Monday, 19 January 2015

Is there a siffleur in the house?

If you were listening to the radio today and heard a new word - siffleur - referring to Ronnie Ronalde who has just died, you have not yet read the Five Leaves' book A Brief History of Whistling. Ronalde is of course covered in the book. A siffleur is a professional whistler. The female version is siffleuse, and our book was launched with a siffleuse, Sheila Harrod, who knew Ronalde, stealing the show. The book also retells John Gorman's story of Ronalde appearing on Sundays at a bar in Hackney, deserted during the week, but an upmarket bar with drag queens on Sundays. This was in the 1950s. Ronalde's whistling was popular in the 1940s and 50s, when he was regularly on the radio, had best-selling records and you could even by a Ronnie Ronalde whistling aid which looked like a polo mint but made of tin.
As far as we know, our book is the only book on the history of whistling!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Mike Marqusee

Five Leaves is sorry to read that Mike Marqusee has died, aged only 61, after being ill for several years with cancer. He was a great supporter of the NHS and in his writings often talked about the number of people who'd kept him alive and the way the NHS is being abused by this government.
Mike could be correctly described as unique in that he was the only London-based American Jewish Marxist who wrote about cricket, including for the Indian newspaper The Hindu.
Though I knew of his political, music and sporting writing I'd never met him until he rang to ask if I could put together a team of people to help him leaflet Trent Bridge announcing the formation of an anti-racist cricket organisation. I was happy to help as long as nobody asked about cricket! Later Mike came to Lowdham Book Festival, then jointly organised by Five Leaves, to talk about Bob Dylan, the subject of two of his books.
His other books included the important If I Am Not Myself: journey of an anti-Zionist Jew and, recently, The Price of Experience: writings on living with cancer.
Mike was a committed socialist activist, involved in the anti-war movement who went public on how the Socialist Workers Party abused their position within the Stop the War group. His socialism was ethical, inclusive and visionary. I was pleased, then to include his essay Let's Talk Utopia as the editorial essay in the Five Leaves publication Utopia. In that essay he wrote "We need to find ways to connect to the utopian yearnings that move millions of people, and which the right-wing and the advertising industry know too well how to exploit. We have to offer something more participatory, concrete and the same time more dynamic, more of a process, a journey than an end product polished by the intelligentsia. In doing that, we can draw on a rich tradition going back to the Biblical prophets and found in almost every society." In a sentence he summed up his argument "We need the attraction of a possible future as well as a revulsion at the actual present. ... we don't 'talk utopia' nearly enough."
Mike helped make the left more inhabitable and his influence was widespread.
Typically he asked for contributions in his memory to go to Medical Aid for Palestine and to St Joseph's Hospice which looked after him towards the end.
Our condolences to his partner, comrade and co-thinker, Liz Davies.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Allotment publishing, then and now: this blessed plot, this earth, this realm...

I used to work in a radical bookshop in Nottingham called Mushroom Bookshop. Somehow I'd missed buying Colin Ward and David Crouch's book The Allotment: its landscape and culture when it came out as an expensive Faber hardback before it went out of print. In 1994 I got fed up waiting on the paperback and suggested to Faber that Mushroom buy the rights and that we publish in paper ourselves. This seemed a bit excessive as I only wanted one copy (the internet had not been invented yet) but needs must. Colin - a friend of mine as it happened - and David were keen to see new life breathed into the work. Faber set a reasonable price and, hey presto, I was a publisher of real books under Mushroom's name. I'd previously published pamphlets under various guises, but this was a 311 page book of some import.
It turned out a lot of people had been waiting, and waiting, and we had a steady seller on our hands. It was one of the very few books that came up on searches for allotments and was particularly popular among those new to allotmenting who wanted to know their history. At the time I had two plots myself on the famous Hungerhill site in Nottingham. The book was reviewed, mentioned, referred to, sent to John Prescott when he was in charge of allotments, drawn on for everything anybody else was writing on allotments and bits were lifted without permission or credit by one Sunday newspaper!
In 1995 I left Mushroom and their publications went with me (we'd published a few other books by then) and The Allotment became the book that underwrote the rest of what was now Five Leaves' list. It was not long before Five Leaves became the world's biggest publisher of books on allotments. We became so when we published our second such book, One Woman's Plot by Geraldine Kilbride. It sold out. Indeed, if anyone has a spare copy I'd like one as our file copy here has some missing pages! Then came City Fields, Country Gardens, a collection of allotment essays that first appeared in the Guardian from Michael Hyde.
The book was edited by David Crouch and Martin Stott, with wonderful photos by Martin. We learned that Michael was very ill and brought publication forward. He received copies just in time, in hospital where he presented a copy to his favourite nurse, and though he was far too ill to attend the launch he said a few words down the phone. Michael had kept allotment writing alive during the dark periods and we were proud to have published him. That sold out too.
We added The Art of Allotments by David Crouch and couldn't help but feel a BIG book on allotment art and photography would be a good thing.... but that is for others, because by now allotment publishing was not uncommon and it was time for Five Leaves to move on, our job done on that front. Yet Crouch and Ward kept selling and we kept reprinting it, thinking it was time for that book to leave the stage but still nobody else had written an accessible yet well researched book on allotment history.
Until we met Lesley Acton. It was time to let Crouch and Ward go and, after a decent interval, replace the book. Sure, there are one or two others, but aimed more for a popular market (and we don't do popular) rather than social history. How did we meet Lesley? Not sure, because she normally writes on ceramics but had moved on to allotments and runs
So... on March 14 in Leicester and March 16 in London we launch A Growing Place: a history of the allotment movement by her. You can't order it yet, but will soon.
This history investigates how changing economic, political and cultural conditions have affected the demand for plots. Allotmenting is far from being a benign activity for the poor but a highly politicised issue reflecting debates on land use, good food, planning and, now, "redevelopment". In tracing the ups and downs of the movement and its culture the book discusses whether allotments will continue to survive.
And Five Leaves returns to its roots. In more ways than one.
ps - this blessed plot quote is from Shakespeare's King Richard II