Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Frightful books

Below is my list of books which best match the spirit and tradition of the Halloween festival:

Zombie and Son

The Ghoulag Archipelago

The Two Noble Pumpkinsmen

Frighten Rock

An Inspectre Calls

Be careful out there.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Excruciating and Indispensable Literature and Publishing Dictionary

In this post I release tantalising snippets of an illustrated reference work which will, like a verbal machete, clear a path through the menacing thickets of literary and publishing jargon. Blogees are respectfully invited to contribute to this tome via the facility of the Comment button, located directly south of the entries.

BARCODE  :  A cryptic communication system employed by sheep.

COUPLET   : A small couple i.e. one or fewer people.

EPIGRAPH  : A visual representation of contentment.

EPILOGUE  :A delirious remnant of tree.

IAMBIC    : The introductory phrase commonly employed by a person who
                                        believes they are a biro.

MIMESIS    : An exclamation of ownership from a possessor of mice.

SATIRE     : Occupied a chair in a loftier position.

SEQUEL     : Endeavour to locate a document listing bequests.

VILLLANELLE: A nefarious female person.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Attack of the robots who bumped into each other

The day of my second debut as a bookseller approaches rapidly (see previous post: I, Bookseller) and I have been remembering fondly my first incarnation.  (I'm somewhat relieved this doesn't work like Doctor Who).  Among the many aspects of my time at Pemberton's (Bedford) and then Methven's (various) bookshops, one of the most memorable is managing author events, chiefly at St. Albans in Hertfordshire, where we were lucky enough to succeed in attracting a string of A-list scribbling folk to regale very respectably-sized audiences.

If ever I am drifting towards a cynical or pessimistic view of human nature, I can rely on being put into reverse by remembering how friendly, unburdened by toxic egotism and just gosh darned nice were these household literary names.  One of my most persistent memories is of Iain Banks (he was promoting a mainstream novel, so had left his M at home) looking sheepishly up, having uttered a certain demotic word beginning with 'F' and not entirely unrhyming with duck, and saying - with a face glowing the deep red of an embarrassed schoolboy - 'Can I say that in St Albans?'

Our evening with the late Sir John Mortimer began ominously as his car circled the rarefied purlieus of Verulamium (Latin name, hem-hem) seeking with increasing desperation the entrance to our bookshop.  Eventually, after frenzied telephone instructions worthy of the best airport-based thriller, the driver found the rear fire exit and Sir John - who by then was sadly unsteady on his feet and in delicate health - promptly tripped over a narrow step and crashed to  the floor.  A communal sigh of anxiety was released, followed by an exhalation of relief, as he recovered and rose to standing, and then apologised for being late.  Now that is class.  There then came, however, the not unformidable task of conveying him to a comfort station, ours being rendered unsuitable due to its being positioned at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs.  Sprinkling myself with an emergency supply of initiative powder, I 'phoned the local library, located in the same shopping centre and accessible by a short, flat walk and a lift, and asked if they would make their toilet available for a National Treasure.  They obliged, and a memorably hilarious evening ensued.

Some of the most interesting encounters were with popular science writers, including Sir Patrick Moore (we did occasionally accept talks from authors without knighthoods) and a cybernetics specialist, Professor Kevin Warwick.  Professor Warwick had just written a book - March of the Machines - in which he posited that an increasingly complex web of connections through the internet, combined with cybernetic technology and software development, would lead to the emergence of artificial intelligences whose intentions towards humankind would be far from generous.  I was delighted to hear the author delivering his apocalyptic message in a gentle, mild tone tinged with a Midlands burr, as if he were presenting a holiday programme.  The peculiar highlight of that evening was a demonstration given by Ptofessor Warwick's mini-robots, which whizzed round a small arena learning, through neural net systems, to avoid colliding with each other.

There were many others, including a series of poetry evenings featuring a local luminary in that genre, John Mole, and a myriad other activities and events that form the warp and weft of the bookseller's tapestry. I look forward to weaving a new one.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Not averse to form

I read somewhere (I have it now - it was in my blog, yesterday) that I had been making a conscious effort to read more contemporary poetry.  Today, therefore, I chose as my commuting companion a pamphlet by Sam Riviere in the Faber New Poets series, and was relieved (and a little surprised) to find that First Capital Connect do not impose a surcharge on the carriage of modern verse.  I had selected this book from my local library because the poet's first full collection, 81 Austerities, has recently won the Forward Poetry Prize in that category.  I thought I'd start in the foothills, as it were, before investing in the more recent work.  

Although I thought the poems were thought-provoking, often amusing and certainly very intelligently written, with one particularly outstanding piece, 'Myself Included' I also found them (as I do much modern poetry) lacking in metrical and formal impact.  I do like a bit of form, and I'm intrigued by what occurs in terms of creative results when writers work within formal constraints; there is an exciting tension between freedom and restraint (or am I getting confused with Fifty Shades of Grey?) which, in the best poetry, produces rhythmical and or rhyming effects that are magical and transcendent.

Everyone, of course, has their top ten poetic forms, and argues about them fiercely with their chums.  How many playground and workplace scuffles has that led to?  I seem to remember that my own knowledge and interest in this subject was fired by a publication called The Poetry Handbook, and I was delighted to discover recently that it is connected with my chief literary icon, Kurt Vonnegut, in that the author's son's second wife was Vonnegut's first (keep up at the back).

Sitting smugly unchallenged at the top of my forms is the villanelle;  the Wiki-link will explain it better than I; suffice to say its best-known manifestation begins:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
and it involves, basically, triplets whose last lines repeat alternately the first and last lines of the opening triplet, and a concluding quatrain which repeats both, while the middle lines of each triplet all share the rhyme of the original second line. When executed well, the effect is mesmerising, often very moving and paradoxically natural in an almost casual way.  Handled badly, however, it sounds contrived and inane.

I'm also very fond of the sonnet, which seems to me to stand like a piece of retrained, classical architecture in the landscape of verse and the limerick, especially where its used counter-traditionally to express real wit or even seriousness, or both: e.g. Maurice Hare's: 

          There once was a man who said "Damn!
          It is borne in upon me I am
          An engine that moves
          In predestinate grooves;
          I'm not even a bus, I'm a tram"

or Wendy Cope's priceless rendition of 'The Wasteland' in limericks.

There is also at least one poetic form which I find pointless and irritating, namely the sestina, which involves repeating the end words of the first verse, in different order and according to a precise formulation, as the end words of the lines in each subsequent verse.  I remain open to conversion by having a staggering counter-example wafted under my nose, but this has always seemed to be to be a highly-structured way of writing something tedious.

I feel ashamed not to have gone into, for example, the fiendish Welsh cynghanedd, possibly a unique form in that it is as difficult for non-Welsh people  to pronounce as it is to create, and many others, not to mention the wonderfully crazy lexicon of terms describing metre, which always remind me of the sub-atomic particles menagerie, but I'm sure you'll find them all in The Poetry Handbook.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Poetry - more cons than prose?

One of the issues with which literary enquiry most likes to vex itself concerns how to define poetry. The reliable answer, and that which boasted the most considerable intellectual heft, used to be: 'Writing which fails to reach the right-hand margin'.  That was before those nasty Modernist types sprang out of the bushes in the 1920's and frog-marched the arts down some decidedly continental and convoluted paths, distributing poetry all over the page in a most untidy fashion.

An inspirational English teacher at my secondary school, to whom I have before alluded in these virtual pages, used to call poetry:

 'Language in top gear'.

Shelley offered us the opinion that:

'Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world', while

Leonard Cohen opined: 

'Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash'.  

I have for some years now pondered Mr. Cohen's statement with all the mental intensity and acuity I can muster, reaching the eventual conclusion that he was, on that day, playfully testing the gullibility of his followers, or, in technical terms, 'avin' a larf'.

Regardless of how we define it or don't, I think there is a more or less (usually unspoken) consensual belief that poetry represents language being used in its most intense and concentrated way, and that, if there is a hierarchy of written creative modes, poetry occupies its pinnacle, much as, perhaps, most of us perceive the symphony to be the monarchial musical form, even if these opinions are not borne out of an anything like frequent consumption of either.  This being the case, it's perhaps surprising that poetry is - as I was discussing with somebody in the book trade today - notoriously difficult to sell through bookshops, and that there is far less of a media frenzy, and subsequent mass consumer interest - over the two major British poetry prizes than there is concerning the Booker, Orange and other prose equivalents.  Given that one of our national heroes and defining figures - Shakespeare - is as much regarded as a poet as a dramatist, and that we have produced some of the world's most highly-regarded shunners of the right-hand margin, this seems surprising.  It's not as if there isn't a flourishing poetry scene in Britain, through magazines, literary festivals, websites and the like, but this seems determined to remain a relatively clandestine phenomenon, barring the dutiful coverage of the latest Poet Laureate appointment or the occasional academic scandal.

I visited the Piccadilly Waterstones (belay that complaint of bad grammar - the chain has forsaken its apostrophe, and I am obliged to follow suit) today, and was reminded how, in a shop where there is a magnificently broad and diverse range of titles on offer in most sections, poetry is squeezed into a relatively tight, somewhat apologetic space and I could not see, for example, a display of the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist, (which, incidentally, has long been a happy hunting ground for the many small presses for whom  publishing the best contemporary poetry is their raison d'être - Carcanet have 2 books on the list and Seren one).  Foyle's in Charing Cross Road seems to have more commitment here, but why is there not a single dedicated poetry bookshop in London?

Does the cause lie, I wonder, in how poetry is taught in schools? Do our young adults bolt down the corridors on their last day of secondary education and into adult life crying - 'Huzzah, I need never read a poem again? Excelsior!' (you can tell that I'm down with the street talk); is there an unfair perception that poetry is too challenging, recherche or just plain dull to appeal in anything like the same way as fiction?  I'm not preaching from a lofty pinnacle of disdain here, I too turn much more naturally to prose, although I have in recent months made a conscious effort to read more contemporary poetry.  Perhaps we perceive we need the comfort of a coherent, simulated world that the novel offers (a craving for a kind of literary onesie?) I'd be interested to hear your opinions.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Internal difficulties

Thanks to the tiny elves who live in our set-top-box and memorise and then re-enact television programmes, my wife and I have just caught up with the the opening brace of 'Girls' episodes.  Aside from our very favourable responses to the wit and pacing of the dialogue and - in contrast with most t.v. - the fact that the characters occupy a spectrum of clumsiness, immaturity and bafflement about life and their place in it, the theme of publishing internships particularly resonated with me.  The comically brutal response from her boss to Hannah's reasonable statement that she cannot afford (her parents' financial support having been withdrawn) to work for free any longer - after two years' unpaid service - was (I paraphrase) 'I'm sorry we're going to lose you', followed by the enticement: 'I was just going to ask you to man Twitter'.

During my publishing career, I've worked with many interns and have been lucky enough to have belonged to organisations which believed in giving these people genuinely important tasks which both extended their knowledge and skills and allowed them to make real contributions to various publishing programmes.  Thanks, at least in part, to this experience, many interns of my acquaintance went on to obtain full-time posts, sometimes within the same organisation, when opportunities developed.  I have no moral problems with this practice, as long as it is made absolutely clear what the terms are (i.e. whether travel, lunch or other remuneration will occur) and that there is a genuine commitment to interns' training and development on behalf of their employers.  The smug liberal in me, however (which is quite  large constituent element) was shocked recently when there developed - certainly in publishing and probably elsewhere - a ferocious moral storm of outrage against this practice, with critics in some quarters equating it with slavery, and at least one major book excoriating the practice in a wider context; Intern Nation.

It's always good, of course, to have one's opinions challenged,  if only so that they can be examined afresh and therefore do not become unthought assumptions (they told me so at university, via John Stuart Mill).  Having been so invited however, and notwithstanding some of the reasonable arguments that were advanced against internship, I remain convinced that the practice is a morally valid one.  Of course there will always be people and companies who abuse the system, but that does not constitute an acceptable condemnation of internship as a whole.  Interns can play a vital role in keeping (especially small) publishers viable and connected to new ideas and receive in exchange, and with best practice, real opportunities to develop their experience, skills and network of contacts, all of  which makes them more attractive employees.

The Comment button waits quivering for you to convince me otherwise.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

From Kryptonite to Palestine

It may not have escaped your attention, possessing as I feel sure you do a pair of finely-honed literary antennae (I can see them now, their delicate stems glowing in the limpid Autumn sunshine) that those sorts of books of which Alice approved - i.e. that contain pictures - are no longer excluded from serious consideration and respect.  In fact, graphic novels, (or verbal comics?) especially those that deal with the world's most pressing social and political issues, are now considered an essential element in the output of most major literary houses (at least I assume it's most - I haven't done anything tedious like actually to check).

I feel particularly interested in this habilitation of the genre, as I witnessed its beginnings in the late 1980's from the perspective of one who read traditional superhero and fantasy literature stories when they were just plain comics, or at best 'quite long comics'.  The genre experienced a benign upheaval as artists and writers like Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) and Alan Moore (Watchmen and the infinitely superior Swamp Thing (no, honestly, I kid you not)) brought new sensibilities, subject matter and, to be frank, sheer ability and creative intelligence to a genre that barely recognised such things.  Bliss was it in that dawn to be a fanboy (an affectionately derogatory term for an obsessive follower of tights-wearing super-types) as the media exploded into raptures about these works, and the literary establishment gradually ushered them away from the tradesmen's entrance.  The creative fervour that produced this reaction seemed, however, to die down, only for less conspicuous but more insistent waves of resurgence and reinvention to continue the process, until today we have Persepolis and Palestine read without shame (or false covers) by the literati.  Of course, there has for an age been excellent, thoughtful work in the panels and speech balloon category that didn't involve superheroes (Will Eisner, Love and Rockets, etc) but the people who knew about this stuff tended to be the same ones who read about The Mighty Wow Person and his arch-nemesis Zark the Dismal.  It seems that a retrospective amnesty has been granted to these previous generations of 'serious' panel-based creators, which can only be a good thing.

On a recent birthday outing, my wife treated me to a basket-full of graphic stuff from the formidable Forbidden Planet shop in Shaftesbury Avenue.  I derived almost as much pleasure from witnessing her culture shock in this emporium as I did from spending an unfeasible amount of time catching up on what was out there and selecting a few choice morsels.  To leave with a couple of recommendations: among my favourite purchases were: The Color of Earth, by Kim Dong Hwa, the first part of a trilogy exploring a Korean girl's transition to womanhood and her relationship with her mother and Hilda and the Midnight Giant, by Luke Pearson.  The first is an exquisite, frank and subtle piece of narrative art, the second an imaginative fable for most readerships, including adults who want a darned good excuse to read picture books again.


Monday, 22 October 2012


I readily plead guilty if ever accused of judging a (literal) book by its cover, reckoning that if publishers have gone to all the palaver of commissioning a design and engaging someone with a least a decent G.C.S.E in Creativity to fulfil their needs, they will also have taken some pains to ensure that - as far as is possible given the interplay of relevant subjective cultural and aesthetic factors - the style, content and general ambiance of the finished product will correspond in some way to those of the contents.  I'm sorry - I've been using  a sentence-stretcher and haven't fully grasped the settings. There are, within my canon of favoured book-factories, certain publishers whose covers I will not in any way apply as an index to what lies within, usually because they have proven repeatedly that there's an inverse correlation between the quality of their jackets and that of their innards.

Another exception concerns my unabashed fetish for publications with covers that have a plainness that is austere but strangely elegant.  This applies especially to poetry pamphlets, one of which I acquired at the recent al fresco poetry event held by Inpress, an umbrella sales and marketing organisation which represents many fine independent publishers, some of which are so small that they operate at the quantum level.  This event, staged outside Foyle's at The South Bank, included excellent readings by poets from various publishers, including Kim Moore, whose 'If we could Speak Like Wolves' is pictured here. This Smith/Doorstop publication typifies the appeal of the poetry pamphlet, with its enticingly minimalist cover, (the title picked out in a bold shade of red to contrast with the ethereal pearl grey background), suggesting, paradoxically, an interior richness and magic, and its finger-pleasing pages sandwiched neatly between cover flaps.  The whole package unleashes my bibliographical lust (never far from the surface) in full flood, at first sight.

Furthermore I think (as, more persuasively, does Carol Ann Duffy) that the poems are very fine, too; especially the titular piece, which Ms Moore declaimed to great effect a few weekends ago:

If I could wait for the slightest change
in you, then each day hurt you in a dozen
different ways, bite heart-shaped chunks
of flesh from your thighs to test if you flinch
or if you could be trusted to endure,

if I could rub my scent along your shins to make
you mine, if a mistake could be followed
by instant retribution and end with you
rolling over to expose the stubble and grace
of your throat, if it could be forgotten

the moment the wind changed, if my eyes
could sharpen to yellow, if we journeyed
each night for miles, taking it in turns
to lead, if we could know by smell
what we are born to, if before we met

we sent our lonely howls across the estuary
where in the fading light wader birds stiffen
and take to the air, then we could agree
a role for each of us, more complicated
than alpha, more simple than marriage.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Cohen for a song

Having just been absorbed and (in some ways unpleasantly) surprised by a major biography of a literary idol - Kurt Vonnegut - I am now in a state of delightful impatience for the UK release of Sylvie Simmons' book on Leonard Cohen.  It's lucky that we're on good terms with our postman, otherwise he might not be reacting so diplomatically to my clutching at his legs as he shuffles away down our drive while I wail 'Where's my book? Want my book' at him.  What follows may be entirely redundant, as I find it strains credulity to assume that any literate person could fail to have acquired an intimate knowledge of and passion for Cohen's words, but here goes.

It delighted and amused me in equal measure to see a particular thread unfolding on the Leonard Cohen Forum, comprising 71 posts over several months, more or less entirely devoted to one word from his recent album, Old Ideas.  Said word is the last one in this stanza from the opening track, 'Going Home':

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube.

This (superb) song discusses Cohen in the third person, through the voice of an aggressive species of muse who insists that Cohen, regardless of what he wants or thinks to be writing, can and may only produce variations on the muse's message of 'going home'.  This is already a neat encapsulation of the layers of complexity and structure that are common furniture chez Cohen.  Interpretations of the word 'tube' ranged on the Forum from it being of the speaking, test or fallopian varieties, through slang for television or penis and even actually being the word 'tune' (this last, radical theory relying on there being a misprint in the lyric sheet).  I don't wish to deride or dismiss any of these approaches, but they illustrate well one conspicuous aspect of Cohen's lyrics, which is the ease with which they resist obvious or straightforward interpretations.  Another hotly-debated song from the album, 'Different Sides', can and has been seen as discussing the divide between male and female, Israel and Palestine, the dark and light sides of an individual's personality and all of the above.  This occurs time and time again throughout Cohen's work, enriched by and structured around a range of references whose breadth challenges even the most erudite listener, including The Kabbalah, The Bible, alchemy and drug usage.  Mercifully infrequently, this approach tips over into wilful obscurantism and even pretentiousness, but please don't tell The Forum I've said so.

It's not all, however, densely interwoven and ambiguous symbolism in The Land of Cohen. There is some fine lyric imagery:

And while he talks his dreams to sleep
You notice there's a highway
That is curling up like smoke above his shoulder

And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour

But climb on your tears and be silent
Like the rose on its ladder of thorns 

and, (as everyone knows who has not been deluded by the incessant propaganda of  ignorance) much humour, albeit often dressed in the motley of mordancy:

I fought against the bottle
But I had to do it drunk

Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes.

I'd strongly recommend the Forum, in closing, as a rich, varied and constantly bubbling digital cauldron of ideas and information, most of which more or less revolve around perhaps the one true genius of Anglophone popular music lyrics.

Oh, I may have forgotten to mention Cohen's poetry and novels....

Thursday, 18 October 2012

No cat was harmed in the making of this blog

Recently my wife and I discovered what happens when an already eccentric cat enters her grand dotage and acquires even more interesting curlicues on her mental architecture. One manifestation of this is her inability to resist a newly-available space, even be it that of a temporarily-opened cupboard door, let alone a whole area of bookshelf which was exposed when we undertook a long-overdue rearrangement, rationalisation and purging of our books (inspired, naturally by The Coalition, blessed be its name).  While we were gently bickering over which classification system to use, Sally decided: 'I am book' and (as you will see from the lower photograph) the identity had a certain soothing influence on her.

But what book, we thought, or kind of publication is she.  This is a small sample of the possibilities

A catalogue
A catlas
The Thoughts of Chairman Meow
A Furry Tale (or Tail, for that matter)
A Tail of One Kitty
Puss in Books
The Right Fluff
Dante's Purrgatory
The Whisker Trilogy


Your suggestions eagerly awaited.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Serene Peirene Chinoiserie

Was it my imagination, or did our letterbox sigh with pleasure as it admitted the latest publication from Peirene Press, Richard Weihe's Sea of Ink?  I am a fervent admirer not only of what Peirene is doing - i.e. publishing, at a modest rate, exquisitely-produced European novellas in their first English translations - but also of how they are doing it.  The beguiling design template, of an image specific to each title overlaid with a screen of creamy yellow, through 'holes' in which the original image is glimpsed in tantalising fragments, is complemented in each case by cover flaps, paper that is a joy to touch and a clean, elegant font with appropriate typesetting.  Moreover, the books are being sold and marketed in imaginative and highly effective ways which are a model for the survival and success of small publishers. One can subscribe to books in advance of publication and buy them at various 
pop-up bookstores, as well as acquiring them online or through bookshops, and the founder of the press, (whose sparkling enthusiasm for literature and passion for her publishing mission I can attest to in person), also hosts literary salons which have grown steadily in stature and popularity.

Sea of Ink, which belongs to the charmingly-oxymoronic Small Epic series, is an historical novel and poetic meditation by a German writer concerning the life of a seventeenth-century Chinese artist and calligrapher.  This layering of time, identity and culture is an echo of the hero's life, which, shaped by the upheavals of that period in Chinese history, finds him, as a member of a violently-deposed ruling clan, fleeing his home, losing his family and entering a long period of monastic exile, during which he is tutored in the spiritual mysteries of applying ink to paper and adopts a succession of different names as his self-perception develops. The effect is somewhat like a Chinese Russian doll, with identity concealed within identity.

Weihe writes in a simple, fable-like style which is  almost faux-naif, and particularly excels in his descriptions of the protagonist's dreams and his drawings, a selection of which are beautifully reproduced in the book.  The whole package comprises a rich visual and literary journey into Chinese history, culture and thought, and the essence of creativity, from a European perspective, and is well worth your financial and temporal investment.  I am left wondering, however, if the numbers of chapters and drawings (51 and 11, one short of the quantities of weeks and months in a year) are themselves significant.

The deeply relaxing effect of Sea of Ink

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

I, Bookseller

My search for temporary work (to see me through this awkward period before the inevitable call  arrives from Leonard Cohen asking me to become his Acting Second Assistant Metaphor Polisher) has seen my books career return eerily, but far from unpleasantly to its beginnings.  From November, I will be one of a crack squad of literature relocation executives skilfully surfing the Christmas tides in The Bookshop in Welwyn Garden City.

I remember, as if it were only 21 years ago (which, spookily, it is) how my very first few minutes of acting on a professional basis in a bookshop made me feel as if a friendly Work Sprite had tapped me on the shoulder and said 'About time, too; we wondered where the heck you'd got to'. This first berth was in a now demised independent bookshop called Pemberton's, in Bedford, at a time when the most astonishing technical reading revolution was the Magic Eye effect and when microfiche and memory were as important as computers to running a good bookshop.  My manager and I used to - after an especially busy period - squint ferociously at the Fiction section and, lapsing into a profound, trance-like state, begin reciting the titles that had been purchased as if we were media (i.e. more than one medium) (does that make a Large?).

Less callow blog followers will also be aware that in this era we were all bound by the Net Book Agreement, which forbade the selling of books below the rrp.  Remarkably, the NBA held legal sway in this country (as it did and does in many others) until those devious imps at Amazon built a time machine out of odd parts of Slough and travelled back to unravel the Agreement so that Amazon could be invented.  You've got to hand it to them.  The bookshop was one of many that could not survive the encroachment of extreme discounting, during which (I kid you not) some booksellers could profit from buying their stock from supermarkets and reselling it in their bookshops.

And then there was elusive Sex, specifically Madonna's book of that name, which had a print run of about three and a half copies, in order to ensure that it would be sought after.  I never saw a copy, but once stroked a dog whose owner had a brother, an aunt of whom once knew someone who did.

Anyhoo - if you're a few postcodes away from WGC (even if you're not, the fascinating history of our second Garden City, and its many scenic attractions, warrant a visit), do pop in and ask me to recommend a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

Monday, 15 October 2012

A Farewell to Leaves

In a recent, comprehensive and wholly imaginary poll, Autumn was voted the Best Ever Top Top Season by writers from all genres and ages (thanks to Magicks 'R Us for the Ouija Board).   I thought this would be an appropriate time to celebrate some of my favourite poetic, lyric and visual leaves that have fluttered down from the tree of Inspiration, shaken by the wind of (I'm sorry, I've just been tapped on the shoulder by the Society for the Prevention of Naff Extended Metaphors).

An admirably adventurous English teacher introduced successive generations of Bedfordshire schoolchildren  to Auden at a relatively early age, and Autumn Song by W.H. Auden has been etched onto my synapses ever since. The opening

Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse's flowers will not last,
Nurses to their graves are gone,
But the prams go rolling on

is so beautifully typical of Auden's ability to combine the registers of philosophical musing and nursery rhyme.  Has anyone ever put this to music?

Keats dedicated his second-best Ode to our subject (since you ask, Melancholy), although his opening is somewhat inaccurate in that he describes the season as:

 Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.

because when I've been down the pub with Autumn, it's said some terrible things about The Sun after a few pints.  The first line must go down, however, as one of the best-known in English Lit., and its its middle alliteration is subtly counterpointed by the initial and terminal sibilants (hem-hem).

To round off the verbal contributions, there are some lines from Leonard Cohen that are not only worthy in themselves, but belong to that set of useful lyrics to quote to those people who have somehow staggered through life under the grotesque burden of misconception that this man is not only lacking in humour but actually depressing.  From 'I Can't Forget' (which continues 'That I don't remember what' - see - I defy you not to giggle):

The summer's almost gone
The winter's tuning up.

To end with; a painting that has always intrigued me (partly because I've never actually looked up any information about it.  This could be mere apathy or a more charismatic unwillingness to shatter a sacred mystery), namely Millais' Autumn Leaves

There is something about the expressions of the two central girls, the eerie sky and the size of the leaf mound that combine to make this picture (for me) as disturbing as it is beautiful.

Do let me know your favourite Fall guys (and girls).

Friday, 12 October 2012

The immortal death of Arthur, King

It was with some excitement that your blogger learned that next spring will see the release of JRR Tolkien's epic poem on the Fall of King Arthur.  As any fule kno, said fall was somewhat more significant than sliding off a bucking palfrey, and has, along with the rest of the legend, occupied artists in all media since the middle ages, from epic poems through to one of Rick Wakeman's concept albums, the main theme from which still resounds through my mind (you know, the bit that goes da da da, da da da, da daaaa).  Wakeman's work draws on, among other things, what is for many people the most familiar modern prose interpretation, T.H. White's Once and Future King, the first book of which was adapted by Disney into The Sword in the Stone and the entirety of which (and it must not be held culpable for this) spawned the musical Camelot (I refuse, with quiet dignity, to post a link to the last phenomenon).  This is not to mention (although clearly I'm about to) the whole sub-genre of non-fictional, esoteric and spiritual writing that deals with the Matter of Britain, and especially the literal and symbolic significance of the grail.

I'm in awe of how the Arthurian legend has proved versatile and malleable enough to not only be represented in a number of forms and genres, but also to be clothed in particular perspectives and agendas, be they feminist (Marion Zimmer Bradley) moral and patriotic (Mr. White) or just very, very silly (for me the most satisfying and coherent Monty Python film).  Of course, the deep, fundamental themes of spiritual quest, sacrifice, love and betrayal have assisted this versatility, but there seems to be a deep appeal beyond any easily categorisable aspect.  Two of my favourites are the relatively unsung trilogy by Gillian Bradshaw: Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer and In Winter's Shadow, and - in the young adult camp - Philip Reeve's recent tour de force of a novel depicting Merlin as a proto spin doctor, Here Lies Arthur.  I was for many years besotted with the T.H. White books, but now find the learned, avuncular tone somewhat grating, although I think the animal and bird transformation passages will prove timeless.

Tolkien opted for a robust, alliterative non-rhyming verse form, and segments can be read in an excellent Guardian piece.  I hope it does well, and it will be interesting to compare it to Simon Armitage's similar approach.  The real question is, will Peter Jackson get the film gig?  I can see Andy Serkis as Mordred, and am scared already.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Moore the merrier

I visited my local library today, which was neither an unpleasant nor an unusual activity for me.  It's heartening to see the borrowing folk of Hitchin strenuously supporting this facility during a period when the knives of philistinism (I'm sorry, I mean a series of prudent and necessary public spending cuts) are dripping with the blood of similar institutions.

The chief joy of these visits for me (apart from the visceral thrill I receive on being able to pass through the doors carrying new stuff for which I haven't had to pay, a sensation which is surprisingly immune to erosion over time) is in sifting through the shelves looking for authors of whom I haven't heard, in a kind of literary beach-combing exercise. One such writer, whose books - while they will never be sworn into The Canon of Great Literature - are not only great fun but have irresistibly eccentric titles, is Christopher Moore, whose The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Island of the Sequined Love Nun have proved for me effective provokers of chortling and chuckling and the occasional outright shriek of laughter.  The books skilfully blend fantasy, broad, (often sexual but never unseemly) comedy and adventure to produce engaging narratives populated with charismatic protagonists.

If you're not a member already, may I urge you to join your local branch of this wonderful phenomenon.  They may even have some Christopher Moore.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Getting physical

I am, goodness knows, no disciple of Ned Ludd. While not being able to lay truthful claim to membership of the Early Adopters clan, I have become something of a Perverse Adopter, in that, (apart from an organic entity in the garden) I have nothing with an Apple on it, (my MP3 diet emanates from a Muvo device) and my e-reader is a Sony.  It has to be said, in the spirit of full disclosure, however, that I take perverse pride in our television displaying pictures that are confined to two dimensions and having a certain archaeological quaintness.

Having said all this, I was forcefully reminded today of the intense visual, tactile and olfactory pleasures to be obtained from paper-based verbal information devices, or books.  The particular trigger for this renewed epiphany was a visit to my local Oxfam shop, which glories in a particularly interesting and consistently refreshed books section.  As well as the standard collection of recycled contemporary paperbacks, leaning towards the literary end of the spectrum and (mercifully) disciplined rigidly into alphabetical order, there is always a beguiling array of classic literature (or Literature) and non-fiction, often including beautiful older editions and equally often betraying the recent evacuation of a particular author from a book collection or library (William Plomer was the last such I noticed).  Among the many volumes which were serenading my senses, I opted for an edition of R.L. Stevenson's Vailima letters, whose rough-cut pages, snugly musty odour and elegant font conspire to endanger themselves each time I pick up this delicious object by making me want to drool like a baby.  Spending £2.99 in this way - while it prevents me from downloading approximately 6 e-books - appears to me to be a very good deal indeed.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

I sing the cattle prod, electric

It is, of course, all too easy to perch smugly in a literary ivory tower and pour buckets of gently steaming condescension on to those bestselling phenomena such as Fifty Shades of Grey.  So easy, in fact, (apart from simultaneously perching and pouring, which requires at least intermediate yoga skills) that often it is not even deemed necessary to have actually sullied one's sensitive eyes and mind with these writings in order to effect and justify such deluges.  It is with this warning of smug, blinkered elitism flashing before me that I joyfully and without irony embrace the news that Fifty Shades of Grey is being converted from the literary to the celluloid medium. And it is in an entirely altruistic frame of mind, and being fully aware of the positive effects such titles have in boosting the economy of the books business and luring shoals of readers into a more general sense of literary appreciation, that I offer my humble assistance in suggesting some content for what we must all hope will be the next step in the development of this work - Fifty Shades, The Musical.  In no particular order, the songs which suggest themselves are:

Chained Melody
Spank You for Being a Friend
Flagellator, Alligator
You always Hurt the one you Love
Tie me Kangaroo Down Sport (for when things get a little more inter-species)

and, of course, any theme from James Bondage.

All this makes me wonder if the publishers have also thought about a pop-up version?

Monday, 8 October 2012

On not going to Frankfurt

Being in a temporarily interstitial state as regards employment spaces, I am not obliged to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair this year.  This absolution brings mixed feelings. Being of the opinion that the inclination to travel is a deeply suspect human trait and that wanderlust is something for which there ought to be medication, I am pleased to be released from the obligation to leave hearth and home.  I will miss, however, the sheer bulk and dazzling variety of the book world displayed across several aircraft hangars, and the opportunity to purchase surprisingly delicious layers of cheese and bread while being impressed at the linguistic facility of the German catering staff (which far outstrips that on display at our domestic equivalent, the London International Book Fair).

The last time I attended this jamboree, I was particularly struck by a brace of German linguistic curiosities.  Led by my highly-developed sense of misdirection, I was attempting to escape from the Buchmesse when I happened upon a large and frenetically busy taxi rank.  This being Germany, the area was being marshalled by a number of officials, whose mien was stern and whose fluorescent jackets bore the wonderful word 'taxiberater'.  Obviously the Germans have realised how anarchic taxis may grow if they are not regularly berated.  I was also delighted to notice for the first time that the office which we could call 'Lost Property' was, to the Teutonic perspective, for 'Found Property'.  This, I thought, put a much more positive gloss on the whole business by shifting the emphasis from the tragedy of loss to the comedy of finding, and was a useful counterblast to the stereotypical depiction of the German mind as a gloomy thing which brooded darkly on the universe in general.

If the Frankfurt pangs become too  intense, I will recreate the essence of the event in the comfort of my own lounge space by making appointments with myself and then failing to turn up.