Churchill, Fine Presses and Commissioning Editors

Literary Tourist in London, England: Day 3

A bright and sunny morning. Perfect opportunity to bury ourselves in Winston Churchill’s bunker, the underground nerve centre where Winnie and his inner circle choreographed the Second World War. My wife had reserved tickets for 10am. At first sight, the prospects didn’t look good.

I hate lining up. For anything. Thanks to the tickets, however, we were ushered into a very short line that started to move directly through the entrance the moment we joined it. The timing was exemplary.

Lots here to take in. I liked the special bedroom set aside for Winston’s wife, Clemmie. Apparently the two couldn’t abide being apart for long. The exhibit, which focuses mostly on the war years, also covers much of the glory of Churchill’s long life. One thing it skips however, is his writing career. He published a prodigious number of words, and won the Nobel prize for literature. Some years ago I interviewed Ron Cohen, Churchill’s bibliographer. You can listen here.

Despite an absence of books, Churchill’s war rooms are still worth a visit – lots of authentic material to take in – film footage, letters, even the door of Ten Downing Street – plus there’s a gift shop filled with bulldogs,

cigars and this sexy navy blue and white number that Churchill favoured. Looks a mite big for a bow-tie.

From central command I surfaced and walked a short distance over towards Westminster Abbey to admire this bronze sculpture by Ivor Roberts-Jones

past this iconic statue-still symbol,

and onwards to Portobello Road via the tube and a short walk past this colourful curb-side grocer,

and these sun-dappled townhouses.

Sophie Schneideman led me to the back of her husband’s photography shop, where she keeps her fine collection of fine press treasures. It’s a cosy little nook, packed with beautifully printed books. Perusing some of her catalogues while she popped out, I noticed that they were designed by the revered Jerry Kelly (must interview). Her shelves supported books by Cobden-Sanderson, William Morris, Charles Ricketts and Gaylord Shanelic, who I’d recently interviewed out in Minneapolis, listen here.

Sophie was on a tight schedule, so we set to it. You can listen to our conversation about some of the great fine presses (Kelmscott, Ashendene, Doves, Circle) and how to go about collecting them, here

From Sophie’s I made my way back down to the tube station. Destination: Notting Hill

I wasn’t so much interested in Hugh Grant, as I was Hannah Knowles, senior commissioning editor with Canongate (I’m thinking Churchill would’ve liked that blouse).

After scouring the neighbourhood on foot and in taxi I eventually found her offices and was led into a slightly echoey boardroom. One of the walls was a beautiful choral colour, decorated with repeating purple foxgloves. Years ago I’d interviewed Hannah’s boss Jamie Byng at BookExpo in Washington, D.C. Listen here

Now it was time to talk to someone who really knew him. Actually we talk mostly about Hannah’s role, the freedom she enjoys, and how cool and eclectic Canongate’s backlist is. If that doesn’t arouse your interest, you might want to pay special attention to the part where she talks about a guy having sex with a cross-dressing lizard. Listen here:

From Hannah’s I made my way over to the British Library. Had an appointment to see a literary publicist just across the road. After 10-15 minutes pounding on the door to no response, and several unanswered telephone calls, I strolled back across the street to check out the free Treasures of the British Library exhibit. It included original Lennon and McCartney lyric manuscripts, complete with doodles. From here I walked past St Pancras station where you’ll find a statue of John Betjeman by sculptor Martin Jennings.

I decided to take a powder on Harry Potter’s train Platform 9 ¾ located in nearby King’s Cross Station, and headed straight for one of my favourite London bookstores, Collinge and Clark ( aka Black Books).

Favourite because it specializes in books on books, and private presses. Oliver lets me go down into the basement too – a rare privilege, despite appearances. I collect publisher’s histories. Didn’t find much this time round, but I did spot this:

Pretty obvious what Oliver collects. Next time I’m in town, I hope to interview him about this, and other hot collectible items.

Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt

Literary Tourist in London, England. Day 2

The cold (English cold I should say, not Canadian) fresh air slapped my face as I exited the apartment. I didn’t feel like walking, but nonetheless, nutted-up and strode for 15 minutes over to the Thames, where the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) fairly sparkled in the morning sunlight.

The Bookseller magazine‘s offices are across the river from it. A 15 minute walk West gets you to the Tate Britain. Twenty minutes on foot in the other direction, along the Thames, and you’re at the Southbank Book Market.

Given that it was late October, there weren’t too many vendors out. I suspect there’s a lot better selection in the summertime.

In case you’re interested M16’s HQ is a short trot up the road from The Bookseller’s offices. And just so you know, the surrounding district is called Lambeth – as in Liza of Lambeth,

Somerset Maugham’s first novel about the travails of a young factory worker who lives near Westminster Bridge, written while Maugham was a medical student. Lambeth is also the place where John Milton lands after cometing his way down from heaven in William Blakes’ Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

I was here to interview The Bookseller’s chief executive and owner, Nigel Roby.

The magazine goes way back, to 1858, when Joseph Whitaker founded it in order to inform London publishers and booksellers about the latest books, launch dates, and various comings and goings in the trade. It has filled this role faithfully ever since – even published during the Blitz – only today, the coverage is global. Listen below as Nigel (Beale) talks with Nigel about the magazine’s past, along with current topics of concern to the industry. Brexit, which came up in virtually every interview I conducted during this visit to London, was certainly one concern. The uncertainty created is agitating everyone in publishing.

As members of the EU, the Brits have for many years had the English-language market on the continent all to themselves. With the ‘leave’ vote, this could change dramatically. A potential battle looms with American publishers. Britain is currently the largest book exporter in the world (Canada is one of the largest importers). Sales are close to $7 Billion a year, half of which comes from the EU. The U.S. is hankering for an invasion.

The British book business employs 30,000 people. If the country pulls out of the EU, and walls go up, literary culture is likely to become more isolated, a shrinking economy would mean less money spent on books, and writers could lose their generous Euro grants. No wonder it comes up in conversation. There’s much at stake.

***

I’d agreed to meet Henry Hitchings downstairs outside the building. There he was, right on time. We hiked briskly back to Airbnb HQ talking all the while about theatre (Henry is the critic for the Evening Standard), Samuel Johnson, and, yes, Brexit. Listen here as we nerd out about the smell of books and stories that can be told around buying them (books not smell), and a book Henry edited called Browse: The World in Bookshops.

Continue reading “Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt”

London’s Rich Store of Publishing Houses and Bookshops

Literary Tourist in London, England. Day 1

I love London. Love being surrounded by English accents, and striking architecture,

old


Traitors’ Gate? Prisoners were ferried along the Thames under London Bridge upon which the heads of recently executed prisoners smiled down on them. Sir Thomas More, among other notables, entered the Tower by Traitors’ Gate

and new.


(not sure what this building’s called, or the battleship for that matter, but I’m feeling it).

The combination really enriches a place.

Intrigued by the steeples of London churches and the masts of tall ships depicted by the 18th-century Venetian painter Canaletto, Renzo Piano designed The Shard as a spire-like sculpture emerging from the Thames.

Then there’s The Tate. The Royal Shakespeare Company. The British Library. Jermyn Street. But most important of all, there’s the fact that London is where so many great British book publishers and booksellers first set up shop: John Murray, Faber & Faber, Michael Joseph, The Hogarth Press, Jonathan Cape, Heinemann. Maggs Bros., Bernard Quaritch, Hatchards (complete with insufferable attitude), Henry Sotheran, Waterstones, Daunt Books .

I was here to connect with this.

***

Off the tube, on day one, at Green Park Station, and this lovely fountain

en-route to Maggs Bros. bookshop,

Maggs Bros.

where I encounter Ben Maggs. Had hoped to interview his father for The Biblio File, but hadn’t heard back. Ben indicated that this wasn’t entirely unusual, so my nose slowly made its way back into joint. On the plus side, he told me he’d heard of my humble podcast. Then we settled into an interesting discussion about fine press books and communicating with the dead. I complimented him on the pleasing presentation of his books.

The doing of manager

Bonny Beaumont he told me.

***

Next it was off to interview Will Atkinson in Bloomsbury.

Will is Managing Director of Atlantic Books, U.K, publisher of Tim Waterstones’s recent memoir The Face Pressed Against a Window. Prior to Atlantic, Will was for many years with Faber & Faber, serving as Director of Sales & Marketing. During this time he spearheaded the Independent Alliance, a very successful sales organization that comprises some of the U.K.’s leading independent publishers, including Granta and Canongate.

Listen here as we talk about the secret to his sales success:

Continue reading “London’s Rich Store of Publishing Houses and Bookshops”

Brattleboro and Books, Greenblatt and Fadiman, Beowulf and Bookstores

If you have to drive for five hours in a row, there are worse routes to be stuck on than the #89 from Montreal to Brattleboro, Vermont

especially in the Fall (okay, this isn’t the actual highway, it’s an image from Vermont Tourism, but you get the idea).

I was heading down to the Brattleboro Literary Festival. We’d attended last year. Caught readings by Richard Russo and Claire Messud, among others. Very pleasant little town. Plenty of granola and veggie burgers on offer, plus a very good used bookstore.

I was pumped about who I’d lined up to interview for The Biblio File.

***

Ions ago, when in my late-twenties, I came across Clifton Fadiman’s A Lifetime Reading Plan.

I’d always wanted to read the great works – had studied politics in college, not literature. Clifton’s guide changed my life. Not only did I read all of its concise, well-crafted summaries – a hundred in total – over the years I’ve actually read many of the books on the list, taking great pleasure ticking off titles as I finish reading them. Clifton’s daughter Anne has written a memoir about her relationship with her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. I couldn’t wait to tell her what an impact he’d had on my life, and to learn more about the grand old man himself. Just listen to her. Energy level is off the charts, just as I imagine Clifton’s was:

***

Among other things Will in the World suggests that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic. It also details the bone-breaking cruelty that religion brings out in human beings. Heads chopped off, stuck on spikes, displayed on London’s bridges. Fascinating book, and yet considering how little can be proved about The Bard’s life, rife with conjecture. It took a lot of chutzpah to write this book, ergo, I wanted to meet its author. Stephen Greenblatt was appearing at the Festival promoting his latest book, Tyrant, about MacBeth, Richard lll, and Edmund of King Lear fame. A wicked Shakespearean cabal. None bare any resemblance to Trump of course.

Listen here as we debate this

I took this photograph of Stephen by lining myself up beside Beowulf (yes, his real name) Sheehan – using the same angle he used.

Stephen Greenblatt

Why? Because Beowulf is one of the most talented author photographers in the world. He hit it big with a shot of Donna Tartt. It graces the back cover of The Goldfinch, and the front cover of Beowulf’s beautiful new book of photographs, Author,

The writer Donna Tartt (USA), April 11, 2013, New York, New York. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com

Listen to Beowulf discuss photographing some of the world’s top literary stars, here

***

One thing I couldn’t understand as I stood in front of its closed, locked doors: why wasn’t this great used bookstore open?

Brattleboro Books

It wasn’t, the whole time I was here. You’d think, what with the Festival on and all, that this would be the time for them to make maximum hay. Perhaps they were busy helping the organizers? Perhaps they were the organizers. Perhaps making money wasn’t the most important thing.

Here’s some tourist information for Brattleboro and environs.

Toronto Trolley Buses, Torosian, Motherhood and Lista

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Next morning I road the rails to Michael Torosian’s Lumiere Press in the West end of Toronto. He has a workshop in his backyard where he produces the most impeccable fine press photography books. (Here’s a look at his latest:

and his immaculate shop reflects it

After our Biblio File podcast conversation (listen here

I jumped in a taxi – the driver was a big Dire Straits fan (he liked it very loud) – and travelled back downtown to spruce up for the Grad ceremony.

All went smoothly. Eleanor copped her diploma, and Marie Campbell (author of Halfbreed) got her honorary doctorate

and delivered a harmless enough convocation address – mostly birds, bees, flowers, motherhood about mother-earth. I’d have preferred something a bit more substantive and inspiring, but it was what it was – an important message that shouldn’t – lest we fry – continue to be ignored.

After champagne, cake and photos, I boarded the trolley bus West again, this time for Michael Lista‘s place, where steaks and wine awaited. I first met Michael a decade ago in his Montreal apartment, right before his first book of poetry, Bloom, was published; one which I think will, over time, come to be recognized as truly important. More people should read it. Given its nuclear content, it will blow your mind, guaranteed.

After perusing his skillfully stacked, wrap-around bookshelves – they carry all the books I first saw in Montreal, and many more I’m sure –

we set about talking. You can listen to what was said here: