Independent Focus: Black Spring Press & The Revival of Literary Reputations

by Guy Sangster Adams

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This year, Robert Hastings, the owner of Black Spring Press, is celebrating his fifth year at the helm of the small independent publishing company. Originally founded in the mid-eighties by Simon Pettifer, the imprint has never had, Hastings says, “anything that you would call a mission statement; I don’t think it would want to have one”. The catalogue includes writer/songsmiths Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen and is, Hastings says, an “idiosyncratic collection of things that seem to be in the air and carry a resonance”. Which carries a note of charming disinflation that risks belying the fact that, under his tenure, Black Spring Press have also been at the forefront of restoring the literary reputations of two writers, Julian Maclaren-Ross and Patrick Hamilton, concurrent with introducing a whole new generation to their work.

With his camel hair coat, silver topped cane, cigarette holder, and mirrored Aviator sunglasses, Maclaren-Ross cut a dandified swath through Bohemian London in the 1940s and 1950s, which he celebrated in his most well known work, Memoirs of the Forties. His diverse body of work also includes novels, short fiction, radio and screen plays, film and literary criticism, and literary parodies. Such was his persona, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, and Olivia Manning all created fictional characters modelled on him.

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A similarly debonair man-about-town, Hamilton was a celebrated novelist and playwright between the 1920s and 1950s. His work primarily focussed on the transient subculture of London’s pubs, boarding houses, and back streets. His two most renowned dramas, Rope and Gaslight, were both made into films, the latter by Alfred Hitchcock.

Both Maclaren-Ross and Hamilton died in the early 1960s, and had been largely out of print since their deaths, despite the acclaim of writers such as John Betjeman, who described Maclaren-Ross as “One of our very best writers”, and Doris Lessing, who described Hamilton as a “marvellous novelist who’s grossly neglected”. But equally both have a style that suits the modern reader. Whilst compounding this, Hastings also establishes the differences in their contemporary appeal, explaining that “the freshness that comes off the page from Maclaren-Ross is that he can very quickly in a conversation, or in a description of somebody, create a whole world and you can really see what the world is.” With Hamilton, Hastings believes that “his cynicism and world weariness does rather suit our modern world”.

In 2003, Hastings read Paul Willetts’ biography of Maclaren-Ross, Fear & Loathing in Fitztrovia, which lead him to read more of Maclaren-Ross’s work, or rather try to, because at that stage only Penguin’s republication of the novel Of Love and Hunger was in print. Motivated to remedy this, he contacted Willetts, and between them they have spent the last five years putting together three collections of Maclaren-Ross’s work: Collected Memoirs (2004), Bitten By The Tarantula & Other Writing (2005), and the just published Selected Letters. Because the trilogy contains many writings that were either previously unpublished, or had been published in a disparate array of periodicals, it is, Hastings says, “much more possible to get a survey of Maclaren-Ross now, than it was even when he was alive”.

When it was realised that Maclaren-Ross was buried in an unmarked grave in North London, Hastings became involved in a fundraising campaign to give Maclaren-Ross’s son, Alex, the wherewithal to have the grave marked; a process that cannot be high on the list of a publisher’s traditional authorial duties. Hastings joined forces with the writer and broadcaster Victoria Ironside, Paul Willetts, and the enigmatic Sohemian Society to stage a number of fundraising events. “With a dead author, you expect to be dealing with agents and with the rather cold matter of the business side of it,” says Hastings, “you certainly don’t think that you’ll be pouring whisky onto the ground over his grave.” Entirely by chance, the stonemason commissioned to carve the headstone was Tom Waugh, the grandson of Evelyn Waugh, who was a friend of Maclaren-Ross and described his writing as “accomplishment of a rare kind”.

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Last year Black Spring Press published Patrick Hamilton’s The Gorse Trilogy, and have just published the second novel he wrote, Craven House, and Nigel Jones’ biography of Patrick Hamilton, Through A Glass Darkly. Hastings admits that Black Spring Press have come to Hamilton much later in the revival process than they did with Maclaren Ross, and most of his best known works were already back in print. But, he explains that he feels “that now is really Hamilton’s time, and that goes for anytime really between now and the fifties, and that over the past five years there’s been enough of a revival in him that people would want to read the life, and his less well known work.”

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Hastings has also taken Black Spring Press in a new direction with the publication of two hand-numbered, limited editions of one of the first books that the company published, Nick Cave’s novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. The two large format, slip-cased editions have both been designed by Phil Baines, Professor of Typography at Central St Martin’s, who also designed Black Spring Press’s original 1989 edition of the novel. The black, morocco goatskin bound, Luxury Edition, has a limited edition frontispiece of Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1872 photograph Cupid considering, is signed by Nick Cave, and is in a run of 75. The Special Edition, is cloth bound and is a run of 650. Hastings straightforwardly explains his reasons for the special editions as being that “it was Nick Cave’s first, and so far only attempt at a novel, and very successful it was too; it was a book that was worth that kind of treatment, I think it’s a great novel”. He says that Nick Cave’s response to the special editions has been “very complimentary” and that they have also “made him think again about the book and I hope reflect with some measure of pride upon it because it’s certainly justified.”

In revisiting Black Spring Press’s own back catalogue in such a celebratory way, it appears that the revival of interest that Hastings has stimulated in this case is not just in the readership but also within the writer himself.

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Read reviews of Julian Maclaren-Ross Selected Letters and Through a Glass Darkly: The Life of Patrick Hamilton in the Pick Up section of the P-TCP Webzine.

Watch an interview with Robert Hastings and a profile of Black Spring Press, featuring contributions from, amongst others, Alex Maclaren-Ross, Cathi Unsworth, and Nigel Jones discussing Julian Maclaren-Ross and Patrick Hamilton, on the P-TCP Broadcast player.

www.blackspringpress.co.uk

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