Saturday, 18 January 2014

This year could be a bright one for the radical booktrade

One of the radical booktrade successes of  last year was the first London Radical Bookfair, which attracted fifty publishers and booksellers to London’s Conway Hall in May. To everyone’s surprise, and pleasure, the venue proved to be too small for the crowds and this year the Bookfair moves to Bishopsgate Institute on May 10th. There is already a longstanding Radical Bookfair in Edinburgh run by Word Power Books. In Nottingham Five Leaves Bookshop will be organising a one day event in the autumn in conjunction with the local People’s Assembly, but at the Bishopsgate event you’ll find more radical publishers and booksellers in one space than anywhere else over the year.

The Institute will also be hosting a series of radical talks leading up to the Bookfair but on the day itself the shortlisted authors for the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing will be strutting their stuff. The Award itself is now in its third year and will be presented along with the Little Rebels prize for radical children’s books on the 10th. The Radical Bookfair complements the longstanding Anarchist Bookfair in October, which has consistently attracted up to 4,000 people, from a wider range of political traditions than you would expect.

The other date in the diary for leftie bibliophiles is June 1st, when one of the events celebrating the fortieth birthday of the News from Nowhere Bookshop in Liverpool is marked by a bookfair at the Bluecoat arts centre in the city.

For radical booksellers, publishers and readers the best present 2014 could bring is a general shift away from Amazon by book buyers. Last year’s Panorama programme, press reports on the firm’s employment practices, strike action in Germany and independent booksellers constantly mentioning tax dodging, all had an impact. But we still need a critical mass of people to buy their books elsewhere.

Ideally, I’d say to buy from a radical bookshop or at least an independent bookshop, but I hope 2014 will not see a further decline in the only big chain left standing, Waterstones. Last year the company sacked 200 or so managers and Christmas sales were down. I could argue about the business’s stocking policies, but at the moment the industry needs the chain to thrive and the publishing economy depends on it.

But what will radical readers read? Bookshops will be heaving with books on WW1 but I suspect most readers here will be more interested in that recent - if less bloody - war, the one between Margaret Thatcher and the National Union of Miners. There will be many books published, including our own book on Nottinghamshire, Look Back in Anger: Nottinghamshire and the Miners’ Strike - 30 years On but the one that is likely to have  the most national attention will be the new edition of Seamas Milne’s The Enemy Within (Verso).

A couple of years ago the book everyone was reading was Owen Jones’ Chavs, about the vilification of the working class by the Establishment. In September he will vilify The Establishment itself in his book to be published by Allen Lane.  There will be a lot of books out about the economy, but the one the left will read most is perhaps Richard Seymour’s Against Austerity (Pluto). Leftist readers should also look out for the paperback of The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox (Verso) about the Spanish village Marinaleda where residents have been trying to create a socialist oasis as an answer to the collapse of the Spanish economy.

As the big publishing conglomerates continue to merge, space continues to open up for smaller companies. One new company to look out for is Pimpernel, which expects to launch in the spring with a new edition of Nairn’s London. Another small independent to watch is Notting Hill Editions, dedicated to bringing back essay publishing. Their essay writers  range from right to left, but are intellectually challenging without being inaccessible. We could do with more of that.

The arts event I’m looking forward to locally, which has no specific book interest (though the exhibition catalogue and several other books by him are available at the Five Leaves Bookshop) is Jeremy Deller’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. The exhibition has just ended at Manchester Arts Gallery before moving to Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery on 29th January, and then to Coventry and Newcastle. Deller’s exhibition explores industrialisation and its impact up to today, and he draws on working class culture in photography and film.

But if I could have one wish for 2014 it would be that library campaigners win, against this philistine government!

A version of this article appeared in the Morning Star on 16 January

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Once again on self-publishing

From time to time I've crossed swords with self-publishers. Just to repeat - my general view is that the editorial, marketing and structural support offered by proper publishers helps. But I would say that, wouldn't I? Five Leaves - as a publisher does not feel threatened by the rise of self-publishing. Let 1000 flowers bloom and all that. But it is - generally - much harder to get self-published books reviewed, stocked in libraries and stocked in bookshops. Of course, that does not stop the occasional self-published writer selling squillions of their books outside the booktrade. Fine. Nor does that mean the Five Leaves Bookshop will never take self-published books, ones that look like proper books, are printed like proper books, are proof-read, edited, designed and written like proper books. I could even give a list of self-published books I think are as good, if not better than mainstream titles.
Unfortunately that rules out a lot of self-published work. Two small examples... a self-published book by someone I know to be a good writer... but he's kinda old fashioned, in that after every full stop he puts in an extra space. Typists used to do that on their typewriters. But not for the last three decades (I used to be a secretary, though not a good one). So my good writer friend self-publishes the book and that extra space, when the text is justified, throws out a lot of bad breaks and words like May, after a full stop, wandering about at the end of a line like it wants to escape. Shame, but any publisher would have picked that up and it makes the book look amateur.
The second is a rather nice woman who came to the bookshop with a rather nice book about a teddy going to Buckingham Palace. Leaving aside that the Bookshop is not likely to stock a book with a front cover of a teddy waving a Union Flag (as opposed to a more acceptable union flag...) we got into discussion about children's books. A short discussion as the woman had never heard of Maurice Sendak or Michael Morpurgo. Now lots of people have never heard of these two, but lots of people are not trying to write or sell children's books.
I was reminded of those who want to write poetry but never read poetry. The equivalent of wanting to be a brain surgeon while skipping doing any medical training.
Until the revolution, our landlord wants to be paid, and our workers would be pleased to get their wages most months (that's a joke, guys) so down at the Bookshop we have to make business decisions. If I think a book won't sell I might stock it, what the hell, but that is a choice. I might like the writer's work or just think the book is so important that SOMEBODY out there might pick it up. But I can't fill the shop with books I don't think will sell or are inappropriate, however much they mean to the self-published author.
Cruel, eh?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Five Leaves and Traveller books

Five Leaves has, over the years, published a handful of books by or about Travellers, and the our new bookshop has a small section devoted to Roma and other Travellers. I'll come to the books in a minute.
There are a number of ethnic groups of Travellers in the UK. Historically this has included bargees (a more or less extinct group though I've met one or two of their descendants), showmen, Irish Travellers, Scottish Travellers and Romanichals, the latter being the mainstream "Gypsy" community in Britain. Romanichals have the same origins as the Roma from Eastern Europe that have been coming here in significant numbers in recent years. It is this final group who have become the latest threat-to-civilisation-as-we-know-it. For many years their culture was suppressed under Communism, but free-market capitalism brought to the surface both age-old fears and out and out racism. The British Romani community has long been cut off from its East European equivalent and, through a degree of assimilation, or partial assimilation, and intermarriage, has lost Romani as an inflected language but still use it as a pogadi jib ("broken tongue"). There are writers of Romani background, including the novelist Louise Doughty and the poet David Morley. These two draw on their origins and use Romani words in their work. There are even more with a partial Traveller background, including a number of young adult fiction writers I know who, perhaps, have inherited the Traveller storytelling tradition.
Recent scares include the renewal of the Romani "blood libel" equivalent, that Gypsies will steal your children. The most recent of these involved two Roma families in Ireland whose "white" children were stolen by the state only to find that DNA testing showed their parents were, well, their parents.
This trope is long standing. The Nottingham (ironically, Jewish) writer Rose Fyleman - whose poetry Five Leaves published - wrote a children's book, I forget which one, which had the heroine passing a Gypsy encampment, then coming across a baby in its cot, drawing the conclusion that the Gypsies must have stolen the baby and the girl took it to the police. That the culprit was a nursemaid dallying with her boyfriend is irrelevant - the issue is that this was natural to immediately suspect Gypsies of stealing babies. I can't find my copy, but don't remember them getting an apology when they were found to be uninvolved!
If you are new to this world perhaps the best book to read is Ian Hancock's We are the Romani People (University of Hertfordshire, 2002), a basic history of the diverse Romani world. Readers of Ian's book will note that it is usually Romani children who have been stolen, enslaved and in some cases transported.
Ian himself is a Romanischal. He was from a London family but lives in America where he is a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas, one of only two English-speaking Romani professors in the world. Interestingly, he is also fluent in Yiddish, and used to teach the language. He is also fluent in the major Romani dialects.
Ian wrote the introduction to the Five Leaves book Settela, translated from Dutch by the Romani Janna Eliot. The original book is by Aad Wagenaar. Aad wanted to trace the story of a well known Dutch Holocaust image, of a young girl looking back from a train heading towards Auschwitz. Who was she, what happened to her? Assuming she was Jewish initially, Aad discovered she had been Settela Steinbach, a Sinti girl (Sintis are a particular Romani "tribe" - excuse the shorthand description). She was murdered on 31st July 1944. Aad traced her story, and those of her surviving family and their attempts to trace her fate after the war.
Janna wrote a further book for Five Leaves, Spokes, a series of short stories fictionalising true stories of individuals across the entire Traveller world, including from her own Russian musical family.
The third book is the autobiographical Beneath the Blue Skies by Dominic Reeve, a partially Romani man who literally ran away to join the Gypsies to avoid conscription. He married the Romani artist Beshlie. This book is a memoir of the 1960s, when Romanies left behind the "wagon years" as stopping places began to be closed to them and traditional trades died out, turning to automated transport and other trades such as scrap-dealing and motor repair. Dominic, now at an advanced age, is still selling compost door to door.
Publishing these books - we should have done more - and having a Traveller section in the bookshop is important to me. My mother's family were Scottish Travellers in origin, at least in part. She was born in a hamlet next door to a Romani family and my childhood was full of "Gypsy" friends. Indeed, until the age of seventeen we always had a trailer, living part of the year in it. The links are long gone, but as a nod to that past I keep an interest in the Traveller world.
As someone living in the outside world I have come across, and challenged, people referring to pikeys, to gippoes. Scottish Travellers are not a Romani ethnic group (nor are the unrelated Irish Travellers) but to hear the current vile or veiled comments by politicians and the press is an invitation to solidarity. We saw this scapegoating in the press before over the Dale Farm eviction of Irish Travellers and see it now against Roma desperate to leave a world where education, employment and in some cases access to water and sanitation is impossible for them. Scottish Travellers, in recent times, have not been persecuted, are literate and form part of the diversity of Scotland. Now, more than ever, I am pleased that we published these books and have a small, but prominent Traveller section in the bookshop.