains Mild Peril (Five Leaves, 2008)