Thursday, 2 December 2010

Unknowable But Certainly Certain

One of the side benefits of watching ITV’s recent upstairs downstairs reinvention, Downton Abbey, was finding out why the upper classes used to like their newspapers ironed. There was me thinking it was to get the creases out while all the time it was to dry the ink. Can’t have his Lordship’s hands black, can we. Not that papers are like this now. New technology delivers almost dry ink to creaseless paper and does so at satisfyingly high speed. Books come off the presses more or less the same way. Clean, crisp, ready bound and, other than perhaps in their content, vaguely soulless. When was the last time you picked up a paperback from the racks at WH Smith and marvelled at how it felt? Checked that the margins were large enough to accommodate your thumbs, that the text did not vanish into the binding, that the paper looked paper and not packaging, and that the print was instantly legible, evenly done and with lots of space for the tired eye?

When books were produced by letterpress they were all like this. The text set backwards and then inked with a roller and pressed onto quarto paper. Books were slow coming into being and done by hand. The text was measured, edited to clarity, all waste removed. Now you wordily key it up as a computer file and the everything gets printed. Fat fast books when thin slow ones would obviously be better.

But a few old-style outposts remain. David Oprava, the genial larger-than-life American poet now settled in south Wales, sent me Sole, his latest collection. It’s full of intelligent, measured verse rich in William Carlos Williams’s American speech. There are poems on family, childhood, love, life and how the world works. A joy. Sole is also beautifully produced, hand letterpressed by Blackheath books in Narberth, Pembrokeshire. Hardly publishing’s epicentre.

The press was set up five years ago by Geraint Hughes as a reaction to blogging and podcasting and the closure of things this publisher felt dear. Local bookshops being one. Blackheath goes back to basics. No grant aid. Small, slow. Limited runs of chapbooks by mainly new writers individually sold directly by the publisher. Blackheath uses recycled paper and handbinding. Copies are all numbered and signed. They probably use a stack of housebricks to keep their pages flat. Nothing sells for more than ten pound. Geraint says he loves the smell of ink and the sound of the press.

With a couple of exceptions his list reads like a left-field roll call from Mars. New territory and worth following. There are books from Jonathan Grace, Benjamin Donnelly, Garrie Fletcher, Ptolemy Elrington, Adelle Stripe, and other newcomers. One exception is Blackheath’s edition of Billy Childish’s Unknowable But Certain. Check them at www.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #175

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