Friday, 26 July 2013

In memory of Walter Gregory

Tomorrow, in Nottinghamshire, trades unionists, members of the International Brigades Memorial Trust and others will rededicate the memorial to those Nottinghamshire men who fought in the Spanish Civil War. The Labour Party, swept back into power in May, is making good on a promise to replace the memorial taken down by the outgoing Tory regime. In a act that left a nasty taste in the mouth the Tories - during their one disastrous term - almost immediately got rid of the memorial at County Hall to those who had gone to fight fascism in 1936-1939. One really wonders what side the Tory leadership had been on.
The old memorial was a little inaccurate - it listed sixteen who fought, but recent research has brought the number to twenty-two. Because of the illegality of journeying to fight in Spain, confusion over people's names (some used pseudonyms) and over where people lived prior to the war the inaccuracy is understandable, but Barry Johnson and others have now produced what will remain the list of record.
Among those who fought was Walter Gregory. Five Leaves published his book, The Shallow Grave, in 1996. The book has long since sold out, but I think it likely we'll do a new edition next year. Walter's book was edited by David Morris and Anthony Peters and is thought to be one of the best memoirs of the period.
Walter was a mild-mannered man who spent most of his life working in the Co-op after service in WWII. After he retired he moved to be near his family in Grantham, and took up bell-ringing! At his funeral, the vicar - having talked about Walter's years in the labour movement and his time in Spain remarked that his enthusiasm for bell-ringing was only matched by his incompetence at it! Cue for hundreds of people to fall about laughing.
Walter came to write the book following an evening class on the Spanish Civil War that he attended, as a student. During one class, not having mentioned his own background previously, he brought out his old, battered mess-tin and a souvenir CNT (the Spanish anarchist trade union) flag - both now in the Imperial War Museum. The teacher asked him to take over the class!
Walter's book was first published in hardback by Gollancz and we published it in paper in 1996. It sold well and Walter started doing a few events to talk about the war. I was fairly new to publishing at the time and know we could have done more with the book, though it did sell out in good time. It was a great pleasure to have known Walter, who was good company. He was honest about the failings of the Republican side. As a weapons instructor he was sad that he was sending men out to fight not well enough armed, not well enough trained. He also knew that the graffittid answer to - "Dondo Nin?" (where is Nin? the leader of the POUM group) - "Ask the fascists" was a shocking lie. Nin had been murdered by the Communists. He was also a great admirer of the CNT, though critical of their discipline.
I won't go on. Read the book when it re-appears.
Of the others, I also knew Lionel Jacobs. Lionel had been a tailor in London prior to the Civil War but moved up here after the war, where he became active in the Trades Council and a fairly hard-line Communist. The last time I met him was in the Jewish care home here, whose workers were bemused at the steady stream of political people who visited Lionel. Shortly before his death Lionel said to me that "he would do it again if he had to!" and we parted, him giving me the clenched fist salute, and the word "Salud!" - the Republican greeting.
Appropriately, Walter's book was dedicated to Bernard Winfield of Nottingham, who was killed at Teruel on 20 January 1938.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

What's the point of book launches?

Last night I was one of  thirty or forty people attending the book launch of my friend Michael Eaton's translation, The Priest of Nemi, by Ernest Renan. This philosophical drama was first published in 1886 and has not, according to Michael, been performed since then. The work - in its day - had a big influence on The Golden Bough, the study of magic and religion which once was seen on the shelves of every bibliophile of a certain age. This, then, is not a book likely to appear as a three-for-two. It's good though, with many colour illustrations, made possibly by the low print run!
At the end of Michael's introduction to the history of the play, and the Nemi remains currently on exhibition at Nottingham Castle after a generation hidden in their stores, he said - I paraphrase only slightly - "Right, lots of you are authors. I've come to your book launches and bought your bloody books. Now it's your turn, buy mine." And we did. Nobody minded Michael's exhortation and all the copies brought along by Shoestring Press, his publisher, were sold.
Over the evening I had a glass of orange juice and half a glass of rotten win (Shoestring, honestly!), had a long discussion with the publisher, a further long discussion with a Five Leaves writer about a forthcoming book, exchanged some trade gossip with another publisher, nagged someone to finish their contribution to one of our forthcoming books and passed briefer moments with people I'd known for years. The venue, Bromley House in Nottingham, is perfect for small launches - many of those present are members of this private library. So a pleasant couple of hours, including a stint washing the wine glasses at the end.
Michael's work was duly honoured, the publisher had (what Peter Mortimer of Iron Press described as the purpose of a launch) a financial lining on his stomach for bringing out the book and twenty or so people were a tenner poorer than when they arrived.
We will, I hope, all be pleased to see the book out. The author was probably well-known to most of those there, the remainder were either camp followers of Shoestring or the usual flotsam and jetsam of literary Nottingham reinforcing our friendships, seeing and being seen. At worst, no harm to it. At best, further reinforcement to our local literary culture.
But it means that twenty or so houses have yet another book, and we will all turn up next time to do what Michael said - we buy each other's books. Is this just an in-group ritual? Actually, no. For many of the books launched at such events it may be the only time the author gets to speak to a good crowd, books that we would never see on High Street bookshop shelves get an airing, and a selling. It does support the publisher financially to enable them to turn outwards. And it is part of the personal price we pay - a tax if you like - to be part of a literature scene. Anyway, a good night out for a tenner with a book to read afterwards is pretty good value. Meanwhile, over at Waterstones, 66 managers have had the boot, including many with long service to the trade. I can't work out the connections between our generally supportive literature scene and the hard commerce of the big boys. Perhaps there is none.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Amazon reviews

Anyone who follows the bookish press will have read about concerns that reviews on Amazon are easily fixed. You get your best friend to write a five star review, and your next best friend, and then your auntie... by the time you have twisted a few arms a book that appears to have sold no copies whatsoever has a set of glowing five star reviews. Or the reverse, why not give a one star review to someone you don't like? It's not as if you need to prove you have read the book, and your reviews can be under pseudonyms. There was a fuss a couple of years ago about a history writer giving poor reviews to books by his colleagues, those he clearly saw as competitors. He was found out and it was all very embarrassing.
You can usually smell a rat and there is one Five Leaves book out there where I am pretty sure that a five star review was written by the author himself - I recognise his style - but I am too embarrassed to ask, though I am not sure if that is because I might be right or wrong.
But what can you do? David Belbin's Five Leaves book Love Lessons currently has 21 reviews. These range from three to five stars. Fair enough, some people did not like the book as much as others. But there is review with one star, and here it is (spelling as in original) - "IWhoever wrote this just copied the name of Jacqueline Wilson's book and as I have heard from the other reviews the whole story to !" Good point, JW, a fairly well-known author did publish a book called Love Lessons which - like David Belbin's is about a teacher/student relationship. But Belbin's book was first published in 1998 (republished by Five Leaves with a new afterword in 2009) whereas Wilson's book was first published in 2005, seven years after Belbin's book first appeared. Had the Amazon reviewer bothered to check she or he would have found this out immediately - the book's afterword makes the timing clear if nothing else does.
Well, I posted a comment - under my real name - in the hope that anyone digging deep might find the right story. And with a total of 21 reviews, mostly at the upper end, people might find the lone one star review strange. Except if that had been the first, or only review, what would people have thought?
I rather hope that the reviewer will take down her/his comment.
Mind you, a one star review can be useful. In another case, by another Five Leaves writer, where a reviewer clearly had read the book, her one star review stood out among the good reviews. In this case, however, though the book was clearly not to her taste, some of the comments she made were very useful in editing the storyline of a subsequent book by that writer. I think she'd have disliked the book anyway but her comments definitely led to some changes for the better in the second book. We owe her.

Absolute Beginners

Rereading Colin Macinnes's Absolute Beginners, I was reminded just how exciting the book is. Jerry White has a good chapter on it in our London Fictions and it is one London novel I would dearly love to have on our New London Editions list, not least because of the book's other Five Leaves connections, Unfortunately for us, Allison and Busby, under a series of owners, keeps the book on their list.
It was first published in 1959 by - who else? - MacGibbon and Key, my favourite publisher of the era but remains completely fresh.
Rather than rehearse the full story of the book - you can read a version of Jerry's introduction on the London Fictions website at
There he mentions that Manny and Miriam Katz is based on Bernard and Erica Kops (we've published a couple of books by Bernard) and reading the book you can hear Bernard's voice has not changed since Macinnes used him as a character in the 1950s to today. Bernard has told me a few stories about Macinnes's visits to his house. Having read a lot about Macinnes I was not surprised he was often drunk, rude and dominating. Not someone to forget, but not always someone to dislike. Bernard is more tolerant than me, I should say.
The second Five Leaves connection is that the anonymous teenage narrator of the book - a photographer who deals in fashion and porno photography (or what passed as porno at the time, about as pornographic as the side bars of the Daily Mail website) is based on Terry Taylor whose one published book, Baron's Court, All Change is a steady seller on our New London Editions list. That too was originally published by MacGibbon and Key.

Free verse is on its way

Free Verse, the the big poetry bookfair organised largely by CB Editions, has had to move - again - to bigger premises. This time the fair will be at Conway Hall in London and takes place on 7 September. If you are around at 2.30 come and join Five Leaves session - twenty minutes of Ian Parks reading from Versions of the North: contemporary Yorkshire poetry or drop by our stall. All the readings are twenty minutes so apologies to other Yorkshire poets but we thought it best that the editor does the whole job, and he will do it well. The list of stalls is bigger than ever - including Picador (goodness) and Faber (shock) rubbing shoulders with the groundlings. I wonder if Faber will bring that, what was his name, Mr Eliot along. I've got a few words to say to him. Last year's book fair was an eye opener. Firstly, it is a book fair. Books - that's the attraction. The readings are all very well - and we are pleased that one is ours - but the main story is books, books and books, some of them in the weirdest shapes and sizes, most definitely the sort you don't see in bookshops. Actually most of the books there, sadly, will be ones you rarely see in bookshops.
The second reason it was an eye opener is that many of those attending were young, carefully working their way round all the stalls before splashing out. I doubt anybody made their fortune on the stalls, but I doubt any stall holder went away empty handed. The secret is - from our point of view - to come back with less than we arrived with and I think we did sell more books than I bought! The event is free and the details are on

Friday, 12 July 2013

Lowdham Book Festival 2013

Lowdham Book Festival is over for another year, though with our monthly First Friday lectures, our winter weekend, an autumn season planned and the annual "Lowdham Lecture" it can be difficult to tell.
But the summer festival is always our best attended event, our highlight of the year, which this year featured 46 individual events. This summer was our fourteenth.
Family problems in Scotland limited my personal involvement in 2012 and we were unable to run our "last Saturday" that year, which has always been part of my contribution, so it was great to be fully involved and to bring that particular day back. My colleague Jane says that is "the heart of the festival". I am less sure on that, as the festival has no shortage of hearts, but it certainly felt great to have hundreds of people rushing from event to event or spending money at the - this year - 33 bookstalls. Ten or twelve of the seventeen events for adults on that day had house full notices up and the children's events were pretty busy. You can't always predict what will be popular - who would have expected 60+ people to turn up for a talk on women in the Sudan? But that is the nature of a day which provides a showcase for many regional writers and a leavening of authors from elsewhere. What else was popular? A talk on fairytale in fiction, on Vesuvius, the poetry of the first world war, John Clare, London Fiction... That day is the day we really do aim to merge the idea of a literature festival with a village fete so a lot of people come to meet their friends and just soak up the atmosphere. The most popular stall? Cleeve Press from Leicester showing off their letterpress printing, allowing people to print out their own cards, and Ed Herington to make up the illustration here.
We basked in sunshine, which always helps, but did miss the local allotment-holders stall this year, missing due to a bad spring affecting their produce. They'll be back next year.
I've heard good reports on the events on that day - but my role is to stand in the one position to say "the Methodist Chapel is down the road", "sorry, I don't have any Blutac", "Thank you for telling me the women's toilets are blocked..." and to clear the café tables in the spare moments. Thirteen years of that particular day and I've yet to attend an event. But the toilets have only blocked twice, so I can't complain.
Of the other events over the festival, my favourite day was the Victorian Day at Bromley House Library (Lowdham Book Festival on Tour) which was magical. We could only seat 40 people at this great venue, a Grade 2 listed building in the centre of the town, and the lucky 40 had a set of speakers whose contributions all flowed into one another - Michael Payne on Victorian Nottingham, Judith Flanders on Victorian London, Michael Eaton on the Victorian criminal Charlie Peace and Ann Featherstone on Victorian fairs and entertainment. Throw in a guided tour of this fascinating building, rather a lot of cake, and it was a day hard to beat.
What else? Impressed with Simon Mayo, enjoyed interviewing Kerry Young, Hazel O'Connor got two standing ovations... I could go on, but I do want to mention how much I enjoyed the reading of Will Buckingham, accompanied by his own playing of classical guitar. That was magical and rather unexpected.
Problems? Not a lot. One author missed a train and just got there in time; there was a technical problem on a highly illustrated talk which meant I had to interview someone at five minutes notice about a television programme I'd never seen and a book I'd never opened. It was an exciting five minutes preparing questions. No floods (we remember that year well...), no overhead power lines going down (another year to remember)... it all ran rather smoothly. Thanks, of course to the team - the front of house volunteers and the Warthog group that runs the music events during the Festival - and, especially, my colleague Jane Streeter and her staff from The Bookcase in Lowdham. One of the authors emailed afterwards to say "A very enjoyable day and the Festival was clearly a real success. Many congrats to you and Jane and all your helpers for an excellent job. It's really hard work putting on something like this and you all seemed to do both very well, yet in a stress-free and good-humoured way. Quite an achievement! I was delighted to be a small part of it." I'm a bit embarrassed printing this comment, but for once, let's boast.
Lowdham moves on... our First Friday programme is sorted. Our big event this autumn is a reading from War Horse with Michael Morpurgo and accompanying musicians John Tams and Barry Coope, in the wonderful setting of Southwell Minster. You can join Lowdham Book Festival's email list via or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Meantime, I've got lots of new reading material.

When did Five Leaves actually start?

"Independent publishing since 1966". Really? Only the most sensitive of archivists and bibliographers would care about the starting date of Five Leaves. But was it really 1996? I left Mushroom Bookshop in 1995, taking the publishing wing of the shop with me, which had started in 1994 with The Allotment: its landscape and culture. That title, with others, passed into Five Leaves ownership, and in, due course, livery when reprinted. Since I did all the work it would be possible to argue that Five Leaves started in 1994, or in 1995 when I took over Mushroom's book publishing - the first Five Leaves books actually said Mushroom Bookshop Publications as they were in press when I left, or 1996 when the first books entirely unconnected with Mushroom were published.
Why does it matter? It matters because the twentieth anniversary is drawing near and I can't make up my mind whether to celebrate in 2014, 2015 or 2016.
We had a big celebration for the tenth anniversary in 2005, which had some of our writers arguing that we were too late, though I thought we were too early.
Decisions, decisions.
Anybody who can use the above poster, by the way, inbox me. No - tried typing that phrase and it really is as awful as I thought. Don't inbox me, please. Email me.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Beeston Poets, up and running... moving on

In 1996, when Five Leaves was merely a small twig we published Poems for the Beekeeper, an anthology of poems from the first fifteen years of  Poets in Beeston (that's Beeston in Nottinghamshire). Poets in Beeston had been a substantial series of annual readings by the top names in British - and sometimes world - poetry. Contributors included Danny Abse, Fleur Adcock, James Berry, Alan Brownjohn, Catherine Byron, Wendy Cope, Robert Creeley, Kwame Dawes, Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Dunmore, Gavin Ewart, UA Fanthorpe, Elaine Feinstein, John Harvey, Adrian Henri, Selima Hill, Mick Imlah, Jenny Joseph, Jackie Kay, Liz Lockhead, Michael Longley, John Lucas, Roger McGough, Ian McMillan, Wes Magee, Adrian Mitchell, Henry Normal, Brian Patten, Tom Paulin, Nigel Planer, Peter Porter, Peter Redgrove, Christopher Reid, Vernon Scannell, Penelope Shuttle, Jon Silkin, Ken Smith and Charles Tomlinson. The collection is well worth buying still (yes - we have some left!) for a snapshot of the best the poetry world could offer from the 80s and 90s.
It is pretty remarkable that these, and so many more, pitched up in the back room of a suburban library to read. The County Council was happy to fund the series, and it was run personally by Robert Gent, the librarian there. Robert also edited the collection.
Prior to attending Beeston I'd had no interest in poetry at all. I'd started doing bookstalls at the events on behalf of the shop I was working in, and, well,  you have to listen, don't you? In due course Five Leaves published the collection, launched with a memorable reading by Jackie Kay, to celebrate the first fifteen years.
Some time afterwards Robert left the library and I took over running the series. In Robert's absence it was not the same, and I was also starting to organise poetry readings across the county. Rather than putting all the available money into Beeston I decided to abandon the series... with new sets of readings in Newark, Worksop, Ollerton and other far flung parts of the County. And Southwell Poetry Festival was established.
Many years later, though Southwell Poetry Festival survives as a County Council project, the readings across the county vanished, the Council has little money and other public readings tended to be of a performance nature.
Together with Nottingham Poetry Society and Nottinghamshire Libraries, Five Leaves reestablished the Beeston Poets series, on a shoestring. Naturally Jackie Kay was in the first series. The first year ended last night, with Martin Figura's Whistle performance - which will stay in people's memories for a very long time. The series is established. Pippa Hennessy had been the key figure in this, given that she straddles Five Leaves and the local Poetry Society.
We've given it a year, which shows there is a demand for the "formal" and traditional one person or group reading, without the need for open mics. All the readers can perform, but they can be read with pleasure on the page. But our resources are tight and we can't afford to give up work time so generously any more. Other projects are calling our name. Beeston Poets will, I hope, thrive. It will be up to the group which has come together this year as to how it will continue. It would be nice to think that at some stage there will be a second volume of poems for the beekeeper. Go well.