***At the bottom of the escalator, I heaved the box of books off my shoulder and waited for Boris Johnson – whom I’d passed on the way down – to appear on the Tube platform. I was annoyed I didn’t have my London book, Days and Nights in W12, with me, but I did have sixty copies of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel.
“Are you David Markson?” Boris asked, as he took a copy. He seemed relieved that I wasn’t. Throughout the journey he read, engrossed, not looking up. His minders and I occasionally exchanged glances. Did they want copies too? But margins are tight, and there are only so many books I can give away free. At Chancery Lane, Boris got off the train, and as he paused to rearrange his backpack and cycle helmet he was approached by someone else. Another nutter, he must have been thinking. Another book.
Boris had been promoting the expansion of his blue bicycle scheme – the “Boris bikes” – to the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush. Larkin might have approved (“Hatless, I take off / My cycle-clips in awkward reverence”), though I doubt if Larkin wore a crash helmet. The Mayor of London had been riding one of his bicycles for the press (they like snapping politicians doing something: kicking a ball about, playing table tennis), and if I’d had a camera myself I’d have liked to take a souvenir photograph of Boris reading one of the books I’ve published. But cycling for Boris is more than just an excuse for a man-of-the-people photo op, and if he hadn’t been so enthralled by the Markson book we might have discussed and compared my own preferred physical exercise, which is the lugging about of books in boxes.
When stock of a particular title in the warehouse is almost at zero, I call up Chris the printer, order another batch and go round to collect. I found Chris by googling “printer west london” in late 2007, and by now we have a history. Once he house-sat my five cats while I was away for a couple of weeks. He was side-swiped by a forklift truck during that period and sent to hospital; patched up, he bypassed the long queue at the pharmacy for his painkillers, came back to the house to check on the cats, drank the bottle of whisky I’d left him, and went back to work.
The building Chris works in is 1960s or later but still manages to be Dickensian: narrow passages, back stairs, areas on the print floor where you have to duck your head. There is no receptionist. The firm’s binding service ranges from a two-hour job for students’ theses to library and conservation work (they have a royal warrant as bookbinders to HM the Queen), and if the printing technology turns out to be just as appropriate to publishers of short novels translated from the Slovenian as it is to local restaurants wanting laminated menus, good for them and for me too.
The books could be couriered from Chris to the warehouse, but that way I’d be missing out on an away-day. At the eastern end of the trip, Central Books – originally set up to distribute the books of publishers associated with the Communist Party (and sell them too, from a bookshop in Gray’s Inn Road that closed in 1993) – looks after several hundred independent book and magazine publishers. Recently, the surrounding streets in Hackney Wick have had a brush-up – new paving, a quota of spindly urban saplings – because of their proximity to the Olympics wasteland. I stand with Bill, the distributor, in the open-plan top-floor office, looking out over the yellow-jacketed construction armies and the toing and froing of dumper trucks, then we shrug and boil the kettle.
If it’s around lunchtime and the kitchen is in use, Bill leads me through the bookstacks until we find a table in a clearing; surrounded by shelves of decades-old issues of New Marxist Quarterly we sip tea, swap trade gossip, and discuss the complicated life of a mutual friend. One of Bill’s colleagues recently asked me to sign copies of a couple of my own poetry books – these books, too, more than a decade old – for her partner, a fan. When I first signed up with Central, Bill sent me a long email explaining, among other things, the difference between a book wholesaler and a book distributor; I still don’t really understand this, but Bill is a big and patient man – a man who could shift boxes of books all week without tiring or complaining – and I trust him absolutely.
Central Books occupies a massive, fine brick building with large green-painted windows and cast-iron drainpipes, but the boxes of books and magazines pile up and storage has become a problem. Recently, I spent a day with Michael Horovitz lugging boxes of his New Departures books out of Central and into various other locations around town, most of them up four flights of stairs. (It’s a pity we couldn’t do this by Boris bike; Camden council sent me a photograph of my car in a place it shouldn’t have been, with a demand for £65.) By mid-afternoon my legs were jelly. If one of the things we like about books is their thingness, that they are physical objects in the world – as opposed to e-books – it’s worth remembering that they’re quite heavy things, especially en masse, and carting them about is a necessary part of the whole business. When is a book not a book? When you can’t put it on the scales and weigh it.
Books of new poetry tend to be short, which means you can fit more of them in a single box. But still. “Nothing”, sighs James Salter in one of his short stories, “is heavier than paper.” A couple of years ago the poet Anthony Thwaite happened to arrive at my house at the same time as a truck delivering 3,000 books (a wildly over-optimistic order). Anthony, then aged seventy-nine, rolled up his sleeves and joined the chain gang. Only after we’d got the books shifted could we sit down and start talking about Larkin’s Letters to Monica, which he was then editing.
I don’t have to keep risking my back. For example, there’s an out-of-town place that combines printing and distribution in the same location, and the two are cleverly linked: when stock of a title falls to a certain level, a reprint is automatically triggered, with the number of new copies determined by average sales over a given period. Or I could go wholly print-on-demand with one of the companies that print and distribute only when an order comes in, even for single book, and never leave my desk. But working up a sweat is no bad thing – Hemingway hunted and boxed, Nabokov chased butterflies, Yeats played croquet – and having this as part of one’s job is preferable to going to the gym.
Somewhere in the book I gave to Boris Johnson, David Markson mentions that every writer and artist in history – “until Writer’s own century” – knew how to ride a horse, and that Pindar reassured his readers there would be horses in heaven. If the new facility outside Westfield shopping centre turns out to be a stable rather than a bicycle docking station, you’ll know where Boris got the idea.