Thinking in Extremes

An exhibition called Benjamin und Brecht/Denken in Extremen officially opens at seven o’clock this evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. It draws material from the Walter Benjamin Archive and the Bertolt Brecht Archive, both housed at the Akademie der Künste, and, according to the website blurb, it includes key documents illustrating the pivotal and conflictual points in the relationship between the two men.

Publicity for the exhibition bears the famous picture of the chess game under the knorrigen Birnbaum in the garden of the house at Skovsbostrand in Svendborg where Brecht lived in exile, itself a potent symbol of the mix of collaboration and conflict in the relationhip. The pear tree is gone now and I believe I am one of the last people to have seen it. I shall explain.

I stayed at the Svendborg Brechthuset in May 2014, and on the last day of my visit the trustee and a friend were tidying up the garden. They decided that the old tree was beyond saving and the time had come to cut it down. This happened quickly and the trunk and few remaining branches were sawn up into logs for the next winter’s fire. Some of the more rotten pieces were thrown on a pile to rot down for compost. I asked if I might save a small bit of branch from the tree, and they agreed, and then moved on to other tasks required in the early Danish summer.

Perhaps a piece of the tree would add to the narrative and, if so, I would be happy to provide one as a late addition to the exhibition. I do not know what this small object would add to the story, but I do know that on that day in May 2014 I felt very strongly that the ending of that tree was a significant event. It felt like a final sign of the passing of the twentieth century and the start of a new era, though one in which the thoughts that prospered under that pear tree might still provided memories, myths and methodologies useful in the coming extreme times.

Brecht mentions the Birnbaum in Naturgedichte I, a poem that ends by reminding us that in some circumstances it is a good idea to live in houses with several exits. Benjamin and Brecht knew this only too well as, sadly, do so many others in our own times.

Hat das kleine Haus wohl im ganzen drei Ausgänge.
Das ist gut für Bewohner, die gegen das Unrecht sind
Und von der Polizei geholt werden können.

Tagged , ,

Showing the D-Day spirit on 1st April 2019

Brexit reminds me of D-Day, not the invasion of Europe in 1944, but Decimal Day on 15th February 1971, the day when Britain said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence.

I was in Norwich at the time and spent the Saturday before in a pub, where an official was drowning his sorrows. His task for the day had been to make sure that all the traders on Norwich market were ready for the switchover and he told the story of one old boy who didn’t seem to have heard of the new currency. The man had asked when this change was going to happen, and when he was told it was in two days time, on Monday, he sighed in relief. “That’s alright then,” he said. “I don’t open Monday.”

Will it be like this on Brexit Day?

Tagged ,

Publishing lunch in New York

Kay Norris, one of the main characters in Ira Levin’s Sliver, is an editor at Diadem, and she epitomises the supposed glamour of New York trade publishing in the 1980s. She lunches in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons and at Perigord East. When the book was written it must have seemed like it would never end, but it did.

The Four Seasons at 99 East 52nd Street closed in July 2016 and the famous interior fittings were sold at auction. The Perigord, just down the street at 405, closed its doors in March 2017.

New York publishing and the publishing lunch are not what they used to be.

Ira Levin, Sliver, 1991


Creative Reading

For the past month (23 August to 22 September 2017), in the continued search for creative ways of reading, I have noted down a small section from each day’s books. The following has emerged from one purposeful arrangement of this material.


He was so in love with books that he would prop one up beside his shaving mirror and read whilst shaving, which must have been a hazardous occupation.

‘Reading kept him alive,’ she said, ‘right till the end.’

Language shows clearly that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre.

The only advice that can be given to the writer is: Don’t go further than others do. In fact, keep just a little behind them. If they say ‘guts’, you say ‘bowels of compassion.’

ACL – ACCELERATED CONTACT LANGUAGE – was, Scile told me, a speciality crossbred from pedagogics, receptivity, programming and cryptography.

Printing is ‘the artillery of thought’.

Workshop grey greenish, light but electric also; no bare arms except in packing rooms etc….figures with book compressors, stapling, scrimming; magazine sheet assembly; girls with sewing machines, comical spoofs; occasional solid bright colour, e.g. Blue covers ink or overalls. NOISE.

Anybody who has persevered thus far with this book without skipping may be assumed to be a dedicated reader.


He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.

When faced with the blank space on the map, we turn to the fantastical.

Life came before art with her – and what a life! Ezra remarked that he thought she got more out of life than was perhaps in it.

He was a very useful father to have, for he knew a great deal and didn’t mind answering questions.

All sciences are devoted to the quest for truth; truth can neither be apprehended nor communicated without art. History therefore is an art, like all the other sciences.

But instead of this necessary risk of ‘falling in love,’ what we have today is a worldwide movement directed against any sort of risk: from our decadent Western permissive societies to the Islamic fundamentalists, all of them are united in the fight against desire.

Repossessed by its owner, the fragmented, headless body of surrealism becomes a vehicle for irony, resistance, humour and self-expression.

When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city.

Miami’s South Beach is nothing like a white cube.

I used to understand our way of life…The way we lived used to make sense to me…But now, I don’t I understand anything…None of it makes sense at all…


Pauvre Philippe, je me demande quelquefois si tout son mystère ne le fatigue pas de temps en temps.

Schwer zu wissen für den Autor, wie weit er gehen darf, wie weit heute, wie weit morgen.

Auch sehe er sich nicht als Lehrer; den das könnte bedeuten, dass er selbst nichts zu lernen hätte.

Schnellläufer sucht Balletttänzerin in Kongressstadt – Das Zusammentreffen dreier gleicher Buchstaben.

Deformation durch Schriftstellerei als Beruf, Popanz der Öffentlichkeit; als lebe man, um etwas zu sagen. Wem!

Er allerdings habe keine Lust, sich mit Texten abzugehen, die nur für Maschinen von Interesse seien.

Der Wärter in einem Leuchtturm, der nicht mehr in Betrieb ist; er notiert sich durchfahrenden Schiffe, da er nicht weiss, was sonst er tun soll.

Ich lebe jetzt ohne Vorsatz.


Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take at all well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

Wipe your hands across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

We are proud, handsome and predatory.
We hunt machines, they are our favourite game.
We invent them and then hunt them down.

It were not right ever to cease lamenting
It was like the parting of day from night.

Some days I miss waitressing
And the way it made my feet feel.


Verlag Volk und Welt: publishers for the citizens of nowhere

Yesterday’s thoughts about the Frankfurt Book Fair in the early 1970s find echoes in today’s reading of Max Frisch’s Aus dem Berliner Journal, a record of the Swiss writer’s time in Berlin in 1973-4, published by Suhrkamp in 2014.

As well as hearing of the writer’s everyday life and the move to Berlin, we also learn of the time Frisch spends in what he calls DDR-Berlin, giving readings, meeting other writers and discussing the local editions of his books with East German publishers, Verlag Volk und Welt.

He enjoys the company of other writers, and spends time with the likes of Christa Wolf and Wolf Biermann on one side of the wall; Günter Grass and Uwe Johnson on the other.

It’s a timely reminder that publishers and writers have always played a role in crossing cultural and political lines in Europe, something that might be important as British publishers and writers are forced out of the European Union by their careless government.

It’s an interesting footnote that Verlag Volk und Welt did not survive the unification of Germany, although the imprint is now owned by Verlagsgruppe Random House.

Tagged ,

Speaking out at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Some thoughts at this time of year when publishers are getting ready to travel to the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s easy-peasy. You plan your appointments by email or messaging; send your display and sample copies by courier; pop on a cheap flight; pay with your debit or credit card; use your own phone to keep in touch around the world. Most communication will be in English.

Once upon a time it wasn’t like this. In the early 1970s many of us drove to Germany (by various favourite routes through France, Belgium, Netherlands), using multiple currencies (always cash); as we crossed borders our passports would be needed of course, but also our boxes of books, proofs, catalogues and display materials might be examined or impounded until duty was paid. For a week or more we were mostly out of touch with office and home. We used what languages we had to talk to publishers and booksellers from around the world.

All agreements that included royalties, co-publication, book sales were fraught with the difficulties of operating under different legal and commercial systems; we needed to know about shipping and the documents that were required to make sure that film, sheets or finished books arrived at their destination. Even lowly editorial or sales staff had to understand some of the complexity of international documentation and payment methods.

These days British publishers seem blissfully unaware that such issues will again have an effect on their business if they continue to follow the UK government blindly towards the departure gate from the European Union, and Brexit also puts into question the many global agreements included under our membership of the EU. There is demonstrable concern about intellectual property, and the European media empires that control much of ‘British’ publishing must certainly have already developed contingency plan on this front that may see publishing, like banking, pharmaceuticals, IT, games and the music industries, move jobs and activities into other EU countries.

The headlines today are all about the success of British publishers in export markets, but this may be a chimera. It’s about time that more people in publishing spoke out, and loudly, against the madness that is Brexit. The Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017 would be a good time to start.

Tagged ,

My father carried many things in his pockets

I remember that my father carried many things in his pockets and reflect that most of these either no longer exist as everyday objects, have been replaced by technology or are socially unacceptable. This list, presented in alphabetical order, will be familiar to some but perplexing to others.

Address book to write down addresses and telephone numbers

Business cards (his own and those of people he had met)

Car keys

Cheque book for drawing cash, paying bills, and for writing notes on the back of

Cigarette lighter

Fountain pen for writing cheques, notes and signing letters

Handkerchief for nose in trouser pocket and other one for show in the breast pocket

House keys

Loose change for buying small items, giving exact change, and giving tips (never automatically included on any bill)

Office keys (including keys to a drinks cabinet and keys to a safe)

Packet of cigarettes

Penknife for opening things, sharpening things, scratching off samples of paint to take back to the laboratory

Pocket appointment diary

Propellor pencil

Wallet containing banknotes, driving licence, receipts and postage stamps


Reading three books at a time

Lately I have been trying a new kind of reading. I take three books and read them regularly at different times of each day, planting thought seeds for the coming hours and encouraging synaptic serendipity.

For the past week I have started my day with the exchange of letters between John Berger and John Christie published as Lapwing and Fox. In the afternoons I have been reading The Living Stones by Ithell Colquhoun and at night it’s Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich.

In my head today I have the image of deer appearing from the woods to listen to a flute playing; I imagine encounters with buccas in St Keverne; and I travel with Anna M. back to the site of her exile in Karaganda. The thoughts play off each other as I experiment with reading in this way.

It’s an interesting exercise; the interplay between the three books sparks many a creative thought and adds up to more than the sum of the pages turned.

Thanks for doings

The postcard dated 12 December 1945 is addressed to Mr B Crisp in Thorpe, Norwich. The message reads simply:

Thanks for doings

Although sent from Saxmundham in Suffolk, the picture on the card is from faraway British Columbia. It shows a monument in Barkerville with an inscription commemorating old Cariboo, ‘whose gold fields discovered in 1861 have added over sixty million to the wealth of the world’ and notes that here was ‘the terminus of the Great Wagon Road from Yale completed in 1856’.

Barkerville, it turns out, is named after William (Billy) Barker, born in March, Cambridgeshire, in 1817, two hundred years ago this year. He moved to California in the 1840s and then to Canada, where he found gold, mining a total of 37,500 ounces in his life. In spite of that great wealth, he died a poor man on July 11, 1894 in a nursing home in Victoria, British Columbia.

Why did A send this card to Mr Crisp in 1945? Was there a family connection with Billy Barker and the Cariboo Gold Fields? What were the ‘doings’?

On the shelf

In Austin Dobson’s A Bookman’s Budget of 1917, the compiler reproduces one of his own poems (On the Shelf first published in Methuen’s Annual) concerning the history of the books on the aforementioned shelf. The poem contains the following lines that provide a fitting description of much publishing, valid as much in 2017 as they were a hundred years ago.

I was one of three hundred. First twenty went off,
‘Complimentary copies,’ for critics to scoff,
Who were kind, on the whole. Other eighty were sold
(Less so much in the shilling); then, shop-worn and old,
And so for all saleable purposes dead,
We were promptly ‘remaindered’ at twopence a head.

Austin Dobson, A Bookman’s Budget, 1917