The long s and the small publishers
By MICHAEL CAINES
As much as I like a Penguin Classic or a Faber Find, I now find myself increasingly drawn towards the many-splendoured world of art books and sheer odd books – towards the productions of small presses who can’t afford an accountant, let alone an accounts department, and whose tendencies lie in the direction of formal experimentation rather than the usual reassuring formulae.
Perhaps it’s long overdue but I am, belatedly, trying to make up for lost time. A couple of hours at the Conway Hall, at the excellent Small Publishers Fair yesterday, showed me how this Toad of Toad Hall fit of enthusiasm could yet become a bank-breaking if highly enjoyable obsession. . . .
Some suitably small things – badges and postcards – were on sale alongside limited editions hot off the letterpress. A great slab of a book lay closed next to an artistic interpretation of Dracula in a single, delicately cut sheet of black paper. London exhibitors mingled with their counterparts from the Netherlands, Ireland and Mexico. Very little of their work, I imagine, will ever find its way into Waterstones; and for me at least, there’s something deeply appealing about this independent diversity.
Without meaning to do anything more than find a couple of Christmas presents, I quickly picked up a recent volume of poetry (printed the Lightning Source way), a hand-set reminder of the history of the long s (handy for historians of the eighteenth century; see above) and a couple of apposite postcards from the Perro Verlag stall (one of which boasts Kafka’s line “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”, which beats hands down “Keep Calm and Carry On”, or whatever that now completely overused template invites you to do).
Enough, surely . . . And then I went round again, hopelessly moth-in-the-presence-of-flame-like, having a fine time talking to the various makers of books (including Michael Nicholson, whose “bio auto graphics” I’ve mentioned already on this blog) and enjoying the small wonders that these small publishers weren’t just there to sell but to exhibit and discuss. Mette-Sofie Ambeck told me how Udkant, a collaboration with Nancy Campbell (an occasional TLS contributor), took shape during the course of a book fair in Denmark:
Another exhibitor told me gleefully about her escape from academia, while a third recalled that he’d taken out an ad with one of the biggest British poetry magazines and sold nothing as a result, in bemusing contrast to what he’d achieved via social media. The chief organizer of the fair (now in its thirteenth year), Helen Mitchell, could say how good it was to have everybody there to talk shop as well as to keep it. Publishing itself, a veteran of these things declared, was a political act; elsewhere, it was a pleasure to encounter the “splenetic anti-verse” of Sean Bonney’s Baudelaire in English and a comparably subversive cousin in the form of Barrie Tullett’s recently published Typewriter Art: A modern anthology.
I hereby confess that this was, in other words, a thoroughgoing biblio-binge, and that I’m not only unrepentant about it, but still in the mood the morning after to recommend to others to enjoy for themselves: the fair ends today at 7pm, and then, all being well, it’s only another twelve months until the next one. And I’ll probably come back to the subject of small presses, fine presses, art books and the like on this blog in the near future, inspired by the work of Tangerine Press, Test Centre, CB Editions and a few others as well as the examples mentioned above. I'm sure you can imagine your own closing line about small being beautiful. . . .