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The 33b Button Press 3 October 2014

Dr Emma Smith, lecturer in English and fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, pressed the button to launch Five Dials x Readwomen2014 part 2, under the portraits of women graduates and fellows that, for a year, will replace the all-male portraits which, until last month, lined her college’s dining hall.

Hertford was one of the first five all-male Oxford colleges to admit women in 1974, and student intake is now around 50/50 men/women. The portraits include classics fellow, Stephanie West, scientists Kay Davies and Alison Woollard, philosopher Mary Warnock, economist Marian Bell, QC Joanne Wicks, curator Xanthe Brooke and politician, Jacqui Smith.

The idea of a swapover gained wide support amongst college fellows and students, male and female.

But when the year is over, will the women be taken down to be replaced by the old portraits of men?

‘I’m not sure anyone really wants those to come back in quite the same way as before,’ said Smith.

The View from the Empire State - 12 March 2014 12 March 2014

A Night out with... Adam Phillips 3 December 2013

~ The HH Diary ~

Adam Phillips at the RSA


Last night we were at the RSA to watch Adam Phillips in conversation with Matthew Taylor on the subject of psychotherapy and Adam’s latest collection of essays One Way and Another.

Discussion meandered from the meaning of life, to the overuse of Freudian terminology in day to day conversation, to Adam’s own fondness for the essay form. In explaining that his own writing habits have a loose connection with free association (a technique used during psychoanalysis), Adam revealed the inherent overlap between his work and his writing. He rarely plans out the direction of an essay, and usually thinks of the first sentence when walking to work in the morning.

When asked why his musings on human behaviour and the mind don’t engage directly with neuroscience, Adam replied ‘I find the brain the least alluring body part’. He is much more concerned with faces, people, and emotion. This fruitful and enlightening discussion was brought to a close by Adam sharing his favourite Lacan quote: ‘Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist’.

Missed the talk? You can watch it from start to finish here.
One Way and Another is out now.

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From the Archive - Issue 22 25 November 2013

(In honour of National Tree Week, we’re revisiting one of our pieces from Five Dials 22, a special issue dedicated to plants, foliage and all things flora. Here William Fiennes draws us into the world of the ash. )

Why the Ash Has Black Buds

William Fiennes

The trees have always had some idea of what happens to them when they die. In forests they saw their neighbours toppled by wind or age and rot into earth, and their roots sent up descriptions of peat and coal in vast beds and seams. Later, when humans came along, trees saw the stockades, the carts pulled by horses, the chairs and tables set out in gardens, and quickly put two and two together. Trees growing beside rivers saw themselves in the hulls and masts of boats, and trees in orchards understood that the ladders propped against them had once been trees, and when men approached with axes to fell them, the trees recognized the handles.

Trees often wondered what their particular fate might be. Would they subside into the long sleep of coal, or blaze for an hour in a cottage grate, or find themselves reconfigured as handle, hurdle, post, shaft, stake, joist, beam – or something more elaborate and rare: an abacus, a chess piece, a harpsichord? And out of these dreams a rumour moved among the trees of the world like a wind, not quite understood at first, it was so strange – a rumour that when they died, instead of being burned, planed, planked, shimmed, sharpened, many trees would be pulped. This was an entirely new idea to trees, whose self-image was all to do with trunk, sturdiness, backbone, form. But trees are good at getting the hang of things, and soon they understood that from pulp would come the white leaves humans called paper, and that these leaves would be bound into books, and after a short season of anxiety in which conifers shed uncharacteristic quantities of needles, the trees came to terms with this new possibility in the range of their afterlives.

Yes, the trees recognized themselves in paper, in books, just as they recognized themselves in all the other things that hadn’t been thought of quite yet, like bedsteads and bagpipes and bonfires, not to mention violins, cricket bats, toothpicks, clothes pegs, chopsticks and misericords. Men and women would sit in the shade of trees, reading books, and the trees, dreaming of all that was to come, saw that they were the books as well as the chairs the men and women sat in, and the combs in the women’s hair, and the shiny handles of the muskets, and the hoops the children chased across the lawns. The trees took pride in the idea of being a book: they thought a book was a noble thing to become, if you had to become anything – a terrible bore to be a rafter, after all, and a wheel would mean such a battering, though of course the travel was a bonus, and what tree in its right mind would wish to be rack, coffin, crucifix, gallows . . .

One tree was more excited than all the rest, and that was the ash. The ash has such an inviting, feathery shade: when men and women first had books to take into the shade of trees, they often chose the shade of an ash. The ash would look down at these people reading and see that they were discovering new regions inside themselves, and notice how when they stood up and left the jurisdiction of its branches they had changed as if buds inside them were coming into leaf, and the ash saw that this change was a property of the marks on the paper, and that paper was the only leaf with worlds in it. Soon ash trees were discussing this phenomenon all over the place, whispering about books in Manchuria and Poland and the Pennines, passing information from grove to grove, until ash trees across North America and the Eastern and Western Palearctic were sighing and swaying with thoughts of words and pens and poems and printing presses and Odysseus and Scheherazade and the Song of Songs . . .

So ash trees dreamed of becoming books themselves one day, even though they would be much in demand as firewood, and prized as material for oars, hockey sticks and the chassis frames of Morgan motor cars. Sometimes, dreaming ahead, they saw men and women sitting beneath them, writing – writing in notebooks and diaries, writing letters of love and consolation, writing stories. And the ash tree wanted to be that, too – not just the book, but the writing in it, the words that carried the worlds. They saw the men and women holding their pens, and the ink that came out of them on to the paper, and although they didn’t have hands, they tried to curl their branches into fingers that might hold pens, and they dreamed it so vividly that the tips of their fingers turned black with ink as they waved against the blank white page of the sky, trying to write on it.
Look closely: the ash tree has black buds, and the branches bend upwards at their tips, towards the whiteness.


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On fountain pens... 20 November 2013

(Brian Dillon takes us through his love for fountain pens and writing by hand.)

The fountain pen on my desk — not the one I’m writing with, for reasons below — is a postwar Sheaffer Craftsman in Prussian Blue: a curvy little lever-filler with a No. 33 nib in fourteen-carat gold. That makes it sound deluxe, but on its release in 1948 the Craftsman was modestly priced at $3, and the US manufacturer sold plenty, in half a dozen shades. The pen must have felt expensive in down-at-heel Dublin when my father was given it — I’m guessing, by the dates — as a twenty-first-birthday present in November 1949. He was then a telegraph clerk, lately promoted from Post Office errand boy. I doubt he took his Sheaffer to work with him. But he was certainly making notes with it as a mature student in the mid 1960s, and in the evenings he used it (you can tell by his hand) to draft the few pious mock-Eliotic poems he published before marriage and myself took up his time.

The pen is not exactly an object of nostalgia, because I have no memory of my father writing with it when I was a child. I found it after he died, when I was twenty-one; I must have been rooting in the wardrobe for life-insurance papers or a nonexistent will. I carried it around with me for about a year — I was wearing his watch too, but it slipped from my wrist on the library stairs — before it occurred to me to buy a bottle of Quink and actually use it. The pen would only suck up sufficient ink for a few lines at a time, but I spent the summer of 1992 writing an MA thesis with it, stopping every ten minutes to hook a fingernail behind the thin gold lever and get blue-black stains on my fingers.

By the time I took it to The Pen Corner on Dame Street to have it repaired — a supple new ink sac, an unclogged feed — I’d developed an anxious, OCD-ish, relationship with my father’s pen. It saw me fretfully through much of my drawn-out, half botched Ph.D. I wrote scraps of my first book with it, before I knew it was a book. It’s still the pen I reach for in the early stages of all sorts of writing, always with the intention — an obsessive displacement, for sure — of making it to the end of an article, essay or book with the little Craftsman still in my hand.

It hardly ever works out. Even allowing for the usual writerly panic — the moment when a handwritten draft suddenly seems an insane luxury, and you start hammering at the keyboard — I get sick of this object time and again. I’ve sometimes put it away for years, so that residual ink solidifies and it has to be serviced once more. When it’s working, it writes like a dream: silent and smooth, with a fine line, ever so slightly ‘stubby’ as the proper pen geeks say. But eventually it disgusts me: I’m almost sure that’s the word. The pen starts to feel fragile and oddly organic. (Something to do with the celluloid, which despite its Moderne lines is apt to decay?) If writing is a bodily activity, as we all like to say wistfully now, then I must have a hypochondriac’s relationship with my dad’s pen; after a while I start to fear for it, but also to hate its vulnerability, and I have to put it down.

I’m no luddite, let me say. I love my super-slim laptop, and in emergencies I’ve typed thousands of words on a tablet, even hundreds on my phone. But mostly everything gets written first by hand, and for the last decade I’ve been swapping between fountain pen and pencil. There has usually also been a backup pen, for times when the Sheaffer is out of favour or has run out of ink while I’m away from my desk. (There’s a bottle of Diamine Presidential Blue in my office at home, a second in the kitchen, a third where I teach — yet more delicate things to worry about.) A year ago my partner bought me this pen: a Lamy 2000 in matte-black plastic and textured steel, with an extra-fine nib. It turns out that German pens run wider than advertised; this is about as broad as I could comfortably use. The half-hooded nib won’t dry out in the pause, which might last many uncapped minutes, between one word and the next.

Almost as important: the neo-Bauhaus Lamy 2000 looks nothing like the mock-deco horrors that are put out these days by most remaining fountain pen manufacturers. Mine is new, but the model has been in constant production since 1966. The 2000 was designed by Gerd A. Müller, apparently as a response to the clean lines of desktop machines then being produced in Italy; here’s a pen to go with your Olivetti Lettera 32 or Valentine typewriter. (Those appeared in 1961 and 1969, respectively.) In the 1950s Müller had worked at Braun for Dieter Rams, designing kitchen gadgets and neat black electric shavers. His fountain pen shares materials as well as its austere profile with some of those early shavers — which means it also has aspects of every generation of the iPhone, which owes so much to Braun design. It looks like the sort of pen members of Kraftwerk, a few years after it came out, might have slipped in their top pockets before travelling on the Trans-Europe Express.

Mostly, however, the pen seems quite itself: warm, modest, curved and light, stupidly easy to fill with its sturdy piston system. (No, it won’t take those overpriced and fiddly plastic ink cartridges. Nor will its wet nib work without a deal of mess on the cheap, horrible paper in your Moleskine. With the money soon — well, eventually — saved on cartridges or disposables, you’ll need to stock up on 90g2 paper. At this point, my father would’ve said something about ‘a false economy’.) Apart from a few tiny details — a stronger metal section just below the nib, the subtraction of a ‘W.’ from ‘Germany’ underneath the sprung steel clip — the Lamy 2000 has hardly changed in 47 years. That’s probably longer than I have left to put mine to good use. Today at least, the Sheaffer is my book-writing pen, the Lamy for everything else — together, they will likely see me out.

Brian Dillon’s books include Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives and In the Dark Room. A collection of his essays, Objects in This Mirror, is published by Sternberg Press at the end of November 2013.


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A night out with... Nick Hornby 15 November 2013

~ The HH Diary ~

Nick Hornby in Conversation


Last night we went to Rough Trade East, just off Brick Lane, to take part in a conversation with Nick Hornby on the subject of books — those he reads, those he struggles through, those he chooses to fling aside, and even those books he is thankful to never face again. (Yes, we were discussing Thomas Hardy, because who needs that kind of deep, dredging sorrow, those awful scenes in which children hang themselves to save the family from poverty, when you’ve somehow made it past the age of 30?). Nick’s book, Stuff I’ve Been Reading, is culled from his columns in the Believer magazine, and is mostly about the stuff he’s read in the last few years, but it’s also about the joys and sorrows of reading, the difficulties and the reasons why we don’t read. In Nick’s case, reasons to set aside books for a while usually relate to football.

Nick’s book is entertaining, fluid and wise. Although he makes fun of stodgy literary fiction, he doesn’t shy away from the greats, including Ali Smith. ‘I should own up here and tell you that The Accidental is a literary novel,’ he writes at one point, ‘there’s no point in trying to hide this fact. But it’s literary not in the hope of getting on to the shortlist of a literary prize (and here in the UK, Smith’s been on just about every shortlist there is) but because she can’t figure out a different way of getting this particular job done, and the novel’s experiments, its shifting point of view and its playfulness with language seem absolutely necessary. I can’t think of a single Believer reader who wouldn’t like this book. And I know you all.’

Most of the audience at Rough Trade East knew Nick, knew About a Boy, knew High Fidelity, and certainly knew Fever Pitch. Nick often reads in the US, and he told us he inevitably sits down in front of a crowd in Texas, or California, and is confronted by someone wearing an Arsenal shirt. The individual may or may not have read any of his novels; he’s just there to talk football. Thankfully, that sort of man was missing from last night’s event, though we did tell readers that Nick’s love of Arsenal has not waned in recent years. In Stuff I’ve Been Reading he takes a break from discussing Tomalin and Spark and mentions Thierry Henry: the man both he and his wife wish had fathered their children.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading is out now.
The Accidental has been out for, like, ages.
Best buy both.


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A Table for Atheists 14 November 2013

We are wishing we could have been a fly on the wall for this chance meeting of Religion For Atheists author Alain de Botton and the writer of The God Delusion Richard Dawkins at a festival in Mexico….

Meet the Reader 12 November 2013

#7 in an ongoing series

1. Who are you?

Ah, the tricky question. Are we only defined by the roles we officially hold? Of late, I’ve been a student reading for my second masters. I also write a column, usually about books and publishing, in a magazine called Kindle that has nothing to do with Amazon. I am twenty something, nearly (but not entirely) CIS-gender female, brown, a book lover, a cat and dog lover, a traveller, a rhyme addict, a terrible cook… and possibly a failure at paraphrasing.

2. Where are you?

In a small and cosy student room at the University of Stirling, Scotland. It’s a little away from the city, hilly, picturesque and serene. There’s actual scenery outside my window, which – being born and bred in the metropolis – is a concept I was unfamiliar with until now.

3. How do you read Five Dials?

On my computer screen. I’m a typography and page design junkie! A big part of my love for Five Dials stems from how it looks.

4. Who are your favourite writers?

Terry Pratchett, Angela Carter, Oscar Wilde, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Ondaatje. (Not including those who are primarily poets…)

5. What book most changed your outlook on life?

The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. I often find it difficult to sustain interest in long-running series, but I’ve stayed with this one and it has taught me to see a world through shifting perspectives, which is perhaps the only way you can perceive it both in close detail and as a whole.

6. What’s the soundtrack to your reading life?

The Beatles’ discography; dead composers like Beethoven, Bach, Corelli and Wagner; instruments in Indian classical music like the sitar and the sarod.

7. Do you have any favourite bookshops?

Having only recently moved out of India, most of my favourite bookshops are from there. I love Blossom Book House in Bangalore, which is an old three-storey establishment on Church Street that sells both new and second-hand books and has the most unexpectedly rich and eclectic collection. I also enjoy buying from temporary second-hand book stalls on the footpaths of Golpark in Calcutta and at Daryaganj in New Delhi.

8. What quote by an author has stuck in your mind and why?

This concluding stanza from the poem ‘Dubious’ by Vikram Seth, which seems to cover all there is to say on the subject:

“In the strict ranks
of Gay and Straight
what is my status?
Stray? or Great?”

9. Can you give us a ten-word review of the last book that you read and loved?

I’m choosing a novel called Cobalt Blue, written by Sachin Kundalkar, translated by Jerry Pinto and published recently by Penguin Books India. A ten-word review, hmm:
‘In the ocean of dreary writing that passes for love stories, this small novel stands out like an island of light. Poetic without being cloying; insightful and heartbreaking without making one gasp for air.’ (ok , that was a little more than ten words…)

10. Which character from a book would you most like to be and why?

It would be a wish fulfillment to be Peter Pan from J.M. Barrie’s stories – eternally young and ceaselessly curious. I’d also love to be Fernando Pessoa – not a character from a book per se, but a man who wrote himself into several people.


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Jay Griffiths on Russell Brand 12 November 2013

(Following the fierce debate sparked by Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman, author Jay Griffiths shared her thoughts with us.)

Russell Brand and the Holy Fools by Jay Griffiths

Where is Basil the Blessed when you need him? A great holy fool of Medieval Russia, the barefoot Basil robbed the rich and gave to the poor. A hooligan of his age, he castigated Ivan the Terrible who responded by building a cathedral in his honour, with jester’s hat cupolas.

Basil would have appreciated the glinting glee of Russell Brand’s protest. Telling his hooligan truths, Russell Brand has an ancient pedigree, the paradoxical ‘Wise Fools’, seeking the immunity of the jester to speak truth to power, like St Francis, ‘God’s Jester’, who the Church tried to excommunicate. Today, the jester Grillo subverts Italian politics; in Iceland the comedic Jon Gnarr and the Best Party mock mainstream politics and in the States the radical Yes Men impersonate corporate entities to tell the truths of corporate lies. ‘Who shall bring redemption but the jesters?’ asks the Talmud.

Behind the mask of the jesters and fools is the ancient figure of the Trickster. Even in societies which have temporarily mislaid their Trickster-god, the role persists, often taken by artists, musicians, singers or poets. Trickster and artist alike assume licence to challenge the status quo. One of the most salient features of the trickster is that he forces a change in the narrative when the story has got stuck in a groove, as mainstream politics has done.

Brand himself alluded to the trickster, in his famous interview with Jeremy Paxman, but the status quo, represented by the hapless Paxman, didn’t understand the language or more precisely the register in which Brand spoke. Paxman – as Robert Webb and politicians are doing – took Brand literally, seeming to want to challenge the literal details of a revolutionary change in politics rather than realising that Brand was speaking in another – metaphorical – realm entirely. Brand was talking about a revolution in values, in priorities, about a politics of kindness towards the natural world and the human world rather than the politics of cruelty where financial profit is counted above environmental damage or human grief.

Brand was an early and passionate comprehender of the Occupy movement; he could see the tricksterish nature of the protesters. When these Wise Fools camped outside Saint Paul’s, to protest against the money-changers of our times, their serious jesting suddenly had another famous role model: Jesus-the-jester subverting authority and committing the hooligan act of overturning the tables of the money-changers in the temple. Brand’s messianic branding of himself follows that inheritance, and shares with the Occupy movement a protest of the imagination, a passionate expression of the need for a wiser way of thinking.

Max Weber characterized Western modernity as a ‘progressive disenchantment of the world’. If I were asked what is the greatest human gift, I would say it is metaphor. Metaphor enchants and connects; cousin to mimesis and empathy. We are what we think, and in a disenchanted modernity a delinquent materialism is loosed upon the world, where only money matters, and that only for the powerful few: a pattern which the anti-capitalist Brand deplores. Literalism is a totalitarian state of mind which even takes imagination literally.

Brand’s role is not to write out the memoranda of a to-do list for the assistant undersecretary of weights and measures after a literal revolution. His role is to speak for the imagination, to curse the misusers of power today, to play the joker card (and he is a card, that Brand), to be the wise fool who speaks the fat and golden truths of the heart, spitting them out if he must, in the face of the status quo. Reversing, overturning, subverting the tables of the money-changers in Parliament. And if society had any sense, there’d be a cathedral to him somewhere, with jester’s hats for cupolas. And, no, it doesn’t have to be literal: in the imagination of half the nation there is already just such a cathedral to him, because he wears the Jester’s hat – with bells on.

Jay Griffiths is the author of Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape


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Five Dials 29 Launch 11 November 2013

We launched from Essex over the weekend. Read the latest issue here.

Photos by Laura Peterson


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