“A merry life and a short one”
When I mentioned to a friend that The Irish Times wanted me to write a piece about Tangerine Press, they said: “What is there to say? It’s all about the writers, surely?” They were right, of course. A publisher’s priority is to do the work justice. Not let design or marketing ginmicks overshadow the words within. But my friend was missing something. There is plenty to say about the press and the following is just a hint of the choppy literary waters the good ship Tangerine has sailed over the last 10 years.
The foundations of Tangerine Press were built on shattered dreams. To understand that, we need to go way back to 1996 when I ran Tangerine Books – a book mail order company specialising in countercultural oddities – out of a little office in Battersea, south London. It was located on an industrial estate, very cheap, and I ended up living there too. I relished the isolation, the constant reading and researching of new books to list in catalogues. It seemed never ending but that did not put me off. On the contrary, the knowledge that I would never know it all – yet strive for it – was the most gloriously liberating feeling.
But I had to be practical too, pay the bills. A second job helped with that: airplane cleaner at Heathrow, kitchen porter in seedy west London hotels, telephone surveys for a firm in Elephant & Castle. Spinning financial plates in other words. I was slowly going out of my mind. Tangerine Books 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. Becoming a carpenter meant discovering the joy of making things from scratch, in between being screwed over by pitiful excuses for humanity who went to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying you money.
But the literary itch was still there: I was consuming books, often finishing whole novels in one sitting. One day I thought: why not combine these two passions? Use the practical skills I had picked up from the building game, make the books myself and present the work in the best way possible? So I sought out and found an ancient master of the bookbinding arts, a wise man from south London, where I live. His methods were extraordinary, unheard of in the more traditional binding circles. Stitching sections blindfolded, for example. He was like an Obi-Wan Kenobi relocated to Figges Marsh.
Those years as a self-employed carpenter had not been wasted and proved invaluable from a business point of view as well: dealing with bastards and constantly hustling for work. Likewise, I was still reading like mad. Now I had the bookbinding skills. All I needed were writers I wanted to publish.
For two years I waited. I had long been an admirer of the lost and forgotten US poet William Wantling (1933-1974). A contemporary of Charles Bukowski – with whom he had an unusual and ultimately destructive friendship – Wantling was an ex-marine who saw action in Korea, an ex-junkie who ended up serving 5½ years in San Quentin and was a university lecturer when he died of heart failure on May 2nd, 1974. He was widely published in the lively “small press” scene of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as attracting the attention of prominent literary figures such as Edward Lucie-Smith, Walter Lowenfels and Cyril Connolly. Here was my writer! Under my nose all that time. I am eternally grateful to a man I shall never meet.
A two-volume celebration of Wantling’s work came out in 2008 and is long out of print. A definitive collection, In the Enemy Camp, was published in 2015, with a foreword by Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth, Ecstatic Peace!, etc) and an enlightening introduction by Dr John Osborne. Please check it out, you will not be disappointed.
Tangerine Press’s mission over the last 10 years has been 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. That is where the bookbinding comes in.
Whilst the press focuses on what could be described as maverick or counterculture writing, what makes it even more unique is the publishing of handbound, hardcover signed limited editions, in tandem with more readily available paperbacks. Along with all the other unusual chapbooks, prints, artwork, broadsides and random gifts that the press produces, Tangerine has found a corner it can fight for.
There is an assumption that because I am a publisher who happens to also be a bookbinder, 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, off a screen 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 product 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.
Running an indie press like Tangerine means I get to follow the whole publishing process, which is incredibly rewarding. Right from the flexing of muscles at the start of a project, where 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. Editing and going through the manuscript for James Kelman’s A Lean Third story collection was especially satisfying. He is a man I have admired greatly for many years: his passion and commitment to his art.
Other books can be more traumatic. Working with Billy Childish on his first book with Tangerine, for example. Billy is dyslexic and likes to keep the spelling (or lack of it) as written by himself. Subsequently, the large poetry collection The Uncorrected Billy Childish nearly blew my head off. I started to mistrust my own grip on the English language, double-taking and doubting everything else I was reading. I was driving through red lights, pissing in my wardrobe. Insane. Fortunately, I had contact with an understanding masseuse at the time, which helped greatly.
Then there’s the design of the book itself: what cloth to use, what acid-free text papers and endpapers will work best, creating a title page, foil embossing the cases, and so on. I always check with writers for their approval, 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 was commissioned to produce original illustrations for this, which is all very exciting.
Once the book is bound and the paperbacks are ready to go, the marketing begins. This aspect of publishing is a great mystery, utterly unpredictable: a lumbering, cruel giant which we are all trying to tame. Perhaps the less said about it the better.
The future of Tangerine as I see it is to keep putting out great writing in the best way I can. The list so far is something I am very proud of: Wantling, Kelman, Childish, Sinclair, Akiko Yosano, right through to new writers like the extraordinary talent that is author/painter Chris Wilson. And there is so much more to come, including reissues of “lost modern classics” like Archie Hills’ A Cage of Shadows. Ultimately, I would like to be in a position where I can publish at least six main titles a year, following the limited edition/paperback model that has become Tangerine’s backbone. It’s a merry life alright, like Bart Roberts says. But, looking at the press’s schedule, not so short.