A week or so ago I found, courtesy of MarshaWrites on twitter, a wonderful competition asking people to say what they would do with one hour in London. I was instantly cast back to one of the very favourite posts I've ever written, detailing one such hour I spent in the company of the wonderful Sabina England. It occurred to me how odd it was to PLAN a magical hour in London. True magic never happens through planning. It is spontaneous...
As I found myself musing last week during a second such hour, spent in the company of the lovely people at To Hell With Books, about whom I wrote a week or so ago. We were lounging in a wonderful basement space, on a decrepit button-back sofa, books strewn across a concrete floor, laptops akimbo amid piles of beer bottles, limited edition photographs and an Andy Warhol poster to die for on the walls. Lucy, one of the brains behind To Hell With Publishing, the fantastic venture that spawned To Hell With Books, was reminiscing over an impromptu poetry reading in the upstairs room of some seedy bar or other.
I'd come to London to arrange the Year Zero Live gig in Brick Lane, and wanted to take the opportunity to check out To Hell With Books. Sadly, I was diverted to Cecil Court, and the sister shop, Amuti 23. It seems there was a problem with the shelving supplier. From my days running luxury flooring showrooms I can sympathise.
I was expecting to walk into one of the myriad stuffy rare print shops that line Cecil Court where you daren't put your nose to the window unless you're wearing tailored tweeds. When I stuck my head inside the door to be greeted with a mix of concrete and chaos and unspeakably cool prints and artefacts (one of the Stone Roses' paint-splattered hats from THAT photoshoot), I had to double-take.
There was a staircase into the shell of a bunker-space, where two chilled-out people with laptops were surfing around.
They both looked up and flashed warm, possibly slightly hungover smiles.
"Is one of you Emma?" I asked.
"Hey," said Emma. "You must be Dan."
By the time I was downstairs Lucy had cleared a slew of books from the sofa to make a lovely comfy snug, and we spent the next hour burbling about pretty much anything and everything to do with books and writing, and the arts, and what was right and what was wrong and what was hot and what was cool; and occasionally Laurence - a lovely chap (lovely being the generic term for well-framed men with beards :p) with a penchant for insightful, sardonic one-liners - would come off the phone long enough to move the enthusing in some unexpecetd, anecdotal direction.
We talked about the amazing special ed of Kevin Cummins' book of Manchester photos that comes in a box held together with glue used in Formula One Cars; we talked about Andy Warhol; we talked about how to represent performance poetry on the page and crossovers betweenm literature and other arts; we talked about new writing and DBC Pierre.
And we talked about their fantastic To Hell With First Novels imprint, whose first book, Grant Gillespie's The Cuckoo Boy, is out next Spring. Sounding like something John Updike or David Lynch might do if the got their hands on the Wasp Factory, it goes top of my "to be bought in 2010" list. There are lots of things I like about the imprint - that it takes submissions direct; that it's for first novels of literary fiction (if I'd known about them before Year Zero, I may have been tempted to chance my arm); that its cover design philosophy sounds bang on what mine would be. But what I like best is that it's a one book deal. The aim is to bring brilliant writers to the wider public, not to tie them into long deals that will stultify their style and leave them in literary pre-pubescence.
Like all the best hours with strangers (well, the ones that don't involve hotels that charge day-only rates, anyway), it felt like I'd spent a whole day with people I'd known all my life. I wondered when I read about To Hell With Books whether the reality would live up to the hype. As Emma and I swapped e-mails my fears subsided and my expectations grew. Meeting her and Lucy and Laurence, I very much get the sense the reality is better than the hype.
I look forward to going back in the New Year and finally seeing the new shop. And, everything crossed, arranging a Year Zero Live gig with them.
And I'll leave you with a thought, an observation. The literary internet is full of people who moan about the current state of affairs, of writers who bewail the lack of openings, of publishers who fear for the future, of agents who live in fear of zero-advance deals. It's full of people who scaremonger lots and talk more. The more I getout into the actual world of independent arts, and hang out with people like these guys, like Sabina, like Nikesh and Nikki Loy, and everyone at Year Zero, the more I realise there's a whole world of people out there who don't bother complaining about the gloomy future - they're too busy creating a bright one for themselves.