Tag Archives: Books

Take five

January passed in a blur of protests, marches, outrage, petitions and emails. Time to regroup for five bars’ rest, before returning to the fray. Here are five things I’m going to do in February to keep me fresh.

  1. Plant some vegetable seeds. Nothing says “hope” like tomato seedlings growing on the windowsill.P1040212.JPG
  2. Go book-shopping, in an independent book shop. I’m working my way through the excellent long-list for the Wellcome Book Prize, always stuffed with thought-provoking literature.G Heywood Hill window
  3. Explore the vibrant art of the belle of Bloomsbury. Dulwich Picture Gallery hosts the first major retrospective of Vanessa Bell, a pioneer in life and in art. Starts 8 February.
  4. Bake some cake. I’ve had the builders in, re-making the kitchen, since the middle of December, and I’m craving the warm, delicious smell of a cake baking in the oven. Which one? I think I’ll see which page falls open first in my well-used copy of Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook: Cakes.img_02135: Walk by the sea. For a clear head, wide horizon and lungful of breathable air, I’m heading out of polluted old London and down to the Kent coast.

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Hero tips from inspiring publishers

zero-to-heroWhat do you get when you take 11 publishing pioneers and put them in a room full of people who want to know how they did it? The Literary Platform‘s event From Zero To Hero was packed full of hard-won insights, tales of bravery and belief, and innovative ideas.

Held in the hip Rich Mix cultural centre in Shoreditch, the day featured three panel sessions with Q&As afterwards. The first focused on print start-ups, with Miranda West of Do Books, Martin Usborne of Hoxton Mini Press, Kirsty Allison of zine Cold Lips and Valerie Brandes of Jacaranda Books. They represent four completely different businesses, united by masses of passion from their start-up founders.These were my take-home tips:

  • Write (and publish) with one person in mind (MW)
  • It’s about building a community, via social media, events, festivals…(MW)
  • If you’re not sure who your audience is, know yourself – what you enjoy, what you want to read or buy – and have faith that others will love it too (MU)
  • Offer something unique to an under-served audience (VB, KA)
  • Get the production values right for your audience/price point – a punk DIY look is spot on for zines , but high production values establish you as a publisher to be reckoned with.(VB, KA)
  • It’s not cheap and finance is hard to come by. You may need to self-fund or crowd-source funding. Print costs for 3000 copies can be £4000 – and then you have 3000 copies to sell or store. (MU, MW)
  • Cover and title are what sells, so don’t skimp on those.(MU)
  • If you believe in your idea, go for it! (MU)

Finding the right model is crucial, and the “commission book, print 3000 copies, sell book” model is no longer the only game in town. Michael Bhaskar of Canelo talked us through how to “do digital publishing properly,” with lots of love for the mid-list authors so apparently unpopular with the traditional publishers. Anna Jean Hughes of The Pigeonhole talked about moving from publishing new content to providing a service to existing publishers, via their “fitbit for your book” app; and David Cadji-Newby of Lost My Name explained the appeal of the print-on-demand personalised book (stressing that you have to ‘do personalisation properly’).

The final post-lunch session was a dizzying whirl through the world beyond words, with sessions from Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen of Visual Editions, whose work stretches from books in boxes to radio stories; Dorothea Martin from oolipo giving us tantalising glimpses of their yet-to-be-published smartphone projects, and Crystal Mahey-Morgan of Own It! stretching the boundaries of what a story can be – a teeshirt message, animated film, song, a book packaged with all of the above. After all that, it was a relief to hear her tell us: “Don’t let the tech get in the way of the story”.

Stories are the one thing guaranteed to take us all from zeros to heroes, after all.

Image: Charlotte Aston, @cjmaston.

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Hang out the sheets (and other Spring festivals)


I do like a nice Breton stripe

I’m standing in the sunshine, pegging clothes on the rotary dryer. Birds tweet, woodpeckers peck, the rays warm my back. It’s the first time I’ve done this in 2016. There’s no more sure or welcome sign of Spring than being able to dry the washing outside. No more damp towels hanging dispiritedly off radiators. And the linen smells wonderfully fresh.

Here are a few more unmistakeable signs that a long winter is drawing to a close:

  • The close of the porridge season. At a certain point, a bowl of congealed oats starts to feel a bit – winter. I crave fresh fruit, yoghurt, muesli. And an extra five minutes in bed, instead of stirring the porridge pot.
  • The changing of the hosiery. My legs haven’t faced the world through anything less substantial than thick woolly tights since November, but now that’s just a bit too cosy. I’m not throwing caution to the winds, though. Black opaques will do nicely.
  • The Christmas book pile demolition. If I’ve had a good year with presents, I can snaffle the shortlists of the Booker and the Wellcome Prize, which collectively keep me going till about mid-March. At which point it’s time for:
  • The making of the birthday book list, with highlights from the Costa, the Baileys and anything that promises to help me garden my way to a glut of vegetables.
  • The all-Dulwich weed eating contest. Wild garlic, young nettles, hawthorn leaves, dandelion leaves… I get very excited about foraging for food. The Gentleman Caller has learned to be cautious about asking what’s in the salad.

What are your favourite Spring rituals? I’d love to hear.

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Five books I loved in 2015

P1040035The list is a little shorter this year. I don’t know why exactly – I certainly read as much as usual, but only a few really stayed with me. So a drum roll please for (in no particular order):

1: Station Eleven. I first heard of this novel at an authors’ event at Dulwich Books. Emily St John Mandel read from the work, and described it as a ‘love song for civilisation’. Many dystopian novels seem a bit misanthropic, almost gleeful in their destruction of the enormous technological power we have in the 21st century. This post-plague novel brought home forcefully what we have to lose. It made me relish again the miracle of flying thousands of miles to visit friends, the wonder of being able to pick up the phone to talk to family, the extraordinary security in which so many of us in the West enjoy our day to day lives. Despite its bleakness, it’s an optimistic novel, holding out the prospect of rebuilding.

2: Case Histories. I’m late to the party here, but I’d never read any of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries. I discovered them on my mother’s bookshelf and was so gripped I couldn’t stop until I’d read the entire series. They offer the joy of a good, gripping thriller, written in crisp, satisfying prose, with lashings of dark humour and pathos. The long-suffering Brodie, a private eye with a history of disastrous relationships, is utterly beguiling. Please, can we have some more?

3: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. In the absence of the next Thomas Cromwell novel, this collection of dark and discomfiting tales from Hilary Mantel was the next best thing. No-one does mordant humour like her. They’ll be with me for a while; something nasty lurking in the bookshelf.

4: How to be both. ‘Ho, this is a mighty twisting thing,’ begins my copy of Ali Smith’s dazzling novel. But maybe not your copy, because the two interwoven stories were printed half with one story first, half the other. The invention, in language and imagery, as well as plot and structure, took my breath away. It became the novel I pressed on people this year, trying (and failing) to explain its extraordinary achievement. It’s full of the joy of being alive, and creating.

5: Black Country. Another bookshop evening, this time at the London Review Bookshop, where Liz Berry enchanted me with readings from her funny, magical and tearful collection of poems. I heard her again on the radio this morning, reading the bittersweet elegy to her mother, Homing, on Cerys Matthew’s Sunday morning Radio6 Music show. Listening to her sweet voice is the best way to hear her poems, but the second best is reading them, savouring each for their original and rough music.

Next year I’m planning on reading a lot of non-fiction, starting with Diana Athill, Edmund De Waal and something by 2015 Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I’m looking for wisdom. If you have recommendations, please share them here.


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Making Hay-on-Wye



It seems extraordinary that I’ve never made it to Hay-on-Wye before. An entire town devoted to books and bookshops? Surrounded by glorious countryside, perfect for walking? With a picturesque river running through it, ideal for canoeing? What took me so long?

The Gentleman Caller and I headed for Hay just after Christmas, with the twin aims of walking off some of the excess food we’d consumed and checking out the books.  Because we’re masochists who like adventures, we’d decided to take the tent and find somewhere to camp in the Brecon Beacons. Remember Boxing Day? The storm that raged all night, severe weather warnings, floods and gales?  Fortunately the tent held up well, we found a relatively sheltered nook to put it in, and no large trees fell on us. But it was a rather frazzled Bluestocking who made her way down into Hay early on December 27, in search of coffee.

Breakfast outside the tent

Breakfast outside the tent

We found coffee in a rather nice, if unseasonal, ice-cream parlour. Sadly we were a bit early for the rest of Hay, which had yet to emerge from its Christmas snooze and was mostly closed. So, ignoring the weather, we packed up some post-Christmas leftovers and set off on the Wye Valley walk. Some very kind people in a farmhouse rescued us from the worst of the hailstorm, inviting us in to huddle by the Aga while they gave us tea. They also recommended a fantastic pub, the Radnor Arms in Llowes, which provided shelter from the next hailstorm, and a pint of the local Butty Bach ale. We went back for dinner, too, and ate the best pheasant I’ve had for years.

All in all, by Saturday morning I felt I’d earned a browse around the book emporia, even though the sun was out and I’d already got a substantial stash of books from my Christmas list. There are absolutely loads, so here are my three highlights:

Hay-on-Wye booksellers

Hay-on-Wye booksellers

Hay-on-Wye Booksellers, a cheerful two-storey shop that looks like a Tudor cottage, with the pleasing Hay habit of mixing pre-read with new books. I was soon entranced in an early RAC guide to Kent, which showed its age by recommending a visit to Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. There were plenty of other treasures, and even free books from a selected slush pile.

Hay Cinema Bookshop, a vast warehouse of mainly second-hand books housed in a former cinema, including a section for rare antique editions. I’ve never been in a bookshop with such an enormous travel section before. History was good too – I finally plumped for a copy of David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, the first in his social history of post-war Britain.

Richard Booth’s Bookshop is the absolute jewel in Hay’s crown. Walking

Richard Booth's bookshop

Richard Booth’s bookshop

through the doors felt like entering a cathedral of books. This lovely building has an ecclesiastical feel, with church furniture (as well as comfy sofas), a busy cafe, a model railway running through a town of books in the window… and then there are the books. The ground floor welcomed us in with a table of the most beautiful new hardback editions of classics. Each desk or shelf seemed to hold more perfectly selected editions, old and new, all calling out to be read. Poetry, science, natural history, philosophy, history – I wandered in a daze, picking things up and (sometimes) putting them down again. The ones that stuck to my hand and made it home were Mark Cocker’s Crow Country (terrific, I’m roaring through it) and Owen Sheers’ A Poet’s Guide to Britain.

It’s not just bookshop heaven, either. I was rather taken with the independent shops in Hay’s town centre, including a picturesque greengrocers, numerous antique/vintage shops and lots of outdoors equipment stores. I even found myself a rather natty tweed jacket at a shop called (rather provocatively for Wales) The Great English Outdoors. Then there are the local pubs and restaurants – we stayed at The Swan, after our solitary night camping, which was far more civilised and did a very decent breakfast. And the countryside is wonderful. A bright, cold day was just perfect for a hike up to Hay Bluff, where shaggy ponies and fluffy sheep dotted the close-cropped turf and ice crisped over pools. I’m sure we’ll be back – perhaps in summer this time, with the canoe.

Wye in full spate

Wye in full spate

Hay Bluff

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