Thoughts on the London Radical Book Fair

Influx Press were lucky enough to be involved recently in the inaugural Radical Bookfair at Conway Hall, organised by the ever wonderful Housmans (in case you don’t know, the long-standing beacon of radical bookselling in King’s Cross that has been going since 1945) and host to all manner of exciting, unusual and challenging publishers, titles and journals.

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Though not the first of its kind – in many ways the event was a more compact version of the massive annual Anarchist Bookfair – the event represents a modest but important resurgent interest in the nebulous term ‘radical’ publishing. The bookfair did nicely represent the emergence, in recent years, of a number of publications and publishers pushing alternative voices, oppositional views and viewpoints differing radically from current mainstream discourse. The Occupied Times, it was good to see, was still going strong with the latest issue featuring thought-provoking pieces from Mark Fisher and Federico Campagna.

Both Zed Books and Zero Books were present, favourites of ours here at Influx, and it is pleasing to see the amount of continuing interest in the radical titles they are putting out at an impressively consistent rate. Books ranging from scathing indictments of neo-liberalism (as expected) to books exploring ‘folk opposition’ and radical interpretations of HP Lovecraft, what I find most encouraging from these sorts of publishers is their willingness to publish a plurality of voices and not stick to one ‘party line’ – though clearly everything is coming from a left-influenced perspective.

Another publisher who I have a great deal of respect for was in attendance, Five Leaves, who put out all kinds of fascinating works of social history (Rock ‘n’ Roll Jews being the favourite title I saw), as well as important reprints of working-class fiction from the likes of Alexander Baron, Roland Camberton, Alan Sillitoe and Colin Wilson.

On a personal note, it was thrilling as ever to see Exit Stencil in attendance, the press formed by Gee Vaucher and Penny Rimbaud of Crass, a massive inspiration to me on several separate levels. I would have bought a number of their books if I did not already own them…

Verso, of course, were in attendance and I am always impressed with the range of their output – I purchased Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful Wanderlust: A History of Walking on the day – though the choice to give a free Zizek tote bag with each purchase struck me as an odd choice in retrospect; an issue that was picked up in this excellent article by the New Left Project: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/i_am_not_a_zizek_tote_bag_branding_and_the_abstraction_of_social_life

Not wishing to criticise, but adopting tactics of the very system the books you produce decry creates, for me at least, an odd tension.

But then I am a hypocrite – I was running the Influx stall with our author Sam Berkson, and to say we were not pushing our titles as hard as we could, doing deals and engaging people in conversation in hope of a sale, would be a lie. At the end of the day I want people to read the books Influx Press produces. Can you be an anarchist bookseller? It’s a question I am still trying to answer.

The communal aspect and gathering of people is, of course, where the real benefit of events like the radical bookfair lies. Although quiet in the morning, by midday Conway Hall was heaving with all manner of people, not just the bearded and tobacco-stained old socialists of popular mockery discussing Marx (though trust me, they were there), and this gave us the opportunity to talk to people, tell them what we were doing, for them to tell us what they were doing, contacts to be made and ideas to be shared. Writing and publishing can at times be a bit of a solitary existence so events like this are essential for likeminded people to gather and share ideas, see what people are producing, buy books of course, and at risk of cliché, creating a sense of solidarity.

I found it very encouraging to meet all kinds of people creating a myriad of different projects that fall under the ‘radical’ banner, and the event was without doubt a boon for us. We sold a number of copies of both our current titles and forged links with many people we respect and admire (Rab McWilliam from N16 Magazine and Laura Oldfield Ford of Savage Messiah fame spring to mind). There was also excellent veggie food and real ale on offer.

Sam remarked that bookfairs are, for whatever reason, one of the things the Left does very, very well, and I have to agree with him.

If I had one criticism it was that there was a relative lack of radical fiction and poetry on display, even Five Leaves having mainly focused on their non-fiction titles for the event. One old Marxist said to us ‘I don’t have time for fiction’ which I found an unusual attitude; here at Influx Press we are running on the idea that the stories we tell and the art people create can have value in a social and political sense, a valid agent for change in its own right outside of the theory and histories which we place at equal importance. Creating alternate perspectives and recording counter-narratives, to us, is crucial in resisting the takeover of psychic space that neo-liberalism attempts.

One really inspiring example of this was the presence of Letterbox Library and their array of radical children’s titles, proof if ever it was needed for an intervention in the stories we tell ourselves and the impact different narratives have on our perspective of society. What was most encouraging at the bookfair was a feeling that we are not voices in the wilderness, that there is interest and a willingness to take chances on new, different, and yes radical, ideas.

Here’s to many more events like this.