Friday, 26 April 2013

Gift Mooses, and others

We care for physical books very deeply in our family, even to the extent (see figure 1) of employing a fierce Book Guardian to ward off potential literary miscreants.  When the para-military E-book Enforcers teleport themselves into our house to confiscate our library and hard-wire our brains into a small silver machine, we shall hurl deeply injurious slogans at them from behind the cat.  There may also be finger-wagging.

Which brings me to the beastly, or probably bestial theme for today's post, namely my recent birthday.  Among the generous and thoughtful gifts which were bestowed on me by friends and family (including a cd of Ecuadorian Baroque music, whose aural quality equals its obscurity cachet) was a trio of books with an animal theme, each as delightful as it is different from its companions.

Two Rivers Press produce the most exquisite edition of Christopher Smart's poem Cat Jeoffry. This is a consummately well-designed book, incorporating a bold Eric Gill typeface that combines readability with a playful hint of the antique, and illustrations in lino cut and rubber stamp by Peter Hay, which capture delightfully the playful, feral and mystical aspects of this noblest of animals.

Reaktion Books' Animals series has beguiled me for many years, offering delicious portrayals of individual animals through, in each case, a single author's examining the beast in its cultural, historical and mythological contexts, as well as the natural historical. The cover design for this series uses a simple but startlingly effective two-colour approach, incorporating the appropriate animal's silhouette.  Kevin Jackson's Moose now shyly awaits my approach.

Finally, and including flora and other subjects, Ted Hughes' Season Songs, (Faber) written with younger readers in mind, is, along with Jeoffry a charming addition to our poetry section (which can be located a few feet above the cat). I'm off to tend to the literary menagerie now - by the sound of it, the mooses need feeding.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Fair words

I'm not sure what images are conjured by the words London Book Fair to those who have never had the pleasure of meeting it in person.  It's sadly unlikely that anyone's mental space is occupied by a vision of carousels, coconut shies and food stalls based on literary themes.  It seems to me that this idea has potential, however, and next year I may run a 'pin the metaphor on the sentence' stall or a roller coaster based on the varying fortunes of a Thomas Hardy character; see this post for similar scenarios (this is subtle intertextuality rather than self-plagiarism).  No-one but the lowest cad would snigger cynically if the vision were more one of publishing staff exchanging erudite banter in a smartly bohemian - if not languid - environment, occasionally interrupting this activity to discover an unknown genius or two lurking in the portfolio of a Norwegian publisher.  While there are elements of the foregoing, the book business (and its Fairs) are generally highly commercial, hard-nosed enterprises, with an acute awareness of profit margins (and the threats to same) driving most activities.  This sense of walking a financial tightrope, especially among smaller publishers, has been sharpened in recent years by the explosion of electronic commerce and publishing, one of the effects of which has been to   make one platform for book sales - the physical bookshop - a narrower and more difficult place on which to tread. There are, therefore, as many conversations littered with percentage signs and shipping tariffs as with evaluations of literary worth or promise, and it is a beleaguered but brave band of people who persist in converting ideas into words, arranging them on paper (or pasting them into the ether) and attempting to sell them; a band, moreover, constantly aware of each cost incurred while doing so, and seeking ways to reduce or eliminate it.

Not least among these costs is (I was reminded last week during my one day's duty at the Fair on behalf of Aurora Metro) the price of a bottle of water at the London Book Fair.  The careers of many a young Editor or Marketing Assistant have met untimely ends when it was discovered that they have blown an entire quarter's marketing budget on buying London Book Fair bottled water (i.e. about three bottles).  Let us say nothing of the sandwiches.  

I was reunited with two other curious phenomena that day: The Journey to the Waterstone's Buyer and The Slow Europeans.  The former entails an initial application, before the Fair, to be selected for a brief, personal interview with one of the Buyers, a process managed by the estimable Independent Publishers' Guild.  When the appointed hour for the favoured delegates arrives, they present themselves to an IPG acolyte who conducts them along secret corridors and mysterious stairways to the Outer Chamber, in which the holy effulgence emanating from the Buyers' Inner Sanctum is palpable.  After a solemn transfer of the delegates into the care of a superior acolyte who dwells in this Higher Realm, the recitation of solemn incantations and the donning of ritual, sacred clothing, the fortunate visitors are ushered into The Appropriate Presence, who, after due deference has been offered, will utter some Words of Power such as 'Send me the ai for that new cookery title'.  Enlightened and enriched, the delegates withdraw, and are escorted back into the Mundane Realms.

Actually, one or two parts of that description were tweaked with the tweezers of comic effect, and my colleague Rebecca and I had what were, in fact, two very useful sessions with the folk from the Big W.

European Slow Walking (actually, it's French, but I was being diplomatic) is an oft-misunderstood phenomenon.  To the insufficiently-trained eye, it comprises the staff of a Gallic publishing company walking, for no apparent reason, at a funereal pace across the entire width of an aisle, thus requiring any Book Fair visitor desirous of punctual arrival at a meeting to dart round them and threaten the physical integrity of neighbouring stands, not to mention the physical and mental health of those staffing same.  Since conducting research into the history and development of alternative theatre, however, I now realise that these incidents are all interconnected elements in a massive and sophisticated performance artwork which explores the paradox of journey and the futility of the notion of progress in the context of modern existential emptiness.  It can't be long before they win the Turner Prize.

Until next year.....

Monday, 15 April 2013

Write to reply

One of my favourite literary hobbies is developing ideas for original poetry collections and then creating, at the very most, one entry before abandoning the project altogether. Relentlessness is not one of my defining characteristics, except by its absence. The latest example is a series of  poems, which should preferably be in the appropriate forms, in which the human or otherwise sentient creatures addressed or described in canonical works, reply to the original.  There now follows the first example. It is © David Birkett, but any imaginative literary editor is welcome to dangle obscene or even slightly suggestive advances before me to develop an entire book.


I met a spirit in the afterlife
Who said some arty, disaffected git
Had given me some some fey, poetic strife
About my so-called despotism. It
Behoves me to observe it's somewhat rich
For someone who was paid to wave a quill
To criticise my efforts, each of which
Was made to strengthen borders, or to fill
My people's mouths with food. The years were tough,
And yes, I hold my hands up to the crime
Of being not consultative enough.
You try to make the camels run on time.
That statue? Well, it was a P.R. thing
For even tyrants bow to Marketing.

I am (emoticon denoting level of excitement inconsistent with any widely-recognised level of personal dignity) off to the London Book Fair (technically, the London International Book Fair, but I've been so many times that I can be informal) tomorrow on behalf of Aurora Metro, so a blog based on this conclave of all things literary is not entirely unlikely. Stand G855, if you're passing.



Friday, 12 April 2013

The lone rearranger

Lawks! That pesky jackanapes, Jumbling Jeremy, has jauntily juggled with some book titles and names of literary genres.  This ingenious imp cannot but help, however, to leave a clue as to the original configuration of letters within his fiendishly fiddled formulations.  See if you can reassemble the following and thwart the mixing minx.  Bonne chance, boldest blog-browsers!

Miracle saga lit. (7, 7)

Frodo's lighter, then? (3,4,2,3,5)

Fay cast in scene (7, 7)

Sad pair stole (8,4)

Iffy shag story feed (5,6,2,4)

Can frost chain lion here? (3,10,2,6)

Look out for further rascally rearrangements in future!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Literary devices

I do hope that, like me and some members of my household (my wife, certainly, but I'm not sure about the cat) you enjoy the snippets of book gossip, news and brief discursive observations that comprise The Week in Books in the Saturday Guardian.  For those less familiar, this feature can be located in section 17(b) of the paper, the Review.  Last week's Week included an amusing and significant piece by John Dugdale on the mobile 'phone.  This was prompted by the device celebrating its 40th birthday (I know - how does it retain that youthful blush?) and examined the relative absence of the mobile (and 'the texture of urban life in general in the digital era') from contemporary literary fiction, together with the problems that including these elements might cause for narrative and plot.

This reminded me of the issues often raised by Kurt Vonnegut regarding the relationship between fiction, technology and literary respectability. Vonnegut was writing from what I believe cultural critics like to call a contested space between the (perceived) nations of popular, literary and science fiction.  Vonnegut had an inimitable way of making wildly and knowingly generalised observations about complex situations that still had penetration and trenchancy.  In an essay on Science Fiction for example, he observes, in this kind of assumed, ironic faux homespun style that: The feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works, just as no gentleman wears a brown suit in the city.

Does this attitude persist? Although I am far from being the best-versed person I know in contemporary literary fiction, I have gathered a definite impression that heavyweight writers are far more willing to explicitly tackle biological and genetic aspects of science and technology than electronic, mechanical or other varieties.  I would be only too happy to wither under a volley of counter-examples, if you'd like to use the comment feature, or e-mail me at davidlbirkett@hotmail.comm and allow me to post your remarks as a comment. To be honest, I am shamelessly craving more blog comments at the moment, as there's a terrible draught whistling through that space.  These old laptops, ay? Still, they have character.

In the meantime, I have let the idea of mobile 'phones run like a largely-crazed ferret through the world of literary classics, and come up with the following:

Mast of the Mohicans

Text of the d'Urbervilles

Appsolute Beginners

Samsung Agonistes

Lord of the Ringtones

Sex and the Signal Girl


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

This is not a sales poem

I have alluded a few times in this corner of cyberspace to my current temporary position as a telephone market researcher. Leafing through the poetry collection amassed by my sweetest (and furthermore only) wife and I, (which, I am half-dismayed and half-proud to say, is larger than that found in certain alleged bookshops in London**) I could not help but notice that there was a distinct lack of celebratory odes dedicated to this noble profession.  In order to remedy this inexplicable situation in the swiftest possible manner, I downloaded a poetry collage app, fed it a couple of fresh, juicy parameters and - a few nano-seconds and mega-giga-tetraflops later - stared, not unpleased, at this result:

A cold calling we have of it,
Bent double over keyboards, hunched in packs,
Depending on the kindness of strangers to hear
Polite, meaningless words.
Though we’re nodding, nearly napping,
We continue tapping, tapping
Numbers into telephones and
Nothing, nothing more.

April is the cruellest month,
It is the tax year’s midnight and
The Finance Person cannot hear the researcher.
But ours is not to reason why, so much as to
Call up, call up and play the game,
Each day, declaring, hardened in heart anew:
We, who are about to dial, salute you.’

**the poetry collection, that is.