TROUT   [ 2 ]

  I Go to London

There's nothing so unfriendly as a large city.

London proclaims its hugeness completely with its taciturn commuters and tight-lipped cab-drivers. Anywhere else in the world it's impossible to stop a taxi driver from talking--they're like prisoners on death row, hungry for human contact. Not here. It's twenty-five degrees Celsius in late April--unheard of weather. It is just five days until the general elections--everyone knows that Labour will steam in. Still, my taxi driver has nothing to say, nor does the porter at my hotel, or the newspaper vendor, or anybody else for that matter. London has not changed at all.

I am here for the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Sia Figiel has won a regional prize for her novel Where We Once Belonged, and Pasifika Press has sent me over to represent the company which published the work and to tie up UK rights for it. When it is over and I am seated in a plane high above Siberia, my journey here will remind me of Ross McKelvie's film Sherman's March, in which the documentary maker receives a US$20,000 grant to make a film about the American Civil War, but spends his time and the money on visiting family and friends, and surviving prospective spouses. I come a long distance to make, I feel, little or no headway on my immediate task, but wander around the London I used to know quite well, bumping into my past at pubs, those pokey London squares and parks, and on the streets which are still the home of the homeless and are still unevenly paved, without gold or any sign of Dick Whittington's cat.

It turns out that the Commonwealth Writers Festival is just that: a writers' festival. The authors, old and new, are bused about the metropolis. An ex-colonial school-marm marshals these poor (destitute is probably a more accurate word) 'creative spirits' about like the sergeant major from a Boer War garrison. The writers speak, sign books and then return to their hotel rooms in Kensington. Some, like Sia, sneak out at night for illicit drinks, or during the day for lunches in the West End. I gather that they do have time to talk with one another, because they are all very enthusiastic about one another's work. But the over-riding impression is that they are actors in another BBC production of Colditz, and must band together in order to survive the severe deprivations war encourages and to repel the immense cultural onslaught their capturers' empire imposes on them.

Publishers are not allowed ... although there is space for 'important' publishing houses. Faber & Faber and Longmans somehow receive trestles on which they load huge piles of Asian, African and Caribbean literature. The only book from or about my part of the world seems to be a collection of essays on the work of Janet Frame.

There is, in fact, little or no space for small independent publishers such as Pasifika, Zimbabwe's Baobab Books and South Africa's Hibbard Publishers, all of whom have sent over representatives at great cost in order to support their authors publicly. It's as if, between the author's concept of the work and events such as these prize-givings nothing happens--the books just make themselves--and, because only the larger publishing houses are able to push funds which might be used for book production into that glitzy world of book promotion, the book world appreciates the final product, its packaging and packagers more than the creative process which made the work.Tourist in London Sometimes, too, authors seemed dazed by the product of their labours, and seem to forget what brought them to put pen to paper at the start. Here I am, then, in the centre of London cynically poking holes in the fabric of an industry--nay, a craft, an art!--which not so long ago I considered truly vocational. Only a city as large and unfriendly as London can produce such disaffection.

I talk at length with Irene Staunton of Baobab about small publishers like ourselves. Are we 'Commonwealth' publishers, 'Third World' publishers, or simply 'Bottom of the Heap' publishers? As Faber, Chatto and Penguin jockey to secure rights to our authors' next books, we ask ourselves why we bother to support a system which inevitably feeds the bigger fish of international publishing and leaves the regions of origin all the poorer. For often works by regional writers are unavailable in their own countries because these larger companies have neither the infrastructure nor the monetary incentive to supply that market. Why, only last year in Western Samoa I found just one Albert Wendt book available, his first novel Sons For The Return Home, in its new University of Hawai'i Press edition--and this in the midst of a literature and arts festival. Often we small publishers are expected to carry an author until such time as he or she is 'ripe' ... then it's off to the sharks and whales of the industry. Irene says she's only ever 'lost' one author to a large publisher, because she has always insisted on the writer's acknowledgment of the 'option on the next book' clause, which is a standard element in almost any book publishing contract. But I wonder if it's fair to authors, so (unrealistically?) hopeful of supporting themselves on royalty payments, to bind them to the small print runs and regionalised audiences associated with small presses. Most of these authors see themselves, quite rightly, as international writers potentially on a par with any Amis or Atwood ... if they were just given the opportunity. Small publishers would love to have firm, steady relationships with larger publishers to make their 'big' authors go further, but it just doesn't suit the economics of the mass market paperback. When you're that big you want everything.

Irene is saddened by the situation but seems very philosophical. She remarks on the Englishness of the English in order to change the topic of our conversation. We are in a cafe in London University's African and Oriental Studies faculty, and the courtyard outside is populated with Japanese, Africans, Persians, Malays and Indonesians. Nothing is particularly English about this place except the signs littering the courtyard outside. Every possible segment of architecture to which a bicycle might be secured has a sign pinned to it saying:

"NOTICE: any bicycle attached here will be removed."
So do we need the English to know we are in England? Not here, no.

At the prize-giving itself, a Tory Lord laments the inevitability of the new Labour government (just two days before the general election), and talks about his family background so excessively that those grouped at my end of the table either nod off, demand that their glasses be properly recharged (several times), or adjourn to the bathroom to smoke and talk in ease. I have a nice chat with the Papua New Guinea ambassador about the Sandline crisis and Sir Julius Chan's future--is there one? It is a formal event ... although the champagne is New Zealand sparkling wine, the table wine is New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the lamb is, in all probability, New Zealand lamb (remember, some of us travelled 20,000 kilometres for this meal!). When the prizes are announced, the domesticated clatter of English hand claps is slaughtered by Sia Figiel's wolf-whistle of approval and cheers of support from others who have not had the benefit of a Public School education. I feel sorry for the English who, by nature, cringe at this form of self-expression. But some, like the lively Beryl Bainbridge, seem to agree that a good time should be had at such events and the authors especially ought to enjoy themselves. Earl Lovelace takes the main prize with his novel Salt. That Best First Book Prize Sia Figiel was after goes to Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald for her tome Fall on Your Knees. These two major prize-winners have been selected from the eight regional winners. No one seems particularly satisfied that there need to be overall prizes, because there is a sense that the other regional 'winners' are now, due to a technicality of sorts, 'losers'. Afterwards it proves impossible to get a cab in the region of St Pauls, and I walk towards Fleet Street in the darkness wondering what perspicacious variety of stupidity led me here--I am at once enlightened and, apparently, condemned to eternal foolhardiness.

The afternoon before Sia flies out to Germany, I meet with her in her room at the Copthorne Tara Hotel in Kensington. Her mother, Moana, has been secreted in the room. Sia worries that Moana's smoking will betray her as there are defense de fumer notices everywhere, and especially in the bedrooms. I eat Sia's egg sandwich and discuss the prospect of a meeting with a UK publisher to her. But, she's tired. She's not writing; she's touring. And it will be several weeks before she stops travelling and performing, and sets herself down to write. Until that time she will be, like many of her fellow Commonwealth Writers Prize winners, earning her keep by being a very public individual--she may even be looked upon as an important representative of her country. The work of the writer will make way for the public's perception and demands of the writer. What sort of Jekyll and Hyde life do we force on authors?

And as I am flying back to the Pacific across Siberia, exhausted and annoyed that somehow I have managed to see 101 Dalmatians three times on three flights over the past two weeks, I wonder why I ever thought I could live such a Jekyll and Hyde life myself. I am a book editor and there are a good half dozen works sitting on my desk in Auckland. I am not a man who has long 'publishing lunches'; I scribble notes on manuscripts. Somewhere over Siberia, seated beside a man who is reading The Horse Whisperer and a woman who is reading the Bible, I start to think again about the Fijian dictionary I am supposed to be producing. Very soon I have all but forgotten the Commonwealth Writers Prize and London. Even Sia is far from my mind. The work is the thing, I dream. The work's the thing.

Visit the Commonwealth Foundation for more about the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

—Anthony Murrow
   © 1997