Bookshop news and events

World Humanist Congress 2014


From August 8th – 10th the World Humanist Congress will take place in Oxford. Held every three years the theme of the meeting this year is freedom of thought and expression and the line up of speakers is stellar.

Tickets sold out almost immediately but we are very pleased to be putting on a series of free 20 minute talks in the bookshop over the three days.


We have put together a page for books by the speakers and other relevant titles

You can keep up to date by following #WHC2014 on Twitter or their Facebook page

“The thing about football…

32countriescropped…the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.” So said Terry Pratchett

Whether you love football or hate it with a passion we have a World Cup promotion aimed fairly and squarely at book lovers.

Ray Mattinson and David Kelly from our Fiction Department have selected an author from each country (or where that hasn’t been possible, a novel set in that country) so every World Cup contender is represented. The titles that feature in each day’s fixtures are then pulled out and displayed every morning.

Ray is shocked to learn that Spain is out!

Ray is shocked to learn that Spain is out!

Ray says “It had been a dream of mine to install a translated fiction section separate from general contemporary fiction here on the ground floor for some time. Having achieved this earlier in the year, it was a natural step to create a ‘World Cup’ fiction display which included fiction from each county involved in the footballing action. We felt that this was the perfect way to join in the spirit of things in a lighthearted and enjoyable way!”

So who is your money on? Will a South American triumph on home soil? Is it time for an Africa winner? Will England disappoint again?

You can see the full listing of titles here

Jabujicaba – A Novel Campaign

JabujicabaWe are very pleased to be supporting the wonderful cause behind the publication of this novel, an eco-thriller set in the heart of Brazil. The paperback edition is available exclusively from the shop with 50% of the royalties going to international charity World Land Trust, to fund the protection of the REGUA Reserve in Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest. The remaining 50% is divided between the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Isle of Wight Zoo.



The book is part of a wider campaign to inspire action for the Brazilian Rainforest and its wildlife, by creating positive change. Why? Because rainforests cover less than 2% of the planet’s total surface area, but are home to 50% of the Earth’s plants and animals. If you want to save life on Earth, this is a great place to start.

www.jabujicaba.net_2014-06-04_16-37-36Click on the logo to find out more about the book and the cause, or even better, pop into the shop today and pick up your copy for just £8.99

We are launching the book in the shop on Thursday 12th June at 12 o’clock – you are very welcome to come along. If you can’t make it to the shop to buy the book it is available online here


Farewell David – Happy Retirement

davidDavid Retter leaves on St George’s Day after nearly 49 years with Blackwell’s. He shared some thoughts about his lifetime in bookselling at the world’s greatest bookshop with Victor Glynn

There are few people currently working for Blackwell’s who have had such a varied and interesting bookselling career as David Retter who retires today. His work for the firm, whilst mostly in Oxford has also taken him to such exciting places as Manhattan. To some people, August 1965 might seem a rather long time ago. After all, the majority of people working at Blackwell’s today were not even born then. Probably the majority who were working then are now helping to run the bookstall by the Pearly Gates. It was the year of ‘The Sound of Music’ and The helpBeatles ‘Help!’ There were just three television channels, all in black and white. Worcestershire C.C. were county champions (of which more anon) and Manchester United starring George Best were league champions.
The young David had just completed his O levels but had not received his results when he came in for a chat with Geoff Neale who looked after the third floor and was responsible for hiring the young -uns. At the end of their conversation Mr Neale told David that he had two options. Go back to school in September and start his A levels and come back after uni, or, he could start the following Monday and be a manager by the age of 21. Luckily for the firm he started immediately. Well, almost immediately, as he was in fact about to go on holiday with his parents so he started two weeks later. The wages were a monumental £5 per week. Given that a pint of ale was 11d (just under 5p) and 20 cigarettes 3s 11d (about 20p) it went quite a long way!
On his first day, having reported to Mr Neale, he was about to be told what his responsibilities were when a telephone call interrupted the conversation. Realizing that this call would take some time he asked another young chap what he should be doing. “No idea” was the response. “I have just started today as well”. It was Keith Clack (for years the manager of our Science department, currently our Library supply manager and also retiring this year.) “He’still has no idea” joked David.
The young Retter’s introduction to Blackwell’s was picking stock mostly for international libraries. This was, he says, a great grounding as a bookseller as one very quickly became familiar with all the departments and the stock range. This was followed by a stint working for the legendary George Crutch who was in charge of mail orders. He finally got to meet customers face to face in his second year
With the departure a few years later of David Hounslow the very presumptuous Retter wrote an action plan for the history department. It worked as he was appointed History Manager.
He was21. Just as Mr Neale had predicted.

Attenborough panorama high res

David witnessed some of the great moments in Blackwell’s history including the opening of the Norrington Room in 1967. This was, he says, a transformative event, changing the shop from being an excellent, though rather old fashioned one, to a modern world class business. The presence on the premises of the Basil Blackwell, ‘The Gaffer’ and Richard Blackwell, ‘The Guv’nor’ also made the place feel very special. David has especially fond memories of Richard, who died whilst still in his fifties. He was, David says, really the person responsible for giving the firm the international stature that it achieved, including such successful projects as University Bookshops Oxford (UBO), the joint venture with OUP. He also, like all good booksellers, had an incredible eye for detail. Standing at the bottom of the staircase onthe ground floor simultaneously reading one the latest “recommends” he would keep a weather eye on the customers and staff. The Gaffer was, in David’s own words, “an amazing man to deal with. He made you feel that you could achieve whatever you wanted to and his depth of knowledge about books was extraordinary.” Toby, he says, was less visible in the early days but was the force behind the creation of both the Norrington Room and Beaver House, our erstwhile Head Office on Hythe Bridge Street.
One of David’s more audacious moves was to re-categorize the history department. It might seem strange to us today, but back in the day the entirety of the history stock was sorted alphabetically by author. Not even by subject. This meant that books on Henry VIII would be found under Bingham, Guy, Rex, Rouse, Weir and Wooding. Not under Tudor History, Henry or even Early Modern.

whenyouvisitblackwellsGiven that “when you visit Blackwell’s no one will ask you what you want…the staff are at your service when you need them; but unless you look to them, they will leave you undisturbed” it must have been a real challenge to browse! David had the revolutionary idea of having sections within the history department. Horror. The switch was done one Sunday (the shop was closed on the Sabbath in those days).
Apparently the History Faculty went ballistic.How dare Blackwell’s muck about with “their” department. David was summoned to the Gaffer’s office in the presence of a trio of Oxford’s historians. These were the medievalist Susan Reynolds, early modernist Keith Thomas and modern historian Michael Hurst. David had to explain the logic of his plan, the Gaffer poured oil on the troubled waters and David’s plan remained intacto.
Over the next decade or so David found himself occupied in all sorts of different roles in Broad Street and beyond. He was for some years Manager of the Ground Floor, a job he really relished as it kept him in touch with the customers which some of his other activities did not allow.Nigel Blackwell, who had come up with the idea of selling academic remainders from the US, sent David and another colleague, Roger Cole, off to the US on a series of buying trips. Tough work but I suppose someone had to do it!

Some years later, following “a spot of bother” a temporary vacancy arose in the Second Hand Department for a manager who could just be dropped into the role. David was asked if he wouldn’t mind doing this for six months or so. He readily agreed to help out. “Twenty years later I am still here!” It is a position he has clearly relished and it is probably the most significant job he has had in terms of the effect it has had on his personal life. It was where a certain young woman by the name of Alison Warfield was working. Now I understand that she wasn’t wild about David’s appointment as she had been hoping to get the job herself! Sometime later, of course, she became Mrs Retter. David has a positive attitude to the changes that are taking place in the world of bookselling and publishing. His career has seen many changes over the years and although the pace of change may have hastened in the last ten years it is an industry that has never stood still. The effective end of the Net Book agreement in 1995 made huge changes to the way in which books were sold. The main change David has seen in the art and craft of bookselling has been the necessity to be able to multi-task. In years gone by each department would have a specialist who was truly grounded in his or her subject. Maybe even better informed than the don’s they served. David is certain that the future will bring unexpected and unanticipated developments in books and publishing. One thing is clear though. His 16 year old’s passion for the printed word has not diminished one iota. And in retirement? Well he sounds as if he will be even busier. Apart from fixing up the garden and doing all those jobs he hasn’t had time for, he plans to read all the books he hasn’t had time to read (can you believe it?) do the ironing (!?), continue to play shops in the village store and spend a lot of time in the shadow of Worcester Cathedral watching his beloved cricket team.



Maybe, just maybe, that time is now David – we wish you well and thank you for your enormous contribution to Blackwell’s over the years.

The Chesire Cat’s out of the bag – on a rare letter and an auction room

17artsbeat-letter-blog480Last month there was some excitement in the news about a revealing and unpublished letter by Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) which was coming up for sale at an auction in London. Writing from his rooms in Christ Church in 1891 Dodgson complains to a friend about how much he dislikes the fame that the Alice books have brought him, and how he wishes to avoid being identified as ‘Lewis Carroll’ -so much so that ‘sometimes I almost wish I had never written any books at all’.

Given the local connection we’re always interested to buy Lewis Carroll material, but we had a feeling this letter would attract too much interest for us to simply buy it for stock. On the other hand, if we could interest a specific customer in advance, then we’d be able to pursue the letter on their behalf.

After some discussion over the weeks preceding the sale – culminating in a series of last-minute trans-oceanic telephone calls – we’d found a potential buyer and were ready to bid. We had our own expectation about how much the letter might fetch, but on the day, in the sale, it’s anybody’s guess.

Happily, we emerged triumphant, seeing off interest from the phones and internet as well as other bidders in the room. Reports of the sale, however, only said that the letter ‘was bought by an anonymous British buyer who was present in the room during the bidding’, and we had to keep the entire thing top secret until this past weekend, at our customer’s request. On April 17th – with DHL delivering the letter just in time – the University of Southern California revealed all at an evening extravaganza to celebrate the 10th annual Wonderland Award, a prize for art inspired by Lewis Carroll.

lewiscarrollwallAn image of the letter was projected onto the the wall at the announcement of the purchase

It turns out that the acquisition of the letter for their Lewis Carroll collection was planned as a surprise for the donors who had started the collection and award, to make the 10th anniversary of the award even more special – hence all the secrecy. But, after the presentation was complete and the surprise unveiled, it once again made the news, including the New York Times website

So we are at last free to reveal that, yes, Blackwell’s Rare Books was the ‘anonymous British buyer’

Now to find more important unpublished Lewis Carroll items so we can have something to display on Alice’s Day

Enjoy this slideshow of the arrival of the letter at its new home:

The Bookshop Band – 3 FREE shows at The Oxford Literary Festival


Oh, Oxford World’s Classics how we love you. Thanks to their generous sponsorship we will be hosting three evening performances by The Bookshop Band at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. On Sunday 23rd March, Monday 24th March and Tuesday 25th March they will be playing FREE gigs in our Marquee from 6.30pm – 8.00pm. Leading up to these performances we will be canvassing the opinion of Festival goers as to which Oxford World’s Classic they would like the band to turn into song! So if you have a penchant for Moby Dick, a passion for The Communist Manifesto or a preference for Paradise Lost be sure to register your vote in the Marquee.

Author Event: Roman Krznaric / Empathy: A Handbook for a Revolution Wednesday March 5th 19:00 – 20:30

RomanKrznaricStudio1-by-Kate-Raworth-low-resFrom the bestselling author of The Wonderbox comes one of the most important works of this year.

In this latest book by modern influential philosopher, Roman Krznaric argues that empathetic feeling is at the heart of who we are.
He sets out the six life-enhancing habits of highly empathetic people, whose skills enable them to connect with others in extraordinary ways.

Krznaric contends that, as we move on from an age of introspection, empathy will be key to fundamental social change.

Tickets cost £3 and are available from our Customer Service desk in the shop; by telephoning 01865 333623; by emailing

The Blackwell’s Marquee at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival




Box-NookWe are thrilled to be bringing back the Festival Marquee! In partnership with Nook tablets and ereaders the marquee will be a vibrant hub for the festival. The Blackwell’s Marquee is open to all; bring your friends and family along to enjoy the atmosphere, the numerous free events and activities and spot a famous author or two. It will be open every day of the festival from 9 in the morning until 8 at night with two late night openings until 10pm on Thursday 27th and Friday 28th. See below for details on the UK launch of Nook Press – an exciting new self-publishing platform

At a new location in the Clarendon Quad, adjacent to the Sheldonian Theatre not only will you find our Festival Bookshop but a wonderful restaurant will be jacobsandfieldlogoroundprovided by Jacobs & Field – if you have visited their Headington deli your tastebuds will already be salivating. Quality coffee will be on hand to keep your energy levels high.

Complementing our handpicked selection of books will be a mouthwatering litographsselection of literary gifts. Litographs creates art from the books you’ve read and loved. Be sure to pop by to their stall and fall in love…

There will be a dedicated activity area where we will host the always popular free VSI Soap Box talks – this year you can learn about a cornucopia of subjects from Ancient Greece to The Ice Age.

A new venture, similar in style to the Soap Boxes, will be our booksellers talking about the book that they most love. Expect some passion!

chris-lloyd_2238834bThe one man force of learning, Christopher Lloyd, will be back to talk us through his series of Wallbooks, including the new Wallbook on Shakespeare. Illuminating for children and parents alike. Christopher will be ensconced in the Marquee from Thursday 27th through until the last day, Sunday 30th.

Three evening gigs from The Bookshop Band, nook demonstrations, a special one-off Stories Aloud (we can now confirm that the authors appearing as part of Stories Aloud are Phil Klay and Emma Jane Unsworth)  and Robert Lipscombe, author of the incredible newspaper-novel The English Project will add dash, flavour and enjoyment to the evenings.

Story Time
Join Blackwell’s very own Jackie at 11am on the first weekend for storytelling sessions for younger children.

Danyah MillerAt 1.15pm on Saturday 22nd we welcome Danyah Miller brought to the Marquee by the frabjous Story Museum (who, as an aside, launch on April 5th with what looks to be an amazing exhibition). Danyah Miller is a storyteller, workshop leader, writer, theatre producer and mum. She shares stories in nurseries, schools, theatres and festivals nationally. She is also a visiting teacher at The International School of Storytelling in East Sussex.

Danyah is currently performing in “I Believe in Unicorns” by Michael Morpurgo – which she brings to the Story Museum on 27th & 28th May “Breathtakingly beautiful and utterly charming… a must see at this year’s fringe” -
Primary Times Edinburgh

For 3 years Danyah was a the regular storyteller on BBC Three Counties Radio. Her first book ‘Kika’s Birthday” was published in December 2012

0552572047Children’s author Conrad Mason will be talking about his exciting adventure series Tales of Fayt on Monday 24th at 11am
Conrad grew up in Oxfordshire and studied Classics at Cambridge. His first novel for children, The Demon’s Watch, was published in 2012 with David Fickling books and nominated for a slew of prizes. The Demon’s Watch is a fast-paced fantasy adventure for children 9 to 11, featuring half-goblin boy Joseph Grubb. More information on Conrad can be found on his website

The Phoenix presents … Make your own comic book! Meet the experts from weekly comic The Phoenix and get started on your own comic adventure. Tuesday March 25th at 11am and 3pm

At 11am on Wednesday 26th we invite you to go on an adventure with Charlie Small! Travel to the Mummy’s Tomb, wrestle crocodiles and visit the city of gorillas. Not for the faint-hearted!

Chrissie’s Owls are a small group of people committed to the care and conservation of Owls. Come and meet some of these gorgeous birds and hear about the work of this amazing organisation on Saturday 22nd & Sunday 23rd from 2pm

Guy Watson and Sophie Grigson
Jacobs and Field bring you Guy Watson and Sophie Grigson. Guy Watson is the man behind Riverford Farm, his ethos being to put fresh, flavoursome, seasonal food back onto people’s plates. Sophie Grigson has written over 20 cookery books and appeared in numerous television programmes, and she is a keen supporter of organic produce and local food suppliers. Join Guy and Sophie on Saturday 22nd at 6pm

nookpressExperts from Nook will be on hand to demonstrate not only their award winning tablets and ereaders but also how prospective authors can conquer the world of self publishing. Special demonstrations about the newly launched self-publishing platform Nook Press, including talks on “Introduction to Self-Publishing with Nook,” which is billed as “a free, fun and informative interactive session for authors” Presentations take place on Monday 24th at 3pm and Wednesday 26th at 3pm & 6.30pm

Author Signings by some Sheldonian authors
We are delighted to be hosting the following author signings here in the marquee – these signings follow their talks taking place at the Sheldonian Theatre. You are very welcome to join the signing queue even if you have not attended the event
Thursday 27th March at 3pmJeremy Paxman
Saturday 29th March at 1.15pmAC Grayling
Saturday 29th March at 3pmMalorie Blackman
Sunday 30th March at 1.15pm Michael Morpurgo

Robert Lipscombe
englishprojectRobert Lipscombe is the author of the incredible newspaper-novel ‘The English Project’ – a courageous and attention-grabbing political novel about the state of the nation and our moral universe. Expect a mischievous and provocative evening, as the author explains both what lies beneath the novel and why he chose to publish it in this original format. Thursday 27th March at 6.30pm
empathyHow to Start an Empathy Revolution – Roman Krznaric
Drawing on his new book, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, cultural thinker and School of Life faculty member Roman Krznaric makes the case that empathy is a radical tool for social change. Should we be using babies to teach empathy in the classroom? Ever been to an Empathy Library? And is it time to invent the world’s first Empathy Museum? Come and step into someone else’s shoes in this talk by the bestselling author of The Wonderbox and How to Find Fulfilling Work. Friday 28th March at 6.30pm

On two evenings we will be keeping the Marquee open until 10pm – Thursday 27th and Friday 28th. The Oxford Jazz Trio will serenade you with a mix of jazz standards from the American songbook as well as some funkier numbers from 8pm on the Friday

For reminders and updates follow #FREEintheMarquee on Twitter

We hope that you agree that our Marquee is shaping up to be the hub of the Festival, it is open to all whether you have tickets for Festival events or not. Do come and play!


bookromanceIt’s Valentines Day. Just for fun (and a modest prize) ourselves and the inspirational Story Museum are running a competition on Twitter We want your tiny stories of love – only 140 characters allowed (including #BookRomance) so you must be brief (like so many of my love affairs)

Bonus points for a bookish theme. Double bonus for including the shop.

We will add our favourites to this post throughout the day

Go on, melt our hearts…

The English Project by Robert Lipscombe

We applaud Robert Lipscombe for his bravery, ingenuity and passion for publishing his most recent novel as a newspaper and we thank him for taking the time to write this fascinating piece for Broad Conversation.

The English Project is available now from our Fiction Department on our Ground Floor for just £2.99

englishprojectA newspaper?  And yet a literary novel?    One hundred and forty-four silkily tabloid pages loaded with contemporary artwork?  And why is it called The English Project  —somebody’s essay, perchance?  Perhaps a social-political initiative in a run-down neighbourhood, on the American model —could it be that?  And since it’s a quarter of a million words of text, why is it only £2.99… that’s roughly 800 words per pence, my calculator tells me.  Talk about bucking the trend.  But is there any point?  And why does the flag [is it?], on the cover, that is —  appear so faded, khaki-coloured, even tinged with blood? And why is there a sky-blue colour, leaking, as it were, from the panels?
In case you are asking these very reasonable questions, here are some modest attempts to answer them.   The flag is faded, yes, perhaps tinged with blood, as you say, to represent the swag wagon of empire, now become a tumbrel, in fact — still on the road but now poorly maintained and somehow hijacked ..or perhaps just so much more obvious as it fades.  You’ll see St George rather pitifully fending off an enormous serpent; a weeping angel, gaze averted, but refusing to abandon the nation, hitches a reluctant ride at the back; a unicorn ‘abandons ship’; and while infants labour to turn the heavy wheels of this historic bugaboo as it lumbers towards its end, the reins are firmly in the hands of the diabolical Doctors Pisle and Gisle of The College.  As to the sky-blue colour breaking through the khaki panels— this is the promise, still considerably in doubt, true, but of a brighter future for us all— if we can only get the tumbrel stowed and definitively locked away at last.
But a newspaper? Why so? Well, broadly speaking, on the axis which runs from fact to fantasy a newspaper is perceived to be predominantly factual, or at least fact-specific and in its narratives true-to-what-is-in-fact-the-case. A novel, in sharp distinction, is usually a book, and is perceived to be located towards the fantasy, or at least ‘imaginary world’ end of the axis. At best it explores possibilities — possible environments and possible events within those environments only ‘as if’ they were real.  A newspaper, by comparison, purports to reveal the true/real hitherto unknown facts of the environments in which we live [especially political, economic and social], and gives detailed descriptions [not always accurate!] of events within those environments which are thought to really matter in the everyday business of life. In short, what’s in the newspaper really matters; what’s in a novel does not. Everybody knows that.
So the newspaper, in that it purports to be the vehicle of truth about the world, conventionally  enables and engenders dissent. However, a novel is fictive and does not much matter in terms of everyday needs and is far more easily dismissed  —  its dangers [if any] generally overlooked, even disregarded. Of the two, naturally enough, power greatly prefers the novel [of course, although ever disdaining to read it], considering it to be a far lesser dog with smaller, duller teeth and a snout that is imprecise in its attack.  What better way, then, to smuggle truths into a public space than a fictive, obviously imaginary text dressed up/down as a weekly rag?  As Hugo Thayer says on page 24 [column three]without truth we sleep in the demon’s lair — a fitful, dangerous sleep..  so art comes at truth by devious ways, enchanting its audience, stealing closer, closer yet — until it is suddenly upon us. .. There! And now it has you marked! Will you scurry away? Or will you stare it in the face?’

Yes, The English Project novel in a newspaper is a true hybrid at the level of information and cannot fit into either column in a truth table.  Furthermore, the newspaper is flimsy, throwaway, the price of a pint, a thing to be swiftly browsed and then binned, or left on a seat – as such it is very nearly common property for those very reasons.  A novel, especially a literary novel, on the other hand, and especially in its hardback form, is a possession, the property either of an individual or of a library. As an owned object it carries the presumption that its existence has been licensed by the gatekeepers, whether they be literary agents or publishers [except, of course,  in the case of self-published publications — and these, no matter how good they may be, for the reason stated suffer inevitably from a certain lightness, perhaps even a perceived spuriousness, a not-quite-adequateness].
Furthermore, a conventional publishing of a book swankily purports to certify and affirm a competitive quality-in-itself in the text so brought to publication and this a self-publication quite blatantly lacks. This is so precisely because the flow of information, of story, of comment, of written discourse is guided, monitored and to a very real extent directed by the status quo, by power made fair-seeming and palatable by ‘authority’, the authority which licenses itself to license text to be. The apparent quality-in-itself of the  conventionally published book is actually in most cases little more than a kite mark of the invisible censor and it is this invisible imprimatur, this itself quite spurious mark that lends the book its often quite spurious weight. In the main, however, the kite mark means only this:  the  writing herein contained has been deemed  acceptable to power.  Hence the obvious fact that so many unworthy books are conventionally published despite their flooding the bookshops while so many others [who knows how many — it’s anybody’s guess] remain forever manuscripts gathering dust. By comparison with the conventionally ‘kite marked’ book, the newspaper is flimsy by design and by default,  charged with fleetingness, with provisoriness, and is always incomplete—  is something which typically can be carried away in a wind.  It is both subversive by nature and as discountable as shiftless rumour [as long as it does not libel the powerful]. Indeed, the truths of a newspaper are as it were under water; the lies of a conventional novel are so to speak above board.
Now it may well prove to be the case that newspapers are in fact as much fictive as novels are true to the facts [or if you prefer it: the newspaper lies to the same degree that a novel tells the truth]. Either way, it is a truth that a literary novel published as a newspaper endows the writing with a quite peculiar relationship to truth.
But there is a further, more important reason why The English Project is deeply, inescapably ambiguous and equivocal.
It would have to fiction, Hugo Thayer tells the Good Men and True [those cruel executioners]…. ‘You’d need to put a real man into a real situation which is um, it’d have to be horrible, yes, but everyday, even quite banal. Fathers fighting for the right to see their children, for example, in the secret family courts. A national scandal which everyone knows about. I mean a real blot on our record as a society, as a post-modern, basically Christian society, a really damning scandal that no one can deny.’
‘Things as they are,’ she said. ‘Your real situation.’
‘Yes. And then you’d have to expose your character to something fantastical, notional, generic, I guess… perhaps with roots in earlier traditions.. something obviously and completely farfetched but which people can make sense of somehow. Purely for purposes of entertainment, for the fun of story really. And then, once that was in place, you could present your character with this other thing, your thing, this third thing, I suppose, which would read like crime fiction on the page, or some kind of mystery thriller component… And, you see, the reader would then have the problem…’ He was thinking on his feet.
‘Yes? The reader would have the problem..?’
‘— wouldn’t know quite how to deal with the stuff, your stuff, I mean. Wouldn’t know how to relate to it.’
‘Why? Because you’d be changing the texture of the book. You’d be mixing genres. People would get confused. And the spell of suspended disbelief would be broken, which would probably kill the book, unless you linked this stuff to the other thing, the entertainment thing, the fantastical notional thing – then the one would buoy the other up, you see.. Or each would give the other a bit of camouflage, a bit more merging with reality, especially if you were able to bring them together, link them, link by link.. I don’t know.’ He paused, pondered, shook his head. ‘Either way,’ he went on, ‘with a bit of luck people would keep reading, could in fact keep reading without having to take a clear position…’
‘Do you mean a moral position? A political position?’
‘Well, I meant actually, they wouldn’t have to take a position on whether or not it was fiction. They could – relatively comfortably, I suppose – they could let the book just take them along.’
‘So people would not know whether what they were reading was fiction or not?’
‘No, no. In fact the reader would need to be able to say that it was fiction, and so probably would the author, if he could be persuaded to put his name to the book in the first place.’
‘It’s fiction?’ she asked, with undertones of anger and disbelief. ‘You’re saying it would be fiction? You?’
‘It would have to be fiction,’ he said firmly, as though coming to the realisation for the first time. ‘The kind of fiction that makes you feel very uncomfortable. A fiction which has an awful undercurrent of truth, but is nonetheless fiction. That way, you see, you’d get it past the powers that be, and then, if you were lucky, it would start to resonate, as a sort of suggestion device. And once that happened people in the know would start to blow the whistle…’

The English Project  suggests that it is, in its newspaper form, itself a solution to the problems of sayability [can you really write this down and publish it?] and validity [do you really expect us to believe it is true?]. For this reason The English Project is a thing which cannot rest, cannot settle, its tensions cannot subside. For how is one to speak where no speech is licensed, none permitted to be heard? How much truth or at least countervailing reality can be articulated, uttered or written where consensus is sham and prevalent and ubiquitous – and by what means?  How could a grown man declare that the emperor has no clothes? It is almost inconceivable; indeed, only a child, a naïf, a callow youth could be allowed to say such a thing precisely because the truth uttered is almost completely negated and annulled by the wholly deniable yet mildly favoured status of the person who speaks it. And so there remains a jot, a jot of truth after the subtraction of status has been made. In the case of The English Project , too, the awful things that carry the appearance of truth are purveyed through the experiences of a fictional character, by which I mean to say a character invented in a different book, a clear fictional character created many years before. This greatly reduces the danger of the narrative and burns away its awful charge, almost completely.. and yet, as with the child and the naked emperor, there remains a jot. There remains more than a jot, which taken with the newspaper format ramifies in peculiar ways. Just as was hoped.
Yes, Hugo Thayer is a character from The Salamander Tree, an earlier novel, and at all times he is treated as such —  he is a fictional character as character, not a fictional character who the reader is expected to believe to be real.  He asks of George Herbert [another fictional character from a different book as well as the narrator of The English Project]
.. ‘Is art a power? ..Or is it just a power to delude?’
‘I believe it to be a power,’ I conceded. ‘It can help change the world.’
‘I agree with you,’ he said, ‘It is a power, yes, but only as long as it restricts itself to make-believe.’
‘I’m not sure I follow…’
‘It must allow itself to know that it deludes. It is ludic, ironic even when epic or deadly serious, apparently, or it loses its power to change the world.’
‘So if art takes itself too seriously,’ I started..
‘Or, which is the same thing, of course — if it too closely follows so-called reality, even when reality is funny – having one of its comic turns…’
‘Then it loses its power. And the light disappears.’
‘The light disappears?’
‘Pulled back. The light falls back. It falls back down into the black hole of the real.’
‘The real is a black hole?’
‘Yes. In a sense it most definitely is.’ He gave me a sudden, bright smile.  ‘But we don’t have to worry, George,’ he appeared to wink. ‘Because we’re both characters in a book.’
I smiled back, notionally. I was bored with it, quite naturally. But then, as ever, he took me out into the deep, deep water and again I grew afraid.
‘Remember the Ancient Mariner? Who stoppeth one in three…’
‘The poem, yes.’
‘The man, the character — who had seen too much, who simply had to speak… that’s me. Except I cannot speak, I mustn’t speak. Not just because they threatened me with prison if I spoke.. there’s the other thing, too, you know.’ He paused, waiting for me to take it up.
‘What other thing?’
‘When you see something,’ he said, ‘something pernicious, even wicked, that gives the lie to everything that decent people cherish and desperately need to believe in… and the evidence is secret, only barely glimpsed, hard to put together, incredibly complicated and almost impossible to give an effective account of… because veiled, fair-seeming, carefully managed.. Then, if you are alone in what you see, how can you speak? The culture is a force, a tide, a rushing river. You cannot stand against it. You must do something else.’

Interestingly, in The English Project you will find the most satisfying comic moments in close association with the most awful things of all in the text [what you might refer to as the very hard edge of political veracity in the work]. These flow from the character of a family court judge, now a spirit engaged in case study work in Hell, whose overwhelming intention is to get out of Hell by collaboration with one of his own former victims.. Now, this character does not purport to be fictional nor does the narrative suggest that he is, despite the fact that he is a spirit. Indeed, not for nothing has it been promised to him that he is to be the Spirit of England. And yet, as the novel draws to an end there is a further suggestion to the effect that the whole thing was simply feverishly dreamt up by a person in a cave. Ah, but this takes us back to Plato, does it not?
So we can ask of this newspaper novel  What is being said? Who speaks? What is their status and how does this affect their plausibility, their credibility? George Herbert writes [after all, he is the narrator of The English Project ]…  if you want to know the truth
.. you’ll need a man like me; In the general run of things, if you want to know something that really matters you’ll be needing a person like myself — a person of no consequence, a person with nothing to lose. You’ll get my drift soon enough. You’ll see the need for parables, for coded talk, not a blurred babble that entertains but does not challenge. And by happy chance I am free; free of the claw roots of income and repute, free of respectability. I am of an age and state to lay me down in a cardboard box, companionable and loyal to my peers, that commonwealth of citizens under all the bridges in all the cities of the world. And Hugo Thayer, I reckon, saw all of this straight off. He was probably paranoid, yes, but he was very perceptive. He had my card marked right from the start.

The novel in the newspaper is really about the challenge of writing in its purest, most ardent form.. the challenge to power [as Thayer himself says], and its search for a gestalt, a story which has sufficient power in itself to carry the challenge to the inmost court of power itself.
And of course there is the proposition that The English Project is only a thrown spark from The English Project itself, which is a spiritual configuration of energies in evolutionary space, a challenge laid upon the nation in its journey towards evolution. Hence the association with Stauffenberg, who took the bomb in a briefcase to a meeting with Hitler, and with The German Project, a similar spiritual challenge which was laid upon the nation of Germany in the twentieth century and which was hijacked by gangsters to become The Third Reich.
The novel asks very seriously, are we truly spiritual beings? Is there a process underway, an  unviewed, unimagined enactment of which we know nothing and yet such that it is the only important reality in our lives— which are otherwise shadowy, notional, even imaginary? Can story enable evolutionary energies; can it liberate populations from the delusions, false beliefs and manipulated consciousness visited on them by means of their rulers and their helpmeets? Does each nation really face evolutionary challenges, tailor-made and of the utmost significance and import?
The English Project does have an objective correlative, which is a father child story in its environment of the nefarious secret courts. But what this novel in a newspaper is really about is whether writers can make a spiritual contribution to the nation’s fate.  Do please have a browse and get in early on the debate.
Robert Lipscombe  February 2014