Friday, 25 November 2011

Your Bookshop: Use It or Lose It

Thanks to everyone who came to Blackwells in Oxford last night for my talk on Paul Nash. I thoroughly enjoyed myself - great to see some old friends and meet new ones. It was also wonderful to be surrounded by so many books. We were in the Norrington Room, which is a Tardis-like underground space, vast and absolutely packed with books. Apparently it held the Guinness world record for longest bookshelf until some even larger shop opened somewhere in... was it South America? Perhaps someone can help narrow it down!

All those books gave the room a wonderful acoustic and even though the space is vast it felt intimate. But then a good, well-stocked bookshop does tend to feel intimate, however large it may be. Insulated by books, the browser can forget the outside world for a while and relax. Well, that's what I've always done.

Books too are intimate. On the way home to Bristol last night I sat opposite a man rather older than me, who had his nose in an old, battered copy of 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' by Alan Sillitoe. He was completely absorbed, not even taking his eye off the page as he nibbled at his flapjack. I once read a similarly battered copy of the same book, as have countless other people, but what really struck me about the man on the train was his absolute immersion in the world of the book - a world that opens when you first lift the cover, and to which you can return whenever you like, for the rest of your life. This chap might have read the book for the first time when he was young, perhaps when it was originally published, and was now rereading it for the tenth or fiftieth time; Sillitoe (who died last year) might have been a lifelong companion...

Blackwells at sale time...
I visit quite a number of bookshops to give talks, launch new books, etc, and I've chatted with lots of bookshop owners and managers. Many are struggling in the new world order of online retail and deep discounts. Others seem to be prospering and these tend (in my limited experience) to be the shops that muster a decent audience for a talk. These are businesses that devote enormous amounts of time and effort into winning not just customers but supporters. They run their own literary festivals or have comprehensive programmes of lectures and readings; they double as art galleries; they host book groups.

The Norrington Room - cosier in real life... and less green
They work, I think, on an important assumption. If you make your bookshop a place that is integral to people's lives, then they will stand firm against the temptation to 'buy with 1 click' and support you. It's not as if books, even at full price, are particularly expensive - how does a paperback compare with a round of drinks? Or even a couple of lattes? We go the '1 click' route out of laziness and that perennial (and very British) desire to get things cheap, irrespective of the cost in other terms. We may think of a favourite writer almost as a friend but will still choose to buy his or her new book at a colossal discount. What happens when I buy a book listed at £9.99 for £4? The writer's modest royalty, which is based on the actual price paid for a book, shrinks away almost to nothing. The publisher takes a hit too and is forced to cut costs, perhaps moving production to China (another British printer out of business), reducing staff and turning down books that won't sell sufficient numbers.

Much Ado Books, Alfriston - read this
A bookshop manager described to me recently the common phenomenon of people coming in, examining books on the shelf and then popping out to order online on their phone. These non-customers were enjoying the facilities offered by the shop - freedom to browse, attractive displays, carefully-chosen stock - and then taking their business to a cut-price rival who offered none of these things. The manager was planning to start accosting people and explaining to them that if they didn't buy books in the shop, the shop would soon be gone.

I once worked for an artist and gallery owner who would pursue customers down the street, refusing to leave them alone until they agreed to buy something. She knew that her survival depended on making sales, that no one was going to help her if she didn't, and that a certain proportion of people would give in and buy something. It's probably a good thing that bookshop people are less aggressive, but in fact the same principles apply; they either sell books or go under.

Toppings, Bath - the perfect bookshop?
Booksellers have found an array of solutions: selling rare books online; specialising in a particular subject; transforming their shop into an arts centre. Writers (and artists) can do their bit too, giving talks or encouraging people via social networks to support their local shop. But in the end what matters most is where and how we choose to buy books. We're consumers! We have freedom of choice! It may seem our God-given duty to buy everything for the lowest possible price, but it isn't.

By the way, I'm giving a talk at 6.15pm on Tues 6th December, at Foyles in Cabot Circus, Bristol. It's on Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash and you can expect lots of pictures to look at, the odd glimmer of humour and even a glass of wine. And it's FREE!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Wrecked Planes & Magnolia Trees: Paul Nash in Oxford

Paul Nash, Pillar and Moon, 1940 - a view of Ascott Park, Stadhampton, nr Oxford - Tate
We tend to associate artists with places we know from their paintings: John Constable and Flatford Mill, Stanley Spencer and Cookham, Ravilious and the Downs...  It's the same with people. We build a picture of a life from letters, diaries and so on, but this tends to be distorted because the sources we rely on are unreliable. One correspondent destroys their letters, while the family of another refuses to share them. In another instance, a person who mattered a great deal to the artist never wrote or received a letter. Paul Nash never wrote or talked about his mother Caroline, who died when he was twenty after a decade of mental illness, and she barely gets a mention in the biographies. Do you think her life and death influenced his work? Would it influence yours?

Paul Nash's last home at 106 Banbury Road - note blue plaque
But I'm supposed to be talking about places, and in particular about Oxford, which features in Nash's life rather like an important friend he never got round to writing to. His first real connection to the city was through his wife Margaret, an extraordinary woman who, as tends to be the case with the wives of famous artists and writers, is known only as his devoted helper. Born in Jerusalem and raised during her early childhood in Cairo, Margaret Odeh studied modern history at St Hilda's College, Oxford. She graduated in 1908 and, on moving to London, became involved in the Suffrage movement; as part of her work she helped women who were trapped in prostitution, and she retained an open-minded attitude to social and sexual mores.

Aircraft dump, Cowley
Paul and Margaret met in 1913 and married shortly before Nash joined the army in the first months of the war, and they remained together despite constant upheavals and crises caused by his infidelities, health problems and their inability to settle. Their move to Hampstead in 1936 was supposed to be the last, but three years later, on the eve of a new war, Margaret insisted they leave London and move to Oxford; a ground floor flat on Banbury Road was to be Nash's last home.

By this time Nash was severely weakened by asthma, and unable to walk or stand for long periods. After the artistic camaraderie of pre-war Hampstead he now wrote that 'I wander in the College gardens or thread my way through the Oxford streets, jostled by the late British Expeditionary Force from France and the more recent force of female expeditionaries from Piccadilly and Leicester Square...'

Paul Nash, Totes Meer, 1941 - Tate - can you spot the owl?
It is fair to say that he wasn't desperately happy in the suburbs of Oxford, but I think that being restricted in his movements focused his mind, and in the last few years of his life he produced some memorable paintings. 'Battle of Britain' was painted in Oxford, as were series of pictures devoted to crashed aircraft (German) and flying aircraft (British). A short drive took him to Cowley, where damaged planes from around the country were brought for salvage - a scene which looked to him suddenly 'like a great inundating Sea'. This fantasy he worked into 'Totes Meer', a painting I happened to see last week at Tate Britain, hanging in the museum's Romantics exhibition.

Paul Nash - a natty dresser
Nash tended to downplay his extensive borrowing from other artists, but he was undoubtedly something of a magpie, and in this painting combined the English pastoral of Samuel Palmer, the Romantic vision of 19th century German painter Casper David Friedrich, and his own studies of the Dymchurch coast to create one of the Second World War's more memorable images.

But the war did not preoccupy him directly for long. In 1942 he was released from government employment and left to his own devices. Knowing that he hadn't long to live, his mood swung between black despair and a kind of elation. His 'ivory basement', as he called his flat, had a garden surrounded by a red brick wall, and here he grew the sunflowers which feature so strongly in his final paintings. Here too I imagine grew the magnolia tree, that suburban staple, which provided the blossom for 'Flight of the Magnolia'.

Not that he was entirely trapped in his 'subub'. He travelled to Gloucestershire now and again, took a tour around Dorset with his old friend Lance Sieveking, and discovered at Boars Hill, just outside Oxford, the view that was to preoccupy him more than any since Dymchurch twenty years before...

Paul Nash, Flight of the Magnolia, 1944 - Tate

To be continued.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Paul Nash in London, Oxford, London again &... Bristol!

Thank you to those who came to Sotheran's on Tuesday evening for the launch of 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream'. A few people mentioned that they had read this blog from time to time, and it was fun to meet them - you, I should say. Well, the whole evening was fun. How could it not be, in such fantastic surroundings? If you have bookaholic tendencies I would be very wary of 2-5 Sackville Street, Piccadilly, unless you're a bookaholic and proud! I was surprised by the range of books, which varied from the terrifyingly expensive to the surprisingly affordable. Marvellous.

One thing people rarely tell writers when they start out is that the hardest part of the job is not coming up with the idea, or pitching it, or negotiating with publishers, or researching the book, or writing it or even - though this can seem like torture - editing it. The hardest bit is catching the attention of people who might like the book, so they can think about buying it.

The oldest antiquarian bookshop in the world...
Where, after all, do you hear about books? Each week there are a few pages of newspaper reviews and a couple of radio programmes, and these tend of course to be dominated by one or two Books of the Moment or, at any rate, by the products of big publishing companies.

I think the situation is probably hardest for writers who are snapped up by big companies then neglected, their books published but not marketed. Anyone who is published by a small press knows the score: if you want anyone to know about your books you have to jump up and down crying 'Look at my book what I wrote!' like the worst kind of B-list celebrity. In this respect Amazon, not always an institution that writers call Friend, is quite helpful: your book might occupy the slenderest of niches, but if its ISBN is registered it will most likely have some kind of presence on Amazon. You can get helpful friends to review your book and give it five stars and, should anyone buy it, it will appear on 'People who bought that, bought these' type of lists. Of course someone might also review it and give it no stars, but hey ho.

Otherwise you're reliant on word of mouth, the odd plug here and there, and shameless self-promotion. Which reminds me... Next Thursday evening (24 Nov) I will be at Blackwells bookshop in Oxford, giving an illustrated talk on Paul Nash that will include his paintings from the local area - 'Totes Meer', 'Pillar and Moon', 'Landscape of the Vernal Equinox'... - and other favourites. I'll be leaving the art-speak locked up at home and trying to match the enthusiasm levels of your hero and mine, Dr Fox (no not that Dr Fox, this one). So, if you fancy spending an evening getting to know a fascinating artist and his work, tickets are on sale at the remarkably reasonable price of £2.

Then the following Thursday (1 Dec) I'm back in London again, taking part in the Paul Nash evening being held as a fundraiser at the St Bride Library (see above). This should be a real treat, with Alan Powers and Brian Webb speaking as well as David Heathcote, and it will probably sell out. The St Bride Library has a devoted group of friends and they will no doubt turn out in large numbers as they did for a Ravilious Evening a couple of years ago.

Not the oldest antiquarian bookshop...
And then it's home to Bristol on 6th Dec, and the new Foyles bookshop in Cabot Circus. I'll be giving a free - yes, not even £2! - talk on Nash and Ravilious, which I hope will appeal to Bristol's large artistic community. Quite how I'm going to tell them all about it I haven't worked out yet, but I'm hoping a few hours walking around Clifton with a sandwich board and a loudhailer will do the trick.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Three New Titles from Little Toller Books

Illustration by Stephen Bone from 'The Military Orchid'
I love old books, and always have - there's nothing I can do about it now. As a writer I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it's rather sobering to scan the spines of hundreds of books, all once deemed worthy of publication and now entirely forgotten. An author may have written twenty, fifty or a hundred titles only a few decades ago and now be unknown to all but the lover of old books; we are like the people who explore graveyards, spinning stories from the inscriptions on the stones (OK, we're the same people). The graveyard reminds us of our mortality and the shelf of old books tells us that our success - whatever it may be - is fleeting.

On the other hand you never know when you might find a kindred spirit among a shelf of old books. I have more in common with Edward Thomas than with 90% of my contemporaries . I love his poetry but have a greater affection for some of his prose. 'In Pursuit of Spring' is a wonderful book, as is 'The South Country' - the story of the clerk who spends every summer working on the land expresses perfectly the rootlessness of modern (sub)urban life. Thomas befriended, championed and looked after the poet WH Davies, whose 'Autobiography of a Super-Tramp' I picked up the other day and read mostly in one sitting. Published in 1908 and written in simple, unsentimental prose, it is a frank account of a youth most people would consider misspent. The particular edition I found was from Jonathan Cape's Traveller's Library of the 1930s, and it looks, feels and smells as if a tramp had been carrying it around for a while.

The Saxon font at Little Toller
Not so my copy of 'The South Country', which is a new, sweet-smelling paperback published by Little Toller Books. Yes, there is a publisher that loves old books enough to rescue them from the charity shop and reissue them, and does so with style and economy. Inspired in part by Common Ground and their wonderful 'England in Particular', Little Toller has gone deep into the back catalogue, like Edward Thomas exploring the hidden lanes of Sussex and Hampshire, and pulled out a series of wonders. It is fitting that the press has as its emblem a figure from the Saxon font in the church at Little Toller in Dorset, one of artist and antiquarian John Piper's favourite objects.

Until this month there were twelve titles in Little Toller's Nature Classics Library. Alongside 'The South Country' there's Adrian Bell's 'Men and the Fields', which offers a fascinating picture of rural England shortly before World War Two, and books by Richard Jefferies and WH Hudson. Oh, and Richard Mabey's 'Unofficial Countryside' is in there too, which, since Mabey is still very much with us, rather brilliantly connects past and present. The books are nicely-weighted, reasonably-priced paperbacks with beautiful covers and illustrations by artists who are also in some cases long-forgotten.

Page from 'Sweet Thames Run Softly'
Recently three more titles have appeared, with the same distinctive covers, each colour-coded and bearing on the front a beautifully-reproduced painting. The most obvious choice, perhaps, is 'In the Country', Kenneth Allsop's account of life in Dorset which was first published in 1972. A famous TV presenter of the day (a kind of celebrity that fades even faster than literary renown), Allsop was also an energetic conservationist; this book charts a year at the old mill he and his family moved to from London, combining history, environmental debate and witty observations of nature:

Outside my window a dove is working itself up into a lather. Nervous collapse is imminent. It struts like a Grenadier drill sergeant. Its neck is curved as a drawn bow. Its chest bulges with simmering aggressiveness. It pounds the balcony tiles with pink feet. From its throat comes a furious rumbling. It is spluttering with foiled rage... How, I wonder once more, did the dove become the emblem of peace?

The name Robert Gibbings seemed familiar when I saw the second book, 'Sweet Thames Run Softly', but it took a moment to remember that he ran the Golden Cockerel Press in the late 1920s and early 1930s, commissioning Eric Ravilious and other wood engravers to illustrate his books. Gibbings was himself a talented wood engraver and in this book combined the roles of writer and illustrator to beautiful effect. Like 'Men and the Fields', this book takes us on a tour of England just before the war, only in this case the journey was down the Thames in a home-made glass-bottomed punt.

Cover image: David Inshaw, 'Oak Tree, Bonfire and Fireworks', 2004
This kind of particularity defines the Little Toller list as much as the interest in natural history. Each of the authors plucked from the past has an individual vision and an unusual way of going about things, although few are as odd as Jocelyn Brooke. I had no idea who this was, although I did recognise the painting on the cover of 'The Military Orchid' as the work of David Inshaw, and not being particularly interested in orchids I dipped into the book only to find that the flowers are only part of the story. Brooke was by all accounts an odd chap, an observer of flora and people who tried his hand at various aspects of 'real life' and in the end preferred to live in the country with his childhood nanny and write a stream of books.

From an Edwardian childhood to service in a mobile VD clinic during World War Two his memoir is funny, acerbic and full of life, surely one of the most interesting books to be published this autumn. I particularly enjoyed his frankness as a botanist, his admission that he preferred the experts who supported his identification of a particular plant and confession that many plants bored him silly. Here's the opening:

Mr Bundock's function, so far as my family was concerned, was to empty the earth-closet twice a week at the cottage where we used to spend the summer. This duty he performed unobtrusively and usually late at night: looming up suddenly in the summer dusk, earth-smelling and hairy like some menial satyr... He became of sudden interest to me one June evening by asserting, quite calmly, that he had found the lizard orchid. 

I wonder what they'll dig up next...

Monday, 7 November 2011

Artists at War: Paul Nash & Rex Whistler

Rex Whistler, Girl with Red Rose, 1935
The course of a life may be affected by many things, from external accidents to the internal workings of an individual character. Take Paul Nash (1889-1946) and Rex Whistler (1905-1944), two artists who went to war - with very different results.

We remember Nash not just as a war artist but as the quintessential painter of the world wars. The art collection of the Imperial War Museum is practically built around his vast canvases from the Great War, while 'Battle of Britain' is revered as one of the most striking paintings of the 1939-45 conflict. Nash's feeling for place and love of symbolism suited him for the job, but when he joined the Artists' Rifles in late 1914 there was no indication of what he would become.

Indeed, he spent more than two years in the south of England, training as an infantry officer - and meeting Edward Thomas in the process - before embarking for France with his regiment. Life in the trenches has come to dominate our collective memory of World War One, but the front lines were the equivalent of the coal face in a mine; a colossal effort went into manufacturing weapons and ammunition, training men and transporting everything and everyone to the right place at the right time.

The war, Nash wrote to his wife Margaret in March 1917, 'has become a habit so confirmed, so inevitable, it has its grip on the world just as surely as spring or summer.'

The battlefield seemed to Nash, when he finally arrived, a place of strange beauty:

Paul Nash, 1918
'Here in the back garden of the trenches it is amazingly beautiful - the mud is dried to a pinky colour and upon the parapet, and through sandbags even, the green grass pushes up and waves in the breeze... Nearly all the better trees have come out, and the birds sing all day in spite of shells and shrapnel...'

 This opinion was to change dramatically when he returned to Flanders as a war artist in the autumn, and witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele. That he had not fought in the battle was down to a mixture of luck and strength of will. In May, shortly before a Big Push, he had the good fortune to fall into a trench in the dark, injuring himself sufficiently to be invalided home. He had been sending sketches of the front lines home and now he seized the opportunity to persuade the authorities that he should be appointed Official War Artist and sent back to France in that capacity.

Nash had on his side a formidable weapon: the persuasive and determined Margaret. John Buchan, author of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' and now Minister for Information, acquiesced, and within a few months Nash had risen from the ranks of minor British artists to become a household name. He also, incidentally, secured the release of his brother John from service on the front lines, and the two of them spent much of 1918 painting scenes of devastation in the green hills of the Chilterns, with the British and Canadian governments footing the bill.

Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918
Two decades later he was once again appointed as an Official War Artist, and channeled his passionate hatred of Nazism into a series of memorable paintings. This time around, the selection and appointment of artists was organised by a War Artists Advisory Committee led by Kenneth Clark, the charismatic Director of the National Gallery. He believed that fine artists were an asset to the nation and should be kept from harm, and also that the work of such individualistic painters like Nash could serve as valuable propaganda.

Rex Whistler, dining room at Plas Newydd, 1936-7
However the appointment system was not perfect, and some of the omissions are mystifying. Why, for example, was Rex Whistler not chosen? According to his brother Laurence's biography, Clark approached artists whose work he knew and admired, and invited others to apply. Thomas Hennell was one painter who applied repeatedly, until he was eventually accepted. Whistler was not approached, and could not - out of pride, perhaps - apply.

Laurence wrote of his elder brother that he was 'not of this age', and indeed he does seem a strange, old-fashioned figure, painting murals for aristocratic clients as if he were living in the 18th century rather than the 20th. In 1936 he was commissioned by the Marquess of Anglesey to paint his dining room at Plas Newydd, and duly produced a glorious set of murals that mirror and transform the view of Snowdonia from the opposite windows.

Rex Whistler, Self Portrait, 1940
Yet this was hardly the time to be courting the aristocracy; by the mid-1930s many of the great houses of the land were falling into decay or being taken over by the National Trust (as Plas Newydd would be), as their owners struggled to pay death duties or meet soaring maintenance costs.

It is worth comparing Whistler's career with that of Eric Ravilious. Both became fascinated by mural painting as students, the former at the Slade and the latter at the Royal College of Art, and both launched their careers with murals. This was thanks in good measure to the legendary Henry Tonks (Paul Nash's former teacher), who chose Whistler to decorate the underground dining room at what is now Tate Britain. The success of these murals, which were finished in 1928 and can still be seen today, was the catalyst for the commissioning of the Morley College murals a year later; the success of these made the reputations of Ravilious and Edward Bawden.

The careers of the three artists had certain parallels; Whistler and Bawden both did work for Shell, while Ravilious and Whistler made designs for Wedgwood and all three were prodigious book illustrators. Socially, however, they moved in very different circles, and while Ravilious and Bawden chose to live simply in Essex, Whistler lived the high life, painting portraits of Cecil Beaton and the Sitwells and murals for stately homes.

When the war came, Bawden and Ravilious were among the first wave of artists chosen to record the conflict. By mid-1940 over 200 names had been considered, including Whistler's, which was apparently marked on the official list with a 'No'. His first inclination had been to volunteer for the army and, without a persuasive alternative, he now joined the Welsh Guards and began training as a tank commander.

Lieutenant Whistler (centre) & Cromwell tank crew 1944
Not that he gave up painting - far from it - and while stationed on Salisbury Plain he had the village blacksmith in Codford make him a unique piece of equipment, a metal box wrapped in a groundsheet, in which he kept paints, brushes and small canvases. This was fixed just behind the turret of his Cromwell tank when he rode in it from a landing craft onto the Normandy beach during the D-Day landings.

An artist at war, Whistler painted and sketched many of his fellow soldiers but only saw action once. With his platoon he was driving through the outskirts of Caen when his tank became caught up in wire, then came under machine gun fire. He jumped down and ran to the nearest tank to explain the situation and give orders, but as he started back to his own tank a mortar exploded, killing him instantly. If Kenneth Clark's ambition had been to protect artists from harm then he had, in this instance, failed.

'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' is available now from the Mainstone Press and all good bookshops.