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The World Turned Upside Down And Back Again

In which a book of history is the start of a thread back to the present


A while ago now, I bought a book, and predicted that it would quickly go on the Books I Haven’t Read list. Well, seven months later or so, I’m pleased to say it’s finished, and moreover, it sparked off a desire to read and know more. The book in question – if you didn’t follow the link – is The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill.

Hill is popularly known as something of a “Marxist” historian. It’s hard to judge, on the strength of one book, whether or not that’s true. Certainly, it’s not a book of armies and battles; or of great men and events, at least not the men whose names are still widely remembered. It is, instead, a book which examines the effects of those events on ordinary people. The events of the 1640s, whether you call them the “Civil Wars”, the “English Revolution”, or the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”, gave ordinary people the opportunity to participate in political debate for the first time, and for a brief period, made it possible for radical politics to firstly define itself and secondly enter the mainstream.* Before the reassertion, first by Cromwell, later by Monck and Charles II, of military-monarchical power, various groups of Puritans, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and Ranters were given the chance to express themselves and posit alternative forms of religious and/or social organisation and growth. It’s hard for an ordinary unlearned like me to distinguish between them all, and understand the fine differences of policy between people such as Gerrard Winstanley, John Warr, George Fox, James Nayler and Abiezer Coppe. And what great names they have! How many people do you know, nowadays, with a name like “Abiezer Coppe”?

The 1640s and 50s are not, as I said, a period I know much about. I know there was a complex series of wars through the British Isles, that Charles II hid in a tree, and that Oliver Cromwell died, but still managed to get himself hanged afterwards – not to mention, his head stuck on a pole, of course. But really, that’s about it. I have a little idea about a few other things: the men of Hull meeting at the White Harte pub and barring the king’s entry, for example; or James Nayler, the leader of the Quakers, comparing himself to Christ by entering Bristol on a donkey; but I know they are all just isolated scenes from a complex series of physical and mental wars. And, to be honest, reading The World Turned Upside Down hasn’t tidied up my knowledge of the period, because, as I said, it’s not that sort of book. It has on the other hand given me an eye into what ordinary people were doing and thinking, and what they felt able to say once the dead hand of government censorship was lifted from the presses.

It made me think of a book I’d like to write, and made me wonder how to start going about writing it. Regular readers might remember that last month we popped down to London for the London Zine Symposium; and were slightly disappointed by a talk on zine libraries and archiving. I particularly remember, during that talk, an audience member asking when zines originated; and the panel all giving wrong and misleading answers. One said they started with punk; another said they started in the 60s. In actual fact, the word “fanzine” comes from the science fiction scene of the 30s and 40s; but the idea of the amateur press goes back a lot longer than that.

That panel included people who thought that zines are intrinsically political; or, rather, that a self-published “zine” which doesn’t embrace radical politics isn’t actually a zine at all.** The people who hold that opinion also tended, I noticed, to be the ones who didn’t think zines existed before punk zines appeared. They would, I assume, be completely unaware that the radical self-publishing scene first established itself in the 1640s, when England first gained press freedom. The political pamphlets published then by the people Hill wrote about are, in essence, the direct ancestor of the punk zines of the 1970s or the Riot Grrrl zines of the 1990s.

So, then, this is the book I’d like to write. A history of radical self-publishing, starting in the 1640s, going through the French Revolution, Chartism, and ending up with punk, Riot Grrrl and anticapitalist zines. The only problem is, I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of those topics to actually write it. I can see there the common thread, but I don’t have enough in my head to put flesh on the bones. The World Turned Upside Down, though, has shown me that there’s something there, that if only I had the time to investigate the existing material available discussing 17th-century pamphleteers, I could come up with something interesting.

* Much as the French Revolution, or rahter, the events preceding it, did 150 years later; which is probably why the term “English Revolution” was retrospectively applied in the last century. At least I’ve managed to relegate Robespierre, Mirabeau and co. to a footnote this time.

** like this person who read my thoughts on the topic and disagreed.

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Symposium

In which DIY is the only way


It had been a while since I’d been to London. We stumbled out of bed early to get to the Zine Symposium, to give us time to get to the station and get the first London train of a Bank Holiday Sunday. The guard didn’t bother to unlock the whole train; he unlocked one door and stood by it, so he could manage the queuing passengers and let us wander along the inside to find our seats.

It didn’t take long to get there; none of the “Bank Holiday Travel Chaos!” that the media loves. We nipped across to the Underground platforms,* before trundling across town to Spitalfields, where the symposium was being held. Beforehand, we explored a bit of the area, from the fashionable and gentrified Old Spitalfields Market to the more traditional junk stalls at the north end of Brick Lane. We squeezed through the Sunday market crowds, as a couple of construction workers looked down on us from atop the bare concrete of the new railway bridge there.

The Zine Symposium was, when we found it, even more crowded than the market had been, a crowd of independent-minded people squeezing between stalls and studying what was on offer. We rather liked the sound of one of the symposium talks, on the problems of running zine libraries; unfortunately, it seemed to be the weekend for promising-but-disappointing discussions. There was little on the distinctive and problematic aspects of zine libraries, like archival, conservation or cataloguing; and it was dominated by a chap called Chris from the 56a Infoshop, who had originally been planning to talk about a different topic, and largely did just that. He started with an extremely narrow-minded and prescriptive view of “zine culture” and worked from there: zines must be radical, political and ephemeral, and therefore “institutions” such as public or university libraries** should be discouraged from collecting them. This is a slightly tricky position for the curator of a zine library to hold; I was left with the impression that he only approved of libraries that he could be in charge of.

On reflection, though, there was a strong link with the class hegemony of the previous day – a stronger link than “disappointment”, I mean. Chris Of 56A disapproves strongly of anybody making money from zines, of zine-writers becoming publishers, or trying to do anything resembling a career with it. Which, essentially, is an extremely aristocratic position.*** Writing is only socially acceptable, in radical/anarchist society, if you have enough time and money to be an amateur writer, because any other approach would be a betrayal of your assumed values. It’s an interesting complement to Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie‘s “who can afford to be an art worker?” approach.

More importantly, though, Chris’s view was completely contradicted by the rest of the symposium itself, a broad range of stalls from all corners of self-publishing. Serious tracts on politics and anarchy rubbed shoulders with silly cartoons; touching memoirs next to artists’ books and prints. Much, indeed, was not too dissimilar to things we’d seen at the Bristol Artists’ Book Event a month before. I avoided the Serious Political Zines but did go for the Serious Political Vegan Cake (Lemon & Ginger Variety), which was very tasty indeed, but did in one aspect leave me slightly worried. I’m not entirely sure what the Serious Political Vegans are going to think of us submitting a dairy-heavy cake recipe to the Symposium Zine.

Full of cake, and with rather less cash on us, we escaped from the throng of zine-fans. It was a very enjoyable event, despite the politicising; and hopefully next time we go back we’ll have things to sell ourselves. We disappeared away down Brick Lane, and went off to explore some more of London.

* of the former Bishop’s Road station, Underground fact lovers

** even somewhere like The Women’s Library, which I would have thought sufficiently radical, but which Chris specifically mentioned as being tainted by institutionality. I wondered if he had a specific gripe.

*** Compare with pre-revolutionary France, where it was perfectly acceptable for aristocrats to have craftsman-like hobbies. Louis XVI’s favourite hobby apart from hunting, for example, was locksmithing. If any aristocrats actually needed to make money from crafts or trade, though, they might suffer the penalty of dérogeance, or, being stripped of their title and status.

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Bouncing Off

In which we wonder if an editor might help


Mike Troubled Diva recently posted a set of lecture notes on: going from blog to book. It’s an interesting read, and touches on one element that I, struggling to come up with something to put down on screen, have been thinking about a lot lately. If you’re a blogger, you don’t have anyone to restrain you, or point you in the right direction.

Watch any TV show, more or less, and you’ll see “Script editor” in the credits. Comic books and graphic novels, too, will often have a script editor credited somewhere. Books don’t usually mention it – books don’t have credits – but pretty much anything published in the traditional way will have been mangled by an editor at some point, and usually much improved in the process. It’s an old adage that the reason famous writers’ books get worse with time is that they gain enough earning power to tell the editor to stop. Look at how JK Rowling’s books have got slower, baggier and less well-paced over time.*

This blog is (on the whole) completely unpaced, unstructured, rambling and undirected, with frayed edges where there are parts missing, things I should have written but didn’t, stories I left hanging in midair. Most of the individual posts are that way, too. Because I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off, to poke me, to say: “why don’t you write about X” or “why don’t you post that today, that next week?” There’s no one to say “that post was rubbish!”** Maybe, if this blog did have a script editor, it would be a rather better-quality one. I’m not sure what would happen to its frayed edges, though. I rather like a frayed edge now and again.

* Especially the big jump in length and pacing between books 1-3 and 4-7.

** The plain people of the internet, all together in chorus: “One … Two … Three … THIS POST IS RUBBISH!”

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