• The wonders of the woefully underrated Anthony Powell

    anthony powellI first read the twelve-volume sequence of novels by Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, in 1982. I’d just left university, and having failed to notice that everyone else around me was busy getting jobs in the City or at Reuters or suchlike, I found myself standing in the job queue at Harrods one summer morning. In a very Powell-like moment, I met a friend from university in the same job queue, and we acknowledged each other’s mutual failure to secure a “proper job” with slight embarrassment. He was posted to the furniture department, I to the gifts department; later, another friend turned up, and he ended up in the Food Halls on the ground floor, and got in terrible trouble one day for inadvertently throwing a sack of chickens down the refuse chute. My job kept me in a tiny windowless basement storeroom, where I sat patiently waiting for one of the bustling gifts department ladies to come down with another order, which invariably involved musical cottages: I seemed to spend that entire summer wrapping up musical cottages and sending them off to America. There was so little work for me to do that I began on A Dance, and that summer I got through all twelve novels of them in that room, lining up each Pan paperback with the Marc cartoon on the cover in a neat row above the workbench where I cut up my wrapping paper.

    Over 30 years later, I thought I’d give them another bash. This time, I’m indulging myself by listening to Simon Vance’s quite brilliant audio version. As I trudge through St Katherine’s Dock on the way to work, I hear his wonderful impersonations of Quiggin, Widmerpool, Sillery, Stringham and others. What more excitingly anticipatory phrase can there be in English fiction than: “It was Widmerpool.” I burst out laughing on the tube at the delicate absurdity of the social constructs, sometimes the sheer slapstick foolishness of one or other of the characters.

    But what most strikes me this time round is just how remarkably good Powell is. Not just good, as in technically good. What really strikes me is how serious a novelist he is. English novelists traditionally suffer in comparison with their colleagues in many other countries because of a perceived narrowness of scope, a timidity of ambition. To be English is to be cloistered, buttoned-up, lacking in energy.

    Powell negates this argument. In fact, compared to him, contemporaries such as Greene and Waugh come across as saloon-bar entertainers, superficial charmers trying to tie their stories to grand themes which really bear little investigating. What Powell achieved was something far more profound, and something which goes back to the originator of the European novel, Cervantes: the ability to use humour to reveal the true extent of the human desire to survive, and the willingness to set this humour against a profound seriousness.

    He is our most underrated novelist.

  • Why the Government believes it can do what it wants

    The £9 million leaflet setting out the Government’s thoughts on the forthcoming EU referendum appeared on the mat today. I take a semi-professional interest in it, since in the 1980s I used to work as a copywriter and editor at the now-defunct Central Office of Information, previously known as the Ministry of Information where Orwell unhappily worked in Room 101 during World War Two. When I worked there, when computers and emails hadn’t been thought about, we used to get a 2016-04-11 19.05.20phone call from some government department instructing one of us to hotfoot it over to Whitehall to take a brief on some new initiative or disaster which required a government leaflet. We’d cross over Westminster Bridge, take the brief, then come back and work with designers and print buyers and illustrators and such like to produce something which set the facts out clearly. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, the finished item would be sent to the printers and off we’d go. Now, despite the fact that the COI was mostly made up of unreliable, boozy, gossipy layabouts like me, the thing about it was that it retained a strong ethos of public service. I remember clearly that everyone had a sense that they were there for a reason, and part of that reason went back to idealistic notions about an impartial Civil Service which had its roots in the great Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 19th century. And one of the primary responsibilities of working at the COI was that you were expected to protect and maintain the notion of impartiality: there was a belief that information should be presented to the public in a non-partisan manner, so that that people could receive information and then make their own minds up.

    I can remember when this started to change. It was in the late 1980s, and we had been asked by the then Department of Employment or the Home Office to produce a leaflet about the Government’s plans with regard to job creation. A particularly observant editor in my team spotted that there were several sentences in the copy which were not only not neutral, they clearly set out a Conservative view about employment as opposed to a Labour view. This was not what government information was supposed to do. So I rang up our client in the Department and told them that we would have to remove certain phrases. There was a pause, and they said they’d come back to me. They did: the following day, we were informed that the COI was not required to produce the leaflet, and instead, it was produced and printed by a private sector advertising agency. It was the first example I could remember of the Government realising that they needed to loosen their ties to the traditional ethos of public service as contained in the history of the British Civil Service. Tony Blair, who came along later, benefited hugely from Thatcher’s disdain for tradition. His lot oversaw the dismantling and eventual dissolution of the COI.

    So that brings me to this nasty little offering. It’s a 16-page, A5 colour leaflet, clearly produced by a design agency which wants to mimic the old COI stark typography. It is riddled with supposition, from page one, where it repeats verbatim Cameron’s claims for the concessions he wants us to believe he secured from Brussels recently, to page four, where it says “Leaving creates uncertainty and risk”. That’s an utterly outrageous partisan comment which is not designed to enable the general public to be equipped with information; it is merely a soundbite. This tone continues throughout the leaflet – on every page, there are statements of belief from the In Team which could just as easily be countered from statements from the Out Team. This isn’t information: it’s propaganda.

    And that’s why this Government believes it can do what it wants. Because we’ve had years now of erosion of the concept of public service, erosion of the notion of accountability, and years of professional politicians choosing a career in politics as a route to self-advancement. Poor old George Orwell left the Ministry of Information because he felt that he was restrained by its precepts from outlining his own personal views on the future of society. He went off to imagine a world in which traditional language had no meaning, where new vocabulary was needed to enforce the submission of the population.

    That’s the world in which this leaflet was produced.

  • Launch of our Plymouth WWII oral history book

    The book has 376 pages, over 50 colour photographs, and we are selling it ourselves on the Amazon site here. Alternatively, you can send a cheque made out to The Word Machine CIC in the sum of £11.79 to our distributors at The Word Machine, 20 Pennington Court, 40 The Highway, London E1W 2SD and they will post you one. Or you can also buy copies from Chris Robinson’s shop on the Barbican: 34 New Street, The Barbican, Plymouth PL1 2NA. If you’re at Whitsand Bay, the book is on sale at the Heritage Centre at Whitsand Bay Holiday Park. Any other queries about getting hold of a copy, please email us via the Contact page on this website.

  • Celebration for the completion of our World War Two Plymouth project

    After two years of a truly fascinating project sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund, we are pleased to announce that we will be holding a special event at St Saviour’s Church on the Barbican in Plymouth on Friday 27th November to celebrate the project’s conclusion. We will be publishing a book containing excerpts from the 60 oral interviews we conducted with Plymouth residents who remember the Blitz and the years of social rehousing which followed the war, and we will be welcoming many of our interviewees to St Saviour’s to meet each other and once more share their memories of those painfully unforgettable times. If you would like to know more, or would like to attend, please contact Tam at tam[at]thewordmachine.org.

    St Saviours invite single flyer

  • Curious Arts festival – Special offer to Word Machine friends!

    We asked our good friend Clare Conville, one of the directors of the wonderful British arts festival Curious Arts (http://curiousartsfestival.com/) , to tell us a little about the weekend coming up on 17th July in the New Forest. Not only did she tell us about it, she also offered a special discount for our friends! Read what she says, and do take advantage of this really generous offer – 40% off if you follow the link at the end of her blog and tap in the promo code Clare has given. We’ll be there, so we hope to meet you there.

    We are delighted to announce a special offer for the CURIOUS ARTS FESTIVAL which takes place in the stunning grounds of Pylewell Park in the New Forest, 17th-19th July.

    The CURIOUS ARTS Festival offers a charming, high-quality and engaging weekend which combines literature, live music, film, comedy and lots of activities for children with fabulous food and drink from our friends at Fevertree, Nyetimber and Honest Grapes and lots of other curious happenings and experiences such as breathing lessons, life-drawing, healing therapies, garden walks and hedge foraging.

    Authors, artists and musicians include David Nicholls, SJ Watson, Sarah Hall, Jojo Moyes, Lynn Barber, Esther Freud, Matt Haig, Polly Samson, John Niven and we have music from Gus Robertson and Johnny Borell from Razorlight, Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music and John Illsley from Dire Straights. Sunday concludes with the extraordinary George the Poet.

    Parking is easy and camping is free.

    To buy tickets at an incredible 40% discount just click on the following link https://billetto.co.uk/events/curious-arts-festival-2015/tickets and tap in the following promotional code:-  curiouspartner for your special offer.

  • What’s become of publishing

    I picked up a 1962 Penguin paperback version of Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring in the rather wonderful Cofion bookshop in Tenby in Wales last month. The novel was first published in 1939 by Cassell, and is narrated by a typically languid and ironic Powell character who works for the publishing firm Judkins and Judkins. It’s an amusing tale about a mischievous English character who reinvents himself as a travel writer called TT Waring, who becomes the lead writer for Judkins and Judkins.

    What I really enjoyed were the passages in which the narrator, still in his twenties and working on a monograph on Stendhal, describes his working day at the publishing house: reading the piles of manuscripts which arrive every day, discussing them with one of the two Judkins brothers who run the firm, going upstairs to the sales ledger office to find out how the orders are going on the latest TT Waring. It’s a million miles away from the glass boxes which house today’s publishing professionals, although from experience I know that many of the latter still came into the profession from exactly the same love of words and books as Powell’s narrator. And it reminded me of my first publishing job, as a reader at Robert Hale Publishers on Clerkenwell Green in 1982.

    Every day around 1030am, Rupert, the ebullient post manager, would stagger into my tiny office with the day’s manuscript arrivals. He would sit them on the floor by my desk, and the pile most days reached up to higher than my desk. My job was to go through the slush pile, as it is still sadly known in the industry, and make comments on each manuscript in time for Mr Hale, the boss, to read my notes and comment on them before he got up from his desk at ten to one and went down in the lift to the garage to get into his Jaguar to drive himself off to Holborn for lunch. My note on each manuscript would briefly outline subject matter, plot and my own comments as to suitability. Mr Hale would add his own notes and the pile would be returned to me by Rupert after the boss had gone off to lunch. I had three categories of conclusions for each note: “Reject”, “Send to Reader”, “Look further this afternoon”. The first obviously meant that the manuscript would immediately be sent back to its author, using the stamped addressed envelope which we asked aspiring authors to provide. The second meant that the manuscript was good enough to be sent out for a full reading by one of our several external readers. The third was a halfway house, meaning that I would spend a bit more time on it myself during the afternoon to establish whether we thought it might be worth sending out for a full read. Mr Hale would either agree or disagree with my conclusions in his own covering notes which he jotted down before it got to ten to one.

    So after my own lunch, I would give Rupert the rejects to return and the interesting ones to package up to send out to the chosen reader, and then I’d settle down in my chair and read the betwixt-and-betweens. That was my favourite part of the day; the morning race to get through all the manuscripts before Mr Hale went to lunch was always slightly tense, whereas in the afternoon I had more leisure to read through the scripts which remained. These were the afternoons when I would read memoirs of retired gentlemen’s World War Two experiences; avant garde fiction which had somehow found its way into our very traditional publishing house; esoteric accounts of religious transformations. I’d then write much longer notes on these, and would get my notes up to Mr Hale before half past five, giving him a few minutes to annotate my comments with “Agreed” or “Why not see what Mrs Jacobson makes of it?”

    It was a beautifully choreographed and repetitive workday, the best job which I’ve ever had. I was only 22, and I think I thought that all work would be like this – after I left Hale in 1985, I soon discovered this was not the case. I am more nostalgic about that job than anything I’ve done since. The whole firm, taking its lead and inspiration from the shy, civilised and kind Mr John Hale, was made up of truly delightful and gentle people who were obsessed with books. We had a raffish marketing director in Martin Kendall, who once took me downstairs to the basement archive where one copy of every Hale book was stored, and picked out a volume of photographic nudes which had been put out in the ’60s. We published the cowboy writer JT Edson, who lived in America, and whom I had to telephone one day to ask him to resupply a missing blurb. “Make it up, kid,” he said. “They’re all the same.” I remember being rather proud of my copywriting, something about peace not reigning in Death Valley until six gun shots rang in the air.

    We published the historical romance writer, Jean Plaidy, and I was once sent over to her apartment overlooking Hyde Park because her plumbing was faulty, and Mr Hale suspected that I might be able to fix it. We published the cookery writer Elizabeth David’s last book, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, and I was sent on my bicycle to her house in Chelsea to hand over the proofs. She sat me down at her kitchen table and gave me dessert wine while she pottered about muttering about the inadequacies of her publisher. And I used to have occasionally awkward meetings with aspiring authors in the ground floor reception, those for whom our traditional pro forma rejection letter was not sufficiently explanatory and who chose to pick up their unwanted manuscript in order to take the opportunity to berate me for my blindness and philistinism.

    No doubt my advancing years are clouding my memories with nostalgia, but they do seem in retrospect to have been very special experiences. I hope young graduates joining the industry feel like I do now about my first job when they are my age. The world needs lots more Judkins and Judkins and Robert Hales.

  • The power of a person: Apple and Steve Jobs

    Last night, we watched the hour-long “lost interview” with Apple founder Steve Jobs, which is available on YouTube here. The interview was held in 1994, the year before he returned to Apple after his firing in 1985. Subsequent to his return, the fortunes of Apple revived, and on came that extraordinary stream of products: the iPhone, the iPad, the development of ITunes etc etc.

    It’s a really fascinating interview. It feels, watching it, like one of those rare moments when you are privileged to have an insight into how one individual truly can change the direction of the world we live in. It’s not always about economic trends and historical inevitabilities: sometimes, individuals make all the difference.

    Jobs was clearly a highly complex individual, and inevitably there are scores of opinions about him on all sides: what he really was like to work for, what his methods were, and so on.

    But what is undeniable from this interview is what a truly great individual he was: a remarkable brain, and a depth of perception, analysis and drive which is almost impossible to imagine.

    Sometimes, it comes down to one person. Jobs sided himself with the artists and the hippies, as opposed to the nerds and the businessmen, and somehow managed to create in Apple a capitalist product with a soul. Was it sleight of hand? Was he really just pulling the wool over our eyes? Is Apple really just the same as Microsoft, but prettier? I don’t think so. I think there is artistry in the very idea of Apple, and much of what he says in this interview could well serve as useful instruction for many of our bigger companies today.

  • Can robots write?

    There is a tremendous long review in the current edition of the London Review of Books by John Lanchester (author of How To Speak Money and other books) of the latest published thinking on automation and the impact of robots on the future of employment. The review is here. In the review, Lanchester references a 2013 paper by two Oxford economists, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, called ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?’ These clever Oxford academics have come up with a series of mathematical equations and statistical summaries to analyse 702 jobs, and listed them in order, with 1 being the safest job to have in the face of the threat of a robot taking it, and 702 as being the most vulnerable to automation. Of the jobs they analysed, Recreational Therapist was the safest, while Telemarketeers were the most vulnerable.

    And where do they sit writers in this gloomy scenario? Out of their 702 professions, they have Writer in at 123, which I suppose at least puts writers fairly high up the scale of jobs that the robots can’t nab. But not invulnerable. Overall, they suggest that 47 per cent of all current jobs – from writers to shoeshiners – are at risk of automation. That’s half the world’s current workforce out of work.

    It’s a fascinating and very chilling analysis, and Lanchester is suitably strident in his call to arms at the end of the review.

    Can robots write? It’s clear they can, and it’s clear they already do a lot of writing. We have no idea how much writing that appears somewhere on the internet – on Twitter, on blogs, in online news summaries – is actually produced by a robot. How many novels have already been produced by automated software?

    It’s about time we started taking decisions about what we let robots do, before we get too used to their style of writing.

  • The mysterious James Hilton and the anti-ageing Five Tibetans

    James Hilton was a British novelist and successful Hollywood screenwriter who was born in 1900 and who wrote the famous books The Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr Chips. The former was published in 1933, made into a film by Frank Capra in 1937 and starring Ronald Coleman. The Lost Horizon describes a party of four Westerners (including a British army officer called Mallinson and a British diplomat called Conway) being trapped in a remote Tibetan monastery or lamesary called Shangri-la, in which the protagonist discovers that the inhabitants have discovered the secret of eternal youth, most notably in the case of the Head of the lamesary who is over 200 years’ old.

    In 1939, an unknown American writer called Peter Kelder published a book called The Eye of Revelation, which described an elderly British army officer called Colonel Bradford (not his real name, Kelder is at pains to point out) who described how he had discovered the elixir of eternal youth in an unknown Tibetan ceremony called The Five Rites, which he sets out in the book, together with all he learned in an obscure Tibetan lamesary about the ways in which the effects of ageing can be slowed.

    When I was running a publishing company in 2008/9, we were offered the UK publishing rights in the reprint of Peter Kelder’s The Eye of Revelation, and I began to look into the background of the book. It all became very mysterious. Neither the agent offering the rights, nor the American publisher who had been publishing versions of it for decades in the States, could give any information whatsoever about the identify of Peter Kelder. He was completely unknown.

    While I was carrying out my own investigations, I came across this blog from American book specialist Jerry Watt. I eventually spoke to Jerry, and we had a most civilised and interesting conversation. His thesis is that James Hilton adopted the pseudonym Peter Kelder in order to publish his theories about the virtues of the Five Tibetans ritual. There are lots of reasons why this theory could be true: Hilton was almost fifty when The Eye of Revelation came out, and in the book, Colonel Bradford says that his regime is of particular value for those of the age of 50 and over. The descriptive style and narrative approach used in both books is almost identical. Hilton knew the British offer Sir Wildred Malleson, who famously explored Tibet. And some of the slightly more eccentric pieces of advice towards the end of the book about eating and the virtues of abstinence sound as though they were being given by an Englishman of a certain age!

    Who knows? The Lost Horizon is a really lovely book which is worth you finding and reading, and Jerry is the only person I’ve found on the internet to speculate about the connection between Kelder and Hilton. There are plenty of different versions of the Kelder book now available, but I recommend you one from Jerry’s site here, and support an American bookseller and entertaining researcher.

    And do try and the Five Tibetans – I can tell you, they work!

  • Good art and bad art

    In the brave new world of self-publishing and ebooks, the question of “What is art?” becomes more and more pressing. How do we decide whether a novel or other form of written work is art, and how do we decide if that work is good art or bad art? There are plenty of views on this, from the ultra-democratic view that everything is/can be art to the more widely accepted notion that good art is identified through a kind of filtration process applied by experts, other artists and those in charge of the means of production. The corporate publishing industry would propose that part of its raison d’etre is to apply the definitions of art and select only those books which meet demanding criteria. The reality, however, in an age when most corporate houses don’t even read slush piles any more and pretty much only accept submissions from agents (who themselves don’t read much of their own slush piles), is that they can only be applying themselves to a small proportion of the world’s literature which has reached them by an elitist and self-defining route. That’s not to say that plenty of the work they publish isn’t art, good or bad, it’s just that a novel which doesn’t manage to get seen by the corporates is not necessarily bad or non-art.

    It gets worse when we look at what artists do. Is someone who writes unpublished novels or poetry in the early hours of the morning before heading off to work an artist? If not, do they become an artist if one of those works gets published? What if they self-publish? Do they only turn the corner from being a bank clerk who writes poetry (TS Eliot) to being an artist if they are published by a producer with a reputation? And what happens once they start producing a steady body of work? Is all their work art? What happens if a great artist produces bad art? Bob Dylan, the man who wrote Visions of Johanna, is also the man who wrote Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Ian McEwan wrote The Cement Garden, but he also wrote Saturday. Martin Amis…well, enough said.

    I think we have to accept that great artists sometimes produce poor art. I would argue that their poor art is no better or worse than the poorer offerings at the madder end of the self-publishing spectrum. It’s just stuff that doesn’t really achieve what we want art to achieve, which is to enable us to look at the universe afresh. Dylan, in fact, was characteristically fascinating on this in his first book of Chronicles, where he states that during his prime years – the mid-’60s when everything poured out of him in one astonishing wave – he felt like a channel for universal energies, that the art just flowed through him and his primary objective was not to allow himself to stand in the way of it. It’s an attractive notion, and perhaps explains why great artists can produce bad art; they do that when they allow their ego to get in the way of their art, or when the sheer relentless drive to produce more and more art eventually dries up the universal energies running through them. Hemingway said that the pencil always has a tendency to become blunt, and the writer has to be aware of this and never try to create when it is blunt.

    Perhaps we are coming closer to the end of the classical definitions of what is art and what is good and bad art. Perhaps the very concept of “art” will itself disappear, and we will be left with what they used to call in the ’60s “happenings” or “manifestations”. I’m quite attracted to that. I like Bill Drummond’s endless projects (shown here), I like the news filtering out of the work of the matriarchal culture of the Mosuo in the Yunnan province of China (shown here), I like the freshness and enthusiasm of events like East London club Jamboree’s Open Pen Live. Much as I love the work of American writer Richard Ford, I’m still struggling to find the energy to dip into the latest tales from Frank Bascombe. Instead, I’m thrilled by Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roche, first published in 1953 and Roche’s first novel – he was in his ’70s when it came out. It’s great art, written by a man who spent his life amongst artists, but would never have been called an artist – until he was 75.