Book Review: A Cage of Shadows

A Cage of Shadows, by Archie Hill, is an autobiographical account of the author’s troubled early life. He was raised in the Black Country during the depression of the 1930s, the eldest but one of eleven children. His father was an abusive alcoholic which exacerbated the family’s poverty. Archie nursed a rage against his home circumstances that moulded what he became. He had mentors in his father’s friends who taught him how to poach and steal food from farms and local woodlands. His admiration for these men, and the hatred of his father, never waned.

I rarely read autobiographies having been turned off the genre by numerous self-aggrandising celebrity memoirs, the proliferation of misery memoirs that followed the publication of Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt), and the questioning of the veracity of these and the likes of A Million Little Pieces (James Frey) and Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson). A Cage of Shadows was first published in 1973 so predates these works. It was also the subject of controversy when Archie’s mother successfully sued for libel resulting in a rewrite that removed most of the sections where she is mentioned. The version I review here is a reprint of the original, described now as a classic, which was critically acclaimed when first released.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of the story, what is portrayed is a life of bitter hardship that was endured by too many. With jobs hard to come by – three men ready to take any vacancy – worker safety and renumeration were pitifully scarce. Archie had part-time work in an iron foundry while still at school and describes the conditions that damaged the employees’ health. Throughout his childhood he dreamed of escape.

The hand to mouth existence – where Tally Men and Means Test Men wielded their small power like little dictators – was relieved by drink and savage entertainments. There were illegal cock fights, rat killing contests, and bets taken on bare knuckle fighting between the men. The vernacular comes across as authentic although some of the terms would now be deemed offensive. The camaradarie perhaps explains why some look back on such difficult times with a degree of affection.

Archie did eventually get out but it was not the escape of his dreams. He enjoyed a stint working the canals, briefly falling in love, before signing up for military service with the RAF. From here he joined the police but was by now struggling with alcoholism. He did time in prison, in mental asylums, and ended up a ragged vagrant in London’s underbelly.

Archie’s account of each of these experiences is told with unsentimental candour and a degree of self-reflection. Of his poaching he notes that wild animal killing was deemed acceptable by those in authority if done as a sport but not to feed starving families. The antics may rightly be frowned upon but this is life lived on a hard edge. Many of his problems may have been self-inflicted but when Archie fell he could find no safety net.

The writing is assured offering a window into a life that reminds readers of the truth behind what some still refer to as ‘the good old days’. It is intriguing for the insights given, the imaginative reuse and recycling, the petty thievery that enabled survival. Poignant in places and sometimes brutal but with certain attitudes that remain all too familiar. This is an account steeped in history worthy of contemporary reflection.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.

Book Review: Heroin Haikus

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Heroin Haikus, by William Wantling, was originally included with Spero #2 magazine as a ‘pouch-book’ and published by Fenian Head Centre Press in 1966. It was briefly available as part of Tangerine Press’s Sick Fly Series in 2014. Now Wantling’s miniature masterpiece is available to a wider audience. With reproductions of the original drawings by Ben Tibbs, including his iconic front cover design, this is a ten poem sequence on getting high, getting busted, cold turkey and jail. Wantling died of heart failure on May 2nd 1974, aged 40 years.

The haiku in this collection are each presented over three or four lines, so perhaps a looser rendition than is typical. They offer seventeen syllable commentaries on experiences the author has been through due to his drug habits.

I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness. As the form requires, the author conveys much in just a few sparse phrases. There is the desire of the addict, the disdain of the law enforcers, and regret. This regret is a yearning – for what has been lost, and for the next fix.

Whatever one’s views on drugs may be, this is a powerful window into the mind of an habitual user. It makes for thought-provoking reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.

Q&A with Tangerine Press

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Today I am delighted to welcome Michael from Tangerine Press to my blog. Tangerine is a London based independent publisher and bookbinder. They publish innovative, often maverick, titles in both trade paperback and hand bound limited edition formats. Please read on to find out more about a press that produces books as objects of beauty, as well as being excellent reads.

1. Why did you decide to set up Tangerine?

For the full story, we could go way back to 1996 when I ran a book mail order company called Tangerine Books, out of a little office in Battersea, south London. It was on an industrial estate, very cheap and I ended up living there too. I had a second job all that time in Elephant & Castle, spinning financial plates in other words. TB didn’t work out so in the summer of ’98 I threw the pc and hundreds of unread catalogues into a skip and entered the construction industry. But the literary itch was still there. Tangerine Press was founded in 2006. The initial impetus was a desire to publish new, neglected and innovative writing by authors I was interested in and felt weren’t getting the exposure they deserved. But I didn’t want Tangerine to be just another independent press, in the sense that it would churn out paperbacks or ebooks. I was a self-employed carpenter for 16 years immediately prior to going full-time with the press in 2013, so I was used to making things from scratch. Likewise, I was an avid reader, a consumer of books. One day I thought: why not combine these two passions, actually bind the books myself and present the work in the best way possible?

2. What sort of books do you want to publish?

I want to publish books that have a boldness and originality of style. By that I mean the quite often heavily autobiographical, maverick element to much of the writing. That ranges from Tangerine’s most recent release The Glue Ponys by author/painter Chris Wilson, a short story collection about homelessness, addiction and prison, through to reissues of modern ‘lost classics’ like A Cage of Shadows by Archie Hill, to be published next year. I have been very fortunate in that sense. Just look at the press’s list: William Wantling, James Kelman, Billy Childish, Akiko Yosano, Iain Sinclair, many others and more to come.

3. How do you go about finding and signing authors? 

It’s all down to constant research. Hardly any signings come from unsolicited manuscripts or through agents. In other words, it entails reading, reading, reading. Listening, too: specifically to people who’s opinions I value. See what stirs them up. They are not necessarily other publishers or writers; a lot of the time they are friends from my days in the building game. On occasion, a regular collector of Tangerine publications will suggest something and I will investigate. Then it’s a case of approaching the author (or the estate if they are no longer with us), explaining how Tangerine works and, if they are happy with that, we formalise everything.

4. Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out?

Marketing is a lumbering, cruel giant which all publishers are trying to tame. Some days you can throw down a rotting carcass and it will embarrass you by gobbling it up. Other times you saunter along with a silver salver, present a prime cut with all the trimmings and it will turn up its nose.

5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

I agree: the indie publishing scene is extremely vibrant at the present time and doing wonderful things with gifted writers, catering to most tastes as far as I can see. Tangerine is a little different to the others in that I am a bookbinder too and therefore put out hardcover, signed limited editions in tandem with more readily available trade paperbacks. Along with all the other unusual chapbooks, prints, artwork, broadsides, random gifts that the press produces, Tangerine has found a corner it can fight for.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

This is a hard one to answer. The bottom line is a book has got to be something people want, something they feel they will be missing out on if they don’t buy it. That is especially true for an indie press, who has to determine its target audience – its identity in other words. With Tangerine I focus on what could be described as maverick or counterculture writing. No major poetry publisher would even consider putting out a collection by William Wantling, for example, despite his work being on a par and often superior to that of Charles Bukowski, the most widely read poet in the world (so we’re told). My initial thought, therefore, is to say ‘totally original’ but there can be a slight blurring of the lines. Latest trends can become original with time, is what I mean. As long as the work has integrity and written with passion and conviction, and backed up by a publisher who believes in what they are presenting to the reading public, you can sell a book to your target audience no question.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

It’s always hard copies with Tangerine. But I do want to say something else here. There is an assumption that because I am a bookbinder as well as a publisher that I am anti ebooks. Absolutely not true. It’s all about co-existence. What is best for the individual. You can read a great poem on a piece of toilet paper or from a handbound book and the words will have the same impact. But I believe a physical book makes for a much more rewarding experience. The idea that not just the writer but also the binder/publisher has put thought and care into the production of the book is a powerful feeling and deep rooted in our psyche. The truth is, I find ebooks incredibly dull and uninteresting as a format. They are paper oriented, you still have to ‘turn’ the page. The device itself is book shaped, weighs the same as most books and you still have to carry it about in a bag. And the battery will run out and need to be charged, you cannot share it with your friends when you have finished and, the final insult, it’s not even yours to own in the first place. An inferior book in other words. When an innovative platform comes along and takes things to a new level, then I will become interested. But only as a supplement to physical books.

8. Do you consider Tangerine to be niche or mainstream?

I would prefer to say Tangerine is underground but occasionally goes overground.

9. Collaborative or dictatorial?

Collaborative every time, but with firm opinions given. There’s a flexing of muscles at the start of a project, when writer and publisher jostle for position, stake out their territory, their limits, their character. Once that is over, we get to the part I particularly enjoy, when you begin to shape the book into a publishable form. Incredibly rewarding. Editing and going through the manuscript for James Kelman’s A Lean Third story collection was especially satisfying. He is my favourite living writer and a man I have admired greatly for many years. His passion and commitment to his art. He doesn’t take any crap either, you know exactly where you stand with him. I guess I could be seen to be dictatorial when it comes to design and materials for the book itself, but I always check with writers with this side of things, and am always listening. A good example of this is a recent discussion about artwork for Iain Sinclair’s new book My Favourite London Devils. Dave McKean has been commissioned to produce original illustrations for this, which is all very exciting. But ultimately Tangerine has a certain aesthetic, a continuity of style so anyone who gets involved with the press should be well aware of that. I occasionally collaborate with other like-minded folks, for example with the remarkable ‘Poems-for-All’ series and L-13 Light Industrial Workshop.

10. Plans for the future?

To keep putting out great writing in the best way I can. I would like to be in a position where I can publish at least six main titles a year. By that I mean, books I can bind limited edition of and release them in tandem with readily available paperbacks. At the moment I put out many unusual chapbooks, prints, new year greetings, etc. I really want to be able to continue that too, it helps make Tangerine even more unique.

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Thank you Michael for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about this small press, including details of their books, on their website by clicking here: Tangerine Press: bookbinding, limited edition

Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter:Tangerine Press (@TangerinePress)

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If you are an independent publisher and would like to be included in this series please check out my introductory post: Shout Out to Independent Publishers

Book Review: The Glue Ponys

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“one way or another, they all been robbed of something precious, and the crazy thing is, most of them don’t even know”

The Glue Ponys, by Chris Wilson, is a collection of short stories featuring characters that most know exist but whose well-being is rarely considered, even by themselves. They are the drug users, the pimps and prostitutes, the convicts and degenerates who live within the cracks of modern society. These people are also human beings, even if they do eschew the lifestyle to which most others aspire. Not for them low paid work and a struggle to rent a decent place in which to live. They have discovered heroin, and do whatever it takes to chemically get by.

The author lived on the streets, used drugs and has done time in prison in the USA. Knowing this adds an authenticity to the tales he weaves. The narrative is crude and direct; the tone matter of fact, almost unsympathetic; yet the pictures conjured by his words are darkly poetic. There is little of beauty in these lives. The rawness evoked is viscerally felt.

The characters in each story have chosen to live their lives this way, although perhaps because they can foresee no acceptable alternative. They watch as their peers die young, of overdose or user related illness. Death is a fact of life to which they appear numbed.

Yet each of them once had a childhood. These backgrounds are too often filled with years of abuse from which they escaped. They have achieved a kind of self destructive control. They risk jail, but know what it takes to get by. They live each day from one hit to the next.

There are thirty-one stories in the collection, most only a few pages long. The vignettes are set around freeways, in shelters, broken cars, cheap motels and on the downtown streets of San Francisco. Sex is a commodity, drugs a way of life. They form bonds and help each other out, then walk away with whatever they can take for themselves.

The first tale, ‘The Lieutenant’, tells of two thirty year old children, the last survivors of a band of misfits drawn from the four corners of the globe to care for a Vietnam veteran in order to share the drugs bought with his VA checks and social security payments. When the veteran dies these two put the body in a cupboard, wrapping it up in plastic bags and duct tape. They then continue to cash his cheques and inject.

The final tale, ‘The Mummy’, tells of a heroin user who breaks into a house to pilfer goods to sell. He comes across a body, muses over the man’s life and why nobody has noticed his death:

“you’ve probably been here about a week and not a soul has seemed to miss you. In fact, you could be me, I realised. Yes, we have something in common, but I earned my fate. I wonder what you did to be of no consequence or meaning to anybody else in the world.”

In between are stories of those who make money from supposedly respectable, tax paying citizens who cruise the streets looking to buy their own drugs and sex. When the providers have learned young that their bodies can be taken by others, it is more understandable why they choose to use them to profit themselves.

These tales provide thought provoking, challenging reading. Few wish to tackle the causes of the problem lives explored, much easier to berate those who end up this way. The Glue Ponys offers the opportunity to better understand. The writing is succinct, vivid, with an articulacy that demands consideration. It is a powerful reminder: we too are here.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.