A Bit Of Rough: Mini-Books By Ana Da Silva, Joe Dunthorne, Jenn Pelly

Joel McIver casts his critical eye over the first batch of pocket-sized pamphlets from Rough Trade Books

Lorena Lohr, Untitled, from Blue Springs (2018), courtesy Rough Trade Books

You’ll be aware of the Rough Trade record label and record shops, no doubt. Both are bastions of old-fashioned creative distribution in an industry that is relentlessly in hock to new technology. Along identical lines, these mostly splendid new publications from Rough Trade’s recently-launched publishing arm are competing in an industry that is in economic freefall, so hats off to the folks at RT for having the courage to print real-world copies as opposed to taking the cheap, safe online option.

Making the venture even riskier, some of the content of the twelve ‘pamphlets’ (as RT are calling them) isn’t easy to grasp or enjoy. Read unhurriedly in a single sitting, the collection left me alternately amused, awed and confused. I’ve reviewed the ones I enjoyed most below.

No. 4, Love, Oh Love by Ana da Silva of the Raincoats is a collection of art in a scratchy, unpolished style. There’s something evocative about the images and the accompanying brief texts. “It makes no difference, night or day / No-one teaches you how to live” definitely resonates. The same goes for the excellent photography in No. 9, Uninhabited London by Jon Savage, and No. 3, Blue Springs by Lorena Lohr. In the former, the esteemed music historian Savage republishes a series of thirty-five monochrome photographs which he took in west London in 1977. Bleak and sparse, they collectively resemble a scene from Threads – about as far from my comfortable latte-and-Macbook life as you can get, but I found it strangely compelling nonetheless.

Lohr takes a different approach entirely, shooting scenes from the American South on 35mm colour film and painting a fascinating picture through her book. There are no epic landscapes here; instead, she focuses on tiny details such as a diner seat, a drink or a broken-down building. The lack of explanatory text helps to make the impression more encompassing.

There is no more emperor’s-new-clothes medium than poetry, and while I really enjoyed No. 12, Odeum Spotlights by Olly Todd, others may disagree. Todd’s twelve poems are extravagant in the sense that he’s evidently having fun with language, evoking images pretty vividly. “I walked Kennington tonight, wondering whose / Whistle to jinx. I’m stig, immer durstig, altruistic” he intones, which may or may not grab you. But I liked it.

No. 8, Nothing Feels Natural: Interviews In 2016 by Jenn Pelly & Priests, is a departure from the other pamphlets. It’s a collection of interviews by the music journalist Pelly with the band Priests, a post-punk quartet from Washington DC with plenty to say on subjects varying from Valerie Solanas to Nicki Mina. Parts of it appeared in a zine accompanying a Priests album last year.

Completely different in form and function is No. 10, The Last Night Of The Leamington Licker by Kirk Lake, a fictionalised short story about the last night of a real-life boxer, Randolph Turpin, who was the world middleweight champion for 64 days in 1951. Famous for that short period between fights with Sugar Ray Robinson, Turpin descended into miserable circumstances and then killed himself; the story isn’t fun for obvious reasons, but it’s evocative as hell. You’ll finish it with a shudder of fear.

No. 11, The Faithful Look Away by Melissa Lee-Houghton, is brilliant. Essentially it’s a first-person monologue from a highly unpleasant senior citizen who refuses to face the realities of life with an almost psychotic stubbornness, making several salient points about mental health along the way. That generation still exists – though their days may be numbered – and while we may welcome the decline in currency of some of their more extreme point-of-view, it’s valuable to see life from that perspective for a moment.

Ana Da Silva, from Love, Oh Love (2018), courtesy Rough Trade Books

The aces in the Rough Trade pamphlet pack are definitely No. 2, Pessimism Is Forc Lightweights: 13 Pieces Of Courage And Resistance by Salena Godden, and No. 5, All The Poems Contained Within Will Mean Everything To Everyone by Joe Dunthorne. The first is a poetry collection in which Godden unleashes a ton of rage on the subject of various prejudices. Her poem ‘Red’ is a fantastically grim rant about periods and should be studied by everyone, while Sushi is a sad, shocking tale of abuse. As for Dunthorne’s book, it’s just a fabulous piece of comedy: a silly, funny short story with a twist that had me in stitches.

The rest of the collection comprises No. 6, Film Ideas by Babak Ganjei, which is a series of 29 film title puns written out in felt-tip pen; No. 1, Drawings Of Minus by the musician Daniel Blumberg, a collection of naive artworks in pencil and watercolour; and No. 7, To Run Wild In It: A Handbook Of Autonomic Tarot by David Keenan, an illustrated companion piece to Keenan’s award-winning 2017 novel, This Is Memorial Device.

I thought one or two of these books didn’t work, but the majority are great, and the fact that they exist is amazing. Some of the stuff is esoteric to the point of being avant-garde, and even in a robustly healthy publishing industry, books of that nature rarely make anyone rich. The fact that they’ve been published at all in today’s zombified environment is a total triumph. Do consider buying them. The best way to do it is to buy the whole lot for a discounted £92. But if that’s too much, cherrypick your favourites for £6.99 or £7.99. There’s bound to be something rewarding in each one, even if I didn’t see it.

RT Editions Pamphlets are available from the Rough Trade Books website

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