Friday, March 23, 2007

Reading Gordon Ramsay's autobiography

Also in today's blog
How to shift those books if the author is a plain Jane

Had I noticed Gordon Ramsay's autobiography Humble Pie [HarperCollins 2006 £18.99] on display at the top of the staircase at my public library, I should not have borrowed it.

But, having been lent a copy, I felt I might as well give it a go. To my surprise, a previously unfavourable impression of Ramsay changed to a feeling that he's a much nicer man than I had supposed from his publicity.

Apparently his childhood was ruined by an appalling father who knocked his wife about and used a strap on his children. Anyone who can rise above that kind of start in life has my admiration.

The book has 24 pages of photographs, including one of Ramsay with his wife Tana [see photo] and their four children. I was interested to learn that Tana's problems getting pregnant may have been complicated by her husband's low sperm count – "the result of my balls being in front of all those hot ovens. That's a common problem for chefs who endure all that heat seven days a week," he writes.

Ramsay opened his first restaurant Aubergine in 1995 and 14 months later achieved his first Michelin star.

Some time in the late Nineties I was taken there by Gillian Green, then my editor at Harlequin Mills & Boon, now with Piatkus.

It was not one of the memorable lunches of my life, and Ramsay didn't make an appearance as was usual with top chefs.

The paperback of Humble Pie is due out in May. I think most of the F words [three in one paragraph] could have been cut. I wonder if he uses them at home in front of his wife - whose background is middle class – and children? I suspect he doesn't, that nowadays the bad language is just part of the hype.

How to shift those books if the author is plain Jane

An article under this heading by Ben Hoyle, Arts Reporter for The Times is causing a lot of discussion on writers' forums.

So far there has been one comment at The Times.

"This airbrushing really annoys me; I'm no Jane Austen fan, but I detest the message that those not conforming to a certain aesthetic standard should be doomed to failure. Write as well as you like, but looking slightly off won't shift your books. Why can't the consumer market realise that looks aren't the be all and end all? You can succeed without being beautiful. We are encouraged not only to judge books by their covers, but writers too, it would seem. And, at the end of the day, old age robs us all of our looks- they're transient, unlike literature, which survives us far longer and is a greater equivocator of character. Carly Taylor, Nottingham, England"

As usual I'm taking the weekend off. See you on Monday.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Do you know what "thrifting" means?

A book I can't wait to read is Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel [Thames & Hudson £28].

Strangely, considering my interest in fashion, I had never heard of Iris Apfel until Heather Hodson wrote an article about her for a recent issue of Telegraph Magazine.

"Iris Apfel's idiosyncratic, exotic style has for decades been an inspiration to those who dare to be different. Now, at 85, her unique collection of clothes has been brought together in a remarkable book."

At a magazine called Panache, we read -

"Iris Apfel is co-founder of the international textile company Old World Weavers and an authority on antique fabrics. Eric Boman is a highly acclaimed fashion photographer, whose work has been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, The World of Interiors, and others.

With remarkable panache and discernment, Iris Apfel combines styles, colors, textures, and patterns without regard to period, provenance, or aesthetic conventions. Now in her mid-eighties, she is a unique style icon.

Over ninety sumptuous color plates, photographed by Eric Boman, show off a selection of Apfel's extraordinary outfits on wittily posed mannequins, some sporting her trademark outsized spectacles. The originality of her style is typically revealed in her mixing of Dior haute couture with flea-market finds, Dolce & Gabbana lizard trousers with nineteenth-century ecclesiastical vestments, pink Lanvin worn with ropes of Navajo turquoise. Apfel's eclectic pieces might come from a Parisian couture house, an American thrift shop, or a North African souk, or they may have been made to her own design in a tiny studio.

Detailed captions describe every aspect of the outfits, including names and dates of designers, plus full information on fabrics and accessories. A selection of audacious accessories also comes under the spotlight: a giant necklace made of bear claws, a turn-of-the-century Indian horse ornament worn as a necklace, a parrot's-head brooch in colored glass and rhinestones.

The book includes an introduction by Harold Koda, director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an essay by Apfel herself, describing her lifelong love affair with style and illustrated with vintage photographs from her personal collection. 169 illustrations, 149 in color. "


In her Telegraph piece, Heather Hodson writes –

"Encouraged by her mother to bargain-hunt, by 12 she was trawling discount stores, antique shops and fleamarkets for shoes, objects d'art and anything beautiful that caught her eye. This knack for thrifting has remained with her – she never pays full price for anything – and goes some way to explaining her eclectic approach to dressing."

I didn't start thrifting as early in life as Iris Apfel. For me the break-through came in my early thirties. But how that came about is too long a story to tell here.

Thames & Hudson's website

Did you know the origin of the name of this publishing house? I didn't.

"Thames & Hudson was founded in 1949 by Walter and Eva Neurath. Their passion and mission for T&H was that its books should reveal the world of art to the general public, to create a ‘museum without walls’ and to make accessible to a broad, non-specialist reading public, at prices it could afford, the research and the findings of top scholars and academics.

To capture the essence of this international concept, the name for the company linked the rivers flowing through London and New York (although Walter later admitted he could have chosen at least six other rivers for the name!). "

I was not impressed by the T&H website. The text is on the small side and not adjustable by visitors. Also all the information is on the left side of the screen leaving a cold white space on the right. The text below the Next button at the bottom of each screen is unreadable unless "selected". In the absence of a designer's name, I conclude the site is an in-house job.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The downside of bestsellers

[Posted Wednesday 21 March 2007]

Also in today's blog
The Grand Purge begins
More about Peter Owen

"A bestseller can swamp a small publisher – you take on more staff to supply the demand and when the sales stop you're stuck. Fred Warburg was sunk by a bestseller. Fourth Estate had to sell out after Longitude. You want a steady seller. One we've done terribly well with is The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, which didn't interest me, but it's now in its 12th printing. We've sold about 70,000 copies. It's green, you see. Perhaps that's the future."

Who am I quoting? Publisher Peter Owen who was 80 on February 24, the day an interview with him by Duncan Fallowell was published in the Books section of The Daily Telegraph.

Re-reading it last weekend led me to visit Peter Owen Publishers where I read –

"Peter Owen started his company, aged twenty-four, six years after the Second World War. He ran the business from home, with a typewriter as his only equipment. Soon, however, the company started to flourish, enabling him to employ some staff, his first editor was Muriel Spark, and he was able to bring some of the very best international literature to what was a very insular British market.

In the fifty years since then, although the industry has changed beyond recognition, Peter Owen Publishers continues the tradition of producing new and interesting writing. The company has published seven Nobel Prize winners and boasts a backlist that includes some of the most talented and important writers from all over the world."

Slightly Foxed, quarterly book review

It was a reference in the Peter Owen Publishers blog which led me to Slightly Foxed where I read –

"Do you carry elderly Penguins in your pockets? Do you panic if you find yourself on a journey with nothing to read? Do you linger in the book sections of charity shops?If so, we think you will enjoy Slightly Foxed, the lively quarterly book review for non-conformists – people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing.

Eclectic, elegant and entertaining, Slightly Foxed unearths books of lasting interest, old and new, all of them in print. Each issue contains 96 pages of personal recommendations from contributors who write with passion and wit. Slightly Foxed aims to strike a blow for lasting quality – for the small and individual against the corporate and the mass produced. Why not join us, and enjoy some excellent company too?"

A year's subscription costs £32.

The Grand Purge begins

For some time I have been aware that, should I suddenly fall off my perch, my nearest and dearest will have to grapple with the task of sorting out my two workrooms. Both of which are piled high with back issues of magazines, ring-binders, box files and plastic crates stuffed with large brown envelopes labelled Ballooning, Boats, British Horse Society, Chandeliers, Cheese, Chefs etc.

Whether other writers have these vast accumulations, I don't know. But my heirs and successors would, quite reasonably, be tempted to dump the whole lot at the nearest waste paper tip.

So A Grand Purge is in progress and one of my post-supper tasks for the next few months is to go through five magazines, tearing out pages which might be bloggable.

Last night I exceeded the target and dealt with ten back issues of The Bookseller which yielded 23 pages/articles to be kept.

For example, in 1999 The Bookseller was running an excellent feature called Encounter consisting of Q&A interviews with well-known book world people.
I've saved six of these, five written by Joel Rickett. [See photo] More about them later.

More about Peter Owen

By a happy chance, one of the articles I found, in The Bookseller's 11 May 2001, issue, was headed "Peter Owen - a family affair Peter Owen says his eponymous firm, celebrating its 50th anniversary, needs Arts Council funding." This was also written by Joel Rickett, now deputy editor of The Bookseller.

The piece is illustrated with a picture of Mr Owen and his daughter Antonia Owen, then and now editorial director.

In the interview, Joel Ricket quotes Peter Owen as saying, "When I started, practically all books got reviewed almost everywhere. Now I suspect half the literary editors don't even look at them."


"The support given to libraries in this country is scandalous". He yearns for the time, writes Rickett, when library sales guaranteed the viability of most print runs. "You can sell as few as 200 copies of a new novel now. You used to be able to sell 2,000 of almost anything…Fewer books are being bought, I think. It is very tough selling books, because there's a lot of competition, not just in books, but from films,videos, magazines, television and everything else."

At the end of the article, his daughter takes a more optimistic view, pledging to publish more translated fiction. "We can publish for niches and we have more flexibility over print runs than conglomerates."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A beautiful face on Richard and Judy show

Last week I was half-watching Richard and Judy when a film clip of an extraordinarily beautiful face grabbed my full attention.

Don't judge Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie by the photo shown here. In the R& J clip she was far more ravishing. Which no doubt – the publishing world being the way it is today – is why her book Half Of A Yellow Sun is being promoted as a masterpiece.

Richard and Judy, and two guests who had also read it, went into raptures about it. Later I searched for Ms Adichie's website where I learned she was "born in Nigeria in 1977. She is from Abba, in Anambra State, but grew up in the university town of Nsukka where she attended primary and secondary schools and briefly studied Medicine and Pharmacy. She then moved to the United States to attend college, graduating summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State with a major in Communication and a minor in Political Science. She holds a Masters degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins."

It may be that Half Of A Yellow Sun is everything R&J and their guests claimed it is. But in that case why is the extract from the novel on Ms Adichie's site so un-riveting?

Here's a description of the book. "A masterly, haunting new novel from a writer heralded by The Washington Post Book World as "the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe," Half of a Yellow Sun recreates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria, and the chilling violence that followed. With astonishing empathy and the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the decade."

I wonder how many American and British readers are interested in what happened in Biafra more than 35 years ago? Yes, it was a "humanitarian catastrophe as Nigerian blockades stopped supplies from entering the region. Hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of people died in the resulting famine." But there have been a lot of humanitarian catastrophes in my lifetime, several happening now.

The site has an excerpt from the book but we're not told if it is the opening chapter. I hope it's not because, far from gripping the reader's attention, it lacks any of the elements required of a good first page.

Judge for yourself.

"Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair. Ugwu's aunty said this in a low voice as they walked on the path. "But he is a good man," she added. "And as long as you work well, you will eat well. You will even eat meat every day." She stopped to spit; the saliva left her mouth with a sucking sound and landed on the grass.
Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day. He did not disagree with his aunty, though, because he was too choked with expectation, too busy imagining his new life away from the village. They had been walking for a while now, since they got off the lorry at the motor park, and the afternoon sun burned the back of his neck. But he did not mind. He was prepared to walk hours more in even hotter sun. He had never seen anything like the streets that appeared after they went past the university gates, streets so smooth and tarred that he itched to lay his cheek down on them. He would never be able to describe to his sister Anulika how the bungalows here were painted the color of the sky and sat side by side like polite well-dressed men, how the hedges separating them were trimmed so flat on top that they looked like tables wrapped with leaves."

I see that Ms Adichie is to be one of the speakers at the forthcoming Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival at which anyone who's anyone in the publishing world will be speaking. The Festival runs from 20-25 March.

I'd love to go but can't make it. No doubt the Randolph Hotel where I stayed on my last visit to Oxford will be full of famous names. But perhaps not, Oxford being close to London.

Monday, March 19, 2007

"Percy has sold a staggering 4 million copies worldwide"

Also in today's blog
Inaccessible article on Loathing Jane

Yesterday we had a family Sunday lunch. While Mr Bookworm, an excellent cook, was busy in the kitchen, I had the pleasure of reading to my eldest grandson who already, at two and a half, shows signs of being a keen bookworm.

The story he had brought for me to read was one of Nick Butterworth's delightful Percy the Park Keeper adventures.

Yesterday's story - Percy's Bumpy Ride – was new to me. Here's a summary.

"Percy the park keeper has been busy in his workshop for days. As his animal friends try to guess what he is making, Percy suddenly emerges sitting on top of a very strange machine…his new lawn mower The animals jump aboard for what turns out to be a very bumpy ride when, unexpectedly, the mower takes off into the sky. They all enjoy the ride until the engine fails and the machine begins to fall down and down. But some sheep in the field below all gather together and provide a very soft, woolly landing for Percy and his animal friends. And Percy rewards the kind sheep – offering them the, still unmown, long grass in his park as a tasty treat."

Later, I went in seach of the author.

At his publisher's website, I learned that "Nick Butterworth was born in Kingsbury, North London in 1946, but moved to Romford in Essex with his parents at the age of three. They moved to run a sweet shop, so Nick found himself fulfilling every child's sugar-coated dream of growing up right inside the proverbial chocolate factory.

Having intended to go to art college after leaving school, Nick decided to take a job as a typographic designer in the printing department of the National Children's Home at the last minute instead. He went on to work for several major London design consultancies before moving into freelance graphics. He has also worked as a television presenter on the TV-AM children's programme Rub-a-Dub-Tub and produced a regular illustrated story called Upney Junction for the Sunday Express magazine. At present, Nick concentrates on writing and illustrating his phenomenally successful children's books.

Percy The Park Keeper first came to life in One Snowy Night in 1989, which The Sunday Times described as, 'a tremendous and well-deserved success' and The Independent called, 'a heart warming bedtime tale.' It wasn't just the reviewers who loved Percy and the world of his park - children, parents and teachers alike fell in love with the kind hearted park keeper. More Percy adventures followed and the range now includes 6 hardback books, paperbacks, audio tapes (read by Richard Briers) and a range of activity books. The latest Percy book, Percy's Bumpy Ride was published in October 1999."

Here's another quote I picked up. "A Percy book is bought every 15 minutes - not bad for an animal-loving park keeper!"

Inaccessible Telegraph article on Loathing Jane

Saturday's print edition of The Daily Telegraph came with a booklet called Explore : A User-Friendly Guide to The Telegraph Online.

Inside was a message from the newspaper's editor, William Lewis. It included this –

"All of you reading this will have heard about the internet, and many of you will know that this newspaper, with its familiar combination of innovation and reliability, has embraced the world of the web more comprehensively than any other national newspaper."

Sunday's issue included a feature "Jane Austen Showdown - Our greatest novelist - or joyless and provincial? Two writers lock horns over the inimitable, inescapable Ms Austen" including Loving Jane by Toby Young and Loathing Jane by Frances Wilson.

Since early yesterday morning I – and no doubt thousands of others - have been trying to access the Frances Wilson article, without success. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the Telegraph's website people to put this situation right.