A Publisher Party and a One-Man Play

I was a veritable social butterfly this past week: I went out two evenings in a row! (Believe me, that’s rare.) On Tuesday I met up with bloggers Annabel, Eric and Kim at the Faber Spring Party held at Crypt on the Green in London, and on Wednesday my husband and I attended a performance at the University of Reading of Michael Mears’s one-man play on the plight of Britain’s conscientious objectors during World War I, This Evil Thing.


Faber Spring Party

I’ve never been to an event quite like this. Publisher Faber & Faber, which will be celebrating its 90th birthday in 2019, previewed its major releases through to September. Most of the attendees seemed to be booksellers and publishing insiders. Drinks were on a buffet table at the back; books were on a buffet table along the side. Glass of champagne in hand, it was time to plunder the free books on offer. I ended up taking one of everything, with the exception of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy: I couldn’t make it through Outline and am not keen enough on her writing to get an advanced copy of Kudos, but figured I might give her another try with the middle book, Transit.

For the evening’s presentation, each featured author had a few minutes to introduce their new book and/or give a short reading.

Rachel Cusk opened the evening with a reading from Kudos. If you’re familiar with her recent work, you won’t be surprised at this synopsis: a man on a plane recounts having his dog put to sleep. (Out on May 3rd.)

William Atkins’s book on deserts, The Immeasurable World, is based on three years of travel and is, he is not ashamed to say, in the old-fashioned travel writing tradition. (Out on June 7th.)

Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is a hybrid work of poem-essays. #2 is more philosophical, she said; #3 is about her father’s death and her son’s birth. She read sonnet 3.21. (Out now.)

Clémentine Beauvais’s In Paris with You is a YA romance in free verse, loosely based on Eugene Onegin. I don’t know the source text but started this on the train ride home and it’s enjoyable thus far. I’m in awe at how translator Sam Taylor has taken the French of her Songe à la douceur and turned it into English poetry. (Out on June 7th.)

Chris Power’s Mothers is a book of linked short stories, three of which are about a character named Eva. He read a portion of a story about her having an encounter with an unpleasant man in Innsbruck. (Out on March 1st.)

Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains, set in 1923–50, is a saga that resembles “an Italian Mother Courage,” she says. She read a scene in which a character comes across a madwoman. (Out on April 5th.)

Zaffar Kunial read the poem “Spark Hill” from his forthcoming collection Us. It’s about a childhood fight in the area of Birmingham where he grew up. He had a folder open in front of him but, impressively, recited the long poem completely from memory. (Out on July 5th.)

American novelist Benjamin Markovits was a professional basketball player in Germany for six months. Like the tennis-playing protagonist of his upcoming book, A Weekend in New York, he got tired of being measured. After 15 years, his hero is eager to escape a life of being constantly ranked. This is the first in a quartet of novels that inevitably invites comparison with John Updike’s “Rabbit” books. (Out on June 7th.)

I confess I didn’t previously know the name Viv Albertine; she was the guitarist for the female punk band The Slits, and To Throw Away Unopened is her second memoir. Albertine realized that it was her mother who had made her an angry rebel; the title is the label on a bag she found in her mother’s room after her death. (Out on April 5th.)

Sophie Collins incorporates hybrid forms in her poetry – what she calls “lyric essays.” The theme of her book Who Is Mary Sue? is perceptions of women’s writing (with “Mary Sue” as a metonym for the stereotypical good girl). She read from “Engine.” (Out now.)

Katharine Kilalea’s debut novel Ok, Mr Field is about an injured concert pianist who becomes obsessed with a house he buys in South Africa. (Out on June 7th.)

Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates are the authors of two Homework for Grown-Ups books. Their new book, What Would Boudicca Do?, is about lessons we can draw from the women of history. For instance, the sampler booklet has pieces called “Dorothy Parker and Handling Jerks” and “Frida Kahlo and Finding Your Style.” There’s a heck of a lot of books like this out this year, though, and I’m not so sure this one will stand out. (Out on September 6th.)

Richard Scott read two amazingly intimate poems from his upcoming collection, Soho. One, “cover-boys,” was about top-shelf gay porn; the other was about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum. If you appreciated Andrew McMillan’s Physical, you need to get hold of this the second it comes out. I went back and read “cover-boys” in the sampler booklet and it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it was aloud; Scott’s reading really brought it to life, in contrast to some other authors’ dull delivery. (Out on April 5th.)

Sue Prideaux’s forthcoming biography of Friedrich Nietzsche is entitled I Am Dynamite! She encountered her subject when she wrote her first biography, of Edvard Munch. Although Nietzsche has been embraced by far-right groups in America, he was in fact against racism, nationalism, and anti-semitism, so he has important messages for us today. I’ll be keen to get hold of this one. (Out on September 6th.)

Guitar in hand, Willy Vlautin closed the evening with a performance of the title track from the soundtrack album to his fifth novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me – he was the singer in Portland, Oregon alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, which has recently stopped touring. He said the novel asks, “can you make the scars of broken people bearable?” (Out now.)

Now that I’ve got this terrific stack of books, wherever do I start?! I’m currently reading the Beauvais; from there I’ll focus on ones that have already been released, starting with Vlautin and the two poetry collections. The titles that aren’t out until June can probably wait – though it’s tempting to be one of the privileged few who get to read them nearly four months early. One Faber book per week should see me getting through all these by the final release date.


This Evil Thing

Michael Mears plays about 50 different characters in this one-man production. He’s an actor and pacifist who has written a number of solo pieces over 20 years. In this commemorative year of the end of the First World War, he knew we would hear a lot about battles, soldiers, and their families back home. But conscientious objectors weren’t likely to be remembered: theirs is a “story that’s rarely told,” he realized. This Evil Thing sets out to correct that omission. The title phrase refers not to war in general but specifically to conscription.

The two main characters Mears keeps coming back to in the course of the play are Bert Brocklesby, a Yorkshire preacher, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Brocklesby refused to fight and, when he and other COs were shipped off to France anyway, resisted doing any work that supported the war effort, even peeling the potatoes that would be fed to soldiers. He and his fellow COs were beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and threatened with execution. Meanwhile, Russell and others in the No-Conscription Fellowship fought for their rights back in London. There’s a wonderful scene in the play where Russell, clad in nothing but a towel after a skinny dip, pleads with Prime Minister Asquith.

As in solo shows I’ve seen before (e.g. A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart), Mears had to find subtle ways to distinguish between characters: he used a myriad different voices, including regional accents; he quickly donned a jacket, hat, or pair of glasses. Russell was identified by his ever-present pipe. The most challenging scene, Mears said in the Q&A at the end, was one with four characters in a French street café.

Mears reveals during the play that his grandfather fought in WWI and his father in WWII, but he has never had to put his own pacifist views to the test. What about Hitler? people always ask. Mears is honest and humble enough to admit that he doesn’t know what he would have done had he been called on to fight Hitler, or had he faced persecution as a CO in WWI. Ultimately, what Mears hopes audiences take from his play, which won acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is that “this is not an irrelevant piece of history.” Standing up for what you believe in, especially if it goes against the spirit of the times, is always valuable.

21 responses

  1. Love the idea of the books being on the buffet table! I enjoyed Lean On Pete very much so will be looking out for the Vlautin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You probably went to many such events in your time, but it was a first for me. I had a kid in a candy shop sort of feeling with all those books! Whereas most people were restrained and just picked up the two or three they thought they might find interesting.

      I’m sure you know there was recently a film version made of Lean on Pete. I have heard the most about The Free. This new one will be my first from Vlautin.


      1. I hope you enjoy it, Rebecca. You’re quite right, I did go to a lot of these showcases but I still remember my first. I was astonished at the speed at which the books on offer disappeared but I soon learned not to be so slow off the mark!


    2. I took my lead from Annabel: as soon as we’d bagged a table it was off to the book buffet! They had limited proof copies of certain titles, so it was a good idea to snatch them up right away.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A book buffet is my kind of buffet! Looks like a great selection of books and an entertaining event (*hint hint* to anyone from Faber & Faber reading this!) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have Annabel to thank for asking the publicist if I could be her “plus one”. I still feel like a total imposter at these things. I don’t know how you get an in with publishers. Eric and Kim seem to be at every London-based event. Annabel said she happened to get invited one year and has gotten an invite ever since (once meeting Kazuo Ishiguro!). I was glad that there was a scheduled presentation and it wasn’t just socializing over drinks.


      1. I think it’s all down to luck! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Annabel (gaskella) | Reply

      Clare – next year if Rebecca gets her own invite, I’ll ask if I can bring you (assuming they ask me again).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Annabel, that’s very kind!


  3. Two memorable evenings! One of which has showered you with presents! Just a little more reading to squeeze in 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, I’m trying not to feel overwhelmed by the stack I picked up. With some Tetris skills I managed to fit them all on my bedside table shelves. And at just one a week I should get through them by June alongside my other reading.


  4. Champagne + free books = perfect evening.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad for your night life. Well done.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure I’d call it “night life” — that sounds a little too impressive, or maybe racy, for what it was. But yes, it’s nice to have some evenings out occasionally.


  6. What a great couple of evenings! Out of your books I would fancy the William Atkins and Zaffar Kunial (I live fairly near Sparkbrook). Thanks for sharing your haul with us!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Annabel (gaskella) | Reply

    I’m so glad you could come to this evening. Hopefully you’re on the list now for the next one. My pile of books wasn’t quite as large as yours – but I’m wishing I’d taken a copy of the Atkins now. I shall be reading the Vlautin first for Shiny – really looking forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Atkins might be a good one for me to review for Shiny?


  8. What fun! I don’t go to enough plays… Once the kids have flown the coup, I’m going to see more!
    The F&F party sounds awesome. I can’t believe Rachel Cusk has more stories about people chatting on airplanes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I almost laughed: at what point does she become a parody of herself?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party. […]


  10. […] February 2018 Annabel and I attended the Faber Spring Party with some other blogger friends, the first time I’d been to such an event. The hoped-for repeat […]


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